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Ordinary Seaman

Ordinary Seaman

by Francisco Goldman, Francisco Golman

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The Ordinary Seaman, the second novel from acclaimed writer Francisco Goldman is a lyrical and spellbinding story of hope, despair, and the promise of love. The ordinary seaman is Esteban, a 19-year-old veteran of the war in Nicaragua, who has come to America with 14 other men to form the crew of the Urus. Docked on a desolate Brooklyn pier, the Urus is a wreck,


The Ordinary Seaman, the second novel from acclaimed writer Francisco Goldman is a lyrical and spellbinding story of hope, despair, and the promise of love. The ordinary seaman is Esteban, a 19-year-old veteran of the war in Nicaragua, who has come to America with 14 other men to form the crew of the Urus. Docked on a desolate Brooklyn pier, the Urus is a wreck, and the men, without the means to return home, become its prisoners. Esteban, haunted by the loss of his first love in the war, gradually works up the courage to escape the ship and start a new life in the city. His story and those of his shipmates come to life, illuminating the conflicts and triumphs of the human heart.

Editorial Reviews

One of the most exciting and ambitious novelists currently exploring the form....In its electric verbal intensity...as well as in its sheer story-telling power, The Ordinary Seaman is a remarkable novel.
Chicago Tribune
An imaginative tour de force, a spectacular achievement by any standards.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A voyage of the damned, albeit on a ship that never sails, is the framing concept of this powerful narrative. Fifteen desperate men lured from Central America by the promise of work aboard a freighter find themselves trapped on a rusting, rat- and roach-infested hulk without plumbing, heat or electricity, abandoned at an isolated Brooklyn pier. Placated by the promise that they will eventually be paid, the crew work for six months under horrifying conditions: half starved, filthy, sick and humiliated, they're victims of their own poverty and the chicanery of others. Goldman shapes his story through the tales-often ribald and laced with Spanish vernacular-the characters tell to make their ordeal bearable. He focuses on Esteban Gaitan, at 19 already a haunted shadow, tortured by flashbacks to his experiences as a Sandinista guerrilla and by the death in combat of his young lover. Initially, the rambling tales and discursions impede the narrative's forward movement, but gradually, the stories accumulate and resolve into a searing picture of human vulnerability and courage. When Esteban surreptitiously leaves the ship and prowls the ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn in search of food and succor, the story opens out and presents a fascinating picture of a corner of America as seen through unsophisticated eyes. While this is surely a saga of betrayal and exploitation, Goldman maintains a note of cautious optimism about the resourcefulness of men pushed to the brink of despair, and about the determined search for both love and new life in a difficult new land. Goldman won the Sue Kaufman Prize for first fiction for The Long Night of White Chickens. This novel, inspired by an actual incident, should establish him securely on the literary map. Author tour. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Goldman's first novel, The Long Night of the White Chickens (LJ 6/1/92), won several literary prizes and was a surprise best seller. Here, a group of Nicaraguan men come to America.
Carolyn See
"I can't recommend this book highly enough... The Ordinary Seaman does credit to the novelistic form, yielding up mysterious, vivid worlds, seldom seen but always there. It's just great. I loved it." -- The Washington Post
Gail Caldwell
"An abundant, beautifully imagined novel...vibrant and true...A story of survival, but its epic reach and exquisite use of time give it the sheen and depth of several realities taking place at once... The Ordinary Seaman surges on the power of the imagination." -- The Boston Globe
Kirkus Reviews
Goldman's acclaimed debut, The Long Night of the White Chickens (1992), proves to have been no fluke: Its successor is an equally compelling saga of a crew of poor, would-be Central American sailors stranded aboard the rat-infested hulk of a dead ship.

