Unloading tuna at Westgate Cannery
Read about author Lorenzo Madalena.
Gino DeMarino nervously jerked his gray-visored fishing cap over his eyes, rubbed his hard palms over faded navy dungarees, and for the tenth time slapped the spokes of the wheel he had taken over at noon, an hour ago.
“Come on, bestia bastardo! Where the hell are you?”
Thrusting his head forward, Gino peered at the ocean. The water sparkled under the hot September sun. He squinted his eyes for the slightest sign of a ripple that might give the position of a school of albacore. Then, completing his ritual, he leaned from the wheelhouse and glanced at the stern of the Stella del Mare to check briefly on his crew. Marco and Jasper were slumped against the forward bait tank. While lazily massaging the dandruff from his dry blond hair, Marco politely affected interest in the adolescent jawing of his loud-mouthed companion. Jasper, with enthusiastic confidence, was trying to impress the experienced, older fisherman.
Peter the Rat stood leaning against a beam, one hand wrapped loosely around a jig line, which bobbed rapidly over the water, hopefully enticing fish from below. The Rat’s eyes were closed, and he had a silly grin on his face as he dreamed lasciviously of Costanza, his fiancée, and of what he would do on their wedding night.
Gino cursed as he looked about for Benny. The damn Mexican was probably hidden asleep behind the far bait tank, bloated as usual from overeating. How he could eat so much and keep so thin was really something!
Tits was dangling his clumsy feet over the ladder as he carefully wound a piece of bleached fishskin about a cluster of white chicken feathers to make a squid. His perfectly round head shone bald and seemed to be screwed tightly into his hunched shoulders. A silent, hard-working Sicilian, Tits had a heavy body with loose, flabby pectorals that made his nickname natural.
Along with the engineer and the cook these men made up the crew of the Stella del Mare, an 80-foot, 90-ton, half-brine, half-ice tuna boat out of San Diego.
There was one other member, but he really didn’t count. Gino’s little brother, Agostino. For two reasons he didn’t count. First, Nino was making his apprentice trip. Second, Nino was a midget. At 14 the boy gave at first glance the appearance of a 4-year-old child. Only his slightly bandy legs and almost mature face dispelled the illusion. Otherwise, a stranger coming upon the two brothers would reasonably imagine he was seeing a miniature of the original.
Nino’s short-cropped, curly black hair and deep hazel eyes were Gino’s. His little body was as sturdy as his older brother’s muscular frame. As if to heighten the resemblance, the midget had copied Gino’s strutting walk and his facial habits — the confident half-smile when pleased and the quick frown when he was frequently angered. Nino idolized his brother beyond reason, and Gino in turn had spoiled him beyond repair.
Gino gave the midget, perched on the high three-legged stool beside the pilot wheel, a rough, loving cuff.
“When you gonna start shaving? Maybe you better shave some fuzz off your coglioni anyway. Might bring us luck.”
Nino looked up and shook his head gravely in agreement. “Next time out.” Then he continued staring out at the ocean in imitation of his brother.
Among the superstitions that Gino delighted in observing, half hoping they would actually come true, was the one that a fresh shave by some crew member would guarantee a good day’s catch. Another belief had already proved itself: that an apprentice fisherman would bring luck on his first trip. It was Nino’s first trip, and already, in three weeks, the wells of the Stella del Mare were two-thirds full. A scent two tons were yellowtail, but the rest was fat, silvery albacore, the prized member of the tuna family that ran the fishing banks off Southern and Baja California each summer.
At the current market price of $460 a ton, Gino figured the crew would split about $1400 a share after expenses and the boat’s share were taken out. Albacore, because of its rarity and choice white meat, brought a higher price than the yellowfin and bluefin tuna caught during the rest of the year. It was late September. The albacore were having an unusually long run this season; any day now the elusive fish might suddenly plunge in unison deep below the Pacific waters and disappear until the following year.
For that reason, although the trip was already successful as far as the crew was concerned, Gino as captain and skipper was anxious for one more day of good fishing. Another strike and with luck the Stella could pull into San Diego and Gino would proudly brag of how he had again brought in a full load in less than a month.
Once more Gino pulled his cap down, wiped his palms, slapped the wheel sharply, and glanced out the door at the crew. Still no sign of albacore. He debated whether to send Benny up the crow’s nest to spot.
In the distant starboard of the Stella appeared a pair of masts, waving like two still fingers. Gino raised his high-powered binoculars and focused on the boat. It looked like the Conte Roso heading south. With a snort Gino handed the glasses to his brother.
“That crazy Trevelone! That crazy wop’s been running back and forth, up and down for days. Hear him all the time on the radio. ‘Gino, what you see? Gino, how much you got? Gino, where are you?’ As if I’d tell him anything! He knows better, I tell him, then everybody for a hundred miles knows where I get my fish. Screw him. Let him find his own.”
Nino followed the rival boat with the glasses and agreed. “Right. Let him find his own. That crazy wop!”
With a jerk Gino spun the wheel about and headed northeast toward the hazy Mexican coastline.
“Look, Nino. A school of porpoise.” He pointed portside where more than a dozen of the graceful round fish rose majestically out of the water, dived below, and reappeared a moment later. Three of the porpoise in perfect line formation sped ahead of the bow and seemingly guided the boat in its course.
Nino leaned over the side of the Stella and watched, fascinated, until the fish disappeared. “Good luck,” the midget observed to himself. “Porpoise mean lucky fishing.”
Leaving the wheel for a moment, Gino checked the navigational charts in the cabin behind him. In less than an hour the Stella should reach the Benito Island banks. He had tried them on the downward trip unsuccessfully, but this time might do it.
Aside from a hitch in the Navy, Gino had spent all his productive years on the boat. As a boy he had made several trips with his father during summer vacations. But his father’s increasing arthritic condition, aggravated by a life on the sea, forced Gino to quit school at 15 and join the crew of the Stella.
Gino was openly relieved to be freed of school drudgery. He hated struggling through math and science classes, but he actually dreaded English and the complexities of unraveling a language he seldom spoke at home. In school he felt crushed by the brightness of other students about him. His mind was not a superior one, and Gino realized his future did not lie in higher education. He rebelled inwardly, feeling and knowing that school was postponing the inevitable. Educated or not, he would wind up a fisherman.
It was largely the stubborn insistence of Mamma DeMarino that forced Gino to continue through his sophomore year. Her dream at that time was to see at least one of her children with a high school diploma, but even she had to give in reluctantly to the demand for support.
As such, Gino was only following the path of his neighborhood friends. Most of the young boys in San Diego’s Italian colony had long since deserted their schoolbooks for fishing gear. The average one had not finished junior high, some not even grammar school, but already many of them were earning what seemed to Gino incredible salaries.
Tuna fishing at the tip of Point Loma
Gino entered his new, full-time career with gusto. He wanted to learn every secret the ocean had waiting for the fisherman. He wanted to see his father’s pride as he grew in skill and knowledge. He wanted to hear his friends praise and envy him. And he wanted to make money. Exactly why, he didn’t know or care. But with enough money he could get himself and his parents luxuries and a better life. Perhaps that was reason enough to want and need money. And he would certainly never get it while in school.
Although controlling interest in the Stella del Mare lay with the Calpatria Cannery, management had always been in the hands of the DeMarino family. Gaetano DeMarino had been a capable skipper. But following his death in an auto accident while Gino was still overseas, the cannery had been hard put to find a suitable replacement. For two years the Stella suffered an unbroken string of long, poor trips during the lush war years when tuna seemed inexhaustible and the price was high. The Stella began to bear the reputation of a “hard luck” boat. It had gone into debt to the extent that the cannery seriously considered tying it up at the wharf and absorbing the loss through other boats.
Gino returned home after three years in the Navy. Physically he had changed little except for a slightly broken nose. It was Gino’s sole memento of the war, a souvenir of some dim, drunken brawl at a ship’s party. He was conscious of his broken nose only when the dank ocean air made breathing difficult.
Emotionally, however, Gino had undergone what was for him an uncomfortable awakening. His associations with thousands of other men had jolted him into realizing his educational and social poverty.
He felt drawn to the clusters of men who engaged in bull sessions aboard ship, but in trying to become a part of them Gino found he had little to contribute. Women, liquor, and fishing were his world. So long as the first two topics were under dissection he could join the others. Fishing, at least the type of fishing he knew, was seldom brought up. When world events or politics or scientific advancement or a dozen other topics found their way into the discussions, Gino floundered.
