In 1938, as Samuel Berkow’s tramp steamer from Germany approaches Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, he is full of hope that he will be able to find a family member and begin to remake his life in the new world.
But in this sweltering, chaotic, and hostile port town, he will have to face down many obstacles—including himself—before he can hope to truly escape . . .
“Unger’s sharp prose deftly conveys Samuel’s frustrations and confusions as he encounters characters like a troublesome dwarf, a volatile American fruit company manager, a crazed ex-priest, and a friendly telegraph operator who all offer help with one hand but uncertainty with the other.” —Publishers Weekly
“Evoking both Kafka and Conrad, Unger’s character study of a broken man in a culture broken by a ravenous corporation makes compelling reading.” —Booklist
“Unger’s tale utterly seduces with its mix of the exotic and the familiar.” —Toronto Star
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When the motorboat was flush against the tramp steamer's side, two darkskinned deckhands dressed in filthy rags appeared. They held Samuel Berkow's leather suitcase, gray homburg, and umbrella as he climbed up the metal ladder to the top deck of the Chicacao.
"Thank you, thank you very much," he said to them nervously in English.
When Samuel extended his right hand, they stared at it floating in the air, bowed awkwardly, and moved off. When he called after them, they were already climbing down another ladder to still another lower level.
It was nighttime and Samuel was unsure of his next step. He placed his umbrella and hat on the suitcase and waited for the ship captain to greet him. Loose ropes, chains, spools of wire, rusting sprockets, wrenches, and half a dozen yellowing life preservers were piled around the central smokestack on the deck. It wasn't an old steamer, simply unkempt. It needed a good scrubbing, a new paint job, nothing like the ocean liner he had just left. Still, it was going to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala.
The 8,000-mile trip to the Panama coast on Das Bauernbrot, with its crystal chandeliers, Schubert waltzes, plush carpeted dining rooms, and stylish berths, had taken ten days, not enough time to leave Europe behind. The liner had allowed Samuel to continue remembering Hamburg at its best: its broad avenues; the Alster Pavilion teahouse where linzer torte and rote grütze were served on hand-painted china in the late afternoons; a boat trip on the Elbe; the Hagenbeck Zoo.
His wool suit was stifling. He loosened his tie, unbuttoned his coat and folded it across his forearm. He used the handkerchief he kept in his coat pocket to mop his forehead and the sweat pouring down his face.
Where the hell was he?
Suddenly, a short, greasy man appeared.
"I wasn't expecting any company on this trip," he began, grinning broadly, "but when my navigator mentioned on the radio broadcast that one of the passengers on the liner was in a rush to get to Guatemala, I said to myself, Why not? I'm headed up the coast. We'll anchor a bit north of here for the night. Say, you speak English?"
From the way the man talked, Samuel guessed he was from the United States. "I learned English when I was a prisoner of war in England — the Great War," Samuel said, raising a finger in the air. He wondered how this man would react if he picked up on the fact that he had fought on the German side against America.
"Before my time, I'm sure," the man chuckled. He had small, wet eyes and his cheeks hung from his face like little udders. The short sleeves of his shirt squeezed his upper arms. He looked like one of the typical brownshirts that shuffled drunk around the piers of Hamburg, sniffing the air for trouble, ready to brawl.
"The name's Alfred Lewis, but my friends call me Alf. That's quite an outfit you have on there, mister — were you on your way to the opera?" He let out another string of chuckles and stuck out his arm.
"Samuel Berkow. Pleased to meet you." Samuel shook his hand. Normally he would've had no business even talking to someone like Lewis — they clearly had nothing in common. "I should thank you for taking me on. I don't know what I would've done in Panama."
Lewis scrunched his face. "What everyone else does ..."
"And what would that be?"
"Get fucked and get the fuck out of there!" he said laughing. "What the hell can you do in a place full of niggers and heat? Yeah, very well if you've got a plum job with the Canal Company, but shit, even the damn mosquitoes flee the place. Say, where you from? You have that funny kind of European accent."
