Fiction - Winter 2019


By Edward Hower | December 3, 2018
Photo-illustration by Stephanie Bastek (Flickr/Michael Muraz/Russ Allison Loar)
Photo-illustration by Stephanie Bastek (Flickr/Michael Muraz/Russ Allison Loar)

“Down to the sea!” my Uncle Ray would call out as his party guests started to leave after midnight. Waving a champagne bottle, he’d corral his friends and me into a caravan of taxis bound for the West Side docks, where, according to newspaper listings, an ocean liner would be leaving for South America or Europe.

As a deluge of rainbow streamers poured down the ship’s hull, he’d lead a charge up the gangplank looking for celebrations. Effervescent, beaming, he befriended strangers who, assuming he was embarking with them, passed out drinks to us. If he spotted a lounge piano, his fingers flew over the keys as he led sing-alongs of raucous show tunes.

Eventually we’d hear the draconian public address system’s blare: ALL ASHORE THAT’S GOING ASHORE! Ray’s music ceased in an extravagant arpeggio. He rose unsteadily to his feet and, waving to everyone, shuffled down the gangplank to the wharf.

“Bon voyage! ” I would hear him cry up at the passengers lining the railings until he was so hoarse that he sounded on the verge of tears.

Lonely and feeling scorched after my college girlfriend moved out, I was glad for the invitations to Ray’s parties, which were at first lively with old friends he’d made in Chile. He had been based there for more than 20 years, working his way up from purser to first mate on cruise ships with Explorer Lines Inc., until he was suddenly transferred to New York. At the parties, he always found time to listen to me talk about my restlessness and family troubles. I also got to spend time with his friend Lucia, a willowy Chilean nightclub singer on whom, though she was older than me and possibly a lesbian, I was developing a crush.

And there was the music. Ray’s frenetic performances always raised my spirits, though his tastes were different from mine. I had started appearing in Greenwich Village coffeehouses with my guitar, singing left-wing Latin-American songs, often those of Victor Jara, a composer I especially admired.

Lucia said she wished she could sing his songs at the club where she worked.

“But the patrons, the mumios, like them”—she wrinkled her nose at a group of Ray’s new guests, dark-suited men clustered away from the piano—“they would shout me off the stage.”

Mumios was Chilean slang for “mummies,” or tightly bound conservatives. Not wanting to cause trouble for Ray by offending them—he was always the most dapper guy in the room, in pinstripes and button-down shirts—I wore my old prep school sports jacket and tied my long hair back when I went uptown to his parties. Lucia must have felt as out of place among the old-guard guests as I did. I asked her why she kept coming to Ray’s parties.

“To watch out for him.”

“You don’t think he’s getting like those guys, do you?”

Never! ” She shook her head, her long, black hair sweeping against her cheeks. “Ray is too sweet a man to get involved in any politics.”

I had fond memories of Ray from childhood, when he would arrive at the big, chilly house on Long Island with exuberant hugs for me and my mother (no one else in the family hugged anybody) and exotic gifts. His surprise visits threw our home into a disorder that delighted my mother—his sister—and sent my father off for long days at the country club with his cronies.

When I was seven, Ray showed up in a dazzling white uniform and a cap with a silver eagle insignia perched above the bill. It reminded my mother of the uniform he’d worn during the war, when Explorer Lines, through an arrangement with the U.S. Navy, had commissioned him to help guard the South American coastline against Nazi submarines. With a wide, flushed smile, he knelt down so that his round face was level with mine. Out of his duffel he produced, like a magician, two miniature Easter Island heads and held them out to me. They had a rough texture, and grew warmer the harder I squeezed them. The figures were solid copper, the metal mined by North American corporations in Chile, and represented statues of gods. “Many, many years ago,” he said, “the people who sailed across the Pacific Ocean in long canoes carved heads like these out of huge boulders. Then they moved them to the island’s shore to look out to sea. No one’s ever discovered how they did it.”

When I was 12, Ray appeared at the house bringing a leather case with bright chrome corners. Opening it into two red-lined halves, he lifted out an accordion, which he then strapped around my shoulders. “Go ahead, give her a squeeze!” I did. The instrument gave off an angelic keening deep in my rib cage. That was when I started learning music.

As my senior year at college started, Ray threw fewer parties at his apartment and started taking his company’s Chilean clients—businessmen, politicians, and military officers—out to nightclubs three, four, even five nights a week. Explorer Lines, Lucia said, had assigned Ray to be their tour guide; the corporation was under pressure from Washington to keep Chile’s former elites happy as they festered in exile after the country’s socialist president, Salvador Allende, won the election. When Allende nationalized the North American copper companies, we’d read that the Nixon administration was trying to destabilize the country’s new government.

“Ray cannot bear to read about such ‘rumors,’ ” she told me quietly.