Socially it was as bad. Let the men brag of jobs they had waiting for them on the outside, of plans for getting rich after the war, and Gino would hesitate before admitting that he wanted only to go back to fishing. Who ever heard of a fisherman being anybody? Some of his buddies even felt sorry for him; somehow they thought he had more ambition than to be just another wop fisherman.
Gino had reacted in the only way he knew, the same as when he had quit school. He would make himself the best damn fisherman in the fleet. Then, with money, he would move into the fine American world that everyone prized.
And Gino found himself unexpectedly dissatisfied when he thought of his own return home to the fishing colony that stubbornly adhered to its traditional life while the rest of San Diego changed.
The cannery heads were more than willing to turn over management of the Stella del Mare to Gino. They quickly offered to sell him another interest in the boat and to guarantee him complete control over its operation. To them Gino spelled profit. The young man accepted eagerly. For the first time he now had a definite goal in his fishing. Added to that was a new responsibility that had been thrust upon him; he was male head of the DeMarino family and therefore responsible for its support.
By the time he was 25 Gino had had phenomenal luck as skipper of the Stella del Mare. More often than not the rugged young fisherman brought in a full load, usually in less than a month, never over seven weeks. The shriveled old men who sat near the wharf pilings and talked of early days of fishing, days before their sons had taken over with larger and still larger tuna boats, would nod and agree: Gino’s luck couldn’t keep up. But somehow it did until it became a maxim that if the Stella didn’t make a good trip, no other boat could.
Gino perked up at the wheel as he sighted a flock of seagulls slowly circling the ocean dead ahead. Birds might mean bait, and bait might mean a school. Unconsciously he fingered the small gold cross that hung about his neck on a corroded Navy dog-tag chain.
“Keep your eyes on those birds,” he ordered his brother. “If you spot anything, yell.” He’d make a fisherman of little Nino yet. In one trip the midget had already developed into a lively bait passer and had even began to help Gino chum.
A piercing “Ai-ai-ai” from the bait tanks suddenly threw the crew into action. Gino swung the wheel completely to the left so the Stella would slowly circle back to the same position. In almost the same moment he pulled his rubber boots up halfway and swapped his gray cap for a helmet liner. Little Nino followed closely as the fisherman ran and leaped from the wheelhouse, across a wooden plank to the bait box.
Marco, Jasper, and Tits had already lowered the rusty iron racks on the stern and were standing in them, water up to their calves, while they thrashed the water methodically with squid lines. Benny was barely pulling his pole from the rack.
“Get your ass moving!” Gino yelled at the Mexican. He stood watching as Peter the Rat quickly pulled in the taut jig line. Three other lines tied to beams were still slack.
“What you see?” Gino asked.
The Rat squinted into the water and began skimming the surface as Peter pulled the line closer.
Gino spit over the side. “Wouldn’t you know it! First strike all day and it’s a stinking yellowtail.” He called to the men in the racks. “False alarm, but leave the racks down and keep your eyes peeled. We’re heading for those birds.” He pointed to the circling gulls.
Benny shaded his eyes and stared. “Gino! Is lots of seaweed too.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Gino snorted in disgust and tugged at the leather fish pad about Benny’s waist as the Mexican climbed onto the bait tank. “Loosen that snatchbox. It’s too high. Get a fish and it’d tear it right off you. Balls and all. Then you know what? No more bambini, no more nothing!”
Benny grinned as he unbuckled the pad built with a deep slot to support his fishing pole. Gino delighted in ribbing the Mexican about his family. His sleepy, equally thin-boned wife had already borne him six scrawny sons, and another baby was on its way. The Mexican was lazy and out-ate everyone, including big Tits. But as a spotter Benny couldn’t be beat. His drooping, heavy eyes somehow quickened and darted with new life when he stood atop the swaying mast in the crow’s nest. Many a time the Mexican’s uncanny ability to spot a school had helped Gino maintain his envied position among the local fisherman of San Diego.
The skipper waited until Peter the Rat had unhooked the limp yellowtail and tossed it back into the water before he returned to the wheel. False strikes were a common, expected part of the fishing game. Porpoise sometimes bit the feathered, double-pronged jigs. More often yellowtail. Some days 20 and more strikes might be made before a tuna would bite. If fishing had been slow and a school of yellowtail were about, Gino would have gone after the fish. But this September the albacore were still having a late run; it might end any day. While bigger and better fish remained to be caught, the yellowtail could wait. It was bad enough that they brought a low price on the market. It was even worse having to handle the long, slimy bodies covered with the watery feces they exuded continually, even after they were dead.
Gino checked the compass and again turned the wheel toward the seaweed. He could hear the gulls screeching now. There was something there, all right. Maybe albacore. Maybe only yellowtail, the school of the one that they had caught.
This time when Peter the Rat, yelled Gino was waiting. Even before he reached the crew, Marco was shouting happily. “They’re breaking! They’re breaking!” Directly to port the calm, smooth ocean took on life as albacore broke the water’s crest and dived below.
The Rat pulled in his line, deftly unhooked a silvery and gold-scaled albacore, and slid it over the side onto the deck. All the lines were now taut. As he went from one jig line to the other and dragged in the fish, the crew rooted and cheered wildly. This was what they had been waiting for! The more noise the better. It sparked them and turned their grueling work into sport. The men trashed their lines furiously and beat the squids over the water. The albacore had to be coaxed to bite.
Nino dipped a long-handled scoop into a bait tank and stood ready for a call from the men in the racks. With wide outward sweeps Gino reached into a scoop he held in his hand and chummed, flinging the wiggling sardines ever closer to the stern, luring the albacore closer to the Stella.
As the breaks came nearer he shouted down. “Marco! Jazzy! Get your live-bait poles. No, not you, Benny! Dammit, keep beating that water!”
As Marco and Jazzy turned toward the canopied deck, Nino passed them his long scoop. Into the small metal boxes on the railing the men dumped the sardines, then reached in to seize the fish and slip them onto their barbless hooks.
Albacore were now breaking all about the stern, but not one had yet bitten. Gino lifted a sardine from his scoop. With a quick flick he popped an eye out and tossed the fish into the water. The sardine swam crazily in small circles, half out of the water. Round and round it spun, guided only by its one eye. With a graceful thrust of its head an albacore gulped the bait and disappeared. Gino looked down. The clear water was swarming with slow-moving bodies.
“They’re there, men! They’re there! Let’s get ’em!” Gino screamed. “Come on, you sweet bastards! Bite, bite!”
Marco’s line jerked quickly and tightened. The strong muscles of the fisherman’s forearms and biceps swelled as he put all his weight against the pole snug in its pad. Gino bent almost double as he cheered the older man on.
“That’s it, Marco! Pull, pull! Don’t lose him. Cristo, don’t lose him!”
Marco’s knuckles tightened about the pole until the bones whitened. He gritted his teeth and screwed up his face. His eyes shut tightly under that strain. It was bad luck to lose the first fish in a school. He had never let Gino down before, and he wouldn’t now.
“Come on, Dad! Pull, pull!” Gino beat his clenched fists wildly through the air. The first one was always hardest to land; after that the others would follow easily. But if that first one escaped, the entire school might vanish.
With a tremendous backward jerk Marco suddenly lifted the albacore clear of the water. The spinning fish flew over his blond head, easily dropped off the hook, and fell thrashing to the deck. Instantly Marco reached into his bait box and jabbed another sardine on his hook.
With wild cheers the crew flung their lines again. At Gino’s command Tits and Benny now seized their live-bait poles and grasped the scoops of sardines that Nino held ready. Gino watched carefully as Tits doubled over the rack. The silent, heavyset Sicilian had been in the country only a year and was still relatively untried. Although he moved slowly Tits seemed to be hard-working and certainly was powerful; he might yet make a first-rate fisherman.
Now the fish began biting in earnest. The lines whipped through the air as faster and faster the albacore were thrown high above the men’s heads to drop upon the deck. The suddenly slack lines snapped sharply as they slapped the canopy above the bait boxes. Within 15 minutes the decks were alive with a tumble of flopping albacore. Monk and Dirty Dick stood ankle-deep among the slithering fish and awaited orders.
“Okay, Monk,” Gino called to the engineer. “Next to Marco.” He jerked his thumb at the cook. “You, Dirty. Lower the last rack and see what you can do.”
The cook casually lit a fresh cigarette before stepping slowly through the fish-laden deck to the port side rack. Fishing was not his line; he had been hired as cook and felt that cooking was all to be expected of him.
Dirty Dick had been a last-minute choice that Gino regretted. The cook more than lived up to his nickname. His never-ending cough and catarrh irritated everyone. And he persisted in smoking cigarettes continually. Seldom removing them from his mouth, he let the long ashes droop until they dropped into the food. Gino had resolved that, union or no, he would drop the cook before sailing again.
