TORTILLA FLAT (1935) is a novel by John Steinbeck, and was made into a film in 1942.
12/01/09 | Novel

Tortilla Flat

by Joel Van Noord

Aswitre is 17 and wears desert camo and an NYC Rocks shirt. He is agnostic and has never been off his island. Vol is a nickname but he’s an early thirties Hindu. Stitch was born of Chinese parents and self-adopted that moniker. He is Buddhist. Craig is 28, from Caucasian Bahaman parents, and claims a non-conforming Christianity. Bob is 56 and fixes broken boards for the youth. He is an Australian-born atheist.

There is an island to the south with tens of millions of Muslims.

There is a 74 year-old man. His dark skin is a beautiful lattice of deep canyons and taught basins. He has no fat. There is little fat to spare on the island. This old man sits on his stoop and watches. His jaw works like a cow with cud. There are few cows on the island. Chickens and pigs roam through the dense forests. Goats flock in herds outside the houses, running along fence lines.

This old man wears a clock around his neck. It is no decoration and it is not a small time keeping device. It once hung on the wall. Now, scratched and still wearing stains from mud, it is a non-working testament to the hour when the ocean slumped away to only rise up and obliterate much of what he knew.

The houses were once dense. Now there are views from three streets back. The surf barrels and spits. Four streets back there is a 30-foot fishing vessel peacefully perched between two houses. Underneath the shade, between the two houses and under the vessel, a small vegetable garden thrives in refuge from the intense sun.

There are thousands of gods. Some stay in the closet and consume fruit. Vol says, “When young, you only must do. There is ceremony but you do not understand. When you have family you can understand.”

Bob was always the one who stood tall. His friend they called Mega. He had stood to the side and went places Bob bought tickets to. “Brother,” Bob says, “it seems everything we came here for is being replaced by what we were trying to escape.”

When a child is born the placenta is buried in the garden.

The sea was once home to demons and dragons. There are Australian scientists now anchoring buoys and explaining wave algorithms.

Photographers huddle on the beach for Stitch. When he’s out of the water he sits and photographers pass him by. There are gangs of shrieking monkeys and he feeds them bananas.

Aswitre shadows Stitch in the water. On land he wanders massage parlors downtown.

Craig walks the same streets everyday and sees the same faces. They still call him Joe, though, and try to hustle him.

There are dance clubs. On a late winter day there were 202 deaths. Most were happy (before the explosion); many were drunk. Some were elated and some were depressed about a member of the opposite sex. There were two unknown pregnancies. There was one suicide.

There is one scientist studying succession and Bob has befriended him. The scientist takes long walks with a pack of kids behind. Later, to Bob, one exclaims, “Imagine that! There are squids which never see a solid surface their entire lives!” Bob smiles and remembers dives in the Great Barrier Reef when he was a child.

The reef today has a section dynamited to cut off 15 travel minutes for cargo tankers. There have been three minor oil spills and the great reef is slowly dying from terrestrial material depositing down.

With the sweeping wave the third world island nation gained popularity and sympathy. Rich nations donated much money and food in aid. The bombing was less destructive and less aid rushed in. Tourism dropped. Bob said to his friend, “Good.”