He’d heard her. “I’ve got enough on my hands holding onto my damn job!”

Like Lucia, I went along to the clubs with him to offer moral support. “The VIPs don’t demand Ray to get them call girls,” she told me, “if he has a family member with him.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t bring you along, with these people,” Ray said to me one night, staring down into his double scotch on the rocks. Despite his receding hairline, he’d always looked much younger than most men in their 50s, but tonight his eyes were watery and red-rimmed.

“No, I’m glad to be here.” I was sitting beside him while the table was empty of clients who, having found women on their own, danced to the Latin Quarter’s big brassy band. I always liked those private moments when I could get him talking about his life at sea.

“I remember taking the night watch on deck,” he told me, “and looking out at millions of tiny luminous creatures floating everywhere around me. They’d turn the ocean to a glowing field all the way to the horizon …”

He asked about my plans after graduation. My father and I had reached an uneasy détente: he’d pay my graduate school tuition if I applied in economics or business. But I’d been accepted in a three-year program teaching in one of the newly independent countries of East Africa. The job looked fascinating, with time off to travel, but it paid only a subsistence salary. I hadn’t mentioned it to my father.

“He wants me to ‘get serious for a change.’ ”

“Oh, yeah, serious.” Ray said, sighing. “When the company sent me to New York …” He drained his glass and clunked it down.

“I thought that was a promotion,” I said.

“The opposite, it turned out. My bosses had no idea what the hell to do with me here—at first.” Ray shook his head. “So you’re in a career limbo right now, too. I don’t know what to tell you, pal. I wish I could think clearly—” He tightened his necktie and, in the same movement, hoisted his smile into place. “¡Hola! Here come the troops!”

The clients were back, puffing their cigars, scraping out their chairs to sit around a long table again. There was the bullet-eyed former bank president, and a former senator with a razored mustache. Two quiet, brush-cut North Americans. Also a glowering, bald man everyone called Colonél. And others—I lost track of them all. Ray didn’t. He clapped the men on their shoulders, joking in his fluid, hyper Spanish, handing around drinks for yet more toasts.

A mejores tiempos por delante! ” the men shouted, raising glasses. “To better times ahead!”

They were cordial with me, invited me to come stay with their families in Santiago one day soon. For Ray’s sake, I smiled and thanked them and raised my glass when they did.

The last nightspot on Ray’s itinerary was always the small Club Moneda in Greenwich Village, where Lucia worked. Inside, the smoky air was tinted red by table lamps that glowed like rows of hazard lights in a dim cave. The place was several grades down from the big-name venues where Lucia used to sing in sequined gowns, but she insisted she was happier now. “They treated me like a servienta uptown, but here, with the manager—the waiters, too, and the guys in the band—I am like family.” Not a prosperous one, though. In the glare of after-hours lighting, I had seen the rips in the dusty curtains that concealed the pocked walls. “Without Ray bringing in the big spenders,” she whispered to me, “I do not know how we would stay afloat.”

We arrived at the club at two o’clock. By now, Ray’s clients were bleary-eyed, hunching together to give off a collective aggrieved murmur that swelled like lava bubbling around the rim of a volcano. Ray was better than I was at pretending not to hear it. So was Lucia. I watched her stand behind his chair to rest her hand on his shoulder. He was referring to her now as his fiancée; his upward grin at her seemed practiced. Later, from behind the mic on the little stage, she sang Latin love ballads to soothe the men.

After her set with the band—guitar, bass, softly brushed drums—I sat with her in her curtained-off dressing room. When I asked her how she’d gotten started in music, she reminisced about her days at a conservatory where she’d learned to play the harp. She laughed when she described the rich suitors whom her family had urged her to marry. Like me, evidently, she was a refugee from the privileged classes. Fleeing Santiago, she’d wandered around Latin America singing in clubs “where only the cockroaches were sober enough to clap for me.”

Then Ray heard her in a Caracas dive and hired her to sing on Explorer Line cruises. “That man saved me!” she said, her eyes suddenly shining. “We sailed all over the Mediterranean. Then on to Macao and Singapore. Si, and also Africa!” She smiled; Ray had told her about my job offer there. “Not the east coast, though. South Africa.”

“That’s a place I don’t want to go. Not now.”

“No. The white people who run that country are like these Nazis!” She glanced past the curtain at the noisy table full of clients. “Pedro!” she called to a slim-hipped young waiter smoking outside her dressing room. “Go get Señor Ray, por favor! 

Blinking a smile—he seemed to have silk eyelashes—the man nodded. He returned with Ray, who was mopping his face with a damp handkerchief. Several other waiters came in, too, and Lucia poured them shots from a bottle she kept in a drawer. The crowded little room smelled of her makeup and sweet rum. Leaning back in a chair, his legs stretched out, Ray chatted with the waiters about their wives and children.

