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Charlie Sweetwater returns to his hometown to visit his brother but arrives to find he is a no-show: The Coast Guard has discovered Johnny’s shrimp boat drifting abandoned in the Gulf. Is it “death by misadventure” as the authorities presume, or something more sinister? Meanwhile, Fulton Harbor, where Charlie’s family have docked their shrimp boats for generations, has changed—and not for the better. Hard-working Vietnamese fishermen are under the thumb of Col. Nguyen Ngoc Bao, a ruthless exiled ...
Charlie Sweetwater returns to his hometown to visit his brother but arrives to find he is a no-show: The Coast Guard has discovered Johnny’s shrimp boat drifting abandoned in the Gulf. Is it “death by misadventure” as the authorities presume, or something more sinister? Meanwhile, Fulton Harbor, where Charlie’s family have docked their shrimp boats for generations, has changed—and not for the better. Hard-working Vietnamese fishermen are under the thumb of Col. Nguyen Ngoc Bao, a ruthless exiled gangster who aims to recreate his criminal enterprise in a New World setting. Confronting Bao and his thugs are Charlie and a mismatched group of good guys (and gals): a fast-and-loose Cajun hustler, a salty cast of “Third Coast” barroom regulars, a handful of courageous Vietnamese émigrés, a menacing ex-convict, and a misplaced Texas Ranger who discovers a slice of the Lone Star State that the cowboy movies of his boyhood never prepared him for. Along the way Charlie finds himself falling for his brother’s girlfriend, whose zealous desire to see justice served tests his own limits for loyalty and commitment. Unlikely heroes arise from improbable circumstances, and the denizens of the small seaside community find their fortunes and fates ebbing and flowing like the tidal flux of the ocean itself.
From above, the calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico reflect the deep blue of a bright October sky. A meandering seagull soars on a thermal updraft, alert for forage fish. From this height the occasional oil and gas platforms look like abandoned toys. Far off over the horizon the shoaling waters lighten to a translucent green as they rise to meet the dim humps of San José and Matagorda Islands.
Only one thing mars the vista: a column of greasy black smoke climbing into the flawless sky. The gull kites with the wind towards a steel-hulled trawler whose back deck is all but obscured by the billowing smoke and licking flames emerging from the engine room hatch. Markings painted on the rust-stained transom read The Lazy Liz, and underneath in smaller letters, Fulton, Texas, the boat's homeport. Men run aft bearing fire hoses and extinguishers, frantically battling the blaze.
Another vessel surges into sight, a pronounced wake marking its advance. It's another trawler, and it closes quickly on the stricken boat as maritime law and simple decency require. It's a fifty-eight foot gulf shrimper, the Ramrod, also out of Fulton. The Ramrod heaves to in front of the other boat, and the captain—it must be the captain, as no one else appears to be aboard—quickly sets the anchor and tosses over his own supply of fire extinguishers. He jackknifes his tall and lanky frame over the rail into the water and with long, powerful strokes swims to the bow of the burning vessel and clambers up the anchor line.
As it happens, the Ramrod's skipper recognizes the men on the Lazy Liz. They are Vietnamese, part of the postwar refugee population that has for the past few years been making itself felt in fishing communities up and down the Texas coast. The men nod at one another, too involved with the task at hand to exchange pleasantries.
But there is, nonetheless, a small shock of familiarity. Hardly surprising; the coastal Gulf waters are a small pond from the perspective of the fishermen, shrimpers and oystermen who work them. Everyone pretty much knows one another through greater and lesser degrees of separation.
The men on the stricken vessel know the curly-haired white man, too. His name is Johnny Sweetwater, from one of the old-line families of fishermen with deep roots in Fulton and its neighboring coastal town of Rockport.
Later, after the fire is quelled, the skipper of the Lazy Liz attempts to turn over the big diesels but his engines grind and refuse to catch. After a period of futile tinkering, the Vietnamese shrug their collective shoulders.
The Anglo captain, in a mixture of pidgin Vietnamese, Spanish and English maritime lingo, persuades them to let him fiddle with the diesels. He descends into the engine room and with a short but considerable expenditure of greasy, sweaty work, finally gets the big Cummins engines to crank over.
