The Dream Merchant A Novel
By Fred Waitzkin
Thomas Dunne Books Copyright © 2013 Fred Waitzkin
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781250011367
1. BIMINI, BAHAMAS, 1983
I met Jim in July of 1983 on a tropical island rife with offshore breezes and nights lusty with renewal and reckless hope. I came here to fish in the Gulf Stream each summer, to get time off my back.
We were the only two customers in the tiny End of the World Saloon, but I barely noticed him when I sat down at the sandy weathered bar.
Hello, Ebb Tide, said Cornelius, a heavyset bartender who wore gaudy gold rings from a half-dozen years earlier when he’d worked for Colombians off-loading bales of marijuana. I had known him since I was a kid. He always called me Ebb Tide, the name of my fishing boat. Cornelius pulled a Heineken out of a beat-up cooler and set it on the bar in front of me.
The End of the World was an unpainted plywood shack set precariously on the windy south point of Bimini Island in the Bahamas. I loved drinking beer here at night so close to the channel you could hear the tide running and the sound of jacks crashing on schools of baitfish. A hundred nights I drummed on the rough wooden planks to the refrains of Bob Marley coming from Cornelius’s rusty boom box. Each time I come back to the island I expect to find the place has been blown into the channel by a hurricane or nor’easter. Someday it will be.
I brought you a nice one, I said, lifting a white plastic bucket off the sand floor of the shack. There was a six-pound Nassau grouper curled inside. Cornelius smiled, showing off his two gold front teeth. Grouper was his favorite. The one in the bucket was big enough to feed his wife and kids with enough left over to make a peppery soup the following night.
Where’d you catch it? asked the stranger who had pulled up a stool beside me. He stuck out his hand and we shook. He had a strong grip. He was wearing a tight T-shirt and looked battle tested like an aging fighter. On his muscular arm he had the fading tattoo of a full-figured mermaid.
A couple hundred yards off the concrete ship, I lied. Cornelius smiled a little and then walked to the far side of the bar, where he opened the lid of another cooler. He knew there weren’t any groupers on the sandy bottom near the old wreck.
What kind of bait?
What’d you catch it on?
Cornelius was back with my bucket, and scratching around inside there were three small crawfish. That was our deal, fish for crawfish.
Jim caught my eye. In the Bahamas crawfish were out of season and these three were shorts. He glanced back in the bucket.
What bait? he asked again with a naughty grin. What’s the big secret?
Like many fishermen, I feel authorial pride about the wheres and gimmicks of what I do. Three, four times this stranger asked without giving me room to breathe. I didn’t want to tell him, but he was in my face bullying and at the same time challenging me to keep my secret. He was a tough guy but also funny.
Why not? Why not? he pushed.
It felt like he was prying himself into my life. I couldn’t shut him up.
I caught it with conch slop.
I didn’t know they ate conch … will you show me?
Show you what?
We could go out together. I love fishing.
Jim’s salesmanship felt familiar, but I didn’t pin it down immediately. I wanted to say no, but turning him down on the spot felt like an opportunity lost. And he knew it.
Jim looked amused. What other fish do you catch off this island?
You can catch anything, almost anything, I said. That’s the beauty of fishing here. The Gulf Stream comes right up to the shore.
What about tuna?
I found myself describing the big schools of black fin that come up at dusk off Picket Rock and Gun Cay. Before long I was telling him what lures I use and how far behind the boat I troll them. He wanted to hear every detail and I fell into a rhythm of giving up hard-won secrets, one after the next. I was saying so much that I felt ridiculous, but I kept talking until we started to laugh. Then he punched me hard on the shoulder. My shoulder throbbed, but I tried not to show it.
Jim was fast and powerful for a fifty-five-year-old, with big appetites, and handsome, with a worn-out toughness.
A sultry offshore wind was rushing through the open windows of the shack. Jim breathed it deeply. It must have been around ten o’clock by now and we were still the only two customers at the bar. We had been exchanging memories of our parents, wives, women we’d enjoyed. One story opened up the next. We were drinking beer and laughing at ourselves as if we had the truth collared.
