Palo Alto Weekly 17th Annual Short Story Contest
Young Adult Third Place
Follow the General
by Aaron Hebert
His father was a man who knew the edges of life. He fished the
coast of El Puerto de Esperanza. The letter he received read: Dear
Juan, your father has been killed on the ocean. Please come to his
funeral, Mother. He left two days after he read the letter because
he had to arrange to send his dog to his friend's house.
He came to the funeral, held on a cliff. There was a tall, white
cross with two oars leaning against it. He leaned against his mother
as she spasmed with great tears. He laid her to bed that night and
made himself a drink. He had known this problem several times before.
Things would happen to him or around him; he could see things of
great magnitude and feel nothing. He could see and understand everything,
but his heart would remain quiet for an inappropriate amount of
time. He sat drinking, thinking of his father and of what people
feel when their fathers die. He did not know what echoes of feelings
He drank and talked in his head about his father, in all his mystery,
anger, and love of the ocean. He looked at the moon, young and yellow
on the horizon. He drank until he was too tired to look at the moon.
The morning came and he was awakened by his mother, shaking him
up from the table. She told him to wake, and asked why he drank
so much. He could not answer. She looked at him and said, "Your
father left me this note." He looked at her and saw at any
moment she was prepared to run, cry, and convulse with sadness.
He awaited his father's words by standing and looking down, as
he had seen in the movies when people were ready to hear things
of great meaning. She read: Dear Son, I know you and I have
been apart in our loves, though today I ask you to join me in my
loves. I know the boat isn't like the office you have so high in
Mexico City, but I ask you to carry out the business. You will need
to talk to Jaime for advice on how to fish the coast. This is my
only request; you take great care of the boat and learn to fish
the ocean. -- Javier.
His mother looked up to him with sincere brown eyes, like those
of a dog. He looked down and frowned, but considered that this may
be the way for him to feel in his heart. He did not like the idea
of leaving his job for any time or quitting. He was going to say
no, but when his mother became stern in that way only Latin woman
can, he said yes instead.
He called his boss and explained his father's will, his boss told
him that he could not take a leave. He explained his mother's situation
and that he would have to stay. He called his friend who held his
dog, Rudy. He said that he would be staying weeks and that he would
not want Rudy to be lonely. His friend told him he would mail the
He walked down the dock where his father's boat was. It was brown
and long with the discoloration of the ocean and sun. He inspected
it, still wearing his button down T-shirt and suit pants. He felt
the footsteps of something heavy coming down the dock. He turned
to see a man painted by the ocean like his father's boat. His skin
was creased with deep wrinkles, like the Grand Canyon might look
like from the moon, he thought.
He said, "My name is Jaime and I have been asked by your father
to teach you the ways of fishing this coast." Jaime left for
now and Juan tried to enter the boat. He almost fell over and said
to his father, "This is tougher then it looks." He knew
his father was smiling.
Jaime taught him the ways of the coast, how to rig the bait, which
spots had which fish, and how to respect the ocean. Jaime told him,
"The Ocean is woman. She is sensitive and provides you with
many things. She is also the one bitch you will never forget."
Jaime took Juan under his arms and made sure that he could begin
to support his mother.
Everyday Jaime would meet him down by the dock and teach him another
piece of information about fishing, or the bitch, or the Mother
as he called it sometimes. He learned many things and soon Juan
was ready to go out on his own. Each day was long like the office,
but much more tiring, he thought.
He sat and watched his mother slice the meat from market. He could
even tell from the way she cut the meat she was hurt. She was like
the fish who wasn't willing to fight hard enough to break the line,
he thought. He thought of her being stretched between life and death,
like the fish, not knowing to pull harder and hurt enough to make
it, or give in.
Jaime showed him the towns he could see from far out in the ocean.
He pointed to a town that had a small blue glow like the eyes of
a great bird. He said, "That town has a little bar that your
father and I would go to after a good day of catches."
He made a little map on the side of the boat, etched it with the
pocket knife Jaime gave him to gut small fish. They came to the
dock, and Juan fell into the ocean trying to get out. Jaime's belly
swayed heavily as he let out a big laugh the stretched his wrinkles
When he arrived back home, his mother told him, "Your father
would be laughing." He smiled, sporting a beard that was scruffy
and short, like a billboard model he thought. His mother gave him
a towel and told him to go to the market and get some meat. He nodded
and wiped his head, thinking of visiting the great bird's eyes.
Rudy arrived in the mail, a bit thin, but okay, he thought. Rudy
was a small Chihuahua who was very expressive. His mother had not
been eating like she should have. He would tell his mother, 'You
need to eat, I can see your face is pale like driftwood."
Jaime had all but disappeared and Rudy had happily taken his place.
Juan would soon be ready to start selling the fish he caught. The
equipment was good and he was smarter than the ocean, he would say
Rudy would sit on the tip of the boat like Washington crossing
the Delaware. Juan rowed the boat to where he could catch snapper.
He trolled the bait and soon enough caught many fish. At the end
of the day he pulled into the dock, and held the fish triumphantly
and exclaimed to the market, "I have just begun to win, and
these are my fish!" The market looked up, blinked, and went
back to business.
