“J.P. Wakes” an excerpt from Dreaming Nicaragua –a novel about San Juan del Sur by David Gullette (purchase this book at Fenway Press)
HE HAS BEEN WRESTLING SOMETHING DARK AND SLEEK FOR HOURS
and hours, maybe years, maybe hundreds of years until he and the dark sleek thing have become a single self-grappling mass of weariness and sweat with neither willing to loosen the shared grip until a sound–the boom of a single clean wave breaking or a child crying out or the whistling teakettle rising glissando of the boat-tailed zanate or maybe all these at once–sends hims upward out of sleep like a bubble of air wobbling up through glassy water to the surface.
His eyes open: there are peeling inch-thick tubes of cana gorda between the rafters, a tiny lizard upside-down on the stucco wall, motes of dust blown about through the first shaft of sun through the top of the shutter. Now the sounds stand each apart: next door, Maria Eugenia’s chained parrot Pedrito chattering away like a madman; up on the hillside someone singing in a distant room; here, the wind breathing through the wooden hotel, shaking lifting twisting everything; out there, the creak of an oxcart coming down the street, then the creaking stops, a pause, then thunk! thunk! kerplunk! as the split lengths of firewood hit the ground. From wood to fire to water to coffee. He smacksucks his tongue against his palate and his slightly scummy hungover palate says: cafecito, por favor.
Socorro, his manager, cook and counselor, is in the courtyard washing dishes at the washtable, water splashing onto the muddy ground, already at this early hour beads of sweat around her brow. She has already made coffee in a big open pan licked by smoke and peppered with flying ash. Jesse touches her shoulder and dips a cup in the steaming pan.
–?Como amaneciste, hermana? (How did you dawn, wonderful verb, to dawn oneself, to be dawned.)
She sighs. He sips.
–Aiee, mas o menos, more or less, can’t complain, at least I’m alive and breathing, thanks be to God.
–What’s the news?
–I didn’t hear you come in last night.
–It was late. Drinking with foreigners down at the waterfront.
–Drinking with foreigners. Hmph. Look, before you came home in came a great many visitors all wanting beds, so I let them in and now all our beds are full and they’ll be up before long wanting their breakfasts and I haven’t got enough to feed them all.
–Off to La Virgen. Her Mamita fell sick.
–Of course. I forgot. No problem, I’ll shop: what do we need?
Socorro wipes her hands and stares off into space.
–Bread, or picos. And some fruit. And eggs. And tortillas. Frijoles I’ve got plenty. Cafe I’ve got plenty.
A zanate flutters down into the courtyard almost at Jesse’s feet, picks away at stray bits of rice, dark waxy leaves of the old mango sway and shiver in the sudden gust, smoke from Socorro’s fire pluming, wisping, everywhere. Jesse finishes his half-cup of oversweetened coffee and picks up the big basket.
–Back soon. Not too much noise. Let the travellers sleep.
–Sleepers wake when they’re good and ready. You can’t rush these things.
–Whatever you say. See you in half an hour.
–If God wills it.
–If He doesn’t will it, let Him go to market instead.
Socorro throws the wet dishrag at him, he ducks.
–How many eggs?
–Two dozen. You could make them one of your famous what do you call them, homiletes.
In the streets more breakfast smoke tumbling through trees and over walls and down alleys, that peculiar Nicaraguan smoke smell, part manure, part blossom. There goes the wood-man’s oxcart, almost empty now. In the doorway of the old blue and white burnt-out house two drunks whisper, their heads together brow to brow. Jesse steps carefully: here a puddle, there oxshit, and snaking across the roadway every twenty or thirty feet the soapy creeks of washwater coming out from under a fence or through a gap in a yard-wall, guttering seaward.
Into the sugary darkness of the bakery, dona Ana coming from the back room, bearing an immense tray of picos–honey-filled three-cornered-envelopes, like small Spanish constables’ hats, browned to a turn.
–Don Ysse, bueno dia.
They shake forearms, her fingers so loose around his wrist as to be almost not touching, her flesh under his slightly firmer grip soft and loose.
–And how did the dawn find you, dona?
–Well enough, thanks be to God.
–I’m glad to hear it. Let us speak of picos.
Her brow furrows as though she were hearing the word for the first time in her long life as a baker.
–Let us speak of these picos right here, these beautiful picos.
–Ah, the picos. How many? Four, five?
–How many do you have here?
A quick mental calculation fails to produce the number. Her fingers race over the mound, counting by twos, lifting and counting.
–Forty. Exactly forty.
–I’ll take half.
–I’ll take twenty.
Two, four, six, the linked parallelograms of double picos land on the sheet of old newspaper. As he watches the pastries pile up, Jesse allows stray words to float up before his eyes: Leon, democrats, conservatives, Granada, traitors, vendepatrias–they are selling out the fatherland. The rhetoric is getting grease-stained. She folds the paper over the twenty (or so) picos and puts them into his basket.
–For your guests?