* * *
This place is like my backyard, I said, pointing out the rotting window frame of the shack toward the bay with expanses of mangroves to the south and east.
You wouldn’t believe the fish you can get right here in the harbor. Big snappers, tarpon, sharks.
Right here in front of this bar?
I pointed to a little jut of sand a hundred feet away.
One night when I was a kid, fourteen or fifteen, I came here with a bucket of bloody tuna scraps. Some local guy told me you could catch big sharks right over there at night. I had brought a hand line and a big hook, the size of my hand. I tossed my bait as far as I could and let it drift out with the tide. There was no End of the World Saloon twenty-five years ago. No one was around. The wind was blowing like tonight and it was the dark of the moon, pitch-black. The tide was racing out of the harbor.
Right over there? Jim asked, pointing at the nearby beach.
For a kid, battling a man-eater seemed like all of the adventure life had to offer, I continued. This was my coming-of-age moment. I was scared to death, also really excited. After a half hour, I hooked something very big that ran back and forth in the black water just beyond the small breakers while I hung on for my life, dug my heels into the sand. I was determined to hold on. After ten minutes I had this big thing tumbling in the surf and then I hauled it up on the beach. I pulled and pulled until the shark was about twenty feet from the water. It was heavy, maybe ten feet long, and sat there for a while stunned while I took it in. Suddenly the shark started jumping and thrashing around. Must have sensed it was no longer in the sea. Soon it was all covered in wet sand like a second skin, a disgusting sight. I was repelled by my shark, but I forced myself to touch it a few times. Then I didn’t know what to do. The shark was too far from the water and half-burrowed in the sand. I didn’t know how to push it back in. I wanted to show off this prize catch to my dad, but he was asleep in our hotel room up the road. I wanted to show it off, but no one was on the beach but me. I’d expected a big celebration from this victory, but now all I had was a sandy shark flopping on the beach. I didn’t know what to do. I left it there dying.
Jim took that in. We didn’t talk for a bit. I felt like we were buddies, that I could say anything to him. It happened very quickly.
Then, finally, into his sixth or eighth beer, he said, I’ve been going through a run of bad luck. Jim was drinking two to my one. I lost my wife, my business, my home, he said. I lost everything I had.
Everything I had.
He didn’t spell it out, but it was my impression there was something illegal and shameful about the affair, some terrible disgrace.
I went to the Brazilian Amazon, he said. To make back everything I lost, and a lot more.
The Brazilian Amazon! He was in a different league. My victories and defeats were so much smaller than his. He’d lost his wife and business, his home. I had some melancholy moments to relate. I had local fishing knowledge. I lied that I was a novelist. In truth, I wrote freelance articles for magazines. I was trying to keep up with him. Before long I created a brief love affair, then blushed. I sensed that he could look right through me. If telling the dark truth had become a competition, Jim won easily.
* * *
At the time, I was renting a tiny cottage on the north end of the island. During calm summer afternoons, my wife and I trolled the Gulf Stream in an open twenty footer that I bought used in Fort Lauderdale for thirty-five hundred dollars. My father had first brought me here as a teenage boy. In our New York life he had usually been preoccupied with some business deal about to close or he was furious with Mom or with a customer who had crossed him, but on this windswept island he became mellow and yielding; “I feel like a new man,” was how he put it. Our island visits imbued a longing that went beyond catching giant marlin or breathing the heavy night air suggesting pleasures I did not yet know. Every year of my life I return to Bimini hoping to alter my life’s direction or, more modestly, to feel like a new man.
Jim had spent the past three months cruising the Exumas with his young wife, Phyllis, on a plush sixty-five-foot trawler yacht. That captured my interest. He had been healing, he said, since returning to the States after nearly three years in Brazil. Following this leisurely cruise he wanted to start a new business in Miami. He was going to shop for a house on a canal where he could keep his yacht tied up in the back.
I’m good at making money, he remarked matter-of-factly. I’ve made a lot of people wealthy.
What a crass thing to say, but I didn’t care. I hung on Jim’s words.
