Twenty Nine

 

 

Splash. Splash. Oars…Dammit! Skilly didn’t have enough time…

The sound passes close and recedes. I light a cigarette off the tail of the last one. Drop the butt into a bottle. Half a dozen others stain an inch of warm, stale lemonade. Color of bloody piss. The knot in my stomach tightens another turn.

I pull Actæon’s log from under a soggy pillow. Sweep crumpled sheets, chasing down a nub of pencil, “Write this shit down. Stop it going around and around in my head!”

Back in the Bahamas. Met with my supplier. Joe kept his end. Wired….

Again. The splash of an oar. On the other side. I sit up. Spine pressed against the bulkhead. Turn towards the sound. Can’t see anything through a foot of the schooner’s side, “Heading back down the starboard side….”

A tentative stroke. The shove and slide of a small boat slipping by. The sound changes, “Heading back. Towards town? Who is that?” I roll onto my back. Stare at the underside of the cabin top. White paint dappled peach-pink and baby-blue.

“Always something! Anchor out in the mangroves? Stay closer to town? A juggling act!”

I close my fist around the pencil. Write, my share.

Another Splash, “Close. Drifting back on the current? Hmm.” Computing the state of the tide, “Going out. Good for a get-away! Mine? Or his?”

The rower bumps along the port side, “Clumsy.” I drop my things. Swing out of the bunk. Grab a threadbare flannel shirt. Crumple it into a ball. Head on deck.

Striding forward, “Should’a grabbed a marlinespike.” noting a lack of heft, “Kept the 45 handy,” I crane my neck, “Can’t see….” The bulwark blocks my view over the side.

The flash of a bright bandana popping up over the rail in the waist. I yell out, “Hey!”

A voice answers, “Oh!” Didn’t t’ink anyone was he’ah!”

Bahamian…. A slight build, No bigger than Skilly. High pitched voice, A boy? A woman?

This figure swings over the rail, one hand on a shroud. Lands back to me, A woman. The swell of her hips. Khakis cinched tight at her waist. A baggy shirt. The red bandana. Dark brown hair.

“Yeah?” Thought no one was here? Came on deck anyway? Got’a gun? A knife? I scan her figure with a new urgency.

By the time she turns around I’m by her side.

Dark eyes. Tanned face. A flash of alarm visible in her eyes, Just for an instant. She covers it with a slow, building smile, So, all this amuses you? The light breeze brushes my bare side. Sweat evaporates. It’s cool. A rivulet trickles from under my arm. I step back. Straighten up. Scratch my head. Unroll my shirt.

She’s almost laughing, “You Mac? Like I sa’yad. Didn’t kno’ any’one was he’ah.” She peers back over the side, “S’a long row out from d’a t’own. My backside’s so’ah from d’at ole t’wart!” Rubbing her haunches, she turns. Drops her eyes.

Flirting with me? “The name’s MacFarlane. Nobody calls me Mac.”

Remembering something Skilly told me, Something about a Queen of the Rumrunners. What was her name? Greta? Gretchen? Gertie? No, Gretchen. “Boss, you’ll never believe it! There’s a dame what’s got her own liquor business! Tough as anybody. Carries a gun! Don’t give a damn what no man says!” His gummy maw wide in an incredulous grin. He’s delighted to fill me in on this, “Freak of nature!”

I turn to look her in the eye. Stand a bit sideways, “Gretchen?”

She glares, “My ne’ame’s Garn’ah.”

It’s my turn to laugh, climbing into my shirt, tugging and twisting. Its folds catch on grimy damp skin.

I look around for the first time since coming on deck. Give everything a weather eye, A high, white dome of sky. Towering cumulus to the West. Actæon points up channel. A fitful breeze flecks the water. Shimmering ripples.

An egret calls out, Clack! Heaves its weight into the air. Makes a lazy passage to the far bank, chugging just a few feet above the water. Its feet drip, leaving concentric ripples in a trail behind.