–Yes. Socorro says a heap of them wandered in last night looking for a place to lay their weary heads. Can you put this on our weekly account?
Again the furrowed brow: account? Then she brightens.
–Of course. Like when Juana comes in. The account.
–Adios. May you go well.
As he passes the church the bells start ringing; he looks up and sees the bees swarm out of the belfry. Celestial honey. Cocks crow, dogs bark, and Rodolfo the schoolteacher crosses the street to greet him with his typical wideswinging handslapping handshake.
–Don Rodolfo, how goes the world?
–The world? Our world? Completamente jodido. Fucked up. But what else is new? Did we expect it to be otherwise? In the name of all the saints, what was God thinking when he made Nicaragua? No, no, the real question is not how is this wretched mess of a world but how is the fishing and when are we going fishing next. Not fishing is like an itch you can’t scratch. It’s driving me loco.
–By all means, for certain, without a doubt, let’s fish. But what about a boat? The schoolteacher is boatless, the innkeeper is boatless: what will we do? We can’t swim up to Brito.
–Brito, says Rodolfo. Brito, where the pargos off Giant’s Foot Rock are fat as pigs. Brito, where big red wiggling pigs come up de profundis into your waiting arms. Don’t worry yourself with that; let me arrange the boat. You just sharpen your hooks and then it’s off to Brito. Unless of course your yanqui friends build a canal through pargolandia before we arrive.
–What yanqui friends? What canal?
–Surely you’ve heard. They want to build a canal from San Juan del Norte on the Costa Atlantica up the river and across the lake and right out into the blue Pacific, either right here in San Juan del Sur, or possibly up in Brito. With just my luck they’ll run it right down past my house so I’ll have brass bells and steam-whistles waking me instead of drunken poets and farting pigs.
–Ah yes, I’ve heard that rumor, says Jesse. It’s an old dream. Why even Baron von Humboldt used to salivate about cutting a trench between Brito and the lake. So did Louis Napoleon. Old story, ropa vieja. A pretty threadbare dream. I wouldn’t sell my horse for a rowboat just yet.
Rodolfo seems lost in thought, staring into middle space.
–Yanquis. Are yanquis more dynamic than Nicas because they have more money, or do they have more money because…?
–Just let me know, querido dinamico, when you dynamically locate a dynamic boat. A day’s notice is all I need.
–For certain. Leave it to me.
–I will. Unless of course I meet Toto first. In which case….
–In which case, I deputize you to consolidate our glorious arrangements.
–Understood. Until then.
Jesse heads past the hoosegow down toward the port, sidestepping a pair of recently fucking dogs glued together at their posteriors, little dog facing north, big dog facing south: an emblem. Jodidos. Fucked up, fucked over. Completely.
Compita the longshoreman joins him.
–How’s work on the docks these days, brother?
–More or less, says Compita. Boat came in last night, lots of rice. We start unloading today, send it all up to Granada, Managua.
–We should be sending that good Nica rice to the world, not importing that shit from China or Louisiana or wherever.
–We want to send rice we’ve got to plant rice. You ever try to grow rice? Maybe you can’t find seed rice, or if you find it, you can’t get credit, or if you find a lender he wants the shirt off your back, and even if you do get the money along comes a drought or a plague of vermin. And so on and so on. How is rice going to get itself planted in such a god-forsaken country as this? I ask you.
–Don’t work too hard out there. Watch your back.
–Right, sure. Later.
The streets are full of foreigners today: Americans, Germans, Swedes, passing through on their way to elsewhere, a babble of tongues. He turns right at the corner, goes down a block and plunges into the market: heaps of bananas, nisperos, melons, onions, papaya, oranges, potatoes, yucca, limes, a few wilted celery stalks, some flabby-looking carrots, bowls of brick-red achiote paste, and in the rear the ragged strips of fly-covered beef and pork like the flayed flesh of martyrs hanging from nails, and in the back corner, surrounded by live chickens with tied-up legs, the egg lady.
–How can I serve you, don? What will you carry away?
–Two dozen, mi amor. Can you fit them into the basket?
As she’s fitting the eggs in two at a time around the package of picos, he glances up. Over by the public kitchen and the bench-lined tables is a tall stranger in a black hat. He is staring right at Jesse. The face, what he can see of it, is not particularly familiar, but there is something in the grim and insolent bearing of the man–some echo of a previous encounter, some smirking hint of recognition–that sends a chill through Jesse’s spine.
–And what about a chicken? says the egg lady.
–What? Uh, no. Just the eggs.
He counts out the coins and, turning to leave, looks across the big room. The man is gone.
Along the beachfront road he meets the poet Angel Sandino, barefoot, sleepy, always already drunk again, or as Angel himself loves to intone it as he stumbles down the streets of the port: siempre…todavia…ya…otra vez…he tomado unas gotitas del sol….
–Poet! How goes the world?
Angel rubs his eyes, stretches his scrawny frame, yawns.
