Telling Hal Anderson about Rose was a mistake. I knew it even as the words spilled out. But this was one time I couldn’t keep my fool mouth shut.
It was ten years since I had seen him, and I was still sore about the double-cross he’d pulled on me. So now I wanted to rub his nose in it, but good.
I was sitting in a little bar near the waterfront in Port-au-Prince, waiting while my boat, the Sea Princess, was taking on stores. I almost dropped my drink when the familiar, tall, white-uniformed figure appeared in front of me. “Mickey!” he shouted and began to pump my hand. “For a second I thought I was seeing things. Damn, boy, you haven’t changed a bit. Still a tub of muscles, same old hat—even smell the same. Great to see you!”
“Sure. Sit down, Hal, and have a drink on me.”
He sat down, first carefully creasing his drill trousers, and I ordered two more rums.
Hal grinned as he said, “Funny, we should be drinking together again, after all these years.”
“Yeah,” I said, wondering if I’d be as well off now if Hal was still my partner. Of course I wouldn’t have Rose.
“What are you doing in Haiti, Mickey?”
“Man, you can see what I’m doing; drinking rum. Lazying around.”
“You haven’t changed.”
“Nope. At least I haven’t tried to. You have. Why the monkey suit?”
“I’m on the purser’s staff of the American Spirit.” He nodded at the liner down in the harbor.
“What do you do, hold hands with the seasick?”
“Cut it out, Mickey.”
“I figured by this time you’d have long finished college, be a free wheeling executive.”
“Stop it, Mickey,” he said calmly. “I did go to college for two years. One summer I signed on as an A.B. I met a girl in Nice and married her on the next trip. Colette and I live in New York City, got us a house there, and two fine kids. She’s something, a wonderful girl, an artist, and a…”
“So you got hooked.”
“You’re nuts. I’m a very happy guy. What the hell have I to regret? I eat regularly, don’t work hard, send my salary home, and see my family every five weeks. Like a honeymoon each time. It isn’t a bad deal. My having been an ensign helps and some day I’ll…”
“Some day, will you ever be able to stop saying ‘sir’ to the clucks?”
He fanned his face with his hat and laughed. “My God, still the same old Mickey. Hell, sir is only a word. You used to…”
“No, that was your department.”
He finished his rum, then he said, “It wouldn’t have worked, Mickey. Even with the new boat. I’m not made for that kind of life. You see I like having a wife, kids, a home, worrying and plugging for the future. I’m not built like a…”
“A bum,” I added. “Yeah, maybe that does take a kind of talent.” I finished my drink, motioned for another round.
“Still have the Sea Princess?”
“Lord, not with the same rusty converted Essex motor?”
“Nope. I have two turbo Diesels now.”
Hal gave a mock whistle. The rum was making him sweat and I could see how badly he wanted to open his tight collar. “Sea Princess,” he laughed. “What a name for that clumsy double-ender.”
“Yeah?” I winked at him. “You should see her now. Matter of fact, I’m going down to the dock, sailing with the tide. Want to come along?” I suppose it was then, his cracks about the first Sea Princess that made me show off. And I was a little high on rum, too.
I really enjoyed his pop-eyed look when we got to the Sea Princess. It gave me a bang to see her, too, for she’s thirty-two feet of the sweetest flushdecked sloop you’ll ever see. Mr. Bayard, who sold me supplies, was sitting atop the cabin, his linen suit stained under the armpits, fanning himself with a newspaper. His sun glasses seemed to be the same color as his dark brown face. He waved and came over and told me in French everything was loaded. I owed him a balance of forty bucks and casually handed him a fifty-dollar bill, told him to keep the change. He was so excited he began to sweat more. We shook hands and as he walked down the dock he shouted his thanks again.
Hal was running his eyes all over the Sea Princess as if she were a lush woman. “On the level, Mickey, is this your boat?”
“Want to see my papers?”
“My good Lord, what a job! Why she must have cost twenty-thousand. Or more.”
“More,” I lied.
“She’s pure dream.”
“Fellow could sail around the world in this.”
“I may try it some day. Want a drink?”
Hal looked at his watch. “Okay. I have time.”
“I have a half hour,” I said, as he followed me down into the polished mahogany cabin. He came in stooped and I told him, “Straighten up, plenty of head room here,” and wondered why I’d asked him aboard. I had this desire to brag so strong, I couldn’t help myself. And all the time I knew it was a mistake.
