Lupe was having second thoughts as he and Paco wrestled the full 45-gallon oil drum onto his skiff. The barrel went on too close to the bow, lifting the stern out of the water, the propeller made impotent and stark in the moonlight flickering over the slight waves.
He would be caught, he was sure. Everyone in his village knew that he had returned from the fuel depot in Buscerias with the oil, spending such money for more oil than a sane man needed to run his boat around Banderas Bay ferrying tourists out to fish or dive off the rocks declared too late a national aquatic park for the coral was long dead and grey now.
Short and squat, Paco said nothing, as he always said nothing but grunted as he heaved the drum bumping along the turquoise-stained ribs of the boat towards the center.
Lupe smiled at Paco who had been with him for so many years. Smiled with the knowledge that the barrel-chested Paco was aging with him, his friend’s Indian straight hair now streaked with grey.
The boat rocked furiously with the load, seawater sloshing over the sides. The two men stood spread-eagled for balance and sweat ran through Lupe’s frizzed mop of graying hair down his forehead under his ball cap.
And Paco said nothing.
Lupe smiled, remembering the tourists from three days ago who tried to engage Paco with sounds, with motions, with Spanglish that made Lupe snort out loud at them. They had assumed the Indian knew no English or French or German, only Spanish but Lupe himself did not know if Paco had any speech in him at all.
Of course, the federales would come to his house after they discovered the bay of the proposed hotel was black, slicked and dying with the floating, bloating fish bobbing in the surf, gasping on land as the oil seeped into their opening and closing mouths, washed over then stuck to their gills slowing in their opening and closing until they stopped.
“Someone stole my oil,” he planned to say and meet the policemen’s gaze but he knew he would not be believed for there were no thieves in Punta Amita where everyone and everything was identified and known.
Lupe had not felt brave and desperate for many years, for all his life really. He was content to make US dollars for piloting his boat, selling some fish, sharing the money with Paco who maybe or maybe not was happy with his portion.
Almost always, the tourists would insist on buying him a meal after a day on the water. And he would always choose the beachfront restaurant whose owner had agreed to pay him a commission equal to the cost of the meal he ordered and the tourists paid for.
Lupe would sit on the sand beside the tourists who settled into low beach chairs in front of a low table. On the other side, a wine bucket packed with upturned Coronas jammed into the ice, the bucket’s legs jammed into the sand.
He would never order expensively for he did not want to appear like a swindling native and he did not want to abuse or lose the agreement he had with the owner. A salad or sometimes the cheapest fish – often the fish he had caught and sold himself that day.
Lupe watched the tourists with bemusement as they tore into the lobster tails, the puffed sweet meat spilling from the shells, the garlic butter cooling under the setting sun and running down their fingers and chins and they brushed at the grains of sand finding their way everywhere, spreading like a gritty stain wherever a hand was moved and touched something else.
“Twenty US dollars,” Lupe had said to the longhaired tourist three days ago.
“How about ten?” the tourist had countered.
Lupe sighed and looked out at the rocks, grey and distant in the bay.
“How well can you swim, amigo?”
“Maybe I’ll hire another boat,” the tourist had cheerfully threatened.
Lupe smiled as re-attached his gaze to the tourist. Not once had he ever become impatient with the guidebooks and the stories traded in the snowy north about the alleged native love of bargaining. Not here, not on his beach, thanks to Lupe who had visited every boatman and convinced them of the stupidity of lowering their price. Twenty US dollars, no more or less.
“You should do that; I will be here,” Lupe told the tourist and he sat down on a rock shelf, splaying his long thin legs bent like a mantis, lowering his ball cap brim to his brow.
Some would trot off in search of a bargain; some like the tourist of three days ago, his bluff called, would agree to the terms.
For some reason, maybe because this tourist knew he was being cornered and smiled anyway at the negotiation dance, Lupe thought he liked this visitor and his quiet, nervous looking woman as he watched them walk towards the bodega he had directed them to for beer and soda, the store where Lupe received one peso for every ten spent.
The sea was quiet. The snorkeling would be good and the tide right to show them the small beach reachable when the water was low and they could swim under the stone arch that protected the hidden bay when the sea was high.
The tourists’ land legs made them jerky getting into the boat, without the rhythm that was natural now to all the boatmen of the little bay, even for Lupe who was extraordinarily tall. Paco, standing in the shallows, grabbed a gunwale and steadied the boat as motionless as a dock.
They pushed off and Paco had the motor roaring immediately. The bow rose with the acceleration then the boat planed and there was the regular thudding of the hull as it ploughed into the wave crests.
“You a ‘Skins fan?” the tourist yelled indicating the maroon, yellow and white ball cap corralling Lupe’s curly hair.
“This year,” Lupe yelled back
“How’s that work?” the tourist screamed just as Paco cut the engine, near the rocks, now huge, rising out of the sea.