Why don’t we team up for a week? I suggested, trying to hold his interest. I know fishing and you own a big trawler. I’ll teach you to fish. I can take you to the best reefs for diving.
I’d never been more awkwardly out front in my life. I barely knew this man.
But Jim didn’t seem surprised by my suggestion.
He and his wife had been planning to anchor for two nights off the north end of the island where there was a pristine and mostly deserted beach. He proposed that we should leave for our cruise in three days. We’d meet at the fuel dock of the Blue Water Marina Thursday at noon. We shook on it.
It was past midnight and I was sitting in the bar by myself finishing a bottle. Cornelius had left an hour earlier with the grouper. Jim was gone—maybe he’d stepped outside to take a piss. I’d had a lot of beer. I didn’t remember him saying good night. I had this notion he’d put the idea of the cruise into my head. That he’d toyed with me.
I turned off the lights and closed the door behind me. When I walked onto the narrow Queens Highway Jim was nowhere to be seen. The wind had picked up and there was no one around. I walked down to the little jut of beach where I had once left the dying shark. I half-expected to find some trace of it, some lasting marker.
* * *
Three days later my wife and I were standing on the dock at the Blue Water Marina with our duffel bags and fishing rods, looking around. It was twelve o’clock, but there was no million-dollar trawler yacht tied up at the fuel dock. There were a few pelicans sitting on the pilings and it was very hot. I was sweating, embarrassed. Why the hell would some stranger I met in a bar agree to take me on his yacht for a week? You couldn’t buy such a trip for five thousand dollars. Sorry, I said to my wife, feeling like a fool and getting ready for the hot walk back to the north end of the island. Right then I spotted the high bow of a trawler coming around the point of South Bimini. In another ten minutes the boat was approaching the concrete fuel dock and Jim and Phyllis were waving extravagantly from the bridge. Jim came in hard against a piling and then he didn’t notice the stern drifting off with the tide. He was grinning, not paying attention. He wanted me to take the measure of his pretty boat.
Hey, guys, we need a stern line! I called.
They didn’t seem to know anything about boat handling. A lot of wealthy people buy big boats with no idea how to run them or navigate. It is amazing that they survive at sea.
Phyllis came down from the bridge and walked pigeon-toed to the stern where there was a coiled line. She weakly tossed it my way and it fell into the bay. She had to gather it from the water and throw it twice more before I managed to catch the end. She was an awkward, voluptuous woman of about thirty with a daffy smile. It was hard to pull the heavy trawler against the tide, but we finally got her tied up.
* * *
Our first days on their yacht were a dream vacation fantasy. Phyllis’s sumptuous four-course meals followed long days on the water spearfishing and trolling. He was all about gamesmanship, betting, proposing dares, playing in the sea, enjoying the best cigars, discovering life’s possibilities each morning after his oatmeal. Jim was six foot, and powerfully built, particularly in the chest and shoulders, his sandy hair thinning, and with a light complexion that burned easily in the Bahamian sun. Phyllis served him hand and foot, literally. Every afternoon after diving she gave him massages. She walked along his back cracking his spine with her little feet. She smeared goop on his lips to protect him from the sun. Phyllis mixed his drinks and handed him Cuban cigars. She seemed good-hearted, affable, and dumb—that was my first impression. In the evening she showered on the deck and waved whenever I glanced her way. She was nice to look at. The girls cooked together in the galley, got along okay, although I didn’t think much about them. I was focused on Jim.
On the third day out I guided him to an isolated atoll about seventy miles south of Bimini called Orange Cay. It was hardly more than a large rock. But the surrounding reefs were untouched by local fishermen who couldn’t afford the fuel to travel halfway to Cuba. There were lobsters, snappers, and groupers carpeting the bottom, so much game here that it felt unsporting to drop a line or dive down and spear them. But I never said that to Jim. He was in heaven and I wanted to please him. He had that effect on all of us. Every afternoon he came out of the water with his pole spear like James Bond and presented a bucket of fish and crawfish for the girls to cook. Of course any idiot could catch fish in such a place, but still I felt like a big shot for having brought him here.