Esteban, a 19-year-old survivor of a Sandinista battalion shot to pieces in a contra ambush, flies to New York as part of a group of hopeful, desperate strangers hoping to take seamens' berths on the cargo ship Urus. On arrival, the crew is shocked to see their vessel stripped and sagging along an abandoned Brooklyn pier, its engine room a blackened disaster from a fire at sea on its last voyage. Despite appearances, the yanqui Captain and his non- Spanish-speaking mate are insistent that the Urus will be rebuilt, and they quickly set the crew to work. Summer fades into chilly fall, however, and it becomes obvious to the seamen that not only will the ship never become seaworthy, but they will never be paid; with no cash and no legal status, they're trapped in a floating nightmare. Already ill-clothed and -fed, their despair proves as numbing as the autumn winds, until Esteban begins to explore the area's warehouses, bringing back whatever he can steal. His forays lead him to a Latino neighborhood, where he finds sympathy, a job, and even a girl. He helps the others as best he can, insisting that a friend suffering from a bad burn be taken to the hospital (and he is, never to be heard from again); and when the crew's plight finally attracts official notice, Esteban again takes matters into his own hands.

A bizarre set of circumstances (inspired by a true story) vividly wrought, but even more memorable is Goldman's fresh and moving take on such matters as longing, love, cruelty, and fellowship, probed in a poignant and original narrative.

Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.51(w) x 8.27(h) x 1.09(d)

Read an Excerpt



When Esteban finally reached the airport in Managua it was nearly three in the morning and the airport was closed and he sat down on his suitcase on the sidewalk in the humid, buggy night to wait for it to open. Dona Adela Suarez had told him to be there at six. For the second time in two weeks, he'd ridden a bus all the way from the Pacific port town of Corinto to Managua. The colectivo from the bus stop had cost more than he'd expected, and he thought now that maybe he should have walked, though Sandino Airport was a long way from wherever it was he'd gotten off the bus in that invisible city of sprawling night that didn't seem to have any center or outskirts, here and there a cow standing at the edge of the highway, a stretch of slogan-decorated wall, the disc jockey on the colectivo's radio dedicating romantic ballads to the wide-awake war dead.

He sat on his battered cowhide suitcase listening to the predawn racket of the birds and roosters crowing nearby and others that sounded as faraway as the stars and chewed manically on his thumbnail and tried not to have too many thoughts. As a way of turning off the light on something that had just come to mind, wincing his eyes shut and then opening them wide to stare as if blindly into the dark seemed to work. Sometimes he took his thumbnail out from between his teeth and quietly said, "Chocho." Several times he took her watch out of his pocket to look at the time: her watch, until she'd given it to him. And then he'd put the watch back into his pocket, and light another cigarette, letting the first exhalation mix with a long sigh while he silently spoke her name. Once he even said, out loud and emphatically, "Today you start a new life." And then he felt excited and nervous in the pit of his stomach again, just as he had been off and on for weeks, ever since the afternoon he'd sat in Dona Adela Suarez's office in Managua and she'd told him he could have the job.

It was still dark when a double column of soldiers stomped by on a predawn run, calling out in unison. And then, just when the sky was beginning to lighten behind the palms, the first of the airport workers, men and women, many dressed in green fatigues, began drifting in; and then they came more steadily; while travelers began arriving with mountains of luggage, entire families and others traveling alone gradually forming a long line behind Esteban; workers swept the sidewalk, gardeners marched out with their machetes; food and chiclet sellers, taxi drivers, beggar children, police all appeared out of the murky dawn to take up their positions. And he sat watching as if it was a performance meant just for him, thinking it was all like one of those parable-plays about the creation of the world according to the Indians. When the sole entrance to the airport finally opened, it was manned by soldiers, and he tried to explain his situation to them but lost his privileged place in line anyway because Dona Adela Suarez hadn't arrived yet with his papers and passport. He retreated on the sidewalk and set his suitcase down. Within seconds an old man with silvery, receding hair who'd been waiting in line just a few places behind him stepped out too. The viejo, wearing a white guayabera and pressed tan pants, carrying a dark vinyl suitcase, walked limberly towards him with a preposterously excited smile lighting up his face and a bright, expectant look in his eyes, and said, "Until I overheard you at the door, chavalo, I was worrying that maybe I had the wrong day!" He laughed, his smile somehow became even wider, and he put out his hand and said, "Bernardo Puyano, a sus ordenes."

