Captain of the Sleepers

A Novel

Mayra Montero; Translated by Edith Grossman


Excerpted from Captain of the Sleepers by Mayra Montero. Copyright © 2002 by Mayra Montero. Translation copyright © 2005 by Edith Grossman. Published in September 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

I’M in the last place on earth I’d like to be. Waiting for the last person in this life I thought I’d ever see again. It’s almost six. I’m sipping beer at the bar of the Pink Fancy, a hotel on St. Croix where I arrived just a few minutes ago, carrying a small week end bag.
When I arrived I was registered by a woman who didn’t stop laughing. She was young and fairly heavy, and apparently she could not forget the joke that another employee-a man who was looking over some papers and laughing quietly too-had just told her. I asked about my reservation, and with a thin, high-pitched voice she answered in the kind of correct English that was unusual on this island. Then she handed me a brochure with a map of the city (she didn’t give me time to explain that I could walk around Christiansted with my eyes closed), drew a circle around one of the restaurants, and recommended that I be sure to eat there. I agreed with a smile that I’m afraid she thought was mocking. She drew back, behaved like an offended butler, and told me drily that my room was on the second floor. Before I went up I asked her for Mr. Bunker’s room number, John Timothy Bunker; I stressed each syllable and seemed to hear my father’s voice: “J.T.,” which he pronounced in English, not Spanish. That’s what he always called the Captain of the Sleepers.
I went upstairs and took a deep breath before I picked up the phone. How long had it been since I’d heard his voice? Fifty years, fifty-one in a few months. The last time I talked to him I was twelve years old, standing in the entrance to my father’s small hotel. In the midst of all that sorrow it was where I took refuge, and the Captain tousled my hair as he passed by; he usually did that. He took a few steps, and then he stopped to see if I’d say anything to him. But I didn’t open my mouth, I went on shuffling the cards I’d been playing with, so he decided to speak even though his voice sounded different. He said: “It’s how you grow up, son.” I didn’t understand the meaning of that sentence until many years later. By then, I’d begun to wonder if what I saw was really what I saw. And I’d also begun to wonder if it was really worth killing the Captain, which was what I’d sworn to do no matter where I found him.
The listless voice of a frail old man answered the phone. “This is Andres,” I said. “I’m here.”
I didn’t count on his beginning to sob. That was my first impression, and then I thought perhaps they weren’t sobs. Maybe sitting up, picking up the phone, or simply speaking was a great effort for him. Especially speaking; he himself had told me that the cancer had reached his throat. He paused and murmured: “Thank you for coming.” I didn’t answer, and he went on to say that he’d arrived the day before from Maine and was exhausted, but we could meet in an hour at the bar. I assured him I’d be there. I had a hunch he was going to say something else, but I didn’t give him the chance. I hung up; I was panting and had the feeling I’d been running for my life; yes, to save it, but for how long?
I turned on the TV; hung up my clothes-a jacket, a pair of trousers, the shirts Gladys had been folding as she told me not to go to St. Croix-and opened a bottle of water. Then I lay down on the bed, and as soon as my head touched the pillow I decided I had to move quickly. I took the key and walked out to the corridor. I went down to the bar and ordered a beer. I couldn’t permit myself the luxury of just going down and finding the old man waiting for me. To begin with, I didn’t want him to say that now I looked even more like my father, and when he saw me come in, with the light behind me, he imagined it was his friend Frank walking toward him. Though my father didn’t live to see sixty, and I’m sixty-two. Sixty-two years that I don’t carry very well; I’m sure I look older, which I don’t care about one way or the other. I felt old, I got used to being old from the time I was a boy.
The Captain, by my estimate, must be eighty-three, too old for that uncomfortable flight from Maine, stopping in San Juan and changing planes for the Virgin Islands. But I must confess I wouldn’t have agreed to see him anywhere but the Pink Fancy.
Only here do I have the courage to face what he’s going to tell me. Courage, and the kind of foreboding that lets you throw everything overboard. This hotel, almost as old as I am, tells me everything. I came here often as a child; I played here on vacation, and during those years it was my favorite place. In fact, I once asked my father if we could pain the windows and eaves of our little hotel on Vieques blue and change its name instead of Frank’s Guesthouse we could call it the Blue Fancy. But Papa refused, and now I find it logical that he wouldn’t have wanted to. He told me to get my own hotel when I grew up and call it whatever I liked. I didn’t do that. I studied law, and- it never occurred to me to run a small hotel on the beach. I suspect it’s too late now to try to open one.
