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The Boat Builder

Poetry & Prose | April 29, 2013

On April 9th, 1999 Grey Callaway fell in love. It was love in Spanish, rough, cruder when he translated it, and nothing like the Neruda poems. He was fifty-two years old.

Grey lives alone in the third story apartment on the corner of Calle Real and Plaza de los Barcos. In ’91 he bought it for the iron grates against the window and the tiles in the foyer. It was romantic, cream and Andalusia red. Once a week he walks out to buy café con leche from the shop below him, then two blocks to the frutería to buy breakfast for the week. The man weighing fruit tells him the same story every time. Did he hear what happened with the bull? Must have been fifty years ago. The greatest corriendo de los toros the man can remember and the meanest bull. Hijo de puta, what a beast! After two hours of chasing boys, the black bull had had flung itself off the street and into the glass, charging through Grey’s apartment and goring walls as it fled. Isn’t that great! Maybe it’s good luck. The man winks. Grey shrugs, mumbles, and walks home with his bags clenched tightly in each hand. He doesn’t buy it, but his windows are a little smoother than his neighbors’.

Nine years ago, Grey was a sailor. He had tacked from Bar Harbor to the Cape and all the way to Falkland Islands avoiding mortgages and family reunions. After ten years he’d made enough money to last him through five mid-life crises. He didn’t remember what blew him to Spain. He was delivering the boat for sale, that much he knew, but the sale must have fouled or maybe that’s what he told the seller. He landed in sandy San Fernando. San Fernando where all of the butchers were missing teeth, and the horses died early from the salt marsh hay. San Fernando, where the rails were laid down the middle of town two years ago, but no one had ever seen a train. San Fernando, where the adventure wilted, where the finest ships took form in mason jars on Grey’s kitchen table. Spain was no great romance.

Today the streets are littered with ‘40s, dead flowers and piss from La Feria de Abril. On the tracks, the children play a game. One by one, they leap across the iron lines. The biggest, a dark boy with a ripped t-shirt, jumps first. Grey watches him from his street window. Deer legs unfold, running, jumping and running again as his younger brother, the smaller boy with dirty hair, times his best goes. Grey adjusts the sails on the sloop inside his jar. How many jumps can he make in two minutes? Grey knows it by heart, even if the children forget. One hundred and eleven. The big boy is fast.

There are six in all, the regulars. Grey has counted them every day for the past nine years. There is one girl, green eyes, mousy, so much smaller than the boys. Today she is wearing a red dress.
The point of the game is that you might get hit. The ghost trains run every two minutes and if you fall the littlest boy will shout “splat!” Then you’ve lost. It’s the girl’s turn. Her spindle legs leap. One. Grey rigs the sail with tweezers. Four. Black curls bouncing. Six. Big boy whistles, “whoo whoooo”. The train’s coming. Thirteen. Grey is painting the stern, gold letters. Twenty. San Fernando is sleeping, laying down for her siesta. Thirty. Grey moves to the window, leans against iron and glass. Fifty. The girl is slowing, feet thumping between puddles of petals and car oil. Grey can see her chest heaving, little collar bones fluttering like white wings and then she is falling, oil smearing, fingers spreading as the railing for those ghost commuters rushes towards her skull. Her dress spills over the stones of Calle Real like a blossom. The count stops.

The girl must have died thirty minutes ago. Grey never stopped counting. Two thousand and thirty eight when one of the boys ran. Ten thousand six hundred and fifty seven when the sirens drove down the tracks. Grey knows cars aren’t supposed to drive down this street on account of the trains. One million and he sees the woman. Silk hair, thin hands like flamenco dancers’ cup the dead girl’s face, dark eyes staring, small back curving, arching towards him. He watches the woman from behind his window, wrought iron curling around his image of her knees, bent like a prayer in the red puddles between the tracks. When he opens the window he can smell her, lemon trees and dry Andalusian pines. This woman is beautiful and he can feel her breath as he climbs the iron, closes his eyes. He can taste her, salty sweat and the fish she ate for lunch. He wants her. His steps out from the ledge and his feet are free, and she is screaming, screaming for him! He knows it! He will fly with her. Sail with her! All this beauty and he’s falling in love. She’s pointing, black eyes staring, as he falls at her feet.