"Esteban. Mucho gusto," he said warily, shaking the happy viejo's hand. He didn't like being called chavalo.

"You've been to sea before?"

"Pues, no," said Esteban.

"Claro que no, a cipote like you--"

"Esteban," he corrected him.

"Si pues. I'm the waiter," this effusive viejo went on, nodding. "Apparently there isn't going to be an officers' waiter--pues, my usual position--but just one waiter for the whole ship. Vaya, in times like these, a job like this, it's like a kiss from God, no? And for a chavalito like you, what good luck!" The viejo lowered his voice and tilted his face closer so that Esteban could smell toothpaste mixed with coffee and something sour when he spoke: "Leave this shitty country behind. Vos, it wouldn't surprise me if you found yourself in the arms of a blue-eyed, blonde gringita tonight, your very first night. Chavalo, you'll see what it's like to be a handsome young marinero set loose in the world!"

"What if we both have the wrong day?" asked Esteban.

"It can't be," he said. "I know Dona Adela said Sunday. And when I went to mass yesterday, it was definitely Saturday. The archbishop has personally blessed our voyage, patroncito."

Esteban is nineteen, a war veteran, of course he doesn't consider himself a boy, but Bernardo will never call him anything but chavalo, muchacho, chiguin, chico, patroncito, and, most annoyingly, cipote.

Dona Adela Suarez, a secretary with the shipping agency Teccsa Corporacion in Managua, had interviewed and hired the five Nicaraguans, including Esteban and Bernardo, who were to leave from Sandino Airport that morning, headed to New York City to meet the Urus: the old ship's waiter, a middle-aged galley cook, and three ordinary seamen, the latter without any previous shipboard experience whatsoever. When Dona Adela finally arrived at the airport, she was carrying their passports and U.S. Embassy-issued seamen's transit visas. It was the twentieth of June, and the Urus was to sail from New York four days later carrying, according to Dona Adela, a cargo of fertilizer to Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. She wore big, clear-plastic-framed, octagonal, pink-tinted glasses, aquamarine slacks, and a white blouse with the English words over the followed by a colorful little rainbow printed all over it. To Bernardo the pattern on her blouse couldn't have seemed more apt:

"Mi Reina de la Suerte," he enthused, thanking Dona Adela yet again for his ship's waiter's job and giving her a clumsy one-armed embrace at the tiny airport bar, where the puffy-faced, slit-eyed cook had rum with his coke and the others just coke and Adela paid. "The Queen of Luck" was the sister-in-law of Constantino Malevante, a Greek ship captain who'd worked for many years on the Mameli line when the dictator Somoza owned ships, and who now lived in Miami making his living outfitting flag of convenience ships with Central American crews. Twenty-three years before, Bernardo had worked as waiter in Capitan Malevante's officers' saloon.

"And what is my new capitan's name, Dona Adela?" asked Bernardo at the bar.

Dona Adela frowned behind her cake-plate glasses for a moment; then said she couldn't remember, though she was sure Capitan Malevante must have sent it to her.

"Greek, I suppose," said Bernardo, disguising his dislike of Greek capitanes, including Constantino Malevante, which over his last eighteen years of landlocked nostalgia he'd been exaggerating as much as he had the virtues of English shipmasters.

Esteban was the tallest of the five. His brown skin had a smooth, saddle-soaped luster, and his build was so slender and bony that his jeans and white, short-sleeved shirt seemed tenuously hung from his hip and collar bones. He wore the same pair of black combat boots that had accompanied him through two years of war.

