Peter Vilbig


Peter Vilbig is a writer and teacher in Brooklyn, New York. His most recent story, “Receptacle,” can be read in fall issue of the Saranac Review. His short fiction has appeared in Drunken Boat, Fleeting, Horizon Review, The Ledge Poetry and Fiction Magazine, The Linnet’s Wings, and Tin House, among other publications. His story, “Frida,” for Fleeting magazine, was nominated for the 2012 Best of the Net Anthology. He posts commentary and links to his stories at


The boat was carrying buckets, several thousand of them, in the hold, by way of Panama—we had made the canal without incident, and were now en plein Caribe as the tender, a Frenchman from Algeria, liked to say. The boat wasn’t big, ninety feet from stem to stern, an old chugger with a busted diesel belching black smoke in great spiraling tourbillons that the vast Caribbean sky swallowed in gulps. I would go down into the hold nights—as second mate I had free run and to tell the truth there wasn’t much to do on that old iron-bellied porringer. Of course the buckets weren’t just lying around down there—they were in boxes, stacked three high, and I would stare at them, and then crawl back up the old rusted ladder and stand on the deck as the moonlight flooded our pale churned up wake. The lights in the wheelhouse were on, and I could see the captain up there in silhouette. A strange man. Rumor had it that he was sick with heartache, knowing that his wife, whom he loved with a cruel and tender constancy, drowned her days when he took to sea in the sweat-soaked sheets of her lover, the dark-jowled priest of the Cujo de Paboro parish.

One night as I returned to my quarters I saw the captain stagger as he came down the number four probably to piss in the head on the fo’c’sle deck. I thought I might ask him what kind of buckets we were carrying, a point of curiosity I had been harboring since I first heard about our cargo. The sea was flat as a tabletop, and not a breath of wind stirring. Perhaps he had been drinking, but I think it more likely that the gyroscope within us that registers the sea thrusts and swells of love had cambered out of all synch within him. He passed by me as though I were a ghost, or he were a ghost. I later asked the engineer. He was from the DR where he dreamed of baseball as a kid, and now tuned into Venezuela league games broadcast from the station on San Andrés. He was up to his shoulders in grease that night, an ingenious demigod of the machine. Nothing less would’ve kept the fire burning in that old diesel. “What kind of buckets?” he said, clearly puzzled.

“Yeah,” I said. “I mean what are they made of? How big are they?”

He stood for a moment just staring at me, and for an instant I thought he was going to clap me on the back with one of his greasy hands, as though I had just told him the funniest joke in the world. “I heard,” he said finally, after some consideration, “they’re mop buckets. Made of bamboo. For the upscale market in Miami. Those rich shits want a bamboo mop bucket.” I could see he really wasn’t sure.

I went to the head after that, and as I pissed looked down at my penis and thought: why have you gotten me into so much trouble over the years? But I refuse to drag that sordid history out of the duffle where I’d stowed it before this trip, or to speak of Los Hoques, the little port town on the Ecuadoran coast, nor of the harbor, which is very narrow, nor of how, when the tide comes in, the water crashes against the pilings and lifts the green sea moss which floats for a moment like hair. That green moss rising in the swell is how I feel about love. I went and asked the cook who was smoking out by the fantail. He was a big gullible guy with a big red beard. “That’s bullshit,” he said. “They’re plastic buckets. Cheap ones from China but they’re being routed through a trade zone—some tax bullshit. It’s for Walmart. The poorest of the poor. They’ll crack in six months, outside.” He flicked his cigarette and we watched it’s high arc, then caught by the wind, and its drift down, landing finally like a butterfly in the foaming wake.

There wasn’t an endless range of opinions. There were only seven of us on board, and several of them could have cared less. They’re just buckets, they would say, and then they’d eye me suspiciously, which worried me. I started to think: maybe it’s not buckets at all. What if it’s contraband? The most natural thought in the world. And then I had trouble sleeping at night, because I started worrying we’d be boarded by pirates, with whom these waters were swarming, and I started to have regrets about the life I’d led, and then I’d think, no, I won’t recollect, now or never, about Los Hoques, or the sea wall, or the cliffs high over the town, or about what would happen if you rode a motorbike up there and how it would even be possible to make love on a motorbike in the little pullover that gives the view of the whole Pacific below like some vast volcano spouting plumes of darkness, making love with the urgency of those who know their love is doomed, doomed for them, and maybe for everyone.

