Strange Cargo by Jorge Casuso


It was a big rusted freighter, and it came gliding in under the full moon, and the first thing Gus and Ernest noticed was that there were not the usual tug boats, one trailing, the other pulling the big ship along. Gus expected it to rip a chunk out of a yacht or yank a hitching post from the marina, but it just glided slowly by and docked at the Haitian export company across the river from the knoll on the bank where Gus and Ernest hitched their dinghy.
     The next thing they noticed was the cats. They usually took small nervous steps back when a boat pulled up, but held their ground, waited and watched. But this time, they bolted and disappeared into the brush, as if the ship carried some kind of plague. Ernest and Gus waited for the crew to disembark or for a longshoreman to board, but nothing happened, and the ship just sat there empty but for a large metal crate sitting in the middle of the deck.
     “There’s no one in the cabin,” said Gus.
     “Maybe they’re sleeping,” said Ernest, and as soon as he said it, he was aware of how absurd that sounded.
     Gus and Ernest had watched plenty of ships sail in since moving to the river from skid row. Their lives had started to change when a newspaper in town profiled them in a story about the homeless. The others became envious when they didn’t see their faces in the paper and refused to sleep under the issue with the article. But Gus and Ernest didn’t care, especially Gus, who saw it as a new beginning.
     For one thing, the reporter had not identified them as homeless, a term Gus always felt was too official, like a statistic, and it didn’t call them bums or transients, either. Instead, the article referred to them as hobos.
     “I ain’t no homo,” Ernest had said when Gus read him the article.
     “Not homo,” Gus said, “hobo. You know, like the fellows that rode the freight trains.”
     From that moment, Gus felt his life had changed. He googled “hobo slang” on his cell phone —his was the only one on skid row with internet capabilities— and began studying the lingo. A dollar bill became an ace spot, his overcoat a benny. He drank black strap instead of coffee in the morning, and if they had any booze left over after an all-night binge, they took an eye opener when they awoke.
     It had been Gus’s idea to move to the river.
     “Skid row doesn’t cut it,” he told Ernest. “We need a water view.”
     So Gus spent two weeks collecting extra cans and cutting down on his drinking, though Ernest seemed to make up for it, the bottles being emptied as quickly as before.
     Gus also managed to get up earlier to play his guitar for the morning commuters, and he quickly changed his repertoire. Instead of folk-rock, he became a Jimmie Rodgers man, singing about the plight of hobos hopping freight trains and, instead of solos, yodeling during a break in the verses.
     By fall, Gus had saved enough to buy a beat-up dinghy and move to the river. He was no longer just a bum, he was a sea stiff now, a sailor tramp. For the first time since he could remember, Gus had a goal in life.
     But the transition hadn’t been so easy for Ernest, who had some status with the old crowd under the bridge. He was drinking harder now, and growing tired of all the hobo talk and the stupid yodeling Gus would break into, though he had to admit it was kind of pretty when the moon was shining on the water and he’d had plenty to drink. He even got teary-eyed when Gus sang about the hobo getting kicked out of the boxcar in heaven. Maybe being a sea stiff wasn’t such a bad thing.
     But as soon as that freighter glided in and docked across the river, both Gus and Ernest knew everything was about to change.

***

“What do you reckon’s in there?” Ernest said, staring at the crate.
     They’d been watching the ship for an hour, and there was still no sign of a crew.
     “I don’t know,” Gus finally said, “but whatever it is, it can’t be good.”
     “How the hell do you figure that?”
     “How many times you seen a ship come in with no one on it but a box?” Gus said. “And the cats, what do you make of that? There isn’t even a rat boarded that ship. By now they’d be crawling all over the place.”
     Ernest stared across the water.
     “I don’t know. Seems to me this here’s an opportunity. Could be treasure in there, a shipment of diamonds or something.”
     “Could also carry some plague or an alien creature. Look at it. Don’t you think it’s weird nothing has moved since it came in? Even the breeze stopped blowing.”
     Ernest stared at the box. Gus was right, it was mighty calm.
     “I googled the port name on the ship,” Gus said. “Nukehavistan is a former Soviet Republic suspected of having nuclear weapons.”
     “Nukes?”
     “That’s what I thought, but it doesn’t add up,” Gus said, staring at the glowing phone. “Says here it’s a land-locked country.”
     Gus read the entry out loud, struggling with the strange words: “The terrain consists mostly of flat stretches of gypsum and alkali, occasionally marked with deep craters and twisted metal structures. The capital is Silograd, famous for the Great Silo, a towering structure that can be seen from space.”
     He shut off his phone before the battery ran out. “If this is right and the country’s landlocked, there wouldn’t be no ships there. If it’s not, who the hell would put a single crate on a big old freighter and sail it from Russia to America?”
     They stared at the ship, its prow rusted brown. In the grass, not a blade was moving.

