Monday, October 22, 2018

The Bottom of the Sky by Mitchell Toews

In 1950s Acapulco, a fateful accident alters the course of three fishermen's lives in Mitchell Toews' graceful epic.

Part 1 - The Mismaloya

Acapulco, 1955

Jose had worked on the Mismaloya from the age of 14. He served her first as a cabin boy, then as a mate and now as the boat's captain.

She was a beamy 38-foot rig propelled by twin-screws. Her Chevrolet engine was manufactured in Detroit in 1929, the year he was born. Crowned with a small flying bridge, she was the kind of vessel used to troll for sailfish on this coast, in these years.

Jose's cousin, Avelino, owned the boat. He had salvaged her, abandoned, from the rocks near Puerto Vallarta, and named her after the village where he and Jose were born. Together, the cousins had reconditioned the Mismaloya for fishing.

Today, like most days when a charter was booked, Jose arrived at the Acapulco harbour early, scattering disinterested gulls in the predawn as he hurried along the wooden dock. He hopped over the transom and secured the craft, preparing for a day on the water. Jose worked quickly, each step precise and efficient. He checked the batteries for the tightness of their leaden connectors and looked for any tell-tale corrosion. Lightly, he tapped on the face of the fuel gauge and ensured it was resting just past the Full marker. Next, a fast peek into the bilge, running the pump for a few seconds to clean out any seepage taken on overnight. He worked through his entire twenty-minute checklist whistling quietly, his face calm, eyes clear. Almost done with his chores, Jose stole a glance at the sun. It would rise soon behind the city, flamingo pinks and rich magentas flowering above the silhouette of the squarish buildings.

Once everything was ready, Jose stretched out on the gently rocking foredeck and slept. Prone on the cool polished wood, he awoke with the sunrise to the familiar smell of crusted salt. There too was the lingering pungency of the urethane finish that seemed to never completely go away, even under two thick coats of yellow shellac. He gauged the sun as it prepared for its journey across the sky. One arm raised, he drew the arc it would follow until it dipped into the Pacific, dark blue now against the western horizon. By then, they would have a fish, God willing.

He was happy on this boat and in his work. Last night, on the beach, he had sat and talked with his wife, Violeta. She had taken his hand and felt the calloused palm, tracing the cuts, and he told her he felt blessed. Each morning he rose, eager to spend the day at the ship's helm, breathing the sea air like a tonic. He delighted in his charge of the vessel and crew and in truth, it was all far more than he had ever dreamed for himself.

But less appealing were the patrons. Some were pleasant enough, but even they broke in on Jose's peace. Their every action revealed a distant world, far out of his reach, where everyone was so comfortable that they spent their days in a dizzy sprint to stay occupied.

On the water, the Mismaloya was Jose's sole responsibility, but on shore Avelino took charge. Older than Jose by almost ten years, he engaged patrons with ease. He would walk the tourist beaches to secure charter customers. This was his officina, he would joke to the Americans who lay like white cordwood in neat rows, toes pointing at the sun. Avelino would block the glare with his body and flip open a thick photo album. Pictures of the azul boat; fish strung on the scale at the Acapulco dock; smiling American faces, tanned and drinks in hand. He saw his smiling reflection in their movie-star sunglasses and it spurred him on.

He would look down at them and say with confidence, "Three sailfins this week! Our skipper is the best. El Capitán Jose, the Mismaloya - ask anyone on the wharf." And the Americans would shade their eyes, looking up at the charming persistent man in his bright red shirt, too beguiled by the bait to feel the barb as it hooked them. Avelino owned three shirts like that, their crests all identical: Mexican and American flags, crossed above a colourfully embroidered sailfin, shown leaping out of the water. Every night Violeta would wash that day's uniform in cold salt water and mild soap and hang it to dry in the shade, so he could always look fresh, bright, and most importantly, recognizable. "The other boat owners ask me," he would boast to Jose. "'Avelino, how do you hook so many gringo fish?' And do you know what I tell them? I say, 'It's simple - I have done something no one else on the wharf has. I have captured their imagination!'"

There were two types of customers for the fishing charter business of the Mismaloya.

The first type was return clients. Avelino was glib and boyish in his care of these gold mine Americanos, caring for them as if his life depended on it. In their service, no request was denied. Regardless of the catch or the circumstances of the trip, Avelino sought one thing above all else: the promise of a return next year, and the cash deposit he coveted like the Holy Grail. Instructing Jose, Avelino would repeat, "Puedes esquilar una oveja por años pero sólo la puedes cocinar una vez"; shear a sheep many times, slaughter it but once. More than family or friendship, Jose's position as captain of the Mismaloya rested on his ability to bring the customers back with a story to tell - a story about their catch.

The obverse side of the coin was Avelino's open disdain towards the breed of middle-class American tourists who were more observant of prices. They would pit the dozen or so local boats against one another, bartering in shabby Spanish for the best value. The only thing Avelino hated more than booking these cut-rate charters was to lose them to his competition and have his boat sitting idle at the dock.

For Jose, it was hard to know which type of trip was best - or worst. The sheep, on board for an annual shearing, demanded perfect performance and no surprises. If things did go wrong, there would be loud repercussions as the Mismaloya docked. A bad day would end with Avelino scuttling from one red-faced complainant to the next, assuaging and soothing. But after a good day on the sequined waters of the coast, the tips would be generous - Avelino saw to that as well.

By contrast, the outings with the bargainers were almost guaranteed to end in conflict. Avelino would promise an "all-inclusive" package to get the deal: bait, ice, food and drink, it was all theirs at no extra charge. At the end of the outing, however, Jose would approach the passengers with a neat, hand-written record, kept with assiduous care throughout the day, and point firmly to the additional dollar amount owing, circled in red. When the inevitable angry refusals began, Jose would look out to the other boat crews who watched for his signal. They would gather on the dock near the Mismaloya, arms folded below stern faces, to extort a grumbling payment. He would do the same for them, with no enthusiasm for the task. These customers always paid but never returned. They were expendable - not worth shearing and fit only for slaughter.

