“Rose Petals on the Shores of Puerto Nuevo” is a short story, written by Mike Giardina. It won first-place in The Pamela Maus Contest in Creative Writing.
I was taught that every good bartender should have stories to tell, that a man of my profession must be energetic, passionate, and entertaining. I’ve never lived up to those expectations. My days are empty and my nights are filled with the routine. I don’t have any stories. I’m the kind of man who likes to listen, but that’s alright. In my experience, customers love to talk. David was no exception. He was a frail and meager man; his eyes were always red, his skin pale, his movements anxious and jittery. His passion for acting led him to auditions, his auditions led him to failure, and his failure led him to bars. So I’m at the end of the line. I serve him drinks and he fills my nights with his fanciful stories.
Every night he continued his story and I felt myself becoming more and more involved. I began to write snippets of the story down and told my friends about this man’s life, how it was filled to the brim with pressure, how I was the one he chose to ease the pain.
There is a science to caring. You have to let pressure out in just the right way. If you take a needle to a balloon too rashly, it will burst; but, if you ease the needle in near the knot, you can control the airflow and leave the rubber intact. This is what I do; I ease the needle.
They say I need to get another job because every bar story becomes my own, that each night I become a new man, with new passions. I can’t help it. I have nothing of my own, so I find myself drawn to men in need of escape. I love them for filling a gap. In return, I ease the needle. I release their pain with care.
David tells the same story every night. He hands me a rose and says, “This is for Birdsong. You knew my wife, right?” I nod my head. At first he hadn’t the strength to finish the story, waiting till the start of each new night to continue where he left off. Now, having completed the story, David returns each night and tells the story anew. He never leaves out a detail. It’s always the same story. Yet, I see him grow every time he tells it. I try to sleep at night, but I dream of his story.
* * *
I imagine Birdsong asking a man on the sands of Puerto Nuevo for ceviche. “Pass the ceviche,” she says. The wrinkled cook looks at her with indifference, rummaging around through blackish yellow bins, pulling fillets of corbina and red snapper onto a yellowed cutting board. He chops the fish with a dulled butcher’s knife, mixing in cloves of garlic, cayenne pepper, and drops of lime juice.
“And the juice of three limes?” Birdsong says to the cook. He presses the ingredients onto a hardened tortilla shell. She persists, “y jugo de tres cales?”
Surprised to hear his native tongue, the cook eyes the bottle of cloudy liquid and says, “Dos.”
“Why only two limes?”
“Dos. Sufficiente,” he says, passing her the ceviche.
She holds the hardened shell between her long, slender fingers and winces. Her throat begins to feel rough and swollen. “Pero es ceviche,” she says, clearing her throat, “raw fish should always be prepared with the juice of three limes.” The old cook ignores her. She takes a bite of the ceviche and shakes her head. Raw fish should always be prepared with the juice of three limes. Acidity kills bacteria.
On a dusty trail, Birdsong kneels by a rose bush. She pulls a knife from her pocket and cuts an attractive rose from the bush. She holds it above her head, watch the petals quiver. All her life, Birdsong lived in rotting houses, protected by dusty rusted rooftops. She hated that life and fled for the western shores of Mexico.
The men back home told her that her arms were like wings, that her voice was like the sweetest song, that she was everything a woman could be. But they always tried to touch her and too often succeeded. Their words were meaningless, their hands grotesque. It was David who convinced her to leave. They met on a subway car. She was crying. He came up to her, took her hand , and said, “Why are the tips so red? Why are you so cold?”
Birdsong tucks the rose behind her ear, finishes the ceviche. A piece of red snapper slides down the back of her throat and she coughs uncomfortably. All she can think of is the phrase, “and the juice of three limes.”
Rounding a corner, Birdsong finds David sitting on a rotting barstool in the middle of an empty yard. She flies into his arms, embracing him. She takes the rose and slips it behind his ear. David’s eyes, red and swollen, blink quickly and aggressively. He’s been drinking. His chapped lips peel into a smile. Birdsong hugs him and says, “It’s okay. Really, it is.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, “It’s just so hard.”
She puts the reddened tip of her finger to his lips, “It’s not about that anymore.”
“But you said–”
“I’ll help you,” she says.
“You don’t have to,” he says, pushing her off the barstool. Her body seems to float effortlessly to the ground. Angry with himself, David joins her on the grass.