"I'm from Germany."
"Not a yid, eh?"
"Yes," Samuel admitted. The last few years, with Hitler as chancellor, had conditioned him to hide the truth until there was no point in lying. But here in the New World he felt differently.
"Well, your people are all shipping out from Germany, Poland, and Russia. Guess they don't like the party in Europe —"
"I'd hardly call it a party," Samuel said.
"Ah, it won't come to nothing. I can't imagine that all that goose- step marching around and saluting will add up to much. Wait till we enter the war!"
"I hope you are right."
Lewis nodded. "Well, welcome aboard, Sammy. I'm from Pittsburgh, or was so originally, and now I'm a kind of glorified errand boy, if you will. For the last ten years I've been skirting up and down this coast, doing odd jobs for the Fruit Company." He stopped talking and wrapped his left arm around Samuel's waist. "Well, we can gab downstairs. I'll bet you're starved."
"I'm not really hungry."
"Well, you're just in time for chow. Come on down to the dining room. If you're not hungry, you can watch me eat!"
"What about my valise?" Samuel asked.
Lewis glanced down at the scuffed leather bag. "That's a what? A valise? Just leave it here. One of my boys'll bring it down."
"Relax, Berkow," Lewis said, giving him a light tug. "I told you my boys will handle it. They have their instructions." He dropped his hand, waddled over toward the center of the deck, and hopped down the mid- ship stairs.
Eight steps down they entered a mahogany-paneled dining room lined with all kinds of navigational objects, brass gadgets, and several rows of trophies wired against the recently varnished walls. The room smelled of jasmine polish.
"A beautiful room," Samuel said, feeling uneasy, like an interloper at a private party.
"Yes, it's my pride. Some of these doodads go back three, four hundred years. Like this spyglass and compass, Bluebeard and Francis Drake stuff. I'm especially proud of these trophies. When you see my fat ass I bet you don't think of me as a great bowler, but back home I was the 'Sparemaker' because there weren't no split I couldn't make. I'll show you my technique later."
A sudden swell hit the boat, slamming Samuel into the wall.
Lewis shook his head. "You've got to roll with them, kind of sense when they're coming."
Almost immediately, another wave hit the boat — this time Samuel shifted a few steps, but didn't lose his footing.
"That's better, Mr. Sammy. Go on, sit down," Lewis said, taking the bench anchored to the wall. He craned his neck toward an opening on the right-hand side. "Lincoln, where's the grub? I'm hungry. And bring in another set of crockery and silverware for our guest!" Turning to Samuel, he added, "It ain't silver, but what the hell. It holds the food," and chuckled.
A barefoot boy, no more than fourteen, came out of the kitchen with a casserole which he placed on a metal plate in the center of the table. The smell of cooked fish and onions wafted into the air. He then placed a silver bell on the table and disappeared.
"So what brings you to Central America, Sammy boy?" Lewis asked, snagging a piece of fish from the casserole. "Love or fortune?"
"Neither, really. I'm looking to get a decent job —"
"I hope you're not planning to stay in Puerto Barrios — don't think I wouldn't mind the company of someone like you — but if you'll pardon my French, the town's a shithole."
"No — I'm going to Guatemala City. My cousin Heinrich lives there. I'm hoping he can help me get settled."
"Is that so," Lewis said, somewhat disinterestedly, ladling stew onto each of the plates.
Samuel picked up his fork, worked it into the sauce, and stabbed a chunk of fish. As he was about to stick the fork in his mouth, he glanced at Lewis wiping white sauce on his chin with a slice of bread and nearly gagged.
"Your cousin one of these coffee barons? I hear the Krauts own all the plantations in Guatemala."
"No, Heinrich runs a clothing store."
"Ah, I see, this fancy stuff runs in the family! I hope you don't mind my saying this, Berkow, but you Yids sure like to wear fine threads ..."
