The Admiral

December 24, 1492

Enrique Navarro Lovato shared a tiny cabin below the bow with Juan Carlos Gutierrez Romero. Each boy slept on a three-plank bunk, Enrique’s closer to the floor because he was the younger of the two, and because, according to Juan Carlos, Juan Carlos was part Basque, who were superior sailors, which is why the Admiral wanted him on the higher bunk. This was pure nonsense and Enrique taunted Juan Carlos relentlessly that he could never prove he was Basque, and why would he want to claim that heritage anyway, those arrogant heathens. Juan Carlos did little on board anyway and was a complainer, and so Enrique knew it would catch up to the other boy one day, therefore Enrique kept quiet and worked hard. He was a deck swab from Galicia, and Enrique knew this made the Admiral happy, and also the ship was sometimes called La Gallega.

The night sky was brilliant. After a dinner of salted pork and a new fruit they had collected from the natives of the island—some yellow hooked tube that you had to peel to eat the white flesh—the Admiral let everyone have some wine, even the boys. It was Christmas Eve, after all. The plan was to continue sailing the north coast into the morning to peruse for any more signs of gold or spice.

Enrique had seen a few of the first pieces brought on board. The Admiral himself held his palm open to show the crew. It shimmered on all of its rounded and angular sides, dull in some places, sparkling in others. The Admiral laughed a bit, saying how the Cipangos had taken the beads so willingly and with a childlike wonder. If they only knew it was just glass, the Admiral laughed. And how they just gave over their gold!

Enrique had heard one of the friars who could interpret their strange language say that the Cipangos considered gold to be the waste of their gods. Their excrement. How amazing, Enrique thought, that their gods might shit gold. What could their gods look like? This thought was silly. There was only one true god and everyone knew it. It would only take time for these people to learn that.

This was what Enrique was thinking—in between praying to Santa Maria herself and dozing off—when the steersman wrapped on the cabin door.

“Wake up,” he said, although he was saying it to Juan Carlos. “Wake up, you brat.”

Enrique sprang up.

“What is it, Captain? Is anything the matter?”

“Wake him up.”

“What is it? I can help.”

“I don’t care, one of you wake up, get on deck.”

“Yes, sir.”

Enrique quickly changed out of his dressing gown and into his trousers and tunic. He debated putting on his doublet because it was a warm night but he did it anyway because who knew what he was about to do? What if the Admiral awoke and happened to see him hard at work so late at night? He might be promoted for such good behavior.

The steersman led the boy to the helm and said, “Take it. I need to rest.”

He handed over the ship with ease to Enrique, much like the Cipangos had given their gold, like it was nothing. A trifle. But then the steersman turned back to Enrique and sneered at the boy: “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Enrique wrapped his hands around the handles and felt the gentle tilting of the ship grow into his forearms. It excited him in the way the sight of a woman did, how it was strange and foreign and forbidden. He’d held the wheel before. He’d certainly cleaned it. All the cabin boys had. He simply had never steered the ship, and absolutely not the Santa Maria.

At first it seemed to be a mistake the steersman would hand it over to him, but then it made sense with it being late and Christmas Eve and everyone relaxed, the Admiral awake for almost two days. Plus, would the steersman truly hand over command if the seas were treacherous?  With that Enrique inhaled the night air and held the wheel steady, his line of sight being just over the bow. The island was a safe distance and only its silhouette signaled that it was there at all against the backdrop of starry sky.

Once they returned to Spain, they would be famous. Enrique would get asked to venture back to the Spice Islands and bring back more of everything. He could even become like the Admiral himself. Enrique loved this idea, he loved everything about what was happening in his life, how his voice had just changed and how he was growing hair all over his body, his favorite place the line just above his lip. One day he would have a beard like the men on the ship.

Enrique felt a little sorry for the Cipangos, how bare their skin was, how they had no shame to walk around almost in the nude like they did. It would be such a gift when they knew Christ, when they could understand what this blessed holiday was. Enrique drove his hand into the pocket of his doublet where he had one of the glass beads the men had given to the Cipangos. Enrique rubbed it with his thumb and forefinger and he considered asking it the way the natives might, to bless him with prosperity forever.

All of this fantasizing ended the moment the ship jerked forward as though skipping on the water. Enrique hadn’t made any adjustment at the wheel. He’d held it tight the whole time except when he dropped his hand into his pocket. But then again, how long had he been out there? The ship heaved forward, but it was gently, nothing like some of the waves they had endured crossing Mar Atlantico, when it rocked side to side, careening down walls of black crashing waters.

