One Last Good Year – By Benjamin Alvarado
Down the narrow road from the Brownsville Shrimp Basin that shelters numerous abandoned shrimp boats is The Mermaid Bar. On the roof is an old Mexcian flag and next to the entrance is the carved, wooden mermaid Nicasio De Leon salvaged from a Linares dirt road. He once shrimped the waters of the Gulf but his old age, the increasing fuel prices, the rise of farm raised and foreign shrimp thrust his intuition to sell one of his two shrimp boats and buy The Mermaid, which had been a shrimp outlet for many years. After two long months La Corrida [Shrimping Season] has come to an end and from the look on the faces of the two crewmen and the two Mexican whores that drink quietly at the bar this was another bad season.
The television broadcasts a hurricane entering the Gulf of Mexico. Within the next few hours more shrimp boats will enter the ship channel into the basin.
“Look who’s here,” one crewman says, “it’s Crazy Willy!
“You look like the President of the United States, Willy,” the other says and laughs.
Willy walks in soaked from the rain of the incoming dark clouds. He isn’t his usual self today. The black suit he wears is ironed and clean and he smells of cologne and deodorant. The suit is what he wore for Nicasio’s wedding. Nicasio recognizes it from the photo that hangs on the wall by the compilation of empty liquor bottles he has imbibed since inaugurating The Mermaid. His shoes are old and torn but polished and his hair is combed back in a profuse shine of brilliantine. His sunken cheeks and sideburns are shaved except for the long white beard. He sits at the bar next to the crewmen and Nicasio slides him a beer. Nicasio smells alcohol in his breath as he says hello. In The Mermaid Willy drinks for free.
“Did you know it’s my birthday today?” Willy says.
“Last Monday was your birthday, too.”
“Yes, but that was last Monday. I’m celebrating next year’s.”
“Will you be back next week to celebrate the year after?”
“No, I might be back after the storm. I need to get ahead as much as possible. How often do you see someone celebrate thirty birthdays in a month?”
Nicasio wipes the inside of a wet mug. “I envy you. What age do you want to reach this month?”
“A man can’t live forever, you know, but I don’t want to think about that. I will celebrate as many birthdays as I can. Have you ever met someone who lived thirty years in a month?”
“You should take a picture of me and mount it on the wall. I will be the first.”
Nicasio opens the drawer next to the keg and loads the Polaroid. Willy poses under the boat steering wheel that belonged to Nicasio’s first shrimp boat. The photo is mounted below Nicasio’s late wife.
Willy has five more beers and then stares at the photos on the wall. They shrimped together for many years on the One Last Good Year and when the boat died Willy never shrimped for another captain while the rest of the crew spread to other boats.
“Remember this photo, Nicasio?
‘Remember this rookie who’s stomach never settled and we had to drop him off in Corpus Christi?
‘Remember these speeding dolphins on the side of the boat?
‘Remember these Coast Guards? Sons of bitches dumped our flounders into the ocean when they caught us cooking them. That blonde one right there, he was the worst. He put three flounders into a plastic bag as he left. I bet he ate them.
‘Look at this idiot feeding the seagulls and then he gets shit all over him. Remember that, Nicasio? He left us shortly after he was arrested for illegal bird hunting.
‘Remember how we dried shrimp and fillet fish and drank all night in this house of yours in the alley, Nicasio?
‘Look at this one, Nicasio, look at this one, at your wedding and your best man, me, standing next to you.
‘And this one, well, I don’t remember. Was this in Mexico? Was I there, Nicasio? No I wasn’t, that’s why I don’t remember.”
And then he tells the story of the other photos to the crewmen. He drinks four more beers and spills the third on the floor. Nicasio mops the mess.
Willy says hello to the whores. One wears a short leopard dress that exposes her panties and the other wears a bogus fur coat and behaves egotistical like a high class.
He sits next to them. “Today’s my birthday,” Willy says.
“Oh, happy birthday,” the one with the leopard dress says.
“Whatever.” The other turns her head to the other side and pulls at her gum.
The jukebox begins to play.
Willy moonwalks across the linoleum floor, holding a full mug. Nicasio raises the volume. He spins, plays the invisible guitar, sings, and persuades the crewmen and the whores to celebrate his birthday and they clap and chant, “Solo! Solo! Solo! Solo!” Willy is motivated by the attention the whore in the leopard dress bestows as she joins him on the dance floor. He sets his hands over her waist, she rubs her giant breasts against his chest and she laughs like a hungry seagull until she begins to perspire and pant. He drinks two more beers and will drink eight more by the time The Mermaid closes. The crewmen and the whores leave as the rain begins to slam against the aluminum roof and Willy sinks his face into his arms and sobs.
His eyes are red and drooping. “When is your birthday, Nicasio?”
“It already passed.”
“Are you happy?”
“What age do you want reach?”
“It is God’s will.”
“I want to live one hundred years. Do you think I will be on the television along with all of the others that have lived a century?”
“I promise you that I’ll make that happen.”
“I want my thirty seconds of fame, even if I’m dead.”
“How do you feel, Willy?”
“You’ll be okay.”
“I will miss you, Nicasio. You’ve been a good friend. Remember that photo? Look at how young we were. The One Last Good Year was new.”
“Yes, everything is full of life in the photo.”
“Where will you pass the hurricane, Nicasio? It’s a category five.”
“I have always loved The Mermaid. Look around, the walls bring back my youth.”
Nicasio serves two drinks. “For everything we will leave behind, Willy.” They toast. “This cognac was Valencia’s gift to me on our last anniversary.”
“May I have a dance with my lady?”
“Why not? She loved to dance.”
Willy reaches for the urn on the shelf above the jukebox and dances. Nicasio sits on the stool, watches, and sips.
“Play the saddest cumbia in the jukebox, Nicasio, play Si Algun Dia No Vuelvo.” Willy drinks from the bottle. “She was a lovely dancer.” He smokes the cigarette butt he picked off of the road and continues to dance. “I’m taking her with me, Nicasio. She will always be with me.”
“Here, have some coffee.”
“No, I’d like to finish the bottle. I want to celebrate…I want to dance. How many times will I be seventy-years-old? How many more times will I have a drink with my old friend and dance with my lady?”
“You’ve had enough, Willy. Go find a place to stay. The rain has stopped.”
“Friend, I’m okay. I’ll walk. Maybe the exercise will help.”
Nicasio walks Willy to the door. The basin has slowly filled with shrimp boats and under a drizzle the crewmen walk down the narrow road in a small group, carrying personal belongings, ice chests, and a hung head; Willy joins them as he passes the bottle of cognac to the crewmen. He hides the urn under the jacket.
Nicasio sits on the trunk of the mesquite tree he cut down when he learned that the projected path of the hurricane was South Texas and witnesses the end of another disappointing Corrida. He looks out past the street light and into the darkness next to The Mermaid where One Last Good Year stands quietly. He goes into the boat and lies in bed. The rain starts to slam and the wind shakes the boat. The hurricane has arrived. He looks out to see the first aluminum sheet blow off of the roof of The Mermaid like a feather. The wooden mermaid topples to one side and its head rolls to the street. He will not look out again for the rest of the night as the destruction gets louder. He sleeps trying to remember all of the fish, the shrimp, the sunsets, the dawns, the people, and the storms he met out at sea in the One Last Good Year and that decorate the walls of his mind. He dreams of one last good year over the infinite blue ocean under the clear skies. It makes him happy.