I suggested playing gin rummy. It felt like a manly contest and I was good at cards. The first night playing with Jim I won thirty or forty dollars. I knew that I would. In my circle of friends I nearly always won. The second night I gradually lost back nearly everything. With a swagger that was not my own, I suggested raising the stakes. Jim didn’t seem to care. Whatever you want, buddy, he said. I held my own for a while and then I began to lose. I was down five hundred before we quit—much more than I ever lost at cards. But it didn’t matter. Jim evoked the larger picture while he racked up the score against me. What was five hundred when we were having such a good time bantering about women, diving for lobster, eating caviar and the best seafood, drinking wine beneath a galaxy of stars? He knew how to live. He would take me to places that I could not begin to imagine. This was implicit in the largess of those unforgettable days on Jim’s yacht.
On the fifth night out, we were sitting on the aft deck drinking beer and watching gulls from the tiny island wheeling behind the stern in the glow of our anchor light. I knew that he wanted to play cards and he was waiting for me to ask him. The girls were below in the galley. Jim reached for a cigar in his shirt pocket, but then he put it back. In that moment all the banter went out of his face.
Look there, he said.
He was pointing off the stern at a pinpoint of light in the distance. Hardly anything at all.
What is it?
Wait here, he said curtly. He walked into the salon and I watched him disappear down the stairs.
Minutes passed and I began to feel uneasy on the aft deck by myself, peering off the stern at a light growing larger in the blackness. The sting of Jim’s voice had put me on edge. I could hear our wives inside the galley, laughing. I wished they’d be quiet. Possibly it was another fishing boat, but that would be unusual, so far off the beaten track. These days, the Miami Herald
was filled with stories of cocaine trafficking in remote areas of the Bahamas. American cruisers anchored in the wrong place had been attacked by Colombian drug smugglers; tourists were shot to death and thrown over the side. I tried to steady my imagination. But then the lights went off in the salon and then the anchor light went out. Everything was very quiet, but I could hear my beating heart and also the rumbling of an inboard engine idling closer.
Jim returned holding two automatic rifles. He slammed a clip into one and put it into my hands. I didn’t know anything about shooting guns and the weapon felt heavy and forbidding. The girls were still laughing, but now they seemed miles away. My stomach knotted up. I was thinking, Put the guns away, Jim, before something terrible happens. His expression was entirely focused, but also he seemed to be relishing the moment, which alarmed me more than the approaching boat.
What the hell are you doing, man? I said, and Jim cut me off with a hand slammed against my mouth.
What are you doing, man? I repeated to myself. I was beginning to shake.
Not a sound, he ordered.
He didn’t want to hear from me, not when the speedboat was only a hundred yards off and edging closer in the dark calm water. Now I could make out its narrow sleek hull. It was sliding right up to our stern.
Then a voice called from the boat in a heavy Spanish accent, Do you know where we are? What a preposterous question to ask in the middle of nowhere. How were we supposed to answer? The sleek boat kept edging forward and Jim motioned for me to get down on the deck. Once again, Do you know where we are? The man’s voice was cloying with sweet innocence. It was disgusting.
Jim seemed to see something. He raised the gun fast, hesitated a beat, and he squeezed off three rounds.
In a second, two thousand horsepower was roaring and the speedboat wheeled on its haunches, throwing white water on us, and for a moment I saw the alarmed face of the man at the wheel staring back as the boat shot off into the darkness.
Did you see the other guy pointing a rifle from the companionway? Jim asked, lowering his own gun. I hadn’t seen a second man. I had never seen anything like this before in my life. I was trying to pull my heart back into my chest.
Were they gonna kill us?
What do you think?
Are they coming back? What’s gonna happen?
He shrugged. I still didn’t get it. Was this for real or a paranoid fantasy that Jim was filling up with life? I had no idea if he’d hit the men or shot to scare them. I hadn’t seen any rifles except our own.