With another heave forward, the ship came to a hard stop, and Enrique’s blood ran cold. The island appeared to be where he last saw it, but then the shadows of the mass loomed closer and he swore he heard wind rustling through trees.

With this a stir below deck made Enrique shiver. The Admiral was awake. The voices of other men rose in both anger and disbelief. Feet banged up stairs toward the deck. Enrique tried to turn the wheel. It was locked. A set of waves came from behind and shoved the boat forward into the tidepools, ripping into the starboard hull. The Admiral rose to the deck eyes sunken and furious. He approached Enrique heavy footed and rose his hand up to strike him.

Enrique did the only thing he knew how: he prayed to the Blessed Mother asking for forgiveness, saying to the Admiral he would never do this—WHACK! The Admiral gave one blow with the back of his hand sending the boy backward onto the deck. A priest held the Admiral back from lunging again at the boy. Enrique turned himself over onto the deck and began kissing the very wood he mopped every day.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” he said, “Pray for me—a sinner—now and at the hour of my death.”

Pilgrims

medjugorje-tat

Toddy hurled the dice at his sister Maggie the very instant their father Elmer opened the door to let the motel housekeeper in. Maggie screamed, boomeranging the Wa-Hoo game board at Toddy in retaliation, marbles flying in all directions. Toddy ducked and laughed.

The housekeeper peeked over Elmer, who tried his best Bosnian on the woman: “The sheets are dirty. Stains.”

The maid spoke back to him in clipped words, still distracted by the ruckus.

“Kids.” Elmer shrugged.

The housekeeper went to English. “Our rooms are clean.”

“I don’t normally complain about things like this, but please look at these sheets.”

He led her to the bed, toward the table where the children were playing. Maggie sat slumped in the chair holding her hand over her eye, howling. “Toddy hurt me, Dad.”

Toddy was on his hands and knees and picking up the marbles. He always put away his toys—one good habit his mother had taught, and one that stuck—which Elmer adored, his boy being only eight. He kept his head down, away from his father’s stare.

Elmer pulled back the green floral print bedspread and showed the housekeeper the sheets. A yellow stain—the outer edge darker and more distinct—in the shape of a small country occupied the middle of the white sheet.

“See?”

“Dad!” Maggie sat up, crying harder. She pulled her hand down and blood trickled down the canal of her nose and cheek.

The housekeeper pointed at the girl.

“Toddy, get over here.” Elmer grit his teeth.

Toddy trudged over to his father and Maggie stood up and followed him. She glanced quickly in the mirror next to the TV set and saw the blood. She screamed—she was prone to screaming, at her age, going through the first change, plus her mother’s passing didn’t help any—and fell to the floor. The housekeeper rushed toward Maggie and propped her up on her legs. The housekeeper pulled a hand towel from the pocket in her apron and dabbed the girl’s eye. Maggie shuddered and grit her teeth like her father.

Elmer took a knee and held Toddy by the shoulders. “You hurt your sister, mister. Say you’re sorry. Apologize.”

“I’m sorry.” Toddy turned his head to the maid and his sister. Maggie cried and gripped the hand of the woman.

“I AM sorry.” Elmer squeezed the boy’s shoulders.

“I AM sorry.” Toddy squirmed. “Ow.”

“You hurt me and your mother, too.” Elmer squeezed Toddy’s shoulders tighter and started to shake him, slowly. Elmer turned his eyes up at the dresser, at the black lacquer box with a green ribbon, when he said your mother.

“Dad!” Maggie turned toward him.

“You be quiet, Margaret.” Elmer shook Toddy faster, squeezed him enough to make him cry. The boy’s head rocked back and forth. “You hurt all of us. The whole family.”

“Sir,” the maid stood up. She spoke quick and breathless in Bosnian and approached him. Her sentences, strings of the crude Shtokavian dialect hit his ear. Elmer remembered Lana teaching him various words she knew; her grandmother had given her both a crash course and a language book before Elmer and Lana’s first pilgrimage to Medjugore in 1997—before the children. Elmer realized this was why the maid switched to English: his Bosnian was too advanced, straight from the book and not the Shtokavian tongue. Lana’s family didn’t speak that kind.

“Sir, stop.” The maid pulled Elmer away from Toddy. The boy bit his lower lip and he shuddered wiping his eyes. Elmer turned to the maid and collapsed at her feet. Her short wavy hair was dark with strands of gray. She was plump in the belly and hips—a grandmother maybe, with grandchildren about Maggie and Toddy’s age. Maybe they were older—the woman looked at least in her late 50’s—and maybe they worked at one of the shops on the hillsides selling candles, or the white statues of the Virgin on the way to the shrine. Or maybe they worked as house and groundskeepers at the other motels and hostels. Or maybe at the cemetery digging graves for all those who were born here and all those who wished to be buried here. She was old enough to have lived a long life, to see all her children grow up and have their own.

