Writing Project 1, Part 2: Critique Excerpt from The Feast of San Sebastian by Jonathan Marcantoni
NOTE: The following is a scene from a published novel. We are posting these excerpts for our readers and students to give critiques concerning three areas: Emotional Impact, Clarity, and Storytelling Cohesion. Our focus with these critiques is on the artistic facets of writing. We look forward to your feedback.
Excerpt from The Feast of San Sebastian by Jonathan Marcantoni, published in 2013 by Aignos Publishing
3.The drive down PR-52 was Ilan’s favorite part of themonth. It was a two-day break from San Juan and business as usual. He would make his way past Caguas and Cayey to Expreso Jose Barbosa to Salinas, where he would meet Carlos who sold him medicine for a friend. Then, he would drive up Highway 53 to his family home in Fajardo, where he’d stay for two nights before heading back to the city.
The highways leading out of the city lined with billboards for concerts, the lottery, hotels, and casinos. The toned, blond and happy faces that shone down from the billboards seemed to him to be from another country. The beaches were pristine, white, without any tossed beer cans or cigarettes or bums living out of tents or greasy, toothless vendors selling pinchos and frituras from old fryers they brought from home, or coconuts chopped by rusted machetes, there was no chaos of families and tourists and no music blaring from a dozen different radios.
The image on the billboards was something he only remembers vaguely having seen as a child, walking home from school and seeing a twenty-dollar bill on the ground. He picked it up and instead of immediately pocketing it he allowed himself to be distracted by a voice in the distance yelling something in English. He looked to his right and saw through an iron-wrought gate an American family playing volleyball. There was no music playing, no vendors, just a sea of white bodies and rainbow-colored towels draping the beach. The gate that guarded the beach extended to the front of a hotel with an English name he couldn’t pronounce. At the top of each bar were what appeared to be palm branches, but upon closer inspection were as sharp as blades. He understood the gate was for him and people like him, and for a moment, he wanted to tear up the money but then remembered his mother complaining about not having enough food to last until payday. Twenty dollars could buy milk, bread, maybe eggs. It would help his mother relax a little, maybe even smile like she used to before Papi lost his job and she had to take on another one.
They wouldn’t miss it, he thought. They probably have plenty lying around.
He lowered his window as the last vestiges of San Juan faded from view and took a deep breath of the fresh mountain air. He saw in the distance the headlights from commuters who lived in Caguas, roughly forty-five minutes away. The sky was never black in the city, there were the rainbow of shades and tones throughout the day, but night was an orange and neon mist. Even along the bay, facing the Atlantic Ocean, narrow fingers of light tinted the sky. As the mountains engulfed either side of the highway, the cloud of orange retreated and in this largely rural stretch between the two cities, the sky first deepened into an almost cream-like darkness, then brief flickers of light, as the stars reached out, almost yearning to illuminate, before the flickers turned into definite punctures through the darkness; and then the darkness gave way to a sea of sparkling light lining the path carved by the mountainsides.
As he approached Caguas, a small city at the bottom of a valley surrounded by neighborhoods that spiraled to the tops of the hills, the lights of the city seemed to join those of the stars, so that for a time he felt that he was no longer on the island. He felt tranquility and a pleasure that he had only felt as a child running up and down the hillside of his abuela’s house. It was on these trips down south that he could sense the awe that he felt about the energy of this place. San Juan, for all its beauty, had become just another city to him. But in this valley, near the original villages set up by Taino chieftains a thousand years ago, he felt a life pulsating through every tree, every rock, every inch of this land, and he timed his departure so that he arrived at a high point in the valley at the exact moment the sun began to rise. Its swatch of yellows and purples would roll over the countryside in a heavenly mist, almost as if the light was driving away the night like an invading army. Dawn in the mountains always stole his breath, if for just a moment. It was one of the few times in his daily routine that the desire to drink didn’t nag at the back of his throat. He would watch the light wrap around the twisting highway. Gold and white blasts of light pouring through the trees and bouncing off rocks and spilling over the rooftops of the houses sprinkled along the mountains, that same light collapsing along the hillsides, pushing the shadows to the edges of crevices and under the heaviest of stones. He almost forgot to keep his foot on the accelerator, until a car came up behind him and blared its horn, snapping him back to reality. At that moment, his day’s chores reawakened and the list of things to do flooded his mind and the light became just daylight, the trees just trees, the road just another road taking him to another appointment.
