They were coming back now, the last of them, staggering slightly; the launch brought them over the bay to the ship. I watched them come on board, Knute and the cook, and thought of the town itself, Manzanillo, huddled against the green hills, full of people, dark, the sound of their feet, their voices in a strange language; the men had gone up on the hill to the whorehouses but I remembered the town and the people I saw. We were all in the galley with the skipper, waiting for the last of the men so we could now leave, having fueled up, taken on fresh stores. As Knute and the cook came in the skipper looked at them blinking behind his glasses, his eyes strangely averted, as they always were.
“Well, they can still walk, that’s a good sign.”
“Why sure,” Knute said, “you didnt think we would get drunk out there, did you?”
The skipper blinked even more rapidly.
“You look a little bowlegged,” he said.
Knute was grinning but the cook wasnt.
The hills there were green jungle covered. The surf broke softly. In the town lanterns were strung across the streets in a kind of celebration I did not understand. The shops were small and there were no huge department stores, and peering into the gloom I could see perhaps a woman standing at a counter or a man walking, how peaceful it looked. The sidewalks were full of walking people. It was my first time here.
“How did you like the town?” Knute asked me.
“Did you go up on the hill?”
“You stay away from those whorehouses, eh?”
“That’s the way,” said the cook. “You stay away from them.”
The cook’s mouth was a thin long cut across his face. Like the others he was of Norwegian descent, but unlike the others English seemed a difficult language for him. When he talked his mouth twisted with the effort he put into speaking.
“You should stay away from those Mexican whores. They dirty.”
“Oh,” said the Captain looking up. “I dont see that they are dirty.”
“Ah, they dirty.” The cook nodded his head. “They dirty all right.”
Knute was watching them.
I had been standing in the tree-covered square watching the people, thinking about where to go, what to see, when the cook and Knute had come walking by and stopped to talk. They were going to the hill. They were dressed in pressed slacks and sport shirts that looked unfamiliar on them whom I had seen all month dressed only in work clothes on the boat; to see them like this their hair slicked back they were strangers and they felt it too. They asked me where I was going and I said I didnt know, I was just looking around.
Youre not going up the hill? said Knute.
No, I said. I dont think so.
Ah, you playing it smart, said Knute.
The cook was not drunk yet so he said nothing standing there.
See that bar? said Knute.
I looked at where he pointed and perhaps that was a bar; but there was no sign over the doorway, which was dark. There were two girls standing there poorly dressed.
You want a girl you just go in there. That’s all you have to do.
Yeah? I said.
Just go in there and order a drink and theyll come up to you.
Okay, I said smiling. I’ll remember that.
Sure, he said. You got to get a girl, he added as they turned to go.
They walked off to a taxi and I watched them talking to a nodding driver and then they got in and drove off. The two girls in the doorway of the bar looked at nothing and said nothing. People walked by ignoring them but after a bit, as I watched, two more girls, one of them pretty, came up and stopped and talked; then they all went in. I walked over by the place and looked casually through the door, but there was a screen barrier and I could see nothing. I thought for a moment about going in and getting a drink. The one girl had been pretty. She had worn a thin summer dress and the wind had blown a little. There was color there, red, on that dress, and the street was full of color, the trees, the colored people, the sky which hung blue over everything. But I did not go in. The bar would be dark and gloomy and perhaps they would come up and press against me like they did in the border towns further north. I walked on across the square.
The Captain said, “I dont see that they are dirty. Theyre just whores, like any other whore.”
“No, no,” said the cook. “You don’ understand. They not like other whore.”
The skipper blinked looking.
“What do you mean?”
The cook leaned forward his mouth twisting with effort.
“I mean they dirty!”
“Why, you didnt say that about the whores in San Diego.”
“No,” he said, “no, they diff’rent.”
The Captain looked around for support. We were all watching.
“Oh, I cant see that the San Diego whore is any different. A whore is a whore no matter where you are.”
“No, no,” the cook said. “You don’ understand. Now me, take me,” and he pointed at himself, “I would never—never!—go to bed with a Mexican whore. No sir.”
“Well!” said the Captain smiling. “What were you doing tonight?”
“Ah!” said the cook. “Sure, I was with a woman, ask Knute. She was pretty—she was pretty, too! But I didnt go to bed with her. I pay her to take off her clothes, but I couldnt fuck her. I couldnt!”
“Oh!” said the skipper. “I see. You couldnt get a hard on.”
“No,” he said. “Yes, that’s right.”
“Why, youre not the man I thought you was!”
The Captain was openly grinning now. Knute was watching as if trying to think of a way to break it up.
There was a river just outside town and I walked down to it and watched the children playing in the mud. An old plank bridge crossed the river and I walked across it; upstream I could see a large, old hotel, musty and faded. There were people sitting on the broad steps leading up to it. I looked, fascinated. I held it in my eyes. Such an old hotel! A few cars were in front, prewar American cars, and here and there along the river just out of the mud, between me and the hotel, were old small houses and standing outside of these houses were a few women hanging tattered clothes on a line or just talking, doing obscure things, the children and a few dogs running around. I walked slowly and they looked at me. The hotel was huge and falling apart. A bearded man in a Volkswagen bus drove by and smiled at me. I nodded back. The river itself was broad and smooth and seen reflected in it was the opposite bank, the trees there, growing thickly, the cane and weeds. I had never seen a river like this, trees like this, or a hotel like this, so old, huge, and falling down.
“Why, I’m ten years older than you are,” said the Captain to the cook. “And I dont have any trouble. I’m surprised at you.”
“Oh, sure,” the cook said. “I don’ have no trouble in San Diego, with a white girl. No, not me. I’m as good as any man in San Diego. But you see,” and he hunched forward, “here, it all diff’rent! They dirty here, they filthy. Yes, they are. Think—think all the people who come here, why, all go up on the hill to fuck. The Portogee. The Mex. Us. Everybody!”
“Oh,” the Captain said, “surely that doesnt bother you. Why, in San Diego—”
The cook made a helpless gesture.
“You don’ understand.” He contorted his face. “They dirty
here! Dirty!” He looked and no one understood him. The Captain was grinning and blinking, getting up now, to go away. Knute was smiling too. We were all watching the cook, figuring him. He was drunk and saying more about himself than he meant. Perhaps he realized this. He got up too, mumbling. His mouth was twisted with effort. “Dirty,” he said to himself. “They all dirty.”
I thought of the town. I thought of the river. How badly I wanted to go back there! I wanted to go close to that hotel, to be inside it, to see the girl in the red dress again, to become, if just for a moment, a part of the lives of the people in this town. I heard the engines start up. The deck quivered. Looking out, I could see the night, and the lights of the lanterns hanging on the streets. I listened to the boat as we pulled out of the harbor. The town was left behind us.
NOTES: At age 19 I got a job on a tuna clipper. This was back in the days of short-line fishing: we would stand on metal racks lowered over the side of the boat, pulling the tuna in over our shoulders. On that trip we stopped in Manzanillo, a Mexican port town below Puerto Vallarta. It was my first foreign city. In the evening all the men went ashore. The events described here occurred exactly as I have written.
I returned years later to Manzanillo. I wrote my first Mexican novel, The Ethiopian Exhibition, in a cafe on the plaza there.