“Can I help you?” I look at her sideways. I’m bent over by the force of the hot sun. She’s quite dark. A deep tan? Like those Portuguese women in Provincetown… Young. Not as old as I thought. Not pretty…. Interesting….

She shows her profile. Has another chuckle. Looks around. Spreads her arms wide, showcasing Actæon, “N’ice boat you have he’ah Mac’Far’le’ane.” An edge to her voice.

I see Actæon through her eyes, Not a pretty picture! Dirty. Weathered decks. Shiny tar puddles in her seams. Smudged into tracks. Canvas sacks, old burlap Hams in a heap. Slack rigging. Drooping lines fall in loops and bights. Sails left in baggy furls slipping off her booms, swaying to a gentle roll. “Not so nice today, Hmm.” I rub my whiskers, Haven’t shaved in a week!

She says, “Kind of like her owner.” We both say it together. We both laugh. I step back and lose my smile, “Like I said, What can I do for you?” I look her in the eye. Look away. Swipe at a bug.

A cloud blocks the sun, Cooler. Be pouring rain soon….

*

Skilly’s shrill voice cries out my name, “MacFarlane? MacFarlane! Who’s that skiff? MacFarlane!” Coming over the rail he spots Garner sitting on the front of the deck house. Her feet swinging clear. I sit beside her. She turns to watch Skilly transfixed. His arms hanging at his sides. Mouth open, staring, A woman on our schooner.

“OK, “Skilly! Enough!” He notices me for the first time.

I call out, “What took you so long?” Skilly stutters, “Uh, uh, uh…”

I ask him, “Where’ve you been?” This question settles him. He manages to get the words out, “Www… In town! Gettin’ supplies! Somebody’s gotta do it!” He turns and disappears over the side. A box materializes above the rail, He wants a hand.

I hop down off the housetop. Trot over, A carton of cigarettes, a bag of lemons, cans…. I carry the carton across the deck to the fo’c’sle. Garner walks over. Ready to pitch-in. Skilly pops up again with a canvas rice-sack under his arm. She takes it from him without a word. He spins and drops back over the side.

I shake my head. Drop down the booby-hatch, facing forward as I go down the steep ladder, leaning way back to keep my balance, holding the box supplies tight to my chest. By the time I put it down Garner and Skilly have bunched up behind me in the now-crowded fo’c’sle.

It’s tidy down here. Skilly can get to his chores without me getting in his way. Garner catches my eye. I nod towards the counter. She sets her sack down. Skilly comes up behind her with another carton. A loaf of bread poking out its top. She steps aside. Skilly passes her face-to-face in the narrow passage, turning slowly, staring at her. I glare at him. He snaps out of his amazement long enough to put his parcel down.

Garner says, a little loud, “C’ozy in he’ah!” Staring at Skilly, willing him to behave himself, I explain, “This is Skilly’s domain.” Nodding in his direction, “Don’t believe you’ve been introduced…” Skilly blurts out, “Queen of the Rumrunners!” Arms stiff at his sides. Head snapping back and forth, staring at her, giving me a wounded look.

“Skilly, this is Gretchen Garner, that’s…. Is it Miss or Mrs.?” She mouths, “Me’iss.”

“Miss Garner to you.” Skilly repeats her name back to me. Swallowing his words. Each syllable softer than the one before, “Miss Garner.” Eyes down.

She returns his greeting with a solemn expression, “Sk’illy.”

I nod at them both in turn, OK! “Skilly, go aft and straighten up the cabin.”
He breaks away from staring at Garner. Starts to turn. Blurts out, “What about the groceries?” My hand on his shoulder, “We’ll take care of it.”

Skilly’s jerky footsteps drum across the deck. Talking to himself as he goes. I can’t make it out. A THUNK! Pulling the aft companionway shut. The entire length of the hold and two watertight bulkheads insulate us from whatever he’s doing aft.

