Two Days Out From San Juan

Mark Jacobs

Two days out from San Juan, on the Pinnacle’s fifth deck, Wilson was pouring wine for the Profesora. His luck was changing; his ruination would come to pass.

“You are a man, Wilson,” the Profesora said.

“More Chardonnay, señora?”

She looked like the blonde mother-in-law in a telenovela. She put her hand flat over the glass to indicate she’d had enough and began again. “You are a man, Wilson Peñaranda, of music and muscle.”

Three tables down, serving drinks to a rowdy crowd of sunburned cruisers, the Turk stole a glance and caught the effect of the Profesora’s words on Wilson. Nazim was a sour little man with whom, this trip, Wilson shared a cabin. He had to put up with the Turk’s depression, which he put on in the morning like socks. Things had been worse lately since Wilson had offended his roommate. He could not recall what he had said, he’d been so full of Red Stripe. All he remembered was an out-of-the-way Jamaican bar that smelled of diesel and fish and the Turk’s hurt expression.

“I’m not flattering you,” the Profesora told him, “I’m stating a fact. Remind me, please, where we dock in the morning.”

“Raimundo will inform you of tomorrow’s schedule, señora. That duty falls to the waiter.”

“As it falls to his assistant to keep the dinner guests happy.”

He admired the quick comeback.

There was confusion in the galley that night, which was staffed by Filipinos and Caribbean people, with an Indian overlord who knew how to make their lives miserable. The confusion had a ricochet effect on the wait staff. The upshot was that Wilson’s head did not hit the pillow until midnight, and he had to be on his feet again by five. He was working the early breakfast shift. He had little patience for the Turk.

“A rich woman with yellow hair and a diamond on her finger large enough to feed three villages. Not a woman for you, Wilson. Her ancestors scourged the backs of men like you.”

Wilson apologized again for having wounded the man. “If you tell me what it was I said back in Jamaica, I will say I am sorry and mean it.”

But Nazim would not give up his grudge. As long as Wilson did not remember the insult, it remained the worst thing one human being had ever said to another.

As Nazim went on talking, an intense blue yearning settled on Wilson. He was home. Above the floodline, under palms flapping noisily in a hot wind, a wooden house painted red. A tin roof. In the bed, a fine woman lay on her side, nursing his son. There was a rocking chair alongside the bed. Wilson sat there rocking in the pride of fatherhood.

Discouragement would follow his yearning for home. It always did. As the immense engines of the Pinnacle of the Seas powered the cruise ship toward St. Vitus in the British Virgin Islands, sleep was the only way out.

***

At breakfast, an accident. Raimundo cut his finger while slicing bread. The cut went deep, and Wilson took his place just as the Profesora was choosing her table. She was dressed to tour the island in a white blouse, blue shorts, sandals with straps. She looked expensive. He watched her fingers tear apart a croissant and asked her what she taught.

“Political science. I focus on Latin America. The Southern Cone.”

That explained her Spanish.

She switched suddenly to English. “Are you going ashore, Wilson?”

“I have a couple of hours free.”

“Then let me buy you a cold drink.”

“They don’t like us to socialize with the guests.”

She nodded as if that made sense but said, “You’ll find me.”

He did, of course. St. Vitus was small, poor, beautiful. Little of the island’s British past was visible except for the policemen’s uniforms, crisp in the killer heat. Four blocks up from the beach, the touristic façade was gone, and in a poor man’s bar where her white skin made her stand out, the Profesora sat waiting for him.

“Don’t worry,” she said, inviting him to sit across from her at a rickety plastic table. “If anybody says something, I forced you. I made you sit with me. Shall we try the rum?”

Rum was a bad idea. It made Wilson aware of details: her scent, the pull of her breasts beneath the fabric of her blouse, a fixation in her green eyes.

“I scare you,” she said.

“I’m not scared.”

“For the record, I’m not interested in a cross-cultural adventure. And I’m not lonely.”

“That’s good.”

“I love my job. Richard—that’s my husband—owns three automobile dealerships in Pittsburgh. We think the world of each other.”

“I also love my wife. I love my son.”

“What are their names?”

He told her.

“You are a beautiful man. Tell me something about yourself.”

“From the house of my parents, I could throw a stone into the sea.”

“The Dominican Republic, right?”

He nodded, nostalgic, saying the name of his home. “Santa Barbara de Samaná. Cruise ships stop there. I used to go down to the pier and watch the people get off.”

“So it was your fate to sail on the Pinnacle.”

The word ‘fate’ was ominous in her mouth. He lied, telling her he was due back on the ship in twenty minutes.