I broke out a bottle of Canadian rye, to impress him, and some ice. The cabin was jammed with crates—tins of fancy food, books, magazines, a new hi-fi set, and many other things.
Hal inspected the galley, the head, the shower, the bunks, even opened the refrigerator. Then he took inventory of all the boxes and crates. He glanced at me with a slow smile, his eyes asking what was my racket. Then he said it: “Smuggling?”
“Come off it. What’s there to smuggle these days?” I gave him his drink and glanced at the wall clock. Actually, catching the tide didn’t mean much to me except a little saving in fuel.
“Heading back to Miami?” His eyes were still racing around the cabin. They finally found the snap of Rose over my bunk. The camera had caught her running toward the waves in a bikini. It was my favorite picture.
“Nope,” I said, waiting; a kind of inner voice telling me to let it go, shut up.
He bent forward a bit to see the snap better. “Havana?”
I shook my head. “I bum around, do a lot of island hopping.”
“Mickey the beachcomber!” There was sarcasm in his voice.
“That’s me.” Maybe it was the snotty sarcasm that made me forget caution. “And that’s my wife.”
“No? I can’t believe that!” Hal stepped across the cabin and took a close look at the snap, as he’d wanted to do. “Wow!”
Hal turned to stare at me, his face bewildered. He yanked his collar open. “Are you snowing me?”
“Want to see our papers?”
“Aw Mickey, why in hell would a beauty like that marry a guy with your puss!”
“She’s in love with my character.”
“She must be after your money.”
I chuckled. “She has the money.”
“A boat like this and a woman like… How long has this been going on?”
“How come you’re so full of questions?”
“Mickey, you know I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Guess you don’t,” I said, thinking it wouldn’t do any harm telling him a little about Rose… and a voice in the back of my noggin screaming at me to keep my trap shut.
I refilled our glasses. I still had a good twenty minutes before full tide. I opened a box of cigars, Havana’s best.
“Make sure you never repeat any of this,” I began.
“Not even to Colette,” Hal said. I knew he meant it. A loose tongue had never been one of his faults. At the same time I knew I’d already said too much, that it would be best to play it safe, keep still.
There was a moment of silence as I tried to think up a fast he for an out. Hal glanced at Rose’s snap again. “So help me, Mick, I still don’t believe it.”
I took the bait like any stupid fish and told him, “One day I got fed up with Miami. The charter boat business was lousy and I’d had it with my few jerk customers. I was only getting five bucks a head and a lot of seasick women and… I sailed down to the Keys for some quiet, to relax.”
“You and your moods—kept us the hungriest boat operators on the waterfront.”
I nodded, thinking I shouldn’t have told him it was the Keys, I’d better change it damn fast. “The Keys were full of boats, big and small yachts, so I crossed over to the Bahamas, found myself a quiet little island. A hunk of sand and a couple of ragged bushes. No place to live and no way of getting there without a boat—a sea boat. I anchored late in the afternoon, about thirty or forty feet offshore. I didn’t do much of anything but fish for my supper, put in sack time. In the morning I saw this girl on the beach. I’d never seen anything like her before, except in the movies. A tall platinum-blonde, with a face and shape… well, you see the snap. She was calmly sitting on a suitcase, peeling off her stockings and a ritzy summer dress. There was a bathing suit under the dress. I went down into the cabin and put my little telescope on her—through a port hole. Up close she looked even better. She also had a cloth-bag pocketbook, and I could see the heavy outline of a .45 automatic in the bag.” I felt fine now that I was actually telling the story. I even told myself that having changed the locale and a few other items, I was playing it safe.
“But you said this was only a hunk of sand? How did she get there?”
“Hal, let me tell it. I went on deck and watched her, also wondering how in the devil she’d ever got there. There wasn’t any sign of a boat. Anyway, naturally she had to see me but she wasn’t paying me no mind. After swimming around a little—and she was a good swimmer—she returned to the tiny beach and rubbed herself down with oil, put on dark glasses, and sunned herself. Acted as if she was on the private sand of one of those lush Miami Beach money-trap hotels. I took my morning dip and she still didn’t notice me. I waded ashore, said, ‘Hello. This a private island or something?’
“’I wouldn’t know,’ she said. ‘I’m merely here for the sun and swimming. And you?’ Hal, she even had the kind of exciting, throaty voice that fitted her looks.
“I played it just as cook told her, ‘I’m here for the bathing, myself.’