Whenever the men appeared to tire, Gino would huzzah and urge them on. “Get ’em while you can! They won’t wait forever. That’s it, Tits!” He grunted and strained each time one of the crew had a strike. “Get that line back in quick!”
He leaned over the edge as the engineer battled an albacore, easily a 35-pounder. “Go, go, Monk!”
As was his peculiar style, Monk balanced his left hand on his hip and threw his strength into the pole he held with his right. The fish jerked, fighting to tear itself loose. Monk slowly pulled the line toward his body and the pole began to double. He had the fish almost directly below.
“Grab the line!” ordered Gino. “Pull it in! Don’t let that ten-buck bastard slip off!”
With his free hand Monk reached out and grasped the wet line. Dropping the pole, he wound his fingers about the cord and braced one leg against the metal frame of the rack. Quickly but carefully he passed hand over hand. The fish dripped blood from its slit of a mouth, and its glassy eyes popped wildly as it half emerged. Monk reached his left arm into the water and with a swoop cradled the albacore, half pulling, half carrying the struggling fish aboard.
Gino roared with approval. “That’s it, Monk! If you can’t pull ’em in, lift ’em!”
Monk deftly slipped the hook from the sharp-edged mouth of the albacore and shoved it onto the deck. Then he spit upon the fish, sniffed, raised his thin eyebrow, and wiggled his ears. Some of the men leaned backward to watch. It was an expected routine that accompanied each catch Monk made.
The deeply wrinkled engineer was the sole member of the Stella del Mare’s crew that Gino had retained when taking over as skipper. Monk had been with the boat more than ten years; no one knew the Stella’s temperament better. Before turning fisherman and later engineer, Monk had traveled with a struggling, second-rate carnival exhibiting a company of trained dogs and monkeys. While playing nearby National City the carnival troupe was whipped by a fire, which killed or maimed all of Monk’s animals. Monk drifted into San Diego and strolled the waterfront until he eventually landed a job with old Gaetano deMarino as a novice fisherman. His knack with machinery soon made him indispensable as engineer. When the running was heavy, Monk doubled at fishing. Otherwise he preferred to stay below deck with his gauges, wheels, and grease rags, coming up only at chow call.
Gradually the fish dwindled and finally stopped biting. The men became silent and stood half bent over the racks, waiting for a possible last strike. Benny and Tits looked up at Gino, hoping he would give the work to rack their poles. But Gino snapped at them.
“What the hell you looking at? The fish are down there, not up here! Those figli d’un cane will be up again.”
Gino turned about and surveyed the catch that flooded both port and starboard decks and had begun to spread midship. He looked up at the sky. The sun was halfway toward the horizon. Still a good three hours of daylight fishing.
“Dirty,” the captain ordered the cook. “Rack your pole and shove those fish back. Better scoop out that dead bait, Nino. Throw it astern. Never know when those bastards might bite again.”
The seagulls that had been circling the boat screamed and plummeted to snap the limp sardines that the midget tossed out.
“Okay, boys,” Gino finally announced. “Take a break… Not you, Benny! You stay put and keep in your squid line. What’s the matter with you today? Didn’t even pull in a dozen. And you lost four I saw. Cristo knows how many more! If you’d lay off making babies awhile you’d have some strength left when you come out.” Benny grinned and shrugged resignedly.
Three-pole fishing of tuna
With mixed groans and sighs the crew stretched, leaning their poles against the side of the boat. Marco took off the dripping sleeveless fatigue jacket that clung to his back and twisted out the saltwater. His bulging arms were flecked with fishscales. Then he hopped atop the bait box and took the smoke that Gino offered.
“How’s it look?” he asked.
“Not bad. About six ton. We get another two or three and we’ll ice up.”
Jazzy propped his helmet liner over his face to protect it from the sun. “Minchia! Am I going on a good one when we tie up! I haven’t been laid in so long I can’t remember what it feels like.” Jazzy was a newcomer to the Stella. At 19 the dark-skinned boy had made only three trips, each on a different boat. But Gino was impressed with his alertness and had signed him up. “What you talking about, you phony?” asked Peter the Rat. “You got laid the night we put out. Told me yourself.”
Jazzy lifted his liner and widened his eyes innocently. “Well, that was almost a month ago.” He dropped the liner. “And I have a very poor memory. My teacher told me once.” He wiggled his hips. “Old lady Walker. What a build!”
The Rat looked disgusted. “You black wop! All you young punks are the same. Always thinking of pussy.”
“Mi!” shouted Gino. “Who’s talking? The biggest pantie chaser in Dago and suddenly you’re criticizing.” He winked at Marco. “Bet after you marry Connie you get laid in the first port we put in.”
The Rat was indignant. “Not me! I’m through with all that. After I marry, the only one will be my wife. Hell, they’re all the same anyway.”
“If anyone knows, it’s you!” Marco laughed.
Peter the Rat opened his mouth to object but decided instead to keep quiet. It flattered him to think it was true. He lay back and fingered his brittle hair that had receded disastrously, thanks to sweat, saltwater, and a tight fishing cap. The Rat was small, wiry, and experienced, having sailed since his early years. His reputation as a capable fisherman was exceeded only by his fame as a whoremonger. But at 31 the Rat had shocked the neighborhood by announcing casually that he had tired of chasing and was ready to settle down to a family life with Costanza, his chaste second cousin who had recently come from Italy.
Nino excitedly called his brother. “Gino! Over there! A break, a break!”
The crew jumped as in the lee of the still-circling boat several distinct ripples broke. With a shout Gino drove the men into action.
“Here they are! They’re back! Let’s get ’em, boys. Last chance!”
Again the poles and lines flailed the air as the albacore bit. This time live bait was unnecessary. The hungry fish snapped at the squids, biting anything that resembled bait. Furiously the men shouted as they pulled in fish after fish. In a few minutes their clothes and bodies were drenched as though they had been standing under a hard shower. Water poured into their hip-length boots, soaked their wool trousers and heavy socks.
Gino yelled as the Mexican snagged an albacore. “Don’t let him get away, Benny! Pull that bastard in for your next bambino!”
Occasionally the skipper flung a sardine into the swarming school, “Look, Nino. Like this.” He squeezed out the eye of a fish. “Not too hard. You’ll kill it. Just shove your thumb in on one side.” He watched while the midget grasped a sardine and carefully poked out its eye. “That’s it. Only faster. Lots faster. And don’t throw ’em too close in. We don’t want the fish going under us.”
For a solid hour the albacore bit. The strain of unbroken fishing began to tell on the crew. Slowly now, as the backs and arms ached and grew sore, they worked their tuna poles back and forth. Benny had to stop to shake his head and breathe deeply. Still Gino drove the men on until once again the albacore, as if at a signal, melted away.
He waited a few minutes while the crew poised motionless over their poles. “All right,” he decided. “That does it. Rack your poles and let’s ice up.” He turned to the cook. “Dirty, start chow. We’ll be ready in two hours.” As the cook started off Gino added, “What you got tonight?”
Dirty Dick sucked on his cigarette before answering, “Chicken.”
“Not again!” Gino lowered his boots. “Drag out those steaks we been saving. And don’t burn ’em this time. I want ’em rare. Understand? I want to see the blood.”
The cook walked off sullenly. It was bad enough having to fish. Now the skipper was telling him how to cook. His anger expressed itself in a series of rasping coughs; he shot a mouthful of mucus at the albacore.
While Benny and Tits took wrenches and loosened the heavy bolts holding down the iron hatch, the others slipped on cotton gloves and began passing the albacore forward. The two brine tanks were already equally full; the day’s haul would have to be iced.
Marco and Jazzy pulled on rubber gloves and dropped into the hold. Grasping short-handled picks, they crawled forward on hands and knees. As they chopped away at the powdered ice, which had long since frozen almost solid. Peter the Rat shoveled the ice aside.
Finally Marco shouted up. “Ready! Shoot them down.”
Gino propped two wooden fish-shoots against the sides of the ice hold. “Let’s go, boys.” The men on deck grasped the fish by their tails and slid them down the shoots.
“Easy, Benny,” the captain warned. “You’ll split ’em open. You damn Mex, want to spoil ’em all?”
The flesh of the albacore was so tender that rough handling would soften the fish and break them open lengthwise. Gino had already had plenty of experience with cannery inspectors. They sometimes seemed more than anxious to reject damaged fish, setting them aside to be baked and ground into fertilizer. Such rejects meant a loss to the fishermen but a profit to the cannery, for the cannery never paid off on either the spoiled fish or the sacks of fertilizer it later sold.
