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|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)|
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I've visited Rum Cay many times on my old boat, the Ebb Tide, trolled for months of my life off the southeast corner of the remote Bahamian island where the ocean is a rich cobalt blue reminding me of a color my artist mother favored in her abstract canvases. Stella's dark blues were thickly textured like roiling ocean with intimations of agony rising from below like the cries of drowning sailors. My mother hated my fishing life, the legacy of my father, whom she abhorred, but still, I think of her fervent canvases whenever I troll the edges of dark storms, which is often a good place to find wahoo and marlin.
Coming into Rum Cay's south side after fishing, with the sun behind us, the reefs close to the island were natural stepping stones into Bobby's tiny harbor, each of them with a resident population of colorful grouper, snappers, jacks, and crawfish. In calm weather, following the string of reefs marked by red buoys was like a game I played on my way home from school, stepping around one flagstone to the next but never touching. Just that fifteen-minute cruise from the blue water past the reefs into the quaint, dreamy marina was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me — each time I did it.
Then in the late afternoon, after tying the boat, while the sun was still up, you might be lucky enough to hear the lush singing voice of Flo, the daughter of Rosie, Rasta's ex-girlfriend, who had a little pig farm just outside of town. Flo was a savvy, spirited lady with a love of jazz standards, particularly those of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. She played a collection of their music on her little tape recorder while walking the sandy road to work each morning from the village of about sixty souls, while holding hands with her little girl. In the afternoon, Flo took down billowing sheets from a line beside the clubhouse maybe a hundred feet from the feeble docks. Many afternoons I watched and listened as she folded laundry from Bobby's cottages and sang wind-tossed ballads about lost love and regret. Whenever she sang "God Bless the Child" or "Summertime" to her baby, I had to wipe my eyes. All the boat owners looked up when Flo began singing. Then she'd suddenly stop mid-verse to give a hug to her three-year-old daughter who played nearby, next to one of Bobby's fish sculptures, and sometimes the little girl handed her mommy clothespins or stuffed the sweet-smelling sheets into Flo's straw basket.
Many times, I've made the long ocean voyage to Rum Cay to troll off the southeast corner of the island. But my fishing ardor has often been dwarfed by surprises onshore, where breezy sensuous nights plunge me back into the yearnings of a younger man and where I've met maimed and beautiful people on the dock and a few that were evil beyond redemption.
* * *
In the spring and early summer, the best fishing months in the southern Bahamas, a dozen custom sportfishing boats and several opulent yachts are tied up in the tiny marina, each of them owned by a successful businessperson, usually an older man. In the evening, before dinner, music blasts from big speakers on the boats — a bedlam of sounds — crews exchange marlin shoptalk while carefully washing and chamoising the boats to an immortal glow. As the sky darkens, powerful underwater lights snap on from the stern of each boat showing off an aquarium of sharks, snappers, and tarpon swimming in the harbor. Also, on many of the boats, young women in G-strings and little or nothing else bend over the stern pointing and oohing and aahing at man-eater bull and tiger sharks.
A few ragtag local men from the tiny village have ambled down the dirt road to the dock. They carefully avert eyes from the mostly nude girls while begging for a piece of fish from deckhands who usually keep fish heads and carcasses for the locals, as well as a few whole barracudas. Barracudas are sweet tasting, but one in a thousand is poisonous. Most white men don't eat barracuda, but locals are comfortable with the odds.
Also, tied to the dock with frayed lines, a sailboat, once a graceful sailing sloop, rots in the harbor. Her gear is rusted out, rudder glued in place by a heavy rug of seaweed and barnacles, sails and rigging long since ruined, no lights inside, apparently abandoned; and yet, she's parked alongside this glistening fleet of custom-built yachts like a freakish mutation. Suddenly, a man pokes his head out of the companionway like a diver coming up for air. He breathes the heavy night air, smells the delicious meal drifting from the club, and looks around a little, then he goes back down below. When I look more closely, there is a dim battery light showing from one of the murky portholes. Mike lives inside this relic. From what I can tell, he has no money, lives on rice and scraps of fish and whatever Bobby might bring him from the kitchen. Bobby Little, the owner of the marina told Mike he is welcome to live in the marina forever. FOREVER! Bobby Little always thinks big.
Every couple of years, whenever I manage to visit the island, Mike greets me with a pleasant, casual expression as if he'd just seen me the day before for coffee and Danish. He asks me about my writing and I ask about his. Mike has been writing a novel for years. On one of my last visits to Rum, he read me some pages about a man who lives in a world between the living and the dead. Mike is drawn to the "dead level" as Lawrence Durrell describes the "poor exhausted creatures" he paints so wonderfully. Mike is a steadier writer than I am, always looks beneath the glaze, and doesn't take time off for trolling the southeast corner. I asked Mike when he would finish his book, and his wry expression suggested that my question was absurd.
