Fall 2020, Volume 29

Fiction by Paul Smith

Rio Silin

One of the many things we didn’t understand is why the Empacadora seized our bulldozer. The Empacadora was going out of business. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had pulled its inspectors out of Trujillo, so it could no longer export beef. Its Trujillo plant was now defunct. All it had left was some grazing land for its steers. They owned land near Rio Silín, maybe not exactly where we were excavating for sand and gravel for the aggregate plant, but in close proximity. The boundaries were fuzzy. Some of the land belonged to the Empacadora, some to the municipalidad of Trujillo, some to the departamento of Colón, maybe even some to the tribe of Payas living around Silín, or Muncho Lobo or Calixto Diaz-Sarmiento.  So one way or the other, we were probably trespassing. The area we called Rio Silín was a lowland with a quebrada, not quite a full-fledged jungle, but with enough bugs, scrub and reptiles to make us think it was. Clearing the land now came to a stop while lawyers worked something out to get us back our old cat D-6 with the pony starting motor and its pull-start rope like an Evinrude outboard motor that Kelsey could start but I couldn’t because my hands were not hardened like his. We had already torn up most of what we called ‘Rio Silín’, looking for the gravel Lou Levy said was there, because he’d actually come down here before the bid to see what we could and couldn’t do to produce concrete for the plant across the bay where the new port would be built and had concluded that yes, Rio Silín had aggregate underneath it, and no, he didn’t know if it was on public land or not or even what ‘public land’ meant in Honduras, but he, like all the Chicago Canaanites, and the New Jersey ones, were willing to risk it because it was their nature and after all, why would anyone in Honduras make a squawk when we had come here as low bidder to build a port for their benefit and spend lots of money doing it? Our dozer sat in the weeds behind a padlocked gate.

While work at Rio Silín had come to a standstill, work at Puerto Castilla did not. In that early stage of the project, we were building a worker’s camp for them, and an ex-pat camp for us. The differences were striking. The workers’ camp consisted of wooden huts, un-air-conditioned, that slept six. I don’t know how or what they ate. That was up to them. Our camp was a pre-fab affair, air-conditioned, separate rooms for each of us and a kitchen that churned out hearty meals three times a day and a huge buffet on Sunday., Thursdays were special. Carl served us steak. We chowed down in luxury, worked in the blazing sun, swatted sandflies, took two hour siestas like we were advised to do, and gradually got the equipment going Chicago and New Jersey sent us.

I acquired a ‘go-fer’ named Alex, who attached himself to us early on when we still lived in Trujillo, twelve miles away around the curve of the bay. He spoke pretty good English, had a friendly manner, and was reliable enough to show up every morning for work, unlike most of the other catrachos. He lived somewhere in Trujillo. I guess he hitch-hiked to work every day because he didn’t live in the workers’ camp. He was short in stature, with a wide face, a quick smile, and an acceptance of just about everything we did, an acceptance that occasionally fractured into a puzzling look of bewilderment.

“Why don’t you get a surveyor to find out where the Empacadora’s land is over at Rio Silín?” he would ask. “Then stay off of it and keep digging for the concrete sand?”

I had no answer. Maybe someone in Chicago did.

“Why does the backhoe from Chicago not dig deep enough for the wharf?” he asked later on, watching the Koehring 1266 dredge where the pier went, getting close, but not quite the full nine meter depth required by the plans. I knew the answer to that one, though I was not in the meeting In Ezra’s office behind the oak door that closed silently behind Ezra, Lou Levy, Gino, Al Goldfarb and Hugh Wells, the meeting Gino came out of looking glum and shaking his head and making vague, impenetrable observations about the nature of marine vessels and the complicity of human nature. It went like this as I later found out: Ezra simply said that the 1266 backhoe should be made to dredge deep enough and that is why he’d hired Gino years ago as general superintendent. Gino was no longer general superintendent. Hugh was now, but Gino bore the burden of Ezra’s decision because he shared an office with Lou Levy and me, and Lou Levy and him and I worked on the bid.

Alex had many other questions for us, most of which we couldn’t answer. When the Koehring 1266 finished all the dredging it could do and another rig had to follow it to dredge the last remaining meter of material, it was me the field engineer they picked to check the depth for the Manitowoc 3900 on the New Jersey carfloat, and I picked Alex as my deckhand. The New Jersey carfloat had its own backstory. It was a barge long as a football field and yes, it had been built to transport cars across water. It had eight feet of freeboard, which meant its deck sat eight feet above sea level, a thing none of the folks in Ezra’s meeting were aware of, but when the New Jersey Canaanite partners sent us the carfloat, we shrugged and put it to use. I had a tall, dark Caribe named Melvin as the crane operator, no oiler of course, and another operator to run an end loader on the car float to push the dredged material off the end of the car float into the deeper water. The Manitowoc dug deeper because it didn’t have a fixed boom: it had a clamshell on cables.