“Tomorrow is St. Kitt’s,” she said. “Don’t tell me you will have no free time.”

He thanked her for the drink and left the bar. Out on the street, he wandered, enjoying the feel of solid earth under his feet, until he bumped into the Turk, who was ogling a group of local women.

“Hello, shipmate. Did you enjoy your drink with the diamond lady?”

“What drink?”

“A simple question.”

His smugness angered Wilson. Overreacting, he shoved Nazim. Not hard, but the Turk stumbled backward and fell in the street next to a skinny yellow cur that yelped.

He smiled, getting to his feet.

“We will see, my handsome friend. We will see what happens now.”

Wilson regretted making an enemy out of his berthmate, but he still seethed.

“What will we see, Nazim??”

“Strong or smart.” Nazim wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Which wins?”

That evening in the dining room Wilson took pains to keep his distance from Nancy. That was what she had requested he call her. She was seated with a party of Japanese cruisers. As Wilson delivered bread to their table, she said in calm Spanish, “I hope I didn’t get you in any trouble.”

He smiled. “No problem, señora.”

Later, lying on his bunk, before he switched off his reading lamp Nazim seemed contrite. “It was a misunderstanding. You will forgive me.”

“A misunderstanding,” Wilson agreed. “And you will forgive whatever it was I said to you in Jamaica.”

“Of course.”

He didn’t mean it, but Wilson let it go. He was suffering through one of his periodic bouts of jealousy. Bezi. He was away from home so often, she must be tempted by another man. Right now, some son of a bitch from Samaná was turning her head with sexy talk and shrimp in garlic sauce.

A little later, the Turk’s snoring brought Wilson back to where he was. Where he had to stay in order to provide for his family. He slept.

***

St. Kitt’s was a lot like St. Vitus, an independent country if you could call reliance on the kindness of cruise-ship strangers independence. There was a belief that the British had interrupted Paradise when they colonized the place. Wilson believed that was nonsense. Before the British, there had been slow turtles, dim fish, trees that grew until they fell over in the forest. At any rate, he had explored the island half a dozen times on previous trips and thought about staying on board to catch up on his sleep. But when Raimundo told him he was free for three hours, he left the ship to meet his destiny head-on.

On the pier, just past customs, scrawny St. Kitt’s men dressed like Rastafarians held up little monkeys as the tourists disembarked. To Wilson, it seemed shameful for all concerned, but some of the cruisers were paying five dollars to have their picture taken with the phony Rastas and their tame monkeys. He went past them, not looking for Nancy.

There came a moment. A pastel blouse. A voice that came out rich in English. An absence of diamond on her slim finger. Up from the beach, a grove of squatty palms. Under the palms, a mature woman unbuttoned her blouse. Shed her skirt. Wilson had never seen a woman so completely at her naked ease.

“I want to pay tribute,” she said, sitting cross-legged on a blue towel she had spread on the sand.

Wilson said nothing. A slat of shade from the palm fronds protected her bare breasts. She was aggravated by his failure to speak.

“Say my name.”

“Nancy.”

“You are perfect, Wilson. What God was thinking about when he came up with the idea for Man.”

The sex was a frenzy. She wanted him to talk. She didn’t mind what he said; it was the coffee in his voice, the thunderstorm in a high sky, hot oil in a pan she wanted. Once or twice she whimpered, but it was not distress. It was not ecstasy, either. It was freefall.

All the time he was inside her, he was aware of a sadness, like a beggar tugging at his sleeve. Not until he and Nancy had dressed and parted, sneaking out of their hiding place separately, did he recognize his sadness as homesickness. Walking toward the pier, he felt complicated. Relief mingled with a sense of accomplishment. The vision of Nancy’s comfortable body would sustain him through long days. But the sadness kept tugging at him. His wife was eating tostones with a strange man who was thinking nasty as he poured her a drink.

Pierside, he knew. Instantly. Grooms was standing in a square of shade on the wrong side of the customs turnstile, holding a suitcase. Grooms was Trinidadian, a burly Black man of fifty who looked military in his white uniform. He ran the wait staff like an army.

“Peñaranda.”

Wilson joined him in the shade alongside a government building of some sort, newly whitewashed to maintain the colonial look.

“You’re finished.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“Yes, you do. You broke the cardinal rule.”

It must have been Nazim. He had followed Wilson to the palm grove and seen the Profesora go in.

“The goddamned Turk,” Wilson said.

Grooms smiled thin. He relaxed his shoulders and fanned his face with his uniform hat. “This is Nazim’s last contract with us. When we hit San Juan, he’s out.”

“I can explain.”

“No, you can’t.”

