Cover image for Leaving Pico
Leaving Pico
Gaspar, Frank, 1946-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Hanover, NH : University Press of New England, [1999]

Physical Description:
211 pages ; 23 cm.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Set in the Portuguese community of Cape Cod, a story of a young man's coming-of-age.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gaspar raises his poet's voice to sing a family story with echoes of Treasure Island and The Old Man and the Sea. The boy, Josie, lives in the Portuguese enclave of Provincetown in the late 1940s or early 1950s. He's young, but he sees the charged currents in the air around him as clearly as he sees the ones in the ocean: his ripe mother, Rosa; his great-aunt twisting her faith and her family; and, above all, his hard-drinking grandfather John Joseph, who, when Rosa leaves home with a man, comforts Josie with a riproaring tale of an ancestor who left the Azores to discover America the year before Columbus. That conceit is the weaker part of the book: what is burnished by Gaspar's supple language is the sound of the men talking over beer and the women over tea. Josie's voice rings true, too, as he uses the lives of the saints and his grandfather's hideout as tools to try to force the world into a pattern he can trust. --GraceAnne A. DeCandido

Publisher's Weekly Review

Poet Gaspar (A Field Guide to the Heavens) offers a quaint time capsule from the Portuguese fishing community in 1950s Provincetown on Cape Cod. The story, wistfully recalling Old World details and tenacious with nostalgia, is narrated by young Joachim Carvalho, an illegitimate child and the only young person in a houseful of tenuously connected Picos (Portuguese immigrants from the Azores, as opposed to Lisbons, from the mainland). Joachim is isolated, relishing the attention he receives from his irascible grandfather John Joseph when grandpa comes home from cavorting and courting "summer people." Inspired by his aunt Theophila's eccentric and creative Catholicism, Joachim prays for a father, and Carmine appears to woo Joachim's mother Rose, but he winds up taking her away from Joachim, the family and the town. Joachim finds a secret hideaway where he spends nights with John Joseph, who tells installments of a magical story: the adventures of their ancestor, explorer Francisco Carvalho, who may have discovered America. As with the rest of the novel, grandpa's tales are full of meticulous details and huge leaps of faith. The community comes to life with vivid descriptions of scandalous clambakes, bad blood between the Picos and the Lisbons, hornet-sting cures, idyllic fishing trips and the double-edged havoc tourists wreak on the locals. This vibrant regional culture is one that many visitors to Provincetown can only imagine as it disappears under waves of tourism. But Gaspar's story is as much about introspective Joachim's difficult adjustments. In one intense summer his family is transformed by a crisis that changes forever Joachim's relationship with his grandpa and his mother. Glossing through the folklore and domestic scenery, readers may find Gaspar's plot to be of secondary concern in the face of this lush tale's poetic immediacy and winsome characters. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This debut novel by an award-winning poet is a family memoir of a fatherless boy growing up inside the Portuguese fishing community of Provincetown, MA. Josie Carvalho's life is shaped by his grandfather John Joseph, who believes his ancestor, the Portuguese explorer Francisco Carvalho, discovered America before Columbus. Josie's mother runs off to Florida with her fianc‚, and John Joseph offers Josie an escape from his feelings of abandonment by telling a finely constructed tale about Francisco Carvalho. In this dramatic story-within-a-story, John JosephÄfueled by plenty of alcoholÄrelates Francisco's fight against "secrecy and stupidity and treachery" following his discovery of America. His narrative, which ignites Josie's imagination, is a finely woven combination of the intrigue of Treasure Island and the melodrama of a soap opera. Recommended for most collections.ÄDavid A. Beron„, Univ. of New Hampshire, Durham (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One             In 1491 a navigator bearing our family name secretly left a small port on the island of Pico, in the Azores, and sailed eastsoutheast toward the coast of Africa before he turned abruptly and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, landing someplace on the central coast of what is now Florida, beating Christopher Columbus to the new world by close to a year. He then tracked north as far as the tip of our cape, that raw, hooked finger of sand that would one day become Provincetown, Massachusetts. By the time he got this far north, he understood that he had not found China, and with his head filled with mysteries and ambitious plans, he turned around and sailed back to the Azores again.     