Excerpt: 'Fishing With Tardelli: A Memoir of Family in Time Lost' by Neil Besner
Marilí with a bluefish, in the outer bay, Rio, 1971
Marinheiro Manuel Tardelli
I was twelve the first time I went fishing with Tardelli on the Moby Dick, twenty-four feet, lapstrake, the used boat my stepfather, Walter (“Unca” in those early years), had bought, he told us the first day we came aboard, as a “stepping-stone.” He was right. His boats got newer, bigger, made to order. His last one, lost on a reef twenty- five years ago, was fifty-two feet.
That Brazilian winter weekday afternoon when I was twelve, I watched Tardelli steal twenty-five litres of gas from another boat by sucking on a thin rubber hose, spitting out the first gout, and siphoning the rest into the Moby Dick. Out of sight of the main marina, the Moby Dick slipped away, clandestine, from the back docks of the Iate Clube do Rio de Janeiro with three other sailors — that’s what they were called, Brazilians who had washed up into these jobs taking care of these boats — “marinheiros,” mariners — and headed out into the bay.
Like almost all of the marinheiros at the yacht club, none of these three could swim. Nor could Tardelli.
When I told Walter (Unca in those years, as I have said) maybe a year later about the gas thefts, he told me I was observing honour among thieves. That sounded fine. At thirteen, fourteen, I was Tardelli’s ally, without knowing in which battle, which war, fighting for whom.
I spent my four years of high school in Stamford, Connecticut, at a Jewish boarding school. I came home to Brazil each Christmas for two weeks and each summer for three months, June through August. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, fishing with Tardelli.
I fished with Tardelli in Rio, in and around the bay. We fished for bluefish. We fished with handlines, thick nylon line wrapped around a board. This type of fishing, called puxa puxa in Portuguese (poosha poosha, or pull, pull), has largely vanished now.
Bluefish continue to inhabit every ocean, but in the polluted bay in Rio, they are now much scarcer.
Tardelli died in 1991. I did not go to his funeral; I am not sure that he had one.
Tardelli could not have been more different from my stepfather, his employer for over thirty years. As I knew he would if such a thing were to happen, Walter called me in Winnipeg from Rio to tell me Tardelli had died. In matters such as these Walter has been nothing short of dutiful, predictable. Reasonable.
Thinking of Kafka’s Letter to His Father, a few weeks after Tardelli died, I wrote Walter a sorrowing denunciation of six single-spaced pages. I told him that unlike Tardelli, he was inscrutable; I told him that he was unknowable. I also told him that of course I knew that I would never have met Tardelli, never have come to Brazil, never have lived that fabled life had it not been for him.
Five years later, I made the mistake of giving Walter the letter in Rio. The next day he returned it to me with satisfaction. “You love me,” he announced.
To Tardelli’s peers he went by his last name; he was one of the few who did not have a nickname. However, the woman who called him to the telephone over the loudspeaker at the yacht club always repeated his name once, the second time rising on the last syllable of his first name: “Marinheiro Manuel Tardelli, Marinheiro Manuel Tardelli.” In memory her voice is measured, warm and singsong, but also officious.
Tardelli calls up no ache, anger, or regret.
I’ve always believed that Tardelli’s name meant he was, like many Brazilians, of Italian descent, but now I’m not sure. I was never in his small house in Vila Kennedy, a state-sponsored development project named after JFK in the tough west of Rio, now drug battle scarred, that took him two hours to get to by bus and train from the yacht club. I met his stocky wife once when she came from those hours away to bring him something. I met one of his sons, Luis, a bitter young man in his twenties who worked at the club for a few months and came fishing with us once on my boat. When I asked him — told him? — to move the beat-up wooden fishbox, he sneered. “Sim senhor, o senhor que manda.” Yes, sir, you’re the boss. I got it the second time. Tardelli laughed, face away from me.
Tardelli spoke no English save to mock me or, when we were alone, to mock my stepfather. I taught him “seagull.” “Sai gol,” he laughed. I taught him “fish.” “Feesh.” He told me that when my stepfather got angry, the back of his neck became a “pescoço vermelho,” turned red. He told me that my stepfather had “um medo filha da puta de morrer,” a son of a bitch fear of dying. When we were out fishing alone, he mimicked my stepfather on the days when he’d ask Tardelli to take us back to the yacht club for no apparent reason: “Não bom, Manoel, Iate Clube, Iate Clube,” no good, Manuel, exaggerating his employer’s stilted Portuguese.