In the fresh silence the fo’c’sle’s not so crowded. We stand at opposite sides of the long triangular table. Getting acclimated to the dim light Garner eyes the massive cast-iron range. Two banks of three-tiered bunks angle forward into the shadows. Shafts of molten light fall from paired deck prisms port and starboard at once cutting and deepening the surrounding gloom.

I take this moment to read her face, What does she want? I don’t need a spy around here. Why’d’I invite her below? Did I? Jest kind’a happened….

A long rumbling Crack! Thunder! She turns reflexively. Catches my unguarded stare my features gripped by a dark scowl. A second, closer thunder clap provides cover for her unease. Following the sound I look up at the deck. The first fat rain drops pelt the planking over our heads.

Drips begin to patter on the counter, Oh! Shit! I shift a carton out from under what’s quickly turning into a stream of water that splashes on my shirt. The rain gets stronger. A downpour. Leaks spring up all around us. Drumming rain. Plops and drips all around. The fo’c’sle is filled with the sound, drowning out our exclamations.

Garner turns to a row of oil-cloth jackets in a wet-locker by the ladder. She grabs a handful. Props one up as a tent over the supplies. Pulls another over her head, “Hey. HEY!” She has to yell to be heard. She passes me a few coats across the range top. Pulls frying pans and skillets from their hanging places. Sets them to catch the worst of the leaks.

What’s she smiling about? I’m slow to find the humor, Seams dried out! Should’a wet-down the decks! Dammit! I’m flushed with anger, at myself, over the last trip. Back to brooding I turn away. Yank an overflowing pot off the counter. Knock it to the sole. Water splashes everywhere, “What’s the USE?”

Garner turns at the noise. A leak in the coat she’s draped over her head must have run a dagger of cold water down her spine. She shivers. Laughs. A nervous expulsion of air. Her hand moves to cover her mouth. Regarding my shiny-wet face and matted hair, she breaks into a little jig. Raises her chin. Water drips off her cheeks. She’s laughing.

“Oh! Fuck-it!” Just stand here and take it.

The rain stops. A shaft of golden sunlight pours down the hatchway. Actæon’s turned on her anchor. The drips and leaks slow to a random punctuation of plops and pings.

It’s almost cold. The returning sunlight brings a welcome warmth. I climb the ladder. Poke my head out. Swing fore and aft. Look high and low. Back slowly down the ladder. I turn deliberately towards Garner, Ya done?

Taking off her slicker, pulling at a sleeve, she says, “Sorry.” Her eyes flicker. They drop when she doesn’t find any answering warmth in my look.

I clear my throat, “So, all Skilly’s stories aside. Who are you?”

“Garn’ah.”

“Garner. Yea. I know.”

“Ye’a,” She finishes removing the coat. Holds it dripping in front of her. I take it. A little too forcefully.

“Skil’lay’s n’ot wrong. I ha’eve heard d’at title befo’h. People don’t gener-ally say it to my fe’ace.” There’s a hardness around her eyes. She turns and fusses with the groceries, “Run liquor for a while. Too long…. Where d’is go? Holding up a box of eggs.

I take it from her. Pull it to my chest, Too hard! Almost drop it. Set them down. I turn to her again.

“And d’is?” The long loaf of crusty bread held like a baton.

I reach for it. She pulls away, “Just te’ell me.”

Containing myself, “Over there.” Pointing to a green and white bread-box, She’s not gonna say anything till it’s all put away! I turn to the other carton. Sort through it. Open and shut cupboards. She keeps asking where things go. I point and grunt.

I’m hungry! How long’s it been? I always shoo Skilly away anytime he tries to bring me anything but tobacco, “Can you eat?”

Garner stops. Pulls back from a high shelf. Turns. Gauging where this question’s coming from, “Ye’a, sure.”

“Eggs?”

“Sure.” I reach for a mixing bowl and dump out a skillet full of leak-water.

She laughs a little. I scowl, What?

“Sor’ray, Just not used t’a room with a bilge un’d’ah it!

“Well, where else should it go?”

She glances over at the zincked copper sink.

