“Sorry as hell about your family. You okay?” “Sure.” “Miracle you made it. Listen, we pulled up a piece of your radar. Caught in our nets off Eureka."
For an instant, Benny heard them again, those last shouts. He saw the sea leaping. He’d survived.
Benny sat on the straight-backed chair under the single light at his desk. The shotgun stared at him, its barrel steady except for the slight rocking of his pulse. Again, in his mind he heard the roar of the waves and the shouts. His finger tested the trigger, the faint yelling still in his head.
The phone rang. His finger shook. Across the wind, he had heard the voices. The phone rang and rang, and the barrels inched away from his face.
His hand floated over and touched the receiver. He stared at his blackened fingernails.
Exposure, they called it. Funny he hadn’t felt it at the time. The phone rang.
His fingernails. The doctor said that first they would turn black, then fall out. Now they hurt as if they had been crushed. His toenails, too.
“In a hundred years, who’s gonna know the difference?” Uncle Alex once said. He said it when Benny came home crying after a fight in the fifth grade. It hadn’t helped then. It didn’t help now.
The phone rang. Then came a little snap in his head, and the world sped up. He saw the dark walls beyond his circle of light, heard the traffic outside, a chilly San Diego night. He looked at the gun, then picked up the phone.
The voice was hearty and loud.
“You the guy off the New Hope?” Benny’s heart pumped. “You there?”
“Yeah ” Benny said.
“Sorry as hell about your family. You okay?”
“Miracle you made it. Listen, we pulled up a piece of your radar. Caught in our nets off Eureka.
Want it? We can —”
“I don’t want anything. Spread it around. I don’t want anything.”
He hung up. He’d thought it would be over after telling the families about their men. But the phone calls kept coming. Sticky. A kind of hell. Pieces of the New Hope hadn’t sunk. He couldn’t put it away.
A kind of hell. Had he been the one to die, while the others were. warm and dry, drinking coffee aboard the New Hope?
The New Hope. He could still smell her, the oil and coffee and fish. And he remembered the glare. That certain glare always shone on the ocean before a strong wind.
Benny knew the sea. His finger traced the swirls in the dark wood of the gun. A fishing family, they’d been called, fishing out of San Diego for three generations. The weight of it sagged his mother’s face as if gravity pulled harder on her than on others. Her eyes were brown, as her brothers’ had been.
Her two brothers, Julius the philosopher and Alex the musician. They’d been more like fathers than uncles. They took him to sea.
Men were always leaving his mother. His own father had left her, and not for the sea. She didn't believe him when he said, “You get pregnant. I’m gone.” She’d wanted a son. Benny grew up with his uncles. They took him to sea.
Before Benny’s last trip, she said, “Don’t be a dummy all your life. Stay and finish college. They like you out there at State. Besides, remember your Uncle Julius.”
Old Uncle Julius. Gone. No wreckage. No bodies. He just hadn’t come back. Now both uncles were gone. And Benny lived. Why him?
He pulled back the hammer of the gun with his thumb and eased it down again, pulled it back and eased it down.
In his head flashed the same picture, the angry sea and shrieking wind above the fortieth latitude.
The ocean was different up there. The roaring forties. He used to hear romance in those words. What had he told his mother before leaving? Something smartass about going down to the sea in ships.
She called him selfish, like the rest of the Santos men. Selfish. She was right, and that’s what cut. He should have thought of her at the end of that day. That day.
All afternoon he’d watched the wind pick up and the mare's tails thicken into a heavy overcast bringing a premature dusk. The New Hope rode heavily in the rising sea. Her bow plunged into the troughs and oncoming waves, and each time he worried as she struggled to rise. He would talk to the old man.
Crossing the deck on his way to the wheelhouse, Benny had to stop and grab a line. The boat plowed deep into the trough. The pitch made water bang inside the bait tanks on either side of him. The goddam tanks. The bow lifted, shouldering off the swell. Green-white seawater swept the deck and streamed out the freeing ports.