We’ll have to stand guard through the night, Jim said as though situations like these were normal in life. I tried to imagine how we’d hold them off. Where I fit in. I was a writer from New York, not the right guy to go into a gunfight. The rifle felt clammy and too heavy for me to hold up. Honestly, I wanted to hide down below.
He led me up the companionway and positioned us on opposite ends of a Boston Whaler on the top deck. He took my rifle and clicked off the safety so that I was ready to shoot.
Don’t pull the trigger by accident, he said. I’ve seen that before.
I nodded, pulling my right hand away from the stock. Looking across the taut canvas cover, I could see two lights in the distance moving back and forth. No, three lights. What the hell was going on out there? I couldn’t tell if they were coming closer or moving off. How could we defend ourselves against an armada of drug smugglers? But why were they coming for us?
Jim had stopped answering my questions. The waiting was too much. After a half hour like this, clutching the gun against my knee, I was simply going crazy. To break the tension, I asked, What’d you do in Brazil?
I didn’t expect an answer, but Jim coughed two or three times and put his rifle down on the deck.
I spent three years in the jungle mining for gold.
Tell me, I said, still trying to breathe normally.
* * *
It takes over your life, he said while keeping his eyes focused on the boats that now seemed to be moving a little farther away. Everything changed for me the first day I walked into that camp. The smell of pig shit was everywhere. Jim shook his head slowly, remembering.
I had a friend in Canada who had signed a lease with the Brazilian government—they call it an alvará
—to work twenty thousand acres in the deep jungle south of Manaus. He made a proposal for the two of us to go into business together. Why not? I was fifty-two years old and my life was in ruins. I found out that my partner didn’t know anything about surviving in the jungle. His first visit to the camp the guy got scared, and he never came back in. I ended up doing it myself.
Jim took the cigar out of his pocket and put it in his mouth, but he didn’t light up.
Now just imagine a few Brazilian Indians sifting dirt and gravel at the edge of a riverbank in the middle of the Amazon, he continued. On this first trip, I brought along four men from the city. I didn’t know them at all, but they were supposed to have experience finding gold.
I was exhausted and hungry. I trekked through the jungle with the men for four days to get there. One of them spoke ten English words, but mostly I was guessing about things I’d never seen before. My partner had said there would be some basic house where we would live. I figured bunks and even a shower. There wasn’t any house. There was an old pigpen made from tree trunks rotten with termites. It was all that was left from a mining operation ten years earlier. The jungle had grown over everything. The hovel was filled with shit. I guessed some wild pigs still used it. I couldn’t imagine sleeping a night there. For lunch we ate a large anteater that one of the natives shot beside the river; it was a big animal with claws the size of a man’s hands. My guys considered anteater great eating, but the animal had a terrible smell from ants. They cooked the meat with a sweet guava paste to kill the smell, but it was just awful. They cut up the rest of the anteater and tossed it in an old rusty barrel for later.
It was hot, a hundred degrees or more, with humidity worse than anything I had ever felt. I needed to get cool, but I was frightened to swim in the river because of snakes and who knew what was in there. I was thirsty and bitten raw by mosquitoes and ants. Worst of all, after walking sixty miles in the heat I was dead tired; maybe I was sick. I needed to sleep for a week in a cool room. There aren’t any cool rooms in the jungle. But these little men I hired, they had such energy and patience. Hour after hour they sifted the dirt with large sieves called batillas.
I was sweating and thinking, What the hell am I doing here? Maybe I was sick with malaria. I had no idea. I looked into one of those sieves and I saw a few clumps of hard, shiny metal. It was gold.
Jim paused a minute and lit his fat Cuban cigar, which seemed preposterous given our circumstances, but it calmed me a little. He wasn’t thinking any more about the boats. He was remembering and barely nodding his head to some interior music.
Just seeing it, my God, what runs through your mind. The lust. What I could do with this! I mean, there was so much more money in this dirt than I had ever made in business. More than I had ever dreamed of. To hell with everything else. It starts exploding in you, that I could do anything, I could have anything on earth. I could be a billionaire like De Beers. This goes through your mind. Why the hell not? It’s all around me on this property, tons and tons of gold; just look at the clumps rolling around in the batilla.
