Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Old Dry Dock Lane

I knew the place very well but I don't recall if there ever was a street called Anchovy Road anywhere in it.

And so, as the cab pulled over near the iron gate, which loomed larger under the colorful blinking lights that were clearly intended to be there to announce a huge occasion, I was tempted to pull out of my pocket the invitation again and try to check, perhaps for the hundredth time, if somehow I must have been mistaken. But a uniformed guard walked up to me as soon as I stepped out of the cab.

"You must be Mr. Rey Enriquez. Well, Good evening Sir. Mr. Colmenares and his family had been waiting for you at the dock". Then he led me inside while I walked spellbound by the totally unexpected, almost mind-boggling realization. Now I'm sure this is the same old Dockyard Lane, only they changed the name to Anchovy Road.

He stood at the edge of the dock, a man almost my age and very neatly dressed, flanked by an equally impressive woman and two little boys. Now I remember. How could I forget the sparkle in those eyes, the sunburnt face from many summers in the riverside and while his lips may have changed from the operation (there was no more trace of the boy hounded by a misfortune he was born with) he will always remain to be the troubled kid who became such an important person in my life once upon a time.

The lady of the house took my hand and offered her cheek while the boys chorused to a shy almost inaudible greeting before pulling their mother away, leaving the two of us - me and him - alone.

"I thought it was supposed to be a reunion of old friends?, I asked, struggling to keep my voice from cracking up.

"Well, it really is, Rey. Two old friends. Just you and me. That's all it meant. That's all there is to it. You're the only friend I had, in fact, the only one true friend I will ever have. I never got to thank you for what you did for me, my friend. I own this place now, you can say that I had been a very lucky man, and that's all because of you."

He speaks clearly now, it shocked me a little bit to hear him speak this way.

"How's the operation, did it hurt? Now I can speak about his great affliction without fear of hurting his feelings, the way it was before. But that was already in the past. It's a different story now. My friend Enrico Colmenares is now a new and different man. Hugely different indeed, and a very rich man.

"Remember that ship, Rey?", he chuckled, ignoring the question while pointing at the humongous but familiar figure looming in the distance. "I had preserved it especially for this day, especially for you. Come, my friend, let's go to the ship. Our ship."

We ran to the ship like we were kids again.

I was a child of the river. Just like Rico and all the others. It was the provider of nourishment and livelihood for the people of my town. We owned it and it owned us in small ways and in life and death proportions, to the extent of the air that we breathe becoming the product of communion, a partaking of textures and flavors of salt, freshwater, of vegetation and of all the elements, and of all the energies that we obtain from the river one moment and which we give back the next, through our labors or by means of plain biological exertion in consonance with the expediency of life's endless unbreakable cycle. It can be a source of healing and at the same time the progenitor of a million afflictions.

It is here that we discovered the profound joys of friendship. Walking on the riverbanks to catch crustaceans and dragon flies while avoiding the mud holes provided the endless thrills of our boyhood during the long hot summers that were also filled with kite-flying adventures, spider-fights, and unforgettable hunting expeditions with slingshots for guns, and quails, shrikes rock doves and some occasional wild duck for game.

Those were the days indeed. And the high point I must say was our discovery of a hole in the ground that serves as an underground tunnel leading up to the ship yard at old dry dock lane. We found it underneath the thick cogon grass not far from the riverbank one summer afternoon while looking for spiders. Rico crawled on all fours while I fearfully followed and after a few breathtaking moments, we found ourselves in the belly of an old abandoned ship, or what looked more like the wreckage of an old abandoned ship.

From that day on, it was my source of entertainment, and for Rico a means of escape. He was a lonely and fatherless child who had no other friends except me and for the same reason, treated me with unconditional kindness, perhaps grateful for my companionship. He had the kindest soul yet the outcast among the townfolks, largely by his own choice because of a cleft-palate problem that impared his speech and completely distorted what could have been an angelic innocent face.

We would climb up the rooms on the upper decks, where some of the cabins are still in fairly good condition, providing a place to hide, and beds for quick cat naps during lazy afternoons. The view from the hull alone could take your breath away. During the summer under cloudless skies we could spend entire days sight-seeing.

The arrival of new ships for drydocking and repair is always an event to watch. Dozens of men stripped to the waist tug at the thick long ropes with all the strength they could muster and painstakingly try to pull the ship out of the water over a layer of turning logs for what seemed like an inch an hour until it is finally set in place. We've seen men get crushed when ships tilt on the side in a mishap yet always they would bravely soldier on. I wouldn't be a dry dock worker, I used to swear to my soul. I also did swear, like Rico did, to never ever tell anyone about this secret place.

We will stay there for long hours immediately after class and almost the entire day during weekends and summer breaks. In time, we've grown bold enough to explore outside the safety of the shipwreck. We would sneak into newly-docked vessels when no one is looking and search for food among the cabins - meatloaf, pastries, candies and the tastiest biscuits. Once we gatecrashed a fishing boat and discovered in its bottom deck, the huge fishnet bundled to the size of a small hill. We learned that it makes you bounce when you jump on it, and it also cushions your fall. We had a great time performing crazy stunts. outdoing each other.

Every ship that arrives is a mystery. One ship had an artillery of guns and explosives. Another had literally, a skeleton in the closet. The windfall was when we found a ship loaded with all kinds of toys. But we never dared to take anything away from it. We swear to only steal food, and only when we're hungry.

But all good things, just like the bad ones come to an end. Ironically that dreaded moment came with the docking of yet another ship at the port on the other side of town not far from drydock lane. It was a ship that needed no repair, as it was impeccably built, the product of the more advanced ship-building technology of the country where it came from which I suspected was America. It was a ship like no other.

The most enduring memory of that ship was a crimson cross on a white background painted on its hull and a flagmast bearing the same image. It was the first time I saw white people, the passengers of the ship who introduced themselves to the town folks as soon as they arrived, as medical volunteers on a humanitarian mission to perform medical surgery on poor people of the countries they visit who can't afford the treatment.

Since that day, Rico had refused to return home, let alone to come in contact with anyone but me, determined to live it out in the shipwreck at dry dock lane. for as long as the white men are in town There were days I would steal food from home and bring it there, a sense of pride and surprise was my own reward for going great lengths for a friend, which I never thought my whole life, I am capable of doing.

On some nights, when my parents and siblings are asleep I would escape to drydock lane and spend the night on the ship with my friend, waking up very early the next morning for the folks at home to find me in bed, and avoid suspicions over my night time prowling, which surely would infuriate my father, which is the last thing on earth I would like to happen.

On the eve of the departure of the white men and their ship, Rico's mother came to our house begging for me to help her find her missing son. I would not have relented in spite of her tears if not for the intervention of my father, the one person in the world who can easily squeeze the truth out of me. Town officials accompanied the white men to the shipwreck at dry dock lane, an event I would compare in later years to a white man's safari in an African jungle to hunt down a wild animal.

The boy put up a fight before they got him, a violence you wouldn't believe a ten-year old boy is capable of doing. They had to tie him up but in the fleeting moments that our eyes met as he was being whisked away, I knew the bond between us had been irretrievably lost as a consequence of my betrayal. I never heard of him again after that, except for rumors that the white men took him away.

They closed the tunnel to old dry dock lane and since then I never set foot on the ship again except in my dreams which seem to happen all the time. Some dreams I guess, wherein Rico and I were still friends again and having the time of our lives at the shipwreck.

But now at least, as we stood on the hull of the ship in a moment of reminiscences I realized that more than thirty years filled with guilt had joyously ended with the completely unexpected invitation from a long lost friend.