Down to Guaymas
He had the beachfront to himself. A storm below Mazatlán had filled the coastal sky over the port city of Guaymas in the Sonora region of Mexico with dark thunderheads and waves so choppy even the flotilla of American powerboats stayed tied to the dock.
He had left the hotel room to jog at the water’s edge, but after a half mile Tim stopped and settled for walking toward a breakwater that jutted out to form the south end of the harbor. The rain had stopped and the sun, through occasional breaks in the clouds, hit sections of the beach like a wandering spotlight.
About a quarter of a mile ahead, he could see a group of fishermen and their children working the surfline, casting out and then reeling in, trying for the fish brought close to the shore by the storm. By the time he reached the fishermen, they were clustered around a tall man in sea-green, all-weather gear. The man had hooked a stingray, a fair-sized one, perhaps forty pounds, and was bringing it up out of the surf, reeling in as the waves rode up the beach and letting off a bit as they rolled back out.
By the time Tim reached them, the fisherman had worked the stingray out of the iron-gray water to where it lay a foot from the lap of the waves on the dry sand. The ray was strangling in the air, gills expanding and contracting like an emphysema victim struggling in a hospital bed. The other fishermen and their children circled closer to the creature, and the tall fisherman wedged it over on its back with a piece of driftwood.
Tim expected it to flop desperately around, thrashing its tail in defense, but instead the stingray lay gasping. He half wondered if the fish managed to be scared of the creatures standing over it.
One of the fishermen began to pry the stingray’s mouth open with a beer can.
“Why don’t you let it live?” Tim said.
The circle of dark faces turned up to look at him. The people of Guaymas, he knew, are descendants of the Yaqui, Guaymas and Seri tribes who fought savagely against the first Spanish invaders when the ships arrived in 1539. Tim felt old and thin in his trunks and windbreaker as the men and children in heavy, dark coats and boots stared at him.
“I’m jogging,” he blurted and then felt a greater fool.
“What I mean is why don’t you shove it back in the water? You can’t eat a stingray, can you? And besides . . . “
He wanted to say that the fish was alive, that it was as alive as they, that they were killing it for no good reason. And they hadn’t the right. They shouldn’t let it gasp out its life in the sand.
“Couldn’t you just push it back in?”
“Mija, don’t get so close,” the tall fisherman said in Spanish to a child of about eight who knelt in the sand a few inches from the ray. “The tail could sting you.”
The child moved back on her hands and knees but continued to stare.
“Is it going to die, Papa?” she asked. “Can’t it live on the beach?”
The fisherman seemed to hesitate as he moved, like the revolving statues that one sees in the great bell towers of Europe. Then he knelt and said that they would let it live, but without its deadly tail. “We will cut it off so that it won’t sting any more.” From his waist belt he took a short machete of about eighteen inches that he brought down hard, severing the tail at its base and exposing cartilage.
“We put him back now,” the fisherman said and began to shove the stingray into the water with the piece of driftwood. In a moment the first wave caught the creature and carried it back into the sea.
Tim then turned and headed back down the beach to the hotel. Rain was beginning to come down again.
When he entered their room his new sort-of girlfriend, Michelle, was still sleeping. Since the evening before when she’d first spoken of uncomfortableness in her side, she had spent most of the time in bed. The pain wasn’t bad, she told him, just unpleasant, and she felt better resting. He only half believed her, though he wanted to believe her, but had felt her withdraw steadily from him in the two days they had been there, and he suspected the illness was just a way of staying at a distance the remaining time before they flew back to California. If that was the case, he would acquiesce, and without prompting he had slept in the other bed the previous night. Except for the few words they exchanged when the señora brought breakfast, he left her alone.
When they flew down to Guaymas, he had high hopes that days of quiet sun on the beach would cement their relationship. Instead, it seemed to have sunk it. They had known each other a month only since meeting at a mutual friend’s nuptials. That they were now vacationing in Mexico seemed downright stupid. But in just days they had gone from liking each other’s company to talking about a future together. He stopped seeing another woman and told Michelle that he was beginning to love her. She had laughed a bit and told him she too was starting to feel the same way. There is nothing like young romance, even when one is no longer firmly in that demographic.
Not until she mentioned someone named Robert did he begin to have doubts.
“I can’t see you tonight,” she had said the week before, and then gone on to explain something about a promise to see someone she had dated before him. “There’s nothing to worry about. My relationship with Robert was about over when we met, and now he just wants to get together for a drink so that there won’t be any hard feelings. We’re just going to meet as friends. Please don’t mind. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The following night nothing seemed to have changed, and he did not ask. They had dinner and watched a rented film that caused them both to doze. When the music over credits woke them, she asked if she had been talking in her sleep.
The next evening, he suggested Mexico over dinner.
“We’ll drive down to Tijuana and fly to Guaymas. It’s this beautiful port city on the Gulf of California. The bay is fabulous, and the mountains run right into the water, like Hemingway’s line about hills that slope down like tired dinosaurs . . .” They were both ex-English majors.
“We can’t just take off like that, can we?” Michelle said. “What about our families?”
“We’ll tell them when we get back.”
“But I haven’t met yours, and you don’t know mine.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” he said, flush in the moment.
Now he thought about waking Michelle to tell her about the stingray on the beach but instead began to pack quietly. He sensed that she was awake and watching him, but as she hadn’t spoken he didn’t either.
At three o’clock he touched her on the shoulder and asked if she felt strong enough to go to the airport. The rain outside was heavier, and a puddle on the balcony had spread under the sliding glass door, moving slowly across the room toward the bed.
“Do you think the plane will be able to take off in this rain?” she asked. “Flying in bad weather terrifies me. I saw a plane crash in a storm when I was a child. The pilot tried to land on the highway and hit the high-tension lines instead. Just grotesque. We could see flashes of voltage coming from the pilot’s body.”
“I’m sure they won’t try to take off if it isn’t safe.”
The rain let up on the drive to the airport, and the sun broke through the clouds as they reached the terminal. Street vendors were already hawking their wares at the portal. A hunchbacked peddler dangled a string of seashells at Michelle and shouted, “Concha bonita,” and looking at her, “Concha bonita.”
“That means pretty shell, doesn’t it?” she asked.
“Yes.” His Spanish was good enough that he knew it also had a coarse connotation. Concha bonita—pretty shell and pretty snooch—the hunchback had called, expecting them not to know the difference. He took her into the terminal.
While the plane waited for runway clearance, she told him again how sorry she was that she had ruined the trip by getting sick. She hoped he wasn’t too disappointed. She was talking about getting back to her job when the plane took off and circled over the bay. He could see the fishermen below, working the surfline with their nets, casting out and then reeling in, and he wondered how long the stingray would last with its tail severed. Unable to sting his own prey, he would quickly fall prey to others.
Bill Wasserzieher is a contributing editor at Blues Revue and Ugly Things magazines. For 10 years (1997-2006), he wrote a monthly music column for ICE magazine (a spin-off from Rolling Stone) and has contributed to The Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, O.C. Weekly, Crawdaddy, Rock & Roll Disc, The Jazz Review, Living Blues, Southland Blues and many other publications. Some of his articles are available for download at www.rocksbackpages.com. Early in his career, he spent seven years as a reporter for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain and later worked for three years at The Village Voice as a copy editor and production manager. Besides music, he writes about modern literature and film, and he has taught both subjects at the university level. He also writes occasionally about air travel and has appeared in Smithsonian Air & Space and other aviation magazines. One of his works of fiction is included in a Saturday Evening Post collection of best short stories for 2014.