“Is the water deep enough where we are pushing the muck?” Alex asked me one day. The pier was to be about two hundred meters long. We’d only been digging two or three days when he asked me this innocuous question. But it was a good question. If we were shoving the stuff off the end of the carfloat into water that was too shallow, it would have to be removed a second time so boats could get up to the pier once it got built. A good question. I got in the skiff with Alex and my lead line and ‘sounded’ the area we were pushing the dirt into. My lead line showed it to be deep enough. I commended Alex.

The following day a boat arrived from Florida. It had barrels of bitumen, hundreds of barrels. There was no way to unload all these barrels, except for me and Melvin and the Manitowoc crane. Then a storm came up. The Bay of Trujillo, normally calm, got choppy. Our tug moved into position along the freighter, which anchored in the deeper water. We watched the clouds thicken and the sky frown, the palm fronds along the road to Trujillo bend like they were weeping. The bitumen barrels, which were intended for the asphalt pavement a year from now, were unloaded one by one, around the clock. It took two days. We later found out that the reason for our nonstop work was a thing called demurrage, wherein the Company would be charged extra if the freighter was not unloaded in a timely fashion. As for the bitumen, we found out that it was sent here twelve months early because the Company would get paid for ‘stored materials on site’, through a shrewd maneuver by Ezra and his college trained sons, who had gotten a tremendous deal on the bitumen from a broker in New Jersey. Alex assisted in the off-loading, both of us shouting orders at the crews, one on the freighter to load the barrels, one on the carfloat, and another on shore to stack them up in our yard. He was too busy to ask questions, but when all the barrels were neatly stacked beside our campamento, he turned to me with that quizzical look of his. At this point in time I did not know about the ‘demurrage’ or the financial advantage of ‘stored materials’ on site, so I just held up a hand to hold off his queries. Another question arose, this one from me.

Along with the barrels of bitumen there was a new excavating bucket for the Manitowoc crane. It was painted green. It was huge, a heavy-duty bucket, the likes of which I hadn’t seen for some time. My question was ‘what was it doing here?’ It had big teeth, hard-faced to dig rock. The answer was that it held four cubic yards instead of the two cubic yard bucket we’d been using. Melvin and Alex and I hooked it up one morning as the tropical sun used us for its anvil, pounding away till we were beat. We nodded and put it to work. Melvin lowered it into the bay and tightened on the closing line, the cable that made the bucket close. He pulled it up half-full, emptied it and tried again. Again, it was half-full. We were puzzled.

It was Melvin who spoke. “It’s two-parted. Look at the sheaves. We need to four-part it.” We stood on the deck of the carfloat staring at the clamshell bucket that was taller than us. To me, it appeared that this new bucket was the brainchild of one of Ezra’s sons, neither of whom had worked outside on a job like this but who had probably used a calculator and figured that a four yard bucket would dredge twice as fast as a two yard bucket. I looked at the sheaves like Melvin suggested. The sheave was like a big pulley apparatus. The cable that closed the bucket went through two sheaves. But there were two more the cable could run through to make it close tighter as a four-part line. Then it would dig with more bite. I nodded to Melvin, and we started changing how the bucket was reaved. Things did not work out. The bucket now required much more cable and would not even close when we tried to dredge nine meters deep. We got another length of cable from the shop and dragged it across the beach, getting a loader to pull it. By then it was late. We were bushed. Melvin retired to the workers’ camp, that collection of multi-colored six man residences that got the name Sandfly Village. Alex went home to Trujillo. It was Thursday. I had a steak dinner.

The next day started out like any Friday, with a plague of sandflies going in our eyes, noses and ears till the sun got far enough above the horizon to make them go away, probably because they didn’t like the heat. We stretched out the cable, put it on one of the Manitowoc’s three drums and the pushed it through the bucket’s four sheaves and tried it out.

Success! Now we had a digging tool. Melvin reached down into the muck and pulled up a full bucket, then another, and another. The bean counters in Chicago would have been proud of us. We were making money. The bean counters weren’t all bad. Lou Levy, for all his field experience, was sort of a bean counter now, although it was not him who saw to it we got this contract. It was probably Ezra or Al Goldfarb who came up with the idea to ‘qualify’ our bid. So when we sent in our proposal to the World Bank, we added a clarification in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars. It was left hanging whether this sum was an add or deduct to the base bid, so that when the bids were opened and we saw the Dutch dredgermen were fifty thousand below us, it suddenly became a deduct and the World Bank wanted to talk to us and yes we got the low bid.