Most days, Jose would hire an experienced mate to pilot the boat, leaving him to oversee the passengers. He chose a cabin boy too. For many years his sons were on board, but these days he picked a stranger, one of the young boys from the docks, to lend a helping hand. A pinche - the wharf was never short of them. "Señor! Señor! Por favor!" Like seagulls crying for fish guts, they thronged the fishing boats each dawn.

On this day, the man he normally chose to crew with him was home resaca after a late night - a sister's wedding to a rich man's son. So today it was a crew of two: Jose and Carlos, a pinche boy he had used before and knew to be a good hand. Jose sent the boy to jig off the pier for baitfish, small silver-sided ones called roncos. He handed him a bucket of chopped fish guts, coiled lengths of silken line tied with dainty hooks, and a pair of pliers. "Remember to flatten the barbs on the hooks!" he told Carlos, making a clenching motion with his hand to indicate how to do it with a pair of pliers. With the barbs flattened, Jose would be able to remove the hooks quickly and with no damage to the soft, pouting mouths of the roncos.

The vessel carried three passengers. The leader was a loud Los Angelino who bragged of his many car wash businesses and offered to bring Jose into the U.S. to manage one. The man, Luca, had bargained hard and Avelino instructed Jose to be strict with him. "Nothing for free!" he had insisted to Jose the night before.

Luca came with two attractive women, one dark and one rubia. The blonde's hair was as fine as herring net. Her skin was so fair as to be transparent in places and she wore a broad-brimmed hat and stayed in the shade of the small galley beneath the raised helm. The dark one was a Los Angelina, a Latina, born in Mexico. She was Luca's wife, Angel, and the blonde, Doris, was her friend.

Pushed by the old Chevy mill, the Mismaloya bore west-by-southwest and they cruised a calm sea at good speed. The passengers sat aft, chatting together, as the boy brought them cold drinks. A light headwind swept away the engine exhaust and with the morning sun on their stern quarter, the rear deck was pleasant.

Jose watched the horizon for gulls, circling frigatas and jumping dolphinas, and skittering baitfish boiling the surface. All these were tell-tales for the bigger fish that Jose hunted. He tuned the radio to hear the banter of the other captains. It was their unwritten code to share the presence of sailfins within the fleet.

After setting the lines and readying the fighting harness and gaff hooks, Jose opened a small red toolbox. He tinkered with the linkage that would switch the helms, allowing the main deck helm, the flying helm, or both to function. At present, the controls were stuck.

The slight blonde woman, Doris, came to his side. She stood so close he could smell the gin on her breath. "Is the boy your son?" she said, looking directly into his face without reserve. Her unblinking eyes were a washed out blue - everything about her was thin and translucent. This one and the other should trade names, he thought.

"Carlos? No, he is just a boy I hired for today. He has worked for me before. He's good luck, this pinche. He's a charm for big fish."

"Ha. Good! I'm sure that will make Luca happy. He's a big fish too."

Jose did not understand the humour - or was it an insult? Her colour is faint but she is bold. He returned to his task, grasping the loose control cable in the jaws of a pair of pliers and pulling down to reattach it to an anchor bolt. Three times the cable slipped away while Jose paused to tighten the nut needed to secure it.

She watched all the while with her strange eyes.

"Let me," she said, brushing across his bare chest for the brass nut. Sure-handed, she slipped it onto the threaded stud and twirled it while he held the cable in place. "Finger tight." Her face was inches from his. Then she overlapped his hands, keeping tension on the cable with the pliers so he could finish the task.

Jose fastened the nut down with a socket wrench, pleased by the blonde woman and satisfied by the loud clatter of the tool as he pinched the cable in place.

"My father ran a garage and we had no boys in the family. I was his extra set of hands," she explained. "He was half-Mexican, you know."

"Si," Jose said, distracted. The scent of her was clean. It was like he imagined snow would smell. He had seen pictures of snow from Canada and Sweden in Life magazines left on board.

She stepped away after that, back to the others, riffling the pinche's hair as she went. "Uno mas gin y aqua tonica." She handed him her empty glass.

Jose felt a quickening as he watched her go. He busied himself with the controls, placing the pliers in a teak box next to the tachometer. Doris was so different from his wife Violeta that it was hard to ignore her. Rubbing vigorously with a rag, he cleaned his hands.

With the helm fixed, he went up top to watch the trailing lines with a pair of binoculars. Jose paused. Wait! Did we say the prayer this morning? He could not remember. To be certain, he recited it under his breath, "Oh Dios, que trajiste a nuestros padres..." The prayer asked only for safety, and Jose felt it was a strong one. Noble. He did not favour those prayers that asked for a bountiful catch. That was the responsibility of the captain, not God.

They trolled the waters for a quiet half hour before they came upon a feeding sailfin. In the split second before it happened, Jose could sense the strike coming. Then the rod bucked in the holder and the line peeled out in a persistent zazzzzz sound like fingernails on nylon. The pinche yelled and the woman named Angel clapped her hands above her head, red fingernails like spattered blood against the bright horizon.

"Nino! Cerrar el hilo de pescar!" Jose shouted, pointing to the remaining tackle. He did not want crossed lines to ruin such a promising strike. But the boy, a veteran at twelve, was already winding, grunting with effort on the old coffee grinder reel of the second rod, holding the tip away.

Meanwhile, Jose slid down the ladder to the main deck. "Señor Luca! Por favor." He strode rearward with the rod harness, buckles jingling.

Hardly able to contain his excitement, the large man was hopping from foot to foot as he reached for the tackle. "I'll take it from here!" he said.

Jose helped him slip the harness on, sharing a quick smile with Doris as he did so. Then he hurried to do his work at the stern where the fishing line danced and swung like a kite tail above the wake of the boat. Jose picked the rod out of its brace, reeled furiously for a few seconds, then slowed and felt the weight of the line and sensed the hook's purchase in the fish's bony mouth.

He bent forward and then reared back, heaving his weight against the line and setting the hook with all his strength. Jose struck twice more, three for luck, and the feeling was solid like the hook had embedded in the cartilage of the jaw.

The sailfish raced to port - nothing in the ocean swam faster - and sprang out of the water, frothing foam on its sides.