I’m calculating the money, all the things I’m going to buy, when all of a sudden I’m looking around to make sure that no one sees what we’ve got here, this fortune that’s just a half a foot beneath the ground. We’ve got to protect this property, because someone could take it. Maybe someone is watching right now from the trees across the river. How can we protect it? We’ll need guns. People would kill us to get this gold. And it was mine. All mine.
Jim looked at me squarely. Are you getting this? Do you understand?
Looking at the shiny chunks of metal in the batilla
brought on some wild ideas, he went on. I could build a resort, a casino in the Amazon. Anything at all. I would have my own Learjet, like before I went broke. All I could think about was this gold. I’m going to become rich. I’m going to show everybody in the world that I made it again after what happened to me. I made it back on top, but much bigger.
One of the Indians was trying to gesture to me, no, no, Jim—he was shaking his head at my excitement—the clumps of metal aren’t real gold. They haven’t found it yet. This is false gold. He is pointing up the river. We have to search other parts of the property until we find the real thing and begin our mining operation.
It’s not real gold, but I can’t turn off the faucet.
I don’t give a shit about anything. I’ll eat anteater, heated-over anteater with maggots stirred in—that’s what we ate for the next three days from the barrel. Only someone completely mad could eat such vomit. I would sleep on the ground with bugs crawling up my legs. I’m going to make it, whatever it takes. We’ll cut an airfield into the jungle with machetes and our bare hands. We’re going to bring in heavy equipment. Whatever happens, I’m going to find the gold, because other guys in the jungle are finding it. In Manaus, all I would hear about was gold, gold; men were putting together expeditions with every dollar they could muster.
It was something more than just getting excited. A force was running through me. On that first day the rules changed.
After a few days on the property we started to find the real thing, small amounts, but it was gold for sure. And I knew nothing was going to get in my way. All the things that I went through in my life prepared me for this. I had no fear. Nobody’s going to take anything away from me. If you get in my way, I’m going to trample you. You could put a gun to my head. That happened to me, and I didn’t give a shit. I was one son of a bitch. I had to deal with my people and some of them were brutal. I did bad things. People died. So what?
Jim looked at me a beat and then back toward the moving lights. So what! I thought.
I loved it, he said. I loved it. One time I was speeding along a rutted street outside Manaus and this euphoria built up in me and I just started screaming into the night like I was on something. Because I was.
People can see it in you. You could see it in me. They called me gringo maluco,
the crazy American. I was another person. As if you had a dream about wanting to be a certain type of guy—a real tough guy, you see them in the movies. And these guys can do things you could barely imagine. Well, these guys are for real, a lot of them, because they have something inside. A lot of CIA agents, or people who are killers—well, they have this drive. It’s a fever. Some people who kill a lot of people—these multiple killers—what do you think they have inside of them? Something’s driving them. Nothing’s stopping them. Nothing was stopping me.
Now Jim was quiet for a time, looking out at the dark ocean.
Are they coming any closer? I asked for the third or fourth time, unable to get my mind off the gunmen in the boats.
Hard to say, he answered.
Jim was returning from the jungle and didn’t seem concerned about the boats. I imagined that he was thinking where this experience had left him—whether a man can come all the way back and be normal, live again with his wife in a neat little house in the suburbs as if he never left.
The plan was for us to keep our vigil, behind the Boston Whaler where the Colombians couldn’t see us if they came back. That way, surprise would be on our side. Jim told me that he was a good shot, and I didn’t doubt it. We would have a fighting chance, if we stayed up the night and remained alert. That was the key. He’d learned about such things in Brazil. He had a plan and I believed him.
In the morning, when I woke up, I was still clutching the rifle. It was a calm, picture-postcard day in the Bahamas with no Colombian speedboats anywhere that I could see. Jim was sleeping beside me on the deck, snoring like a bull.
Copyright © 2013 by Fred Waitzkin Continues...
Excerpted from The Dream Merchant by Fred Waitzkin Copyright © 2013 by Fred Waitzkin. Excerpted by permission.
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