Teaser 009: [Excerpt from The True Cross Screenplay] The Only One


A Hispanic man, about forty, leans on the rail of a small passenger and freight steamer, dominated down the New England dock toward open water by the huge freighters, all serviced by mechanized loading and unloading equipment. The little steamer, though, is loaded by stevedores using ropes and pulleys and the year is 1937, still in the depths of the Great Depression. The stevedores struggle with a pine box, seven feet in length, three feet wide, two feet high, and as the box teeters above the water, one loses his grip and an end of the box drops precariously toward the water. The Hispanic man yells, “Don't drop that! Those contents cannot be replaced!” The stevedores struggle to bring the box back to a correct angle and begin to lower it into the steamer's hold.

A taller man, Anglo, wearing an old-style top hat, a long, fashionable coat, and well-to-do duds underneath, smiles from a few feet away. “I would imagine the contents can't be replaced. That's a coffin, isn't it?”

“What?”

“It is a coffin, is it not?”

“What if it is?”

Sheepishly, the taller man says, “Pardon me. That was rude. I should have introduced myself first. Professor Andrew Marks.”

The Hispanic musters a half smile. “Esteban Vasquez.” Both close the short distance between them to shake hands. “You are a professor?”

“Of mathematics. Boston University. I'm beginning my sabbatical, first to meet a colleague in Mexico, and then other places around the world.”

“In Vera Cruz?”

“No, my colleague teaches at the University of Mexico in Mexico City, but I wanted to travel by sea and I've heard Vera Cruz is a wonderful city so I'd spend a few days there. Are you from Vera Cruz?”

“I have ranch and land holdings in the hills and valleys around Vera Cruz. This steamer was the quickest way I could get back with the...coffin. But I promised my mother I would do so.”

“Is that your...mother?”

“No! I promised her before she died I would bring him back to be buried in the family cemetery.”

“Your father?”

“No! My father made my mother promise to bury him next to him.”

“Your uncle?”

“No, that box contains the body of Gustavo, who is...how do you say? No relation?”

“Your mother made you promise to bring back the body of a man who is no relation to her?”

“You are very inquisitive, Professor Marks. I suppose it comes from your educational training?”

“There is learning everywhere, Senor Vasquez, should you choose to look for it.”

Esteban looks out across the wharf. “As long as I can remember, Gustavo was my father's foreman on the ranch, the ranch and holdings I inherited, have added to. They were friends from when they were little boys, perhaps even best of friends, long before my mother came to the ranch as my father's wife.” He turns back to the Professor. “But it is a long story, Professor.”

Professor Marks smiles with genuine and stoked interest. “Senor Vasquez, we have a long voyage before us and nothing but time. Perhaps, such a story should begin over drinks and dinner. Care to join me tonight? Say, seven? I booked this steamer because the chef has a certain culinary renown.”

“This was the fastest way to get back to Vera Cruz, but drinks and dinner with a professor of mathematics appeals to me. Seven it is.”

Thus begins The True Cross, narrated by Esteban to his voyage companion, Professor Andrew Marks. They meet in the ship's dining compartment, enjoy glasses of wine, are served dinner and Esteban begins his tale.

“Both my father and Gustavo would tell me they would race horses when they were boys, very young boys. Gustavo even took me to their favorite racing spot, a hill about two hundred yards, with a big tree near the bottom and another big tree near the top, and they would race to each tree and around and to the other tree, twice, and always starting at the top.”

Two young boys—one a bit taller and older, about eleven, the other smaller, maybe nine—race on a horse each. The smaller careers down a hill toward a big tree ahead of the bigger, but the bigger suddenly slaps his horse and flies down the hill, closes the gap seemingly in an instant, performs a nearly perfect round of the tree while the smaller struggles, and the bigger gallops up the hill and passes another big tree wearing a triumphant grin.

“You lose again, Octavio, but because I consider you my brother, you only lose your pride.” He laughs.

“You always win, Gustavo.” The smaller changes from a defeated appearance to one of hope and eventual redemption. “Because you are older and bigger. One day I will be your equal and I will whip you thoroughly.”

“And I will enjoy my whipping. My brother has beaten me.”

“I am not your brother, Gustavo, and I will never be your brother.”

“In the heart, Octavio, in the heart.” The bigger pounds his left chest.

“Hmmph,” moans the smaller as he points his horse to the top of the hill.

“Besides your own beloved family, there is another who loves you more?” The bigger follows and stops when the smaller stops to turn around and look at the bigger. They stare at each other for a few moments, until the smaller turns and clicks his horse.

“You know there is no other.”

“And where is your real brother?”

“You know I have neither a brother nor sister!”

“Then we are brothers, of the heart, Octavio. Who has always been here for you?”

“You have.”

“And one day, Octavio, you will beat me, but until then,” the bigger digs his heels into his horse, “you will still be the last to arrive at the farmhouse for dinner.”

