GENNARO

Strolling along the oceanfront path in Playa del Coco, my wife, Katie, and I were anticipating a typically dazzling sunset to top off another day on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.  We were enjoying a ten-day visit to the Central American country where we once owned a second home.  Our vacation was almost over, so we were looking for a nice spot for one last seafood dinner.

“Hey, check us out,” said a friendly-looking, fortyish waiter indicating a chalk-board in front of one of the beachfront restaurants.  “We’ve got especiales tonight.”

“Thanks,” we said.  “Mas tarde (a little later).”   Something about the man struck me as familiar but I could not place him.  After we reached the end of the walkway and turned around, we decided to try his restaurant.  He emerged with a broad smile upon our approach.

“You know me,” he said.

“I think I do,” I said, “but how?”

“Catching fish?” he said.

I searched my memory bank to withdraw all my previous fishing-related experiences.  There were only two:  the time I caught pneumonia at the Jersey Shore and the time my son and I thought we were going sight-seeing in Costa Rica.

“Gennaro?” I said.

“Si, senor!” he said, joining me in an enthusiastic embrace.

When I first met Gennaro, ten years earlier, he was known as an “operator” around Playa Hermosa, the neighboring town.  He helped to manage two local hotels, a taxi service, and affairs with at least two local women.  He was always dressed in a ragged tee-shirt, bathing suit and flip-flops.  His head was covered with black curly hair that cascaded to his shoulders; sunglasses dangled from a string around his neck.  His English was nearly fluent spliced with occasional Spanglish.

When Gennaro encountered an American, Canadian or European around town, he did not discriminate.  “Hey, Gringo,” he would say, “can I get something for you?  A room?  A ride?  A senorita?”  He would wink.

Gennaro usually resided at the Cabinas Motel with Maria, a tica, as Costa Rican women are known.  She cleaned the motel’s rooms and was also available to clean private homes between renters.  According to Gennaro, Maria was insanely jealous of other women.  “That makes my life exciting,” he would proclaim, pointing proudly to several scratches on his cheek.  Maria was a beautiful girl, with deep brown eyes amidst a coffee complexion.  A thick, braided ponytail reached down her back.  Though thin, Maria was physically well-endowed.  “I can hold the national monuments of Costa Rica in my very hands,” Gennaro declared more than once, lasciviously.

Gennaro also assisted at La Hotel Montreal, an establishment owned by Louise, a middle-aged French-Canadian.  Louise controlled numerous investment properties around town.  She did not care whom Gennaro slept with when he was not favoring her with an impromptu visit, so long as her guests were picked up or dropped off at the airport when scheduled, and the air conditioners functioned more often than not.

One morning, when I was visiting Playa Hermosa with Sam, who was then twelve, I encountered Gennaro on the street after breakfast.  He knew by then that I was not a candidate for his usual product line, so he just gave a casual wave, but I stopped to ask if he’d recommend someone to take us out on a boat.

“I can take you,” he said.

“I didn’t know you had a boat,” I said.

“Absolutamente,” he said.  “I have a boat and fishing equipment, and I know where all the fish are.”

I had not even thought about fishing.  I just wanted Sam to experience the water and for us both to see the coastline and the mountains.  “Qaunta questa?” I asked (How much will it cost?).

“Twenty dollars,” he said.

“Per hour?” I asked.

“No, for the whole morning, if necessary, as long as it takes to find tuna,” he answered.

I was reminded why I liked Costa Rica so much.  But then, thinking how I’d once become queasy on the Circle Line tourist ride around Manhattan, it occurred to me to ask:  “How big a boat is it?”

“Big enough,” said Gennaro.  “Meet me on the beach as soon as you are ready.”

Thirty minutes later, with Sam in tow and Dramamine in stomach, I arrived to see Gennaro wrestling a motor onto the back of a small skiff bobbing in the surf.  Maria was assisting him in the role of first mate.  He smiled at us and brandished several flimsy, wooden sticks with straightened metal hangers attached to the ends.

“Are those supposed to be fishing rods?” whispered Sam to me.

“I think so,” I said, skeptical.

“Come aboard,” said Gennaro, holding steady as possible the fifteen foot boat, a battered aluminum tub with peeling blue paint.  Maria, who did not speak English, smiled shyly.

“Can we really catch fish with those?” I asked, indicating the sticks.

“You will be surprised,” he said.

Once underway, we headed across the bay that extends from Hermosa Beach towards the then newly completed Four Season’s Resort on the Papagayo Peninsula.  The sun shone and the surf was calm.  Brilliant blue sky extended to the open ocean and reflected off the glistening water.  We could see mountain ranges to the north extending, Gennaro said, as far as Nicaragua.  To the south, the coast also appeared mountainous and luminously green.

