“El capitan,” walked with a very pronounced limp, wore a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap, a white t-shirt, stained by who knows what, ripped jeans and rubber boots. He drank over 6 cups of black coffee daily and usually ate dinner by Sam’s Tavern. His food of choice was pasta, beef or poultry – he couldn’t eat fish.
“I just saw the damn thing fighting to live how can I eat it?” He would tell his wife, Ellen. Ellen was a patient lady who presided over their family. They had been married for over 40 years now and at 65 years old, she felt it was time for the captain, Tommy, to hang up his poles and fold away his nets.
“Let’s get away somewhere and enjoy everything you have built over the years.” She would tell him.
“One day, El, one day.”
Her daughter had invited them to join her and her family on a cruise to the Caribbean. She wanted to go but she would not leave Tommy alone. Her daughter had reserved a cabin for them and taken out insurance in case her stubborn father wouldn’t budge.
“Mom just leave him home, he doesn’t need anyone but his boat and the water “
“You do not understand your father. He is stubborn for a reason.”
Ellen understood Tommy. No one else ever came close to even a glimpse. He had shut down mentally after his father passed away 10 years earlier.
His father had been a lawyer and was disappointed when Tom, did not want to follow in his footsteps.
“I want you to go to law school.”
“I don’t want to be a lawyer, we discussed this just last week for the hundredth time.”
“You think being a journalist is going to pay your bills?”
“I think that I want to try. I don’t want to be a lawyer. I am not you.”
“Well that’s been established.”
“I guess I can never measure up to you Pop.”
“You can if you wanted to – you have my genes, my brains but you have no idea how to use it.”
“Well I can write about how much of an asshole you are. You think you can bully me into becoming you? The only reason I do not want to be a lawyer is because I don’t want to end up like you.” With that Tommy walked out of his father’s house, slammed the door and took off in his car. When he got to the end of the block he realized that; the house he just left was his father’s, the car he was driving was purchased with his father’s money and the clothing on him was all from dear old dad. He made a u-turn and pulled back into the driveway. Walked up the driveway to the front door and opened it. His father was still sitting in the living room.
“Everything I have I owe to you, Pop. I apologize for what I said but I don’t want to be a lawyer. I don’t like rules and regulations.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Tom, if you ever walk away from me like that again I will throw you out of this fucking house, do you hear me?”
“Tom. Did you hear what I just said?”
He walked up to his room, packed a bag with some clothes and whatever he wanted to bring with him. He brought his Brooklyn Dodgers hat, his baseball glove and his typewriter. His mother wasn’t home so he wrote a letter to her telling her he would be in touch, but that he needed to be on his own.
It was 1961, he was 18 years old and he took a bus to Monterrey, California. He was a big John Steinbeck fan and he needed to see through someone else’s eyes, while living in a whole different world.
One day after his arrival, as he was sitting in an outside cafe with a notebook and a pen; an older man stopped and asked him if he knew how to handle a pole.
“I can learn quickly.” He responded.
“Where do you live?” As the old man lit his cigarette.
“I am staying at the Inn with Mrs. Maris.”
“You a city boy?”
“Yes, but I trying to change.” He smiled.
“I can only pay you based on what we haul in each day.”
“That’s fine with me.”
Tommy had hoped to experience a whole new world and to be inspired to write a story based on the old man. He had hoped to catch a lot of fish and to find a job in one of the local papers. Instead he became ensnared by the fishing and the smell of the early morning sea. It wasn’t long before he was able to rent his own apartment on the other side of the marina.
The old man, Henry, passed away in 1971 and Tommy buried him at sea. Tommy inherited the man’s boat and within three years owned six of his own and was making more money than his father could ever imagine a fisherman could make.
By this time he had become a local celebrity – they called him “El Capitan.” He had become close with a lot of people there and had made some enemies who resented an outsider coming in and swooping away all the business from the locals.
The old man had told him, “Pay them no mind. They are lazy and have no ambition. Their only ambition is to finish the day and go get drunk at Sam’s. Ignore them – the lazy are always angry.”
One of the angry ones came after him one night as he left the bar alone. It was dark and he jumped him and then swung a metal bar at his knee which knocked him to the ground. He never saw who had hit him but he did end up with a broken knee cap. He was able to wear a cast and go back to work after a couple of days. He ended up tearing off the cast out of frustration and acquired a nasty limp in its place.
Soon after that he met Ellen, who was visiting a friend, at Sam’s Tavern. He had seen her standing with her friends for several weeks but had never spoken with her. One night he asked her to dance. She was visiting from New York City and she had caught his eye during the several weeks she had been there. One night he walked over to her and asked her to dance. They danced for a while, stopped and then he proposed to her a year later. They married in Brooklyn, lived in Monterrey and soon enough had two daughters and a son.
He had spoken to his father a handful of times in the years after he moved away. His mother had visited him and he had been to New York once or twice a year once he married. Ellen and him had no desire to live back in the city and stayed put by Cannery Row.
Years fly on past and resentments once harbored internally always find a way to escape. It was when his father died in 1999 that his demons began to take shape.
His father had been taken by ambulance to the hospital and his brother had called him that he should fly down right away.
“He is not going to last long.” Was all Bobby had said.
Ellen and Tom sat in the hospital room with his mother. His father was suffering from dementia and his cancer had obliterated any healthy cells that had remained. Ellen went to call home so it was Tom, his mother and his father.
“I am going to grab a bite with Ellen – do you want to come or should I bring you something?”
