For the last nine months or so Rose and I had been living in the Cayman Islands, about five hundred miles from Haiti. I went to Cuba for supplies every two months, or to Port-au-Prince, or to Kingston. Of course I could have bought most of what we needed in Georgetown, on Grand Cayman, but Rose was leery of us attracting attention, insisted I go elsewhere.
It usually took me about a week to make the journey to Haiti, and less to Cuba. I always anchored at night because there was a lot of boat traffic, and also I didn’t know the waters well enough to take a chance on lashing the wheel while I got some shut-eye. I had mixed feelings about these little trips. I like to travel so I looked forward to them as a change from our little island, and I was also jittery. Rose would never go along and I was always surprised to find her when I returned, somehow expecting her to vanish as mysteriously as she had appeared. I think in the beginning she had the same feeling about me, that I might be taking off with the money she gave me for supplies. The money was a big problem with us for a time. In fact it took a hurricane to straighten Rose out about me and money. But I left the money with her when I went for supplies and that made me nervous, figuring she might be robbed or killed if anybody else got wind of the dough.
Now, as I sat by the wheel, waving at beat-up fishing boats, keeping the Sea Princess down to her sailing lines and racing toward Jamaica, I kept thinking about Hal. I’d lied to him. While that grandstand exit of mine was true— I never had asked Rose what she was running from—still, I sure wanted to. Not because I gave much of a damn as to what she had done. I was very fond of Rose and a man likes to know his woman’s life almost as well as he knows her body. In time, piecemeal, she had told me much about herself, her childhood… but when it came to how and why she’d been on that two-bit Florida Key, Rose clammed up tight.
I never saw a woman, or a man, so terribly frightened. They—or he—or she—had really put fear into Rose. And it wasn’t the type of fright that eased with time. Like I wanted her to sail with me to Haiti and Cuba, to see the sights, the towns, but she had this deadly fear of being around Americans, or tourists of any kind. On “our” island with Ansel and his family, the other islanders, she was at ease. But let her see a stranger, especially an American, and Rose went stiff with fear.
It was crazy because generally Rose is like me: an easygoing character too dumb to worry about things. Her fear didn’t worry me—it annoyed me. I was getting a wee bit bored with the life we were leading. We had money and Rose was a beautiful woman and at times I would get to thinking how we could live it up—for awhile—in Miami or New York. I’d never lived big in my life and now the money gave me the itch.
But it was out until I knew the kind of jam Rose was in, for I sure didn’t want to risk anything happening to her. That was what she couldn’t understand—if I knew what the trouble was I might be able to protect her better. Like my showing off for Hal instead of buttoning my lip. Of course Hal was okay, but unless I knew what the score was, I could easily talk out of turn without even knowing it. A guy can’t make like a dummy all the time.
But after one or two indirect attempts, I gave up asking Rose what she was running from. Merely asking could send her into a rage. In a way it didn’t make sense; even if she had killed somebody, Rose shouldn’t have been so scared outside the USA.
Once in Trinidad I met up with a retired army officer from Chicago. He was under forty-five and a real angle sharpie. He had retired on physical disability—“something” wrong with his back—and we met while racing underwater. Once a month he received the Chicago papers and had about a year’s backlog in his bungalow. Since murder is generally nationwide news, I told my swimming buddy I wanted to check an old track bet and spent a few hours thumbing through the papers—starting two weeks before I found Rose on the Key. All I came up with was bloodshot eyes.
Of course, in various ways, I found out a great deal about Rose. Sometimes I was blunt about it. The day we sailed from the Key for Cuba I asked, “What’s your name?”
“I told you, I’m Nancy and…”
“Honey, remember the dream-busters? We may be stopped by custom and/or the Coast Guard in Cuba, or anyplace else. My papers are okay: I have to keep them that way.”
“Can’t you put me down as your wife?”
“Sure, but what’s my darling wife’s name?”
“Rose Marie Brown.”
“Brown? Come on, papers are the one thing on a boat that can throw…”
“It happens to be true! There are people named Smith, Brown, and Jones.”
“Okay. You’re now Mrs. Mickey Whalen. We were married this morning in Key West but left the license and other papers at ‘home.’ The name is spelt M-i-k-i but pronounced Mickey. I’m part Greek and Portuguese. My grandpop came out of the Cape Verde Islands.”
“Whalen isn’t a Greek name.”
“I once asked my old man about that. He said his father was a sailor and called Whalen because he was always on long whaling voyages. Anyway, it’s my legal name. My old man was born and died in the USA with it. He was a sponge fisherman.”