Gino motioned to his brother. “Watch for any frozen fish, Nino. Shove ’em aside, and we’ll pack ’em on top later. Get the ones with broken tails too.”
The captain watched the men awhile before going below to check on the ices. The three fishermen worked quietly and swiftly as a team. They had finished one compartment and were beginning a second.
The Rat shoveled a base of powdered ice. Then Marco and Jazzy set the albacore alternately head to tail in even rows, taking care to match the fish by size as much as possible. One layer completed, the Rat covered the albacore with ice and a second one was begun. As the layers grew higher, the Rat slipped narrow wooden planks into place to hold the iced fish firmly in each compartment.
It was almost dark when the last albacore had been iced. Tits, Benny, and Nino had already washed down, spraying saltwater from the black hose over the blood and slime that coated the wooden racks and scraping them clean with heavy-bristled hand brushes.
The tired, grimy crew washed their gloves and rubber boots while Gino made a final check. “Okay. Tighten the hatch and clean up for chow.” He called Marco as he started up the ladder to the wheelhouse. “Let’s crack one open.”
From a corner of his cabin Gino dragged out a chest and unlocked it. Half a dozen bottles of scotch remained. With his black thumbnail he slit a cap open and handed the bottle to Marco.
“Here’s to a good day, Dad.”
“Right!” Marco tilted the bottle upward and gulped. He shuddered with pleasure. “God, that’s good stuff!”
Gino took a short nip and set the bottle aside. “Give this one to the men.” He handed Marco another bottle. “But don’t let ’em give any to Nino.” As Marco left he shouted after him. “And don’t give it to Benny first! That crazy Mex will drink it all!”
Gino scrubbed his face with saltwater and ran a comb through his sticky hair before changing into dry clothes. In a shiny piece of tin tacked to the wall of his cabin he studied the coarse, six-day growth of beard on his face. He’d wait until the Stella was a few hours out of San Diego before shaving.
The captain checked the maps and set the course north-northwest. Then he took a quick sip from the bottle and waited for Marco to finish dinner and relieve him at the wheel.
When Gino finally joined them, the others in the crew were impatiently seated about the long galley table waiting for him. Dirty Dick had loaded the table with steaks and a variety of vegetables.
Chow time aboard tuna boat
Gino speared a thick T-bone that filled his plate. He plunked both elbows upon the table and took up his knife and fork. Without looking at the cook he asked, “Did you make ’em rare?”
Dirty Dick grunted and coughed. “Hell, they’re raw.” Ashes from his cigarette sprayed the table as he spoke.
“Dammit!” Gino yelled at him, annoyed. “Keep away from me when I eat if you have to smoke. And I told you last time not to put dessert out until we’re ready for it. Got so much on this table we can’t find room to eat.”
With a shrug the cook removed the canned peaches. As Gino helped himself, he passed each platter on to Monk, who in turn passed them to the next man. The captain had few pet peeves, but he insisted that his crew observe courtesy at the mess. No one ate until he was served, and no one grabbed for food.
Gino looked at his brother’s plate. “Trade me steaks. Yours is too rare.”
The midget pulled his steak closer. “No. I like it real rare, Gino.” Dirty Dick stood leaning against the refrigerator. “Better eat your carrots like a good little boy. Maybe they’ll make you grow.” He grinned through yellowed teeth.
“Aw, scoff you!” Nino called out.
The men roared. “He’s learning fast, all right,” Peter the Rat said. “Another trip and he’ll cuss with the best.” With both hands the Rat shoveled potatoes and meat into his mouth.
“Hell, another trip and he’ll want to get laid!” Jazzy started to laugh but caught himself. He glanced at Gino, uncertain how the captain would take the joke.
“That’s more than you ever got!” the Rat mumbled through a stuffed mouth. “You always talk about it but never do nothing.”
Jazzy jerked his fork upright in the air.
“You’re not man enough to try it!” the Rat sneered.
“Cut it,” Gino ordered. “What you trying to do, give the kid here an education?” He ruffled his brother’s hair. “Leave that to me. When he’s ready I’m taking him over the border and getting him the best piece in T-town. Right, Nino?”
The midget’s face turned pink. “If you say so, Gino.”
“You bet I will! I’ll make a man out of you in more ways than one.” Gino sopped the rich blood from his steak with a chunk of bread. “Turn on the radio, Tits. See if you can get anything but the Tijuana character. All he does is whine. Makes me sick.”
Tits reached awkwardly above his head to the small radio and grunted as he spun the dial. The only response was a soft voice announcing in Mexican a program of Latin numbers. A rumba band started a sweetly sentimental tune.
“Turn it off,” Gino said. “Benny, how the hell can you Mexicans stand that music? It all sounds the same. Same beat, same song.” Benny paused importantly. It was a rare occasion when the captain asked him a question, much less his opinion.
“Is romance,” he answered thoughtfully. “It give the mood. At home my Chiquita she always play rumba when we go to bed.”
“If I was you I’d throw your radio out the door and give your wife a rest. Six kids and another one coming! What you got, a wife or a factory?”
Benny blinked. “But she like it.”
“She likes it?”
“Well, I like it a little bit too.” The Mexican grinned widely.
Gino shoved aside his plate as he stood. “A little bit!” He walked over to a small blackboard nailed to the wall. Rubbing the slate clean, he entered the names of all the men except Monk and Dirty Dick.
“Jazzy, you and Marco take the first watch, nine to midnight.” He wrote the hours after their names. “Me and Nino got the second. Tits and Benny, you got the 3:00 watch.” Below the names he printed in large letters “WAKE DIRTY AT 4:30.”
Gino stepped outside the galley to light a cigar. He briefly checked the foul-smelling bilge pump before joining Marco topside. The two men took turns drinking from the already opened bottle of scotch.
Marco sucked in his lips, savoring the strong bite of the alcohol. The stocky Genovese loved his liquor. He was one of those rare individuals who drank heavily not as an escape but because he genuinely enjoyed the flavor. Fortunately the fisherman had a rugged makeup, which enabled him to absorb quantities of liquor. He further had the good sense to recognize the early signs of intoxication; he had trained himself to control his actions so that, although thoroughly oblivious to his surroundings, others thought he was still sober.
Gino stood beside the older man and smoked contentedly. He felt an admiration for Marco and an attachment that he readily acknowledged. As a youngster he had taken pride in winning Marco’s attention whenever the neighborhood drugstore was honored with the presence of the tuna fisherman — “The old guys,” as Gino and his schoolmates termed anyone over 20.
Gino would ask the handsome blond man leading questions about his fishing prowess or his latest romantic conquest. And the Genovese, 15 years the senior of Gino, seriously accepted his role as hero-counselor. More than he himself realized, Marco became a second father to young Gino. He answered dozens of unrelated questions and discussed personal troubles that the adolescent Gino feared bringing to unsympathetic Gaetano DeMarino’s attention.
Gino’s 15th summer had been a memorable one, thanks to Marco. That was the year Gino had quit high school to join his ailing father’s crew. He couldn’t have chosen a more propitious time. Marco was aboard.
During the long trip down the coast of Baja California, Marco showed the boy everything he knew about fishing: how to look for nature’s own signs of precious bait, how to spot under innocent-looking dead logs and seaweed, how to tease the lazy fish into a biting frenzy, how to wait for that split second before pulling in a hefty tuna.
And it had been Marco who first recognized the nervous awareness of sex in Gino. The Stella had rounded Cape San Lucas and entered the Gulf of California. Weeks at sea had thrown the rowdy, boisterous crew into intimate contact. Marco was a new affection developing in Gino. The boy obviously worshipped him.
When the Stella del Mare put into the scrubby gulf town of Guaymas for fuel, it had been Marco who slipped the youngster away from his father, rode with him in a taxi to the town’s outskirts, and led him up the Callejón de las Locas, the “Street of the Crazy Women.” Outside a darkened shack Marco had paused. With complete sincerity he gave the boy instructions on the use of the condom. Then he had knocked and greeted his especial favorite, Elena. He explained to her briefly, slipped her five pesos, and placed Gino’s hand in hers. The act that followed was a ritual, solemn but effective. Marco thereafter remained Gino’s counselor; the hero had vanished.