"Yes," he replied, face flushing.
"I'm glad you told me. I really don't care if you're a Jew. Anyway, I'm pretty good at sniffin' these things out." He put more stew on his plate though he hadn't finished his original serving. "To my mind, Jews are people, that's what I always say. Zemurray, the Company boss up in Boston, is a Jew from Ruuumania! Sam the Banana Man. Now I know some people say he's uppity, but I don't think he's got a lease on that ... Damn this fish — it's deee-licious. Snapper. That Lincoln Douglas is finally learning something."
Samuel said nothing.
If outward appearance determined character, then it seemed that Alfred Lewis had none. The clothiers in Germany taught their salesmen that people judged you by what you wore. All the same, Samuel was stuck with this man, for better or worse, for hours to come.
"I'd eat something if I were you."
"Actually, I had a late lunch on the ship before we reached Colón ..." Samuel felt a bit deflated — why should he speak? Couldn't he just say he was exhausted, excuse himself, and go to his berth?
"Suit yourself. This could be your last good meal."
"That's what they said on Das Baurenbrot."
"Was that the ship that brought you to Panama? Bet you ate well there. Four square meals a day. Must be something to travel in style, have all those penguins waiting hand and foot on you ... Yeah, but that stuff isn't for me. I'm no good playing the fancy man, never was."
It wasn't just Lewis's crudeness but also those black rings on his neck. Samuel suspected the man wore dirt as he himself might wear a silk tie or a woolen scarf. Maybe Lewis believed that dirt was emblematic of his openness — he certainly flaunted it like someone would a diamond necklace.
Suddenly he stretched his arms and burped aloud. "Ah, nothing like bountiful chow to keep a man happy." Lewis looked at Samuel as if waiting for him to rekindle the conversation.
"What exactly is your line of work, Mr. Lewis?"
Lewis licked his lips. "You've of course heard of the United Fruit Company?"
"No, not until now."
"Them's my bosses. Puerto Barrios is home base, but I spend my time scooting along the ports of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. I tell the home office what we need in terms of machinery and stuff like that — which one day I might explain to you. But mainly I oversee the shipment of bananas."
"And where are they shipped?"
"Well, they mostly go to New Orleans where they're weighed, packaged, and shipped to points north. But I do more than write numbers in a book. You see, the Company's a pretty complicated network — we operate railroads, steamship lines, plantations, commissaries — really whole towns, thousands of people. I make sure things go smoothly at port. If there's any trouble, I'm authorized to step in. Got my own telegraph system hooked up to this boat. Now I'm going to tell you something, Sammy. Nothing's off the table for me — strike busting, bribery, paying someone off to quell an insurrection." Lewis smacked his lips. "A man's got to do what he's got to do to keep the business operating ... And you know, those kinds of things happen often ..."
"I can imagine."
"You better imagine. Let me tell you another little secret. Why just last year we — that is, the Company — paid the president of the Guatemalan Congress eighty thousand smackeroos to swing votes our way on a bill that gave us exclusive leasing rights on fifty miles of land along the Motagua River. Fifty miles! You can grow quite a few bananas there, let me tell you. Enough to feed the whole United States. It was some stunt. The home office is still buzzing about it. Eighty thousand smackers."
"And you had something to do with that?"
"Ah, I can't take all the credit, but I played my role. Old Sam the Banana Man sent me a special commendation for my help and a bonus to boot."
"But aren't you afraid someone might try to blackmail you later?"
Lewis slid his plate under Samuel's untouched one. He stretched back, his black necklace glistening. "Afraid, Sammy? Why would I be afraid?" He exploded in laughter.
"In Germany those things aren't done. And if they are, well, no one would talk about them — certainly not to someone you just met."