“So we sat for a time, not talking. Her skin was rather pale, probably her first time out in the sun. And if she was beautiful, out-of-this-world-pretty, there was also this tough cast to her face. She’d been around plenty in her thirty or thirty-five. This was a hard chick who wouldn’t hesitate about picking up her bag and shooting. The cloth was so thin she could have worked the trigger without opening the purse… and she kept the bag in her hands all the time.
“So I sat there, minding my own business. You know me, I don’t go for making a pass if you have to work at it. After about ten minutes I went back in the water. The tide was coming in but it wasn’t over five feet deep and I walked, out to the Sea Princess, trying to kick up some clams. I made…”
“This was our old boat you’re talking about?” Hal asked.
“Yeah, my boat,” I said. That “our” boat stuff made me mad. “I made coffee and eggs, washed the dishes. I didn’t even look her way. She called out, ‘I haven’t had any breakfast. Could you spare some, please?’
“I said sure and she held all her clothes and the suitcase over her head and waded out to the Sea Princess. The suitcase wasn’t small; I mean, it wasn’t any overnight bag. When she reached the boat, she put the suitcase and her clothes on deck, then pulled herself up. During all this she hadn’t let go of the purse. She held it in her right hand, pointing in my direction. I….”
“You scared?” Hal cut in, pouring himself another belt, unbuttoning his jacket.
“No. Let’s say I was careful—not to make any wrong moves,” I told him, knowing I was making one now, talking. But I couldn’t stop, I was enjoying it too much. Not only showing-off to Hal; finding Rose was one of the high moments of my life, and this was the first time I had a chance to tell anybody about it. “I had this feeling she didn’t want trouble, but she was ready for it. She glanced at the rigging, said, ‘A motor-sailer. Not much of a boat, not even a radio or ship-to-shore phone.’
“’That’s right, nothing fancy, but a good sea boat.’
“’You’re looking at the captain, navigator, cook and bottlewasher,’ I told her. I made more eggs and bacon and from the way she packed it in, she had skipped plenty of meals recently. She was sitting on the suitcase, her purse on her lap all the time. When she finished my chow she got a crumpled pack of butts from her dress, took one, and tossed the pack at me. I shook my head and reached over, put the pack on her thigh. It was certainly the best thigh I’d ever been that close to. Of course she knew my eyes were taking it all in and I think she was waiting for me to make a play. But I didn’t. Finishing her cigarette she asked, ‘Can you make Cuba in this? You said it’s a sea boat.’
“’Sure. I’ve done it plenty of times—with decent weather.’
“’What do you do?’
“’This. I also take out fishing parties, but when I feel like it. Otherwise I just swim around—like you.’
“’All by yourself?’
“She looked too hardboiled for the coy routine. I told her, ‘Yeah, it don’t take two to swim.’
“’Isn’t it lonely? Don’t you miss the newspapers, a radio?’
“She laughed, a real warm laugh. I mean the laugh was her—the human behind all the beauty and glamour. By this time I was eyeing her openly, making no pretense of not staring at her beauty. After she finished her cigarette she suddenly got up and thanked me for the grub. She let herself over the side gracefully—careful not to get her purse wet—picked up her clothes and bag and waded ashore. She walked around to the other side of the islet, and disappeared behind the low bushes—probably went to sleep. I stretched out on the deck and thought about her—a little. I knew that under all her casual questions she had been pumping me. But she was far too pretty to take seriously.
“I slept for a couple of hours, even cleaned up the boat, somewhat. I took a swim and considered swimming around to the other side of the dot of sand, but let it go. I got a line out and caught me a good snook. I dived for clams and then broiled the fish. She still hadn’t appeared and I wondered if she had taken off…”
“How?” Hal cut in.
“I had no idea. Like I had no idea how she’d landed there. Matter of fact, I didn’t give that, or anything, much real thinking. I felt it was all a dream. But to get on with my story, I called out, ‘Want some supper?’
“”Thank you very much,’ she called back, suddenly standing up from behind the bushes. Maybe she’d been watching me all the time. She was red and oily all over from too much sun. She picked up her things and started to wade out. The tide had come in and about ten feet from shore the water was already up to her shoulders. I said, ‘Best you leave your stuff on shore and swim out.’
“’I’d rather not,’ she said, standing there in the water. ‘Can’t we eat ashore?’
“Of course I realized her problem. There wasn’t anybody to steal her suitcase and clothes—no worry about that—but she couldn’t swim out to the Sea Princess and take the gun without getting it wet. I called out, ‘The stove is bolted down to the boat.’