He usually only had to make a phone call to arrange a shipment, but Carlos didn’t do business over the phone. They had met in his days working the yolas, when they had apprenticed under Don Guillermo. While Ilan’s job focused on obtaining papers for the migrants, Carlos was more interested in setting up contacts for distribution. Every now and again he would join Carlos on trips to Santo Domingo and Havana to set up deals with smugglers. It was a more glamorous job, but he never had a taste for it. He didn’t like dealing with people in person about these sorts of things. He was always afraid that they were being watched, or that the smuggler was an undercover cop. He always expected to make it back to the airport, when Carlos would always smile, pat him on the back, congratulating him on a job well done, and just as they would make it to the gate ten cops would be waiting for them, guns drawn. He always had that suspicion, and it would twist his insides so he wouldn’t eat the whole trip, but every time they made it back with no problems. Even that string of successes couldn’t calm his nerves. He could always hear his abuela’s lament, ‘No se puede ocultar nada de Dios,’ nothing can be hidden from God, sometimes as a whisper and other times as a sob that seemed to squeeze the back of his brain; causing the nausea to build up in his stomach to the point that during meetings he could barely speak. Carlos would cover for him and say he was the muscle, although his medium-sized frame could never be thought of as intimidating.
They stayed in touch after Ilan left the smuggling game and Carlos eventually went into business for himself. He ran three smuggling routes, two that went through Isla Mona and one that bypassed Isla Mona and landed just west of Ponce. Once the shipments arrived he took them to a safe house where they would be held for six months, the females would usually be sold to a brothel within three months, after their training as ‘models’ was complete. The men were different, if they kept their nose clean, they would make the full six months and then be let go, usually with some kind of papers. Lately they would just blindfold them and dump them outside a mountain town. Carlos dealt in other trades as well, which was why Ilan made these trips. A year ago, Carlos struck a deal with Perotol to provide them with cheap labor in exchange for access to the medicines they manufactured. One of those was a medicine for back pain that hadn’t been approved by the FDA, but which was sold in South America, called Benodon. When Adria hurt her back at work, she asked Ilan if he could help her get some medicine, since she couldn’t afford the health insurance premium her job provided. Benodon had helped her significantly, and Ilan was able to get enough to last her a month at a time.
The safe house in Salinas was in the middle of an old industrial park whose warehouses were largely abandoned. When he arrived he saw the back door open and could hear a chainsaw at work. Carlos walked out in a blood-covered smock, writing something on a clipboard and clearly disturbed.
—Buen dia—Ilan said, prompting Carlos to jump.
—Puñeta, don’t sneak up on me like that.
—Is this a bad time?
—When is it a good one?
—You all right?
—I’ll live, come inside.
The building was a packaging warehouse which had been converted into three large rooms. The room in the front held the migrants and was padlocked on the inside and the outside. In the back was an office with a large wooden desk covered in papers and folders. Adjacent to the office was, according to Carlos, a meeting room, which only had a chair in a corner, a single light dangling from the middle of the ceiling, and whose walls were lined with machetes. There was also a long table which was now occupied by the remains of what appeared to be a woman. A man Ilan didn’t know was amputating one of her legs with the chainsaw he had heard outside.
—These fucking people—Carlos said—I tell them all the time to make sure they don’t bring me anybody with family here. I gave them a damn questionnaire these idiots are supposed to fill out, and that’s the first fucking question, and what does this bitch say to me when she gets here? That she has family on the island. Un-fuckin-believable. And you know, I’m thinking maybe they have money and we can squeeze them a little, but no, they’re a bunch of broke ass jibaros in Barranquitas.
—Why didn’t you just shoot her? It’s a lot less mess.
—Well, I met this guy in Mayagüez last week who got me hooked up with some organ dealers in Jamaica. You know how much a kidney is worth? I’m still learning the business but this bitch seemed like a good way to start.
—Aren’t you supposed to extract organs when the person is alive?
—You can extract kidneys after death, and a few others. Think of car accidents, even if the person doesn’t make it they can still donate. It’s really easy. Extraction is a pain in the ass but then you just put it on ice and ship it out. I figure after I do a couple of these I can get a good surgeon to help me out, ‘cause you’re right, it’s a fucking mess.
—You got the Benodon for me?
—Yeah, Miguel gave it to me when I dropped off the new workers this morning. Hold on.
The smell of blood was singeing Ilan’s nostrils and it took everything he had not to vomit at the sight of the surgery going on next door. He tried diverting his attention to the desk and the doorway, but the sound of metal cutting bone sickened him. When Carlos handed him the medicine he asked if he could walk him to his car so they could talk. Carlos took off his smock and pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his desk drawer before they headed out.
—How are the girls from this last shipment—Ilan said, relieved to be out of that office.
—We had some good ones. Unfortunately, the best one was the girl inside, but the others have potential.
—I need some models for a couple of parties. One in particular asked for Haitians.
—I have a couple guys who are Haitians, but all the girls are Dominicans. Is this for some politicians?
—No, it’s a businessman from Miami.
—Like he’ll know the difference?
—He might know Creole, you never know.
—You might want to ask Feliciano. He bought a few of my girls last month, and I think some of them were Haitian. I don’t know, I lose track of these things.
—All right, well, I need a favor. I know you don’t usually deal with boys but there’s a U.S. senator coming to town who’s asking and I’ve been told if we come through for him the Governor will turn a blind eye on that shipment you have coming in to Rincón.
—I mean, I can get him some guys. They’ll be pretty surprised when they get to the party and the guests are trying to fuck them, but it’s something.
—He wants young boys.