“Last night,” Birdsong says, placing her arms in her lap, “I had a dream where everyone in the world was a fisherman.”
“And you were a fisherman?” David says, taking Birdsong’s slender fingers into his hands.
“No,” she says, “I was a bird, watching everyone.”
“But you said everyone,” David says with a tear at the corner of his eye, “everyonein the world was a fisherman.”
“Yes,” she says, “everyone in the world was.”
Over the beaches of Puerto Nuevo, thin, silver beams of moonlight penetrate through the dense fog. Birdsong and David sit at a campfire, talking and laughing with strangers, their faces obscured by the rolling fog. Birdsong watches the light reflect off a guitar case, a silver dog collar, a rusted trashcan, and the back of an old, rusty, red truck. A sleeping dog curls its muscular torso near the warmth of the fire, then grinds and digs in the sand with his hind paws. A man with a guitar is playing Greensleeves and the notes comfort her. Bottles are moving to the right and tea-leaves, rolled in thin rice-paper, are moving to the left. The sweet scent of the burning leaves reminds her of giant pine trees. Birdsong holds David close to her and tries to keep the world in focus, “Together,” she says.
“Together,” he says, “I knew it the moment I saw you crying on the subway.”
Her vision beginning to blur, Birdsong rolls onto the dusty sand. Her shoulder-blades dig into the ground, as she stretches her long arms towards the sky. Barely able to stay awake, she focuses on the fire. Soon, she is unable to distinguish the sound of the lapping waves upon the shore with the crackling of the fire. Birdsong feels a tap on her shoulder. She hears a voice that she doesn’t recognize and rolls on her side. “Here,” the voice calls out, “get onto the blanket.”
“I’m on the sand,” she says.
“I know,” echoes the voice, “here, get up on here.”
Birdsong feels her body being touched and her eyes focus for a moment on the comforting face of the guitarist. She thought he must be forty or fifty years old from behind the fire but now–as his face was so close to hers–she realizes he is only a boy and whispers to him, “Too young.” Almost asleep, she feels her body being placed upon a blanket and notices David resume a conversation with the young musician. Her eyes close.
The next morning, Birdsong awakes in an unfamiliar bed. She blinks slowly, opening her eyes to David kneeling beside her, his skin pale, his whole body trembling.
“I feel hung over,” she says.
“Is that all your feeling?” David says, the warm red skin around his cheeks peeling upwards into a smile. He enjoys her voice.
“What else?” she says, “Just drank too much.”
Birdsongs’ hands are shivering and David takes one reluctantly. She tries to move, but her back is stiff and the muscles in her stomach resist with tension.
“You’re so cold,” David says to her.
“A cold shower,” she says.
“Can you make it?”
“Of course,” she says, pulling her body up. Her head feels steamy-hot. In the end, dizziness wins the battle and she falls back to the bed, turns her head to the side, and lets some of her stomach fall into a grey bucket on the ground.
“Have I been–”
“All night,” David says.
Birdsongs’ eyes seem sunken into her skin. Her cheeks look grey and the tips of her fingers blue. “What’s wrong?” he says, “What can I do?”
Birdsong tries to speak but finds herself out of breath. She tries to take the musky air deep into her lungs, but they resist. She starts to breathe faster and faster. Each breath more shallow than the one before it.
A sour smell passes through the room and Birdsong grabs at David, pulling herself from the bed. “You need to take me,” she says.
“I’ll try,” David says, bringing her towards a small bathroom.
“Please,” she urges him, “Leave.”
“I’ll help you, just let me know when you can lie down again.” The door shuts abruptly and the water faucet is turned on.
David hears a wave crash onto the beach and begins to imagine life as a fisherman. He imagines pulling the richest fish from the waters, searing their bodies over a grill, living in the moment, swimming in the waters, and eating only what the hook provides.
That night, her voice was soft and high-pitched; it crept slowly from her weak lips and sounded nothing like the song of a bird. Her eyes sunk deeper into her skin with each blink, and later David was completely unable to find a pulse at her wrist. Her chest heaved and, as her head rolled to the side she said, “thirsty.” Her eyes closed and she slept. The sound of engines and stretchers passed unnoticed. She regained consciousness, if only for a minute, and said, “Remember the subway.”