“My Dad is dead, too. He was a streetcar conductor. When I was a kid, I’d spend some afternoons riding up front with him. It was a charge.”
The trip to Havana was rough and most of the time she stayed in the cabin, seasick. I tried to explain she would do better stretching out in the cockpit but she kept to my bunk.
As we neared Havana I went below and told her, “There’s an even chance customs will board us. Open your suitcase and put some clothes over the money. Keep it open and sloppy looking.”
She groaned and mumbled, “I’ve only the clothes I have on. Can’t we hide it in the bilge, or someplace?”
“If they’re looking, the first place they’ll search will be the bilge or the rope locker. In the drawers, under the bunk, you’ll find some of my shirts and stuff. Use them.”
She groaned again, put her hand over her mouth.
“I’ll do it,” I said, glancing up through the hatch at the wheel.
Rose staggered to her feet, shaking her head.
I said, “Okay, you do it. And don’t make with the suspicious eyes, you can handle the money.”
We slipped into the port of Havana without any trouble. It was late afternoon and the water smooth as glass. Rose came on deck, feeling fine and hungry. I said, “Let’s get washed and see the town.”
“You go. I’ll stay here.”
“Look, stop worrying about the dough. I’ll put it in a safe place and get a kid to watch the boat. A kid I know. Nobody would think of robbing a tub like this.”
She shook her head, staring at the lights on the streets beyond the dock—fright in her eyes. She said, “My dress is wrinkled and dirty.”
“Rose, this ain’t no tux I’m wearing.”
“There’s too many Americans in Havana—for me!”
I shrugged. “We need food and supplies.”
She turned abruptly, went below. I wondered what she had steam up about. Rose came back on deck, holding a roll of money. “Here’s $200, buy what you need. I’ll wait.”
I went ashore and shopped fast, certain I’d return to find her gone. But I came back to see her underwear, stockings, and dress, drying on the boom. It was a warm sight. Rose popped out of the cabin with one of my sweatshirts over her bathing suit. She was sure a big woman, the shirt wasn’t too loose on her.
We ate the meal I cooked, then sat up on deck, smoking. Glancing at the lights of the city, I said, “Tomorrow night we ought to step out. Havana is noted for its night life. Castro is lifting the lid.”
Rose tossed her cigarette over, watched it fizz out in the water and then went down into the cabin. In the dim light of the one bulb I watched her take off the sweatshirt, peel away the bathing suit. She stood at the steps of the hatchway, her body sun-red and white, shivering slightly, beautiful as every man’s dream.
“Can’t we make our own night life, Mickey?” she asked.
I tried to be casual as I flew down into the cabin.
We sailed from Havana late in the morning and spent the next few weeks working our way around Cuba. If we saw more than one American tourist in a town, we took off. In Matanzas Rose purchased shorts, jeans, a few plain dresses. Then we sailed to Cabanice Bay, Baracoa, skipped the US navy station near Guantanamo, went on to Manzanille and Cienfuegos. Of course, being a big woman—especially a big platinum blonde—Rose stood out like a Rolls-Royce in these little towns. But when I pointed this out she didn’t seem disturbed. In a few weeks I learned her hair was dyed and its natural color was a mild, dirty-brown, which the sun soon bleached to a sandy tan.
In a tiny port called Banes we came across a wonderful cabinet maker. For fifty dollars he came aboard and made a false bottom in the cabinet on which the old alcohol stove rested, and fitted this with a concealed combination lock. Rose put the money in there and seemed more at ease once she had burnt the suitcase. It didn’t take me long to make the combination. One morning while she was poking the boat pole in the sand for turtle eggs, and I was supposedly fixing the old motor, I counted the dough. There was $63,500—along with several pads covered with foreign writing: a tight, stingy, and neat penmanship. I thought it was Dutch or Swedish. I couldn’t make it out. Rose had this and the money wrapped in oilskins.
Aside from that fast count I never touched a buck she didn’t give me. There wasn’t any need to. And the loot had me more than a little worried at first—if it was hot green, a place like Cuba is an absolutely wrong spot for passing it; they’ve seen too much queer money. But the money seemed okay, although often I found myself wondering what my story would be if the police ever came down on us. Not that I worried myself sick over this: most days I’d wake up with the sunlight flooding through one of the portholes and look at Rose sleeping in my arms, and nothing mattered very much.