Goldfarb explained it best. “The Dutch want to make a modest profit based on the risk. We want to make a killing.”

This is what Canaanite bean counters do. They don’t just count beans, they say whether the beans are counted or subtracted. So I was thinking we had pretty shrewd bean counters back there in Chicago.

Then we got another surprise. The cable snapped. The closing line cable, as well as the holding line were both three-quarter inch cables. This full four yard bucket full of saturated sand was too much for either of them. We needed seven-eighth inch cable. This was even more work than before. Back to the shop we went, got two spools of seven eighths cable and re-did two of the three drums on the Manitowoc, hooked everything up and tried it out. The bucket dug deep, sinking its teeth in the bay and coming up so full that the crane tap-danced on the barge, nearly tipping over due to the bucket’s weight. I pitched forward on the deck as the hull listed, nearly losing my balance. I guessed that the carfloat was leaking, but it hadn’t sunk yet. The crane didn’t go over because Melvin knew enough to rest the bucket on the deck long enough till he figured he’d get the hang of using a clamshell this big. Then he sat back in his seat, let his shoulders slouch a minute while he thought, then picked it up a second time and emptied it for the end loader to take to the end of the carfloat and dump in the sea.

Alex turned to me. “We’re lucky we have Melvin,” he said.

When we finished our dredging work we got word the lawyers had resolved the situation at Rio Silín. I was picked to go with Kelsey and retrieve the bulldozer the Empacadora had confiscated. I took Alex along, for good luck. We took my Toyota Landcruiser on the long, bumpy road around the bay going from our camp, past Sandfly Village, Cocolito, Laguna Guaimoreto, the cluster of three overgrown buildings known as Jerichó, till we came to the turnoff to Rio Silín. We veered to the left, and in a few minutes we were at the small fence with padlock the Empacadora had put on it to keep our Caterpillar dozer prisoner. I was the one with the bolt-cutters, so I cut the lock in two and instructed Kelsey to fire up the dozer. I even brought starter fluid in case the pony motor wouldn’t turn over.

“No need for that,” Kelsey told me. With one pull from his sturdy, calloused, dark-skinned hand the pony motor started and that got the engine going. Black smoke poured out of the stack. We were in business. Kelsey nodded towards the river, maybe one hundred yards away, signaling he was ready to gouge into the riverbank once again and stack up gravel, cobbles and sand for the aggregate plant we had yet to assemble. I nodded back, thinking it was a good day to get back on track to produce aggregate and then concrete for Puerto Castilla.

But then, like other times before this one, something interposed. Something was always getting between us and what we wanted, whether it was an unusually large clamshell bucket, demurrage, a thousand barrels of bitumen, a cable too short, a backhoe that couldn’t dig deep enough, there was always something.

Today it was a family of Paya Indians, standing between us and the river. I recognized them. There were six of them. They lived in the huts beside Rio Silín before we came here. Their children had given me coconuts to drink from each morning I used to come here when I started clearing the area with Kelsey. I would give them a lempira for each coconut. Back then that was fifty cents. I looked at their faces. They were not stern or intimidating, more like inquisitive, imploring. But the bodies did not move. I went forward.

“Que de bueno?” I began.

The elderly man smiled. He remembered me. I remembered him—Oswaldo. He spoke a long connected sentence in a reasonable tone, a marvelous freight train of words coupled one to another like they had been assembled in a freight yard somewhere and were meant to deliver an important message far away. And I, I who could order beer in my broken Spanish or maybe Flor de Caña and coke at the Hotel Centrál for myself and my buddies, stood there speechless, hoping for some miracle of translation to transform my mute tongue.

Alex tapped my shoulder.

“Yes, Alex,” I said.

“He says they used to fish here.”


“There are no more fish.”


“And all the trees around here have been taken down.” His chin rose slightly in the direction of a pile of palm trees Kelsey had demolished in the area we’d planned for the aggregate plant. There were no more trees.

“Is this their land or the Empacadora’s?”

Alex shrugged.

As the morning heat rose to that intensity where the brain does not think well and simply wants a decision one way or the other regarding difficult questions, I stopped thinking but also decided that anything I might say to these people I had considered friends could be wrong, and so I held my tongue. The Paya Indians wanted something. In their Honduran wisdom they knew they could not articulate it but could look to me to say what it was they wanted because, of course, I was smarter than them, had come thousands of miles here to build something on their land, and if I truly was a smart as I’d hoped to project, than I could reasonably be expected to offer them something in recompense for having despoiled their world, reducing it to what looked like a landfill, for having obliterated what they thought would be the home and refuge for their children and their children’s children. That thought kept my mouth still as I kept waiting for the deliverance of some words that would make me look intelligent.

Alex tapped my shoulder. “Have you seen their houses?”