* * *
Up on the hill, in the clubhouse, the grand dinner is now winding down. Bobby's guests are stuffed with tuna carpaccio and filet mignon. They sip fine cognac while waiting for Bobby's surprise dessert. His desserts, served at the edge of the deep blue water, are incomparable. Dale Earnhardt holds court at one table with several friends. Mark Messier is on the other side of the room. A guest from one of the other tables comes over to shake hands with "The Captain," and the men exchange a few remarks about this year's prospects for the Rangers. There are about twenty-five people at the tables. They will soon return to their yachts and fish boats as lavish as South Beach condos.
Bobby Little is a short handsome man, deeply tanned from the island life, dressed in an elegant white shirt, slacks, and flip-flops. He walks from table to table, shaking hands, exchanging pleasantries. Bobby is a master chef, a national skateboard champion, a drug smuggler DEA undercover agent, a surfer, expert diver, insatiable lover, acrobatic pilot, world-class archer, raconteur.
Everyone in the room wants a word with Bobby, powerfully built but grown just a little paunchy in his middle years. Passing through the room, he brags graciously or makes fun of his belly — whatever opens doors. He finds time for each guest; but more than that, he insinuates with a smile or a phrase there will be many more island nights like this caressed by soft sea breezes to inspire prodigious feats of love on the grand yachts, sweet dreams of record-setting blue marlin trolled up in the corner. Bobby's Rum Cay nights are memorable as the stars in a perfectly clear Bahamian sky, nights when immortality feels stamped in the bliss of new friendships that will last forever.
In the kitchen, Roderick Smith, known as Rasta, puts the finishing touches on dessert, while talking with a friend, Biggy, who is a small man. Rasta is a huge six-foot-seven with dreads to his feet when he lets his hair down. When he swims in the ocean with his dreadlocks flowing around him, Rasta looks like a giant ancient sea creature.
"You remember Ruby them, over there." He says to Biggy, who nods yes.
Flo nods as well, enjoying Rasta's narration while she washes the dinner plates.
"He had a girlfriend, turn onto me, cause I had a couple dollars, I had two bikes and things like that, tell her she can live good. We hook up and I start to like her. Tell her she can get a job at the marina. Lots of rich people there, you can make some money just talkin to them nice and things. She stay by me, and we had a good time and stuff like that. She involved with me couple months. Was the beautifulest body I ever had in my life. I been to Cuba and all them places, she had the tightest thingum I ever knew. It was nice, I tell you." Biggy nods gravely.
Flo shakes her head and smirks a little, maybe thinking of her mother and Rasta. She doesn't say anything.
Twenty years ago, Rasta moved to the island from Nassau, looking for a simpler way of life. He lives by himself in a small shack across from Bobby's house on the hill overlooking the marina. Bobby has taught Rasta how to cook and how to make stone sculptures and to operate heavy machinery. Many nights, Rasta works in the kitchen or serves drinks at the bar unless he is feeling too moody to get up from his bed. He understands Bobby's habits and foibles. He loves Bobby and often forgives him.
Rasta has pet Bobby stories, like the morning his friend moved silently through the tall island grass, long hair held in place by a bandanna, and then dropped a wild goat at two hundred yards with his bow and arrow, a feat to test the artistry of Robin Hood. Bobby smiles at Rasta's renderings of his life. Bobby has a keen sense for style, like positioning Mike's scow in the marina beside the lavish yachts. For sure it amuses him to serve his millionaire guests gamey goat or boar that he shoots with an arrow. One night Bobby served wild goat to Jackie Onassis when she cruised to Rum Cay with her boyfriend Maurice Tempelsman on his yacht. Later that night, Bobby — he was considerably younger then — built a tall bonfire, pulled off his clothes, rolled in the gray clay, and did his famous fire dance at the water's edge with a few of the local guys holding torches and others pounding drums. Absurd though it was, Jackie Onassis was enraptured — everyone was.
"My girl started hanging out in town," says Rasta to Biggy while the giant's hand ladles whipped cream on Bobby's strawberry shortcake. "One night, she come home two o'clock in the morning. Next night, four o'clock. When she wake up, I count out some money for plane ticket, give her five hundred dollar and say I don't want to see you round the house again. She fly to Nassau but come back two weeks later. Rum Cay get in your blood. She get involved with a guy downtown, Marco. He start beating her. Knock out her teeth. Almost choke her to death. Cause she always wearing these little short things."
Flo shoots a look at Rasta. "Shoulda kill him," she says quietly.
"And JJ was grinding her, too. So she went back to Nassau, a changed woman. She get big and fat. No teeth. Every time she see me in Nassau, I always riding some nice rides. She hail me on the road and I stop the car, talk a little, give her couple dollars. She say to me, 'Rasta, that's the biggest mistake I ever made in my life.'"