When Gino took over as skipper of the Stella, the first person he sought for the crew was his friend. Marco’s knowledge as a navigator and radio operator was invaluable; but even more, Gino respected his long-time friend for his skill in fishing. The man was now 40 but still a worker. He could pull in more fish, and faster, than any two men, when the biting was good. With Marco on the crew of the Stella, Gino knew he couldn’t miss. And although he reserved final decisions as his own right, Gino never failed to discuss the day’s fishing and the next day’s plans with Marco.
For his part, Marco felt intense pride toward his portage and considered every successful trip that Gino made was equally his own. Marco himself could have skippered a tuna boat, but rather than accept responsibility as captain he had retained his independence by signing on as a crew member with boat after boat in the Italian fishing fleet. Only after his wartime service with the Merchant Marine had Marco settled upon one craft, Gino’s Stella del Mare. It was also his aversion to responsibility that had kept Marco a bachelor. At 40 he still lived with his parents, Signor and Signora Antonelli.
Marco tilted the bottle of scotch for another deep gulp. He passed a toughened palm across the reddish blond whiskers on his face.
“Wonder how Big Jud did today?” Marco asked.
“I had him this morning,” Gino replied. “Didn’t have a thing then.” He entered the cabin and sat beside the sputtering radio set. “I’ll try him again.”
Big Jud’s Mermaid II and the Stella de Mare were code boats. Daily the captains radioed one another, reporting their positions and catch and exchanging news.
“ABX calling ABY,” Gino spoke. “ABX calling ABY. Come in, Jud.”
A rush of crackling static was broken by an accented, deep voice. “ABY to ABX. ABY to ABX. Coming in fine, Gino. Coming in fine. How’s it go with you: How’s it go?”
Gino turned up a dial and spoke again. “Good load, Jud. We’re going in. What about you?”
The disgusted reply was accompanied by a flow of Sicilian oaths. “Lousy, Gino. Lousy. Got a few today. A few. Mostly yellowtail. I’m heading south, Gino. Heading south. I hear there’s some down that way. Some that way.”
Marco called over his shoulder. “Ask him how long he figures to be out.”
“How long you figure to be out?” Gino repeated.
Big Jud’s voice boomed. “At least two weeks, Gino. At least two weeks. Going to have to miss the Rat’s wedding. Going to miss the wedding.”
“Too bad, Jud. Too bad.” Gino half whispered to Marco. “Dio cane! That bastard’s getting me to talk like him!”
A throaty chuckle broke in. “Tell the Rat to throw in a couple whacks for me. A couple whacks for me.”
“Okay, Jud.” answered Gino. “How are the boys?”
“Fine, Gino, fine. Mike jabbed a hook in his left thumb this afternoon. All puffed up. Nothing serious, though. Nothing serious.”
“Okay, Jud. That’s all today. I’ll have a shot or a couple for you at the wedding.” Gino began to rise. “ABX signing off. ABX signing off.”
“Cristo, I hate to call Big Jud,” Gino complained to Marco. “Drives me batty the way he keeps repeating everything like I don’t understand. Give him half a chance and he’ll talk forever.” Gino took another drink from the bottle. “He’ll probably be up half the night trying to get someone else to fan the air with him.”
Marco laughed. “Ever hear him and Trevelone on the air? What a pair! They start gossiping in wop just like a couple old women.”
Little Nino came stomping in and immediately sat atop his stool.
“No, you don’t,” said Gino. “Get on to bed. You had a tough day.” He picked up the midget and tossed him onto the bunk.
“Honest, I’m not tired.” Nino started to scramble down.
“I don’t give a damn whether you are or not. You’re still turning in. Here” — Gino reached over — “let me pull off your boots.”
“I can do it,” insisted Nino. “Dammit, you know I’m not a baby!”
Gino beamed. “I was kidding. But you still get to sleep. We got a big day tomorrow cleaning up. Go on. In your sack.”
The midget undressed and crawled into the bunk, squirming close to the wall to leave room for his brother. Gino turned off the cabin light.
The brisk air blew upon their faces as Marco lowered a window in the wheelhouse. The sea was dull and the sky black except where one or two stars shone unsteadily.
“You better turn in yourself,” Marco said. “You got that 12-to-3 watch.”
“Me and Nino,” the captain corrected him.
“All right. You and Nino then.”
“I just want to finish this cigar.” Gino leaned his arms upon the window. “Well, Sunday’s the big day. I think the Rat would have a hemorrhage if we stayed out another day. Afraid we wouldn’t make it back in time. You going to get drunk at his reception?”
“Don’t I always?” replied Marco. “But you, remember because you’re best man doesn’t mean you have to prove it at the bar.”
“It’ll be a pisser, all right.” Gino shook his head. “Isn’t that something! Peter the Rat finally got hooked! I never figured he’d do it.
Marco tossed the wheel back and forth between his open palms. “Happens to the best.”
“That’s what they always say, Dad. Must be something to it.” Gino blew a thick cloud of smoke out the door. “Might even try it myself before long.”
Marco slid a cigarette from his pocket and lit it with Gino’s cigar. “With who, Vicky?”
“Why not? I been running around with her long enough.” He grinned self-consciously as he thought of Vicky, his attractive girl at the Circle Drive-In. “Might as well make it legal.”
Marco hesitated. “Well, it’s your life.”
“What you mean?”
With an uneasy shuffle Gino moved to the stool and sat. “You don’t go for Vicky much, do you?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you don’t like her. Why? What she ever done to you?”
“Not a damn thing,” Marco answered. “I just don’t think she’s the girl for you. For a wife, I mean.” He added, abruptly, “Let’s drop it.”
In the half-dark wheelhouse Gino frowned as he rolled the cigar between his thumb and forefinger. For several minutes the men remained silent. Finally the captain spun his cigar into the darkness.
“Guess I’ll get some shut-eye, Dad. Don’t forget to have Jazzy wake me at midnight.” He picked up the bottle of scotch and then paused. “How about a nightcap?” He grasped his friend by the shoulder.
“Never turned it down yet. You know me.” Marco took a healthy swallow and passed the bottle back.
Gino drank and then wiped his wet chin with the back of his hand. “That does it. Remind Jazzy to check the engines, too.”
“Right. See you tomorrow.”
Gino stripped to his shorts and stretched beside his brother. “Gino?”
The captain raised his head. “Ain’t you asleep yet?”
“I told you I wasn’t tired.”
“What you want?”
“When we get home?”
Gino yawned. “Two days. Maybe Thursday afternoon. What’s the matter, getting homesick?”
“Hell, no!” Nino snorted. “I just wondered.”
“That a boy! Now go on and sleep.” Gino rolled onto his side. The midget lay still a few moments and then sat up. “Gino?”
The fisherman groaned. “Now what the hell you want?”
“Is that true what you said, you getting married?”
Gino was peeved. “You hear too damn much.”
“Well, it is true?” Nino was insistent.
“Maybe.” Gino hesitated. “Why?”
“I just wondered.” There was a thin sigh. “You like her a lot?”
“Non ci rompere li coglioni! If you don’t shut up I’m going to beat your little ass!” Gino growled. “Go to sleep!”
The midget curled against the wall and closed his eyes.
Gino lay on his side listening to the Stella del Mare creak as it rolled slowly from side to side on its homeward trip. First Marco and now little Nino. Cristo! Wait until he told Mamma. Then the merda would really hit the fan!
The crew of the Stella del Mare lined both sides of the bow as Gino steered the boat between the floating buoys off Point Loma and approached the landlocked harbor of San Diego.
“There she is, boys,” the captain called. “Point Hard-On!” He nodded toward the whitewashed lighthouse that topped the brush-covered peak of Point Loma.
The men gazed ahead at the flat marshes and the city beyond. Clusters of pastel buildings stood out against the dusty green and brown slopes of San Diego. Their roofs glittered and shot back rays of the late-afternoon sun. Another hour would find them docked at the Embarcadero.
All the men had changed into clean, wrinkled blue shirts and dungarees. Their heavy fishing boots had been set aside for scuffed tan oxfords. On the bunks lay their smelly, grimy work clothes, stuffed into sea bags.
Their faces were still pink from having freshly shaved, for some of the men the first shave during the entire trip. Jazzy had debated whether to remove the strangely orange and red beard he had sprouted. Finally he decided to follow Peter the Rat’s example and leave a thin mustache close to his upper lip. Secretly he had darkened the hair with a black wet pencil. In Benny’s case shaving had been simple; with a pair of tweezers he had lovingly plucked the sparse hairs that had sprouted on his chin.
Gino steered toward the corrugated metal buildings that marked the customs station at Point Loma, where two inspectors stood waiting at the dock. He cut the motor and slid the boat close to the wharf. While the men tossed heaving lines ashore and made the Stella secure, the captain waited for the inspectors to board.