One of the other two ordinary seamen was a coppery skinned teenager named Nemesio, who looked as if some unattached mass of superconcentrated gravity must follow him around everywhere like chewing gum stuck to the soles of his shoes: mournfully drooping eyes, forehead slanting into a massive nose descending at almost the same angle, hulking but sagging shoulders, chubby, squashed legs, his stone-washed jeans zigzagging down to his shoes, and a portly panza hanging over his belt--later, onboard the Urus, Nemesio's nickname would be Panzon, though not just for that reason. Esteban quickly established that Nemesio had been in the army too, serving as an aircraft spotter right there in Managua, standing on a bald hill all day with two other soldiers taking ninety-minute shifts watching the horizon through binoculars, boring as hell; so far aircraft had only attacked Managua once during the whole war anyway. Which is why, Esteban suddenly thought, Nemesio's eyes are so droopy: staring through binoculars at the white hot sky day after day, they'd melted.

The other ordinary seaman, Chavez Roque, nearly as tall as Esteban and even darker skinned, looked older than his twenty years, his cleft chin swarthy, chest hair brimming up through the collar of his blue polo shirt. He wore black jeans, old cowboy boots. Chavez Roque said he hadn't been in the army, not exactly. He'd worked on a government road-building crew along the Costa Rican border, in the jungles of the Rio San Juan, but he'd been given militia training and an AK to carry, but he'd only fired it in "combat" once, when a tapir bursting from riverbank foliage startled him ... missed it, pues.

"I was in a BLI," said Esteban, lighting a cigarette. He was sure he saw respect still their expressions like the fleeting shadow from an airborne hawk. He didn't have to say anything more. He'd been in one of the irregular warfare battalions.

"Maybe the war's over now," said the former aircraft spotter.

"Maybe," said Esteban neutrally. Chavez Roque, turning his head to watch an hembra in tight jeans and stiletto heels walking past, said, "Saber, vos." Onboard the Urus his nickname would be Roque Balboa.

When they'd boarded the plane, Esteban was disappointed to find himself seated next to the happy viejo. After the takeoff he craned forward for a glimpse past Bernardo at the airport military installations below, thinking of helicopters he'd ridden at the front. He saw five green military ambulances parked in a row, rear doors open, canvas stretchers on the tarmac, figures in fatigues and medical whites standing around waiting ... So helicopters and planes were still flying mangled and bullet-punctured bodies in heated, vibrating pools of blood over jungles, mountains, and plains. Despite the cease-fire and all the talk of peace. The ambulances shrank to a row of capsules and vanished from sight, the corrugated metal roofs of hangars turned into huts, palms became weeds, the green and brown landscape plummeting, plummeting downwards like a whole country flung off a high cliff. Bernardo suddenly turned to him with an ecstatic grin and said, "Once again, chavalo, the old wolf to the sea!"

Then he sat back, remonstratively patted the armrests as if making sure they were really bolted in, and stared straight ahead, smiling beatifically into the air over the mounded tops of passengers' heads, all this, Esteban supposed, in some further display of gratitude to his Queen of Luck. A profusely perspiring middle-aged steward, bulging cheeks, goatee, was wheeling the jingling liquor cart down the aisle. The scarletlipped stewardess, her hair a maelstrom of oiled, ebony ringlets, was still giving her safety lesson, her hands wagging the pinkish tubes--the voice on the intercom said to blow into these--protruding from the deflated life jacket bladders over her breasts. The blast of sun in the window turned Bernardo's broad, spotted forehead as silvery as his hair, and Esteban reflected that he really did look like some benignly crazed old wolf: his chin was angular, and his lips looked as if they reached ear to ear, two long, thin, contented-looking seams.

The liquor was free. "Chivas?" said the steward grouchily, over and over, sliding his forearm over his slick forehead, underarm dark with sweat. And wine from France. Up ahead Esteban saw the cook reach out for another rum and coke, a gold chain bracelet dangling from his thick, hairy wrist.

Poured into clear plastic cups, flashing in sunlight, the wine looked like candlelight inside dark red glass. Or like bear's blood.

"I've never drunk wine," said Esteban. Not even in church. The men in his family, his tios and primos, didn't go to church, though his mother did.

"All ship's capitanes take wine with their meals, bueno, on Sundays at least," said Bernardo. "Greeks, every night. I'll try to sneak you a glass now and then, patroncito."