Tardelli was never in an airport, never got on an airplane. He disbelieved in flight. In late August each year when we said goodbye for the year he would blow into the palm of his hand: “Vai te, filha da puta,” go, you son of a bitch, laughing. He insisted that I do a proper job of wrapping the fish in newspaper bound with fishing line to take home in the evening; he insisted that I take apart my clumsy scrunch and do it again, properly.
He mimicked my posture, head down “like a turtle.” One June I found a Christmas postcard in his locker, intended for me but abandoned — the only time I ever saw evidence Tardelli could write. The implications of an address somewhere he barely believed in might have dissuaded him. I was sixteen. Holding the postcard in my hand, I became teary-eyed. I never mentioned this to Tardelli or to anyone else.
Tardelli lusted after and then seduced the cook at home. I never discovered how they’d met. “Speak to me of Floriana,” he’d say to me when we were out in the bay. “My cock gets hard just hearing her name.” In Portuguese this sounded better. My mother called him Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and he was truly handsome. For her and Walter he shaved with soap in his locker, wore carefully pressed whites and clean sneakers. He fished with me in torn shorts, bare-chested and barefoot. I have photos of him in both costumes. They are not contradictory. That would be too simple.
Those Brazilian winters, going fishing with Tardelli in Rio began with lounging carefully along the street near our rented house in Leblon where the cream and blue lotação, the Urca-Leblon bus, passed. There were no bus stops then and the bus didn’t stop fully; you flagged it down and swung on with just the right admixture of casual authority. The driver shifted gears with dramatic sweeps of the arm.
His little fingernail was sharpened and polished. He banged the bus down the street, and I dreamed out the window for forty minutes until we got to Urca. I swung off the bus and landed on my feet as per unspoken rules. I was fourteen.
I found Tardelli with Elias, Senhor Elias Abreu, or Marilí, from the Amazon, sitting in the sun on the small step outside Tardelli’s locker, eating rice and beans and a hard-boiled egg out of tin boxes. We had a cigarette. I was learning to flick the ash as Tardelli did from the unfiltered Continentals he smoked, a finger brushing ash from the tip. He walked to the edge of the dock and looked down.
“Clear and cold. No good.” Cold water meant bad fishing.
“Let’s have coffee first, then we’ll go,” Elias said, and on our way to the sailors’ bar, we met Poporoca from Portugal, who slapped me on the back and got his pail with his lines in it and his hooks hanging around the edges and his sack and knife. He walked with us down to the bar and we sat inside on the marble benches, drank strong black coffee, and ate buttered rolls. Tardelli went to the water cooler for a long drink, and we walked by Cabo Verde in the fish shop and promised him we’d bring him something.
It was close to three. The Moby Dick was ready down at the hangars, out of sight. The wind came from the east, the boats anchored outside the marina pointed their prows in at Urca mountain with Sugarloaf beside it. We idled out whistling the seagull sound, which meant “tá grosso,” it’s thick, the fish were there. The empty fishbox was streaked with dried blood and chippy with dried scales and the white paste that the fish vomited when they were full of minnows. When we left to fish on those salty mid-sixties after- noons, sun mid-sky and a gentle wind from the east, Tardelli, mock ceremonial, mock reverential, would slow down to acknowledge the small statue of São Pedro, patron saint of fishermen, on our way out and again on the way back in the gathering dusk. “Obrigado, São Pedro,” he murmured, crossing himself.
São Pedro then as now stands on a small reef. In memory, he has never had the upper half of his raised right arm. São Pedro was clothed then in rusting green. Now the state has gilded him in cheap gold. Tardelli was never Catholic, never religious, always spiritual. The slim white herons that now perch on São Pedro’s head wouldn’t have dared when he was more properly clothed and rusting.
We waved to the women sitting cross-legged on the stone wall over the rocks as we picked up speed again and moved past Urca and the old man anchored at the point. He was there every good day. We came to the entrance of the bay with our lines stretched out behind us to straighten them, and the ocean opened wide in front of us. The east wind sent small whitecaps in, and the little white gulls with red beaks that cried like lost children were dancing over a stretch of water between the Fort of São João in the middle of the entrance and the Fort of Santa Cruz on the north side. Early one morning Tardelli and I caught ten big blue- fish there.
We headed out to the Fort of Imbuí with its long low white clapboard houses on the beach and its big guns on the cliff, and the islet offshore where the bluefish sulked in the coffee-coloured water.
