I anchored in a small cove not far from Port Antonio shortly before dusk. I’d been here once before with Rose in the old Sea Princess. I suppose at one time or another we’d dropped anchor off most of the Caribbean ports— which isn’t covering too much territory.
I took a sounding by throwing a large conch shell I’d been keeping for no reason overboard and watching the number of circles it made as I turned the boat into the slight wind. I figured I was in about sixteen feet so I lowered the Danforth and let out thirty feet of chain, waited for the anchor to set. The wind increased and the Sea Princess began to buck and bounce a little. I stripped and dived over to make sure the anchor was really holding. Although I wasn’t wearing a face mask, I could see pretty good. Underwater swimming always bugs me, gives me a sort of religious feeling.
What I enjoyed about it was the constantly changing picture, the various new shades of color. Rose was that way: there were so many sides to her mind. Sometimes she’d be so moody and low I figured she was fed up with me, ready to take off. Then for days on end she’d be a ball of fire, full of her own pep as we ran along the beach, rowed, or took long swims. She could be as simple and gentle as a young girl, and most times hardened and tough. I liked the hardboiled times best, for that was the real Rose. And in this very cove I’d learned how tough she could be.
A tiny girl on skinny legs, and a belly swollen from a steady fruit diet, had stopped to squat on the sand and solemnly watch us digging canals in the sand like mad. We were “busy” letting water out of a deep tide pool high up on the beach. A dark-skinned child of about six dressed in a ragged, white flour sack, she watched without a single smile, refused to join us. Rose got very motherly, took the kid out to the boat for a decent feed and a tin of candy. She played with the child all afternoon and at night the kid simply disappeared, only to be waiting on the beach again next morning at the first crack of sun.
For the few days we anchored here, Rose was a busy mama. She and the girl played house in the dink or cooked supper with a beach fire. Rose seemed to enjoy it more than the kid. One hot night as we were trying to sleep on deck I asked, “You ever think about having a kid?”
Her short, harsh laughter chilled the humid night. “Me? That motherhood bit is for the birds. This isn’t the best of worlds to ask any kid into.”
“I’ve never had any desire to make a kid, either. You know, fish and crabs—most sea animals—they spawn thousands of eggs and perhaps five per cent of them survive. Sometimes I think it’s getting to be like that with us humans. All this sickness in the air, kids cutting each other up, increase in accidents—”
“Cut the damn lecture! My kid will be sixteen years old this August 25th.”
I turned to stare at her in the moonlight. “Your kid?”
“What’s the matter, don’t you think I can have a baby? Well, I had one and I gave it away!”
“Boy or girl?” I asked like a cluck, as though it mattered to me.
“I had a boy and he was a beautiful big baby. I was a real dumb broad then, didn’t know how to take care of myself. I was three months gone before I knew it. I was dancing in a flea-bag club and started growing big as a house, so they bounced me. I managed to work as a sales girl for a few months, then it got rough. You never saw anybody as big as I was—a regular sideshow character. But no jobs. I was going to a clinic for medical care and a sweet doc there got talking to me, arranged everything. Some couple I never saw paid my room and board, then the hospital bills, and gave me five hundred dollars. I took a bus to Hollywood, did some movie work.”
I counted stars and didn’t say anything.
Rose suddenly sat up and cursed me. “Don’t be so goddamn smug about it! I did the right thing!”
“What? Look, honey, it was your business so whatever you did was the right thing.”
“I agreed with the doc, what could I offer the child? I’d seen too many dumb babes who in the name of ‘mother-hood,’ or ‘love,’ or some other phony tag, dragged their kids around with them. It doesn’t do a child any good to be alone, live out of a damn suitcase. This couple that took him, they had everything to offer, money, a regular home. If I dragged the kid around with me, he’d only grow up knowing his mother is a tramp. I did the right things by…. Oh, Mickey, why am I lying to you? The true reason was I thought the boy would interfere with my lousy ‘career.’”
“And the poppa?”
She faced me, said fiercely, talking right into my eyes, “What about him? I didn’t even give that miserable male bastard the satisfaction of knowing he had a child!”