"Hold your horses, Sammy boy. I've told you — you're not in Germany anymore, not for one minute. Why, you aren't even in the U.S. of A. This is a different world. Here, you grease a few palms — and I don't mean trees! A few dollars here and there and all of sudden, things that couldn't be done are done. Weakness gives the locals an excuse to walk all over you, and they will." Lewis's pupils contracted. "Let me tell you something: here you've got to be a fox, quick and sly! The natives are snappy, always looking for a way to get something from you. You've got to stay a step ahead of them. And then you have these busybody unionists — Communists by any other name — sneaking around, stirring up the locals. We're always on our toes. If they plan a field meeting, we invite the pickers to a barbecue, stuff like that. Why, you're a German! I'm sure you've had the same kind of problems back home. That Hitler guy, he knows how to deal with it."
"Excuse me, Mr. Lewis, but I don't think you can compare Hitler —"
Lewis cut him off. "It's not an easy problem to solve. The natives have nothing, or next to nothing, and the Reds offer them the sky. But the wise ones know darn well they either work for us at our wages or they starve — and you know what, Berkow? They're right! Sure, we can try to help out — a school here, a hospital there — but what good will it do them? Most people only think with their stomachs or their peckers, and a couple of blows to the head help them understand." He paused for a second. "I've shocked you, Sammy boy. Maybe you've got more liberal ideas?"
Before Samuel could answer, Lewis scanned the dining room and brought his face closer. "When I came down here, I was like you. Keep a man's belly full, his house stocked, give him an even break, and most likely he'll turn out good. That lasted about a day. Things are different down here — it's a completely different ball game. I've studied the situation. Got it down to a science. I've come to believe that a little ache in the belly helps a man work best — a little tug in the guts makes him beg for the next meal. Here, there are no free rides. You have to make sure that your enemy has no idea what you're planning next."
Lewis snagged a piece of cold fish from Samuel's plate. He held it in front of his nose and shook it like a lure. "Just this," he began with a whisper, "just this, and a man will actually kill for you." He held the dripping chunk for another second before gulping it down.
Samuel shifted in his seat. The world this man was describing seemed like a nightmare. He should've stayed in Panama, gotten used to the terrain and the customs, he thought. Better yet, maybe he should have stayed in Europe, rigged his way on a boat to London or Amsterdam. "Life's very different here," he said, not so sure of his own words. "I see that, Mr. Lewis — Alf. I appreciate your advice."
"That's nothing but the voice of experience. It takes time to adjust to the way things are done here. But I can tell you, Berkow, that the faster you do, the less trouble you'll have later on. You've got to roll with the punches. You know: when in Rome, do as the Romans. If you don't mind me saying, take off that coat for starters. Put on something a bit more casual. Dressed like that, you're begging to be clipped by some scum."
Lewis stretched back against the wall and yawned. "I'm damned tired. Some booze?"
"I'll take a cup of coffee, if you have it," Samuel replied, taking off his tie and putting it on his lap.
Lewis winked at him. "That's much better, Sammy." He rang the bell on the table and the servant who had brought them the stew reappeared.
"Lincoln Douglas, a coffee for the gentleman, you hear?" he said to the boy in Spanish.
"Sí, señor," the boy answered, turning to leave.
"Hey, not so fast!"
The boy bunched his shoulders.
"How many times do I have to tell you not to overcook the fish?"
"Pero, Señor Lewis —"
"Shut up!" Lewis growled. "How I hate your damn whining. How long did you cook it?"
"Like you say. Twenty minutes."
"Well, the fish was rubbery and the broth had no taste."
The boy sputtered a few apologies, but Lewis turned his head away. He pushed the plates to the edge of the table — the boy had to hurry to keep them from falling on the floor — and then waved a hand in the air as if shooing flies. "Take these away, now!"
The boy stacked the plates without raising his eyes. As soon as he was beyond earshot, Lewis smiled triumphantly. "I'm getting so good at this." He pulled out a fat stump of a cigar and matches from a drawer in the table. "Say, you want some bourbon? Got a case of Kentucky last week."
Excerpted from "The Price of Escape"
Copyright © 2011 David Unger.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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