“’Then I must decline your invitation,’ she said, and she waded back to the sand. I untied the dink and rowed ashore. She got in without saying a word—carrying all her things. We had a silent supper on the boat, using up the last three bottles of beer I had. I washed the dishes and started a cigar working. Finally she broke the silence by asking, ‘What did you do all afternoon?’
“’Nothing. Sleep and think.’
“’What were you thinking about?’
“’I don’t know, anything that came to mind,’ I said, wondering where this bright conversation was heading for.
“’Like a bump on a log.’
“’Could be. Something special I should have been thinking about?’
“’Please don’t misunderstand: I’m a bump-on-a-log thinker myself. When I was a child I used to crawl into a large old crate in our back yard and dream I was in a castle, a theatre, or wherever I wished to be. And I really was in a castle—until something snapped the spell. But if that something hadn’t come up, why I would have remained in my dream castle and it would no longer be a dream. You know what I mean?’
“’I’m not sure,’ I said.
“’It’s not hard to do, once you achieve the balance. That’s the big thing: the very delicate balance between thought and reality. For an example, this island is a lovely bit of even sandy beach and very clear water. We could easily imagine we were on a lonely part of Miami Beach, or Atlantic City, Fire Island, or even the beach at Monte Carlo. They are all clean sand, clear water, the sun, and various degrees of quiet. So I sit on the beach of this tiny hunk of sand and as long as I keep the balance, why for all purposes I am on Miami Beach, and I can stay there until a wrong move, a single false thought, destroys the balance, shatters the dream. You see?’
“’Sure. Especially if the wrong move happens to be a shot from the .45 you’re packing.’
“’There!’ she said loudly, jumping up. ‘You’ve broken the spell! That’s exactly what I mean: we were talking about sand, sun, water, and Miami Beach. Why spoil it with an ugly thought about guns?’
“’Because there’s plenty of guns in Miami Beach, and also because you’ve been covering me with that heater in your bag ever since you saw me.’
“’That’s so, but we could ignore it, like we must ignore that this is simply a lousy blob of sand without water, food, or a goddamn comfort! We forget it—that’s the secret of daydreaming. We merely pretend this is Laguna Beach instead of an isolated spot of sand—and unless one of us broke the spell, we would be in Laguna Beach.’
“As I told you, Hal, I figured her for about thirty-three, a long way from kid games. I also knew she wasn’t a nut: this was a selling pitch. But I still didn’t know what she was putting in the showcase. I said, ‘I’ll go along with you. Far as I’m concerned we are now dining on a yacht off Cape Cod, or wherever you wish.’
“’You’re making fun of me! Thank you for supper. I’d like to go back to the beach, now.’
“I pulled the dink in, gave her an old GI blanket. ‘You better take this along. The mosquitoes and sand fleas here lack imagination; forget this ain’t Venice.’
“I rowed her ashore and when I returned to the Sea Princess I was full of two thoughts. The first was, I ought to get up sail and get cracking because whoever had put her ashore—or whoever she was carrying the gun against —would probably return. She looked like a big time goon’s girl. The other idea was, she was throwing herself at me. I mean, well, I couldn’t leave her there to starve— or rather, I didn’t want to. You don’t get to know a gal pretty as her once in a lifetime. Remember those carbines we won in a crap game?”
Hal nodded, his questioning eyes impatient.
“I checked and cleaned ’em, put in clips. I left them within easy reach under a canvas near the engine hatch, and went to sleep. Early the next morning I heard this tapping on the side of the boat. The tide was low and she had walked out, ferrying all her stuff on her head again. She asked could trouble me for breakfast again, added, ‘I’ll be glad to pay you for it.’ Her left arm was up holding the stuff on her head, the right was holding the gun in the purse.
“’Don’t spoil the balance,’ I said, kidding her. “’I was a millionaire all last night.’
“’Then at least let me do the cooking.’
“She went down to the galley, taking her things with her. I kept calling out, telling her where to find the bread and eggs, but she didn’t answer. I figured she was using the head. Finally I looked in and she was punishing a pint she’d found. And when she looked up, saw me, there was a hell of a tough expression on her face. Then she flushed, or maybe it was the cheap gin, said coldly, ‘I’m sorry. I needed this—needed it damn badly.’
“’Okay,’ I said. Booze wasn’t any stranger to her— she’d killed the pint and didn’t look drunk. ‘But how about getting the coffee and the last of the eggs working?’