When he climbs up from below, the crewmen slap him on the back and congratulate him in the nasal singsong of their native language. The Vietnamese captain insists that he come inside and share a drink with them.
By dusk, with two bottles of rum down and a third bottle four fingers gone, Johnny excuses himself from the cigarette smoke-filled galley to check on his boat. Satisfied the Ramrod is holding fast to its anchorage, he strolls to the back deck of the Lazy Liz to observe the impending sunset and to enjoy the cool evening breeze. Leaning on the gunwale, out of view of his hosts, he focuses on a hatch cover located behind the cabin. He is just drunk enough to indulge an inborn curiosity to peek beneath the hatch into the holds.
He isn't sure what he sees in the dim light of the storage bins below deck, but he is sure it isn't shrimp. Half buried in the ice that normally blankets and preserves the catch, he sees several objects that are large, long and metallic, with stenciled numbers and identification markings visible even through the clear industrial plastic that protects them. What the hell?
The heat from the fire in the engine room has melted away much of the ice that was meant to hide the cargo. Whatever the objects are, Johnny quickly learns he isn't supposed to see them, because three crewmen scramble out of the cabin, yelling and shoving him away from the hatch.
The Vietnamese captain, observing the commotion, swears to himself and orders the men to sort themselves out and apologize. He slams the hatch shut and orders the men to go inside. "Take the rum," he says, thrusting the bottle at one of his underlings.
The crewmen apologize in their fashion and escort Johnny back into the crowded galley. The tension eases as the bottle begins to make the rounds once more. Johnny begins to tell an elaborate tale—illustrated with pantomime and many hand gestures—that seems to involve his brother Charlie, a Juarez cantina, two midget bullfighters, lots of tequila and several Mexican women of dubious reputation. Though they scarcely understand a word, the Vietnamese laugh uproariously, as much at the gusto of Johnny's vigorous recitation as at any literal interpretation.
As Johnny and the crew carouse, the skipper remains behind, unnoticed in the wheelhouse, where he picks up the ship-to-shore microphone and radios his employer and sponsor in Fulton. In terse sentences he recounts the fire, the intervention of the Anglo captain, and the inadvertent discovery of the Lazy Liz's secret cargo.
There is a short silence while the captain's master considers options. Finally, the word comes back across the crackling ether. The precise, ruthless tone of voice from the other end of the radio sends a chill down the captain's back.
Kill the man, says the voice. Make it look as though he drowned. Leave the boat adrift. A missing man is easier to explain away than a missing vessel. Do it now.
The captain replaces the microphone slowly and swallows. Instant obedience is hardwired into the men who work for the man on the other end of the microphone. It cannot be otherwise. But this Anglo—he'd helped them out of a potentially catastrophic jam. And he is a fellow seaman, with all the universal bonds that fact implies. And the captain just plain likes him.
But all of that counts as nothing. Sticking his head into the galley, the skipper shouts for the biggest of the crewman to join him outside.
Not long after, Johnny Sweetwater finishes his bawdy shaggydog story and lurches to his feet, somewhat worse for rum.
"I'm sorry I can't stay for the cotillion, my little yellow friends, cause y'all know I love those little cucumber sandwich dealies." He sways side to side with the boat as he stands. "Say, boys, does it feel like the ground's moving?" One of fisherman rises drunkenly and offers to help the Anglo return to his boat.
Johnny waves him off and then, in his incipient Vietnamese, ceremoniously attempts to thank his hosts for their fine hospitality. The fishermen double over laughing at the effort. Johnny laughs with them and starts for the door.
"Well, so long, my hearties. Tell Miz Scarlett and them others I'll see 'em tomorrow at Tara. 'Cause tomorrow's another goddam dia, like they say."
Walking down the narrow gangway between the cabin and the rail, listing a little to port, Johnny never sees the looming figure behind him who steps out of a tool locker clutching a 48-inch pipe wrench.
The silent explosion of white light inside Johnny's head blows him off his feet and out of all rational thought. He vaguely registers the sensation of the rough deck planking abrading his cheek, although he could not have said what he was experiencing.
His eyes unfocused and unseeing, he feels himself ascending. Flying? he wonders vaguely.