There are no walls in the hospital, only rows and rows of yellowed curtains. David sits on a stool, his hands pressed together in quiet prayer, “…obtain for her health in mind and body, and the strength to accept all suffering in union with Christ, our Savior,” he says. David tries to continue but hesitates. He looks down the rows of curtains and wishes that one of those yellowed sheets might fold itself up into a pair of wings that would fly his wife back to him; that she might soar above him, watch him fishing on the beaches of Puerto Nuevo. “If you make it through this, I will go fishing and bring you Langosta; I will bring you everything I have to bring.”
The doctor shakes his head, “de Colera.”
David, knowing very little Spanish, struggles to say, “Cholera?”
The doctor nods.
“Vivir? Living?” David says.
“No,” the doctor says, shaking his head, “murio a las dos.”
A loud crash breaks the silence of the moment and the doctor looks away. Four stretchers are wheeled in and the doctor rushes to them. They disappear behind yellow curtains and David is left alone.
His mouth peels into a smile. His eyes cry, but David doesn’t feel the tears. That night, sitting on the worn barstool in his front yard, David watches a dove cooing at an empty nest. He holds out his hand to the lonely bird and it shuffles out of reach.
* * *
Everyday David brings me a rose and I tell him, we all remember Birdsong. I pass the glass over the counter and David tries to steady his hands. “I’m going to go put on my suit and tie,” he says. He has neither suit nor tie. David takes the shot glass and downs the contents. He looks at me, frightened, “Where are the roses? You knew my wife, right?”
“Right here,” I say, “the rose is right here.”
“It is so beautiful,” he says, “Where is the other one? Oh, someone took the other one.”
There were never two roses.
“My wife died in Mexico.”
I never met David’s wife, but I tell him that I knew her, that she was a beautiful woman, as beautiful as the birds. This makes him smile. He continues, “She didn’t make it back. You know what that means?”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“That means that I don’t have my right side,” he says, pointing to his right and frowning. His lips quiver and he turns and walks away from me. He looks back, trying to smile, and says, “I’m going to go now. I just need to put on my suit and tie.” He walks towards the bathroom with a small duffel bag and I see him pull a bottle of tequila from it. I imagine that is his suit and tie.
David walks into the bar on a Tuesday and he looks stronger, confident, and more alert. He tells me the story of Birdsong all over again, without adding a single detail.
“You’re looking alright,” I say to him.
“That’s because we’re all ready,” David says, “We’re going back.”
“To Mexico,” he continues, “We’ve been practicing.”
“Oh yeah?” I say, unsure of what he’s talking about.
He leans in close and he whispers, “You knew my wife right?” I nod. “Well, she was attacked in Mexico. She told me who did it–what they did–and we’re all going back there to find the guy.”
I open my mouth, but David puts a finger to my lips and his eyes beg for silence.
“We’re not going to kill him,” he explains, “but the man won’t have any kneecaps by the time we’re done with him.”
I always thought of David as a man with burdens to endure, but ultimately passive. Nonetheless, he continues, “When he’s lying there on the ground, yelling to me, “Why! Why!” I’m going to stand over him and say into his ear, “This is for my wife, you bastard.'”
“Didn’t your wife die of cholera?” I ask.
He stares back, angrily and sys nothing. I turn away, frustrated. David begins to walk out.
“David!” I call.
He turns, his eyebrows partly raised.
“Just be careful.”
“Alright,” he says, “If I’m not back in a week, you know they’ve got me.”
I’ve waited three weeks.
I find myself driving through Rosarito, stopping along the side of the road to watch men scouring the city streets. They urge foreigners to crowd around them. A young boy calls to me, “Tequila Frogs! This way.” He flaps his arms at me like a bird with a broken wing, “Ten dollars all you can drink.” I shake my head at the boy and he runs along, already yelling to another couple, “Ten dollars, all you can drink!”
On a busy street corner, I find a couple of barstools, with waiters scurrying about and cutting limes. One man curls his lime into a small semicircle and places it in the mouthpiece of his bottle. I order a beer and do the same. On the other side of the street, a huge billboard is displaying sports scores and news clips. People crowd around to watch this giant television screen. I find myself engulfed by the bright baby blue and the quick spattering of language that goes along with the images. A man walks by me, amused by the intensity of concentration I’m offering the spectacle. He pulls up a chair.
“They’re fascinated with the other side,” he says, tapping the corner of his bottle with uncut fingernails. “It doesn’t even matter what it is, as long as it’s about the other side.”