"Bueno," said Esteban flatly.

"The English prefer beer," the viejo went on. "Every afternoon at three Capitan Osbourne would say, Beer O'clock! But he was never drunk. A grand man, chico. Capitan John Paul Osbourne was his name, but his friends called him Hay Pee."

Bernardo took only coke with his peanuts, so Esteban did the same, though he felt entitled to drink whatever he wanted because this was a significant day, the start of a new life, and the airline ticket had cost him so much. He owed his tios the combined sum of the ticket and the fee charged by Dona Adela Suarez for getting him the job. After two months on the Urus he'd be able to pay them back and there'd still be four months to go; then he'd be able to sign on for a whole other year, provided his capitan was happy enough with his work.

"The best years of my life, muchacho ..." No major port on earth, apparently, where Bernardo hadn't walked with the long, loping steps and sinewy smile of a lighthearted and elegant officers' saloon waiter. But he hadn't been to sea in eighteen years, not since Clara, his second wife--Clarita was only twenty-nine when she died, he said. Of tetanus, horrible. She was German on her papi's side, chavalo. And he was left with three little daughters to raise on land. All of them light skinned, just a little plump like their mother, and one, the youngest, even has blue eyes, though her mami didn't. Raised them in the same neat little cement house with a cement porch out front that they all still live in now, in Managua, in Colonia Maximo Jerez. A house paid for with two decades of saved-up officers' waiter's wages and a loan from Clara's much older cousin, a customs inspector in Corinto, like a father to her. Perhaps you know the family, muchacho? No, you wouldn't, you're too young, he's in Panama now, left right after El Senor Somoza did. Never paid him back, never a word of recrimination. Maria, Gertrudis, and Freyda, muchachas maravillosas, educated, prepared. One a teacher, the other a secretary in the Trade Ministry though she keeps out of politics like all her sisters, and little Freyda still a student. Maria's novio and Gertrudis's eight-year-old cipote live at home too, a crowded little place, crowded but always neat and clean--Pues, he's never produced a son of his own. But he has three grandsons, three little cipotes, Gertrudis's hijito and two whom he's never even seen, though it's his dream to. Because he has two daughters from his first marriage too. The younger, who disgracefully has never married or forgiven lives in Greytown now, with her mother and mother's new husband, an evangelical Protestant pastor, but the other, Esmeralda, restless like her papi, lives in Jerusalem. Si pues, in Israel. In Israel, Esmeralda became a Beauty Queen, chavalo! Married an Israeli policeman, they have a daughter and two sons. The Israelitas are the oldest and most noble race on earth, don't listen to the lies they tell in our poor, hate-demented little country, muchacho. How many times has he sat on his porch in the evenings grieving over the state of our beloved Nicaragua, wishing for Israeli commandos to fly in and do away with our Nine Comandantes the way they did those terrorists on that hijacked plane at the airport in Africa!

Bernardo looked directly at Esteban, the forced vehemence of his expression contradicted by the clouded softness of his wide-open stare. Esteban merely returned it until the viejo looked away. His tios always talked like that, if not quite as screwily. What was it to him what viejos thought, except, chocho, why did they always seem to think he needed to hear strong opinions, and that he must be full of strong opinions about the same things they always had strong opinions about?

Seething, he barely listened while Bernardo chattered on about his years working as a chauffeur in Managua, the families he'd driven for, including one related to the Petrocelis. Bernardo hadn't touched the lunch that had been served in the middle of his life story--Esteban had glumly passed up wine again--but now the viejito punctured the wrapping of his crackers with his plastic fork, carefully peeled yellow wax from his tablet of cheese, and cut the cheese into thin slivers, which he arrayed over two crackers. It was all he ate. Then he was talking about his daughters again. Esteban, devouring the gravy-soaked beef that was as mushy as eggplant in just a few forkfuls while his stomach roared with hunger, wondered what the viejo's youngest daughter looked like, and who'd fixed the middle one, leaving her with child when she was what, fourteen or so? Bernardo said that his daughters' paychecks were worthless now, vaya pues, like everyone's. He felt he'd become a burden to them. Disgracefully, he hadn't had any work in nearly two years, since the last family he'd worked for had suddenly gone to live in Venezuela. But he'd been going to see Dona Adela Suarez once a month ever since, pleading with her to convince Capitan Constantino Malevante to find a place for him on a crew despite his age. With the money he earns on this voyage, muchacho, he's going to buy two chicken incubators! Then he'll no longer be a burden to his daughters; he'll have a dignified old age, because people always need chickens and eggs, especially now, when sometimes in Managua you can't buy a chicken or even an egg anywhere:

"Son of a million whores, have you ever heard of a country running out of chickens?" He brought his fist down onto the armrest and fell silent a moment. And then he deftly switched the two meal trays, saying, "Here, take mine." Esteban picked up the pineapple cake and began to eat it. Bernardo said, "All the meat that doesn't go to the Comandantes or Cubans or Russians and I don't know who else goes to the soldiers."

Esteban had heard this so often he merely shrugged. He didn't know where all the meat went. But his battalion, a BLI, rotated into the jungle for three-week stretches with a week at base or bivouacked outside some town in between, had rarely been supplied with anything to eat, never mind meat. The few campesinos they ran into in the depopulated war zones might have bananas to take, or even an ox, but never nearly enough chickens to feed a battalion. Otherwise they lived on fish from rivers and streams, hunted birds and rodents, macheted down makengue trees for the sopping, breadlike pulp at the heart of the trunk. In the jungle everything was always dripping wet, but sometimes you couldn't even find a limon to suck; sometimes the nearest river or stream might be days' march away, but there were insect-clouded bogs of undrinkable black water everywhere ...

"You know what we learned to drink in the jungle? We called it refresco."

"You were in the army? A cipote like you?"

"Can you guess what we drank?" He felt really irritated by this viejo now, his soft eyes intently fixed on him as if he'd asked him something much more personal.

"From coconuts, imagino pues."

"That far in from the coast?" Esteban laughed. "No, the juice inside a monkey's stomach. You kill a monkey and take out its stomach and poke a hole in it"--and he lifted his hands to his lips and mimed holding a wobbly sphere, which he slowly deflated in his long, spread fingers. Monkey stomach juice tasted like sweet fruit pulp blended with urine and grass.

Bernardo zipped an angry line in the air with a finger. "To send young muchachos like you off to die, brother against brother. How can it be?"

"Muchachas too," said Esteban matter-of-factly, staring down at his tray. Now this annoying viejo was going to want him to explain war too.

"No se." Esteban sighed. He picked up a sugar packet, bit off a corner with his teeth, and poured some sugar on his tongue.

After a long moment, Bernardo said, "The first time you get seasick, you know what to do? ... Go forward, and bite the anchor."


"Or drink gasoline."

They didn't talk much after that, though neither pretended to sleep either. The movie was eliciting an almost unbroken riot of yelping laughter and swooning squeals of Ay que lindo from the passengers. Esteban put on his headphones. A huge, slobby dog was in love with another huge, slobby dog wearing a pink bow in her collar, and because the two dogs didn't want to be apart, the smiling, teary-eyed families who owned each dog had to decide what to do about this awkward situation, but then the dogs ran away together. They all lived in that usual America-land of big white houses, each in the middle of its own tree-shaded park. The enemy is the government and its warring policies, not the American people, no? When Esteban removed his headphones, Bernardo immediately turned to him and asked: "Have you fathered any children?"

"Pues, no." Esteban scowled.

