Where the brooding Atlantic meets the moody torrent of the Gulf Stream, water and darkness give birth to the rip tides of fate roaring up through murky underwater canyons. Far above, on the ocean’s roiling dark surface, the silhouette of a lone boat heaves on waves. Bolted to its upper deck is a sturdy metal radio-transmitter antenna. From the transmitter an insistent male voice broadcasts. The words ride, invisible, through the air from east to west. They can be heard from the Great Bahama Bank all the way to the distant island of Cuba. They travel wide across the ocean, from the Tropic of Cancer to the island of Key West, off the coast of Florida. The words become an urgent question.
The question hangs, the words stop, then they begin again, rhythmically rising in a strident drumbeat.
“This is Truth Dog broadcasting from pirate-radio boat Noah’s Lark to the whole dead world, speaking to you out of the darkness of night. Are there two brains out there to rub together for a spark of illumination? Do you hear me? Maybe no one is awake in Key West, just twenty miles across the water from me. Maybe all the eyes on that coral-capped island are closed to the obvious truth. Perhaps no one is awake in the wide world that spins obliviously toward its own demise. Could be I’m floating out here alone, broadcasting to a country of unliving people caught in a zombie stupor of collective historical amnesia and collapsed moral hearts. Could be that only the fish beneath me in the sea are awake, sliding through opaque waters, finning through submerged canyons carved by millennia of time, their mouths agape, fins pushing against water’s gravity, on the prowl for their next meal, dead between their eyes to any joy, propelled by their simple ancient truth of gut survival.
“Hey, dead-between-the-eyes fish zombies! Call me now. I’m on the line for you. I’m on the hook. Show me your rage. I’m like God in the heavens, or Jesus in the confessional box, or Moses in the lightning glow on the mountaintop. Better yet, I take collect calls from sinners and seekers, repenters and fakers.
“Call me before it is too late. Wake up, little zombies, wake up. Call even if you are dead and only now are awakening in the afterlife, your cold fish-scaled bodies slithering out of the sea onto the shore of a new beginning in an old world. Call Truth Dog, an old dog with new tricks.
“Call me and tell me how the lightning on the mountaintop strikes you between those dead eyes of yours so you see illuminated the green flash of light across the ocean’s horizon spelling out a new dawn and you can finally shout the truth.
Illuminate or die.
Show me your rage.”
Luz awakens in her bed from dreams of deep-indigo oceans. Her brown eyes take in the white-skinned body of Joan sleeping next to her. Joan’s blond hair lies spread over the pillow; her deep breathing heaves the curve of her bare breasts in a rhythmic rise and fall that Luz has known intimately for twelve years. Luz kisses Joan’s bare shoulder and slides her dark hand under the white swell of one of Joan’s breasts. Luz stares at her hand, her fingers in a winged shape, a dark bird flying beneath the full orb of an alabaster moon.
Above the bed, the ceiling fan’s blades swirl through the humid air. The insistent sound brings Luz back from her brief flight to Joan’s fleshy landscape. She looks up wide-eyed at the blades as their slicing sound grows louder, as forceful as incoming surf crashing onto an island, waves smashing, spraying, drowning everything, plunging Luz back beneath an indigo ocean, where she swims in watery turmoil surrounded by mysterious creatures lurking in a fathomless deep.
Luz shakes her head, driving submerged images from her mind. She turns quickly away from the fan’s blades. She rises from her bed and stands barefoot before her dresser, her white cotton underwear tight against the sheen of her dark skin. She dresses quickly in black pants and a white Cuban-style guayabera shirt. From the dresser top she picks up a loaded Glock 30 semiautomatic pistol with a thick gorilla-grip handle. She snaps the heavy black weapon into its leather holster on a belt. She lifts the long shirt above her pants and straps the gun snug against her waist. She glances into the mirror above the dresser. The mirror reflects Joan’s naked blondness on the bed behind, superimposed over the image of her own shadow-skinned reflection. She drops her loose shirt over the pistol holstered at her hip and looks closely at herself in the mirror. Her black hair is cropped short; her smooth facial features are natural, devoid of any makeup; her eyes hold a steady gaze and do not blink.