Gennaro pointed out birds to Sam and explained that he had a son almost the same age.  “He lives in San Jose,” he said, matter-of-factly, “with his mother’s family.  I saw him a couple years ago.”  I thought I detected a flash of sadness in his always-sunny expression.  I could not imagine having such a distant relationship with one of my children.  My reverie was broken when a school of dolphins leapt out of the water in the distance and we all reveled in the breathtaking beauty.

Pleased that my stomach was holding up, I was still relieved when Gennaro declared:  “This is the spot.”

It looked like every other spot to me, but he immediately busied himself with attaching hooks to the end of the hanger wires and placing bait fish on the hooks.  “Do you want to try?” he asked us.

“I’ll let Sam do it,” I said, not desiring one iota to touch the bait, and still skeptical that a stick with a hook could catch a fish in the ocean.

Sam eagerly held a “rod” out over the side of the boat, as did Maria.  I sat back and listened to Gennaro tell tales.  The first described when he played for the national soccer team; next, he told about the cargo ship he had captained; finally, he told about the coffee plantation he had once owned.  I had the sense he had told all of these stories many times before.  My “full of baloney” alarm was screaming, but appreciation for his boat ride prevented me from asking questions; I just nodded and smiled when I thought it was appropriate and hoped he would eventually subside so we could enjoy the splendid scenery in silence.

Suddenly, Sam shouted:  “I’ve got one!”

He strained to hold on to his stick.  Gennaro leapt to his side and, together, they wrestled the struggling catch into the boat.

“It’s a tuna, a black fin!” shouted Gennaro.  To me, it just looked like twenty thick inches of shiny muscle.  While Sam and I watched, he disengaged the fish from the hook and subdued it.  I cannot describe exactly how, since I deemed it wise to look away by then, but after another moment, the fish was packed in a cooler with ice and Maria was sloshing water on the floor of the boat to clean up the resulting blood.

Sam was proud and amazed.  “I caught a fish! I caught it!.”

“Way to go,” I said.

Gennaro patted him on the back and motioned “thumbs up” to me.  He baited Sam’s “fishing rod” again.  Sam caught four more tuna in the next hour and was glowing with excitement when we headed back to the beach.  Once there, I insisted, over his determined refusals, that Gennaro and Maria take all but one of the fish.

“We’re only here for two more days,” I said.  “We can’t eat that much.”

Finally, he relented, on the condition Maria would prepare our fish for us.  Served with rice and beans she also prepared at their motel’s kitchen, it turned out to be an amazing meal.  Even Sam, not a seafood eater at that age, loved it.  When we said “adios” to Gennaro, we did not think we would encounter him again.  But we fondly recalled the improbably successful fishing expedition many times in the ensuing decade.

I regarded the now-short-haired man standing before me, wearing a white shirt, pants, and shoes.   His face was tanned but creased with wrinkles.  Grey surrounded his temples:  “How have you been?  How’s Maria?” I asked.

“Maria, Maria” he said, with a wistful expression.  “Oh, she got sick.  She lives in Puntarenas with her mother now.  It’s a four-hour bus ride,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It happens,” he said.  Brightening, he added, “My son’s got a job.  He works as a security guard in San Jose.  I hear from him once in a while.”

“That’s great,” I said.

“How’s your son?  Was it Sam?” he asked.

“You have a great memory,” I said.  “He’s fine.  He’s still in school,” I said, not wanting to boast that he is working towards a PhD.

“Louise went back to Canada a couple years ago.  The economy….” Gennaro tailed off.  “I had to give up my boat,” he added.  “Now I work at this restaurant.  But, hey, pura vida,” he concluded, using the Costa Rican expression used to express every aspect of life: its joy, its beauty, its pain.

I felt sad to see Gennaro in his diminished circumstances, no longer the “operator” in Playa Hermosa, but a humble server.  The restaurant was not busy that evening and Gennaro circled back to our table several times.  A soccer game was playing on the television behind the bar and Gennaro noticed me glance at it.

“Did I ever tell you about when I was on the national team?” Gennaro asked.

Katie looked at him with interest, and he launched into a detailed story about a match he allegedly played against Argentina, full of fanciful details.  I did not listen to every word, but let his voice wash over me as I contemplated the passage of time and how much kinder it is to some people than to others.   Hearing the enthusiasm in his voice, it occurred to me, thanks to its repetition over a period of decades, Gennaro experienced his imaginary past as a soccer star, a ship’s captain and a coffee tycoon, as truthful.

Upon reflection, taking into account all the circumstances, I question how important it is for someone like Gennaro to be exactly truthful.   If it were necessary for him to rationalize, he probably would point out something like the following:  he played soccer in his youth; he worked on a fishing boat one summer; and, he once applied for a job at a coffee processing plant.  The rest is just a matter of degree.

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