Rose seemed happy. Unless we were in a fairly large town, or she saw an American man (she wasn’t afraid of any women tourists) she didn’t seem nervous. Of course living on an old tub like the Sea Princess wasn’t exactly luxury. The cabin was cramped and lacked headroom. When it rained it was like being cooped up in a damp cell. Twice I saw her break down and bawl.
But to make up for any hardships, we had many fine days. It would be sunny and dry and we’d wake up and horse around in the bunk, enjoying each other and then maybe sleeping away the whole day. We both loved to sleep. We also enjoyed the same corny jokes and sometimes we’d get off on an old one and laugh all day like kids as we lounged around and maybe killed a bottle. Or we might get up at dawn and fish all day, or when we got the swimming lungs, swim and spear-fish until we were dead tired. We’d anchor off miles of perfect white beach and have it all to ourselves as we swam and made love. Except for this business about what she was running from, we hit it off, really got to know each other. I guess it was like one of these puzzle pictures—bit by bit as I put the pieces together I got a bigger and clearer picture of Rose.
We were resting on the beach outside Camechuela, broiling some rock hinds we’d just reeled in. I’d managed to open several drinking coconuts without hacking off my fingers and Rose was sitting near the fire, combing out her long hair. Suddenly she began to sing.
It was one of these old and always popular torch songs, “Melancholy Baby,” I think. For a second—the clean beach, the mild sun, the fire, a beautiful girl singing—it was all one big movie scene. Except, what was a mug like me doing in the scene? Her voice was okay. I said, “Honey, I never knew you could sing.”
“I really can’t sing for Dooley’s squat.”
She smiled. “Expression my Pop used a great deal. It means: for nothing. But I’ve sung with a few small bands, worked as a solo in some so-called hot spots, and even had a singing number in a movie once.”
“Hey, you been in the movies?” I figured she’d probably been a chorus girl, or a cigarette gal.
Rose laughed. “Take the awe out of your voice—you sound like a true movie fan. Yes, I’ve been in several movies. Mostly roles one step above extra bits and usually ended on the cutting room floor.”
“Keep singing. I think you sing real fine.”
She laughed again. “Would you think I sang ‘real fine’ if I was a plain chick, didn’t have breastworks?”
“What kind of a crack is that?”
“Don’t get sore, I didn’t mean it as a crack.” She slid over beside me. “I want you to know something, Mickey: the way we were thrown together—it didn’t have to work out so good. But it has. I mean, I knew you’d go for me, for a time, because of my looks. But it’s been so much more than that. Honestly, I like you. That’s something I haven’t told a man in a long, long time, if ever.”
I kissed her as roughly as I could—glad she wasn’t a delicate chick. Feeling the cool warmth of her big body next to my hairy chest I knew she was right.
“Rose, honey, sure I go for your looks. How often does an average slob like me get to hold something like you? But…”
“You’re not a slob, Mickey. Believe me, I’m an expert on slobs.”
“But that isn’t all of it. I like you. Really.”
“You’re the beautiful one, Mickey, after a gal gets to know you. Now don’t laugh, I’m serious. You’re so homely and powerful and good. You’re not a phony, which is about the highest compliment I can give a man. The way you just said you liked me. Didn’t try to corn me with any love pitch.”
“Could be I love you. I don’t know what love actually is.”
“It’s hot air, a knife in the back.” Rose pulled out of my arms and jumped to her feet. She walked a few steps and suddenly did a cartwheel on the sand.
I didn’t know if that was her way of changing the conversation, or what. I sat there open-mouthed. She motioned for a cigarette from my shirt pocket. Sitting down beside me again she blew smoke at me as she said, “The fish need turning. And don’t make with the pop-eyes like a hick. I’ve been a show girl, too, and for that I had to learn ice skating, dancing, tumbling, and a dozen other things. I’ve been a stripper, and not only in burlesque. And of course, an ‘actress.’ I used to be a real ambitious kid, until I learned better. Ambition is a bum sales talk.”
“I went through that routine myself—once.”
“If you have talent I suppose you need the push of ambition. The trouble was, I’m a big no-talent girl.”
“But with your looks?”
“My looks! Know something, Mickey, often I’ve wished I’d been born plain. Sure I have all the curves and whistle stops and they gave me dreams, ambitious dreams that ran me up a couple of roads—all the lousy ones.”
Turning the fish over carefully, I squeezed wild limes on them as I said, “I know, I’ve been through the same wringer.”