Jose adjusted the drag and walked the thick, warlike rod and reel over to where Luca sat strapped into the fighting chair. "Good luck, sir!" Jose said, plunging the rod butt into the conical leather cup between the man's legs. He clipped the leather lanyard to the stout steel loop on the quillon above the cork handle. "Fight with courage!"

This was it. The fish was a fine one - not a record, but Jose kept this knowledge to himself. Better still, they had hooked it early. The American would have good energy for fighting.

"The fish is mighty, but the bend of the rod and the drag are its equal," Jose rehearsed in English while he stood on the tower, backing the boat as the fish sounded. But before he could say the practiced words to Luca, the sailfish came up. Luca was too busy lighting a cigar to notice, chattering to the women and pointing out to the water where the fish laboured. The novice fisherman did not realize what was happening and now there was a huge belly of slack line. The Mismaloya could lose the fish.

Already imagining Avelino's fierce reaction if they failed to boat this catch, Jose threw the lever for the clutch and rammed the selector into forward gear. "Hang on!" he shouted and gunned the big Dynaflash engine. It roared and both Angel and Doris spilled their drinks as the boat lurched ahead. "Reel! Reel!" he called down, but again Carlos was already there, motioning with a whirling hand for the American to retrieve the dead line.

The sailfish dove again and when Jose saw the new downward angle on the braided line he killed the throttle and the boat glided to a halt, tossing in the chop from the abrupt maneuvers. Luca winched steadily, pulling up their prey.

After twenty more minutes of sounding, the powerful fish began to flag. The animal had fought for its life, raging against the unseen force pulling it towards the sun. Now it was spent.

When the leader broke the surface, Jose set the gears in neutral and walked to the transom.

"Aquí está el capitán gaff," said Carlos, handing him the T-handled, 36-inch gaff hook. The lethal barbed point shone in the sun.

"Ladies, please don't come too close!" Jose said, looking at Doris. "It's dangerous." Then he slipped on his leather gloves and reefed on the leader.

Nine feet with the sword, iridescent blue and spotted with silver, the great fish rose from the Pacific. It had already begun to die.

The pinche held the animal's fearsome sword-like bill while Luca puffed for air, his back shining with sweat. He made a thumbs-up gesture to the women.

Jose held the gaff in his right hand and leaned his thighs against the gunwale for balance. With Avelino's voice rattling in his head, he sighted on the gill; concentrated on the red slit where the curved hook could do its grim job. The heavy gaff swung like a hatchet and the fish jerked. The blow missed, glancing off the plated gill cover.

Luca unbuckled himself from the chair and jumped over to help Carlos with the fish's bill.

Jose swung the landing gaff again and the point bit. Straining, he began to jimmy its head over the side and into the boat. The sailfin's shining body shook in spasm and with a final fury, broke free. Jose heard the cry before he saw its cause. The gaff had ripped out and buried its hook in Carlos' forearm.

Eyes bulging, the boy screamed, but still held fast to the bill, stifling his cry into a terrified whimper.

Now all but dead, the giant fish sagged against the boat. The boy's wound bled hard for a few seconds, then slowed, rivulets of blood running down his arm and staining his naked rib cage. The gaff hook had pierced his arm and the barbed point protruded about two inches from its entry. The barb would make it difficult to remove by backing the hook out.

Grunting, Carlos sent an imploring look to Jose who still held the gaff in one hand, the fishing line taut in the other.

"Señor Luca, please help," Jose said, with urgent politeness. "Sir! We cannot lose your fish!" he added his tone somewhere between an order and a plea. Then, turning back to the grimacing boy, Jose's face changed. Like removing one mask and assuming another, it was suddenly inflexible, resolute.

The American let go of the bill and staggered back, his face white. "I'm gonna pass out." His voice was just loud enough to be heard over the cry of a lone gull, flapping above them.

The fish began to slip down into the water, one accusing eye staring black and terrible. With a deft jerk of his hand, Jose wrapped another coil of wire leader into his grip, feeling the weight of the sailfin, which was enough to pull him overboard. The gaff - still deeply embedded in Carlos' arm - quivered grotesquely. Unyielding, Jose locked eyes with the boy. He reset his feet for balance, braced, and then tugged hard on the gaff handle.

"No - no, no... just the barb! Just flatten the barb!" Doris shrieked. She lunged forward, holding the pliers from the helm.

But it was too late. Jose strained, stretching the skin by two and then three inches before it tore out of the boy's thin arm. The steel left a pouting rip in the flesh - pink and marbled with fat. Pivoting, Jose slipped the hook into the gill slit, gave it a quarter turn, and jerked it home. He held the wooden T-handle with two hands now and sluiced the sailfin into the boat.

Relieved at last from his duty, Carlos fainted. His limp body fell back into Doris who still held the silver pliers in her outstretched hand like a baton.



The boat rocked in silence at the wharf, next to the scales. Jose sat on the dock staring down into the dirty water.

The passengers were gone. When the Mismaloya docked, they had rushed onto the wharf carrying Carlos. Avelino pulled up in his truck to greet them with a bucket of beer on ice. He didn't know what had happened.

Luca tore the bucket from his hands and hurled it into the box of the truck, smashing the bottles. "Get this goddamn kid to the hospital! Now!" he shouted at Avelino, as Jose stood watching.

The women were sobbing, nearly hysterical. Their faces were sunburned, and mascara had run down their cheeks and dried. All Jose could think of was how much they reminded him of Dia de los Muertos: the painted faces, the sugar skulls, but twisted now, distorted.

Luca shouted something, cursing as he climbed into a nearby taxi with the women. Doris stared at Jose from the car, her eyes dark and hateful - more like those of the dying fish than their earlier faraway blue.

As soon as they left, Avelino put Carlos into his truck and drove him to the hospital, leaving Jose alone with the sailfish.



Carlos bounced on the seat as the pickup truck sped through town from the wharf to the hospitalario. A rag found behind the seat was tied in a tourniquet around the wound.

"I can't feel my fingers," the boy said in a slurring whisper.

"Hold on!" Avelino raised his voice above the unmuffled engine. "We'll be at the clinic in a few minutes. Stay awake!"

A cloud of dust and exhaust smoke hung in the air behind the truck. The broken bottles clashed and tumbled in the truck box - dice in a tin cup. He wrenched the gears as he went through the stop signs, slowing only slightly. Dust filtered up through holes in the floor and hung in the air of the hot cab like sifted flour.