“How’s that work?” the tourist asked again, the only other sound the slap of the waves against the hull.
“My brother, he is in Chicago,” Lupe explained. “And every year, he sends me a different hat. Next year, I think I will be supporting the Packers of Green Bay.”
Unlike most of the boatmen, Lupe would dive with the tourists. They always seemed to take comfort from his underwater company but that’s not why he did it. He liked it. He liked slipping over the side into the clear blue water, bubbles caressing him, tickling his ribs and his brown arms now larger in the glass of his mask, the gray hair on his forearms rippling like palms in a stiff wind. He liked the sureness of his stroke as he dove down to the sea floor to retrieve a dried urchin or a bit of coral he would pry off with the edge of his blade or a desiccated sea fan that no longer waved in the invisible current.
The tourists of three days ago were grateful for the souvenir bit of brain coral, although there was guilt in their eyes over their duplicity in the apparent desecration of the reef. So Lupe would assure them of the reef’s death, that there were no longer the thousands of yellow, blue and silver fish of his youth.
They were all jovial on the boat ride back, the tourists of three days ago talking over the wind and engine noise about what they had seen, marveling at the secret beach. Lupe was sure of a meal as the tourists drank Coronas picked from the battered cooler.
“You are a lucky man,” the tourist said as they beached the boat. “It’s beautiful here.”
“You want to buy my house then? Thirty thousand US dollars. Come. I’ll show you,” Lupe offered.
Taken aback, the tourist asked: “Why would you sell your house?”
“Things will change soon. Maybe you would like it because they are building a big hotel. There on the next bay!” and Lupe indicated a cliff.
Even though construction was months away, Lupe could see the soaring white buildings just as they were in the model he had been shown at the ceremony with the Minister of Tourism himself and the Japanese men in black or grey suits. He could see the golf course laid out around the buildings like a bright green stain spreading around the miniature palms that would be spared.
“So where will you go?” the tourist had asked and seemed to care.
“Up the coast, down the coast. Not here.”
The boatman’s lifelong practiced nonchalance was, he knew, a sham. He had no idea of what he was going to do, could not imagine leaving the village of his birth, could not imagine staying when the building started.
“And it can’t be stopped?” the tourist asked.
Lupe had no answer. The government officials and the hotel people had talked to everyone in the village. The boatmen had been told that there would be more work than they could imagine, more money for everyone. The restaurant owners, he knew, were already imagining the higher prices their food and drink would fetch, prices approaching Nuevo Vallarta, even Puerto Vallarta which Lupe no longer visited for the new stores and restaurants surrounded and seemed to lay siege to the ancient cathedral, seemed to make the old metal statue of the sea horse on the boardwalk ridiculously appear to be part of the spread of American places with rock hard names and no poetry or gentleness.
Tonight, Lupe now thought of the sea lives he was about to take, of the swearing fishermen, his friends, as they helplessly paced up and down the beach in the rising sun.
He pushed the boat out of his small bay, cautioning Paco to run as quietly as he could. The boat putt-putted away from shore and Lupe looked over his shoulder at the shrinking plastic lanterns, coloured red, green and white and dancing on an unseen string.
Soon, they had rounded the point and were in blackness.
“This is not enough oil for the job,” whispered Paco.
In the dark of the hotel’s bay, the unfamiliar, deep rasp of his partner startled Lupe.
“It will do something,” replied Lupe. “And that is enough for me. Now, my friend, stop chattering like a monkey and help.”
The boat had almost capsized as they laboured to swing the barrel perpendicular to the side. Lupe unscrewed the steel cap with a wrench and they tipped the mouth of the drum over the gunwale.
The men were quiet and frozen as they listened to the sounds of the black liquid bubbling and percolating out of the barrel, slopping heavily onto the salt water. They lifted up the bottom of the drum to get the last drops out and Lupe saw the black spreading stain, saw it only because it did not catch and dance in the moonlight the way the water did.
Their backs ached as they held the barrel in the water until it filled with water and sank.
Back on land, Lupe shook Paco’s hand.
“I will tell them that I was alone,” said Lupe.
His friend said nothing, but his dark eyes shone. Paco turned and shambled off towards the dancing coloured lanterns.
Lupe went home and sat, hatless, at his kitchen table, waiting in the dark for the federales to come.
John Owens was born in Liverpool, raised in Ottawa, and earned an MA in English Literature from Queen’s University at a time when, admittedly, there was a lot less literature to study.
His first book, On the Rails, is a Depression-era saga which author and columnist Roy Macgregor described as “wonderful...evocatively written and powerful”.
He is currently at work on a “change of pace” series of thrillers featuring a not altogether likeable ex-hippie with attitude.
Owens lives and writes in Morrisburg, Ontario with his wife, Maggie and way too much shrubbery.