My grandfather, a thin, wiry man with a peppery beard, sat on the rotting canvas porch-swing by the back door and pulled wetly on his pipe as he traced that voyage of Francisco Joao Matta de Jesus Carvalho, Navigator, into the black dirt of the dooryard with a long sliver of shingle. It was a map he had sketched many times before, and I could have copied it myself, with my eyes closed. The Old Country--Portugal--was a quick line dashed off somewhere past his right foot, and the Azores, where my grandfather was born, were a series of dots stabbed into the ground a good distance from the coast. The New World was another straight line a few feet to the left. The track of our ancestor's voyage swelled between the islands and America like the bell of a trumpet blowing hopeful news in our general direction.     My grandfather sucked on his pipe again, considered the map, and sighed. We were killing time. He lifted the little stick and pointed it toward the house. "They'll be done soon," he said. He meant my mother and my great aunt and their friends Sheika Nunes and Ernestina the Shoemaker's Wife. My grandfather wanted to hold a clambake in the backyard to celebrate this year's blessing of our fishing fleet, our town's most important holy feast day, and the women were debating among themselves what to do about his plan.     "We'll miss the tide if they don't hurry" I said. I was moping around the yard, waiting to sneak off and go mackerel fishing with him. Mackerel were running out in the harbor, and my grandfather would need pots of them for side dishes at his clambake. My mother and my great aunt didn't like me spending a lot of time with my grandfather because John Joseph Carvalho was a notorious poacher and scavenger, a drunk with no visible means of support except for his over-the-side dory fishing, and the women feared his influence would harm me somehow. My great aunt saw me only as fragile boy-soul somewhere between first communion and confirmation, and she truly feared for my state of grace. I don't think that she understood that John Joseph was less danger to me than I was to myself or that he was liked and even respected by the men in our town. She only looked at things from her side, and she believed that her brother was spreading shame on our family.     I remember back in January of that very same year, when Petey Flores and Johnny Squash found my drunken grandfather wrapped in newspapers and rolled up in an overturned fish barrel behind the packing house on Manny Almaida's wharf. They had lifted him out of his stupor, and maybe even saved his life--there was a big storm and ice was blowing out of the sky. They got Ramao Boia to deliver them all to our door in Ramao's convertible Packard, the town's one wintertime taxi, and even I could read the affection in their gruff faces. But my aunt missed it or ignored it. "Let me tell you, Hettie" Johnny Squash told my great aunt as he sat at our kitchen table, sipping the hot black coffee that she had percolated on the kerosene stove, "John Joseph is a beautiful man."     My mother was in the back room trying to wrestle my grandfather onto his cot, and I sat at the table, wise enough to keep my mouth shut, watching the ice melt and drip from Johnny Squash's red-checkered hunting cap, which he had not removed from his head. The visor cast a shadow over his one eye, glassy and ablaze. The black patch over his other socket had been soaked through in the storm, and beneath it I could see the outline of the empty hole that led back into the darkness of his skull. A snapped hawser during an August squall had knocked Johnny Squash back against the wheelhouse of his brother-in-law's trawler, tearing his left eye from his face. "Beautiful," he said once again, shaking his head, and Petey Flores said, "Christ, Hettie, hey, we love the guy. You know what I mean?"     My Great Aunt Theophila could only see disgrace. She let them drip onto the table and finish their coffee, and then she put them out again into the storm, cursing them in Portuguese as they hunched drunkenly down the narrow walk.     Of course, John Joseph would only let me barely taste his wine and ale. He would never let get drunk or do anything disgraceful. But I knew I would have to lie and skulk to make this fishing trip with him, and I hadn't thought twice about it. I had gotten up early, before anyone could see me, and I had packed a bushel basket with our poles, lines, mackerel jigs, and all the rest of the gear we would need for a day of fishing. I had cached this load of equipment down beneath the North Atlantic Cold Storage wharf, a stone's throw beachward from our house, so that I could leave the yard and go with my grandfather without the women getting suspicious. It was already late morning, and the sun had climbed high enough to wash over the roof of our woodhouse and brighten the small, cluttered yard. My grandfather's dory, the Caravella , waited for us, tied to its mooring off the beach, just down the narrow street from where we sat. But the tide was going out, and I was worried that the boat would be left high and dry before we ever got down to it.     "Patience," my grandfather said, but he got up from the swing and walked over to the duckpen and whacked the wire fence with his stick. Our three ducks burst into a fit of quacking and waddled in a circle around their muddy basin of water. Across the side fence I saw our Lisbon neighbor Madeleine Sylvia give my grandfather a disdainful look. Her family had come over from the mainland of Portugal, speaking a higher dialect of the old language and schooled in better manners and better notions of prosperity than we Azoreans. My Great Aunt Theophila called all such people Lisbons , whether they came from that corrupt city or not. Madeleine Sylvia was a Lisbon and ran a respectable boardinghouse--even if it was in the West End of our town--and we were Picos and lived in a broken-down house with a shabby yard and garden, and we were her sworn enemies.     If you listened to my great aunt, we were enemies because of the ancient feud between islanders and mainlanders that went back to the old country, to the time before history books. But Madeleine Sylvia leveled real complaints at us. She said that our house and yard were an eyesore. She wanted us to mend stairs, repair fences, paint, clean up clutter, cut back the wild garden, get rid of Elvio the Shoemaker's bedspring from the roof of our house, remove our family of ducks. She claimed that we hurt her rooming-house business. My great aunt could only hiss through her teeth at Madeleine Sylvia. "We do not take orders from Lisbons " is what she would say.     Madeleine and my great aunt kept up the war mainly with hard looks and silences. Madeleine was built like a washbucket, with fierce dark eyes and a way of walking that always made her look as though she were marching off to battle. She scared me, but my grandfather never seemed to take her very seriously. He caught her stare and touched the brim of his hat with a little flourish. Madeleine turned abruptly and pretended to sweep something off her neatly painted steps, then took her broom and disappeared into her house, letting the door bang behind her.     My grandfather looked at our own back door.     "You want me to go in and see what's taking them so long?" I said.     "No," said my grandfather, "you might queer it. Anyway, here they come" He swung his leg from left to right, scuffing the dirt with his foot, and the map of our ancestor's voyage disappeared into the earth.     The wooden screen door swung open, chirping on its old hinges, and out walked my mother, followed by Ernestina the Shoemaker's Wife, Sheika Nunes, and my Great Aunt Theophila.     With them came the faint smell of incense and votive candles, and I knew that my great aunt had been praying for guidance to the images of the many saints that covered her bureau-top. Now she walked with the gravity of the Pope himself, ready to give John Joseph her considered answer. My great aunt's full name was Theophila de Jesus Carvalho Dunne, but she was mostly called Hettie, the American name that she had taken as part of her fierce drive to get all that she could from the New World. She had come here from the Azores with her brother, to assimilate and become respectable. For a while, she hadn't done badly. Before I had come along, she had run a fairly successful millinery shop out of the parlor of our little house. The word milliners , which for so long had been a mystery to me, still swept across the front window of that room in peeling gold and black decals. Sacks of buckram and veils and a dozen faceless heads were still crammed in dusty boxes out in the woodhouse, and sometimes the old woman would still build hats for her Pico lady friends.     My great aunt had also been active in church, a moving force in the Holy Rosary Sodality, and she had been a great fighter for the Pico side of things in the Portuguese-American Social Organization, a powerful if Lisbon -dominated civic club that conducted all important functions in our town and held whist parties on Friday nights. It was in the PASO Hall that battles raged long and hard between Picos and Lisbons , fought with wrath and passion, almost exclusively by the women. When the snooty Lisbons tried to relegate the Pico ladies to mere cleanup duties after a feast, it was my great aunt who would pound the table and spit furious old-county oaths at the likes of Madeleine Sylvia. She was strong and demanded respect. The Picos could cook salt fish with tomato sauce as well as anyone, and the damned Lisbons could wash the pots!     