NEA Literature Fellowships

David Vann

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(2008 - Prose)

From the memoir Crocodile: Memoirs from a Mexican Drug-Running Port

The lighthouses were full-sized but made of chicken wire and plaster. Women on their knees rubbed the new brick walkway with loose bricks to make the path seem worn and old, and the dredger worked all night to remove the waste of decades, preparing a new Mexican paradise for Guatemalans. The local fishing boats, called pangas, roared past on drug missions. 

My sailboat was large and broken, tied to the one crumbled chunk of concrete on the shoreline, visited by rats, snakes, begging children, prostitutes, the police, the navy, drunks, and the port captain's men. I was referred to locally as the "ATM Machine," bleeding cash, on the edge of ruin, and even when I'd take a taxi from Tapachula, the city inland, the drivers knew who I was and every detail of my story. They knew the mechanic and his men who held part of my engine ransom. They knew what I paid Gordo each week for protection. They knew who had stolen my outboard. They knew I had tried to escape once, putting away at one knot on a broken diesel belching black grime onto the water, and that pirates in pangas had rammed my boat and threatened to board for drugs. They knew I had sailed straight to sea that night like a coward with my lights off, then limped back to port over the next two days. They knew about Eva, and knew before I did that she wasn't Guatemalan. They knew I was here because another captain had abandoned my boat and destroyed the engine, but they didn't know why I stayed.

I left the boat at noon because I was hungry. I left it wide open, unlocked, because of Gordo. I crossed through the beggar kids and into the field, then continued on to the one restaurant with its one outdoor table and ordered chicken knuckles, called Pollo Diablo.

While I waited, one of the prostitutes came by. She flipped up her tube top, exposing her breasts, and slurred, "Me love me," which was her usual. She meant to say, "I love you." 

"No, gracias," I said, which was my usual.

She leered and turned away, almost falling, very drunk. She was my friend, though, only recently become a prostitute. One of the men who were always leaning against the concrete wall said something rude. She turned her head, as if she couldn't hear, and he stepped toward her, grinning, to repeat it.

She was fast. I saw him recoil, then the blood forming in tracks across his cheek, but I missed the moment she struck. The men's friends lunged at her. They knocked her down into the dirt and kicked her, all of them. She crawled toward me and grabbed my ankle. "Help me," she said in Spanish. She was being kicked in the stomach, back, chest, and face. 

I wanted to help her. One of these men, though, worked for the port captain, who held my papers.  Another worked for Gordo. Another, from the shrimp fleet, was a drunk I'd insulted. Then there was the suitor, who had wanted to kill me for a long time now. I was living here on some very frail agreements.

"Por favor," I said. Please. And the men stopped. They watched, as did everyone else who had gathered. It was silent, and white hot in the sun. One of the men walked a few steps away to pick up a loose concrete block, then returned to stand over my friend's head. She was barely conscious. He raised the block high and said "Uno" as he lowered it. He raised it again and said "Dos" as he lowered it. Then he raised it again.

I knew what would happen on the count of three. 

David Vann is author of the bestselling memoir, A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea.  His story collection, Legend of a Suicide, won the Grace Paley Prize awarded by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and will be published fall 2008. He's written features for Esquire, Men's Journal, Outside, and Outside's GO, and his work has also appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Writer's Digest, and other magazines and won various awards. He's been a Wallace Stegner Fellow, taught at Stanford and Cornell, and is now a professor at Florida State University. (

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

This fellowship comes at a perfect time. I'm about to set off on a nonstop solo circumnavigation for Esquire magazine, 120 days at sea alone on my homemade boat from California to the tip of South America, then around Antarctica and hang a left after New Zealand. Twenty-five thousand miles. The first part of the story was in the December 2007 issue of Esquire, with updates, photos, and blog at; Esquire will publish a longer piece on my return, but I'm also writing a book about the expedition. The NEA fellowship will pay bills while I'm at sea and also provide vital writing time on my return to finish the book. I'm really grateful for this.