“What’s you say, Mister Ben?” he greeted the government man. “Hi, Johnny.” The inspectors mumbled hellos as they hopped on deck. Gino led the men into the galley where Dirty Dick was pouring steaming cups of coffee.
The inspectors checked their records. “Bring anything back?” Mister Ben slurped his coffee as he spoke.
“Nope. We got five cartons of cigarettes left over. Got ’em locked up. That’s all.” Gino didn’t bother to report the four bottles of scotch he had stashed in his sea bag. Fishermen were permitted to carry tax-free cigarettes and liquor aboard when they put to sea but had to declare any surplus upon returning.
Johnny marked his papers. “No plants, no Mexican meat or fruit,” he noted routinely.
“Nope,” answered Gino. “Didn’t even put ashore this trip. Didn’t have to.”
“Good trip?” Johnny asked the question with an effort to appear interested.
The captain poured himself more coffee. “Couldn’t be better. Full load. Mostly albacore too.” He was irked when the inspectors failed to appreciate his news.
The government men quickly completed their reports and relaxed to gulp seconds on coffee.
“Had a big afternoon,” Mister Ben commented. “Three boats ahead of you.”
“The Defender get in?” asked Gino. “How much she have?” Mister Ben shuffled his papers into a brief case. “Just before you. I think she’s got about eight ton albacore and ten skipjack. Maybe it’s ten ton yellowtail. I forget which.”
“Glad to hear it,” Gino said. “Old man Emilio’s been having a rough time. He needs a good load.”
The inspectors rose. “It’s all yours, Gino. Take it away. See you.”
The Stella chugged, first brokenly and then steadily, as Gino wheeled it from the customs station and headed for the Embarcadero. The harbor was crowded. Two destroyers and a flattop lay at anchor. A pair of puffing tugboats were dragging a battlewagon off toward the naval base at North Island.
Gino studied the line of fishing craft moored dead ahead. Between the Defender and the Belle of Lisbon, a huge tuna clipper that had recently completed a successful maiden voyage, Gino spotted an opening. He yelled directions to Marco, but the blond fisherman already had the crew standing by.
“We dock next to that Portagee bitch,” Gino directed. He gave the 200-ton-capacity clipper a swift, envious glance. “Hey, Nino,” he said to the midget standing at the rail. “How’d you like to fish on that? Make two good trips and lay off the rest of the year.” He had to hand it to the rival Portuguese fishermen of Point Loma. No smalltime fishing for them; they went after tuna in a big way.
Again Gino cut the motor and expertly let the Stella drift up to the wharf beside the Defender. Slowly he pulled into the space between the two boats, starting and cutting the motor until he had the Stella nudging the pilings.
Marco tossed a heaving line to Tits, who had already jumped ashore. The big Sicilian jerked in the line and grasped the heavy tie rope attached to it. Before the Stella could bounce away, he whipped the rope about a piling and ran to help Jazzy pull in another line.
The captain watched until the boat was secured. As the Stella gently bumped against the dock, Gino gathered his crew about him.
“Tomorrow we tie up at the cannery. All of you be here at ten sharp. Got that? Ten o’clock, hangover or no.” He read from a slip of paper. “Monk is sticking around until nine. Then Jazzy, you take over watch. Benny, midnight.” He frowned in mock anger at the Mexican. “That give you enough time to lay the old lady, you rabbit?”
Benny smiled eagerly. “Sí. Plenty time.”
“Okay, then,” continued Gino, “midnight for you. I come on at 3:00, Tits at 6:00. And don’t forget to check those ice machines. If anything goes wrong, phone me or Monk. I put the numbers on the board.” He folded the paper and stuck it in a pocket. “Dirty, first thing tomorrow you check the stores and get a new list ready.”
The cook started to object but wound up in a spasm of coughing.
“Tomorrow,” the captain repeated. “Last time you held us up half a day because you got the meat list late to DeFalco’s.” He looked up at the wharf. Several cars were parked nearby, and a small gathering stood watching the crew. “Okay. That’s it.”
The men tossed their sea bags onto the wharf and clambered up. Some of them hurried to embrace and greet relatives who had been waiting patiently beside their cars for the Stella to dock.
Peter the Rat lugged his bag to a sleek green Buick. Throwing open the front door, he grasped the face of a lovely girl with both his hands and kissed her heartily.
“Connie, baby!” he cried. “How’s my little doll? Miss me, baby?”
The blush that spread over Costanza’s ivory neck set off her shoulder-length raven hair and made her appear even younger than her 19 years.
“Peter!” She laughed in embarrassment. “You hurt…stop that!” She glanced at her year-older brother sitting at the wheel of her fiancé’s car. As chaperone Bruno had accompanied the pair on every date and was under positive orders from his old-world parents to see that the couple was never alone until after the wedding.
“Hi,” Bruno said laconically. “You have good trip?”
“Don’t we always?” the Rat asked in return. “How’s the bus running? No wrecks, I hope.”
Local Buick dealer, c. 1940
Bruno shook his head. “No, she’s run good.” He had a reputation as a reckless buck. He delighted in gunning a car along the fishing colony’s busy India Street and wheeling unexpectedly about corners. It was with considerable misgiving that Peter had given in to his future brother-in-law’s blackmailing. More than once Bruno had conveniently vanished, leaving Peter and Costanza to park at Inspiration Point for an hour’s mutual exploration. In return Bruno demanded use of the Buick whenever the Rat was at sea. Peter was particularly disturbed, because he hadn’t yet paid off last year’s model, which he had traded for the present Buick.
“Hey, you…Rat…you ready?” Bruno asked.
“Drive over to Tits’. I promised to drop him off.” Peter sat next to Connie and pulled her head close for another kiss. With a grating of gears Bruno shot the Buick backward and then ahead, slamming the brakes for a rocking stop.
“Holy mackerel!” the Rat grumbled. “You trying to break my neck? You’re not driving this car at the wedding!” He opened the rear door so Tits could climb in with his bag.
As they drove off, Peter the Rat leaned his head out the window and called to Gino. “Hey, compare! Don’t forget we rehearse at church Saturday. Right after confession.”
Gino waved as the Buick roared off. He paused to greet Chiquita, who sat placidly behind the wheel of a battered Chevrolet coupe while her brood swarmed affectionately over her husband. Benny had kissed each of the six thin dark boys and was in the midst of another round of hugs.
“How you feel, Mrs. Alvarez?” the captain asked. The woman’s middle bulged so much that she had difficulty turning in her seat to face him.
“Fine, gracias,” she said.
“How much longer before the baby comes?”
“The doctor he think maybe four month. But my mother she think no.” She sighed. “For me is all the same. When Dios says, is ready.”
Gino laughed. “You should be used to it by now.” He threw an arm about Benny’s shoulders. “See if you can fatten up this skinny cabrón on some of those fried beans. He almost got pulled in by a yellowtail this trip.”
A worried frown creased Chiquita’s brow. “Is not doing good?”
“Sure, sure. Benny does fine. After we been out a week! Takes him that long to recover from getting home with you!” Gino poked the Mexican on the arm. “Qué hombre!”
Chiquita giggled. “Sí, I like it the way he say ‘Por favor’ each time. How can I say ‘No’?”
Gino waited until Benny had rattled off before he walked to the gleaming black Cadillac convertible that now sat alone on the wharf.
Marco and Jazzy were stretched in the back seat. Nino sat up front with a smartly dressed woman of about 30. She was rather attractive in spite of the almost stern quality about her mouth. Her thick brunette hair was slightly touched with gray. And she was making a determined effort to appear casual as she puffed hurriedly on a cigarette. It bothered her that the two fishermen behind were observing her in the rear-view mirror with amused interest. She was Anna, the eldest of the DeMarino children and a deserted mother of two baby daughters.
Anna snuffed out her cigarette as Gino approached. She scooted to the right of the car, close to Nino. “I heard you on the radio last night and called Mrs. Alvarez and Peter’s girl.” She spoke as if to win her younger brother’s approval.
Gino turned the ignition key. “I figured you’d be listening.” He spun the Cadillac about and turned on the dim lights. It was barely dark.
Up Harbor Drive he sped, hardly listening as Nino breathlessly described to his sister how he had learned to pop out sardine eyes while chumming. Gino was watching for the garish green-yellow-red neon tower that poled into the sky and announced in flashing lights, “Circle.” Another blinking sign below added “Dine Dance Romance Drive-In.”