The splash as his body lands overboard and the searing sensation of salt water in his lungs he notes only as distant phenomena. The back of his skull is crushed, his brain bleeding into his cranium, his heart and nervous system are running wildly, erratically and then not at all, the fading realization that something terrible has happened—all of these things he perceives as though at a great distance and of no cause of concern. He neither sees nor hears the Lazy Liz crank over her diesels and cruise away. The Ramrod, unloosed and untended, floats nearby.
The gentle swells of the warm Gulf waters bear him up and down in a gentle pendulum. Up and down and then up ... endlessly up.CHAPTER 2
The highway ahead shimmered in the morning heat and Charlie Sweetwater felt sweat pooling under his arms. Hot, humid air rushed through the open window, but the light had the slightest metallic edge that foretold the approach of autumn. His truck was a temperamental piece of crap and the A/C decided to quit working as soon as he hit the Chihuahuan Desert. Charlie and his brother used to call it the "Whore of Detroit" because they gave it all their money and it never loved them back. Years later, his brother had traded his interest in the truck for $75 and a pair of Tony Lama boots that needed new soles. But at least the radio still functioned.
Right now a static-laden Tejano polka scratched its way through the speakers. Charlie sang along for a verse and a chorus and then began talking back to the radio in Spanish to keep himself awake. 1500 miles of broken Mexican highway and arid South Texas brush country had taken its toll. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and pushed the accelerator.
Charlie hadn't seen his hometown since his dad's funeral almost five years ago. That time, his brother Johnny had tracked him down in Cuernavaca and delivered the unhappy news over the telephone. This time, however, he'd sounded a hell of a lot more upbeat.
There was only one phone at the Playa Escondida Resort, the remote tourist operation that Charlie ran on the Pacific coast, but he happened to hear it ringing as he passed by the office cabana on his way to the reef for some spear fishing.
"Brother man!" Johnny shouted over the static. "I finally got through; I can't believe it."
"Hey, hermano. How the heck are you?"
"Terrific. Listen, I've got a proposition for you. How 'bout you get your ass out of Old Mexico and drive up here and see me in Fulton for a few days. I want you to meet somebody."
Johnny always liked to get straight to the point.
"You mean, like a girl?" asked Charlie, wondering if this time he'd be returning home for a wedding instead of a funeral.
"I'd rather keep it a surprise. Give you something to ponder on the way up."
There was a pause on the line as Charlie thought it over.
"Come on, bro'," said Johnny, "I know you don't have jack-shit going on down there in lotus land. Besides, you haven't been back home in ... I don't know how long."
Johnny was right. He had nothing pressing on his agenda, unless reef diving counted as an obligation, and he had no good excuse for staying away from his hometown for as long as he had. His lengthy absence hadn't been intentional; it had just become habit.
"Okay, Johnny. Why the hell not?"
Even through the static Charlie could hear his brother whooping on the other end of the line. "That's what I wanted to hear, 'mano! It'll be worth the effort. I promise."
"But why can't you tell me about this mystery chick? You're not getting married are you?"
"Have patience, little brother," he said. "Listen, I know it's a long drive so I'll look for you 'round the end of the week. I'm taking the boat out to the Gulf this afternoon—man, the shrimping has been outstanding lately—so if I'm not back in the harbor when you arrive, I'll be there soon after. End of the week. Estamos bien?"
Charlie laughed. "Yeah, we're good."
"Great. I can't wait to see ya."
"Oye, Johnny. You want me to bring you anything from Mexi ..." but before he could finish his brother had hung up.
* * *
When Charlie finally reached the Fulton city limits he felt like a month of Judgment Days. But he recovered a little as he turned onto the familiar two-lane road that followed the edge of Aransas Bay. He was greeted by huddled stands of live oaks that bent in an arthritic pose away from the relentless Gulf winds, and by the pungent odor of decaying seaweed and dead fish that flavored the fresh sea air. Rickety wooden fishing piers, many still unrepaired since the last hurricane, jutted out from bait shacks that perched over the water (FRESH BAIT, LIVE AND DEAD read the hand-made signs).
The Texas coast was a blue-collar working coast, full of refineries, commercial fishing outfits and beer joints—a long way removed from the postcard vistas of Monterrey or South Florida. Many folks, try as they might, just couldn't conjure up an appreciation for the area's raffish, low-rent appeal, but Charlie recognized that the geography was woven into his DNA. Fulton had seen better days, but as far as hometowns went, Charlie had no complaints.