Poporoca sat on the deck seamy-faced, with one gold tooth. His dirty blue shirt was open at the chest and his cap was pulled down hard against the wind. He sharpened a hook and looked up at us with the sprig of green that he always carried tucked behind one ear, and told us, “Of the three of you, I’ll fuck two.”
Tardelli laughed. “Of the three, I’ll fuck three.” Elias looked at me. “The old ones are talking again. Of the two of them, I’ll fuck two.” Then he showed me the calloused open palm of his hand and crushed out his cigarette on it. “For luck.”
Tardelli started to sing one of his arias, and Marilí and I turned it into “Cielito Lindo” and repeated the “ai, ai, ai, ai.” Poporoca shook his head at us.
Neil Besner with a smallmouth bass, Lake of the Woods, Summer 2022
The sun was still high in the sky over Sugarloaf but it was starting to go light red as the afternoon took away the noonday glare and the water began to go calm as the wind died down. It would stop for a moment at dusk and then breeze from the southwest for a time before it turned north for the night. All night the wind came from the north and chilled the lovers on the beaches and then freshened the morning and made the sailboats turn their gull prows out to the Fort. The next day we’d watch the wind. If it didn’t circle to the east by mid-afternoon, it was likely to go straight southwest and bring cold and rain and raise up the waves. If it blew for too long, the bay got rough and the cargo ships went horsing out to sea. You couldn’t hide from the wind except behind Cotunduba Island, where there were seldom any fish, although one day our boat caught one hundred and forty-seven there, and Tardelli stopped after ten fish because he was sick.
We slowed down and idled in close to the rock at Imbuí, on the southwestern point, where sometimes there were groupers, and we lay there and waited to see if the soldiers from the fort would fire shots in the air and wave us away. We watched how the boat rode the current and looked at the colour of the water and felt the strength of the tide. Tardelli put his lure down, took it out, and held it against his cheek to see how cold it was at the bottom.
We watched for the dolphins that came and rode herd on the fish and cut them to pieces. We looked for shark fins and rays. When the rays jumped, it meant the water was cold and the fishing was bad. One winter, the bay was cold for a long time and we came back with five, six fish a day, sometimes none at all. That winter the rays jumped a lot, making tremendous splashes with their wings as they came down. You could see the tumult in the ocean from far off. One ray sunned itself just off the point of the Fort of São João on the protected side, with the tips of its two wings cutting through the water at least six feet apart so that at first it looked like two sharks, until the great flattened oval mouth came into view and it swirled away from the boat.
That cold winter, Tardelli caught two or three big groupers. To catch a grouper the way we fished was to be lucky. They’re bottom fish, and so it was a question of the lure falling right next to the mouth and the grouper being hungry. It felt like a bottom snag at first. Then the line began to come up, very slowly, stretched down against the side of the boat. The grouper continued to pull straight down until it came close to the surface, where it tried to swim away. One afternoon at Imbuí, Tardelli caught one of 7 or 8 kilos, a map of yellow and white and brown, large mouth agog, gills working slowly and steadily in the box. Another boat came alongside and bought it. When we came back that evening the grouper was lying on the dock, still alive, and the man who had bought it was looking down at it with his arms folded, explaining how hard he had fought it.
Tardelli scowled at his line stretching out quickly. It popped and throbbed between his fists. He looked at us. “It’s because I was thinking about Floriana.”
Elias laughed at him. “What about the money she wanted for the dentist?” The money Tardelli told her it was his greatest wish to give her, she’d come to the right man. “She spoke about money, and it ruined everything. I told her that if she needed money, I was the one, I was the man, and that was it. My cock collapsed when it heard ‘money.’” Sometimes the water went light green and the sun picked out sparkling crystal points in the waves. The blue- fish lay at the bottom grim and tight-mouthed. That water could bear little but its own absent dance of bright gilt and green. The sky was far up, too blue, empty. Time stopped the sun and the wind came blind and impersonal. We trolled out in the open, lines trailing. Nothing.
