Palo Alto Weekly 17th Annual Short Story Contest
Follow the General
by Aaron Hebert
His father was a man who knew the edges of life. He fished the coast of El Puerto de Esperanza. The letter he received read: Dear Juan, your father has been killed on the ocean. Please come to his funeral, Mother. He left two days after he read the letter because he had to arrange to send his dog to his friend's house.
He came to the funeral, held on a cliff. There was a tall, white cross with two oars leaning against it. He leaned against his mother as she spasmed with great tears. He laid her to bed that night and made himself a drink. He had known this problem several times before.
Things would happen to him or around him; he could see things of great magnitude and feel nothing. He could see and understand everything, but his heart would remain quiet for an inappropriate amount of time. He sat drinking, thinking of his father and of what people feel when their fathers die. He did not know what echoes of feelings he heard.
He drank and talked in his head about his father, in all his mystery, anger, and love of the ocean. He looked at the moon, young and yellow on the horizon. He drank until he was too tired to look at the moon.
The morning came and he was awakened by his mother, shaking him up from the table. She told him to wake, and asked why he drank so much. He could not answer. She looked at him and said, "Your father left me this note." He looked at her and saw at any moment she was prepared to run, cry, and convulse with sadness.
He awaited his father's words by standing and looking down, as he had seen in the movies when people were ready to hear things of great meaning. She read: Dear Son, I know you and I have been apart in our loves, though today I ask you to join me in my loves. I know the boat isn't like the office you have so high in Mexico City, but I ask you to carry out the business. You will need to talk to Jaime for advice on how to fish the coast. This is my only request; you take great care of the boat and learn to fish the ocean. -- Javier.
His mother looked up to him with sincere brown eyes, like those of a dog. He looked down and frowned, but considered that this may be the way for him to feel in his heart. He did not like the idea of leaving his job for any time or quitting. He was going to say no, but when his mother became stern in that way only Latin woman can, he said yes instead.
He called his boss and explained his father's will, his boss told him that he could not take a leave. He explained his mother's situation and that he would have to stay. He called his friend who held his dog, Rudy. He said that he would be staying weeks and that he would not want Rudy to be lonely. His friend told him he would mail the dog.
He walked down the dock where his father's boat was. It was brown and long with the discoloration of the ocean and sun. He inspected it, still wearing his button down T-shirt and suit pants. He felt the footsteps of something heavy coming down the dock. He turned to see a man painted by the ocean like his father's boat. His skin was creased with deep wrinkles, like the Grand Canyon might look like from the moon, he thought.
He said, "My name is Jaime and I have been asked by your father to teach you the ways of fishing this coast." Jaime left for now and Juan tried to enter the boat. He almost fell over and said to his father, "This is tougher then it looks." He knew his father was smiling.
Jaime taught him the ways of the coast, how to rig the bait, which spots had which fish, and how to respect the ocean. Jaime told him, "The Ocean is woman. She is sensitive and provides you with many things. She is also the one bitch you will never forget." Jaime took Juan under his arms and made sure that he could begin to support his mother.
Everyday Jaime would meet him down by the dock and teach him another piece of information about fishing, or the bitch, or the Mother as he called it sometimes. He learned many things and soon Juan was ready to go out on his own. Each day was long like the office, but much more tiring, he thought.
He sat and watched his mother slice the meat from market. He could even tell from the way she cut the meat she was hurt. She was like the fish who wasn't willing to fight hard enough to break the line, he thought. He thought of her being stretched between life and death, like the fish, not knowing to pull harder and hurt enough to make it, or give in.
Jaime showed him the towns he could see from far out in the ocean. He pointed to a town that had a small blue glow like the eyes of a great bird. He said, "That town has a little bar that your father and I would go to after a good day of catches."
He made a little map on the side of the boat, etched it with the pocket knife Jaime gave him to gut small fish. They came to the dock, and Juan fell into the ocean trying to get out. Jaime's belly swayed heavily as he let out a big laugh the stretched his wrinkles flat.
When he arrived back home, his mother told him, "Your father would be laughing." He smiled, sporting a beard that was scruffy and short, like a billboard model he thought. His mother gave him a towel and told him to go to the market and get some meat. He nodded and wiped his head, thinking of visiting the great bird's eyes.
Rudy arrived in the mail, a bit thin, but okay, he thought. Rudy was a small Chihuahua who was very expressive. His mother had not been eating like she should have. He would tell his mother, 'You need to eat, I can see your face is pale like driftwood."
Jaime had all but disappeared and Rudy had happily taken his place. Juan would soon be ready to start selling the fish he caught. The equipment was good and he was smarter than the ocean, he would say to Rudy.
Rudy would sit on the tip of the boat like Washington crossing the Delaware. Juan rowed the boat to where he could catch snapper. He trolled the bait and soon enough caught many fish. At the end of the day he pulled into the dock, and held the fish triumphantly and exclaimed to the market, "I have just begun to win, and these are my fish!" The market looked up, blinked, and went back to business.