***

It rained all that night. Gus crawled under the tarpaulin with his guitar, and Ernest sat up in his rain gear, staring at the ship, water dripping down his hood.
     That Gus is a goddamned wuss, he thought. His big dream is to hop an empty freight train —or as he liked to say, grab an armful of boxcars on a hobo special— and ride all the way to Californi-a, as stupid a dream as Ernest had ever heard. There, he’d play some cornball yodeling songs on the Venice boardwalk and think that he could make enough money to get discovered and buy a Mustang convertible and get back his wife that left him a million years back. Then he could throw out the divorce papers he kept all wrapped up in plastic, and they’d live like one goddamned happy family just so he could be whipped again, the sorry bastard.
     As Ernest stared at the crate on the freighter, Gus’s dream seemed stupider than ever. And to think he, Ernest, had bought into it. Forget Hollywood. Whatever was in that crate could probably buy him a big mansion on Star Island, so he wouldn’t have to work and he could drink all day and screw whores at night, as many as he wanted. He could even buy one of those flat-screen TVs they used to watch games on in the store window when they lived on skid row, before Gus dragged them out to this goddamned toilet to become sea stiffs.
     So what if there was a nuke on the ship, or some deadly plague or something? You could always sell that shit and make out like bandits. And if it was plague, they’d all be six foot under by now in Gus’s bone orchard.
     Ernest dug in the pockets of his raincoat and pulled out a half-smoked cigarette he’d picked up under the bridge. He struck a match that miraculously stayed dry, but before he lit up, he snuffed out the flame.
     Something was moving in the brush near the ship. Ernest lay low in the hull of the dinghy, moving as little as possible so as not to disturb the water and cause ripples around his hiding place. He waited a few seconds, then peered over the side.
     It was hard to make out, but it looked like dark, naked bodies were moving in the brush. Then through the patter of the rain, he heard another sound —drums, beating hypnotic, syncopated, over and over until the sky lit up — and he realized he had lost track of time.
     The rain was falling harder now, and he could see the bodies shaking and turning. They were dancing around a small, grizzled man in a sagging loincloth that made him look more Hindu than Haitian. He was bony like Gandhi, but with the most evil grin on his face that Ernest had ever seen. And he was looking straight at him.
     Ernest lay flat in the hull and held his breath. You can’t let this scare you off, he thought. If anything, it proved that what was in that box was more precious than treasure or diamonds. He could sense it. It held not only wealth, but great power, and it was all his if only he could climb aboard.

***

By morning the rain had stopped, and the water mirrored a cloudless sky. The wind, which had never blown during the rains, was still dead. There was a silence all around the ship, as on a Sunday or a holiday. Gus checked his phone to see what day it was, but his battery was dead.
     “I had a weird dream,” he said, and started relaying how he had been visited by a voodoo witch doctor in the night, when he noticed Ernest was gone.
     He stared at the freighter, thinking maybe his sidekick was up to one of his schemes, but there was not a soul on board. Even the cats, which should have been crawling all over the empty deck by then, were nowhere in sight. In fact, Gus hadn’t seen them since the ship sailed in.
     Chances were, he might need the phone to call emergency rescue if they didn’t get a move on and head down the river soon. Gus rummaged under the tarp and hooked his power inverter to the old car battery he used to charge up his phone or fire up the hot plate, but there was no current. Probably wet from the rains, he figured. He’d have to wait for it to dry.
     Gus put the inverter and battery out in the sun and checked the line he’d tossed into the water. It was slack. When he pulled it in, there was nothing on the end but a Styrofoam cup caked with mud. Though the river was filthy, and you could barely see two feet below the surface, Gus usually snagged a catfish or, if he was lucky, a snook to fry up and eat for a couple of days. Maybe the freighter had scared away the fish too.
     Gus was baiting his hook with a smushed worm when he spotted Ernest coming through the brush.
     “Where were you?” he asked.
     “Can’t a man take a piss without being read the riot act?”
     “Sorry, I was just worried,” Gus said, and started to relay his dream.
     “That’s just superstition, like your half-assed notions about what’s in that goddamned box.”
     “But the cats, and the fish, I pulled–”
     “Fuck the cats, I say we go up on that ship. Whatever’s in there’s got to be valuable. Besides, what the hell do we have to lose? I’m sick of being a sailor stiff.”
     “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I was going to call emergency res–”
     “And walk away from a million bucks, just like that?”
     “Maybe we should move further up the river, that box is giving me the heebie-jeebies.”
     “Maybe you should get us some supplies at the corner store,” Ernest said, feeling good that for once he was the one giving the orders.
     “They’re probably closed. I think it’s a holiday,” Gus said.
     “They’re goddamned Haitians. Go, and I’ll wait here.”
     Gus sensed Ernest was up to no good. Why would he so easily agree to head downriver and leave the freighter behind? He’d become greedy and couldn’t be trusted. Gus decided he would circle back around and watch Ernest from the brush.