At the farmhouse the bigger races, dismounts, ties his horse to a rail and walks to the water trough where he grabs the soap from a dish and begins to wash his hands, his face and the sweat from his hair, head and neck. The younger pulls up, dismounts, ties his horse next to the bigger's horse and begins to step to the porch but is greeted by a stern-looking woman.

“Don't you dare step into this house filthy like that, Octavio. You know you clean up before dinner. Now get to it.” The woman takes a swat at him, but she is much too far away and delivers it for effect. “Why can't you be like Gustavo for once, young man?”

The bigger walks slowly, deliberately, delicately to the farmhouse. “Are we having roast and potatoes, Senora Vasquez?”

The woman turns to the seemingly humble little boy who addressed her and smiles sweetly at him. “We are, but it is what you asked for last night, wasn't it?”

Gustavo beams at her. “Yes, but this is not my home, Senora Vasquez. I only asked.”

She reaches for him and brushes the back of his neck as he passes. “We all love roast and potatoes, Gustavo, but, yes, I did prepare it with you in mind.” She looks at the young boy trying to scrub himself at the water trough. She raises her voice. “Because you have courtesy and manners, unlike some other boys!”

“Look, mama, I'm washing my hands and face.” Octavio turns to her with a face full of soap. “Is this enough soap?”

Gustavo cannot stop breaking out in laughter. His laughter causes Senora Vasquez to laugh too. “Yes, and try closing your eyes before you rub it all over and rinse.” She shakes her head and walks inside with Gustavo.

At the Vasquez dinner table, husband, wife, and the two boys sit, along with two younger sisters, one boy of “no relation” who demonstrates his manners, owing to his father, who taught him the ways of polite, higher society, even though his father did not come from it. Tradition and manners, the reason the rancher respected the mechanic, and by extension, his family so much. What you may not be grasping at this point—as you watch this on the screen—is that no one from such a lower class ever sat at the Vasquez dinner table, not even the father, except Gustavo. He's the only one.

Flash forward and Gustavo, now sixteen, runs nearly out of breath into the ranch hand bunkhouse to the foreman. He struggles for breath. “It's father. He fell at the cabin, holding his chest. I can't move him.”

The foreman rushes out, shouts to the rancher stepping down from the farmhouse porch that Gustavo's father is in trouble, and the foreman and Gustavo grab a horse each and race to the cabin. At the cabin the foreman turns the older man over. This touch makes him put his hand to the older man's mouth, push against the older man's neck. He looks up at Gustavo standing above him. “Your father doesn't need a doctor, Gustavo. I'm sorry. He needs a priest.”

Gustavo walks to the nearest chair and collapses. A cute little girl about ten comes out from the cabin shadows and climbs onto Gustavo's lap and the two squeeze each other.

In the town at the funeral Gustavo walks past the open casket bearing his father, stops to stare blankly at the old man, and walks past, and soon walks away from the funeral home outside with his sister on his right as Senor and Senora Vasquez follow behind watching them.

“So, Ernesto,” Senora says lightly but sternly, “what are you going to do?”

“There is nothing I can do!”

“The boy is an orphan now. He watched his mother die in childbirth when he was six years old. Barely ten years later he watched his father die, but for lack of a deed, you are going to let them throw him out of the only home he knows?”

“I cannot adopt him! He's too old. And if I did, he would be the eldest son. No!”

Ahead of them Octavio catches up, squeezes himself between the two siblings and soon the closest arm of each sibling is draped over Octavio's neck and he has thrown an arm around each sibling's neck.

Senora turns away from them. “So, do nothing. Let them throw he and his sister out with nowhere to go.” A moment later she turns back, grasps his arm and they both stop. “There must be something, Ernesto. Look at him! What has that boy done to you so you do not love him,” and she leans close to his ear, in a lower tone, “like he was your own son?”

Senor's face is flushed, his eyes are watery. He wipes his eyes with the back of his right hand, takes a deep breath as he faces his wife. “I can talk to my attorney. Perhaps we can make a trust for the cabin, to hold it for him until he's of age.”

Senora smiles and wraps her arm around Senor's arm. She smiles at a woman who approaches and speaks as though to the wind. “So you can do something after all, Ernesto. I suppose it's why I agreed to marry you all those years ago. You can be resourceful...when you need to be.”

Thus the stage is set, delivered in a staccato fashion like the rat-a-tat-tat of the Spanish language itself as spoken by its practitioners. You, the audience, now know the history of how this unusual relationship developed, though you don't know how unusual it was in nineteenth century Mexico, but you will eventually. That is part, a very large part, of the story. What you also have witnessed, though the significance won't be clear until later, is Octavio in the middle. The sister seems to be a big part too, but you are going to learn that her part, small as it is, has enormous significance in shaping Gustavo and in driving the reason why Esteban travels to New England to retrieve Gustavo's body.


- Just Desserts, Segment One “Welcome to Lost Anglos” by Gregory R. Schussele, © 2021

contact me, as always: schussprose@gmail.com