90 Miles to Havana
By Enrique Flores-Galbis
Roaring Brook Press Copyright © 2010 Enrique Flores-Galbis
All rights reserved.
We're fishing at the edge of the Gulf Stream two miles north of Havana. From this far out, the city looks like it's about to be swallowed by the waves.
"Havana is sinking," I say to Bebo, standing behind the wheel.
"I guess Columbus was right. The earth is round," Bebo says without a hint of a smile on his face. He hands me a nautical chart of the north coast of Cuba.
"Check the compass, and the chart — tell me exactly where we are."
I run my finger across a dark gray band marking the Gulf Stream, then up to the last link in a chain of islands hooking south from the tip of Florida.
"Key West is eighty-five miles north-northeast of us," I say, checking the big brass compass. "Havana is five miles due south."
"You're getting the hang of it," Bebo says. When my father yawns, Bebo nods toward the stern of the boat. "I think he's had enough for the day."
Papi's been sitting in the fighting chair almost the whole day waiting for a bite, but he hasn't gotten as much as a nibble. He's not too happy about the possibility that we might be going home empty-handed. My father thinks that if we catch a big fish on December 31 we'll have good luck every day of the coming year.
My two brothers and I always go fishing with him on that day. We usually have a few big ones to show my mother and the Garcias, our next-door neighbors, when they meet us at the dock. After the fish are cleaned and put away, we eat dinner and celebrate New Year's Eve on the boat, with the carnival music and revelers playing and dancing in the streets above us.
Papi stretches, then yawns even louder. Bebo whispers, "Hurry, he's going to get up."
I'm standing next to Papi smiling, when he starts to unclip the rod from the chair. The fighting chair is made out of steel and wood, swivels and tilts just like the ones at the barbershop, but it has no cushions. It does have straps and the hardware to clip the rod to the chair so you don't get pulled into the water when you're fighting a big fish.
"Of all the years to go home empty-handed," he says, looking over my head at the horizon.
"Papi, can I take a turn on the chair?" I ask and look around for my brothers. I can hear Gordo and Alquilino, the oldest, buzzing around our next-door neighbor Angelita. They're too busy to notice that Papi has gotten up.
"I'm a lot bigger than I was last year," I add, squaring my shoulders and standing up as straight as I can.
"I don't know, Julian. The fish out here are huge," he says. "A flick of their tail and they'll pull you in!"
"Yeah, but I'm stronger now," I say.
"It's late, Julian. Next time."
"What if there is no next time? I heard you talking to Mr. Garcia on the phone this morning, you said everything is changing and this could be our last fishing trip." Papi is looking at me but I can't tell what he's thinking. "I know what to do, Bebo explained the whole thing to me."
"Bebo explained the whole thing?" he asks as the ends of his mustache start to rise.
"From beginning to end," I say. "And you know how good Bebo is at explaining things."
Papi is sizing me up as if he's never seen me before. "So, do you think you can handle a big fish?"
"I know exactly what to do!" I say with as much confidence as I can muster.
"OK, Julian," he says and squints at the setting sun. "I guess we have time for one more pass."
I jump into the chair as fast as I can, before my brothers can claim it, or Papi can change his mind.
* * *
"This is your big chance," my father says and then helps me fit the end of the rod into the metal cup in between my knees. He clips the rod to the brass fittings on the arm of the chair. "There. Now if a big fish wants to pull you in, it'll have to take the chair, too."
I grip the rod tight and set my feet. "I'm ready."
My father smiles at me. "Good. You know the rule, right?"
"Yell, even if it's just a nibble," I say, repeating what he tells everyone that climbs up on the chair.
Papi is staring out at the horizon again but now he's shaking his head. I know he's thinking that it's over for the day — for this year, but you never know. If I catch a big one Papi will get a year's worth of luck, and they'll take a picture of me standing next to the fish hanging upside down on the dock. Out of respect for the fish I'll look real serious to show he put up a good fight.
"Don't worry, Papi. I'll catch one for us," I say to cheer him up.
"That would be nice," he says, and then pats the two cigars in his shirt pocket. He and Bebo always light up on the way home.
Holding the rod firmly in my left hand, I pinch the line between my right thumb and forefinger, just like my father does. The fishing line is slicing into the waves, the green lure spinning beneath the wake, and I can almost see a big silver blue marlin lurking right behind it.
"Julian," Bebo calls. "Don't look at the water. You'll get seasick."
He must have read my mind. "Si, Bebo," I yell and then look up, not at the horizon, but just above it.
Bebo taught me that trick and a thousand others.
He used to drive a truck for my father, but when Papi heard he was a great cook, he convinced him to give up the truck and take up the spoon for our house. Now he cooks, takes care of the boat, and teaches me things. Ever since my brothers stopped letting me hang around with them, Bebo makes sure I have something to do. It doesn't matter what he's doing, he always lets me help.