“I just ate – go eat and I’ll see you later. Tom?”
“Talk to your father, just in case.”
There was silence and then he stood up and walked to the bedside.
“Dad, I hope I you are proud of me.” Tommy whispered to his father. His father opened his eyes and spoke.
“No, you haven’t been a good son. “Robert is the only one I am proud of – he took over the firm while you went fishing.”
“Don’t listen to him, Tom, walk away.” His mother said protectively.
“I am a millionaire pop, I employee almost a thousand people and I am treated with respect everywhere I go.”
“You still wear dirty clothes and smell like a french hooker even after you shower.”
“Tom, he doesn’t know what he is saying.”
“Yes he does mother.”
He walked out of the hospital room and went to get a shot of something from a bar down the road. After his third shot, his phone rang. It was Ellen.
“Tommy, it’s your father.”
The funeral was held a week later and Tommy sat to the side as his brother spoke by the graveside. Tommy didn’t feel like speaking so he did not. Throughout the week he hadn’t spoken about his father and didn’t even shed a tear.
Something inside of him broke when his father spoke to him. He dreamed of that feeling of disappointment and shuddered when he dreamed it was him speaking to his children.
His son, Jason, had taken over the main day to day duties of the fishery. The business had been declining for various reasons but since he had diversified the money into real estate they were in a very healthy financial state.
“Jason, I want you to know that I am very proud of you.”
“Thanks pop. Why are you telling me this?”
“I was just thinking it might be time for me to dock the boat, put away my poles and spend some time with your mother. Spoil her a little.” He winked his eye.
“Well, pop, thank you for your confidence in me.”
“Only one condition.”
“You do not close or sell the fishery. Too many families rely on our business for their livelihood. Unless the business begins to lose serious money and I have documented all of that here.” He handed Jason a manila envelope thick with papers. “You keep it going. Find a way to make it work.”
“OK, pop. We are on the same page here. You taught me well.” His father embraced him and then turned around to leave.
“One more thing – if your sisters ever need anything-”
“Pop – I will never stop making sure they are very taken care of. You know that Steve is good at his job and that Arnie is a Doctor – in any case I will never turn my back on them. You taught us pop, we are family.”
His father smiled and felt emotional as he walked through the door of his son’s office. He walked to “Sam’s Tavern” and ordered a Guinness.
“Drinks for the crew Bill, on me. But don’t -”
“I know, ‘don’t tell them it’s anonymous.’ I know Tom. You are a good man. What’s up with those Mets of yours?”
“Oh man – 11 of 13 wins and in first place.”
“You think they can keep it up?”
“It’s the Mets Bill – that’s not their style.” Have a good one buddy.
“You too, Tom.”
That evening he went up to his attic and he was sorting through some old boxes. He found his old typewriter and a box of notebooks. He opened up one of the notebooks entitled, “May – June 1961 – The Old Man and Me.” He chuckled to himself and began to read it. As he read it he felt as if the words were based on a movie about his life. He thought about the old man and he cried. He cried because the old man was a better father to him than his own father. The irony was he was never able to have children of his own.
He sorted through some more notebooks and found one entitled “October 1969 – the Miracle Mets.”
October 16, 1969 – Henry and I are watching the Mets game in Sam’s Tavern – the game began at 10 o’clock in the morning our time. As we sat there watching the game Henry said something to me that I had never heard before. He looked at me and said, “Tom, you are like the son I never had. When we first met I knew there was something special about you. Since then we have spent almost every day together and I have gotten to know you as if I have known you our whole life. I am very proud of you, son.”
Those words spoken to me – seven words I had yearned to hear from my birth father – were now spoken to me with tears by a man I have known for 10 years. I have to say that I love Henry much more than I have ever or could ever love my father.
Oh, the Mets won the World Series!!!
He put the notebooks back in the box and he stood to go downstairs to see Ellen.
“Hey beautiful lady.” She smiled.
“Hello El Capitan. What were you doing upstairs?”
“Reading some of my old writing. I was a helluva writer.”
“Why don’t you do some writing now?”
“I do, actually. On my laptop I have written some short stories, poems and some autobiographical stuff.”
She put her arms around him. “Remember when we danced that night?”
“Of course I do.” He danced with his arms around her.
“I gave notice today.” He said.
“What?” She asked.
“I turned in the keys to the ship to Jason. I am officially retired.”
She held him tightly and kissed him. “Oh I am so happy. Was Jason excited?”
“He held in his excitement out of respect for his old man. You did good, El. You raised good kids.”
“We did, old man. You lived your life by example and it was an exemplar life.”
He teared up again and put his face onto Ellen’s shoulder. “It all went so fast.”
“I can feel good though. Between having you in my life and standing strong with the decisions I made…I was the captain of my ship, El. I chose the lanes, the fishing route and each destination – it was my choice and I held true.”
“That’s why they call you ‘El Capitan,’ Tom. You are the captain, the navigator and a man who has always been guided by his own principles in life. You are a good man. Your father was mistaken and I am sure, if there is a God up there, he is looking down at you and is beaming with pride.”
“If there is someone looking down at me, it’s my mother and Henry. They were my influencers in my life. They provided the compass and I followed the directions.”
“Enough metaphors, are you going to carry me upstairs and make retirement love to me?”
“Carry you? I don’t think so…” He gently pushed her onto the big sofa. “Push is more like it.”
She was laughing and he was smiling at her.
“You are beautiful.” He whispered in her ear.
“So are you my captain.”