Carlos lay against the seatback, his bloody arm resting slackly on his thigh. Dry spittle caked his lips. His eyelids fluttered and sweat traced lines in the dirt on his forehead and cheeks.

The truck skidded to a stop in front of the hospital. "¡Ve!" Avelino shouted, gesturing with the back of his hand like shooing a dog.

The boy struggled to sit up, then pulled on the door handle and half-fell out with Avelino reaching across to steady him.

"Hey, pinche!" Avelino called out. "I'll wait for you!" Then he turned the key to silence the engine. He watched as the boy walked drunkenly across the cobbled street. When Carlos disappeared inside, Avelino restarted the truck and drove off into the gathering night.



No one wanted the fish and it lay motionless and dry on the planks of the dock. The torn flesh at the corners of the mouth and around the damaged gill had turned white and puffy like bacon fat.

Jose waited by the scales with the sailfin. He watched the road above for the lights of Avelino's truck, but now he could wait no longer. Kneeling with care beside the wild ocean animal, Jose laid his forehead down on the rough wood and paused for a second, preparing himself. Then he pushed on the flank and the fish, slimy underneath, slid and fell with almost no sound into the dark water.

The captain drew himself up to one knee and watched as the beautiful creature sank, one more sacrifice, one more slaughter, side-slipping down to the turtles and the crabs.



Part 2 - The Fisherman's Story

Mismaloya, 1975

Violeta opened her eyes to the new day. She looked up at a scorpion sunning itself, looking like a black feather on the gray frame of the doorway. As the patch of sunlight worked slowly higher, the arachnid crept upward, its hooked tail seeming to sniff the air, moving delicately from side to side.

She thought her daughter should get a fresh coconut from the beach, one that could easily be chopped open with the machete. It will smell rich and make the dough more savoury, Violeta thought. And it will sweeten the tortillas and the oil will make Josefina's hair shine.

With a hand on her knee for support, she rose and walked on the hard dirt floor to the basin. The water was cool from the night and she drank several handfuls before taking the black lye soap and washing, slowly rubbing her face, her neck and her strong arms. Of all the mujere in the village, she could still carry the largest stones of water or the greatest bunches of bananas. She thought of the smell of the green bananas and the feeling of their firm skins pressing against her shoulder bones as she walked. She put her hand on her angular hip in the way she would to underpin the bananas, feeling how it was to accept the weight through her arm and then down through her hips and into her shanks and across to the far leg and down through her foot and finally into the cool ground.

Poking the fire, she fed it some dry bits of bark to let it sputter into flame. She opened her palm to the fire and felt the stiffness leaving her fingers. The lye scent was strong on her shoulder and the tang of it helped her feel awake. Outside, a bunting hopped about in the dry grass, making a crunching sound that was loud in the dawn stillness. Violeta remembered she was hungry and knew that the girl would be too.

Taking a silky tipped straw from an earthenware jar filled with them - some dyed blue and red, but most yellow - she walked to the girl's place by the back wall and used the weaving straw to trace her curving jawline. She continued until a petite hand reached out, like a flower stretching up for the sun. The little eyes opened suddenly and the whites were pure and bright. Josefina smiled up at her mother and was immediately happy to see her and to know it was morning.

Our Josefina is so clever and she is not one to complain, Violeta thought, pleased and feeling herself entering the flow of the day, like slipping into the river current and sensing how it took her with a buoyant ease. She felt happy for the child and hoped her husband Jose was likewise content as he went about the daily business of catching fish. It's what he has done since he was a boy, she thought. Beginning in Acapulco, with Avelino.

Expectantly, the girl asked if she should fetch a coconut and when Violeta smiled and nodded once, Josefina put on the sandals her father had made for her, cut from the thick blue plastic of an empty drum that had washed up on their beach. He had laced the toe thong with stout, wound coconut husk. Each sole had been carefully centred on a white triangular recycle symbol.



The low light from the rising sun was sprinkled in pinpoints and shards in the jungle like seed corn strewn carelessly. Dashes of golden light cut through the thin mist at descending angles - silent, harmless tracer bullets. No single point of light was like another in shape or size or hue. No patch of shade was like its neighbour as some were the darkest black and others charcoal and still others tinted with reds or greens. Looking up, Josefina could see the dappled blue of the morning sky through the tree leaves.

She ran down the path, her brown foot stepping on an identically brown tree root, worn smooth by thousands of similar footsteps. She made a game of skipping from one fallen yellow leaf to the next until she was close enough to the beach to smell the salt and also smell the sun baking the sand.

Grackles rained song on the jungle, sitting in the thick foliage, arching their necks and appearing to peer straight up as they whistled and squeaked and clicked. The proud males puffed their feathers importantly, and then let their form recede back to its original sleek, iridescent blackness.

Josefina was reminded of the game her mother and her played on the beach. The bird game: stand on one foot and look up until you see three birds at once. When you saw three - most often pájaro de fragata, pelicans or gulls - you could take three giant steps toward the water. First one to wet their feet won. It was hard to balance in the deep, baked sand next to the trees; harder still on the steep sloping shore; hardest of all to balance while looking up at the brilliant dome with no reference point except for the wheeling black specks impossibly high above.



Violeta lit a cigarillo that Jose had brought home with him from fishing. A Canadian tourist had given him a pack of them. Her husband told of the man's white skin and red beard and his big voice. Her husband, Jose, liked the strange visitor and was glad to take him out in the boat. The tourist brought a jug of water and a small net filled with bottles of beer. This tourista hung the net in the water, tied to a yellow rope he unwound from his waist. Jose described how the gringo would raise up the net, exchange his empty bottle for a full one and then pry off the metal cap with his silver belt buckle. The man's name was Mattheus, but Jose called him Mateo. When a fish was caught, this Mateo would grin and pass the beer to her man to drink, saying always, "Salud!"

Violeta smiled as she thought of how she teased Jose about his pet gringo, his mascota. The man was so unfamiliar with the facts of life in Mismaloya - fishing, food, Spanish, the Catholic church - that he seemed almost like a child to her. But his imposing size, compared to her at least, belied his childish demeanor.