And then I would think you aren’t afraid of pirates. And then I would think: yes you are. And then I would begin to list all the people who would be happy to learn of my death (quite a number) and the many more who would be indifferent to the point of not even bothering to go to the trouble of saying a kind word, and the many others who would say a kind word but who would actually be indifferent. And pretty much it coincided with the whole world, or very close to it. (And I refused even to think into what category she would fall.)

We were past San Andrés now. I started taking my meals in my cabin. That part of the voyage when everyone is sick of everyone else had arrived, and the captain’s love sickness was the worst. We would watch him there at the wheel above us, weeping, gesturing, sometimes caterwauling as though in conversation with the flying fish that went skittering out beyond the running lights before our craft, or as though he were communicating his sorrow to angels only he could see in the charcoal cinders of the night sky. I began to conceive that either he knew this to be a death voyage—our rendezvous with pirates inevitable—or he was going to kill us by missing Puerto Rico and getting us lost in the Atlantic or wandering into Guantánamo Bay, thinking it was San Juan. Bang bang. I would sit in my cabin and think about the buckets, and I would will myself to believe there was nothing in that hold but buckets, sencillo. I would have metaphysical thoughts about the emptiness of the buckets in the emptiness of the hold. I would ask myself perhaps not quite jokingly whether an emptiness filled with an emptiness was still an emptiness. I would imagine all the people waiting on the shore for our buckets, not one of them thinking about me or about a girl on a motorscooter who was so beautiful the sky exploded every second around her, or a priest whose vows are turned to shit by the blood torment of unmasterable eros, or even a captain’s wife, like a vestal virgin, presenting herself for the consecration. And perhaps because the danger of imagining all that was enough to dissolve the mind in sea salt, I would circle back to the buckets—some nights I would pretend they were bamboo and some nights plastic, and then I would think of the thousands of kitchens, and the mop water rancid and dark, and all the dirt of the world in those mop buckets, sitting there on the shining floors, and I would lie in my bunk and see them, not the buckets now but the shining floors, endless and smooth and elegant in the homes of the rich, and neat and uneven and scarred in the homes of the poor, an eternal procession of shining wet floors, until one night I heard the engine stop.

It was like the ocean had emptied out around us, all nature frozen in a unitary throb of silence. I went up into the wheel room and found the captain there before the tiller, staring straight ahead, his eyes on the compass, correcting his heading. He didn’t seem to recognize that the engine had died, nor did he give any sign that he knew I was there. The engineer came slowly up the ladder shaking his head when he saw me. “It’s done,” he said. We were in the full ocean with a dead motor. At least it wasn’t pirates. But then I thought, how will we get these buckets to America?

The captain still stared straight ahead, gripping the wheel with whitened knuckles as though he was facing a gale. A glance passed between me and the engineer, because we both knew what we were in for, and I suddenly thought about that old song, the one that goes something, something, come with me, my love, to the sea, to the sea of love.

‘Buckets’ owes certain images and aspects of its emotional landscape to a trip I took years ago as a freelance journalist in Central America from the Mosquito Coast town of Puerto Lempira in eastern Honduras to the northern coastal town of La Ceiba. I was aboard a forty-foot trawler carrying a handful of passengers, some with their worldly possessions stuffed into broken suitcases and baskets and lashed to the railings, three cows, (also tied along the railings), and bundles of fruit and produce. I had just drunk water from a stream with a group of Honduran soldiers and was thus coming down with a case of amoebic dysentery. As we chugged into the night, fish really did skitter across the water in front of us, and country music from the island of San Andrés really did pour down from the wheelhouse. The origins of the rest of the story are less obvious to me. But I will say that I had never been in a place more empty of the human imprint as that blank face of the jungle coast to the portside and the smooth, silent waters of the Caribbean to starboard as we made our slow way north in waters known as Los Hondos—the Deeps.