“Too late,” I repeat, and instinctively I look at my watch. I’m in the last place I want to be, it’s six-fifteen, and I’ve finished my first beer. I’m getting ready to order the second when I see him coming toward me. How far can a man fall without collapsing completely? The Captain is wearing the kind of hat he always wore-a dark panama-very wide khaki trousers, and a white polo shirt that’s too tight and mercilessly reveals his sharp pointed bones. He looks everywhere except at me, though for the moment I’m the only person sitting at one of the little tables in the deserted bar. Not for an instant does he attempt to look at me, though he recognizes me, of course. He recognizes the boy he stopped seeing but has always seen. A nightmare recurs and torments him, a terrible one in which he sees my eyes, I’m sure about that. If not, he wouldn’t have done anything to meet me here.
I stand and hold out my hand. He does the same, and as we shake hands I detect the stink of vomit. The smell comes from his clothes, perhaps from his skin; I suppose he was vomiting just before he came down to see me. By the time we sit down, I’m better able to confront his ruination. That’s the word to describe his face, which has been distorted in the worst possible way: a lizard’s eyes in violet-colored sockets, devastated ears like those of a leper, sunken cheeks tinged with gray.
“This is what cancer’s like,” he says with a smile, as if he’d guessed what I was thinking.
I wonder how he sees me. Fifty years have gone by and I can’t declare a victory. Not much of that suntanned twelve year-old boy, with his curly hair and cleft chin, could be recognized in this pale, flabby, totally bald old man. A mortar shell in Vietnam almost tore off my leg. They managed to save it, but I walk with a limp. When it’s going to rain, I limp and feel pain and a kind of rage that makes me tighten my lips involuntarily; the rest of the time I barely notice my limp.
“Do you shave your head?” the Captain. asks.
“Hardly at all,” I reply. “There’s not much to shave up there.” He starts to laugh, and again it’s as if he were sobbing. “I’m not feeling very well,” he confesses. “I finished a cycle of chemotherapy three days ago.”
“You already know why I’ve come,” I say, unmoved. “I don’t want you to feel worse.”
The Captain shakes his head. The waitress comes over and asks what we’d like to drink. He orders whiskey in a brandy snifter. I ask for another beer.
“I’m almost as old as you,” I say, trying to maintain a neutral, almost mild tone. “I could have died years ago, when I was in Vietnam, or last year, when I collapsed in the middle of the street; I came out of that with a pacemaker. Take a look at me, J.T. Don’t you think I have a right to know what happened?”
I could swear the Captain looks at me joyfully. He tightens the line of his mouth, where there are no longer lips or anything that resembles them. Though I’m seeing them in my mind. I see his mouth, his lips full and well-defined beneath his slim mustache, and his determined jaw, the classic jaw of a fearless redhead. Which is what the Captain was.
“Ask whatever you like,” he says defiantly, raising his voice and narrowing his eyes, as if he suddenly could not bear the humble light of the world. It’s begun to grow dark.
“Just tell me if you did it.”
“Yes, I did something.” He spits out the words slowly, like seeds that he’s been sucking. “I won’t be sorry when I’m dead.”
He says dead, and I recall the word death on his lips. “You don’t talk about death.” That’s what he said to me the first time I got into his plane, a Parakeet Cessna (my mother gave it that name because it was green and blue). As soon as I knew I was flying and looked down at the beach-the beach, and the gray spot my father had turned into-I asked him if we were going to fall. He didn’t answer, and I repeated the question in a louder voice, using different words: I asked him if we were going to die. He stopped laughing and concentrated on the sky: “In my plane you don’t talk about those things. You don’t talk about death.” I must have been about seven, and my father, who had insisted on my flying with the Captain, came with us to Roca Escondida, the beach next to the small, improvised Mosquito landing strip used by only two pilots: Reverend Vincent in his silver de Havilland, and the Captain of the Sleepers in his Cessna 140. Papa used to say that those of us who lived on the islands had to get used to flying from the time we were children. On that occasion, my mother agreed with him. She buttoned my shirt and suggested I pay attention because I was going to see the spread from the sky. She gave the name “spread” to the pairing of the small hotel and our own house, an old wooden building in the back that in those days seemed to me like a mansion too big to be encompassed, with three or four rooms on the second floor, and a basement where Papa kept the old beds that he replaced in the hotel.