Eventually even the light in the window had paled. Esteban forced himself into a long, methodical daydream of female flesh and lovemaking. It didn't work; he felt miserable, not at all aroused, trying to remember her and the way it had been in Quilali, the last girl he'd fucked and one of only three he'd ever fucked but the only one who'd ever let him do it up the culito, buried in jungle earth now, something of him still inside her scientifically if invisibly still inside her mixing into the rotting earth, verdad? In another half century he'd be this old waiter's age. Puta, would it have stopped by then? This death blotting out love whenever he tries to conjure love, totally fucked up: like with that whore in Corinto last week, when she was naked on her burdel bed and suddenly all he could think of was her perfumed, satiny flesh and blood ripped apart sprayed through green underbrush while on her bed she rolled over on her belly like a dog thrusting hard round smooth little buttocks up at him, No te preocupas, amorcito, no pasa nada chupame aqui--smiling! If that putita had known what he was thinking, it would have been her getting the hell out of there as fast she could, no? No pasa nada. Ni verga. No pasa nada, mi amor ... Was there a girl in one of the ports they'd be stopping at, maybe even someone he'd meet over the next few days in New York, or someone out there in their voyage along that part of the world where city and ocean air intermix, where people live caressed inside and out by opposite kinds of air and breezes, which is why they're incapable of keeping things in, of keeping love hidden, no? Was there a girl who was going to bring love back to him, fill him with love as he swallowed the warm breath of her kisses, who was waiting for him right now in a shimmery haze of hot city and ocean air without even knowing him yet? He sat purposefully and suspensefully still, trying to imagine her. Should I make her older or younger? Rich or poor? Light or dark? What's her name? What language does she speak? Should she pull her shirt off over her head herself, her chichis suddenly blooming and bouncing from under her elbows going up in a band of cloth, or will I unbutton ... He turned his head away, staring down at the aisle so the viejo wouldn't see the hot, wet stinging in his eyes--I'm ruined, no good for anything ...

Later, when there was turbulence, Bernardo told him about chairs lashed to the legs of the officers' mess dining table during rough seas and that the way to keep plates and glasses and silverware from sliding off was to soak the tablecloth with water, and even better than that, water that rice had been boiled in, if the galley cook had had the discipline and foresight to save it.

"A man who plans ahead is worth two, muchacho. But not this one. This cook drinks too much. First day on the job, and look, he's arriving drunk. Have you seen how many rum and cokes he's already taken?"

Maybe I'll get a tattoo, thought Esteban. Should I get a tattoo? Up on my arm, not all over like prisoner tattoos. Elegant, with meaning, a sailor's tattoo. Something that says, I'm leaving the earth to be reborn. A skeleton climbing a ladder up into the stars. Or navigating a ship through the stars. Otilio de la Rosa has a yellow fish outlined in red tattooed on his chest and a hummingbird on his arm and at the beach that chavala said, What are you, a pet store? and just like that he learned what a mistake he'd made.

On the way to Miami, where they cleared customs and immigration, the plane had stopped in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where among the passengers who boarded and filled the remaining seats were ten more young seamen on their way to New York to meet the Urus. But they wouldn't all come together until Kennedy Airport, gathering around the gargantuan, hairy-shouldered American in basketball shorts who met them in the arrivals area, a cardboard sign that read "Urus" in scratchy black marker held from the bottom in two hands against his chest. After that day they'd never see him again, but whenever the crew had cause to recall him, they'd refer to him as El Pelos, The Hairs, or just Pelos. He had black hair cut short like a yanqui soldier, wore work boots with bright orange laces and a sleeveless T-shirt with his shorts, and his muscular arms and broad shoulders were totally matted with bristly black hair. "Hi. How are ya," he said over and over as they gathered around, scrutinizing them with gray eyes as quiet and watchful as a mistrustful child's. When he'd finally counted to fifteen he said, "All here? OK, let's go."

He led them outside, this odd and uneasy American, into a late afternoon heat as stupefying as any which mundanely withers Nicaragua's coastal plains, and left them, faces burning, standing on the sidewalk while he went for the van. A moreno porter wheeling an empty cart back inside shouted at them, "Que vaina? Son equipo be beisbol, no? Campeones!" and raucously laughed. Is that what they looked like, a baseball team? Sun and clouds had dissolved into a haze the color of boiled, yellowing cauliflower. The airport, a vastness of sooty concrete and glass and traffic, was all by itself the biggest, noisiest, and most unfamiliar city Esteban had ever been in, though it wasn't as if he'd never seen such places on television or in movies. He stood gaping at the endless clamor of yellow taxis pulling up in a flurry of shouts, doors and trunks flapping open, slamming shut, roaring off--yet the air, for all the commotion, the constant, ripping thunder of takeoffs and landings overhead, felt utterly still; humid, petrol-fumed air and a faint rankness of old crab shell, the ocean somewhere nearby.