They had been quite a pair, the Sweetwater brothers. The girls rapturously referred to them as the "Sweets," but local law enforcement had other names for them—"little shitbird troublemakers" or "future defendants" being the most polite. Congenitally irreverent and frequently bored by small-town life, the Sweetwater boys were used to making their own fun. And growing up in Fulton, they'd had plenty.
Turning onto the crushed oyster shell road that led to the docks of Fulton Harbor, Charlie could see an agitated cloud of squawking seagulls hovering above the rigging and masts of the trawlers in the harbor. Somehow he wasn't surprised to discover that they gathered in a riotous mass directly over Johnny's empty boat slip.
Charlie pulled to a stop and watched a tan adolescent boy throwing handfuls of what appeared to be orange peanuts into the frenzied mob of gulls concentrated above him. Several groups of Vietnamese fishermen squatted on the decks of their weathered flathull shrimp boats, observing the scene without visible reaction. Johnny's mongrel dog, Ringworm, stood on the dock next to the boy, barking at the birds.
The boy saw Charlie and sat down on a sack of the orange pellets, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands cupping his chin, waiting, apparently, for Charlie to get out of the truck. The kid wore cut-off jeans and a faded T-shirt displaying a photo of El Santo, the Mexican wrestling hero.
Charlie stepped out of the truck and stretched his road-weary back, and then strolled down the pier toward the boat.
"Buenos días," said Charlie. The boy lifted his chin as a greeting. Ringworm walked up slowly and sniffed at Charlie.
"It's okay, boy. It's me." He cautiously reached down and let the dog sniff his hand. "Good dog." After a moment the dog recognized his scent and started romping around on the deck, wagging his ratty stub of a tail. Charlie knelt down and rubbed the mutt's belly.
"I'm Charlie Sweetwater," he said to the boy,
"I know," he said. "Jew look like Johnny," he said in hesitant English.
"He's my brother."
The boy nodded. He had olive skin, light blue eyes and a mop of curly brown hair that cascaded from under a Rockport Pirate's baseball cap. "I work with him on the boat."
Charlie looked over at the empty boat slip. "You do?"
"Johnny make me stay ... this time. For the school." He cocked a thumb dispiritedly toward the Rockport-Fulton Middle School a few blocks away.
"Vaya Pirates," Charlie joked, but the boy didn't react. "Well ... he told me he'd be back around the end of the week. Maybe even today, you think?"
"Hey, I have a question for you." The boy looked at him, waiting. "What in the hell were you doing just now ... when I drove up?" He looked confused, so Charlie tossed a handful of imaginary peanuts into the air.
A cautious smile appeared on the boy's face. "That is food we sell for the birds. Johnny's idea," he added redundantly.
Charlie laughed. "Sounds like one of Johnny's crazy ideas."
The boy stood up and pointed to a label on one of the 25 lb. clear plastic sacks of orange pellets. It said "CAP'N JOHNNY'S SHRIMP-FLAVORED BIRD CHOW." There was a caricature of a squinty-eyed, pipe-clinching sea salt on there too, telling consumers that the pellets were "guaranteed," whatever that meant. There were probably twenty sacks stacked up on the pier.
Charlie grabbed a handful of the pellets and lifted them to his nose. "God almighty!" he said in disgust, tossing the pellets into the water. A mass of piggy perch instantly appeared and began nibbling at the pellets as they drifted toward the bottom.
Excerpted from Thin Slice of Life by Miles Arceneaux. Copyright © 2012 Brent Douglass, John T. Davis and James R. Dennis. Excerpted by permission of Stephen F. Austin State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 5, 2013
Fantastic read! The fast-paced , witty murder mystery brought you memorable characters and places that leave you itching to visit.
It's not that often that I read a book where I really like BOTH the story and the characters, but Thin Slice of Life hit both right out of the park. The book is very descriptive in that you feel like you are there with the characters. You can almost smell the ocean.
Reminds me a lot of Pat Conroy's writing.
Cannot wait until the second book comes out.
Posted October 30, 2012
No text was provided for this review.