Cargo ships drifted in and out of the bay at a distance. We saw a submarine and joked about the Brazilian navy. Straight north, marking the northeastern limit of the outer bay, lay Ilha do Pai, Father’s Island, and Ilha da Mãe, Mother’s Island, with Island of the Son sheltered between. Father’s Island is largely bare rock, a few scattered palms clinging to its slopes and a small reef jutting out from the northeast point. When the ocean was quiet the waves washed low around the rocks, green and white and faintly foam-struck. When it got rougher, we looked from Imbuí and the southwest point whitened and then vanished, and the ocean in between looked rumpled. It was hard then to judge distance, and the salt smell was stronger and heavier. The boat yawed. The black vultures, the urubus that lived on all the islands, soared high long and lazy above the palms. The southwest wind came from behind the mountains that ranged the coast and greyed the sky and massed the clouds heavy with rain and swung the boats in towards the beach at Botafogo, silent white forms on the water, like resting gulls. From the dock we watched the palm trees on the lower edge of Sugarloaf. If they were bending into the mountain’s face and the fronds were shaking, we knew not to go, because outside the wind would be eating the waves. The old trawlers would all be riding at anchor inside the entrance to the bay, and the Fort of São João would be washed over with dull white waves slam- ming across its rock form, long cold slaps of iron driving themselves over the fort to stream back down, ocean that took colours away from their names and buried the dye deep in herself.
The morning was half gone. Tardelli and I were trolling up and down at Father’s Island on the southeast point where the sharks were. We were watching a canoe with an old man in it. We saw him tense up and begin to give out line. Then the canoe started to move as the fish carried him. We circled around him, keeping our distance and looking away because the canoe people thought we put evil eyes on them and they swore at us. We wheeled around to keep the canoe in sight as he brought the fish up, hanging half in and half out along the side of the canoe, and we heard the repeating flat thump of the club as he killed the shark, still hanging over the side. He took a long drink from his water bottle and sat, slumped. Weeks later another large shark glided by us there, back fin slicing just a few feet from where we stood. Tardelli swore at it, threw his lure at it.
Once we saw a lost penguin at the mouth of the bay, come up from far south. It dove every time we came near until Marilí grabbed it and put it in a sack. “Este é um pinguin? Bom dia, Senhor Pinguin!” This is a penguin? Good morning, Mr. Penguin! It scrabbled furiously in the sack. We let it go.
I went to Father’s Island alone once in the small boat and found the fish hungry off one point and caught twelve. I got too excited and threw the matchbox into the water, holding the match in my hand after lighting a cigarette. Like Tardelli one morning at the Fort of Santa Cruz, when I had caught eleven fish and he got flustered changing lures and threw the new one into the water without tying it on. Memories branching endlessly, but no tree. Wallace Stevens: “There is no wing like meaning.” Or memory as lightning, a scimitar flash.
We reminded Tardelli of his throwing the new lure away at Santa Cruz on the days when it was too rough or rainy to go out, and we sat inside his locker and poured heated lead into the wooden mould that one of the carpenters had made for us. We placed a length of wire in the mould, doubled on itself to form an eye at each end. The lead cooled around the wire in the long bullet shape of the lure. We trimmed the edges while the lead was still hot. When twenty or thirty were ready we painted them, blue, yellow, white with blue spots. We crimped a skirt of nylon hair, yellow, white, blue, mixed, to the bottom of the lure with fine wire, and then a hook was clamped in the eye so that the hair hung around it. The different colours had their names — the clown, the killer. We hung them around the pail with the store-bought lures.
The biggest bluefish I ever saw came on a hot Saturday afternoon at Imbuí. Tardelli and I were waiting for the tide, and the fish came alive. We had caught seven or eight when Tardelli swore.
“I’ve caught bottom.” He began to wrap his line back onto the board so that he could hold that and not cut his fingers. He braced himself against the side of the boat and held the board out over the water. Then the line began to give a little and he threw down the board when he had enough slack and pulled the line up slowly. At first we thought it was a big grouper. Then a large blue-white shape swam broadside into view, the lure — a silver zigzag — trailing from one side of the huge open mouth, teeth showing, and Tardelli whispered, “She’s the queen of them all,” and slowly lifted her out and draped her in the box. Her tail and more hung over one side, her body beaded with drops of water.
Tardelli struck another big bluefish like the queen at Imbuí a few weeks later that summer and fought with it for a long time. When he brought it in close and leaned down slowly to take the lure in one hand, the fish lifted its head out and shook it, looking at us, gills flared red and wide, and the line broke at the knot and the fish turned over and slowly swam down and away.
The first afternoon I went out, the Moby Dick with her high freeboard pitched ungainly over the long afternoon swells. We went out to the green buoy that marked where the Magdalena lay, a cargo ship that ran aground on a reef and then sank in the middle of the bay some thirty years earlier. The story we heard was that she was carrying a cargo of sugar.