“Yea, I suppose. Here! Crack some eggs. I’ll get the skillet hot.” I turn my attention to a gimbaled oil-burner strapped to the foremast, “It’s too warm for the range.” Partaking of a long-practiced ritual I squeeze a dropper of alcohol onto the priming pan. Pump pressure into the fuel tank. Light the alcohol, counting to ten before opening the fuel-cock, Just-so.

Thwack, thwack. She beats eggs with a fork.

I check the color of the flame. Set the skillet on the grate.

“But’t’ah?” She asks, anticipating the next step. I look down at the floorboards, “In the bilge.”

She pulls out a heavy crock. Lifts the lid. Surprised to find a puddle of yellow liquid.

“Oh, yea. That only works up North…” I take it. Careful not to spill any and spoon some into the skillet, “Here. You take over.” I pass her the bowl and climb the ladder to ring the ship’s bell, “Skilly’s gotta eat too!”

*

Skilly slips down the ladder. Sits alone on one side of a long, vee’ed table intended for a dozen or more fishermen, a stunned look on his face. He stops staring at Garner long enough to notice the state of the Focs’l, the aftermath of the shower. He smiles, recognizing how we’ve caught the leaks. He frowns at the state of the range. Wet spots are quick to show rust. He jumps up. Pulls a rag out of his back pocket. Pushes past me, “Whoa! Skilly! Hold on there!” I take him by the shoulders. Turn him around. Skilly deflates and goes back to his seat, muttering, “Gonna Rust!”

“You’ll get it once we’re done eatin’!” I swing the skillet of scrambled eggs past his upturned beak. Set it on the table, That’s got his attention!

I wave for him to scoot over across the apex of the vee. He settles down. Shoves a ragged, checkered napkin under his chin. I pour coffee all around. The galley’s hot from cooking. The sun beats down on the deck. We all shine with fresh sweat. Hot coffee draws out more sweat, They say its cooling….

Skilly takes a bite. Stares at Garner. Takes another. Gums a crust of bread between noisy slurps of coffee. Shakes himself. Proclaims out of the blue, “Saw Ay’ bra’ ham Lincoln once!” Garner smiles. “Bet ya’ didn’t think I was old enough!” He talks with his mouth full, smacking and gulping. Garner nods. It’s all Skilly needs to launch into a tale, “Was a drummer boy in the Pennsylvania Volunteers! At Gettysburg!” He looks off into space, “Uh! That’s not where I saw Lincoln!… Did see him once!”

Brightening to a new idea, “And, ah, Teddy Roosevelt! Was the im’vasion of Cuba! ‘Gainst the Spanish! They was unloadin’ hosses off a ship. Group o’ Cal-vary. Damned if it wasn’t the Rough Riders!” He stops. Stares down at his plate, “Least it looked that way…. Saw them pichurs of Teddy, glasses, mustaches. In the newspaper!” He looks around at the two of us, panic in his eyes. Afraid he’s loosing his audience, “Ever hear’ed o’ Pancho Villa?”

“Calm down Skilly! Let Miss Garner drink her coffee in peace! We got things to talk about.” Skilly looks gutted. Garner turns his way. Purses her lips, She’ll take his side. Skilly swallows. Wipes at his eye. Slumps, “Yes Sir!”

He brightens, “Why’nt you don’t take Miss Gg…” He swallows hard, “Take,” He dips his head at Garner. Points with his coffee mug, “Aft to the cabin? ‘Ts’-all cleaned up! I kin get things straight, up here!” He slumps back.

“OK?” She nods. “All right Skilly.” I reach across and pour her some more coffee. Fill my own. Step aside to let her pass. Garner starts up the ladder. She turns one last look at the fo’c’sle. Skilly’s already at the range, wiping, talking to his stove, “There you go. I won’t let y’a get all rusty!”

