by George Masters
George Masters served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam and graduated from Georgetown University. In addition to being a freelance writer, he has worked as a commercial fisherman, stuntman, construction worker, car salesman and substitute teacher. His writing has been published in national magazines and newspapers including the Boston Globe, Harvard’s Charles River Review,Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Masters is seeking a publisher for his first novel, "Trouble Breathing," a crime story about a homeless war hero who falls in love with a San Francisco socialite. Currently, he is cooking aboard a fishing yacht off the coast of Panama.
In the morning, the ship came through the storm into an arctic high pressure system the size of California, Nevada, and Utah. Snow from the night before left a frosting on top of the boxes. The containers above deck resembled boxcars snow-bound in the Chicago yard.
Driving off the clouds and snow, the wind had scraped sea and sky, leaving it clear, clean, and bitter cold. Passing 180 degrees longitude, the ship crossed the international dateline. Legend had it that when the light was right, a gold vein shining up from the depths could be seen by an old timer on his last voyage and the new sailor on his first. Sailing into tomorrow, ship and men skipped a day and climbed over the fence.
The American flag snapped in the wind. The open ocean lay raw and inscrutable. Heading west to the Far East on the great north circle, they'd soon be turning south for Japan. Not soon enough.
On the bridge wing, Tom Harp put the binoculars to his eyes. Below him, snow whipped off the tops of the boxes and blew downward to swirl and scatter. Looking up, he tracked a jet's contrail.
That afternoon, the men climbed down into the holds to check for damage from the storm. Tanned hides, smelling of wine gone sour, reminded Harp of the docks at Callao, Peru.
South America, the romance run. Panama, Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, and Chile, then back up to New Orleans and New York. Tractors, generators, turbines, printing presses, chemicals, and aircraft parts went south. Bananas, coffee and silver, cocoa, copper and tin, nickel, fruit and fish came north.
In Chile, on the beach at Vina del Mar, Rosalita Vasquez had stayed right where she belonged—face down on the towel, soaking up the sun while the ocean sparkled like wet paint. Her body glistened with lotion; the portable radio played a soccer game. Impossibly motionless, she listened to the game with one ear, the bottoms of her feet sandy, the ankles perfect.
Reaching into the cooler, Harp retrieved the Veuve Clicquot and opened it with a soft "chuff." He drank from the bottle, and it fuzzed and sparked through his teeth and danced down his throat. Going back into the cooler, he used his hands to load a triangle of black bread with sea bass ceviche, the white fish dripping with onions, lime juice, and scalding ahi peppers.
To amuse himself, he set the iced bottle on the small of her back. "Aghhh," she cried, raising her head. Rotating her sun-lotioned ass, she turned and swore at him in Spanish. Lifting the bottle, he kissed where it had been. "Hungry?"
Eyes closed, face down on the towel, she shook her head. On the radio, a goal was scored. The announcer screamed. Rosalita groaned.
He said, "I'm starving."
"Because you are a beast."
Taking a swallow from the bottle, he fixed himself another ceviche. Surveying the beach, he pulled the Boston Red Sox cap lower over his eyes.
In her apartment, they made love and showered. In bed with a magazine, ceiling fan spinning, Rosalita watched him sleep. Without waking him, she ran her hand down the center of his back. More lightly, she traced the scars on the left side of his face where he'd been shot.
After the nap, he sat on the edge of the bed and looked out at the beach. He cracked his knuckles and she looked at his hands. "Pause," she said with her accent.
"Si, like big hooks. Always ready to grab something, or someone. No?"
He had met her one night in her mother's bookstore and café. She gave him a glance when he first walked in. Then a longer look while he read the Spanish titles. She helped him find Moby Dick in English and made him a coffee with steamed milk. Then another coffee with almond-chocolate biscotti, which she watched him eat.
On the beach, she was darkly tanned portions of grown-up girl and woman. A young lady who jumped horses, took him to museums, introduced him to her mother, and murdered him in tennis. She had her German father's green eyes and her Chilean mother's straight black hair cut short.
When she spoke, her voice was surprisingly husky. Rough and throaty, her voice lay words against his neck like a straight razor. A woman made mysterious by the smell of her shoulders when she came out of the ocean, by the taste of her thighs and sex, by her kisses in the night when she thought he was sleeping.