I looked at him. “Houses?” I had seen their huts from far-off, not close-up.

“Their houses are very poor.” Alex spoke to the man, and we started walking. There were two huts near where the old bank of Rio Silín once lay. They were crudely constructed with planks that did not shut out the sunshine, the wind, the rain. There was no furniture, a smudge on the floor where they cooked, no closets for clothes because they wore what they had. Each house had its own pail. We stood in silence except for a buzz that I traced to insects circling the hut’s entrance.

“These are poor houses, Alex.”

“You know the houses in Sand Fly? Compared to this, those are mansions.”

‘Sand Fly,’ I thought, our tract of twenty four cabins laid out in a grid, painted in gaudy colors to make them look different, cabins that held six workers each, hammocks hung from the walls, no air conditioning, but sided with lumber from a mill and then lined with tar paper so nothing blew or flew in. Each house in Sand Fly had a table and chairs so that when you ate, you didn’t sit on the floor. A house like that, as Alex suggested, would be like a palace.

“Alex,” I said. “We should show them the Sand Fly houses.” Alex nodded gravely.

Since the Toyota only held six at most, we only took Oswaldo and his wife with us back around the bay, past Cocolito to Sand Fly. It was mid-morning, with the men still at work. The houses were empty. Further up the road was the work site, and adjacent to that was the camp for us Americans. You could see it from Sand Fly. I had not been in one of the worker houses since we built them several months ago, and I did not know the sanitary habits of our workers, though I had my suspicions. I picked one house painted an awful aqua-turquoise and swung open the door. A terrible smell awaited us. It was probably rice and beans plus the fumes that persist after their consumption. It was all there – hammocks, furniture, walls that shut out the elements. I watched Oswaldo’s face. His head swiveled from one wall to the next and he slowly nodded. The odors had no effect on him.

“He likes it,” Alex said. “I think we can arrange something.”

“Yes?” I said.

The man spoke again.

Alex looked at me hesitatingly. “He says you live here too?”

“Tell him yes,” I said. What harm was there in that?

Alex said nothing. Our camp was half a mile from here. The Paya seemed ready to reach an agreement with us. What better agreement than to accept the ruin of his realm, his livelihood, the future of his children if, in his pact with the strangers, he could get to live like them, eat and sleep in the same luxury they do, get the same shelter from the brutal sun that had made their own skins as dark as lunch bags? His family would be so proud. Now they would live not as Indians, but as tourists. Alex hesitated.

“Yes, Alex.”

“Mister,” he began. “Can you do something for me?”

And so it came to be that one of our crews went to Rio Silín driving a furgón loaded with milled lumber and tar paper and, in a site dozed flat by Kelsey and his D-6, erected a house of the Sand Fly school of architecture, painted flamingo red/pink, the preferred color of the Paya clan and helped them move in the next afternoon. On the following day Kelsey put his dozer to work ripping up the banks of Rio Silín for the aggregate that would make the concrete for Puerto Castilla’s new pier by means of the aggregate plant that would go up near the flamingo pink house and the concrete plant that would go up a stone’s throw from Sand Fly village.

Let us not speak of future calamities like the new pile driving rig whose boom collapsed when the unqualified operator tightened the cable too tight on the fixed pile-driving leads or the Manitowoc that went to the bottom of the bay because it was too big for the leaky barge it sat on driving one hundred foot concrete piles, or the contract taken away from the Canaanites from Chicago or the Puerto Castilla pier that wound up being built by the Dutch two years late. The leaky barge the piledriver sat on was the carfloat! The piledriver was supposed to sit on another barge that came from Tampa, one we supposed did not leak. But the Tampa barge somehow wound up in customs at Puerto Cortes for reasons unknown. It arrived a month after the sinking. Let us not speak of the Company’s liquidation after nearly one hundred years pursuing work they actually understood in the sheltered waterways of the midwestern United States. Let us not speak of the Empacadora, who seized our bulldozer because it was a Canaanite dozer and therefore subject to negotiations with Canaanites, who often settle cases when they are far from Canaan and not as smart as they think they are. Let us speak of Alex Figueroa, my faithful assistant, going back and forth to work from Trujillo in my Toyota Landcruiser for six happy months until the World Bank showed up with their lawyers and engineers and bean counters and their time-tested equipment and finished Puerto Castilla and returned to the Netherlands with a modest profit.




BIO: Paul Smith is a civil engineer who has worked in the construction racket for many years. He has traveled all over the place and met lots of people. Some have enriched his life. Others made him wish he or they were all dead. He likes writing poetry and fiction. He also likes Newcastle Brown Ale. If you see him, buy him one. His poetry and fiction have been published in Convergence, Missouri Review, Literary Orphans and other lit mags.