Elmer grabbed the woman’s thick ankles and feet, covered in worn, nurse-like shoes. He held her and gushed, letting it all go, asking for forgiveness. The children now cried with their father, reaching for him, holding each other, their little bodies pressed as close as possible to one another.

Mona’s Kid

Image

Helen was getting drunk. Saucy, the waiter, poured her another glass of the 2007 Cab and she watched him, first with expectant eyes, then with the slightest guilt; her brow pitched upward thinking: maybe I shouldn’t have another.

            A small legion of Saucy’s cohorts dressed in snug white coats and black pants set the plates on the table. Anders, to Helen’s left, had the sustainable fish plate—seared albacore tuna over a posole broth—and a glass of Sprite. Greg, across from Helen, both hers and Anders’s manager in from St. Louis had the rib eye. It sat in a shallow pool of half bloody au jus staining the bottom of the whipped pile of garlic mashed potatoes next to it. Henry, from Finance, looked down at his vegetarian lasagna and breathed it in. He nodded yes to another glass of the Cab. Oscar, the Compliance Officer, sat next to Henry and finished up his gin gimlet and said “Yes, please,” to another cocktail and a glass of wine. His plate was also the rib eye with the autumn rice pilaf and not the potatoes.

They were in the middle of talking about deep frying turkey for Thanksgiving, which had just past.

“It’s a lot of trouble,” Oscar said. “And pretty dangerous, too. But damn it if wasn’t the best turkey I’ve ever had.”

“We tried it once,” Greg said, “but instead of getting a real turkey fryer, we filled up a metal trash can with oil and heated it from the bottom—over a fire. That sucker got so hot it started glowing! We had to lower the bird into the oil using spears.”

“But it was good, I bet, right?” Oscar said.

“Amazing. Crispy and moist, you know,” Greg said.

Butter and garlic and tannins rose from their table and it was the moment of the early evening when all restaurant managers make the conscious decision to lower the house lights a smidge. Those perceptive to changes in atmosphere notice it immediately. Those on the border of tipsy do, too—like they’ve just been tapped on the shoulder by an unnoticeable spirit.

“See that?” Helen said. “Right when the food comes out, of course. To make it look better.”

“Bon appétit,” Greg said.

Oscar hadn’t seen Henry or Greg in two months. He started to cut into his meat and said to them: “You heard about Mona’s kid, right?”

Henry had just put his first bite into his mouth. He chewed, swallowed. “No. What?”

Greg shook his head no, about to cut into the meat.

“Flew off his dirt bike in California City.” Oscar said. “He’s in a coma.”

“My God, that’s awful.” Greg set his fork and knife down. Henry stopped eating to listen. Anders took his second bite of fish, then a drink of his Sprite.

“How old is the boy?” Greg said.

“13.”

“How’s it look?” Henry said.

Oscar shook his head. He had already put a piece of steak in his mouth and was chewing on it, working it slow, then speeding up to answer Greg. “Not good. Mona’s been off for three weeks. Boy won’t come to. They tried to take him off the respirator but everything started to shut down.”

Saucy came with the sides. Brussel sprouts with roasted garlic and pine nuts, asparagus tips in warm salted rosemary oil, and mashed sweet potatoes. “How we doing folks?” he said.

“Fine.” Anders spoke in mid-chew.

Saucy put his hands together as if in prayer and bowed slightly. “Enjoy.”

Greg stared down at his plate. “That’s horrible. I met him once. Good kid.”

“They should just let him go,” Helen said.

“There’s not much they can do.” Oscar cut another gash into his steak and bent his head down a bit to smell it. “This is a good steak.”

“Fish is great,” Anders said.

“Will you pass the asparagus, Helen?” Oscar said.

“What can we do? For Mona?” Henry said.

“Donate your PTO.” Oscar heaped the asparagus onto his plate. He handed it over to Anders and took a drink of wine. “She needs the time.”

“She used up all her long-term leave when Barry’s mother died in February. That family. I tell you.” Helen sipped her Cab, set the glass down, and patted her chest.

Henry took a drink of his wine. Anders kept his eyes on his plate. He was halfway done with his dinner. Greg shook his head and cut into the meat.

Oscar turned to Helen. “You know, I did notice that. How the lights just went dim.” He cut again, put the slice onto his fork and scooped a heap of rice with it. He chewed and looked up at the chandeliers. They glowed warm though amber-stained glass—the outline of a rose etched in each one with a mauve glaze for the petals.

