And, as so often happens in Catholic school and horror movies, a figure materialized on the teacher’s platform. No one saw or heard him walk in. A little unsettled, one by one we, the students, we turned in our seats to face the apparition. He was a towering man in a dull black cassock and crisp white priests’ collar. His giant hands clasped a bedraggled Bible against the front of his body. He was completely bald. He was ancient, and his old cassock hung thinly over his broad, bony shoulders, the sleeves not long enough to cover his arms or hide his powerful hands. Though two meters of height, he stood straight as a redwood. A priest that tall had to be North American, I thought, but his leathery skin was more olive than pink, and his features were almost indian, his eyes almost black.
He studied us with great concern, and remained silent until the last student had turned around.
“I am Father Bartolome,” he said in a voice that crumbled like old wood. “I am here to teach you social justice.”
This passage was inspired by a real priest who taught one of our classes at Colegio Santa Maria. I’ve since forgotten his name, but he challenged us. O did he challenge us! Relentlessly. He didn’t use the term, but he was challenging what today is referred to as our privilege. We were as reluctant to accept that label back then as we are today.
I chose Father Bartolome as his namesake because the real Father Bartolome de las Casas fought, unsuccessfully, for an end to the slavery and oppression of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Plus, he was a soldier before he was a priest, which I really dig.
The except is from Chapter 33, “Burguese’s Lower Lip,” in So Long John Wayne, (previously known as Tocayos), available from Amazon in Kindle edition or paperback.
The first time Carlos invited me to his beach house in Punta Hermosa, we immediately went body surfing. The water off the coast of Peru is surprisingly cold, so when we got out of the water, we warmed up under the afternoon sun on the porch. The beach season hadn’t started yet, so we had the porch to ourselves. He loved to spin yarns about Pico Alto. Those conversations inspired the description in Tocayos.
Here it is, in the voice of the narrator, Carlos:
It is a terrible wave, Pico Alto. Sullen from its long slumber, it rises heavily into a deep blue wall four stories high, eager to punish the mortal who has dared to awaken it. It takes a special man in an unusual state of mind to paddle his board into the path of Pico Alto. As the wave rises beneath him, he must thrust his arms into the water and paddle down the catapulting mass with the frenzy of a madman so he can reach the crest with enough speed to hop onto his fluttering board before the wind rips it out of his hands. As he slaps his bare feet onto the board he is suspended in a wind-blown burst of sea spray for a heart-stopping moment of weightlessness. Then he drops into the concave abyss yawning open beneath him.
If you are a big-wave surfer, you dream of this moment. You can imagine what you will do, but until you put yourself in that place and time, you cannot know what you will do. You might drop fast enough to slip under the collapsing tonnage, and with a menace of unbelievable proportions rising behind you, find the courage to dig the rail of the board and carve a stream of starlight into immortality. O, to share heaven with the gods! To roar back up the shoulder of the wave and burst into the sight of your friends with your arms straight in the air and your shorts stiff with bravado! To know, as the board skids across the water and slows, as you drop to your chest and paddle slowly back into the lineup, that you are a Great One.
Or perhaps not. It can be something as tiny as a drop of sea spray in your eye. Or a hurried waxing that allows your foot to slip on the wet board. Maybe you cannot quite find your balance. Or your nerve. The top of Pico Alto is a bad place to lose your nerve. The gods watch with disinterest as you fall that great distance with your board twisting and turning around you like a leaf in a whirlwind. When you slap into the surface of the water forty feet below, they turn away as the brute force of the wave crushes your twig of a body, thrusting you down, ten meters beneath your next breath, pinning you in a swirling, lung-bursting tumble for thirty seconds before it lets you crawl to the surface for a single gasp of foam-filled air. Only one. Because while taking that breath your panicked brain realizes that you are now in Poseidon’s Anvil, where you will experience the singular terror of turning to face the next wave unfurling four stories above you.
The picture of Pico Alto, above, is from National Geographic.
You can download Tocayos for $4.99 here. (You can read the first 20% for free.) I’ll have a print version available from Tattered Cover Press soon.
In the novel Tocayos, Carlos describes meeting Charly in class:
I continued to move down the aisle, banging my metal lunch pail and my old leather book bag against the desks and shoulders of my fellow students. Some moved over, some shoved me into my fellow students on the other side of the aisle. It was pleasant mayhem until I saw Charly the American. He was sitting in the last seat next to the window, his desk tipped on its back legs in exactly the same way that I liked to tip my desk. Not only this, but contrary to not only school rules but school custom, he had discarded our school jacket, he had loosened our school tie, and he had rolled up the sleeves of our school uniform’s light blue shirt. His head was lodged into the corner, looking out at the gardens. He turned it slowly and rested his eyes on me.
I met the real Carlos in basketball practice. Shortly after we both made the team, I found out he took the bus to get home, and had to walk a half mile home from the bus stop. At the time, I lived a block away from school. I wanted an excuse to drive the car, so I told him I’d give him a ride if he would claim it was too late to take the bus.
We owned a 1967 baby blue Chrysler 440 Coronet similar to the one in the picture above, and a white Rambler station wagon. Showing up at dinnertime with Carlos in tow put my Mom on the spot. She had to either interrupt dinner preparations to drive him home, or let me drive him. She gave me the keys to the Rambler. I didn’t have a license, but in those days, you first learned to drive, then you got your license.
That’s how I learned to drive, and how I became friends with the Carlos on which the narrator in the story is based.
Tocayos is available for $4.99 from Smashwords. You can read the first 20% for free.