We cross the waist. The sun is low. The tropical day winding down. Being from the North I expect a hot day to last into a long summer’s evening, Not here. The sun drops. Dusk rises damp from the still water. We walk aft to the wheel. Garner starts down the steps to the cabin. Lingers in the companionway her head and shoulders in the open, taking in the quiet anchorage. Thick mangroves lie to the West. Just a silhouette in deep shadow against the bright sky. Fingers of darkness extend across the water. On the other bank each arced, gnarled root is gilded by the setting sun. Interlocked, descending arms dive into a smooth surface, reflecting deep green and a burnished, coppery bronze.

The air feels just right on deck after the closeness below. A claustrophobic fug rises from the hatchway. She turns. Draws her hand across the cabin top. Her fingers snag in the jagged tears in the canvas left by the fifty. She idly traces three scars, a long isosceles. I turn back towards the wheel, gesturing, “Let’s sit out here for a bit. It’s cooler.” I slap the top of a deck box.

She backs out of the hatchway and sits down, She’s lookin’ at the raw bullet holes and a dark stain, weathering into the bulwark, spilling across the deck. What’s she heard in town? The hands were below the whole time. Only make their stories more fantastic. I don’t want to get into this….

My newfound relaxation bleeds out of me into the blue and gold evening. Clouds mass in in the distance, blue and gold.

“One last time. Why are you here?” If that’s harsh! So be it!

“He’ard about your trouble….” Her eyes turn to the damage and the stain.

“What of it! Come out here to gawk? Um, am I gonna get a parade of clowns out here from town counting bullet holes?”

Suspicious, “You work for Joe? Checkin’ up on me?” I stare past her. A whole new realm of possibilities yawning…, “You’re in the business. Am I in the way?” My fists clench, First Andy. Now this? A dame? “Sniffing around. Sneak onto my schooner when y’a don’t think anybody’s here?”

Her look hardens, “You ac’cusin’ me of somet’in’? I came out he’ah a’lone.”

“Yeah? Are you?” Flinching, my eyes scan the gathering mists.

“Calm d’ow’n!” She reaches for my hand. I pull away, “No! You take it easy!”

A yellow light flickers through the tangles of mangrove on the far bank. Rising, getting larger, Closer? I turn, Don’t move. Step way around her. Slip down the companionway, Where is it? Oh, yea.

My right hand held stiffly down at my side I pull myself out of the hatch hanging off my my left arm, staring into the mangroves. She turns all the way around in her seat to see what I’m looking at, “D’a moon?”

I drop my forehead, smack, on the hatch-slide, “The moon.”

It’s risen above the mangroves. A huge orange ball. Shards and ripples of light reflect off the stream. I feel the weight of the pistol in my hand. Click the safety back on. Slip the 45 into my belt.

“Mac… Mac’Far’le’ane. Hey…” She stands up slowly. In the bright moonlight she can see my face darken. I won’t look at her. I shift aft to the wheel. Lean against the steering-gear box. The gun pinches my groin. I pull it out. Drop it on the deck, Clack. Kick it in her direction, “Do…. I just don’t care.”

I force myself to look at her. The shadow of a shroud cuts across her face, Can’t make out her eyes.

She shifts. Darts a glance at the gun. Sits back down, “Y’a know? I’m not re’ally shu’ah why I came out here. May’be ’cause I am always lookin’ over my should’ah back in town? T’ought it’d be different out he’ah….”

All I can do is expel air, “Huh.” I step across. Sit on the locker opposite her. She laughs. For the first time since she arrived the sound doesn’t set me on edge. I manage to chuckle, “We’re quite a pair!” I look at her. Up at the moon, falling into its place in the heavens. I make a gesture to include the night and my schooner, “Well, now you see what it’s like out here!”

“Still don’t know anything about you. ‘Cept for Skilly…”

“Yeah, ex’ce’ept for Sk’ill’ay.” We both smile.

A rustle and a splash. We look over the side, “A Tarpon? At least it’s not a squad of goons!” Standing at the rail I turn towards her. Slide my hand across towards hers.

She looks at it. Lifts hers. Places it over mine, “Mac, Mac’Far’le’ane…” Turning her gaze back towards the schooner.

 

 

Continue…

 

 

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