Luz leaves Joan sleeping in the bedroom and walks with quiet steps down a narrow dark hallway to a closed door. She pushes the door silently open and looks in on two teenaged girls asleep in separate beds. The older is a healthy sixteen-year-old; her untroubled breath is even, her lips are curved in a smile. In the opposite bed is a younger girl, of fourteen, her bone-thin body pallid and hairless from chemotherapy treatments fighting her childhood leukemia. Next to her bed is a wheelchair, and a nightstand covered with medicine bottles. She stirs awake; her eyes open slowly, with painful effort. She smiles at the sight of Luz. Luz puts her fingers to her lips and blows her a kiss, then softly shuts the bedroom door.
In her living room, Luz kneels before a walnut-wood Spanish chest. The top of the chest is commanded by a tall ceramic statue of a Black Madonna. The Madonna holds in her arms an infant child with a beatific smile etched on its face. Luz strikes a match and lights a candle in a red glass holder in front of the statue. She clasps her hands together in a pointed prayerful position. She looks straight into the Madonna’s soulful eyes as she whispers her prayer.
“As a mother myself, I beseech you to take pity on my daughters, Nina and Carmen. Cure my little Nina of her cancer and suffering. Only you, holiest of all mothers, can stop the pain of an innocent child. Give me the strength to protect my daughters and my beloved, Joan. Give me the strength to do what I must do to keep my family safe from the evil that surrounds them.”
Luz’s misty eyes focus on the candle flame flickering in front of the Madonna. The flame sparkles and burns stronger, transforming into a brilliant glow.
A red rising sun emerges on the ocean’s dark horizon. Out of the sun flies a winged armada of seabirds. The birds swoop down from the sky over the water’s surface. They glide above the humped shell of a large sea turtle below. The turtle’s green front fins stroke through the blue, propelling the primeval creature’s bulk relentlessly forward. The birds pass on; beneath them, dolphins break the sea’s surface. The dolphins’ sleek wet bodies arch out of the water into the air in a dazzling, twisting spray. They then dive back out of sight. Impervious to the dolphins, the birds sail on over the dark saucer-shaped shadows of giant stingrays just below the ocean’s skin. The birds continue their journey over open water. They suddenly bank hard, whooshing the air as they descend in a wing-flapping circle around a channel-marker buoy afloat below.
The large anchored buoy’s wide platform base sloshes in the water. Rising up from the base is a tall metal pole with an orange plastic star-shaped reflector at its peak. The reflector glints with shards of orange light. A dead man’s naked body is tied by a thick knotted rope to the pole. Slashed on the body’s abdomen is a painted red X. A steel spear is pierced through the man’s chest. From below the spear a stream of blood has hardened into a congealed purple crust. The white lips of the man’s blood-drained face have been sewn crudely shut with fishing line. His ears have been cut off, leaving two gashed holes. The orbs of the man’s eyes remain open. The eyes stare off across the distance of the ocean. In death, the eyes seem fixed on a horror that the sewn-up lips cannot scream the name of.
Between the islands of Key West and Cuba, the sun’s globe rises into the sky above a weather-beaten 1950s West Indian Heritage trawler. The anchored boat sways in a watery blue canyon created by the rise and fall of waves. On the bow of its thirty-six-foot-long hull is painted the name Noah’s Lark. A twelve-foot-high steel radio-transmitter antenna is bolted to the deck. Inside the windowed pilothouse is a jerry-rigged radio-broadcasting control room. Seated on a ragged swivel chair in front of a console of outdated analog equipment is a man wearing a sun-faded seersucker suit that hangs loosely on his angular frame. His sleep-deprived reddened eyes stare intensely at the console’s flickering red and green lights. The lines etched deeply into the man’s face convey a hard life lived. He agitatedly fingers the bearded stubble of his unshaven chin, then clamps on a pair of battered earphones over the unruly hair of his head. He pulls in close to the metal stub of a microphone on the table before him. His lips loosen with a quiver as if about to deliver a kiss to an unseen lover. His melodious voice suddenly cracks open the morning silence with a basso swagger.