For a while Great Aunt Theophila seemed bound to take control of the entire organization. This was the great aunt I only knew in stories. It was about this time, late in her life, when she had married Paddy Dunne, a Protestant Yankee, but also an old retired coastguardsman with a pension, and so someone the whole town respected. She and my grandfather and Uncle Paddy and my mother all lived together in the little house. And even though John Joseph liked to drink and poach and tell wild stories with his cronies, my great aunt was still able to demand esteem for our family. Then something happened. It seemed a great mystery to me, for no one would talk about it, but the upshot of it all was that I was born. The fact that I had no father of record proved too much for my great aunt to bear. She saw this as something she could not overcome by force of will, and so, in her eyes, our fragile Pico family fell from grace and lost any ground it might have gained against the Lisbons . My great aunt was never to realize her ambitions, and she blamed my grandfather, my mother, and--indirectly--me for bringing scandal upon her.     In the end all the shame was too much for her to bear. She fell away from the Church and PASO politics, let her hat shop slowly grow back into a parlor, and brooded on her undoing. By the time I was old enough to remember her, she had already become a dour, thin, gray woman who had set her sights on a place of respect not here on earth, but in the Other World. She devoted most of her days to prayer and rituals, setting up a shrine in her and Uncle Paddy's bedroom. She had arranged her dresser with painted plaster statuettes of Saint Jude, Saint Anthony, Saint Christopher, The Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady of Fatima, The Infant of Prague, and Saint Joseph. She also kept several rosaries, holy water, incense, vigil candles, and a dozen or so bookmark-sized icon cards bearing the pictures of minor saints, one of which was Joachim the Patriarch, a long, thin, dreamy-eyed man in a flowing robe, my own name saint, whom I was said to resemble.     My great aunt's obsession with prayer and the saints and the hereafter infected all of us and kept our household in a perpetual spin. But it seemed to pay off for her. It was commonly held among the Picos along our end of Commercial Street that Hettie Carvalho had gained the favor of certain of the Blessed, and that these same saints showed themselves to her frequently in minor visions, something which greatly troubled our parish priest but drew a tight circle of devoted lady friends around her.     But now, in the bright sunlight that pressed on her long face and pursed her eyes, I could see the strain that she was under. No matter how much she prayed, my grandfather's clambakes always turned into loud, drunken calamities, and it would be hard to talk my great aunt into going along with one. Yet after what my grandfather had pulled during the festival the year before, he knew his sister would give up almost anything just to keep him close to home, even if it did mean a yard full of his pals drinking ale and generally raising hell.     Great Aunt Theophila gathered her arms about herself and stood grimly. She wore a long black, shapeless dress, and her thin gray hair had been pulled into a pug that sat crookedly on the top of her head. The sunlight seemed painful to her. It blazed on the gold of her eyeglasses as she drew herself up and spoke. "All right, John Joseph, she said, "Have your party.     "No foolishness, Papa," my mother added, over my great aunt's shoulder. "No Summer People. None of your Women." My mother stood tall, full-breasted and pretty, but her face was always creased with some unnamed burden. When she spoke now, she scowled her habitual scowl. Sheika Nunes, my great aunt's most resolute friend, stood beside my mother, shifting her huge bulk from one heavy leg to the other, and Ernestina the Shoemaker's Wife just smiled sweetly from under her flowered kerchief. My grandfather knew a show of force when he saw one. "You don't have a thing to worry about," he said.     My great aunt pointed over the side fence toward Madeleine Sylvia's house. "Don't cause more trouble with the Lisbon ," she said.     "I'll keep it small," said my grandfather.     "And no going downtown. You stay away from the parade. From the big wharf."     My grandfather's face hardened a bit, but he agreed. He didn't have much choice. I knew he had been planning on this party for a long time. * * * Our Blessing of the Fleet is a ritual that came over from the old country with the crewmen and captains of the old whaling ships and grandbank fishing schooners that had once sailed from our harbor. Now the Blessing was the first feast day of summer in our town, and it signaled the time when the summer people began to arrive from their far-away cities to rent shacks and cottages and spare rooms along the water in those quieter days before all the big motels were built. The summer people were mysterious to us. They came and walked among us like ghosts. They dressed in different clothes and spoke a different speech from ours, from even the Lisbons and the Yankees. And they had money. Of course, my great aunt was wise enough to see this, and though we did not have a fine boardinghouse like the Lisbon Madeleine Sylvia, we had our own two summer people who came each year to rent the cramped unfinished rooms under the eaves of our roof.     