Benny hung on.
When he finally reached the wheelhouse, his uncle was a dark shape, his strong hands on the wheel. But the face, shadows and soft green light from the instruments, was a blur.
“We’re gonna have to pump those tanks,” Benny said.
His uncle’s voice, a small voice for a big man, rose above the hum and whine of the wind. “Save it.
We run for the beach. Not far now. Twenty-five, maybe thirty miles to Eureka.”
The New Hope burrowed into the trough and struggled too long to rise free. With tanks in the hold and tanks on deck filled with live bait, Benny figured the New Hope was eight-tenths water. “I don’t like it,” he said.
Uncle Alex didn’t answer. Spray rattled against the window.
Benny peered out into the swirling darkness. “Gets any worse, our ass is in a sling.”
“We don’t show a profit, our ass in a sling.”
Benny turned to leave. His uncle called. “Hey, Benito. Tell you what. It gets worse, you pull the chutes on the deck tanks.”
The gun was a weight in Benny’s hands. He sat in the cone of light.
It had been his decision. Gets any worse, pull the chutes. Same as saying, you decide. Shouldn't have been his decision.
Benito, his uncle had called him. Had he known? Had Uncle Alex known that Benito meant blessing in Latin?
The gun was a weight in his hands. Would he hear a roar, or just one short bang?
The wave had banged against the hull.
Leaving the wheelhouse, he went below and found Vincent and Ski at the table playing checkers in the galley. They looked up, with weathered faces. The boat lurched. They spread their hands on the checkerboard to keep the pieces from sliding.
Vincent, a small man with a square face, said, “Can’t have a decent game of checkers aboard this sonofabitch, but she’s a home.’’ Benny dropped onto a chair and pulled off his watch cap. “How can you guys play in this weather?” Vincent grinned. “We can’t. Just makes us feel better tryin’.”
Ski, a hollow-cheeked man with dark brows, gestured outside with his chin. “I mean, what? We secure?”
Benny shrugged. “Could be a wet ride.”
“I mean, why in hell don’t he pump them tanks?”
Benny didn’t answer. Uncle Alex had been scrambling since the canneries dropped their prices, but he was a good seaman. Then Benny said, “Don’t you guys know they make magnetic checkers?”
A wave slammed the side of the boat, the shock drowning out the scream of the wind and the thump of the diesel. The New Hope lashed over. Checkers flew. To keep from tumbling, the men gripped the table, white knuckled, silent. For a long moment, the boat lay on her side. Benny hung onto the table stanchion, his feet against the bulkhead. A locker flew open and cans and bottles spilled out, crashing.
Then a shudder ran through the New Hope and she righted herself. But she listed and rode the next couple of swells with a corkscrew motion, a wounded animal.
Benny bolted for the door. Ski and Vincent behind him. Outside, the deck lights were on. They found themselves knee-deep in live bait, a tilted flood of silver anchovies. In the roll, the starboard tanks had emptied.
Across the wind, Benny yelled to Vincent, “Port tanks. Pull the chutes!”
Another wave banged the exposed hull. She lurched over. Benny grabbed the boom as the deck fell away. The New Hope rolled further, hung for a moment, then jerked as if trying to right herself. But like a tired old dog, she settled onto her side.
For a time, Benny dangled from the boom. As if from a distance, he saw the water boiling below, noticed how the body of the boat blocked the wind. How had this happened?
Then his breath came fast and he scrambled up the deck, clawing at cables and the wooden grating. He pulled himself over the railing, onto the side of the New Hope and back into the gale. In a crouch against the wind, he catwalked forward along the hull. At the wheelhouse, he dropped down. Uncle Alex clung to the wheel. Benny reached in for the radio, but his fingers were meat with no feeling. They fumbled at the knobs. The boat swayed.
His uncle’s voice, “Benny!”
Benny pounded the radio.
