Unloading tuna at Westgate Cannery
  • Unloading tuna at Westgate Cannery
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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.

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