Juan did not care, and Rudy was excited too. They sold the fish and went home for dinner. Rudy trotted along his side and wagged his short tail. Juan told his mother, "Mother, I have made us some money!" His mother looked up with her big brown eyes and smiled.
Juan had almost forgot the city and everyday he and the general would fish the ocean. Juan would often talk to Rudy, because Rudy had always been responsive, to what though, only Rudy knew. Juan would tell him of his ex-girlfriend Natalia, she was the one who told him they get a dog. He explained to Rudy, that had she not been a bitch and left him without notice or return, that he would not know Juan, or the ocean.
Juan thought of his father's face when he told him that he would
be going to university. It was a half smile that made Juan feel
anxiety. His father cared little for people. His understanding of
life was all for the ocean. My father never understood why I wanted
to leave this town and poverty for the city, Juan thought. He only
wanted me to know the ocean, and I am trying, he thought.
One day he made a great catch. He told his mother, "We celebrate tonight!' His mother stayed home. He and Rudy rowed to the bar etched in the side of the boat. They arrived on the docks and walked under blue lights that were hung between posts. It was a small bar that was a big openaired shack, like most buildings here, he thought.
He sat down at a table; there were about seven people he could see. He ordered a Mojito and water for Rudy. He got a Mojito as well. Rudy was excited, Juan knew, because his little tongue was out. He looked around to his peers. He smiled and drank. Rudy was wandering all around smelling people's feet. He had no more Mojito left.
A girl was hammering down on the piano, like the stiffest typewriter ever made. It sounded poor, but she was content. She would sway left and right, and sometimes her neck would go out and she would look down. She had short hair, very scruffy, like an animal had come and ripped her head. He liked it.
She pounded away and he drank and smiled. He thought of the loves he had in his life, and thought it was sad he had some much anger when thinking of them. He slumped his head down and rested looking at his piano player. She had stopped playing, but was still swaying, and she turned and looked at Juan, wearing a dirty shirt and she could tell he was familiar with the ocean. She looked, they looked, and they smiled.
Juan came to know the coastlines as well as any man could. He would talk with Rudy, still excited, and tell him of the girl he saw at the bar, how she pounded at the piano like the spastic animal he thought she would be in bed. Her piano playing was a great source of hope for Juan. He looked forward to hearing it again. He spent his time fishing and smiling. City life was falling off the edge of his mind.
He began to frequent the bar and he would see her there sometimes and watch her jab the keys. He soon became drunk and confident enough to talk to her. He told her, "I have watched you for many nights. You are fierce and beautiful." She smiled, didn't say anything, and kept jamming her fingers into the keys.
He frowned and went back to the table watching her. He told Rudy, "She will know, someday that her and I would make," he changed his mind, "No! We would be so strong as to hold the belly of a whale!" Rudy did not know what he meant and smelled his feet.
Each day he would fish hard, and let the sun color his neck and hands. Soon he was tan like Jaime. Every day he went to the bar and looked at the girl. Sometimes he would talk to her and she would look, blink, and then return to her piano. He grew sad, and talked of needing her company while he was on the boat.
Rudy would hear stories of romance and sex that never happened between him and his noisy friend. Loneliness came to Juan at nights, when he was drunk rowing back home. His mother would wake him up each morning and see the tears he left on the pillow. Juan started to think of how his father survived.
He looked to the moon and Rudy for most of his advice; he did not know which was better. He thought of the girl, and the love his father had for the boat. The boat is a fine boat, he would often think. He only knew of the ocean, it was his only love. His mother was too deathly to love. She was waiting for death as if it were a season.
The girl stopped coming as much and Juan became sadder, only finding comfort in the blues, greens, and yellows of the ocean. He began to think of his ex-girlfriends and tried to think of which ones could handle living as he did now. He gained a respect for his mother for staying with a man so isolated as a fisherman. His father was a lonely man who had never knew hope. He never loved mother as much as she loved him, Juan thought.
Juan had the love of the ocean. She was his woman. He would whisper things during the day, and ramble about her beauty when he was drunk at night. The girl had all but left the bar and his love for her grew in the way his sadness and understanding of his father had grown in the wake of his death. In her death he found the love he was unable to find as she punctured the piano keys. She was not dead like his father, only dead as two people walking industriously in the city, bump into each other, look, make an expressive face, and continue on ward never to be with the other.
Juan went to the great bird's eyes. It was the only place, other than the market, where he was with people. He came one night, hastily tied the boat to dock, and sat down to order drinks. Rudy became drunk and circled around sniffing and looking up. Juan looked to the piano stool and thought of her. He sat empty, and listened to the conversation of the ocean and night.
He heard Rudy barking down by the docks. Rudy does not bark for nothing, he thought. He got up as best as he could. He made his way down the peer and saw Rudy barking off into the ocean. Juan looked around and saw his boat had become untied. The blue lights made it easy enough to see that the boat was headed out to the ocean for good.
Juan felt a confusion and sadness over his father's boat. Rudy barked and barked and jumped off the peer into the water after the boat. Juan looked out into the ocean, the moon, the world, and heard the pounding of piano keys in his heart. He became filled with the death of his father and jumped into the ocean.