After a while, the VIPs started shouting for him to come back. Turning toward the booths with the crimson lamps glowing in the cigar smoke, he stood straight-shouldered as a cadet and wove his way out past the stage. The waiters scattered back to their posts.

“I wish Ray didn’t have to do that,” I said, watching him hand around more drinks.

Lucia was silent for a moment, then lifted her head. “You know, his corporation is going to kill him.”

“What do you mean?”

Ai, Jerry!” She pulled a cigarette from her pack. “A man who has worked so hard for that company all those years—and now every night they send him with his alcoholic problem to guzzle drinks with a gang of vicious conspiradores.”

“I always knew he drank. He and my mother’d tie one on when he came to the house …”

“It got worse when he had to leave Chile. Did he tell you what happened?”

I shook my head.

“Allende won the election. And Ray was out.”


Lucia nodded. “Somehow Ray cannot hate the man. I think I understand, though. Ray had so many friends in his party—university teachers, writers, smart people like he is. He even met Pablo Neruda once.”

“Allende’s government—” I frowned. “It expelled Ray?”

“Everyone in his company. The employees’ properties were confiscated. Ray had put all his savings into a beautiful little house that looked over Valparaiso harbor. He hardly had time to pack one suitcase.”

I leaned against the dressing table, off-balance. “And no compensation?”

Nada.” She stubbed out her cigarette. “Now the company pays him a small salary for his ‘services.’ He is in horrible debt, Jerry! I have begged him—please, ask your family for help. But he is too proud to do it.”

“He wouldn’t get anything out of my father.” I said. “But what if he got a job for some other firm?”

“At his age? He is too far gone into this—this nightlife. It is the only way he has to make a living now in the city.” Lucia snapped a flame under her cigarette. “And then there is the other thing.”

She narrowed her eyes at me, exhaling smoke, defying me to pretend I didn’t understand. I’d never mentioned the “other thing” in all my talks with Ray, and he hadn’t either. This was many years before men like Ray would be able to come out to the world without fear. Cop squads raided bars and dragged homosexuals off to jail. The word gay hadn’t even been invented yet, as far as I knew.

I glanced in the direction of his clients. “If those men ever found out …”

Exacto! ” She slashed her forefinger sideways across her throat.

We were sure they were all gone. Ray had packed them into two limos he’d phoned for and sent them uptown to their hotels. Outside the club doorway, a soft luminescence fell over the narrow streets; they were no longer tinted red by the neon Moneda sign but glowed beige like alleys in old Valparaiso, whose sepia-toned photos Ray had shown me. Inside, the club’s manager, a slim woman with spiky hair, opened the door wide to clear out the cigar fumes. In the back, by the bathrooms, I heard a clunking noise—musicians packing up, probably. Forward-leaning chairs dozed against the tables at the empty booths.

“Let’s keep things going!” Ray said.

Lucia had changed out of her fluffy-sleeved dress and now wore loose slacks and a blouse, her hair tied in a ponytail. “We ought to go,” she said, her voice soft. “You had a hard night, amigo. It is late.”

“ ’S never too late!” Ray raised his flushed face. “Our own party. Jus’ us, for a change. How about some music, Lucia? I’d love to hear Jerry accompany you.”

“I’ll be glad to,” I said. I liked the idea of a quiet celebration in our own curtained, after-hours space.

Lucia shrugged and smiled. “What do you want to hear, Ray?”

“You can do one of those songs you both like.”

I knew he was referring to the music of Victor Jara. I’m glad now that I played it that night. It was the last time I would be able to sing it without a terrible sadness plummeting through me. In four months I would read that Jara, a popular supporter of Chile’s socialist government, had been murdered during the coup d’état in Santiago, but not before the soldiers smashed his fingers with their rifle butts so that he would never play the guitar again.

Ray carried a drink to the waiter with the silky eyelashes. The man now wore tight jeans but still had on his uniform shirt with ruffles down the front. A band member handed me a guitar. Its strings slid easily under my fingertips.

Me gustas cuanda callas? ” I asked Lucia. Though Neruda had written the lyrics, the song was widely associated with Jara.


The manager switched off the house lights and shone down the stage spot, a cozy luminous cone, then stood behind Lucia in the shadows. I sat on a chair beside Lucia, strumming slow chords, Lucia’s whispery voice brushing past my ear. In Spanish, she sang to Ray, I like you when you’re quiet because you seem distracted, / distant and sorrowful as if you had died; / a word then, a smile would be enough / and then I’m happy, happy that it isn’t true …

I heard the waiters humming along, a gentle reverberation in the darkened room.

Crack! The bathroom’s door swung out against the back wall. The bald man called Colonél staggered across the floor. He lurched up onto the stage.

“You dare sing that bastard’s song?” He gripped Lucia’s wrist in his huge hand as if to wring the music out of her. “Coño! 