–The yanqui Nica! The Nica yanqui! Who is this man with two countries but no country at all? Who…who is this wanderer who has… come home to roost in our little nest by the sea? Who is he? And what is more important, will he… will he buy me a little bottle of the nectar of the gods?
–Perhaps later. As you can see, I have a cargo of eggs to deliver.
–The old god, the old one, half serpent, half bird, laid an egg, and out came… out came….
–Out came…. I forget. Maybe it was the sea. Maybe the big lake. I forget. But it was something…big. The old gods loved us. But they always wanted something in return.
–Something in return.
–Yes. A ransom. Or a sacrifice. Something in return. Like you give me an egg and I give you a bottle.
–Or I give you an egg and you give me a lake.
Angel seems stone cold sober for a moment.
–You’re mocking me. You think I’m only a drunken poet.
–I’m not mocking you, but yes, I think you’re a poet and you’re… you’ve had more than your share of the world’s guaro.
Angel wrinkles his nose scornfully and turns away, mumbling only to himself now: el gringo con su huevo… what does he want? what is he looking for? Why here? Porque aqui? Bucando su huevo….
Down along the beachfront, children running, laughing, crying, shouting–a nation of children–and horses tied to palm trees, pigs in the surf, cows in the garbage heaps, goats in the back gardens, chickens stumbling over ducks: How in the world did I end up here?
Big green translucent tubes of waves breaking to his left, orderly, sweeping in each one as itself only, booming once over whitely one at a time up and down the whole two miles of beach. Terns, gulls. And pelicans banking over like broken kites, beakfirst breakfast: schools of sardines so thick they turn the water black, and up from below explosions of teeth: pinueleros or maquerelas, even a stray hurel, and how long ago did I start to think in Spanish? The water boils with fins and blood and foam for ten seconds and then goes suddenly calm.
Out at the northern tip of the bay, above the waves breaking up on the rocks of the pena, dark chunk of stratified lava like a man’s head: Cara de Indio. Maybe Chief Nicarao, who lived in a town called Nicaragua, which was the old name for Rivas. Man becomes town becomes country.
And this town? San Juan del Sur? Why Sur? You leave San Juan del NORTE on the Carribean and you head WestNorthWest up the river and then NorthWest across the lake and end up here, substantially farther NORTH and yet you call this Saint John of the SOUTH and why is that? Because the Atlantic was called the Northern Sea and the Pacific the Southern Sea, but why is that? Remember to look it up. Mistakes as history. A history of mistakes. History as mistakes. Like naming an entire continent after some johnny-come-lately Italian, or calling the “redskins,” whose skins aren’t really red, “Indians,” with India halfway around the damn planet. These things dog us. Doctrine of Original Misnomer.
Toto comes round the corner.
–Eii, Capitan! says Jesse.
They slap hands and grip.
–What’s new, amigo?
–Let’s go fishing.
–Why not? For certain. When?
–Sunday! says Toto in mock horror. What will the little priest say?
–Jesus fished on the sabbath. Why not us? Besides, it’s Rodolfo’s best day.
–Profesor Rodolfo? I’m glad I don’t have to feed my family on the fish HE catches.
–But he loves the sport. He truly does.
–Sport. Is that what he calls it? For me it’s work.
–He dreams of Brito and its pargo.
Toto tilts his head, his eyes roll up.
–He dreams of Brito? Well then, Sunday it is.
–Good. An early start. Until then.
The tortilla shed is like an outhouse leaning against the streetside of the courtyard wall. A brick platform, a waist-high fire, and atop the fire the comal, a convex surface of superheated earthenware, one tortilla toasting at a time, a small waist-high table with masa in a bowl and the cooked tortillas in a basket covered with a cotton cloth, smell of hot cornmeal and smoke everywhere, scarcely room for the two of them. Martita smacks the little wads of dough back and forth pitpat pitpat so fast her hands blur as the pale circle thins and widens.
–So, hermana, how many are ready to go?
–Hermano, I believe the number to be ten or so, more or less.
–Permit me to buy them all. I have a house full of hungry mouths.
–This one is ready. (Off it comes steaming on the tips of her fingers and into the basket and under the cotton.) And I’ll put this one on the fire. Now, where shall I put these hot ones?
–In my basket?
–They might cook your eggs. They’re still very hot.
–Uh…how about my shirt? (He pulls his shirt out of his pants with a free hand and makes a loopy valley.)
–Whatever you say. Here we go.
She puts the stack of tortillas onto the shirt and Jesse draws the shirt to his chest. Now both hands are occupied.
–I can’t get to my money. Can I pay you later?
Martita looks him up and down and smiles sardonically.
–You have an honest face. I know you’ll be back. You always come back.
Jesse heads home with the hot perfumed tortillas steaming up his heart. The courtyard is now full of the awakened visitors, some stretching and yawning, others gathered around Socorro’s fire, chatting with her in broken Spanish and drinking coffee. He strides forward, holding his basket high.
–Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to San Juan del Sur!