If he's cooking a paella, he'll show me how to cut the peppers and onions and then leave me alone. Unlike my parents or my brothers, he knows that I'm smart enough to figure out how to do the job without cutting all my fingers off.
My father and Bebo have lit up their cigars, the smoke is billowing around my head, mixing in with the thick exhaust fumes coming from the engine. I hope I get a bite soon.
"You feel anything yet?" Bebo asks as he opens up the engine hatch just below my feet.
"No, the only thing I feel is seasick from your cigar," I answer.
Bebo sits down next to the ticking engine. Gasoline fumes are wafting out of the open hatch, and my head is starting to spin. I sit up, shake the rod, and set my feet, hoping that'll make me feel better.
Bebo chuckles at me, as he pulls a dime out of his pants pocket and then reaches around the carburetor. "Let's see if I can make this engine run smoother."
Bebo takes his trusty paper clip from his shirt pocket, wiggles it inside the carburetor as he turns a hard-to-reach screw with his dime, adjusting the mixture of air to gas the engine runs on.
I've watched him take the carburetor apart a hundred times. Now I can see through the greasy metal into the little chambers where the air and gasoline mixture is turned into a vapor, then fed into the piston. When the piston pushes up, it compresses the vapor in the cylinder, the spark plug fires, and the vapor explodes. The explosion pushes the piston down and that turns the crankshaft, which then spins the propeller. It's simple if you can see through metal.
I like being around Bebo because he'll explain how to read a compass or how a complicated carburetor works and never once say that I'm too young to understand.
When Bebo climbs out of the hatch, the engine is humming smooth. He holds up the dime and his paper clip. "This is all El Maestro needs," he says, as he puffs on his cigar then tilts his head to listen to the engine. "It's idling too slow," he announces, then stomps back up to the wheel to adjust the throttle.
We have a box full of tools, but he never touches them. Bebo likes to invent. "I have all the tools I need up here," he always says, pointing at his head.
A cloud of cigar smoke has now settled around my head like a strange gray hat. My stomach is starting to rescramble the eggs I ate for breakfast, when I feel a delicate tug on the rod. I'm not sure if it's a nibble or just the rocking of the boat. I reel in some line and wait, hoping my head will stop spinning.
Bebo told me that some fish will take the bait in their mouth, then spit it out if they don't like the taste. I'm about to call my father when there's another gentle tug on the rod. If the fish has the bait in its mouth and I don't set the hook, he might just spit it out. Maybe I should say something, but I don't. I know the second I open my mouth, my brothers or my father will take the rod away from me, then I'll lose the fish for sure — miss my chance.
Another tug. He's not just tasting anymore, he likes the bait. I jerk the rod back; it bends and strains against the clips. When I try to reel in some line it feels like I'm caught on an old anchor or a truck. Then as the hooked fish tries to swim away the line flies out and the reel whines.
Gordo is the first to hear it. "Julian hooked one!" he yells.
Gordo and Alquilino are already at my side trying to grab the rod out of my hands, but I don't want to let go. There's something big and powerful at the other end of the line. I can feel its strength shooting right through me like electricity, like the time I stuck my finger in the outlet. I want to pull this fish in. I want to be the hero for once! Why should I give it up?
"Julian, it's too big for you!" Alquilino yells as my father leans in to adjust the drag so that the line will go out easier. Suddenly the fish stops pulling, but the line is still going out.
"Give me the rod," Gordo yells and then tries to pull the rod out of my hands. Everybody's yelling at me, but then I hear Bebo's calm voice. "He's going to run again, Julian. Take up the slack."
I wind the crank as fast as I can, but before I've taken in all the loose line, the fish starts to run and the line starts going out again.
The reel is spinning blurry fast and making strange crunching noises; I can hear the metal clips straining. If the rod hadn't been clipped to the chair, I would have been pulled into the water. The tip of the rod is dipping into the waves; little droplets of water are dancing off the line. My arms hurt, but I'm pulling back.
Suddenly the fish explodes out of the water, not more than a boat length away. Its sword is slashing at the blue sky, the black and purple stripes on its back sparkle as it rides its tail across the indigo swells. "He's longer than our station wagon," I gasp.
When the fish slaps into the water it sends up a huge splash, the line snaps, and I fly back into the chair.
"I knew you were going to lose him," Gordo yells as we watch the tangled fishing line disappear into the deep blue chop. "Papi you should have made him give me the rod; I could have caught that fish!"
"It's gone," my father says. "Nothing we can do."
That was the last thing he said to me on the way home. He didn't even look at me when I crawled into the cabin, and then latched the door.
Keeping my eyes glued to the horizon, I press my forehead up against the glass of the porthole. I can hear Gordo on deck laughing and repeating, "He lost the biggest fish we've ever hooked," over and over again. I'm not the only one. He lost a big one last year, but I didn't laugh at him.