Juan did not care, and Rudy was excited too. They sold the fish
and went home for dinner. Rudy trotted along his side and wagged
his short tail. Juan told his mother, "Mother, I have made
us some money!" His mother looked up with her big brown eyes
Juan had almost forgot the city and everyday he and the general
would fish the ocean. Juan would often talk to Rudy, because Rudy
had always been responsive, to what though, only Rudy knew. Juan
would tell him of his ex-girlfriend Natalia, she was the one who
told him they get a dog. He explained to Rudy, that had she not
been a bitch and left him without notice or return, that he would
not know Juan, or the ocean.
Juan thought of his father's face when he told him that he would
be going to university. It was a half smile that made Juan feel
anxiety. His father cared little for people. His understanding of
life was all for the ocean. My father never understood why I wanted
to leave this town and poverty for the city, Juan thought. He only
wanted me to know the ocean, and I am trying, he thought.
Rudy seemed happy all the time; the ocean air did him good, Juan
thought. He began to wonder more about the blue lights he would
see after sunset and he decided after he made a big catch he would
go. Rudy wanted to go too.
One day he made a great catch. He told his mother, "We celebrate
tonight!' His mother stayed home. He and Rudy rowed to the bar etched
in the side of the boat. They arrived on the docks and walked under
blue lights that were hung between posts. It was a small bar that
was a big openaired shack, like most buildings here, he thought.
He sat down at a table; there were about seven people he could
see. He ordered a Mojito and water for Rudy. He got a Mojito as
well. Rudy was excited, Juan knew, because his little tongue was
out. He looked around to his peers. He smiled and drank. Rudy was
wandering all around smelling people's feet. He had no more Mojito
A girl was hammering down on the piano, like the stiffest typewriter
ever made. It sounded poor, but she was content. She would sway
left and right, and sometimes her neck would go out and she would
look down. She had short hair, very scruffy, like an animal had
come and ripped her head. He liked it.
She pounded away and he drank and smiled. He thought of the loves
he had in his life, and thought it was sad he had some much anger
when thinking of them. He slumped his head down and rested looking
at his piano player. She had stopped playing, but was still swaying,
and she turned and looked at Juan, wearing a dirty shirt and she
could tell he was familiar with the ocean. She looked, they looked,
and they smiled.
Juan came to know the coastlines as well as any man could. He would
talk with Rudy, still excited, and tell him of the girl he saw at
the bar, how she pounded at the piano like the spastic animal he
thought she would be in bed. Her piano playing was a great source
of hope for Juan. He looked forward to hearing it again. He spent
his time fishing and smiling. City life was falling off the edge
of his mind.
He began to frequent the bar and he would see her there sometimes
and watch her jab the keys. He soon became drunk and confident enough
to talk to her. He told her, "I have watched you for many nights.
You are fierce and beautiful." She smiled, didn't say anything,
and kept jamming her fingers into the keys.
He frowned and went back to the table watching her. He told Rudy,
"She will know, someday that her and I would make," he
changed his mind, "No! We would be so strong as to hold the
belly of a whale!" Rudy did not know what he meant and smelled
Each day he would fish hard, and let the sun color his neck and
hands. Soon he was tan like Jaime. Every day he went to the bar
and looked at the girl. Sometimes he would talk to her and she would
look, blink, and then return to her piano. He grew sad, and talked
of needing her company while he was on the boat.
Rudy would hear stories of romance and sex that never happened
between him and his noisy friend. Loneliness came to Juan at nights,
when he was drunk rowing back home. His mother would wake him up
each morning and see the tears he left on the pillow. Juan started
to think of how his father survived.
He looked to the moon and Rudy for most of his advice; he did not
know which was better. He thought of the girl, and the love his
father had for the boat. The boat is a fine boat, he would often
think. He only knew of the ocean, it was his only love. His mother
was too deathly to love. She was waiting for death as if it were
The girl stopped coming as much and Juan became sadder, only finding
comfort in the blues, greens, and yellows of the ocean. He began
to think of his ex-girlfriends and tried to think of which ones
could handle living as he did now. He gained a respect for his mother
for staying with a man so isolated as a fisherman. His father was
a lonely man who had never knew hope. He never loved mother as much
as she loved him, Juan thought.
Juan had the love of the ocean. She was his woman. He would whisper
things during the day, and ramble about her beauty when he was drunk
at night. The girl had all but left the bar and his love for her
grew in the way his sadness and understanding of his father had
grown in the wake of his death. In her death he found the love he
was unable to find as she punctured the piano keys. She was not
dead like his father, only dead as two people walking industriously
in the city, bump into each other, look, make an expressive face,
and continue on ward never to be with the other.
Juan went to the great bird's eyes. It was the only place, other
than the market, where he was with people. He came one night, hastily
tied the boat to dock, and sat down to order drinks. Rudy became
drunk and circled around sniffing and looking up. Juan looked to
the piano stool and thought of her. He sat empty, and listened to
the conversation of the ocean and night.
He heard Rudy barking down by the docks. Rudy does not bark for
nothing, he thought. He got up as best as he could. He made his
way down the peer and saw Rudy barking off into the ocean. Juan
looked around and saw his boat had become untied. The blue lights
made it easy enough to see that the boat was headed out to the ocean
Juan felt a confusion and sadness over his father's boat. Rudy
barked and barked and jumped off the peer into the water after the
boat. Juan looked out into the ocean, the moon, the world, and heard
the pounding of piano keys in his heart. He became filled with the
death of his father and jumped into the ocean.