For almost a year now, Mateo worked at the Menonita church, mixing mortar and carrying water for the local bricklayers. It was said he worked there for free, building a school. She had seen him handing a mortar-laden hawk - la paleta de albañil - up to her mason brother. The Canadian's sunburned hands were in bright contrast to those of her brother which were as dark as wet leather.

Violeta had everything in readiness: Oil, flour, the steel plate, coals. All she needed was the coconut and she could halve it and then cut out the dense, white meat. She would mince the nutmeat and dry it with the clean towel, made from a flour sack. She would grind some vanilla bean and mix it together in the flour. Finally, she would roll the tortillas and then fry them for the girl and herself. When Jose came back, he would eat them cold, with fish. She hoped he could bring home some bottles of beer from the big red and white Mateo man.

With enjoyment, Violeta smoked the cigarillo. After a moment, she set water to boil and thought that she would sweep the floor and then make her tea.



The girl squatted under the tree and looked at the coconuts that lay there. She listened to the hiss of the wave pushing the surf up the beach and then the hollow clatter as the water rushed back into the ocean, sucking sand and tumbling rocks back with it into the undertow. Hermit crabs scuttled above the tide line, stopping suddenly and pulling back into their shell when a shadow crossed their path.

Josefina sang a song from the transistor radio her father carried out with him in the blue boat. She felt her stomach growl and wondered which of the nuts she should take. She lifted one, hefting it with two hands, rocking back and forth on her haunches as she did so. She discarded it and let it roll towards a big crab, who challenged the nut bravely with his claws, his eyes opened wide atop slender antennae.

The choice was still confusing the girl. She set the nuts into groups, first by size, then rearranging them by colour. Finally, she made her choice and hurried back along the path to the casita.

Violeta watched Josefina approach, seeing her light step and hearing her humming the radio song.

Grunting a bit at the weight, she dropped two large brown nuts outside the doorway and beamed at Violeta. The old woman knelt to touch each, her hands weathered and dark brown, whitish at the knuckles and where cracks and fissures crossed in the textured skin. She has brought the best two so that I may choose the very best one, Violeta thought, reaching out to stroke the child's hair.



Mattheus carefully followed a local fisherman along the beach. The big Canadian lugged the dirty white cooler, awkwardly sliding it behind him as they walked from the boats to Jose and Violeta's casita. Mattheus' stubbled face was ashen, his eyes bloodshot and grim. He was too tall to drag the large metal chest by its handle and had to stoop as he struggled with his footing in the soft sand.

Hopping nimbly to his right, the spare, dark hombre ahead of him suddenly stepped off the beach and into a low-cut path in the shoreline trees. He disappeared into the gloomy shade and Mattheus hurried to follow him, huffing slightly as he bent to lift the cooler, heavy with the fish caught that morning and some empty beer bottles.

Stopping at the edge of a clearing in the jungle that held the casita, the thin man pulled off his straw hat and held it in his pink-nailed black hands. Sighing, he wiped his forehead with a long finger and flicked the sweat away, spattering dead leaves on the edge of the dooryard. He glanced back at Mattheus and made silent indications towards the woman and the child who were busy weaving multi-coloured baskets in the shade beside the casita. Their concentration broke and they looked up at him in surprise when he began to speak.

"Violeta," he began, his gaze dropping. In the most formal language, he said that her husband Jose had died in the boat. No one knew exactly how, or why. The tourist had rowed the boat back in, not privy to Jose's many tricks for starting the ancient gas outboard. In rapid-fire Spanish, he told the mujer where the body was - in the Mismaloya church - and wished her God's care. An undertaker was coming from Bucerias. Jose's boat was pulled up on the palm logs in its usual place. As he turned to leave, he nodded with respect at the tall gringo, who stood by, crookedly, panting shallow breaths in the rising heat, listening and watching intently.

Violeta looked at their daughter Josefina, her name meaning "a gift of God", and thought about how Jose had loved the baby and how he had changed after her birth. He became almost young again, charged with this new responsibility. She recalled fondly how the baby's bright as coin eyes followed him everywhere in the casita, tracking his every movement, and then looked troubled when he left. She thought of her own dedication to him - how he never faltered in finding a way to support them and brought a quiet dignity to their humble lives. Jose, Josefina, and their family were to her the living grace of God, embodied and walking the earth with her in the jungle, beside the beautiful bay and the silently soaring frigates above it.

She thought of ducks in the lagoon near her childhood home. The mother duck trailed by chicks, stumbling behind her on the shore and then swimming confidently in a line. She remembered how the hungry gulls swooped down to pick off the last ducklings, until the frightened hen was left with just a few peeping, frantic chicks. Better it was Jose than our daughter. Now it will be hard, but at least we have one another. At least there's that.



In halting Spanish, his pronunciation ragged, Mattheus explained that they had not gone far in the blue boat when her man stopped and took out a large coin, asked for God's blessing and tossed it far back over the bubbles of the wake as the boat sat bobbing just outside the furthest surf. He recalled how a gull swerved in flight to inspect the tumbling disk, and then lost interest when it hit the water and immediately sank, silvery and flickering though it was. Still breathing heavily from the walk, Mattheus remembered how Jose had immediately baited lines and began fishing in his usual efficient manner, four lines - two hands and two feet. Jose's index fingers and big toes flexed simultaneously to jig the bait. He tightened the neck-string on his wide-brimmed hat and grinned out with the whitest of teeth at the tourista, encouraging him to hurry up and bait some lines too. Mattheus thought of how Jose deftly snagged a hand line in a cleft in the gunnel - a holder while he retrieved the line from one foot - a terrified fish slapping live in the bottom of the boat a few seconds later.

Mattheus remembered too, how, when they had met that day, the old fisherman had squatted on the beach, squinting as he studied a flight of pelicans over the sea. The birds flew without effort, in trail formation, gliding into the wind with their wingtips inches away from the curling edge of a breaking wave.

The birds suddenly banked up and out toward the dim, salt-misted far shore of the bay, snaking around in a circle and landing clumsily behind the wave. They sat rising and falling on the swell, until a big male took off, flapped twice, then dropped to scoop a fish. The pelican nodded strenuously to reposition the quarry in his large bill pouch while his wingmen watched the water around him with unblinking eyes.