***

From his hiding place, Gus watched his partner drag a long rope, coil it and hide it in the tall grass near the dinghy. The rope seemed new. Ernest must have stolen it from another docked ship when Gus was asleep. He probably also stole the large hook, which he brought to the same spot and also hid.
     Gus waited for Ernest to return to the dinghy before heading back. When he climbed onboard, Ernest was suspicious.
     “Where you been? And where are the supplies?”
     “The store was closed,” Gus said.
     “You’re a goddamned liar. That store was open this morning, and they don’t close till nighttime.”
     Ernest stared out at a dark cloudbank blowing in. “Guess we can’t leave without the supplies,” he said. “Besides, there’s a storm brewing. No use moving on now. We’ll need to hunker down and wait it out. Why don’t you play us a song?”
     Gus felt Ernest was up to something, but he also felt he should do what he said if he wanted to avoid trouble.
     He unzipped the case and pulled out his guitar. It was the same guitar he had played in Annie’s apartment when they were still married, before he lost his job and the drinking took over.
     Gus strummed a few chords to make sure it was in tune and broke into what had become his favorite song.
          Tonight as I lay on the boxcar
          Just waiting for a train to pass by
          What will become of the hobo
          Whenever his turn comes to die.
     Ernest watched him sing, and dragged slowly on his half-smoked cigarette. He’d heard the stupid song a million times, but this time, he wasn’t listening. He was figuring how to toss that iron claw so it would hitch to a ledge or pole on the deck of the ship, and he could hoist himself up the rope. Gus stared at the clouds and kept singing.
          Will there be any freight trains in Heaven
          Any boxcars in which we might hide
          Will there be any tough cops or brakemen
          Will they tell us that we cannot ride.
     Ernest took his eyes from the crate and stared at that phony bastard Gus singing about hobos and freight trains. What the hell was a brakeman, anyway? And what did he know about hobos? Probably had the hots for him, the queer. Just look at him, his face all delicate and sweet-like when he yodeled like a goddamned girl.
          Will the hobo chum with the rich man
          Will we always have money to spare
          Will they have respect for the hobo
          In that land that lies hidden up there
     Gus finished singing, gave the guitar a little strum and looked up. The last thing he saw was Ernest’s contorted face, eyes filled with rage.

***

It was pouring. Ernest had checked Gus’s pulse, and sure enough, the bastard was dead, which meant the dinghy was his now. All he had to do was dispose of the body.
     He had been careful to deliver the blow with a rock, so there’d be no DNA or fingerprints pointing back at him. But Gus wouldn’t die, so he’d used the claw to put him away. Now his plan to board the ship was ruined. He needed to get rid of the evidence. All of it.
     Lucky for Ernest it was dark, and the rain was coming down, and no one could see what he was up to. He tied the legs with the rope, which he coiled around the body, then fastened the bloody claw with the sailor’s knot Gus had showed him.
     Gus was much heavier than expected for being so small, and it took effort to toss him overboard. The boat rocked as he splashed into the water, then rose to the surface, where he floated belly up, his mouth open as if he was still singing.
     Ernest grabbed the claw and heaved it over the edge. It sank with a plop, sucking the body down with it. No big loss, Ernest thought. There was no way he could have tossed the heavy claw up on the deck, anyway. He watched the blood spread and the water settle and the bubbles explode in the rain.
     All night, Ernest watched the water. He was torn. He should leave the scene of the crime, but the box on the ship kept him tied there. There was nothing he could do but wait and plot a new way to climb on board. For the first time since the ship sailed in, he realized how tired he was. He hadn’t slept in two days.
     Ernest watched the fat drops drip down his hood and form a pattern, like the rhythm of the drums he had heard the night before, when Gus was alive and everything seemed different. He closed his eyes and listened. Soon, he was asleep.

***

Ernest awoke before dawn. The first thing he did, even before checking if the body had surfaced, was scout the freighter. The box was still there. What’s more, hanging from its side was a rope just like the one he’d used to tie Gus. It couldn’t be the same one, but it called for him to climb.
     Ernest unhitched the dinghy, pulled out the oars and began rowing toward the ship. It looked even bigger the closer he got. The brown prow was so rusted it was a miracle it could stay afloat, and its gray side looked like a sky just before it rained.
     Not bothering to dock, Ernest grabbed the rope from the dinghy and began to climb, using his legs to push off the side. When he reached the top, the sun was rising. He scoped the deck, but it was empty except the box sitting in the center.
     As he approached, he saw the box was actually a crate, and it was smaller than it seemed across the river. He expected it to be sealed or at least padlocked, but when he reached the front, he was surprised to find that it had been left open.
     Ernest couldn’t believe he was really there, how far he’d come from skid row. Gus was gone, he was a free man now, free, and probably incredibly, unbelievably goddamned wealthy. He found it hard to stay calm. Ernest reached for the edge, closed his eyes, made a final wish and flung the crate open. Slowly, he opened his eyes and he felt faint, as if about to drop through the deck and just keep on falling.
     It was empty. Ernest felt that he was being watched, from the passing boat and the plane overhead and the dark figure across the river. He dropped to his knees and crawled into the crate. At any moment, the sailor stiffs would call for him with their guns.
     All day Ernest crouched in that darkness, sweating from the heat, listening for the footsteps. Only they didn’t come.

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Jorge Casuso recently lived on the Miami River. He is currently staying by the Port of LA. Samples of his work can read at jorgecasuso.com

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“Hobo’s Meditation” by Jimmie Rodgers © ’32 Peer International