My Ship of Fools

Johannis Connors

We came gliding in after midnight under a new moon. The foothills behind the cathedral were a solid bank of darkness, and the sea near the town was still and quiet like a pond. Before we could drop anchor, the ship was surrounded by Dominican prostitutes in dugout canoes. When the fourteenth and last whore had clambered up the Jacob's ladder onto the deck, Captain Joe twisted open a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and began pouring everyone drinks. Rongo sent a man in a rowboat back to town for rum, and when the man returned, Captain Joe threw him a large chemical drum for payment. The man seemed overjoyed.

After the whiskey was gone, the crew began disappearing into their cabins with the prostitutes, until Rongo and I were left on deck with several of the largest and most hostile women. "Come on," one of them said, grabbing at my crotch. "It's three in the morning! What are you standing around for?"

"Hands off!" I said. "Father wouldn't stand for
"What father?" she demanded.
"Captain Joe," I offered.

"Captain Joe your father?" she said, narrowing her eyes. "Why he never bring you with him before?"

"I've been in college," I explained. "I'm studying to be a priest."
"It's true," Rongo said. "He prayed the whole way over."
"What's your excuse then?" she said, turning to Rongo.
"You know very well," Rongo said darkly.

So we all sat on the orchid sofa and had a chat, passing the binoculars around and watching the town take on color as day broke. Rongo told me about his girlfriend, and pointed out the house on the mountainside he rented for $285 per year. His girlfriend was a prim and jealous mistress, he explained, and he had to guard his reputation carefully in this town. The women described the flood of competition pouring into Miragoane from Santo Domingo, and bemoaned the ill will they suffered from the local Haitian prostitutes. Someone said the Leo, a cargo ship that left Miami just behind the Helena Sea five days previous, capsized and sank on the way here. The St. Philomene, another coastal freighter, had lost its engine two nights ago and drifted into Cuba. Someone else said two coups d'etat in the capital had failed while we were in transit. The women talked about the upcoming national election, saying it made everyone in the country nervous.

There were half a dozen freighters anchored near the Helena Sea, waiting their turn to pull in close to shore and unload cargo. It might take days. There are no port facilities in the port of Miragoane; there is no dock and there are no dock cranes. When they see their chance, ship captains in the harbor weigh anchor, make for land two at a time, and jam their prows into the mud. Side by side, the two ships use each other's cargo booms to lift larger goods onto land. The lighter cargo is carried down the gangplank by hand. Already, before dawn, there were hundreds of people standing around on the shore, waiting in hope of jobs as human mules. Meanwhile, people with small boats paddled out to freighters at anchor and began a lively bidding war for Miami merchandise. In some cases whole cars are hoisted from ships into big rowboats and ferried across the harbor to dry ground. The city's most striking feature is its French colonial cathedral, but Miragoane's central attraction in recent years has been its corruption: ship owners who send their cargo this way know they will pay little or no customs duties, provided they slip the port officials a fake cargo manifest and a little gift. The entire town is an open bazaar of Miami's wayward junk.

As we lounged on the sofa, Charlie came stomping up from his cabin, cuddling a bottle of rum and a huge box of soap powder. He marched for the bow, singing at the top of his lungs and sprinkling generous amounts of cleanser on the decks. "Thanksgiving Day!" he slobbered merrily. "Time to get spic-and-span!"

"Oh, God," said Rongo, holding his head. "This what happened last time."
All at once Donald Gilles was there, having come out from town in a launch with the port police. His ship, listing badly to one side and littered with cups and empty rum bottles, was covered from one end to the other with a slick of ivory granules, and seemed inexplicably to be under the command of a crew of listless whores. Gilles looked stunned, but his face was nothing to compare with the visage of Captain Joe. Through some seafarer's sixth sense, Captain Joe had awakened at exactly the same time the port police were climbing daintily aboard the Helena Sea. Now he was standing on the bridge with his mouth open, a split second away from issuing the loudest and most savage human scream I have ever heard.

The biggest of the port police, apparently the chief, instinctively removed the revolver from his hip pocket, but Gilles said something to him and he put it away again. Captain Joe made a charge down the stairs for Charlie, and Gilles made a charge for Captain Joe, interjecting himself between the second engineer and certain death. The women were screaming giddily and the men were shouting and I noted several curious people paddling toward us in dugouts. Captain Joe chased Charlie around in circles, swinging his fists, but Gilles managed to hold him back. The dog was in a frenzy. Somehow things calmed down into a violent argument, and the port police began stamping passports. Charlie announced he wouldn't work on a ship where he couldn't peaceably scrub the deck.

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