"Pescadooooo!" Jose had said, flashing his bright smile.

Mattheus told the sad-faced mujer of how just after he set his lines, Jose had suddenly said, rather loudly, "Violeta," and then his head slumped to his chest and he slid down, knees flexing like a yogi as he dropped into the bottom of the boat. He told of how Jose's eyes closed tightly and his normally impassive native face was twisted with pain while he died, the precious fishing lines sliding into the water as he let go.

Mattheus took a deep breath, paused and then pulled the cooler forward, pointing at the casita, and Violeta muttered to the girl. Josefina jumped up and showed him where to put it. He slid the cask into its place, fished in his pocket and straightened out a wet wad of peso notes. Reaching down, he put the notes in Violeta's hand, whispering condolences to her, then leaned over to the girl and gave her a handful of coins. He stood tall, arching his back stiffly, gentled Josefina's head for the last time and trudged back towards the village and his rented car.

Violeta motioned for the girl to clean up the weaving. Then she rose wearily to dress for the trip to the church in Mismaloya.



Part 3 - Avelino and Carlos

Acapulco, 1976

Carlos handed the trays to the red-faced tourist. Atún, he thought to himself as he eyed the man's neat clothes and manicured nails.

"Two Coronas, two hot dogs with chili beans, two nacho chips. Eight dollars, por favor señor," Carlos said in his practice-made-perfect English.

The menu printed above the counter listed many items, all within a few pesos of each other. The man looked up but could not immediately see the price.

Carlos knew the true price was seven dollars, US. He watched as the stout man reached for his wallet and picked out a twenty. Carlos took the money, placing it next to the cash box. He counted out the change, then paused and recounted, whispering the numbers to himself unsurely in Spanish.

"Pronto, Carlos!" the cook shouted from inside the food truck.

Fumbling, Carlos handed back the change in dollars. He paused with the bills above the painted wooden tip box adorned with the picture of his daughter. She had been two when the picture was taken, she was nine years old now. "Sir, thirteen dollars change. Gracias, señor!" Carlos said.

The man hesitated, counting in his head. Carlos could almost hear the gringo's thoughts. Did he say seven or eight? Then the man took the change, dropped a single bill into the tip box, hesitated, and put another dollar bill in. Satisfied, he pocketed the change and left with his food, nodding and smiling with a farewell, "Gratzius!"

"Atún," Carlos said.

The cook nodded and replied, "Gratzius," mimicking the American accent.

This was the business. It had been so for twenty years. He had met Pablo, the cook, who needed a helper for his little beachfront taco stand in Acapulco. They met in the hospital the day after Carlos had been cut by the gaff. Pablo - a former pinche himself - had sliced his hand that day and the two became friends overnight as they convalesced.

Carlos had invented the scam by accident. He noticed that the hungry tourists were often drunk and did not care too much about a dollar one way or the other. The cantina's prices were already high - they got away with it due to their prime location. Pablo paid for that with a daily $20.00 tribute to the petty thug who held the spot for them.

There were three levels of tourista. "Cuervo" squawked and complained immediately; they knew the correct price and would object before Carlos could give them their change.

"Pargos" caught the overage in the change and politely handed the extra dollar bill back to Carlos, explaining that it was "su mas," or "too mucho."

"Atún" was the final, most desirable category. These prize tunas knew the change was too much and immediately placed the dollar, and one or two more into the pretty tip box, saying nothing. Then, in the following days, they came back each lunchtime, usually tipping about the same two dollars or so. They enjoyed being generous and a dollar was an easy admittance fee.

To make the gambit sustainable, as Pablo and he had determined years ago, it was crucial that Carlos not play the game on the same customer twice. If he did, the customers would sense the hook and stop returning. But if Carlos was skilful, two out of every three could be led to atún status.

Carlos proved to be the ultimate fisherman. Without pausing, he could serve the lunchtime flurry, two hours or more, and never skip a beat. He took orders, refilled condiment bowls, joked with passing street vendors and complimented the wives of the gathered atún. He often commented on the sports teams the atún wore emblazoned on hats and shirts, becoming a fan of American besebol in the bargain. And at all times, he made sure that the ugly, pink, debossed scar on his forearm was in the touristas' plain view. His boyish smile and unending English chatter drew them in and the brutally scarred arm closed the deal.

Usually, by the third day, they would have the courage to ask about his injury.

"Snow skiing in the Alps," he would say, his face clouded and grave. Then he would switch on his white-on-white smile and roar out with laughter until they joined in. The next day he would lean down from the elevated stage behind the cantina counter and tell them his "real" story, in a low, conspiratorial voice.

"Fishing for sailfin," he would say. "I was holding the mighty fish's bill while el capitán gaffed the fish. But this fish had a great heart and he fought us to the end. The sailfin cut me with his very sharp bill and left me this reminder," he would say, fingering the pink scar.

Beside the tip jar, a photograph of Carlos as a boy corroborated the story. There he was, smiling, next to a large sailfin on the dock's fish-scale, together with Avelino the boat-owner, Jose the skipper, and a tourist couple. Carlos would point to the fearsome sword in the photo and grin out at his audience, who looked back down at the jagged scar on his arm, flinching as they stared.

"He went back in the sea to live, the one that cut me," he would lie. "And I am glad for it. It was truly a fish splendido, amigo. Truly. I pray that he lives still." He enjoyed using the comically formal, contraction-free pidgin Spanish accent. He copied the actors from Hollywood movies. Pablo sometimes called him Ricardo Montalbán, bowing as he did so.

After he fed them the tragic story, the tourists would feel as if they were in his closest confidence. They would stare without reserve, even pointing the scar out to their friends and retelling the story as if it was their own. Their morbid curiosity blended with a kind of parental concern and Carlos employed it to create a bond that overcame language and culture.

On the last day of the con, Carlos would accept a $20 bill from a familiar patron. He would wait for Pablo to sing comically or shout something from the grill. "Hey, amigo! Will your Tigers win the pennant this year?"