Grabbing her shoulders I told her, “Now take it easy, Rose.”
“Keep your hands off me!”
I held her shoulders down. She tried to twist out of my hands, brought up her knee. I pinned her legs with mine, pushed her down to the sleeping mat; pushed hard. “Cut it out. I wasn’t a part of any of that. I didn’t even ask you about this. Let’s forget it.”
She relaxed suddenly. “Of course, Mickey, you didn’t ask.” She was silent for a long time and I went back to examining the stars. “I was certainly a simple tomato then. I wasn’t even sure who the poppa was.”
I toweled myself down and started supper. The Sea Princess was bouncing pretty bad. I always carry a big cinder block—a hangover from my old man who insisted a rock was the best anchor ever made. I tied about sixty feet of rope to this, pulled the dink around and rowed out, dropped it ahead of the anchor. It cut the bouncing a lot.
I had some eggs and watched a beat up old boat about fifteen feet long and with a wide beam come into the cove.
It had a single sail of patched sacks and the mast was the trunk of a young sapling which had never grown exactly straight. An old black man with kinky white hair was at the tiller. His pants and shirt were ragged and he was in good shape for a guy his age. He came alongside, asked if I wanted to buy any bananas. I didn’t but gave him a BWI dollar for a handful. As an afterthought I invited him aboard to share my dinner. He was quite pleased and when he sailed he gave me some coco plums, and fresh water prawns the Cubans call langostinos.
After listening to the radio for a while, I checked the anchor chain and stretched out on my bunk. I was tired but I didn’t sleep: I thought about Hal and the greasy rooking he’d given me.
I suppose it was rough after being an ensign to return to being another hustler, working the docks. Hal was on this college kick and steamed because his papers had somehow become fouled-up and by the time they were straight, it was too late for that college term. Maybe the fact I’d been to college for a couple of months and then didn’t bother using my G.I. Bill steamed Hal all the more. As I told him, I only wanted to live calmly and happily, and they can’t teach you that in any school.
While I’d known Hal since we were kids, we weren’t pals. For one thing I was a couple of years older. We met at the “Y” and later Hal worked out with me at times. He was a dancer, cute and fast with his mitts, but he had no stomach for the ring. He must have known I was going into the tank. He never said a thing about it except after one bout when I’d gone down from a left hook which wouldn’t have busted a wet paper tissue, he told me, “I lost a buck on you last night.” He said it as if I owed him the dollar.
But he was handy with motors and the Essex was about breaking even—she was on the fritz as often as she ran. Also he was good at selling. Hal didn’t mind scouting the bars and hotels, drumming up trade. Without saying it we became kind of partners on the Sea Princess. Not legally; I mean, no papers or anything signed. Slobs who had hidden folding money during the war were flying down to Florida for a whack at big game fishing. For a short time we did okay. We were getting a hundred a day and could have made real money except I couldn’t take most of our clients. Aside from being uncomfortable with jerks who looked upon me as a servant, I don’t buy “sport” fishing. Having been around the sea all my life I only fish to eat. I suppose I drove Hal nuts by either insulting the customers, or when I didn’t feel like going out, saying the hell with it. He was trying to scrape a few bucks together for college, but if I had a gut-full, I liked to sleep.
We put our money back into fishing gear and by the time we were completely equipped, the Coast Guard was releasing some of the fancy cabin cruisers and even PT boats, so our tub only picked up the crumbs. We couldn’t be a party boat and take out a dozen guys at ten dollars a head because the Sea Princess didn’t have a walk-around deck. In fact the mast and boom left so little room the best we could do was crowd four or five into the cockpit— and it became quite a crowd when a dame or guy took sick. But we slept on the boat, ate plenty of fish, and managed on very few bucks a week.
And without trying, we hit the jackpot. Two rich jokers named Wicker and Decker missed the better charter boats and had to hire us. They were trying to put over some business deal and each was trying to impress the other. Hal was taken in by this big executive swindle and broke out a bottle of Haitian rum for them. So these two loons forgot fishing as they got their gauge up on the rum and start talking about their “yachting” days and wanted to take the wheel. I became fed up with this drunken horseplay and took them back to the dock, told them to sleep for a while and we’d go out again in the afternoon. While I was buying some chow, Hal let Mr. Decker take the Sea Princess out and after cutting circles all over the harbor, he piled up on the breakwater.