“You ever go bird-watching?” I say.
“No,” the man says, “can’t say that I have.”
I shake my head and stare down at the lime, now wedged into the mouthpiece of my bottle.
“Why do you ask?” the man says.
“Do you know Birdsong?”
He shakes his head.
“Do you know David?”
“A few,” he says.
“How about a single rose bush that grows on the beaches of Puerto Nuevo? How about that? What do I have to do?”
The man lets out a deep, unconvincing laugh. He stands up and says, “I’m sorry amigo, I had you pegged all wrong.”
“This is Rosarito, my friend. Just have yourself a good time. Okay? I’ll see you,” he says, pinching my shoulder with his fat fingers. Uncomfortable, I start back towards the car.
Ten hours from home, the traffic moves so much slower. I carve a path through the tall mountain, cutting the ground with the hum of my car’s engine. In the distance, I see a van pull out and a blockade is set up. I opt for the toll road to avoid the check-point and find myself on the way to Puerto Nuevo.
Down in the sandy dunes, I see the remnants of a street fair: cracked coconuts and long blades of glass wrapped in cowhide and formed into spears. A little farther up, a small food-carts with yellowed signs advertises fish tacos and ceviche on Sundays. A young man walks towards me.
“Langosta,” he shouts, “You want lobster tonight?”
“I’m looking for a rose bush,” I say.
“You want to see it?”
“You know where it is?”
“You found it, amigo. Best langosta in Puerto Nuevo.”
I shake my head and the man wanders off without second thought. Nothing looks like I thought it would. I imagine David sitting on a small bar-stool in an empty yard; I imagine Birdsong rounding a corner and flying into his arms. Nowhere do I see any of my story.
I keep walking through the streets hoping that I’ll see David sitting on a corner with a fake smile plastered to his face. He’ll come up and wave me closer with his hand, he’ll inch his mouth closer and closer to my ear, until I finally get there and he’ll whisper, “We did it.”
I walk farther from the main road, hoping that somewhere in the outskirts of this sad city, I will find something that will keep this story alive. On a thin branch, which reaches up over an empty wooden bench, I see a small, fluorescent, Mexican Woodnymph. I sit at the table and it flies down from the branch and settles next to me; it faces its head in my direction. I reach out to touch it, but it shuffles out of reach. I continue watching the small little bird and the thing seems glad to have company on this cold night. I wonder why the poor thing hasn’t gone to sleep and all of a sudden I’m flooded with an image of the poor bird flying miles and miles over open seas, watching from above as countless fishermen cast their hooks into the sea. I imagine myself a fisherman on the shores of Puerto Nuevo and think that somehow, out of this story, I should shape myself in the image of those that have come before me.
I imagine David pressing his face against tarnished-green prison bars. I imagine him wishing that he had something to use as a bribe, that he might escape his destiny here in the sands of Puerto Nuevo. If only he were a Mexican Woodnymph, he could fly through the prison-bars to freedom. He would try to catch the largest lobster. He would bury the creature without eating it, place a red rose on the grave, and etch a small poem, dedicated to wish wife, in the sand.
The waves quiet. I look around and wonder why I’m so drawn to the energy of this land, why I want to sit on the beach and bathe myself near the warm ambers of a fire. The urge to be nudged by the care of an anonymous soul onto the comfort of a warm blanket is overwhelming. If only I could wake to the sound of the ocean. I try to fall asleep but all I can think of is David.
I walk back towards my car. On the side of the road, I see an old man selling food out of a small cart. A pang of hunger shoots through my stomach and the man looks at me inquisitively. “Que Onda,” he says. “Comida,” I reply.
“Langosta?” he says.
“No, Lobster is for David,” I say.
He looks at me confused, having only understood the first word.
“Entonces,” he says, “ceviche o tacos?”
“Ceviche,” I say, “Pass the ceviche.”
The man rummages around through blackish yellow bins, pulling fillets of fish onto a yellowed cutting board. With a dulled butcher’s knife, he begins to cut hot pepper and cloves of garlic. He sprinkles cayenne pepper onto the mixture and then adds a few droplets of lime juice. After placing his mixture onto a hardened tortilla shell, he takes my money, passes the food, and begins to stare at the sky. I nudge the old man with my elbow and say, “I’m proud to be a fisherman.”
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