He handed Wilson an envelope. “This is what we owe you, plus enough to fly you back home.” He gave him his suitcase, which was square and old-fashioned, held shut with a bungee cord. It had belonged, years back, to Bezi’s father.

Wilson’s vision blurred as his eyes teared. He had promised Bezi a washing machine. Hadn’t Grooms ever screwed up?

“My wife’s name is Bezi.”

Grooms nodded sympathetically. “Go home and kiss her. Then find yourself another job.”

Wilson was so wrapped up in the misery of the moment he did not notice Nancy until she was standing there with them in the shaded oasis.

“Is there a problem?”

“No problem, Madam,” Grooms reassured her.

If Grooms had an opinion about a passenger having sex in the sand with an assistant waiter, she would never know it. Wilson was aware of the smell of her. In one hand, he held the envelope Grooms had given him; in the other hand, his suitcase. He did not trust himself to speak, so he turned away.

“No,” said Nancy with conviction. “This is not happening.”

“You’ll want to board, Madam,” Grooms told her. “We’ll be departing momentarily.”

“But it’s not his fault. The whole thing was my fault.”

That was decent of her, trying to save him, although her attempt to fix things only demonstrated her ignorance of the world’s workings. She ran after him and yanked his arm, breathing hard.

“Wilson, I’m sorry. I am so very sorry.”

He wanted her to suffer, not for having made love with him but for being so intelligent and knowing so little. He moved away.

“Stop,” she said.

He stopped.

“What will you do?”

He shrugged.

She was going through her purse, coming up with money. She folded the bills into a wad. He made a fist into which it would not enter. It wasn’t pride that prevented him from taking money he needed. It was a sense of duty. He owed himself respect for the fate that had befallen him. Had he not sought it out?

“Please,” she pleaded. “I feel so terrible, Wilson. I’ll feel worse if you don’t take it.”

A smaller man would point out that how she felt was beside the point.

“You had better board,” he told her.

There was no satisfaction in letting the air out of her. He was distant from the pier when the Pinnacle sailed.

Later, he wandered back to the pier, looking for a travel office to book a flight home. He was not ready to face Bezi, to kiss the top of William’s head, smell the clean smell of shampoo and little boy. Later, he could not remember how he fell into a conversation with Trevor.

“They threw you off the big white ship, didn’t they? That’s an evil thing to do to a man.”

“I quit.”

“Sure, sure. Without a doubt.”

Trevor had a monkey named Lulu, a Rasta get-up heavy on purple, braids in his beard, and a broad face that revealed his emotions before he himself knew what he was feeling.

“Maybe I get myself a monkey,” Wilson said, seeking to injure himself. “Maybe I buy a suit of pretend Jamaica clothes and go around saying don’t worry, be happy, ‘mon.”

“You need food.”

He led Wilson to his mother’s house, where she stuffed him full of rice and fried fish, and salty shallots. She was a large woman who demanded no explanations. The two men ate like long friends who did not require words with their meal.

Wilson had a sense of time passing. He needed distraction and the chance to make another mistake. Which he did. It took a while, but when he lay down to sleep on a pallet in a back room at Trevor’s mother’s house, he had gambled away the money in the envelope Grooms had given him. He lost most of it to a friend of Trevor’s with a bent back and a pirate’s eyepatch who spoke in Rasta parables and threw the dice with flair. Once or twice, Trevor had tried to put the brakes on Wilson.

“Live with what you don’t have. True wisdom for a man in dire straits.”

Wilson had no patience with Trevor’s island attitude. “Forget it. My luck will turn.”

On the front porch of the pirate-patched man’s house, they were drinking rum and Coca-Cola. They were listening to ska, and the bass line was heavy. They were sampling a batch of Tobago weed that had just arrived on the island. They were respecting each other and each other’s lies. Those were factors. But they were minor compared to the washing machine Wilson had so recently been sure of buying Bezi. He could face going home jobless. He could not face his wife without the money for a machine that would make her life easier.

In the morning, he woke with the sound of the surf in his ears, which was odd because the house was inland. Trevor came in with a cup of coffee. Everything that had gone wrong since Nancy first appeared at his table in the Pinnacle’s dining room was there in his mind, all in one place of pain.

“What now?” Trevor wanted to know.

“I will think; I will sleep.”

Trevor had his own problems. Two cruise ships were docking at the pier, and his monkey was sick. It had been throwing up green goo all night, and Trevor was haggard. Lulu was his livelihood, and he was fond of the creature.

Think. Sleep. In the course of the morning, Trevor’s mother came into the room with a plateful of fried things.