Much like a cat when she growl-purred, "Rub my back, mi amor?" The feline coming alive, stretching and arching as his hands moved from the firm buttocks to the nape of her neck.
Their last day together, it stormed. The plants on the deck leaned with the wind, and rain hit the windows like gravel. A lazy, sleepy look she threw him when he said, "How about we rent a movie and send out for pizza?"
"What kind?" Her eyes sultry and drugged by lovemaking.
"Tomato, basil and sausage."
"You want to make me fat?"
She held up two fingers. "Two cheeses then, mozzarella and parmesan."
"Can we, querido?" Rolling on top, she moved between his legs. Hands on his shoulders, she held herself above him, her thumbs strong as she worked the muscles there. Nipples and noses touching, she kissed him lightly. Reaching down, she found him ready and placed him inside her. Closing her eyes, she moved to take him deeper. "Oh Tomas, you stupid man, my God you break my heart."
After the pizza, they skipped the movie. Wearing only his sweatshirt, she curled on the couch, a drawing board and paper in her lap. The rain and wind dropped off and the fog rolled in. Beyond her balcony, the surf hit hard, and Rosalita began to sketch his hands. Using a stick of charcoal she did it quickly because she knew he couldn't sit still. Finished, she showed him.
"You." She judged the sketch. "You are a cave man with the hands." Making a face, her eyes searched for the words, "The wooooly mammoth hunter."
"Wooooly bully." She laughed. Taking his hand, she bit the thumb, then kissed it twice. Turning it over, she inspected the palm and hissed. "Ay, why I did not see this before?"
"This." She pointed. "The Simian Line. Right here, this one, see how it crosses the palm. Your head and heart run together, my love. How did I never notice it?"
"Tomas?" Serious with her eyes and jaw. "In palmistry it is called—" She thought a moment. "Yes, the artists' and murderer's line. Ha!"
On the beach, the waves thumped ashore.
He shut up while she examined his palm. Finger tips blackened from the charcoal stick, she traced the callused terrain. "You see? Artists and murderers because of how the intellect and passion run together." She looked him in the eye. "Like a river. A person with this Simian Line cannot control himself."
"You believe that?"
She shrugged. "Truly? I don't know." Her voice and face changed.
Lifting his hand, she kissed his knuckles. "I am sorry what I said. You are not a stupid man. It is me. Sometimes why I love you, makes me cry." Reaching for a Kleenex with charcoaled fingers, she turned away and blew her nose.
At sea in the cargo hold, it was flashlights and boots up and down the ladders. Down past containers stacked nine deep, down to the bottom of the ship. A different cold below decks. The hold inspection looking for busted boxes, stress fractures, checking her ribs, examining the welds made after the last trip. Down ladders, up ladders, they worked their legs and breathed hay, cold steel, and paint. The lift and drop in the bow, as if standing in a roller coaster, made the lunch of meat loaf and potatoes rise and fall, push and suck in their guts, lunch still warm in the cold belly of the ship.
On the four to eight with the sun going down, Harp stood watch on the port bridge wing. In a heavy coat and wool cap, he used binoculars to scan the expanse. This watered geography fooled the eye and hypnotized the senses. The vista had lulled more than one sailor into thinking he could jump ship and walk. Head home, run away, take off on another adventure. Cross the sunset sea as if it were a snow-covered field. Step over short waves, climb the really big ones, slide down the other side and run. Believing he could do this as long as the water carried his weight and the weather held fair. Run as far as his dream might last. Vast and endless, sea and sky became an exchange of gray and blue at the end of the dream.
What time was it in Vina del Mar? Was Rosalita in bed, in the kitchen, or out dancing at a club? Working at the bookstore and ringing a sale, pouring a customer coffee? Reading on the couch, drawing on the patio, maybe having lunch with her mother? She might have gotten married by now and have a child or two. He imagined her with children, with a man who didn't run off to sea, with a husband who came home every night and didn't set cold bottles of champagne on her ass.
The sun was nearly down, making the North Pacific colder. The ocean, asleep for the moment and snoring, allowed the ship to pass peacefully. The wind out of the south murmured softly.
Rosalita motionless on her towel, the soccer game on the radio. Leaning on the bridge rail, he picked out a wave and did his best to follow it. The moving crest, sunset red and black, rolled into the next wave and into the one after that. Harp tried to find the wave before it left him—and then it did. Darker now, the ocean became a charcoal sketch of infinite specks.
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