I. Water :: Agua Bendita (1910 – 1954)
José Guadalupe Mar de Calletano never understood the fuss about his birth, his body, the tall pale lankiness of his flesh feathered in dark hair. Mi Lobito, his father often called him, My Little Wolf. Birthed midway across the Rio Grande River from the Virgin’s holy waters as his mother, Esperanza, migrated from Mexico to Texas: aguadelupe, agualupina, Agua del Lobo, water-wolf. He never knew his mother, was told simply that Esperanza had become part of the river. Despite this drought in him, Eva-la-Curandera—the medicine woman who lived kitty-corner from them—simply told him he was blessed, “Tocado con agua bendita.”
Still, he never understood why water beckoned him, what drew him to work on the Brownstones –to– Matamoros ferry as a teenager, what drew him to Corpus Christi where he landed a job on a shrimping boat.
Guadalupe—or Wally as the gringo shrimpers rechristened him—never understood what it was about the rollicking waves and briny air that seemed to quell his penchant for wandering (“Born with sealegs, that Wally,” the shrimpers often said after the boat had had another bout with a tropical storm).
And Wally would never understand what made him start dreaming of giant dust clouds encroaching the horizon, like a hurricane of dry clouding the coast in blackened ash. He couldn’t put a thumb on what drove him away again, just felt it—a reflex as natural as breathing—the pull to follow the contours of coasts, travel upwater, head north.
1938, just before the Dust Bowl’s third wave, Wally followed the black blizzard to the East Coast, figured dirt that had kicked itself all up into a frenzy couldn’t hurt him once it settled, drove his Chevy truck past Washington, DC, trekked over the Potomac into Maryland until he meandered onto the Chesapeake Bay, skidded roadside along the Wye River and felt his stirrings settle. He took a spell scraping the barnacled skins of flat-bottom boats and crabber vessels. Soon enough, he landed jobs working the aquatic fields. Skiffs, nets, crab-pots, buoys, the sharp green scent of marshland. Not the raucous salty ocean he was used to, but a happy melding of water and work.
“I need a steady hand.”
Wally heard the low, gruff voice—more a grumble than speech. He lifted his head from the engine of the boat he was working on, the sun blinding his view of the dock, could only glean a bright red corona of hair framing high cheekbones, a square jaw. “I hear you’re reliable. Hear you got steady sealegs and skin that won’t quit.” Funny thing about Wally’s skin, the way it didn’t pink in the sun; didn’t burn, or blister; just sort of shifted from white to a caramel glow. Made some watermen talk—a little too brown for their tastes—while others gawked in awe: a body built for the Bay.
“What all you have in mind?” Wally asked. The promise of a schedule of steady work coupled with the company: it all smelled like greener pastures. Though in truth Wally was sold once the sunglare got out of his eyes and he focused on Jonah’s pale blue irises. “I’m all yours.”
All went swimmingly. A few months out, meeting Jonah’s wife, Norah, for the first time—a stout firecracker of a woman heavy with child—and Jonah’s son Artemio, the bright flare of his freckles so much like his father’s. Weeks later, Norah’s miscarriage, the doctor saying it’s the end of the line. Norah’s silence, Jonah’s frustration. Grief looming like a tropical depression getting ready to swirl and get all flung out into a hurricane.
“I just want Norah to be happy,” Jonah telling Wally, “instead it’s like she’s empty inside.”
“What about you—are you happy?” Wally clasping Jonah’s shoulder, muscle firm as an unripe peach.
“I wanna punch a hole in the world.” Jonah clenching his fists, his body stiffening as Wally embraces him, the two men breathing in tandem, their lungs pumping in a steady rhythm as easily as their hands working the water in time to the visible pulse of tide.
Wally driving Jonah back home in his blue Chevy. Wally flicking the station away from Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.”
“Dammit!” Jonah dialing the station back.
“What the hell?” Wally saying as his fingers spring back to the radio dial.
Jonah’s grip on his hand now, clasping tight. “I’m listening.”
“Damn mournful if you ask me.” Wally holding his gaze steady on the road but out of the corner of his eye glinting the redfaced ire on Jonah’s face. “Besides, it’s my truck.”
Jonah slamming his fist into the dashboard.
Wally swinging the wheel and wrenching the truck off road onto the gravel. “Let’s have this out!”
The two of them, forms swaying among the cattails, the roadside ditch sloping their bodies down. Jonah swings a punch to Wally’s ribs but Wally yanks away in time—a dance he learned many a time proving his manhood on the deck of a swaying ship. Wally pulls his punches, teases Jonah down into the marshy wet, then an embrace, a kiss, lips stunned by the prickle of sandpaper stubble.
“What the hell was that?” Jonah says, too winded to yell.
“Anything you want it to be,” Wally says. For a moment neither flinches, forearm muscles taut beneath the rolled-up cuffs of their workshirts, the setting sun glinting copper and black off the thick hair on their wrists. Wally pulls Jonah back in close.
Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” playing on the drive back to Jonah’s place, both men quiet, their hands occasionally knotting together on the truck’s stick shift.
The rest is as easy as the diurnal undulations of tide: a back and forth, the steady increase of water levels followed by a letting go. Clench, release.
Months turned to years, Jonah and Wally composing a steady rhythm of work and touch, labor and affection. Artemio sprouting like a pole bean, learning a waterman’s ways, the deft means of ropes, knots, and nets. Wally getting ready to purchase his own boat and expand their business into a partnership. But what neither Wally Calletano nor Jonah Bywater, Jr. cared to notice was Norah hovering about the edges of their entanglement. Norah as she scrubbed and beat Wally’s scent off Jonah’s shirts—cotton smashed and grated against lava rocks. Norah neglected.
Wally driving back from Annapolis after seeing the perfect boat: he’d been ready to strike a deal but something at the back of his brain kept bugging him. Better have Jonah take a look. But what he met as he pulled into the Bywater driveway was Norah sobbing into the deputy’s arms, Artemio steadying himself against the police car’s trunk, Jonah’s absence palpable as a cold front heavying the air. Artemio’s blue eyes hard as steel catching Wally’s gaze and saying, “The water’s took him. Dad’s gone.”
Search parties, trawlers, nets: no body.
Launching the skiff out into the Chesapeake, circling the waters where Norah claimed she’d last seen Jonah, searching for his lover’s body, Wally came to know the truth of his existence: that everything he could have every truly loved was taken up all too soon by water.
An excerpt from Embarkations, a novel-in-progress. For more information on Marcos L. Martinez, visit stillhousepress.org.