“No, you haven’t, Mickey. You don’t know what it means to be so positive you’ll make it because you have the talent, and then the awful empty let-down when you find you’re rather average. That would be tough enough, but there’s an even bigger kick in the heart when you see talent doesn’t matter much anyway; it’s connections. Talent you’re born with, but connections are made. That makes you drive harder. You push yourself until… It made me a bitch. Oh, I snapped out of the swindle when I finally realized that. Or I could be kidding myself, I was only getting old.”
Rose stared at the sand for a moment, then she said— almost to herself, “My Dad did it for me. He was the greatest guy. He told me something I’ve never forgot. ‘Marie—’ that’s my middle name and he liked it best, ‘Marie, the secret of happiness is to go through life without being a pain in the neck to anybody, including yourself.’ Think it over and you’ll see it’s quite a philosophy. World would be smoother if everybody followed that.
“It was only when I realized life wasn’t my oyster because I had looks, that I was becoming a stiff pain—to myself then I was able to relax, stop driving. It’s the reason I enjoy living like we do. I think you would have liked my father. He would have hit it off with you.”
“Yeah?” I said politely, washing a couple of palm leaves in the surf, serving the fish on them. We ate like pigs and didn’t talk for a while.
Full of food, I stretched out beside Rose and puffed contentedly on a cigar. “Rose, you and I are more alike than you know. I had that driving bug, too. You had your body, your looks, and I had my muscles and dreams of being a big time pug.”
“One look at your face tells me that.”
I tried blowing a smoke ring. “Never got my face from boxing. Of course at no time was I ever a pretty boy. The ring gave me the scar tissue over my left eye. Wrestling presented me with the tin ear, the busted nose.”
“You were a wrestler! That’s a crazy racket.”
“I was even a honest one—as an amateur. From my kid days all I could think about was muscles. It was my religion. My old man had a Greek buddy who’d been a wrestler in the old country and he showed me a lot of holds. Wrestling won me a college scholarship—only they went football crazy in my freshman term and cut out wrestling. I was a third team tackle but gave it—and college—up because you could get hurt easily and by this time I saw myself fighting Louis some day. My legs and punch were going to bring me to the big paydays. But I lacked connections, ended up as the local ring cop.”
Rose gave me a quick glance. “What’s a ring cop?”
“This was before the war, before TV, and there were small fight clubs in every big city. They had a kind of syndicate running most of them. I had a sharpshooter for a manager, a guy trying to climb himself. As he explained it, I had to wait my turn and play ball. So I’d fight every month or so, getting about twenty bucks a fight for myself. Sometimes I’d win, sometimes I’d go into the tank—which ever way I was told. If one of the other pugs got out of line, they’d match me with him and I’d flatten him. That was being a cop.”
“I was twenty when the war came and had about that many bouts. I was twenty-four when they gave me my ruptured duck and I knew I couldn’t wait much longer. All the time in service, I kept in shape. So I came back to find my manager is hanging around the top and I thought I was set. He had me take three dives in a row against stumblebums who’d been making it while I was overseas. He kept telling me my break was coming. It never did.
“Anyway, when I finally realized I was just another two-bit fighter, I became a wrestling clown. I grew my hair long and they dyed it bright red and had me sporting a devil’s costume in the ring. But there wasn’t any money in it, I was wrestling five times a week for ten bucks a night. It wasn’t any snap. You had to be an acrobat, have perfect timing, and I was clumsy. Those falls hurt if you landed wrong, and I got my features scrambled. Also I felt like a freak walking around with the long red hair. My old man had died while I was overseas and the boat was mine, so I began going in for charter fishing… and taking it easy.”
Rose rolled over and fondled my tin ear. “We are alike.”
“Aha. You ever been married?”
My hand was resting on her stomach and I felt it stiffen. ‘Twice. It never worked.” She jumped to her feet. “I’m going in for a dip. The fish left me greasy.”
“Let me finish my cigar, first,” I said. “Then I could use a swim.”
I watched her walk to the water and dive in—feeling very proud this big and beautiful woman was mine. So she’d been married twice. She must be on the run from one of her husbands. Still, she had a lot of dough and a lot of fear. Running away wouldn’t make her that scared. Had she killed him?
That might explain the fear, and the money—if she had knocked off a big racket guy. Sure, that could be it.
Her husband was a racket biggie and she killed him, lifted his loot and the rest of the goons were looking for her.
It made sense—maybe. I killed my rope in the sand and walked leisurely toward Rose and the sea.