The Sea Princess had half of her underbow ripped open and Mr. Decker had some skin missing and a busted arm. We took him to the hospital and managed to tow the Sea Princess to the dock where she sank in four feet. I was so angry at Hal I could have killed him. When we got around to seeing Decker in the hospital it turned out he really had the bucks. He’d rented the best room and had a private nurse. Decker was in bed, a cast over his side and right arm, and he wasn’t hungover but all executive as he asked how much the boat was worth.
He was talking to me and I was too confused to answer. I’d come to ask him for a few hundred to repair the boat.
I stammered, “Fixing her will cost…”
“Take at least ten thousand dollars, Mr. Decker, to replace the Sea Princess,” Hal said calmly, cutting me off.
I nearly swallowed my tongue. My old man hadn’t paid over six hundred dollars for her, back in the twenties. No matter what she was worth today, we’d never get a buyer. Her kind of boat had gone out of style half a century ago.
This Mr. Decker sure was a big apple. He barked, “Parker!” and a trim little fellow, a real pretty boy, came on the run from the sitting room, pad and pen in hand. You could get a rough cut from the crease in his linen suit. He said, “Yes, sir?”
“I’m buying a boat I wrecked belonging to these boys, for ten thousand dollars. Take care of the necessary papers.”
Parker was a real do-it-yourself kid and by noon the next day we signed the papers and had a certified check made out to me and Hal. We took Parker in for a few belts and he turned out to be a fairly regular joe. He told us Decker was in lots of top stuff: steel, construction, planes. He was even important enough to have been a desk admiral during the war. Parker was but one of his secretaries. I was impressed, and more impressed by glancing at the check every few minutes.
The following morning, while Hal was busy showing Parker the sights, I went looking for a new boat. Miami was a sucker’s paradise and the prices were crazy. I told Hal we’d best see what could be found in the gulf ports. Hal said, “You look for me. Wally Parker and I have a couple of hot chicks in tow. Besides, what do I know about boats?”
I put in a few days traveling around and in Mobile I found a good buy for about seven grand, including the overhaul. When I wired Hal to come for a look-see, he wired me to return. I wasn’t worried; the check was certified.
I stepped off the bus at 12:03 p.m. and at 12:05 p.m. Hal let me have the haymaker. “Mickey, half the check is mine and I’ve earned it. I big-talked Mr. Decker into paying us ten grand, you would have settled for a grand or two, so…”
“So you’ll be half owner of a fine boat that….”
“No, Mick. I would have told you sooner if I’d known where to reach you. I’m using my five thousand for college, making something of myself.”
“Look, we buy this boat and you still finish college under the G.I. Bill. I’ll run the boat with a kid and you help on weekends and during the summer.”
“Mick, I’m going to one of the Ivy League schools. Wally told me the deal. With the money and the G. I. Bill, I can go first class, develop the right contacts. And James —Mr. Decker—is interested in me—after he heard about me being an ensign.”
I must have looked sick for Hal said, “I know you think I’m crossing you, but Mick, my name is on the check and opportunity only knocks once and…”
“Shut up!” I walked on to the bank and he followed. We had the money a few days later. Hal took his five grand and I never saw him again until now, in Haiti.
I hunted for a cheap boat, but there weren’t any worth a dime. The Sea Princess seemed to have been abandoned. Only the top of her cabin showed. When the Coast Guard threatened to tow her out and sink the old babe, I paid to have her pulled up on the ways. I found Decker’s address and wrote him a couple of times but never received an answer. Then I wired I wanted to buy the boat back. Finally I hitched a ride to Chicago. He wouldn’t even see me but I collared Wally and left a few hours later for home with a letter stating I had bought the Sea Princess for one buck. It took $3100 of the $4200 I’d left to refit her, and it wasn’t until a half a year later I was back to charter fishing again.
By then there were so many boats in the racket I barely made coffee and cake money—even though the Sea Princess was a better sea boat than most of them. But she still looked like hell.