Gino stepped on the brake as the Cadillac passed the nightclub. He gave a blasting series of honks with his horn. Somewhere inside, he knew, Vicky would pause as she carried drinks to the small round tables about the dance floor. She would hear and know that Gino was in. She’d be ready for him tonight.
Gino stepped on the gas and swung up West Juniper Street to drop Jazzy and Marco off at their homes. Then he wheeled into a double garage, putting the headlights on full. The strong white beams flashed over Mamma DeMarino standing in the screen door of the cellar. She was wiping her rough hands with an apron as she waited anxiously for her two sons.
It was while she had labored in a North Beach boardinghouse that Stella Tarantino met easygoing, handsome, 28-year-old Gaetano DeMarino. She had arrived alone in San Francisco from her father’s meager Sicilian farm only a few months earlier. Gaetano had been in the city two years and had a job as a lobster fisherman; already he considered himself a native Californian.
Gaetano was instantly attracted by Stella’s disturbing brown eyes. He was lonely, and the small but strong, hard-working girl looked as though she would make a lively bed partner and a fruitful mother.
Stella in turn encouraged Gaetano’s fumbling advances as she made the bed in his simply furnished room. To her the promised land of America was hardly one where she would continue to spend 15 hours a day as maid and part-time cook in a boardinghouse.
But at 25 her logical mind decided she had best find a husband who would be a steady provider, reasonably faithful, and not too bright. She had firmly decided that she, and not the man of her choice, would run her future household. Stella decided upon Gaetano.
Soon after their quiet wedding, attended only by a handful of Gaetano’s friends and the inmates of the boardinghouse, the couple moved to San Diego, a then-small town close to the Mexican border. Gaetano had heard there was good fishing nearby; Stella was eager to make a new start. She saw no future for her husband in San Francisco. The competition among the Italian fishermen there was too well established.
During that first struggling year in their waterfront home Anna was born. Now Stella had new cause to drive Gaetano on. She kept after him until he took out his citizenship papers. She argued until in desperation he quit his job on a small jig boat and put on as crew member of a larger craft.
But it was years later before Signora Stella DeMarino could feel that she had arrived in the local Italian fishing colony. By then she had her own large house. She had a son and heir in Gino. She had sent for her old father in Sicily to be with her in his last years. She had vigorously assisted in raising funds for the establishment of an Italian parish; her name was engraved with others on the marble tablet beside the alter of Our Lady of the Sea Church. She had achieved a respected position among the Italian women by twice being elected president of the Società della Madonna del Mare.
Most important, she had nagged her reluctant husband into borrowing capital from a bank and going into partnership with the Calpatria Cannery in a tuna boat. Now Gaetano finally was skipper of his own boat. It was named, of course, after his wife. When little Agostino arrived, no one was more surprised and delighted than Mamma DeMarino. He afforded a fresh interest in life. But after three years of lovingly waiting for her second son to grow normally, Mamma resigned herself to the doctor’s claim that she had given birth to a midget. How or why she couldn’t understand.
Mamma DeMarino suspected, however, that wise, ancient Luigia, the neighborhood midwife, was right. Twelve years between children, since Gino’s birth, was too long to wait. She and Gaetano were getting old; they hadn’t been exercising their organs enough. And, Luigia whispered knowingly after a careful probing with her fingers, Stella DeMarino’s uterus had shrunk. Naturally a midget was the result of conception.
Luigia had delivered hundreds of babies in her time. She probably was right, no matter what other confusing reasons the doctor gave. These modern doctors, Mamma sniffed, knew nothing but pills and now those shots of vitamine.
At 56 Signora Stella was short and stout but still remarkably energetic. Her plump face was topped with graying hair that gathered in a knot behind her head. Since burying her Gaetano she had given herself untiringly to the three most precious things in her life: her family, her church, and her neighbors’ private affairs.
Mamma DeMarino delighted in gossip. She was a willing listener, encouraging the black-shawled old women who visited her house regularly for the most intimate news. With wide eyes she would lean forward over their coffee and appropriately inject “O!” or “Ma non può essere!” or “Allora?” or “E possibile?” to encourage the visitors to greater details. After they left she would rush to the phone and breathlessly recite the latest neighborhood scandal.
When her own daughter eloped to Yuma with a sailor, Signora Stella suffered a deep blow. The colony reeled under the news. Anna DeMarino had run away with an American. A sailor! They hadn’t even married in church! And her own mother president of the Società della Madonna del Mare. It was a disgrace!
Signora Stella set the alarm two hours earlier and rose for six o’clock Sunday Mass instead of the usual eight. Although she was president of the Società it was a month before she would attend a meeting and permit her clacking neighbors to comfort her. By then the Signora had magnanimously decided to forgive and forget. And she entered the game of gossip with renewed, intense gusto.
It was with a grim sense of satisfaction that, some years later, Mamma DeMarino took her daughter back into the home, Anna and her two babies, Lilly-Ann and Rose-Ann. But not her sailor husband.
Signora Stella DeMarino folded her hands over her ample, unsupported breasts and contentedly watched her family devour the pasta, rump roast, and fresh salad, made of lettuce and tomatoes from the garden, that she had set upon the table. She was pleased. Her ambitious son, captain of the Stella del Mare, had completed another successful trip.
Tomorrow she would celebrate by purchasing the rich squirrel fur coat she had long cherished. She would wear it at Peter Adamo’s wedding — despite the seasonal heat. But first she would walk to church and light a candle in thanks to the Blessed Virgin. Not a 10-cent one but a large 25-cent candle in a colored glass holder that would burn before the statue of the Madonna.
She could hardly wait to see the envious reaction of the other women at church Sunday. Especially Signora Capolla! Mamma DeMarino envied the woman’s respected position as social leader of the colony, and she had never quite forgiven Signora Capolla for replacing her as president of the Società.
Mamma DeMarino bent forward at the dinner table. Her limp mounds rested upon the edge.
“Gino,” she encouraged her son, “prendete ancora pasta.” She shoved the platter of spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce toward him.
Mamma DeMarino always spoke to her children in Italian. It displeased her that they invariably replied in English; she placed the blame on the public schools they had attended. When she went shopping and found it imperative to speak English herself, Mamma threw in Italian words indiscriminately and had no patience with strangers who failed to understand her.
She ladled more pasta onto Nino’s dish. “Mangia, Nino mio! How do you expect to grow strong like your brother?” She grasped him by the chin and placed a juicy kiss on his greasy lips. “My tiny fisherman!”
Nino wiped his mouth sullenly. He wished his mother would stop behaving like he was still a tit-sucking baby!
“More meat?” Without awaiting a reply she dropped another piece of the roast on the midget’s spaghetti.
Mamma herself did not eat; she was too busy seeing that everyone else was being satisfied. When Gino’s glass was empty, she passed him more red wine. If Lilly-Ann or Rose-Ann seemed to lose interest in food she coaxed them to eat more. Occasionally she gave her attention to her father.
Nonno sat fidgeting with his salad and meat. He had already finished his pasta. The feeble old Sicilian with watery, faded eyes had outlived his wife and half of his eight children. Stella was the oldest living. A son and two other daughters lived with their families in San Francisco.
Years before, he had settled into a never-varying routine. Each morning he rose at 6:00, painstakingly dressed himself, and sat quietly in the kitchen until his daughter served him coffee and milk in a large white bowl. With trembling fingers the grandfather would soak hunks of bread in the coffee. Next he would rise and wait until Mamma DeMarino handed him a knitted black-wool cap. Mechanically moving one foot ahead of the other, he would shuffle around the block to return and sit on the wide front porch until lunchtime. In the afternoon he took a nap and later puttered about the garden, barely scraping the soil with a hoe. By six o’clock he was again seated at the table.
The others in the family accepted Nonno as they might a fixture. They automatically waited upon him at the table, cutting his food into tiny bits and placing bread and water before him. It was seldom that they spoke to him, for there rarely was a need. He was simply present, a somehow living body that always appeared in time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That was all.
Nonno’s thoughts, if any, were kept to himself. He had long since given up the effort of speaking. Not even Mamma DeMarino knew whether the ancient farmer still retained the power of speech. When he tinkled his glass for attention she guessed at what he wanted. It was usually more food. He was not hard to please; his iron stomach digested whatever was placed before him. Nonno was 88, and everyone had long given up expecting him to die.
Mamma DeMarino waggled a finger at Rose-Ann as she caught the girl filching a slice of bread from Nonno.
“Anna,” she chastised, “your daughter is a little thief. Just like her father. Cut Nonno another piece of my bread.”
