The Ordinary Seaman

by Francisco Goldman

Paperback, 386 pages, Grove Press, List Price: $15 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

The Ordinary Seaman
Francisco Goldman

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Book Summary

Francisco, a young veteran of the war in Nicaragua, comes to New York with fourteen other men to staff Urua, a wreck of a ship sitting idle on a Brooklyn pier, leaving Francisco and his fellow crew members trapped, unable to find work or return home

Read an excerpt of this book


Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Ordinary Seaman

Chapter One Miracle

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.

Excerpted from The Ordinary Seaman by Francisco Goldman Copyright 1997 by Francisco Goldman. Excerpted by permission of Grove Press. All rights reserved.