The fact is, we all really have only one story, though details may vary: Grew up in the States, got married (and figuratively, if not literally, lived in a house with a white picket fence) to a spouse who forgot how to have sex in the backseat (or who discovered how to have sex in the backseat with someone else), got bored, got dumped, or just got greedy, read one too many Hemingway stories or heard one too many stupid Jimmy Buffett songs, and fled to the Caribbean to drink margaritas. Resume in full.
We were lost by choice. We had no plot, no purpose, and could imagine no clear-cut, happy-ever-after ending to our vague beginnings. And that was fine. We weren’t heroic or even tragic, at least in that ironic, bittersweet way of a good tragedy. We were leftovers looking for a do over. No, actually, we weren’t so hopeful that we imagined anything resembling a do over.
Again, we had no plot, no purpose, as we picked through the debris of lives we never really understood. Like the lives of most of us (and unlike the formula novels sought by editors who have never howled during sex or done anything more risqué than get stoned and pee in the country club pool), there is no plot. People come, people go, and all too often, when they just begin to be interesting, they wander off.
Like in those romantic movies about the guys who joined the French Foreign Legion, we came down to the islands to forget or to be forgotten. Nothing noble about it. We’d strip off our change-daily-stain-free shirts, put a match to the excuse-me-you-can’t-do-that-in-here rule book, and take jobs that bore no resemblance to our back-home lives. (Someone, I think it was Black Mike, once said that Calabash, who spends his days drinking Green Label and snagging crabs off the piers in the lagoon, he’d been a pediatrician, back in the States. More on that later.) We lived in cheap shacks too in disrepair to rent to the touristas, furnished with throw-away stuff and a padlocked frig. Ice, beer, whiskey, and aspirin were the most treasured commodities.
The funny thing was that we had all once been normal, or at least not especially noticeable for being too abnormal. Until that day when something snapped and we either figured it out or knew that we would never figure it out. Didn’t matter. So, we jumped – or got pushed – out of one chapter into another. Like Alice, we ended up down the rabbit hole.
Squint, who I can’t stand, claimed to have once been a stockbroker on Wall Street, and these days did a pretty good job of pretending to be a photographer. French Tony, who was once cornered by a back-homer who asked why he had given up the noble, make-a-difference life of a middle-school teacher back in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, cranked out lewd T-shirts, 3–4–$10. Penny, once a gated housewife feigning satisfaction, and Lea, once a Fortune 500 VP with a six-figure income, did glass art and pretended, God knows why, not to be lovers.
It was a pleasant life in its way, if only because none of us expected anything from ourselves or anybody else. And even when it was unpleasant, well, as one of Tony’s T-shirts reads, “Even a lousy day in Paradise is better than a great day back home.”
We are considered to be unreliable, ignore our bills (which is probably why we are considered to be unreliable), live in casual need of a clean pair of clothes and a good shower, drive drunk, never even think about buckling up a seat belt, and try to concentrate on little more than running out of cigarettes or where, and with whom, we’re likely to wake up in the morning. The girls don’t shave their legs; neither do the men, well, except for Daisy, the cross-dressing police chief.
Mornings tend to be a bit fuzzy, and days can be monotonous, spent answering the same old questions from the same old, squeaky clean touristas, and telling the same old, totally bullshit exotic tales on the same old, half-day snorkeling excursions, day after day after day … after day.
I remember one slightly sunburned wife gushing, “This is paradise!” and I had shrugged. “Yeah, well, sometimes it’s just home,” I’d said, stuffing Bonita’s shorts into a laundry bag.
I guess this is the end of the story, so I might as well tell it first.
I figured Kid was dead. He had to be. The last I’d seen of him, he was doing some stupid King Kong pose on the bow when a fifteen-foot wave ripped over what was left of the boat. “Could have been worse,” I said aloud now, and, for no reason, started laughing. The silence echoed back and shut me up. I hadn’t bothered to tell anyone except Kid where I was going, and I had adamantly told him he could not come along.
The radio was under water. My phone, though water-proof wrapped, wasn’t picking up any signal.
I was lying on my back on the broad roof of The Do Over. That was all that was above water. Hurricane Olive had passed, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that my boat was sunk – sleeping like a submarine on the bottom of the shallow channel – it really was a beautiful, blue-sky day. One Problem: Snugged into a mangrove thicket off the leeward side of the island, I was totally alone. I wondered if the rest of the island was even there. I was sure Bonita was fine; she’s a survivor, though I was glad – well, kind of – I had said no to her coming along.