Mamma was rightly proud of her seeded, brown-crusted bread. It was still hot from baking in the brick-and-cement oven in her backyard. Gaetano had constructed the igloo-shaped oven soon after the house had been built, almost 20 years ago. Mamma DeMarino still baked light loaves of bread and rolls and tasty holiday cakes in it.
She sliced a thick piece of bread and carefully arranged bits of mozzarella on it. As she munched the white cheese and bread carefully — for her teeth were not so firm as they once were — Mamma waited for Gino to relax. She was flattered that he ate her food with obvious relish but perturbed that he had hardly spoken to her. And after a month away from home when she had so much to tell!
Finally Mamma DeMarino shook the crumbs from her apron onto the floor and leaned back comfortably.
“Did Anna tell you?” she asked Gino. “Antonio lost a finger. You know Antonio, Francesca’s second son by her first husband, God rest his soul. The poor boy cut it with a butcher knife.” She clasped her palms in sympathy.
“The priest wants more money. Now to build himself a new house. It isn’t enough that we paid the church debt and have built a new hall. Now he wants a house?” She grasped her thighs despairingly. “But what does he do with all the dollars he gets in collection? That I wish to know. I too could use a new house!”
She had the next news ready. “Of course you heard about Antonio and Chiara. What a shame!”
“They broke up,” Anna said eagerly.
Mamma DeMarino raised her hand in warning. “Be silent, you!” It was her story, and she wanted to relish its telling. “Last time Antonio went fishing Chiara was seen skating. At Mission Beach.” She paused. “Naturally Antonio broke the engagement when he heard. Chiara had to return the ring. Too bad! Antonio is such a fine young man.”
Anna smirked. “That’s not what I heard! Chiara’s lucky to be rid of him.”
“At least he is Italian!” Mamma DeMarino glared at her daughter balefully.
“Cristo! Let’s not go through all that again!” It was the first time during dinner that Gino had spoken. Anna gave him a grateful look as he refilled his wine glass.
Mamma DeMarino decided to spring her newest sensation. Her audience thus far had not been appreciative. She began by clucking in disapproval.
“Last night! I have never known such a night. The parents of Marco were fighting again. It was after 11:00. I had to get up from bed, the noise they made. He was in the street. Drunk, as always. And the terrible things he was saying to her! What a villain that man is! Of course poor Dora was crying. I made her come stay with me.”
Gino half lifted the glass and then set it down. The wine came from Signor Antonelli’s own cellar. Every year since Gaetano had been killed, Marco’s father had presented the DeMarino family with two ten-gallon barrels of his spring wine.
“At 3:00 this morning,” Mamma DeMarino continued enthusiastically, “he came back, knocking and yelling at our back door. ‘Dora, come home! Please, Dora!’ I warned her not to go, but the unfortunate woman dressed and led him home by the hand.” Mamma rocked back and forth in affected misery.
Gino waited. “Well,” he asked, “what happened?”
“Nothing,” his mother replied, somewhat surprised at the question. “What else should happen? Was that not enough?” She sighed. “How fortunate it is that Marco was not home to see his father and dear mother quarrel. Let us hope that no one tells him.”
Gino made a grimace and drained his glass. “Don’t worry, Mamma. If you don’t, no one else will.”
Mamma gave up. Obviously Gino was tired from his long trip and in no mood to exchange news tonight. Leaning on the table she pushed herself up and went to the tile kitchen sink for a bowl of seedless grapes and ripe peaches. She peeled and sliced a peach into a tumbler and poured wine over it. She set the dessert before Nonno and fixed a similar glass for herself. By the time she had finished eating and had drained the wine, Mamma DeMarino was again ready to talk.
With a too-obvious casualness she said, “Teresa was here this afternoon.”
Gino didn’t speak, but he hurriedly began to munch grapes. Cristo, he thought; here it starts again! Home an hour and a half and here it starts again!
As if to avoid entering the pending discussion, Anna rose and busied herself with clearing the table.
“Such a nice girl…. Gino, as her partner you must visit Teresa before the wedding. Perhaps tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow I have to tie up the boat at the cannery,” Gino said. He scraped his chair restlessly.
“Allora,” Mamma insisted. “If not tomorrow then Saturday for certain. Such an intelligent girl! She finished high school and also a year of the business college.” She halted momentarily to change her line of attack.
“I spoke to the mother of Peter Adamo yesterday. She almost cried, she is so happy that her son will marry Sunday. And to such a sweet young thing, his Costanza! When do you rehearse with Signora Capolla?”
“After confession Saturday night.”
“You also are making confession, are you not?”
Gino rubbed his sticky fingers with the tablecloth. “All of us are.”
“And well you should, with all the sins on your soul! You have not made the confession since Christmas last. You even missed your Easter duty.” Mamma DeMarino folded her hands piously. “Make a good confession. You know it is a mortal sin to receive Our Blessed Lord with an impure heart.”
Gino poured himself a final glass of Signor Antonelli’s wine. “You must pick up Teresa in your car before the rehearsal.”
“I know,” he answered impatiently.
Mamma brushed the tablecloth indifferently. “Well! With Peter Adamo married you will lose one of your drinking companions. Of course he is fortunate in finding such a girl from a respected Italian family. But there are many others, here in this very neighborhood, that are still to be had.”
Gino frowned as he sipped at the wine. This was it!
“Ah, my son, my son!” Mamma DeMarino said passionately. “Why can you not find such a girl? Do you intend forever to go from one bar to another with your drunken friends and those…those…” She groped for a suitable epithet and failed. “Those American women! Is that happiness? Is that a life for a respectable man? Throwing away the money you slave to earn on such women!”
“You get your share!” Gino said hotly. “What I do with the rest is my business!” Suddenly he felt ashamed. “Oh, Mamma,” he pleaded, “cut it out. When I’m good and ready I’ll get married.” Obviously this was no time to mention Vicky. He pushed back his chair. It was after 9:00. The gang would be expecting him at the Circle. And so would Vicky.
Mamma DeMarino looked at her son sternly. She had not yet finished. She had intended to mention Teresa at least twice more.
“Now where do you go?” she demanded. “Off to meet your friends? All, you are all of a kind! Your first night home and all of you must rush like madmen to the bars.”
Gino bent over and kissed his mother on the cheek. “That’s right, Mamma. We got unfinished business.”
“Business!” she sneered. “What business?”
As Gino slipped into his loafer jacket, little Nino ran to a closet and took down a tailored identical one.
“And you, Nino?” Mamma asked immediately. “Where do you intend going at this hour, my little fisherman?”
“With Gino.” The midget tried to dart past his mother, but Mamma DeMarino wrapped her chunky arms about his waist. He struggled fruitlessly.
Mamma lifted the boy easily onto her knee and clasped him to her bosom. She petted him affectionately. “My baby, my angel. You must remain with me.”
Nino wiggled furiously until he slid from his mother’s grasp. His eyes blazed. “Dammit, I’m not a baby! When the hell you going to learn that?”
Mamma DeMarino was truly shocked. You looked at her young son openmouthed. Then she turned upon Gino.
“So that is how you teach my Nino to become a fisherman? To curse his own mother!” She raised her clenched hands into the air. “May the good God above forgive him! My Nino who has assisted Father Abruzzio for three years as alter boy!” Just as suddenly she halted her crying and grasped Nino by the ear. “If your father, God rest his soul, were alive you would never speak in such a manner to your own mother.”
Lilly-Ann began beating the table with a spoon and laughed hysterically. “Baby, baby!” Little Rose-Ann took up the mocking cry.
Nino shook his clenched fist at them. “Anna, make them shut up, or I’ll bust them in the teeth!” His sister hurried to quiet the girls.
Mamma began to drag Nino toward a bedroom. “Come! I shall show you whether or not you are already a man or still my own. It is far too long since I have put you over my knees.”
At the kitchen door Gino had been watching the incident with amusement. Now he stepped rapidly to his mother’s side.
“Mamma,” he ordered, “let Nino go!” She relaxed the boy. The midget’s ear was crimson. “Don’t ever hurt him again. Never.” Gino spoke slowly and evenly, but he fought to control a quiver in his throat.
He gave his brother a familiar cuff. “Tonight you rest up. Big day tomorrow. Some other time we’ll go out together. Right?”
Nino kept his head bent.
The midget spoke with a choked voice. “Right, Gino.” He tore off his jacket and rushed up the stairway.
Without another word Gino hurried out, letting the screen door slam woodenly.
Mamma DeMarino slowly opened a drawer. She pulled out a cloth to wipe the dishes Anna had been washing. At his seat Nonno began to shuffle his feet. Dinner was over, and it was far past his bedtime.
Next week: Rat's wedding.