Every time I rewind and then run the film in my head, from the first nibble to when the line snapped, I see it all a little clearer, and then I feel a little worse. If only I had said something sooner, let someone else take him, maybe we would have caught him. But I wanted to be the hero. I wanted to be the one in the photograph standing next to the big fish.
Gordo is still laughing at me on deck but then I hear Angelita say, "Give it a rest, Gordo. He feels bad enough as it is. You don't have to rub it in."
"He should feel bad. He lost the biggest fish we ..."
"That's enough, Gordo," my father snaps at him.
Then I hear somebody pushing on the door. "Julian," Angelita calls softly through the slats of the door, "let me in."
I press my whole face into the glass. "I don't want to see anybody."
"It's not just anybody. It's Angelita, your friend," she says sweetly.
Angelita is Gordo's age, and a year younger than Alquilino. We've all been friends for as long as I can remember, but ever since Alquilino started growing little hairs on his chin that look like curly brown wires both he and Gordo have been acting differently around her. Angelita told me once that I'm her favorite now because I don't act weird around her, and we can still talk like normal human beings.
"Julian, open this door! Let me in," Angelita insists. I don't want her to be mad at me, too, so I get up and open the door a crack. "All right, but just you," I say. Angelita steps down into the cabin, but before she can close the door Alquilino stumbles in behind her.
"Alquilino, what are you doing?" said Angelita.
He's standing behind her, ears burning bright red. "I — I just have to — to, um —" he starts and then stops.
Poor Alquilino, he's never like this when she's not around, but when Angelita looks at him or she gets too close, he stumbles over the smallest pebbles and the simplest words.
"Julian, don't listen to Gordo. It could have happened to anybody," Alquilino says and then pushes his glasses higher up on his nose. "There could have been a knot in the line. That's how Gordo lost the fish last year, remember?"
I know he's trying to make me feel better. "Thanks, Alquilino," I say, but I can't look at him because I know exactly why I lost that fish.
"Is that all?" Angelita sighs, and then nods toward the door. I can feel Alquilino's ears throbbing as he stumbles up the stairs.
"Alquilino's a good guy," she says, and then scratches the backs of her arms, "but he acts so weird around me, it makes my skin itch." Then she sits down next to me. "Now tell me what happened."
"I lost the fish, that's what happened," I blurt out. "It was my fault."
"Didn't you hear what Alquilino said? It could have happened to anyone."
"Papi told me to yell if I had a nibble, but I didn't," I confess. "I should have said something sooner."
"So why didn't you?"
I look down at my hands, picking at a scab on my knuckle. "I don't know. It happened so fast," I mumble into my lap as the bow smacks into a big wave. The boat jumps and then rolls.
Angelita waves her hand in front of her face. "I don't feel so good." Then she squints at me like she's trying to focus her eyes. "So, why didn't you say something sooner?"
"I didn't want to let go of the rod. I didn't want to give up my fish."
"Go on," she says.
"When I had that fish on the line, it was so strong, it made me feel important. I wanted to be the one that brought him in — I wanted to be the hero just once, but I lost him and now we're going to have bad luck this year." I blurt it out all at once, hoping it'll make me feel better.
Angelita gives a feeble laugh, "Ay, chico!"
"Are you laughing at me, too, Angelita?"
"No, I'm laughing because the cabin is starting to spin." Angelita takes a hold of my face with both hands. "Don't you start moving, too. Listen, people like your father go after the big fish because they're powerful and it makes them feel powerful, too. They don't do it to put food on the table." The minute Angelita mentions food her face turns a shade lighter. "And do you really think your father believes all that big fish, big luck, superstition stuff? If you ask him why his buildings get built, do you think he's going to say that it's because he caught a slimy fish that year, or because he's a great architect?"
She's right. I could never see him giving the credit for his success to a fish. But still, every time we catch one on the last day of the year, another one of his buildings sprouts up in Havana. I have no idea what fish have to do with buildings, but if he says they bring him luck, I have to believe him.
Angelita puts her hand on my head, tweaks out a weak smile, and then pushes off. "I've got to get out of here! I need some air," she says as she gropes her way out of the cabin.
It took every anti-seasick trick that Bebo ever taught me to stay below until it got dark.
My head is spinning. When I open the door and peek out, Alquilino, Gordo, and my father are sitting on the bow talking. I climb out of the cabin and go stand next to Bebo at the wheel.
"Everybody makes mistakes, Julian. The trick is to learn how to put them away for later, keep your eyes on the road, pay attention to the next thing coming around the bend." Bebo never makes a big deal out of mistakes. When the time is right, we'll talk about it, figure out what went wrong. He carefully guides the boat just under the light from El Morro, the old Spanish fort at the mouth of the harbor.
"Are we taking the shortcut?" I ask.
"It's late," he says as he nudges the boat into the shadow of the cliffs. The light from El Morro is sweeping the water behind us as Bebo threads the boat around several large boulders, dangerously close to the dark cliffs. (Continues...)
Excerpted from 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis. Copyright © 2010 Enrique Flores-Galbis. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.