Each year, on the first Sunday in June, the bishop from the archdiocese in New Bedford would travel all the way down to the end of our cape to say a special prayer over the town's fishing fleet. He petitioned for the safety and prosperity of each boat. It was a time when captains and crews hauled their boats out of the water to re-fit and repair them and to launch them once again with new paint and bright pennants and banners. When the bishop arrived he would join the parade from our church, be driven through the narrow streets of our town, down to the end of the big wharf where the ocean-going diesel trawlers would queue up and motor by and each receive its benediction. The men who worked ashore hung our streets with bunting and colored lights, and even the summer people would celebrate at the edges of the dancing and drinking, which would last the whole weekend.     But last summer my grandfather had come up with the disastrous idea that he should lead the parade of big boats with his jerry-rigged little sailing dory, and no one, not even my great aunt, could talk him out of it. She had pleaded with him. "The whole thing is a Lisbon operation," she had said. "Keep your poor Pico boat at home. You don't need the bishop's blessing."     "I don't want the bishop's blessing," he had told her. "I'm going to bless him ."     Great Aunt Theophila had demanded that our whole family go to the wharf, as though our presence might have prevented the misadventure that she had sensed in her thin bones. She had even talked Great Uncle Paddy into coming, and he usually avoided Catholic celebrations.     It had been an overcast, gloomy day to start with, and I remembered how she had woken us all early, not to go the Mass, for our family had stopped attending the church, but to get a good spot at the end of the long T-shaped main wharf, where a reviewing stand had been built for the bishop, and where a small crowd had already gathered, sipping sodas from iced bottles and eating hot dogs from Manny Aruela's steam cart. My great aunt had led us to the outermost edge of the wharf, just below and to the right of the reviewing stand, and from there we could hear the parade coming, the wet thump of the bass drum and the drifting brass of a march from the Portuguese-American Social Organization Band.     The low cloud-bank had begun to break apart by then, and patches of sun lay on the broad reaches of the harbor. The air was humid and warm, and the crowd thickened and pressed. I stepped up on a big iron cleat and balanced myself there. We could see the parade now, the blue banners of the Knights of Columbus wheeling in the square back at the foot of the wharf, and then the throng of fishermen behind them, all advancing toward us. Four of the men carried a litter with the statue of Saint Peter, the patron of fishermen, tied atop it, and the body of the saint was stuck all over with paper money, contributions to the Church that would bring good fortune to each donor. The bishop followed slowly, riding in the back of Ramao Boia's Packard convertible with the top rolled down, and at his side sat Father Santos, our parish priest, his face pale and smiling in the midday light. Behind them we could see the band, or at least the tall red and green hats and the nodding brass bell of Arthur Enos's Sousaphone.     The band stopped before it reached the crowded end of the wharf, letting the bishop's car pull into the shade of the packing house, while the musicians stood in place and played a slow, lush tune. I had been so taken up with the procession that I had forgotten for a moment why Great Aunt Theophila had mustered us there. But my mother called out over the noise. "Look" she said, "there's Papa."     I turned and looked seaward. By then the big motor trawlers were easing into positions about a half-mile out, getting ready to form a line for the Blessing. Their decks were crowded with families and guests, and flags and bright pennants drooped from their rigging. About three hundred yards inboard of them, my grandfather's dory bobbed and tacked. There had not been much wind that day, and he was already making for the wharf, getting a head start over the bigger, faster boats. Someone rode in the dory with him, and after watching for a minute or two, I could tell by the man's movements that it was Johnny Squash. This was not a good sign, for Squash was a partner in most of my grandfather's worst adventures. They sailed slowly in the limp wind, still well inshore of the trawlers. As they drew closer, I saw Squash standing in the bow with his shirt off, singing or shouting and waving a Portuguese flag. My grandfather sat at the tiller, dressed in his black, Holy-Rosary-Sodality-Rummage-Sale, double-breasted suit. Flying awkwardly from the gaff of his sail was the pale gonfalon of Carvalho the Navigator, our family crest, composed of two caravels over a cross of swords against the black volcanic cone of Pico, something my grandfather had invented for us years earlier, and something my great aunt dismissed as complete foolishness. Great Uncle Paddy watched impassively, and my mother scowled with that strange mixture of sorrow and anger that marked her features. But my great aunt openly glared. Her olive face was blanched with rage.     