“Rise and shine, all of you in the Florida Keys about to lose your paradise. Rub the stars out of your eyes and take your brains out of your shoes. Today’s temps are soaring up to ninety-nine degrees, too hot to wear your own sweat, let alone your lover’s sweat. This is Noah Sax, your very own Truth Dog, broadcasting from international waters over Conch Pirate Radio offshore from Key West. Key West, Cayo Hueso, Island of Bones—that was the name the early Spanish explorers gave the place when they found it littered with nothing but the bleached remains of the hounded, deserted, and luckless. The Spaniards beat it. Key West, America’s southernmost continental point, where the Overseas Highway ends after hopping across bridges linking forty-three islands on its one-hundred-thirty-mile run down from Miami. Key West, last American island, end of the road at the famous sign, mile marker zero. As the poet once wrote, nowhere to go from mile zero except to swim with the sharks and barracuda. Which is where I am, floating with the sharks and barracuda far out at sea, where the feds can’t stop my pirate radio beaming the truth across the open ocean.
“Nowhere does the bell of accountability ring out so loudly as here in the Florida Keys. This fragile ecosystem is dotted with coral-and-mangrove-entwined islands guarded by the third-largest coral reef in the world and the only living coral reef in North America. The fragrant salty air that you breathe here so freely must be defended at all costs, before these islands are covered over in the oil-pollution slime that greases the implacable wheel of man-made environmental destruction. Don’t fool with Mother Nature or Mother Nature will fool with you!”
Noah’s words stop. He grabs a rum bottle from next to his microphone and takes a swig. He swipes the liquid from his lips and continues.
“I’m out here on the open sea in the sun, unlike Internet bloggers hunkered down in solitary dark holes. My old-school live radio is stand-up accountability. I’m the only eco-shock jock broadcasting at sea, letting you, my irreverent audience, roar your disgust against the destruction of the environment. Your words are bullets, so aim straight. Call Noah now, punch me with the power of your pain and pissed-off kisses. If you’re a cynic, comic, or crusader, join the chorus of the committed. Dial Five-Five-C-O-N-C-H. Act out, act up, but act. I’m here for you. I’m a lightning rod, shoot me your lightning. Rock the world with thunder. Show me your rage!”
Noah clutches the microphone in his trembling hand and holds it close to his mouth. He leans back in his chair, takes a deep breath, and switches to a mellow tone.
“While you’re getting ready to put your sweet lips to the phone, let me serve you a hot cup of morning amore, get you in the mood with a beat brewed by our Cuban neighbors just ninety miles across the ocean.”
Noah punches one of the buttons on the broadcast console, starting a CD player wired to a pair of battered wooden speakers. A full-orchestra salsa beat from the speakers fills the pilothouse with an insistent throb. Noah closes his eyes and sways to the seductive rhythm. He gets up from his chair. His arms reach out to an invisible partner, and he dances in a hip-strutting glide around the pilothouse.
Outside Noah’s anchored trawler, the sound of salsa cuts sharp as a musical knife across the ocean’s surface. With nothing to stop it, the music can be heard in the far distance to where a raft drifts. The raft is constructed from scraps of wood crudely lashed with fraying rope. Its sail is a patchwork of fraying fabric stitched together. The ragged sail flaps forlornly in the slight breeze from a broken wood mast. Strewn across the raft are the sun-blackened bodies of men, women, and children. Their arms and legs are akimbo in grotesque contortions of death, the flesh peeling from their bodies, exposing white bones. Their eyes have been pecked out by marauding birds.
Excerpted from American Tropic by Thomas Sanchez. Copyright © 2013 by Thomas Sanchez. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.