Then Carlos, with practiced deftness, would palm the twenty and place a substitute ten-dollar bill beside the tip box. He'd return the change for a ten and if the customer squawked, he would point to the ten on the counter. "No, my friend, it was only a ten - see here? If you want another ten, I will pay it, but it will come from my own pocket," Carlos would reply, casting a stagey, nervous glance at Pablo.

"These people are kind and generous," he would say later to Pablo as they scraped the grill and cut the mountains of tomato and onion for the next day. "Not once has one of these men complained about the ten dollars."

"That is your skill at work. These people don't really care about us, you only make them think they do," Pablo maintained. The older man saw the looks every day. They had a fondness for Carlos, but they had only disdain for him. He saw it in the way they looked at him - how they eyed his sweat-soaked shirt that proclaimed in silkscreen ink, "Si, no problema!"; how they distrusted him for his bent back, tattoos, and silvery smile. Pablo saw the faces of the people when Carlos told the sailfin story - they were relieved. Relieved that they were not in Carlos or Pablo's place; relieved that no gory mishap would befall their sons who were at home, safe at school, not left on their own, living by their wits on the streets in desperate poverty.

"People are good. Gringos are people," Carlos said resolutely, thinking of the beautiful, fragile, blonde mujer Americana from the boat. As always, he could remember the smell of her, like soap and flowers. He could feel her holding him with smooth white arms as they steamed for the harbour. He remembered most of all the terrible moment when the gaff hook pulled through his arm and he fell back against her body, a geyser of red where the steel had torn out a crescent of raw flesh.



It was an average day and a new group of tourists had moved into the Camino Real hotel near the food stand. Carlos scanned the busy walkway for marks. He looked for new clothes, white legs, big bellies and big cigars. Atún, he thought, Pargo... Cuervo...

Then Carlos saw a dark-skinned Mexican man and recognized him in the same instant. The man had gained weight and looked rich, but it was him. Avelino walked towards the cantina swinging his arms and holding his face to the warmth of the sun. He was well dressed and holding a small leather valise. A gold ring stood out, bright against the dark skin of his hand.

Rolling down his sleeve over the scar, Carlos smiled as Avelino ordered. Returning with the beer and camarones a minute later, he took the crisp U.S. twenty-dollar bill and winked at Pablo.

The older man gave him a puzzled look - they did not run the con game on Mexicans, not even the rich elites from Mexico City.

"Your change, señor," Carlos said, handing Avelino the change, short by ten dollars.

"Are you sure?" Avelino responded immediately.

"Of course, I am certain," Carlos shot back, rolling up his sleeve as he spoke.

Avelino stared at the unmistakable pink slash on Carlos' arm. He thought back to the frantic drive from the dock with the boy - now a handsome young man - moaning and incoherent in the truck with him. He remembered the boy's slack mouth hanging open as they sped down the dusty roads to the clinic.

"Carlos. I hoped I would find you here," he said in Spanish. "Today is my second day in town. A man at the dock remembered about the accident on the Mismaloya and told me he thought you might be working around the Camino Real."

"Oh yes, nothing but the high road for me," Carlos said in English, squinting his eyes as he lit a cigarette. He pulled down one of the plywood awnings to close off one-half of the serving window. The sign on the wood shutter read, "Cerrado".

"What is going on?" said Pablo, turning from his work at the grill.

"Nothing. Don't worry about it. Go take a piss or something," Carlos growled at him, pointing to the hotel.

"Si, si, take it easy!" Pablo said. "I'll go talk to my novia there at the pool. You know, the one who does the towels. I'll see you in twenty minutes, okay?"

Carlos pushed open the side entrance and motioned to Avelino to come inside as Pablo exited. "Come out of the sun, Avelino," he said.

The two men began speaking quietly in Spanish once they were alone.

"Where's your red t-shirt?" Carlos asked.

He had seen Avelino a few times since the evening at the hospital after he had been left there. He'd heard Avelino and the captain, Jose, fell out after the accident on the boat. The blonde woman made trouble with the Policia and it had cost Avelino plenty in bribes. He had forced Jose to pay back the money, but as soon as the debt was paid the boat captain took his wife Violeta and moved to Mismaloya, a fishing port near Puerto Vallarta. It was the place where both Jose and Avelino had been born.

"I hear you sold the Mismaloya and moved to Mexico City?" Carlos said, prompting Avelino.

"Yes, that's right," Avelino replied. "But I come back to Acapulco often. I own some small casitas that I rent to tourists through a few boat captains in the harbour - some skippers you would probably know. These strange young gringos from the US coast who bring their surfboards and want cheap rooms near the beaches with breaking waves? They make great customers, amigo. The boats bring them in and out; bring them beer, ice and food." He paused, showing a hint of his old smile. "But like I said before, today, I came to see you."

He looked the young man in the eye. Carlos still had the same intelligent look in his face; he was clever and forthright, just as he had been when he was a pinche, working the harbour fleet.

"Jose died last year. He had a heart thing, or maybe a stroke - no one knows. He was out in a small boat fishing with a tourista and he just fell over. The tourista got the boat back in. Jose is buried in Mismaloya and his wife is living there, with one young daughter."

"Qué, una niña?" Carlos said, his face showing surprise. "I didn't know. He was kind of old to have a kid, no?"

"Yeah, the baby came nine years ago," Avelino said, studying Carlos face as he spoke.

"His wife?" Carlos said, trying to remember.

"Violeta. She is fine. She's getting old. Older than Jose was but she's still very strong. Poor though. They had nothing really - everything went to the little girl; books, school and clothes. Their older children, the boys that used to work on the boat, are far away with their own families now. They came for the funeral and left a bit of cash, but they are out of the picture. Esta cañón," he said, describing the difficult situation. "He was dogged by guilt for his cruelty to you," Avelino added quietly, not looking at Carlos. "He took Violeta and escaped to Mismaloya. Seeking redemption - an absolution purchased with a chaste life."

Carlos scoffed and tapped ash onto the floor. He turned to watch Pablo who stood in the shade with a woman, near the Camino Real pool. "So, what do I care?" he said. "Jose's dead, the old lady and the kid are left behind," Carlos said, blowing cigarette smoke at the low ceiling.