He looked down at the top of his uncle’s head, curly hair, tip of nose. He heard the diesel still thumping and the shaft knocking as the screw turned out of the water.
He returned to the dead radio, his voice as high and frantic as the wind. “Coast Guard. Where’s the fucking Coast Guard?”
“The big hand pointed. “There’s the raft. Go!”
Benny saw the white canister, a ribbed barrel stuffed with a rubber dinghy. It bobbed fifteen yards off the bow, barely lit by the deck lights, a tiny thing moving away in the violence. Spray drove past in sheets. No man could swim in that.
The boat staggered down a swell, barely afloat, the radio out, the raft going.
Benny felt a great coiled strength come into his legs, a gathering, a matching fierceness. He cleared the wheelhouse and the edge of the bow, felt the shock of cold water.
Swimming, nothing but swimming and cold water and raft. He couldn’t see. The swell lifted, tossed him, and dropped him. He plunged ahead and bumped the raft canister. A little cry of relief burst from him, lost in the shriek of the wind. His hands scrambled, searching for the inflate cord. The sea bounced him. Spray lashed the can. His hand found a rope tied around the center of the canister.
Then came the voices, feeble against the roar and the howl. He glanced back. Ski and Vincent were silhouettes on the hull of the New Hope. Why didn’t they jump? The storm blasted off the tops of the waves. Wind-blown water filled the distance between Benny and the boat. Their voices wailed through. “Pull the cord.”
He couldn’t pull the cord, not with the rope around the middle of the raft. It might explode. He found the knot, tore at it.
Their thin shouts reached him again. He looked. He’d been pushed farther away. The sea leapt. He took a mouthful and gagged, still tearing at the knot. It finally loosened. Tiny against the storm, the voices found him again. “Pull the cord!”
The last faint words were a pulse in Benny’s head. He stared into the calm eyes of the gun barrels. Could he enter through them into peace? Come in out of the storm at last?
“Pull the cord.” Had it been Vincent’s voice?
Vincent. His friend. They rode motorcycles together in the desert. Small, compact Vincent, the man who would live forever. The clown who yelled, “My head is a giant zit,” and squeezed the sides of his face, pushing a banana out of his mouth.
Benny’s hand stroked smooth metal and wood of the gun. Would he see a muzzle flash?
“Pull the cord.”
Yards of cord had unwound.
Benny went under, kicked to the surface, still pulling. When the cord stopped, he jerked it. A pop, then the raft sprang like a monster waking, growling and hissing. A nightmare of swelling, unfolding , rubber pushed Benny under again.
He broke surface, saw the life raft, a rubber doughnut with a tent. He dove through the hatch as a heavier gust of wind struck. Its tent like a sail, the raft skipped across the water. Through the hatch,
Benny looked back. The New Hope had disappeared into the fury.
Benny rested the gun across his lap and rubbed his eyes as if to wipe away the image. How long had it taken the New Hope to go down?
His skin felt warm. The room was cold. He rubbed his eyes. For the hundredth time, he asked himself, could he have done anything different?
He’d leaped so quickly.
Impossible to jump so far, over the edge of the wheelhouse and the bow, yet he had. In the rush, he left them. He lived.
And Uncle Alex? Still in the wheelhouse? What had he felt going down? A roaring crescendo of music? A jazz piece that he played, his fingers tapping the bulkhead as if it were a strange nautical piano?
Benny recoiled. He lifted the gun. Its weight soothed him.
The wind had raged against the raft and shook it. On hands and knees, Benny peered out into the storm. A sickness of panic burst in his stomach. All the black-winged fears of childhood stirred, the snarling aloneness-death fears. He screamed, “Wait!”
All around him, Benny heard a deep and steady rumble and the slash of the wind. Then in his head beat a chant. Isn’t happening. Isn't happening. Isn’t happening. The chant pushed down the fear-sickness, which waited under the words like a stalking animal. Isn't happening.
