In honor of Fiesta I am posting a selection from my novel Depraved Heart. Art curator Tempest Hobbs has been hired by convicted killer and former NFL star Syd Jupiter to catalog the art collection his daughter has inherited from her great-grandfather. Tempest knows about Syd's past but is still mesmerized by him. During Gloucester's annual Fiesta they are watching the Greasy Pole competition when things heat up between them.
He slowed the boat as we passed the point of land known in Gloucester as The Fort, where stacks of wire lobster traps were piled like a wall of green and yellow building blocks above the sea wall. As we passed a big white building with the words Cape Pond Ice painted on it, I could see the top of an illuminated Ferris wheel rotating slowly in the summer sunlight. Red, green and gold tinsel decorations strung between telephone poles glittered and the air was filled with singing and loud male voices chanting the Fiesta mantra.
“Me chi samiou duté muté?”
“Viva San Pietro!”
“You and Dad should come to the carnival. Have you ever been to Fiesta?” Anjelica asked.
“Lots of times years ago,” I told her. “When I was a little kid my parents always took me to the carnival, and when I was in high school my friends came every year. But I’ve never watched the Greasy Pole walk before. It’s kind of famous now.”
Syd was guiding the boat up to a float at St. Peter’s Marina. Two girls stood at the top of the ramp, and when they saw Anjelica, they began waving.
“Do you need money?” Syd asked as Anjelica’s friends came running down the ramp.
“No, I have enough left from yesterday.”
“Okay, call me when you want me to come and I’ll meet you right here,” Syd said putting his arms around her.
“I will. Love you, Dad,” she said and gave him an enthusiastic hug. He lifted her over the side onto the float. “Have fun,” she yelled to me.
“Wow.” I heard one of her friends say as they ran back up the ramp. “Your Dad is really big.”
“He used to play professional football,” Anjelica said. With no small amount of pride, I thought.
“Okay,” Syd said steering the boat back out into the harbor. “Let’s find a place for us.”
He guided the boat into a space close enough to see the fun but far enough away to be comfortable. We unpacked bottles of water and some of the still-warm hush puppies and settled down in the sunlight to watch.
Two hundred yards from the shore a wooden platform rose twenty-five feet in the air. What looked like a telephone pole was mounted at the top sticking straight parallel to the water. At the end of it was a vertical stick festooned with an American flag fluttering above three triangular flags in red, white and green, the colors of the Italian flag. The forty foot pole between the flags and the men crowding the platform was covered half a foot deep in a slimy, slippery concoction.
A police boat hovered below the end of the pole to keep the hundreds of boaters around the area at a safe distance. The entire harbor was packed with everything from large whale watching vessels to solitary sailors in brightly colored kayaks. All of them honking horns, screaming and cheering as each contestant waited for his turn to traverse the distance from the platform to the flag through greasy muck that fell off in clumps as the men ran, walked, slid or slithered along the pole. Most of them were dressed in flamboyant costumes from hula skirts to diapers, which was made all the more hilarious by the fact that the participants tended to be burly men with hairy chests and beards. The object of the walk through the slime was to capture the flags at the end of the pole but, despite an endless variety of techniques, they all ended up in the water, often bouncing off the pole to a chorus of “ouch!” from the crowd.
“I’m trying to figure out if it would be better to go fast or slow,” Syd said as he unscrewed the lid on a water bottle and handed it to me. “I’ve seen guys try both methods but it’s hard to say which is better.”
“Would you ever do that?”
He laughed. “Not a chance.”
“Not even when you were younger?”
“I don’t think so. My center of gravity is too high, I think being built low to the ground would be an advantage in that sport.” He leaned back in his seat and stretched his legs. He wore a pair of battered leather moccasins and his legs were well-tanned and muscular. I caught my breath.
“Did you always want to play football? I mean when you were a little kid.”
“Oh, sure, of course I did. What kid doesn’t? I also wanted to be a priest.”
I couldn’t help laughing. “Really? A priest?”
“Well, I was an altar boy at the time at St. Louis Cathedral, and I was so in love with that church I wanted any excuse to be there all the time. Plus...” He looked sideways at me. “...I thought it would be a lot of fun to hear Confessions. I kept imagining all the terrible things I’d hear.”