"You have no reason to care, Carlos. Jose wronged you. Truly. I don't know why he did that to you. I knew him my whole life. He was a good man, but always too devoted to the passengers - anything to keep them happy. He was a fool in a way. Su lealtad le hacía absurdo! On that day with you, he didn't want to lose the fish." Avelino caught his breath, reaching for one of Carlos cigarettes. "I abused that part of him. I took advantage and bullied him."

Yes, that's right, Avelino. That's goddamn right! Carlos thought, but then said only, "Si," hiding his resentment. "Jose was a great captain until that day. The best. I know that if Jose had owned the boat and had money in the bank, then he don't pull no puto hook through my arm! If he was rich, he would have cut the fish loose and pinched the barb down on the gaff hook, like the rubia, that American woman, wanted," Carlos said in a hoarse voice, his face near Avelino's now and his eyes flashing in the closeness of the stifling cantina.

"Listen, Carlos," Avelino said, exhaling and wiping at his nose. "Jose had a decent boat in Mismaloya. It's a sea-worthy panga, a 22-footer. He fished to eat and sold the extra to the old hotel there to make his living. A new place is going up - a modern hotel. The first of many, they predict. They say Puerto Vallarta will soon be like Acapulco is now. The new hotels will buy all the fish the villagers can catch, plus, there will be jobs. Tourists to take out in the boat - snorkelling, scuba, tortugas y delfines, lots of things like that."

"So, what's it to me?" Carlos said, shrugging theatrically, his long-held temper not yet diminished. He held it in again, knowing that to lose it would be a disadvantage with Avelino.

"Okay, okay," said Avelino, flopping open the valise. "I bought the panga from Violeta - I paid her twice what it was worth. It's sitting on the beach in Mismaloya. Just sign this and you own it. It's that simple - that's why I'm here. I want you to have the boat. Keep the boat or sell it, I don't care."

Carlos stared at the white papers, crisp and typed neatly. He thought about the situation and wasn't surprised - not totally, anyway. He admitted to himself that he had often wanted to leave this con-man's life. The thug that they paid off for their location was extorting more from them all the time; already they fed the petty criminal's family and the low-lifes he called his 'gang'. Besides, he thought, cheating these naïve tourists - what kind of a life is that? The tourists could afford it, but that was not the point and he knew it. Carlos did not hate these gringos like Pablo did. Nor did he want to.

"The boat is in good shape. I had it stripped and re-painted. If you stay there to fish, I'll pay for a new gas outboard motor," Avelino said, touching the documents and pointing to the places, marked with neat ink check-marks, where Carlos was to sign. The ink marks made him think of cups set outside to catch rain water, the ancients' symbol for women and for the abundance of the earth. Maybe they also marked for him a way out. It was an unexpected path, one not bound by the numbing inevitability that hunted him and those around him - his wife, his daughter. Violeta, Josefina, and Jose too. Even Avelino, despite his wealth and seeming freedom.

"Que? Why the hell would I move to Mismaloya?" Carlos said.

Avelino regarded him closely. He flicked his cigarette out onto the sand. "Well, it's a quiet life. Violeta has a nice place by the beach. She owns a bit of land and the property has value. Buy the place from her and then wait a few years and watch if some American hotel doesn't come sniffing around. If you want, I'll finance it for you, or we could be partners."

Carlos glowered.

"Whatever," the older man continued, "you got a family, si?" From a lifetime of practice, Avelino leveraged his cunning, persuading and piquing Carlos' curiosity.

"Yeah. My wife left me but I have a young daughter and we live with my sister. My brother in law has a taxi. I work here until dark each night and then drive his cab. It's no good for the kid." Carlos said, rubbing his arm. "She's gonna get wild."

"I know," Avelino said. "I heard. So, go down there to Mismaloya, take my offer and put up a little place of your own on Violeta's land. For you and your daughter. I squared it with Violeta; she's good with that. Maybe you help her a bit with the food and repairs, amigo? Your kid can go to school with little Josefina. The gringo Menonitas have a built a schoolhouse there." Avelino paused, then continued, "I don't know - I don't have no family - you tell me."

Carlos looked down at the papers, seeing the inky tazas. He fidgeted, touching the folded knife in his pocket - his companion for the taxi, later.

"The fishing is good there - catch bonito by the basket-full," Avelino said softly, holding out the pen.

"Si, claro," Carlos answered, smiling as Avelino paraphrased the native meaning for Mismaloya: "The place where they grab fish with their hands".

"What's in it for you?" Carlos said, staring at the man, streaks of grey now in his close-cropped hair.

"Me?" Avelino glanced at the scar on Carlos' arm and then looked out at the sidewalk above the seawall, where passing tourists paused to inspect the wares of the vendors. He gazed upwards, following with his eyes the spiral ascent of several frigate birds, far above. "Nothing. Maybe I don't feel shitty for a day or two."



Carlos and the slender pinche squatted beside the panga in the morning sun. The Atún, he'd named it. Carlos could smell the fresh coat of blue paint on the hull.

He watched the fulgent bay. Birds circled as a school of bonito worked a mackerel ball. The water boiled in a primitive struggle for life. Gulls and acrobatic pelicans dove to cash in on dead and injured baitfish near the surface.

The school moved across Mismaloya Bay, and Carlos' gaze tracked along the blurry horizon line at the bottom of the sky. Then he stood and looked around anxiously for his charter customers. He saw a man and two women walking up the beach, sandals in their hands. There they are.

Carlos and the pinche looked back out to the bay and spotted several feeding fish breaking the surface. "Pescado," Carlos said, rubbing his palms together noisily. He gave the boy, whose eyes were the purest white, a contented look and then closed his own eyes and began to pray. "Oh Dios, que trajiste a nuestros padres..."

3 comments:

  1. Extraordinarily fine writing that transports the reader into a particular world. Carlos's destiny, Jose's fate - karma - who knows? Very many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. Great descriptive writing that provided an inside view into another world

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  3. Thx for comments and thx to Charlie Fish for running this longer selection. I witnessed a young boy get impaled by a gaff hook during a sailfin struggle. I sat sunburned in a skiff and jigged handlines with an old-timer on rolling ocean swell, every shade of blue. The story comes from those salty, real places.

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