“She cooked and we ate up on deck, without talking. But she kept watching me, kind of judging me. I knew she was working up to the real pitch. She lit the last of her cigarettes, threw the box over and we both watched it drift out with the tide. She said, ‘It’s so red, it could be a flower floating in the sea, a rose. About what we were saying last night: do you realize if we play it smart, we can really carry this dream on, make it a reality—forever?’
“’Slower. You lost me. Play what smart?’
“’It’s quite simple. Let us start with the fact we’re alone on this boat. Your eyes have been feeling me up ever since we met, and you’ll do for me. Let us suppose I’m Nancy and you’re Joe and…’
“’… and here we are with nothing holding us back— once we forget everything except ourselves and the boat. The boat will make our dream workable. This lousy hunk of sand is nothing, but there are other islands. Right this second we can pull anchor and head for Cuba. We stock up on food and gas, sail around until we find the right island for us: one where too many nosey people won’t spoil our dream, our balance. For the rest of their lives Nancy and Mickey do nothing but take life easy. We can do it hands down if we both keep that balance in mind and remember to think only of the present. Our own little world starts as of now. It hasn’t any past—and tomorrow is what we make it. Will you buy that?’
“’Glad you mentioned buying. What about the dream-busters like food, gas, clothes? Or do we use dream bucks?’
“She was sitting—as usual—on the suitcase. She stood up, stepped away from it, told me, ‘Mickey, open my bag —slowly.’ She pointed toward it, and me, with her purse gun. I opened the suitcase. It was packed solid with bills: hundreds, twenties, fifties.
“’It’s our magic carpet, Mickey. If we live modestly, but comfortably, there’s enough there to last us from now on. Money won’t be our problem, it will be up here.’ She touched her blonde head. ‘As long as we have sense enough to only think of the present, and that may not be easy all the time, we can make it. In other words, Mickey and Nancy are born as of this second!’ She held out her arms.
“’You mean the three of us: you, me, and your gun?’ “She dropped her arms so fast I thought she was set to throw a punch at me. She said, “There you go, spoiling things! You must learn to stop that, if we are to have balance. I mean really stop it, not even a joke or a small wisecrack. You could have sailed away last night, no one made you stay, or come here. I’m not forcing you to live with me, I’m asking. If you say no, that’s it. Why must you always bring up my gun?’
“’Because it’s always with us, a part of the present.’ “She shrugged. ‘You have a couple of rifles under that canvas. And I saw a fighting knife in your cabin. I didn’t say anything about them. In time the gun will go—I’ll throw it away. In time.’”
“That’s the story, Hal,” I said, nodding at the wall clock as I stood up. “Time and tide, and all that—I have to go. The point is, I bought the dream deal and it’s worked ever since. It was kicks seeing you and perhaps we’ll run into each other again. But do me one favor. Don’t ever ask around about me.”
“Mickey, I never saw you,” Hal said, following me up and out to the cockpit, his face ready to bust with questions. I didn’t say a word but started the Diesels. Hal nodded as he listened to them, said, “Good clean power.”
Making sure the sail tracks and slides were clear, I started to untie the main sail from the boom, had the halyard ropes ready. I pulled the fenders on board as Hal jumped on the dock without my telling him, and tossed me the bow line. He couldn’t hold his curiosity in any longer. As Hal untied the stern line he asked, “Mickey, how long ago was all this?”
“It wasn’t yesterday.”
“But you’re still able to tell it word for word?”
“Don’t put me on the witness stand, Hal. I’d hardly forget something like this, or any of the details.”
“What happened to the first Sea Princess?”
“Rammed by a freighter and went down,” I said, lying smoothly. “Good-bye, Hal. Stern line.”
He threw me the line as he asked, “But Mickey, what happened?”
“We made Cuba after a rough trip,” I said, and put the wheel over as the Sea Princess pulled away from the dock. I waved at him.
“But the girl?” he shouted. “Where did she come from? How did she ever get on the island? And the gun and the money? Why was she on the run?”
The satisfaction I felt at this moment was almost childish. I knew it, yet I was enjoying it to the hilt. As the Sea Princess swung out to the harbor, headed for the channel, I called back, “You want the truth, Harold?”
“Of course,” he yelled.
“You forget that balance,” I yelled back.
He cupped his hands in front of his lips. “Mickey, you said the truth!”
“Okay,” I shouted back, giving the motors the gun. “This is the truth: I never bothered asking her!”
I didn’t have the nerve to turn around and look at his stunned face.