Spray whipped the sides of the tent and gusted through the hatch. Like an observer, Benny saw himself fight to close the flaps and finally snap them shut.
A deeper roar came, close and above, a huge wave breaking.
Benny jammed his arm through the line circling the inside of the doughnut and held on. The growling overran him and shoved, slam of acceleration. The raft leapt and skittered and bounced, an insane carnival ride.
The animal rose in Benny. Isn’t happening.
The wave let go, leaving bellow of wind, steady rumble. Benny lay in water that sloshed. The tent moaned in the wind. Then he felt himself fumble along the side of the raft in the near-darkness, looking for a pouch or container. A pump, gotta be one. He found it floating free, a rubber bulb like half a volleyball with a hose at either end. His hands poked the long hose through the flaps of the hatch and worked the pump by squeezing the bulb. As he squeezed, the chant in his head slowed, then stopped. Suddenly, as if his ears had popped, he heard the roar and whine more sharply.
He thought of cards on spokes, thousands of them. As a kid, he would have his uncle pin playing cards against the spokes of his bicycle, where they growled like a motorcycle when he rode.
A wave thundered over him. He clung to the line while the raft chattered through a burst of acceleration, another insane ride that left him sobbing. When the wave let go, he reached for the pump again. Pump it out. Order against chaos. He would organize his little craft. He would pump her out, then look for the New Hope.
The live thing in him, the incredible fear, rose again. He dropped the pump, crawled forward, looking for the observation port, and found it, a small hole in the rubber of the tent. The raft tilted. He stood and poked his head out into the storm.
The raft tipped more. The wind reached under and lifted. Benny felt the raft going over, saw the water coming up, in slow motion, and at him. He reached as if to break his fall. But his hands were inside. His head plunged under, the black water tearing at his face, then back up into the wind.
The dark beast in Benny sprang loose and raced through him, raving. He screamed going over, screamed through the tearing water.
On each roll, he sucked air, then water, as he went under again and came up coughing.
The raft cartwheeled across the waves, water bursting into his mouth and nose. At last he jerked his head from the port and spread himself on the rubber floor. The raft skittered, bounced upright. He coughed and he sobbed.
Into his head came the words of an old roommate who had practiced yoga. “Chant ‘OM,’ you'll get rid of fear. Chant ‘OM' and you'll be harmonious."
"OMMM,” Benny howled.
“OM, goddamn it. OMMMMM."
The wind battered the tent. The ocean raged.
Isn't happening, isn’t happening, isn’t happening.
He found the pump, stuck the hose out the flaps, and squeezed the bulb again and again. Order against chaos. A wave pounced on the tent, crushed it down, and pummeled the raft. Benny hung on. The roar cut through him.
On the straight-backed chair under the single light at his desk, Benny fought to breathe. He couldn’t get enough air. What about the others as they ran out of air?
The gun. Would it taste oily? Cool? He couldn't move.
At some point in the beating of the wave, Benny had known he couldn’t fight the storm, its power too immense. He surrendered.
Relief flooded him. He could die. It would be a comfort. He would die.
The wave let go. The tent popped upright. He lay breathing. Water sloshed inside the raft. Let it be, he thought. They made these things unsinkable. He lay breathing. Warmth surprised him. It spread from his crotch. Piss. He was pissing his pants, a fine warmth. He enjoyed it until cold water took over again.
The sea roared.
Oh, God, where were those guys? He had seen the New Hope on her side. Ski and Vincent silhouettes on the hull. He had leaped so quickly. Why hadn’t they? But he knew. No man could swim in that stuff.
Benny pushed the hose of the pump to the hatch. He pumped. He lived.
He didn’t know how long he pumped. But he learned about the waves. They came in sets, and the ones he heard only pushed him.
The ones he did not hear crashed down on him and were the worst. They stomped the raft and pushed it under and seemed never to let go. He surrendered twice more and felt the curious relief. He pissed a lot and wondered where it all came from, such a quantity of urine with nothing to drink. He pumped and he pissed. The world roared.