The Keys To Jessica’s Audi

     At the bottom of the stairs, Shandy invoked the prayer to St. Anthony. Jessica, Shandy’s Jewish boss said the incantation worked every time. Shandy held the prayer printed out on a small card so she could read it in a hurry. On the other side was an image of St. Anthony in his friar’s cloak, head shaved down to a crown of  cropped brown hair. She read the prayer, in her thick Indian accent at least twice, sometimes three times a day.

            Saint Anthony, perfect imitator of Jesus, who received from God the special power of restoring lost things, grant that I may find the keys to Jessica’s Audi which have been lost.

            Jessica screamed from upstairs. “I can’t fucking hear you, Shandini.” Books fell from shelves, drawers slid open then closed, closet doors slammed. Jessica was the only person on earth, besides Shandini’s mother, who called her by her full name.

            Shandy recited the prayer louder and shook her head. She wanted to cry. She liked Jessica during the interview two months before and thought she might learn to be strong from a powerful white woman. They’re industrious, she had thought, and she admired Jessica because she wasn’t that much older than her. Shandy was desperate for the position and she took the internship without pay for the first month. Today was her one hundred and fiftieth recitation of the prayer. She kept a tally of hatch marks on the back of the card, in the white border above Anthony’s downturned eyes.

            Jessica descended the hardwood stairs, her heels pounding with hammer force, BAM-BAM-BAM. Shandy started over again.

            “Did you check the coat pockets?” Jessica said.

            “I’ve been praying.”

            “Goddamn it, you’re supposed to pray and look.”

            Shandy went for the coat rack, a tall dark wooden post in the entry way to Jessica’s home office in Georgetown. She plunged her hands into every open pocket.

            “You’re not praying,” Jessica said.

            Shandy started from the top. Saint Anthony, perfect imitator of Jesus, who received from God the special power of restoring lost things, grant that I may find the keys to Jessica’s Audi which have been lost.

            “What time is it?” Jessica said. “Oh my God, I’m late.”   

            Jessica was due at the afternoon White House press gaggle in 45 minutes. All day she went on about getting in the front row so that “pencil dick” of a press secretary finally calls on her. Jessica Mitchell’s status as a Betlway darling was crumbling. She was notoriously late to gaggles and getting lippy on camera.

            Shandy produced three sets of keys from the pockets. Jessica inspected each and threw them on the floor when she identified them as not the ones to her Audi. “No, no and no,” she said. “Fuck, fuck, and fuck!”

            “Jessica, you can use my Metro pass,” Shandy said.

            “I will not take the fucking Metro,” Jessica said. “And why did you stop praying.”

            “Have you tried retracing your steps?” Shandy said.

            “Retracing my steps? Are fucking kidding me?”

            Shandy started the prayer again and went to the intern desk. She moved papers and phones and computer mice and found nothing.

            “What’s his face? What time did he leave?” Jessica said.

            “William? He left at 3:30?”

            “Where was he today?” Jessica said.

            “Here all morning. Then you asked him to run an errand. In your car. He came back and then went home for the day.”   

“Stop right there,” Jessica said. “Call him. Now.”

            Shandy dialed. “Voice mail,” she said. “He must be on the train by now.”

            Shandy imagined William going deeper into the clean subterranean world of D.C. on his way back to his apartment in Alexandria, his shoulders back and his chin up. Above the square cleft, a smile with clean bright teeth, teeth she loved and wished to one day feel with her own tongue.

“I’ll have his balls on a plate,” Jessica said.

“Maybe he will come back,” Shandy said. “If he took the keys, he will feel them in his pocket and come back.”

“Is he your boyfriend or something?” Jessica said.

“No, he is not,” Shandy said.

“Well then keep fucking praying. And call his ass again.”

Shandy looked outside the small narrow window next to the front door. She prayed in silence to Ganesha: Please, William. Please come back.

Jessica pulled up the cushions on the sofas in the lounge area, the very loveseat where Shandy felt something for the fair faced boy from Connecticut. Would her parents ever approve? How would they get married? William had touched her thigh one afternoon, first on accident, but then he left it there and she let him keep his hand there.

Shandy turned the card over and studied Anthony’s face. She never realized how much he looked like William. Or was it the other way around? Did William look like the saint? Jessica screamed from the kitchen.

Shandy whispered now, eyes still fixed on the glass, waiting. As least restore to me peace and tranquility of mind, the loss of which has afflicted me even more than my material loss.   

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