Behind the open trunk of a radiantly polished red car, a blonde stewardess in a crisp white blouse was tightly entwined in a ravenous kiss with a handsome young man, mouths deeply tunneling. Her honeyhued elbows and arms shifted around his neck; she seemed to be trying to press herself ever more tightly against him, hip to hip, head tilted back, hair falling down like poured, shimmering grain. The man dropped a hand from her waist to her nalgas, her starched skirt denting like soft tin around his big-knuckled fingers, cheeks underneath springing back, wobbling the shimmering fabric around those flagrant indentations. They went on kissing while the crew watched, each in his own way sharing the sweltering heat between the two clamped bodies, running their tongues over their own sweat-salted lips, feeling their own humid shirts clinging to their skin. Then the lovers broke apart as if they'd agreed to do it for exactly so many minutes and seconds; he shut the trunk, they walked to opposite sides of the car, got in, and the car drove off. "Hijo de la gran puta," one of the crew inevitably growled, others clucked impressed assent, they stood marveling and grinning as if they'd all just had their first providential taste of life at sea.

They shook hands, exchanged names; there really wasn't much more to say, they'd be spending the next six months together and maybe more, so what was the hurry? Nearly everyone struck a pose of friendly reserve, serious and casual, as if to say, I'm a good guy, but don't think I can't be a cabron. Though a few seemed stuck in wary surliness, or seemed to think they were superior. The cook, squinting through swollen, reddened eyes, stinking of sweat and rum, put out his hand to everyone. "Jose Mateo Morales. Soy el cocinero." "Marco Aurelio Artola, electrician." "Tomaso Tostado, ordinary seaman"--Tomaso Tostado had a gold tooth. Bonnie Mackenzie, the one moreno on the crew, a wiry and cherubic costeno from Puerto Cortes, was an ordinary seaman too, and, despite his name, said he doesn't speak much English, bueno, un poco, mon, fock, brother; knows the words to eight Bob Marley, but, brother, take the lyrics apart, try to use a word here and a word there to speak his own thoughts in English, it comes out sounding like a parrot making senseless noise. Regarding Esteban's qualifications as an ordinary seaman, Adela Suarez had asked him if he was literate and if he knew how to use a paintbrush, and that was almost all she'd wanted to know.

The van was like a small bus with four rows of seats, hot and airless despite the air-conditioning. The cook sat up front with El Pelos, whose shoulders rose over the back of his seat like the tops of folded, hairy wings. Esteban sat by a window, with the irritating viejo squeezed in beside him.

Marco Aurelio Artola, the Honduran electrician, a freckled, twenty-year-old mulatto whom they'd nickname Canario because of his high, twittering voice, said he'd thought New York City was going to be pretty flat, planito planito, with just one building rising over everything, the Jehovah's Witness Watchtower. All his life he'd been seeing the Watchtower on the cover of the Jehovah's Witness publications a proselytizing barber in his pueblo was always pressing on customers.

So that was funny, the crew's first shared laugh: how could he be so bobo? "What, you never watch television?" one of them scoffed. "You never watch Kojak?" When the teasing subsided, Bernardo turned to the fuming electrician and asked if he'd ever been to sea before, as if such unworldliness were impossible in a seaman.

"No. I'm an electrician, I worked in Tela. Y que?"

"And for that you were hired to work on a ship, chavalo?"

"Bueno, what's a ship, a building that floats, no?"

"Pues, no."

"Last month we fixed this old hotel, so fucked up the wires still had cloth insulation, all shredded, worn out. We rewired it top to bottom, ve?"

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