The bishop and Father Santos had climbed up the platform by then, and it was clear that my grandfather was going ahead with his plan to lead the procession in his little Pico boat and bless the bishop. He was making slow headway, but he closed on the wharf. The bishop, in his crimson hat and aviator's sunglasses, looked around at the crowd, which had begun hooting and cheering as the Caravella bobbed ever closer. But the skipper of one of the big draggers saw what my grandfather was up to and decided to have some fun of his own. The trawler heeled and cut a sharp turn, bearing down on my grandfather and Squash. The people up on deck yelled and shouted, and the Lisbon skipper blasted his airhorns. The crowd on the wharf gave up a mixed cheer. But my grandfather knew his rules of the road--sail with right of way over motor vessel--and he held his course. The trawler finally had to come about, heeling again, heading back outside. Again angry shouts mixed with cheers, but my grandfather was now even with the end of the wharf, and my mother said, "He's really going to do it!" John Joseph leaned over the side and dipped an old paint can full of seawater. Then he stood up. The bishop looked confused for a moment, then forced a smile, raised his aspergillum, and made the blessing over the little dory. John Joseph sprinkled water back in his direction and made the sign of the cross. The bishop pushed his sunglasses up on his nose and turned to Father Santos. The priest whispered something into the bishop's ear, and the bishop turned, still holding the smile on his lips, and waved his hand quickly and sharply, motioning to John Joseph that he should move the dory out of the way.     The whole thing should have been over right there, but my grandfather ran into some bad luck. Right at that moment the small wind died completely and he and Johnny Squash were stuck, becalmed right in front of the viewing stand, holding up the entire ceremony. My great aunt swore quietly in the old language. I don't know how long they drifted there. Probably not more than a few minutes, but it seemed like forever. And it must have seemed like forever to my grandfather, too, for the many ales that he had obviously put away during that long morning of drinking with Johnny Squash placed too much of a strain on his bladder, and he was forced to relieve himself right there, over the side, while the bishop, his smile gone, stared fixedly out in the direction of our waiting fleet.     The harbormaster quickly sent a boat over to tow my grandfather away, but the damage had been done. He only made it worse later that night when he had tried to explain to Great Aunt Theophila, "I at least turned my back."     "I know how you think," she had shouted. "You were going to do that all along!" Then she became so choked on her own anger that she could no longer speak. She spat into the kitchen sink, pushed him through the back door and locked him out, retreating to her bedroom where she prayed furiously to the saints on her bureau-top. Smoke from the votive candles and incense bloomed through the house and grew so strong in the bedroom that Great Uncle Paddy, grumbling quietly, moved out to the back room and slept on John Joseph's cot, but only after he had gone out to the backyard and thrown a blanket over John Joseph, who had collapsed quietly into a fetal position on the canvas porch-swing. Even now, a whole year later, those same troubling memories were hanging over all of us as we stood there in the yard. A breeze crept up from the water carrying with it an ocean smell, fresh brine and the taint of methane, bottom-paint, and net-tar. I could hear the fishbuckets ratcheting and creaking on the trestle at the North Atlantic Cold Storage wharf behind our house. Gulls screamed in the upper air. Finally, my great aunt lifted her hand, the color of an old coffee stain on a napkin, and she shielded her eyes. She looked off in the direction of the beach and not at my grandfather. It seemed that she would have more to say to him after this bargain that they had reached, and she looked for a moment like she was thinking of something. But she finally just shrugged, turned suddenly, and walked back into the house, and the other women followed her. My mother paused on the step just long enough to turn around and cast a gloomy look in my direction. It was almost as if she knew what kind of trouble this summer would bring for us, but of course she had no way of knowing. My mother could often gaze off into some space inside herself and then tell you the whereabouts of some lost thing that you had been searching for, but really she couldn't see the future any better than the rest of us. Copyright © 1999 Frank X. Gaspar. All rights reserved.

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