As the long night wore on, even his fear grew tired, coming out only for the worst. If he kept busy, he wouldn’t think.
By the first gray light of morning, Benny had the raft pumped out. There hadn’t been a bad wave in a while, the sets coming farther apart now. He found a large sponge in one of the pockets, and careful to stay on his side of the raft, he mopped water the pump couldn’t take.
He leaned back. “She’s a home.” Those had been Vincent’s words.
Suddenly he could see little Vincent in the galley making jokes, and he could hear Ski complaining. Uncle Alex would stand in the doorway, silent as usual, his hand wrapped around a coffee cup. His hands, big and brown and scarred, dwarfed a beer bottle. They gave him a ten-dollar bill when he was a kid. They played the piano. God, did they play the piano.
The galley would be warm. He could smell the coffee. Where were those guys? Why didn’t they pick him up? The dirty bastards! But a little part of him still knew. They were gone.
A wave exploded on the raft. Benny clung to the cord that ringed the inside of the doughnut. When the wave let go, a short laugh bubbled up in him. “She’s a home.” Water slopped around inside the raft and Benny shivered. He curled up and rocked.
Under the desk light, Benny rocked. He tilted back on the chair, let it slam forward, tilt back, slam forward.
Uncle Alex hadn’t liked him to lean back in chairs. But Uncle Alex had rocked him once. Late one night when Benny was six, his uncle rocked him, then tucked him into bed. “Hey, no more nightmares, Benito. If those alligators come back, hold their mouths open with this stick.”
He slid a length of broom handle in beside Benny. “See, if they can’t close their mouths, they not gonna eat you.” With the stick in his hand, Benny slept.
The next morning. Uncle Alex painted a mural on Benny’s bedroom wall. The painting showed a brave little boy holding an alligator’s mouth open with a stick. Benny remembered how green the alligator had looked on the white wall.
The ship that finally picked him up at the end of the day had been white, a white ship on the green sea, a Polish ship. They wrapped him in wool blankets and poured thick vodka for him. “Nostrovia they cried and tossed back their drinks.
After twenty-four hours in the water, he’d had a body temperature of 91 degrees. Now his skin burned, like a fever. He survived. It could kill him.
For this nightmare, he had no stick. He cradled the gun. The phone rang. Benny couldn’t move. He felt the steady beat of his pulse and, beneath that, a different pulse, a whirring.
The phone rang. The gun barrel floated around as if on a track. The whirring quickened. The phone rang.
Benny’s finger squeezed. The gun roared. The phone exploded and then was gone. “Nostrovia!" Benny cried.
The whirring in him slowed. In the quiet room, the blast still echoed. Again he felt the slam of the shotgun on his shoulder, the sudden immense violence. He stared at the hole in the wall. He dropped the gun and trembled.
The dark animal in him stirred. Behind it rose the great coiled strength he’d felt before leaping from the wheelhouse. He felt both, and pulled both ways; he stared at the hole in the wall. The gunshot still echoed. He shook and he breathed. And a sense of being caught rushed at him with all its shadows. He had to do something, do it quickly.
Then, down on the floor for push-ups, he pumped in a frenzy. He had to fight all this. He pumped until his breath came like little explosions. His muscles burned. Each time he rose, he cried out. Into his head came a whisper,
In the raft, he gave up. He remembered the relief.
He couldn’t stop the push-ups. Sweat burned his eyes.
The whisper, “Give up.”
He pumped. Up, fuck you.
Down, give up. Up, fuck you. Down, give up.
The promise of relief grew in his head until he surrendered and collapsed on the cool floor. He wept. He lived.
Benito. Uncle Alex had known. Benito. □
In the winter of 1979, a San Diego fishing boat went down in a storm off the coast of northern California. This is a dramatization of the true story of the sole survivor. Out of respect for him and his family, their names have been changed.