I giggled. “That’s very funny.”
“Yeah, well, I was a little kid. Then for a long time I wanted to be a fisherman like my Dad. He was a good athlete when he was young. He played baseball on a minor league team but never made the majors. I think that was tough on him. He got to see me play football at A&M but he died before I was drafted into the NFL. I’ve always been sorry about that.”
Loud cheering erupted from the crowd. We both looked up but the flags still fluttered at the end of the pole. Whatever happened, we missed it. I turned back to Syd and saw that he was looking at me, not at the festivities on the platform.
“Do you mind it if I tell you that I think you’re very pretty?” he said in a low voice.
“No.” I looked down at his hands holding the water bottle in his lap. I had admired the size of his hands before but now I noticed how brown and calloused they were. Between Miles’ boat and the gardens around Hathor he had been working hard and his hands showed it.
He kept his eyes on me. “You’re pretty but you also have a lot of warmth. That’s something that I’ve found to be surprisingly rare in young women.”
“Well,” I said, “I guess you haven’t been around too many women lately.”
He gave a short laugh. “Good point.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound dismissive.”
“You didn’t. You sounded like someone who has a hard time accepting compliments.”
I nodded. “That’s... well... yes, that’s true.”
“I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“You’re not... well... no more than I ever am.” I looked up at him and wished he wasn’t wearing the sunglasses. I wanted to see his eyes. “I haven’t had very good luck with men in my life.”
I shrugged. “It’s this crazy way I am with people. The way I sense what they’re thinking...”
He smiled. “A woman wouldn’t have to be psychic to know what I’m thinking right now.”
“No...” Another roar went up from the crowd and I turned in time to see a young man in aBatman costume crashing into the water clutching his groin.
“Ouch,” Syd said. “That had to hurt.”
“He fell straight down straddling the pole. It looked really painful.”
“Oh.” I glanced down at his hands again and, as though he knew my thoughts, he lifted one and touched a strand of my hair letting it curl around his finger tip. “So, were you surprised when you got drafted by a football team? That’s the word, isn’t it, drafted?”
He nodded, smiling. “Yes and no. Sure I was as surprised as anyone would be, but there was a part of me that sort of knew it was destined to happen. I’d always wanted to be a Steeler.”
His body was almost unbearably close. I found myself straining forward almost against my own will, just wanting to connect. “Not the Saints? You didn’t want to be drafted by the Saints?”
He was watching me and smiling slightly. “No, I wanted to be a Steeler... Actually,” he said. He put his water bottle aside and moved his other hand to pick up one of mine. He held it, caressing the back of it with his thumb. “Actually, what I wanted to be was Franco Harris.”
I looked up at him. Chills were running up and down my back and I was having a hard time staying still. “I don’t know who that is.”
“He was their fullback, great big guy. Really, really powerful and really, really fast but so graceful. When he had the ball it was amazing to see how a guy that big could weave in and out without getting knocked down. But the thing I secretly loved most about him was he was mixed race, African-American and Italian.” He was lacing his fingers through mine and I was shivering.
“He was mixed race...”
“Mm-hmm. Back then there was a lot of racism in this country. I was lucky to grow up in New Orleans where being mixed wasn’t that big a deal, but when I was in Texas with my Dad I was always aware that I was different. So I wanted to be like Franco, a big, tough, good-looking, mixed-race football player.” He grinned. “At least I got to be big, mixed-race, and a football player.”
“I think you’re pretty tough. How would you have gotten through everything you have if you weren’t?” I lifted my head and tried to see through his sunglasses. “And I also think you’re good-looking.”
He cupped my chin in his hand. “It doesn’t bother you that I’ve been in prison for fifteen years?”
“It bothers me but not in the way you think. It bothers me that you had to go through that.”
Another huge cry arose from the crowd, boat horns began to blow. The cheering was deafening. I turned to look and the flags at the end of the pole were gone.
“Somebody won,” I said.
“And we missed it.”
He slipped one arm around my waist and lifted me closer to him..... Depraved Heart