The green buoy sang and moaned in the wind. There was a slow whirlpool directly above the sunken ship, coloured differently from the water at its edges. The ship’s masts rose high off the bottom and you could get snagged among them halfway up your retrieve and think you had a big fish on.
The line stretched tighter until it began to sing and then it snapped as the boat rode with the current, and you cursed and said, “I was just stretching the line.” Some late afternoons there would be ten, fifteen fugitive boats from the club, and the canoe fishermen, all making their passes with the tide over the dead ship, coming around again when they’d drifted too far off, everyone watching the others for signs of fish.
On the way back that first time, the waves rose blue- black behind us and ran under the stern. I went down to put on my socks and shoes. Poporoca came in and asked if I was afraid. I was. I said no. The waves rose high over the stern and the Moby Dick performed what they called the “jacaré,” the alligator, burying her nose in the black water, shud- dering up to slide down another crest. When we rounded the point at the Fort of São João with the lights from the city shining over the darkening water and sending glimmers of white and yellow across at us, Elias yelled, “Lights, you bastards!” at the trawler anchored just inside the point in the dark so that we almost rammed her. Tardelli laughed. “That’s how they die so young.”
At the Fort the big brown and white gulls were nesting in their holes in the rock. The little white gulls, trinta-reis, thirty pieces of silver, had gone out to the far islands for the night. The bats and the swallows were circling out from their little caves near the water. In the shelter around the point the water was calm, and the electric sign on the mountain beside us announced, in running red lights, the weather for the next day: “Unstable, with rain, and temperature in decline.” The six o’clock news ran across the face of the mountain in bright tracks reflected on the water. The ghost white of the anchored boats came up on us, masts hanging in the sky as we slanted off towards the hangar. We eased in reverse toward the dock, someone at the prow with the anchor, another at the stern to throw a rope up to whoever was waiting for fish. Tardelli reversed the engine in short bursts, cutting off so that we slid to a stop with the anchor holding and the rope knotted around the bollard.
Now the bargaining began, with the “seagulls” all standing around looking at the fish on the dock. Tardelli pretended he didn’t see anyone, ambled around the pile, lit a cigarette.
“Poporoca, Senhor Abreu, take your fish.” Tardelli said he’s not taking any fish today and then they started. “Tardelli, sell me a good fish,” said Turk the baker, pedalling up to us with hot bread on his bicycle cart. “Here’s our cousin the Turk, what does the Turk want, I know, the Turk wants fish,” Tardelli said. The Turk got off his bicycle to look at the fish and gave us fresh rolls. Tardelli gave him a fish when everyone had gone.
Cats slunk through the shadows. Now and then a figure ambled past Tardelli’s locker with a wave and the red eye of a cigarette and an airline bag slung over one shoulder.
All of this — the ambling figures in the evening, the Turk on his bicycle cart, the silent cats — occurred and now recurs. The movements unfold decorously in time slowed, then in time slowly flowing. This motion and its progress and regress are like those of the waves on the beach at Ipanema, at Leblon, that I watched unfurling one upon the other when I was in my twenties and thirties and forties and trying to understand time, because I thought then that I could under- stand time. I thought the waves could teach me. I thought then that if I could understand time, perhaps I could fathom memory. I thought, then, that the variation in the repetition of every wave’s unfurling stood for something vital, some- thing unique about time. I thought, then, of Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, who would never arrive at the under- standing he was seeking. Now, it is enough to watch the waves furl, unfurl. To contemplate them. To contemplate.
The fish for home were wrapped properly in newspaper. We strolled down the docks in the dark past the sailboats and the pier stretching out grey against the dark, past the clubhouse where the nursemaids sat watching the members’ children, and Elias nudged Tardelli. “Just mention Floriana. It still grows, don’t worry,” Tardelli murmured. We said good night to Jorge the barber in his shop, soon to die unexpectedly. “Jorge fechou,” Tardelli told me, laughing, when I got back the following summer. Jorge closed. Eight or nine years later, “Poporoca fechou,” with a warmer laugh. Poporoca used to tell Tardelli that he knew how to fish once, but he forgot. Tardelli laughed.
We left the yacht club through the gate for the sailors, and we walked down the street to the short bridge that arched low over another basin, just under the mountain, where the fishermen kept their canoes. We stopped at the little bar there for a coffee, then walked out to lean on the seawall while we waited for our buses. Below us a man sat over a small fire on the rocks with a tin can filled with mussels beside him, holding a handline wrapped around a Coke bottle and watching it disappear into the dark.
