By Mike Chiconsky
They had been five bad years. First came the discharge from the Company for drinking on duty and collision at sea. Christ, it wasn’t like he had been drunk. Everybody drank out here, but of course he was the one they fired. That sport fisherman shouldn’t have been out there at night anyway. With all the money those boats make soaking the tourists for game fishing charters, they should have made regular calls on the VHF alerting traffic to their location. They were in the goddam shipping lanes at night! Or close enough to it to at least be concerned about it. After the collision he had looked for survivors for over an hour before he got back underway. Nobody popped up. It wasn’t his fault for Chrissakes. As soon as the questions started, his lousy crew were only too happy to give him up. So he gets the boot from the Company, and then loses his Master’s license at the inquest. A 48-year-old sailor with no Master’s license in the Philippines is one step away from a harbor bum. He’d had damn few options. Well, he’d made his choice. A fake license and bent registry papers were good enough for the island trade. At least until somebody squealed, and even then he’d just move on, finding another boat, even older and sorrier, that could actually get from one port to another.
It was a long slide to the bottom of the barrel. Increasingly worse crews that couldn’t speak English, couldn’t even stand on a deck in calm seas without puking. The boats were worn out old rust buckets that barely stayed afloat. The last one had sunk while it was tied to the dock. Nobody even tried to save her. They just grabbed what they could and walked off into the night as she slowly settled to the muddy bottom like the tired old mongrel she was. He wasn’t a licensed captain anymore, and wasn’t going to risk his life trying to save her. He just grabbed his binoculars and what was left of the Port Fee money and walked off with the rest of them. Hell, he was glad to be rid of her. He needed a change. He needed a fresh start.
That was when he met Tala. His first vision of her was still sharp in his memory, like a scene from a movie. He had seen her as soon as he walked into the Rum Jungle. She was talking to a bartender in Tagalog, sitting on a bar stool wearing a cream-colored silk dress with her back perfectly straight and her shiny black hair hanging in heavy curls halfway down it. Her eyes were dark brown and clear and looked at you without blinking. In profile, her face was more angular than the normal Filipina, her nose more Roman. Later he learned that her first husband had broken it. But that night she didn’t look like she’d ever had a less than perfect day in her whole life. She looked like redemption.
He didn’t even try to talk to her that first night. As she chatted with the bartender and drank a Coke from the bottle with a straw, he imagined what it would be like to be coming home to her after a hitch on his ship. He daydreamed about it for a while. Then he left the bar and went down by the marina and bought a linen suit from the Chinese tailor that used to make suits for the jarheads and squids before Subic Bay was downsized. He wanted to do this right. The next day the bartender told him she was from the islands, not Luzon, so he couldn’t ask her family to introduce them. Instead he sent a basket of fruit, then a bouquet of flowers and a note asking her to meet him in the square. A public place where she would feel safe. A date, not a trick. She showed up wearing a simple tunic and paddy pants with white sandals, looking hesitant and ready to leave. But he had showered and shaved and wore the linen suit and was on his best behavior. He led her to a table in the small outdoor patio, just off the square, and pulled out her chair for her. Awkwardly, he asked her name in Tagalog. Tala, she answered. In heavily-accented English, she told him it meant Bright Star. It was an old Philippines name, not Spanish or American. An old-fashioned name, but it fit her. She was so pretty to him that it seemed like she actually was a bright star. His guiding star. The first step on getting everything back the way it used to be. He bought her dinner and a mango-flavored ice cream cone, and then walked her home. At the door he asked if he could see her again. She took his hand and looked into his eyes and said she would like that, then whispered goodnight and vanished into the tiny house. He didn’t even stop for a drink on the way back to his crib. He was too busy thinking about what he was going to do.
The next day he wrote a letter petitioning to get his Master’s license reinstated. He’d never used his real name on any of the black market rust buckets, and he’d never been caught, so as far as the Merchant Marine was concerned he had kept his nose clean for five years. After posting the letter he went in person to Adams & Sons, the agent for most of the coastal companies. He knew a guy there that might get him on as a deck foreman on a coaster. It would look good to the Merchant Marine if he had worked on a legit boat, even as a foreman.