—I thought you didn’t deal with that.
—I don’t, but I also don’t want my friend to have to deal with Nano’s people.
—I know of a couple of people in Ponce who deal in kids, but I try to stay away from that shit myself. That’s a dirty business.
—And killing someone to dismember them and sell their organs isn’t?
—That’s just making money off some dumb asshole who doesn’t know any better. These are kids we’re talking about. I mean, I’ll contact my guy in Ponce ‘cause he’ll sell his mother, he doesn’t care.
—No, fuck that. You said you could get some guys, then get some young looking guys. I’m supplying enough pills and powder this asshole won’t know what planet he’s on let alone how old the guys he’s screwing are.
—I’ll have Luis find some baby faces, then.
—Sounds good. Here’s Victor’s card, so Luis can coordinate everything with him.
—Will do. You don’t want to get some breakfast?
—No, I’m good. I have a meeting up north I have to get to.
—Jesus, you ever take a break? That’s why you have ulcers, you don’t know how to relax.
Ilan left Salinas with his stomach in his throat. He felt he could barely breathe as the anxiety caused his insides to convulse and tears to well up in his eyes. He had seen plenty of dead bodies, but few in that condition. It reminded him of the last day he worked as a smuggler, when one of the migrants they brought in had bashed his head against the wall of the warehouse until his skull cracked open. When they found him the next morning blood had spread to the entire lower half of the room, soaking five other immigrants who woke up screaming and nearly causing a riot. It took them a whole day to clean up the mess, and by the end of it, Don Guillermo was talking about killing the people who were affected by the blood, as they could’ve contracted AIDS and he didn’t want to deal with that. Ilan never found out if they did kill those people, and he didn’t care to. After cleaning up, he said his farewells and never looked back.
He stopped at a restaurant called El Horizonte that sat on the edge of a mountain overlooking the Caribbean. There was the main restaurant and then a food stand that sold frituras and drinks out on a separate patio that was partly suspended in the air. He ordered an alcapurria, a papa rellena, and a piña colada. He drank the piña colada first, trying to calm his nerves. When that only slightly worked, he ordered two more before the alcohol settled into his system and the anxiety faded. He could then eat his food slowly, and take in the view. He stared at the blue of the sea that stretched out before him, that seemed to swallow up the sky. Toward the horizon he saw the dark outline of Vieques. He felt an overwhelming desire to leap from this patio, roll down the hillside to the white sand beach and throw himself into the water and swim until he reached Vieques. A place he had never been to and could provide him with new memories, with a new life that didn’t make him want to vomit every day. He could build a little shack on one of the island’s secluded beaches, maybe find someone who could help him build a boat and he could spend his days fishing. If he needed some extra money, he could make his way to Esperanza and sell his day’s catch. Otherwise, he would be alone in his shack, free to rest and enjoy his solitude. For now, however, Fajardo would have to do.
His abuelo had saved up his money for twenty-five years in order to buy the house facing the Puerto del Rey Marina south of downtown Fajardo. The house sat near the bottom of a hillside, its yard stretching all the way down to the main road. There was a large patio on the top floor that looked out on the marina; and that was where Ilan would sit for hours whenever he visited. When his parent’s died and he came to stay, he was given the room in the back with the mango tree outside the window. The lizards would come into that room and sit on his chest while he slept, scaring the hell out of him at first; then later on he felt worried if he woke up in the middle of the night and they weren’t there.
His abuelo lost the house after he died and Ilan’s abuela couldn’t keep up with the payments. When Ilan started making money as a middleman, he bought out the mortgage. But by then his abuela had died as well. Ilan had a few cousins who liked using the house on weekends, but for the most part it was empty, which was fine by him. When he arrived, he could hear coquis singing in the distance as the sun began to set. He opened the gate and descended the red tile steps to the main floor. The arched roof, shaped like a bird’s wings, was orange and gold in the dying sunlight. He first unlocked the gated door and then the heavy oak one, entering the house which smelled of pineapple and salt water. He had purchased a twelve pack of Medalla Light up the road and now set it down on the dining room table. He opened a can as he walked out on the patio. The last rays of light skimmed over the hills that surrounded the Puerto del Rey. He rested his hands on the banister and took a long swig from his beer. He looked out on the marina, and could hear his abuela singing while she cooked, and he could smell her arroz con habichuelas and the fresh bread she got every morning from the panadería up the street. He heard his abuelo yelling at a baseball game on TV. His abuelo always loved baseball, and he would tell him when he was young that he had a helluva an arm and could play with the Fajardo Cariduros one day if he kept practicing.
Yes, yes abuelo I’ll be a big star one day, the next Roberto Clemente. Yes, yes abuelo, I’ll practice every day, I promise.
When he died Ilan kept practicing, pitching balls at palm trees and playing in the street with his friends. Then abuela lost the house, and they moved to San Juan. And he found himself at age fifteen in the unfortunate position of needing to help her with the bills, and that was when he met Don Guillermo, and baseball was never talked about again.