“How long since you’ve been to Martineau?”
The Captain’s voice, which is not entirely his voice, tears me from my daydream as if I were being torn from an enchanted womb. The strip of beach in front of the hotel, the hill behind the house, the small hollow with the dry woods, all of that land was called Martineau.
“I haven’t been there for decades. I have no reason to go.”
“Of course you have a reason,” he protests, with a touch of irony. “But you can’t force things. One day, you’ll suddenly feel like seeing how it’s changed. I’ve heard they’ve built another hotel in Martineau, in the same spot. You’re going to feel like confronting all that.”
“I only want to confront one thing,” I say, biting off each syllable.
The Captain shudders but goes on talking. He says that a year ago, when he learned about his illness, he felt the impulse to see me again, the impulse to return to Vieques. He called his friends on St. Croix, the few he had left, and found out I lived in San Juan. Mter that it was fairly easy to get my telephone number from an operator, and even easier to call the house and ask my wife if I was in.
“Your wife,” he exclaims, as if he just remembered, “didn’t she come with you?”
“She didn’t want to;’ I tell him. “She didn’t want me to come either.”
He moves his head, controls the impulse to ask why.
“I talked to her,” I explain in any event. “We were married thirty-two years ago, but we’ve known each other for forty. There isn’t much she doesn’t know about me. She knows about this.”
He raises his left hand, leaves it in the air for a moment, and then suddenly lowers it onto my hand. I feel as if it were the involuntary movement of a skeleton that somebody had shaken after centuries of immobility.
“It never happened,” he says, trembling. “Not in the way you imagine.”
I look at my glass because I’m afraid I have no beer left.
There’s a silence, which the Captain uses to take up again the thread he had let drop, the sibylline point of the story. He composes himself and murmurs that he’s happy to be back on St. Croix, especially in the Pink Fancy. Here, this hotel, is where he came hundreds of times in the company of my father, starting in the days when it was a private club for the sugar barons. This same bar is where they drank and talked about matters of interest, exchanged confidences, and perhaps felt mutual envy.
“I miss Frank.” His voice comes out in a falsetto. “I always missed him. And the food at the hotel, he had a good cook there, that Elodio, imagine my remembering his name. Not to mention Braulia, who cooked even better:’
He orders another whiskey, and I ask if the doctors allow him to drink He replies that in his condition they allow him almost everything. We fall silent and continue drinking. Not moving. Waiting. Finally he orders his third drink, and when they bring it he lifts his hand again but doesn’t let it fall on mine; instead, he raises it to his throat and pinches the scaly skin under his chin with two fingers.
“I can explain what you saw.”
I feel a mouthful of beer slowly overflow my stomach and begin to rise to my chest. When I was twelve, after I saw the image of the Captain for the last time, I had the same sensation but with a different liquid, perhaps bile, perhaps blood. That night I began vomiting and was still vomiting the next morning, and the day after that, and on each successive day. I couldn’t tolerate anything in my stomach, and my eyes were becoming sunken. They moved me to San Juan, to a hospital where they gave me shots. I turned into a half-crazed boy, starting at the wall and talking to imaginary lights. It took more than three months for me to recover, and when I went back to Vieques everybody thoughts they’d put another boy in my place.
“That day,” the Captain whispered, “I tried to crash the plane into the reefS at La Esperanza, but I didn’t have the courage. When I got to your house, I already knew I didn’t have the courage.” He pauses and slowly drains the last swallow from his glass. The liquor trickles from the corners of his mouth. “My head was on fire…my lungs hurt, I was soaked. Don’t you remember that I came to your house dripping wet?”
No, I didn’t remember. I my memory, for all these years I’d seen him dry. Dry and abject, like a dark piece of wood.
“I wanted to stop and talk to you,” the Captain mutters. “But I had to keep going. I needed someone to comfort me.” He passes his hand over his mouth, the back of his hand. It is a menacing gesture, and at the same time a defeated one. “Then I did what I did. That comforted me.”