Biggy nods sadly while Flo stacks the dishes on open shelves.
Bobby wore many hats on the tiny dream haven he was crafting from rock, sand, and bush. He was building new houses for customers and lovely guest cottages for the marina were going up on the dunes above the beach, he and Rasta operating the heavy machinery themselves, the two of them dredging the harbor, pumping fuel for the fishing boats. Rasta managed the dock part of the business, while Bobby was hunting game for the restaurant, carving sculpture from rock and coral, making French cuisine, kite surfing in the bay where he was occasionally chased by a resident hammerhead shark, flying in weekend lovers from Nassau and Miami — time and again falling asleep at the controls but then saving the day. Bobby always saved the day — almost always. So many ladies were thrilled by Bobby, each believing she was the one ... and she was ... if only for one night in that bewitching place. There was little time for remorse when each of his two wives took to drink and eventually left him. Bobby didn't seem to mind all that much. It was the way of out island living, he said with a touch of regret. Eventually Bobby flew his wives off the island graciously taking the blame for whatever had gone wrong. He confessed to each of them that the marina was his only real wife.
So many promises made on starry nights. So many best buddies. One night at the bar, he promised Rasta he'd soon become a part owner of the club and marina for all he'd done. Rasta got teary. They both did. I love you, man. I love you, man. A big hug. It was so easy to love beneath that clear night sky with a gentle wind from the southeast promising good trolling in the morning.
In the dining room Bobby walks around pouring hundred-dollar glasses of Remy Martin. He doesn't keep track. He winks at one of the old men who has fallen madly in love with his new girlfriend from Colombia. Soon they will walk back to the boat, kissing and fondling even before they climb aboard.
Everyone wants a word or a smile from Bobby. He exchanges pleasant remarks with Dennis, his newest best buddy, who's about Bobby's age and height but fifty pounds heavier. Dennis bought land from Bobby, brought in his own building crew from Miami to put up a trophy house at the far end of the beach. He yearns to be a partner in Bobby's operation. He's already invested money in the marina but wants a bigger share.
Whenever Bobby smiles, Dennis answers with a grin that hints of malice. Word has it, Dennis is a player in Miami real estate with mob connections. Bobby doesn't worry about this. In fact, it turns him on.
While Bobby spreads charm and cognac, two hundred yards away, on the end of the narrow peninsula, across the channel from the marina, a skinny black man pulls himself up on the rocks. He is wearing no clothes. Soon five others struggle to work their way out of the surf, all of them bleeding from rocks covered with crustaceans with edges like razors. The men hear the festive sounds coming from the club. They smell the food. They feel their way along the peninsula of sharp rocks and thistles that runs parallel to Bobby's docks, just across the channel. The men pass the small fleet of fishing boats and yachts and Mike's old sailboat with a dim writing light while Mike carefully revises key paragraphs, grimaces, or nods. Mike's words feel like parts of his body. The men are shivering. The sound of a guitar drifts down from the club.
The six men make their way down the sandbank of the peninsula directly across from the dock. They say a few words and then plunge into the shark-infested channel across from the club. They are not good swimmers. They splash and churn the water attempting to make it across to the festivities on the other side of the canal. The curious sharks are awakened by all the splashing. They swim beneath the crude swimmers, nudge their bleeding legs and feet. One of the men is pulled under. By a miracle, five of them make it across the channel whole.
Bobby's guests are sleepy with food and drink. An older woman notices a tall black man outside, pressed against the window. He is completely naked, his genitals loose and long. Then more naked black men crowd the window. For a moment fear blazes through the room. Where did they come from? What do they want from us? No clothes. The Florida women are alarmed. The skinny men are all shivering and hungry and speaking in a strange language, tapping on the window. Let us in! The guests are drunk and paralyzed with fear. Don't let them inside.
Bobby walks outside to talk to the men, casual as always. One of them speaks a few words of English. They had sailed here from Haiti. Their boat hit a reef some distance southeast of the marina. These men were able to swim to shore. There are others on the boat.
How many others? Ten? Thirty?
They all speak at once. He can't make out what the men are saying.
The party night is over. The older men hobbled back down the hill to their boats with their girls lagging behind. Sadly, the festive mood was broken, the moment of love lost in unwelcome diversion.
No dim light showing from Mike's porthole. Too bad. He would have had his own inimitable take on the evening. He would have located the ironies, smelled death with his trademark ardor and sadness. Too bad.
One of the captains pointed to the full moon. For marlin fishermen, the full moon presages great action in the morning and for the next several days. "It'll be hot fishing in the corner tomorrow," one of the captains commented. Sometimes when the fishing is hot in the southeast corner, the boats can catch three or four blue marlin in one day.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Deep Water Blues"
Copyright © 2019 Fred Waitzkin.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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