I sat up and dangled my feet in the water and looked around. A small barracuda swam restlessly out of the cabin beneath me. “Hey, Barry,” I called to the cuda as I peered into the water, “see if that last bottle of whiskey is still down in my cabin.” Though I’d quit wearing jewelry years ago, when I’d plunked my wedding ring into Connie’s coffee, I checked my hands out of habit. When cudas see something shiny, they swim in fast for a swift, flesh-shredding meal. They don’t nibble. They don’t circle. They rip, tear, gulp. One of my half-day snorkeling customers had lost an earlobe because she’d ignored the instructions to remove all jewelry before going in. (Down here, girls who play dumb usually learn real fast that nobody’s gonna carry their school books home or save them from themselves.) Her husband had been outraged about that severed earlobe. It probably hadn’t helped that I’d said, “Good thing your wife wasn’t wearing a nipple ring.”
A small bottle of water stood beside me on the roof of the cabin. How it got there, I had no idea. I’d long since given up trying to figure out the why or how of even the simplest things. I guess that put me on the same level as Rocky, my old Boxer. When he used to walk into a room, tail all a waggin’, I’d say, “Hey, Rock, whadaya know?” Then I’d answer for him in a Bullwinkle voice. “Uh, Dad, I’m a dog. I don’t know nuttin.”
So, now you know, I’m no great freakin’ intellectual.
Anyhow, sitting on the roof of The Do Over, I snapped off the cap and flipped it in front of the barracuda. As the cap wobbled downward, the cuda darted in, grabbed it, mashed it a bit, and then spit it out and zigzagged his way like a shot out into the channel.
At the mouth of the channel, I saw a fin cutting back and forth. Agitated and restless, by its long tail it looked like a harmless Thresher shark, probably hungry after the storm. Even if it was a great white, sharks didn’t bother me.
The only folks who gave more than a passing thought to sharks were landlubbers who had watched way too many goofy death-in-the-water movies. Anyone who lived around the ocean ignored sharks, and it was almost always mutual. They ate maybe three people a year; odds were it wouldn’t be you.
How had Black Mike put it? Interrupting two couples from the States who were sitting close by at the bar and debating the shark question, he’d said, “Excuse me. Listen, the odds are greater that you’ll get a good Eggs Benedict breakfast in a hotel restaurant, find a woman over the age of 40 who still thinks sex is about love, and see the legendary green flash at sunset over the Caribbean, all in the same day, than that you’ll ever, ever be attacked by a shark.” I remember watching the two couples as they grew silent, each chewing over his or her own part of what Black Mike had just said. Finally, one of the wives looked at him challengingly and demanded, “Well, where can I get a good Eggs Benedict?”
But myths are stubborn critters. They have lives of their own.
“Any danger of sharks, Captain Jolly?” at least one snorkeler every excursion would ask before stepping off the stern platform into the water.
“Not a chance,” I’d say with a confident smile. “Just please be sure to take off any shiny jewelry.”
Kid and I had discovered this little channel inside Mangrove Cove about a year earlier, and had slowly motored inside. The nice thing about these wide catamarans like The Do Over, with their two pontoon hulls, is that they draw very little water. I could slip her over a reef where a canoe would scrape bottom. But she could also weather a hurricane, or at least most hurricanes. That had been my hope.
About fifty yards in, the channel cut sharply to the left, protected from the Caribbean on all four sides. What I like about mangroves is that they defy reality, like a lot of people I know. The ones here in the islands – the mangroves, and, well, maybe a lot of the people, too – were all gnarly root, with little green. They were as hard as steel and made oak trees feel like balsa. They thrived on brackish and salt water. It made no sense to me, but like I said, I had long gotten used to things that made no sense.
It was those steely roots that had made me think then that this would be a terrific place to sit out a hurricane. Not so sure Kid, who’d agreed at the time, would agree now. His body was probably wrapped around one of the roots like a ragdoll. The bait fish and gulls would love him. So would the crabs. Gave a whole new meaning to the idea of crab dinner.
My throat was scratchy from the salt water, so I took a long pull from the water bottle, then tipped it in a brief toast to Kid, out there somewhere, and looked at the soggy head of the stuffed monkey still lashed to the submerged base of the mast.
“Well, Jocko, looks like it’s just you and me again, Buckaroo.”
Yeah, I thought, and shrugged. Kid, who loved defying reality, would have approved.
Suddenly, feeling nauseous, a bit dizzy, and bone-sinking weary, I dropped back down slowly onto my back on the roof of the cabin. Before passing into peaceful oblivion, I remembered to pull my legs up out of the water. No sense tempting any passing cudas with a fresh toe-food snack.