That night, Lulu died. Wilson was the contagion, though they were too polite to blame him. He had brought something foul into their house. Worried, Trevor went looking for a replacement monkey.

Sleep. Think.

Days.

On the pallet, Wilson’s body was going slack. He was dizzy any time he sat up. Trevor’s mother kept a pitcher of fresh water and glass within easy reach. He drank but did not get up from the pallet.

After a couple of days, the vultures showed up. They had red heads and silver on the trailing edge of their wings. They found a perch in his imagination and settled in.

Trevor tried now and again to rouse him. Wilson would not be roused.

The new monkey was a male. His name was Jimmy, after Cliff. Trevor was happy again. The odor of marijuana. The odor of fish. The odor of the sea. Buzzing flies flew in one window and out another.

The morning he did get up, Wilson remembered the insult. What he had called the Turk in Jamaica. Prairie dog. They were in a bar in a village near Montego Bay watching television. A program about prairie dogs, and the comparison was perfect. If he had kept his mouth shut, he would not be desolate today.

Rising, he was unsteady on his legs and grabbed the edge of a table to keep from falling. He sat for a long time listening to Trevor’s mother gossiping in the kitchen with a neighbor. After drinking water, he made his slow way to the kitchen.

“Lazarus,” cried Trevor’s mother, the great mounds of her brown flesh trembling with pleasure.

“Back from the dead,” her neighbor chimed in. The neighbor’s sharp-boned thinness balanced the other woman’s bulk. Already they were making something for him to eat.

That afternoon he walked in the sun, scanning the sky for vultures. He had foiled them, and they were keeping their distance.

That night, he and Trevor played cards and smoked. Wilson took pleasure in the game, which they played for matchsticks. The single shot of rum he sipped created a pleasant blur of color when he closed his eyes.

“What now?” said Trevor.

Wilson shook his head.

In the morning, he picked up his suitcase and thanked Trevor’s mother. He got a ride on a flatbed truck down to the harbor where the tourist shops, painted tropical colors, looked like doll houses.

He felt calm, watching people in bright clothes disembark from a cruise ship with cameras and day packs. He watched monkeys running up and down the arms and across the shoulders of the imitation Rastas, who seemed to be in a good mood. Trevor was not among them; a girlfriend took up a lot of his time.

A woman was hawking St. Kitt’s caps for five dollars. A man pretended to talk to someone, addressing his mobile phone as if someone were on the other end of the line. A girl with a bad foot held one end of a jump rope for a girl with braids. At a table in front of a fish restaurant, a chestnut-colored man drinking a Carib beer was explaining with his hands something intricate to a girl in a short blue skirt.

Seeing them, Wilson felt generous. Their sins, their crimes fit snugly inside his own. He was everybody’s older brother, the one who had gone ahead, alone, down the road to disaster. It cost him to pull himself away. He put his hand in a pocket and came out with a little money that Trevor must have put there.

He bought a bottle of sparkling water and thought about Bezi. He walked as though he had a destination. A cove with a thin lip of brown-sugar sand. Anchored close in was a good-sized sailboat. El Azar, Sarasota, was written in blue letters on the hull. A suntanned man with a hairy chest sat in the stern under an awning, reading a book. A woman in a red bikini was wading in the shallow water.

They looked at home. Wilson walked to the edge of the water, set his suitcase down, took off his shoes. The woman waved casually, and the man cupped his hands.

“Come aboard for a drink.”

Wilson waded out to the sailboat. The three of them sat in the shaded stern, drinking small bottles of beer slowly. The couple were young, possibly married, surefooted.

“I’m Daphne,” the woman introduced herself.

“And I’m Bill,” the man said, extending a hand to shake Wilson’s.

Wilson told him, “My name is Wilson Peñaranda.”

Bill nodded. “We’ve been out for three months. Getting a little stale at this point. It’s a lot of work, keeping one of these things right side up in the water. We’re heading home. Sarasota. That’s in Florida.”

Wilson nodded. “I also am headed home. The Dominican Republic.”

“Tell us something about yourself,” Daphne said.

Wilson understood that he was being interviewed for a job crewing for them and that he was making a good impression.

Near the boat, a fish leaped from the sea. An eagle wheeled across the sky. Wilson had found a way home.

“Yes,” said Bill. “Tell us about yourself.”

“My wife’s name is Bezi, and my son’s name is William.”

That was all there was to say. In a few minutes, he would wade ashore to get his suitcase. He would get the hang of the work as they sailed home.


About the Author

Mark Jacobs has published more than 175 stories in magazines, including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Hudson Review, and The Iowa Review. A complete list of his publications, including books, can be found at markjacobsauthor.com.