Other buses rolled by. The ocean glimmered white against the rocks beneath us. Tardelli told Elias about the man who was run over the day before by the train. Elias asked him if the man was killed; Tardelli said no, he got up and said, “Wow, what a heavy train.” “Funny man,” Elias said. They swung onto the bus that would take them to the train station. My smaller Urca-Leblon bus lurched around the corner, and I swung on with my package of fish. The woman beside me looked at the tail coming out of the newspaper and then looked at me and smiled. I kept my eyes down. An hour later I jumped off the bus onto Venâncio Flores, crossed the canal, and started up my street. The crazy maid who lit candles on the street corner and talked to herself, staring at
something, was muttering in the middle of the street.
The gate stood white against the red steps leading up to the house. The fake lantern above the front door was warm and yellow in the night air, which carried the light sweet smell of the frangipani trees. I went in the back way and hid the fish in the kitchen. My mother could not stand the sight or, worse, the smell of fish; she forbade them in the house. Outside, the crickets sang. The streetlights warmed the corners, dark in between the crickets.
The crickets paused to listen. American cars sounded American. The lush brown eye of the night earth, the moist leaves — they watched and listened. They heard the hydro- matic click and purr of Park, the silence after the engine was shut off and ticked over twice. A car door shut, metal on metal. There were measured steps up to the gate and the scratch of a key in the lock. There was the controlled rasp of shoe leather. Walter was home.
At eighteen I had been in LA at university, at USC, for two years. It was 1968. Walter stood with me one night in mid-June, near the old wooden warehouses and whorehouses at the downtown dock in Rio on another eve of departure, in a fine Brazilian winter mist so that I was wearing the navy peacoat then in style. I had only come to Brazil to sail north on one of his cargo ships. The Delilah, 12,800 tons, sister ship of the Diana, loomed metallic and dark grey above us.
I wanted to throw my arms around him. My heart banged in my head, “Please Unca, I’m going crazy.”
No words, nor anything else passed between us, and I made it on board.
Neil Besner aged 18 aboard The Delilah, 1968
I said another goodbye to Tardelli a year later, August of 1969, when I was more profoundly lost. I had begun by then to understand these as ritual fading farewells. We stood on the cement dock in the dark at the yacht club, outside the hangar, smoking and looking out across the water at Flamengo and the downtown lights in the flickering city.
I was flying back to California that night; my brother was returning to the University of Miami. Within a year, both of us would be back in Montreal, refugees.
In an hour, Walter would drive me and my brother to the airport. In the car, I would tell him from the back seat that I was thinking of leaving school. There was a pause of one beat. “That’s not very smart, is it?” It was one of the few times I had heard an edge in his voice, one of the rare indications that he was subject to irritation.
When my brother and I were seated aboard our flight, I discovered I was crying; my brother asked me why but I couldn’t say. Four months later, he flew to LA to bring me back to Montreal after I drove my car into the desert outside Barstow, California, and left it there after speaking with God at night from the top of a low hill I’d scrambled up. A rattlesnake clattered unseen at my feet. Forty years later when I described that evening, God and what He’d said, the snake, the stars, to a psychologist in Winnipeg, he asked me if I had heard of vision quests. But by then I was thinking of Spinoza: “All things are alive.” I was thinking of Cohen: “God is alive. Magic is afoot.” A Winnipeg friend said to me: “Sometimes the Universe winks at you.”
Like many Brazilian men of his time, Tardelli had many women, many children. That night on the dock in 1969 he told me “Eu tenho uma porrada deles espalhado por aí,” I have a bunch of them scattered out there. He was half proud, half rueful, all Brazilian. I uttered some querulous complaint. He glanced at me. “Você é jovem, tem muito a aprender.” You’re young, you have a lot to learn.
No one had ever said such a thing to me.
I hear him now through a scrim of years that smell of saltwater and unfiltered cigarettes.
“Marinheiro Manuel Tardelli, Marinheiro Manuel Tardelli,” the woman sings over the loudspeaker.
I’ve named my boat here in Lake of the Woods after him.
About the Author
Neil Besner divides his time between Toronto and Lake of the Woods. He was born in Montreal and grew up in Rio de Janeiro. He is fluent in Portuguese and returns to Brazil frequently to teach at Brazilian universities. He taught Canadian literature at the University of Winnipeg for 30 years.