For a second, everyone froze. I jumped up. “Get away from her! ” I shouted.

The man ignored me. I strained to reach around his massive shoulders. He grunted, trying to shake me off. I gripped his face in my palm. He tilted away, stumbled off the stage.

“Don’t you touch them, Colonél!” That was Ray’s voice, cracked but louder than I’d ever heard it. He lunged toward the man, then lost his balance. The waiter, Pedro, swung his arm around his waist, pulling him upright again.

Colonél staggered to his feet, breathing hard, squinting. Later, I would see newspaper photos of men who looked like him pointing rifles up at the building in Santiago where they had assassinated President Allende.

“Look at you, Señor Ray—you maricón! ” The man made his wrist go limp. “And your ‘fiancée! ’ ” he said, turning to Lucia. Glaring at Ray, he said, “Now I wish to return to my hotel! Get me a car!”

Ray raised his face. “Get your own fucking car!”

Our taxi passed by loading docks where stacked crates looked ready to tilt over. Trucks hulked at odd angles on grimy cobblestones. Sitting close between Ray and Lucia, I felt my righteous rage turn to something more painful.

“What the hell was I thinking—grabbing that guy?”

“You weren’t thinking,” Ray said. “None of us were. We should’ve checked all the back rooms.”

“But what about your job?” My voice rasped in my throat. “I’m so sorry, Ray!”

“Hey, no—don’t be!” His eyes shone in the flickering light. The breeze from the window ruffled his hair. “Smell that salt air!”

Suddenly a creamy white ship rose before us, an enormous apparition spotlit by beams slanting up from the wharf below. Its top deck illuminated the sky like a carnival midway. The long railings and its two up-thrusting smokestacks were outlined by twinkling blue bulbs.

Lucia leaned out the window, pointing at a row of shiny guy wires. “Like harp strings!” She leaned her head against Ray’s shoulder. “I want to reach out and pluck them!”

I stepped onto the wharf. Passengers and visitors crowded up the gangplank. Lucia gripped Ray’s arm; I helped prop him upright from his other side. Despite the crush, his suit looked unrumpled, his face radiant.

“Where’s this ship going?” I asked him. “South America?”

“Europe first. Then all around the world!” Gripping the slanting ropes, he propelled himself along the plank, blinking up at the lights. “What a night!” On deck, he squeezed Lucia and me around the shoulders.

Someone blew a party squawker; its long tongue uncurled into my eye. Blinded, I was pushed far along one of the railings. People crowded past, calling out, waving balloons on strings.

Lucia was beside me again. “Where’s Ray?”

“I don’t know!”

On tiptoe, I stared into the mob of people. Men and women in pointy silver-foil hats raised bubbly glasses to one another. Up ahead, a doorway opened onto long passageways. Grabbing Lucia’s hand, I pushed through the mass of people. Her hand slipped from mine.

I found myself in a crowded passageway where light splashed out of stateroom doorways. Corridors met at corners, branched off again and again as I rushed deeper into the ship’s maze. Catching my breath, I slowed down. And then, somehow, I was back on deck, feeling the cool air against my sweating face.

Ripples of piano notes fluttered over the heads of the people. Was that Ray playing? It had to be—I’d recognize those chord progressions anywhere. Yet when I found a piano, its bench was empty.

Blue streamers flew past me—people were flinging them over the railings, cheering as the narrow paper strips unfurled down the ship’s hull. My mouth opened, as if I were about to cheer too. “Ray!” I shouted, just needing to cry out his name.

The public address voice: ALL  ASHORE THAT’S GOING ASHORE!

I saw Lucia’s ponytail bobbing in the crowd. The ship’s horn blasted. From on deck, it was no longer the merry greeting I’d heard from the wharf but a roar that vibrated deep in my gut. Now I was at the top of the gangplank with Lucia crushed against me as the final visitors rushed by.

“Did you see him?” she asked.

“I almost did, but—no. Did you?”

She shook her head.

Back on shore, I searched the line of people on the wharf, but already I knew Ray wouldn’t be there. The ship began to glide out into the shiny water, its rows of portholes throbbing like eyes. An incandescent round moon, freed by the ship’s moving smokestacks, floated above the harbor.

“It feels so lonely,” Lucia said. Her voice made me shiver.

“I know.” I stood holding her arm and stared at the ship’s lights rippling out to sea.

I think that, like me, she could imagine Ray talking his way into a job on board the liner, then charming an American consular official somewhere into getting him a copy of his passport. I pictured him playing the piano in some smoky bar in Majorca or Curaçao, or perhaps just staying aboard the ship as it sailed on and on.

Our taxi was waiting. Lucia wanted to go back to the club; I decided to walk home through the quiet streets. We hugged each other tight. Then, as she leaned out of the departing cab’s window, she called, “Send me a postcard from Africa!”

I waved back, grinning.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus