The Further Adventures of S as in Frank
once upon a time, i thought i wanted to be a lawyer.
i got a summer job working for the office services department of kentucky’s largest law firm, and my desire for a career in law dissipated rapidly. maybe it was the nature of work the firm did--mostly corporate--but i discovered pretty quickly that the attorneys there all seemed stressed and unhappy. they were a feral bunch, partners and associates alike; always on the make, always hungry, always looking for the next exposed jugular to lunge at or the next young gazelle that had strayed from the herd. it was a frazzling and unpleasant atmosphere.
except down in the office services office. we ran documents, moved furniture, renewed licenses at the DMV, served subpoenas, and did just about anything else that required half a brain and a moderately strong back.
it was a cool bunch of folks to work with. a few on the crew took their responsibilities very seriously and saw their position as a legitimate stepping stone to something bigger. one guy had aspirations of becoming a paralegal and dressed the part. in the dead of summer he would retrieve documents from the floors above in his suit and tie, complete with gilded pin and cuff links. he’d return to the office, go into the bathroom, change his shirt and undershirt and stow the jacket. then he’d venture out into the awful murk of summer in the ohio valley to make his deliveries. he returned soaked and flushed like the rest of us, but always retired to the bathroom to don his power suit and reposition his bling.
(i’d like to report that he eventually found his entree into a higher level of the law, but he wound up on the wrong side of it. he got busted for trafficking kiddie porn.)
for the most part, though, the rest of the crew behaved professionally and accepted the job for what it was--a decent way to make a living on the low end of white-collar america.
i came back to the firm right after i graduated from college. i needed a summer to make some money to bankroll a harebrained scheme. i had convinced a handful of buddies that, the economy being what it was, if we faced the prospect of doing work we detested just to put food in our bellies, we might as well do it someplace exotic. someplace with lovely weather. someplace with beaches. someplace where english was spoken would be a plus.
we decided that we would bum-rush st. thomas in the us virgin islands.
that would take some cash, we determined, in our immense wisdom. we booked flights for september and set about living like paupers and squirreling away our ducats.
at the law firm, they had no room for me in the runner corps, but they took me on to help with the file department. my days were spent in a maze of manilla folders scrupulously arranged like a diagram for a particularly twisted crop circle project. the office area was about as roomy as the front seat of a toyota corolla, and i shared it (when i wasn’t tracking down or replacing files) with a fat bipolar hypocritical redneck christian woman who ate compulsively & constantly, and who i never saw stand up, and an affable deaf guy who, unfortunately, wanted to be “more than friends” so to speak.
i kept the photos from the tourist bureau firmly in mind.
occasionally i would get sent to “the warehouse” to track down an unusually old or obscure case file. those were good days. the firm rented part of a floor in a general storage facility, an old-school warehouse with a freight elevator that could have been designed by leonardo da vinci and built by jules verne. it was hot and dark and desolate and dusty and still. i loved it.
what was fun about the search was that the files were in banker’s boxes, which were strewn all over the rented space in absolutely no order whatsoever. piles upon piles. steep mountains, gentle hills, deep valleys, stretches of level mesa that gave way to fjords that trickled out into fingers of boxes. a geologic riot of boxes without regard to chronological time, thematic coherence or any other overarching logic.
and sometimes the contents inside did not match the file numbers advertised on the outside. the file in question could be literally anywhere.
and despite the odds, i always found my file. don’t know how, but somehow i always turned it up.
which may have counted toward their decision to put me in charge of ascribing some order to the warehouse. it became my special project. i was given use of a vast quantity of metal shelving units and no further instructions.
it took me about a week to come up with the master plan and a system to achieve it. the main complication was that there were files from the last 40 years, from three different firms that had merged, all with distressingly similar numbering systems and unnervingly uniform boxes.
i dove in. all the neglect and waste and carelessness that had led to this unsavory mess would be eradicated and replaced with tidiness, systemization and sanity by the time i got on the plane for st. thomas.
or i’d die trying.
i had the shelving units up and yearning to be filled in short order.
i was knee deep in prehistory when they sent me brian castle.
brian castle was the only son of charlie castle. charlie, though his name was not in the DBA title of the firm, was a living legend, a corporate law rock star. he was ruthless and swift and an absolute shark. he was a prime partner. a big gun. at the time, he was spending a lot of billable hours in mergers and acquisitions for his little local client, an outfit called YUM! brands.
to the degree that charlie castle was driven and focussed, his son brian was equally lazy and dissolute. he was a spoiled rich kid--tall, dark and good-looking in a greek, pete sampras sort of way. combined with his social connections and a pipeline of cash, it was pretty clear that brian would never have to do anything.
i certainly never saw him do a single thing that summer.
it was rumored that brian had actually received a tennis scholarship to bennington or reed or whatever high-dollar exclusive club school he was attending. by the time he got to me in the warehouse, he had given it up (certain that dad would foot the bill, no doubt), and was starting to show the bloat and lugubriousness of a full-time partier.
not wanting to lose his edge in that department, the kid went at it hard that summer.
on the days he even bothered to show up, i would hear the byzantine freight elevator stop on my floor. i’d hear him fumble with the convoluted safety mechanisms for a while. there’d be a few moments of silence, and then he’d start up trying to free himself again with renewed vigor. eventually he’d get it, and i’d see him shuffling across the floor a minute later. early on, i tried to impress upon him the importance of shutting the elevator doors behind him so that other people in the building could use it. after he said, “man, that thing is beyond me... can you do it?” without breaking stride, i knew what i was dealing with and stopped trying.
brian would shuffle right past my area, eyes swollen and hooded, silent as a stone, often as not still drunk or otherwise fucked up, and head straight to the racks where other people’s couches were stored. he’d clamber aboard one that suited his fancy, and that was all i’d hear from him until quitting time.
once in a great while he’d say to me, “can you get me up at lunch time?” but for the most part, i didn’t have much contact with brian.
as the summer progressed, i began to see my grand scheme taking shape. i felt a little manic and unhinged when i thought about the project. it was, by any measure, a pointless, thankless task. i knew that. but something about the impossibility of actually doing it energized me. i was running out of time, but i really felt that i could beat the clock.
once in the homestretch, the last month, brian requested a lunch time wake-up. i did my drill sergeant routine: calling his name at increasing volume, and when that failed, banging on the metal posts until he emerged from a couch deep in the shadowy bowels of the racks.
customarily, he would shuffle out without a word and be gone for an hour or so. sometimes he wouldn’t come back at all.
this time, though, he stopped and said, “you should come with me.”
i think it flummoxed him when i didn’t leap to follow. i lifted my bag of food toward him. “i’m good.”
he stood, keys to his BMW coupe in one hand, the other flicking the backside of his ear, a singularly odd tic he had. behind his eyes, there appeared to be some machinery that wouldn’t engage properly. after a minute, he turned and took off.
i was back at it, ahab clomping maniacally on the deck of my own personal Pequod, when brian returned. he was carrying a plastic bag, through which i could see containers bearing the logo of Indi’s, possibly the greatest fried chicken joint on the planet.
“i brought you some back,” he said, and sat the bag on my customary perch, a stack of pallets next to a steal post. instead of scuttling back to the couches, which i expected, he took a seat on the very pile of boxes i was coming to relocate. if he hadn’t been so completely clueless as to what i was doing up there, his choice of seating may have seemed a bold power move, a stroke of machiavellian genius. as it was, the pile was just the closest place to park his ass.
i really didn’t want to break stride, but this was free Indi’s for the love of god. i hadn’t eaten meat for over a year at that point, but i was being sorely tempted. the smell of the voodoo hot spices burbling up through the grease and chicken fat was reaching my deepest reptilian brain...
“thank you. you’re too kind. you didn’t have to...”
i started unpacking the contents of the bag. he had gone full-spectrum cornucopia. all the badass soul food sides were represented in styrofoam tubs: collared greens, mac-n-cheese, potato wedges, baked beans, biscuits, potato salad. even without the chicken, i could have lived on this for a week.
i looked up at him. he sat with his legs wide, flicking his ear. he’d been gone over an hour, so i assumed he had eaten. figured i’d ask anyway. “are you just going to sit there? dig in.”
“i already ate... that’s for you.” flick... flick. “i’ve never seen you eat meat. i didn’t know. the sides are killer though.”
“fuck yeah, man. thank you. this is too much.”
“so you don’t eat meat?”
“no. but thank you.”
“so, can i have a drumstick? the smell is, like, molesting me or something.”
i passed the box of bird over to him, and we tucked in. probably every item on the menu at Indi’s is made with some sort of animal fat. i think there were chunks of bacon in nearly every bite i took. being a hypocrite never tasted so good.
when i could not stuff another morsel into my mouth, brian spoke to me, “i know i’ve been a pain in the ass...”
the kid grew up with charlie castle, i reminded myself. i wasn’t about to rise to that bait. i said nothing.
“just wanted to say thanks. thanks for putting up with me. thanks for bullshitting sally. you didn’t have to do that.”
which was about half true. sally was the head of office services. she knew brian was a sack of shit. but she also knew that charlie castle had asked her to find something for him to do over the summer. her job was to keep the partners happy.
about once a week, brian and i would have to report to her. unfailingly and by design, i was careful to detail the progress WE were making, the new wrinkles WE had encountered, the revised schedules that WE were working on.
sally was no dummie. every once in a while, she would buttonhole me in private and ask something like, “was brian at the warehouse on thursday?”
unfailingly and by design, i was careful to look intently at the floor, screw up my forehead and say, “yeah, i believe he was, sally.”
she’d stare me down. “you’d tell me if he wasn’t, right?”
“sally, you know i’d tell you if. there. was. a. problem.”
that seemed to satisfy everybody.
so, sitting in the warehouse that day, full as ticks, i told brian not to worry. it was a bogus job in a bogus summer. i was getting what i wanted. he was getting what he wanted. his dad and sally and the whole firm were getting what they wanted. why mess with a good thing?
i figured he would have parsed that out after two hot, stuffy months of the same routine, but he seemed visibly relieved hearing it from me. suddenly the kid was a chatterbox.
we talked about my kooky usvi scheme. he seemed impressed that i had no clue what fate awaited me. the fact that i knew no one down there seemed particularly unfathomable to him. turns out, he and some buddies would be sailing down that way right before school resumed. it troubled brian that i didn’t have any information about how to find me when they called on st. thomas. he thought it would be a capital idea to party together in the islands.
at about this time, i shoo’d him away from the boxes he sat on and got back to work.
this did not slow the torrent of chatter in the least.
he trailed me like a puppy as i trundled boxes back and forth, talking about this, talking about that. i maintained a polite interest, but occasionally had to focus on my fool’s errand. i never blew him off completely, so he kept talking.
fact is, the kid was pretty charming, actually.
especially on the subject of partying. drugs in particular.
i had mistaken him for a cokehead. at the time of this story, that was the designer drug of choice for a kid of his means and status.
brian castle, it was revealed, loved to rave. got off on dancing. hallucinogens--particularly the holy trinity of acid, shrooms and ecstasy--set this dancing fool off. he admitted to arriving at raves the night before with a change of clothes hung in the back seat, knowing full well he’d have to peel off the dance floor and get to this warehouse in minutes, not hours.
suddenly his fleshiness, his round edges, seemed less like that of a beer-sotted frat boy and more like what you’d find on a cherub whose baby fat had not yet burned off.
still, i wasn’t convinced. his condescension. his arrogance. his utter disregard for others... this was one wily bastard. how much could i trust a spawn of charlie castle?
i asked him if all this dancing and drugging was essentially just another avenue to pursue sex. i wondered to him if the rave culture made hooking up easier for its citizens. i was now baiting him.
i remember him telling me, “sex doesn’t matter when everything--everything--is so... intimate.”
brian talked for the rest of the afternoon. he was animated and engaged. he seemed impressed by my own history with hallucinogens, which some have deemed prodigious. at one point, unbidden, he told me that he would be getting a sheet of acid that very night, and that if i wanted some of it, he’d be more than happy to give me as much as i wanted at cost.
i didn’t think we were quite at the “friends and family discount” level yet. but maybe he was trying to buy off his perceived debt with drug kindness.
i’m not above that.
besides, i figured a collective, loopy acid binge would make for a memorable sendoff.
i told him i’d be grateful for 10 or 12 hits and thanked him for his generosity.
“no problem, dood. i’m going to get it right now.” brian hopped up and headed for the elevator with more vigor than i’d seen in the last three months combined.
“i’ll bring it tomorrow. you’ll love this shit.”
i schlepped boxes from the nearly contemporary era into the second-to-last empty shelving unit for the next hour. i was pretty sure i was going to make it.
the next day was a friday. brian didn’t show up.
it was really no big deal.
except that i’d broken one of the cardinal rules of recreational drug use. i had considered it a done deal. no money had been exchanged, of course, but i had let myself think the hot little squares were already in my hot little hands.
and (and this is the truly unforgivable transgression), i had told other people i would have it.
a farewell party/freakout had coalesced. it would happen saturday night, the next day, as this was the last available time to convene the gang of intrepid voyagers before departure. from the rsvp’s, i had already determined that “10 or 12” wouldn’t begin to cover it.
i had brian’s number. this was before the advent of cell phones, so i didn’t know who exactly would have access to the line. i practiced a totally neutral message and dialed.
the call went to voicemail. i was relieved to hear brian’s monotone voice on the machine--maybe he had his own line (i had heard that some rich kids were allowed such luxuries)--but i knew it was charlie castle’s house, after all, so i went with the script.
“hey man, it’s robb. give me a call when you get a chance. thanks.”
pretty good, right? no reference. no mention of work. not even an acknowledgment that i was looking for someone named brian; it could be passed off as a wrong number in a pinch. i threw in the “thanks” to muddle the scent: surely charlie castle would never expect such cordiality from a desperate drug fiend who his son, the dealer, had jilted.
i called a few more times on saturday. probably a couple times too many, i admit. i gave up right before the party started.
it was a good party anyway.
monday rolled around. no brian.
on tuesday he showed up looking ragged. said he had been partying in nashville since thursday night. he had no apparent recollection that he had promised me some acid, nor did he acknowledge that he received my messages.
i let it go and finished the hunt for my elusive white whale while brian slept on someone else’s couch.
at last we assembled the intrepid party of four and i boarded an airplane for the first time in my life.
we hit the ground running. after one day, it was unanimously decided that none of us had nearly enough funds socked away for this venture. we had expected st. thomas to be expensive.
we had no idea.
nothing grows there but mangoes. everything is imported.
even the drinking water.
within a week we were poor as church mice, renting berths on a skeavy trimaran in the Yacht Haven Marina. we pooled our resources and got down to forced-march rations: two braunschwager sandwiches on wonder bread, plus a quarter of a mango (they went 2 for a dollar on the street) to prevent scurvy, per day.
i will never again in my entire life eat braunschwager.
i ate my first mango two years ago, after a 20 year hiatus.
eventually we all landed jobs. my three stalwart companions got hooked up in the tourist trade and rented a swank house “on the hill” at the top of sea grape road. they manned shops that sold crap to the herds of tourists disgorged from the lazy susan of cruise ships that called every day.
somehow, i managed to convince a canadian guy at the marina that i was a handy fellow. his business was taking care of rich people’s boats until they came back for them a couple times a year. in between visits, he rented them out (with the owners’ agreement and to their financial benefit) to qualified sailors with money to burn.
he gave me a berth on his family’s boat. i did the grunt work, which often as not involved deadly chemicals, on the yachts in his fleet. he and his wife fed me (she was an amazing cook), gave me a place to sleep and a little bit of walking-around money. eventually i was entrusted with the kick-ass task of taking over their dinghy duty on mondays and wednesdays. those were the days i got to motor around in the morning with their second-grader jonah (an unfortunate name for a kid who lived on a boat, i thought), collect a couple of school kids who lived elsewhere in the marina, and deposit them at the school around the point. then i got to pick them up in the afternoon.
so now i had sailing experience.
the people in and around the marina, with the odd exception of canadian george and his family, were a largely disreputable lot. for the most part, it was a population of short-cutters, schemers and outright thieves. most had nominally checked out of the rat race only to find themselves plying their fortunes in this, the quintessential rat’s nest. some noticeable portion of them had found it profitable to repurpose their boats into labs that cooked the ready supply of cocaine into this new and marketable product they called “crack”.
you’d be a fool to believe half of what you heard in Yacht Haven Marina. i may have been naive, but i come from a family of liars, so even i picked up on that pretty quick.
it was an ever-evolving cast of back-stabbers and ne’er-do-wells revolving around the one supply store onshore. minutes after one of these blackguards had sidled up to you, you’d get an earful about their latest sure thing, their glorious past and accolades, their deep-pocket connections, and how you could reap unusual profits from their acquaintance IF you played your cards right and acted now. usually they’d bum a cigarette off you, too.
usually i played dumb and they tired of me quickly.
notable among the louts was a falstaffian blowhard named wolfgang. he was a big fellow with white flowing hair and a magnificent white beard. if he wasn’t a sailor, you’d have a hard time convincing central casting of the fact.
he held court at the tables in front of the marina store. he would tell anyone who would listen that he was a master captain with five transatlantic crossings and eight transpacific crossings under his belt (the numbers changed, but these were the minimums i heard). there wasn’t a boat he could not sail, he would claim.
his own boat was sometimes a single-hull seventy footer, sometimes a catamaran, and sometimes a trimaran. whatever it was, he claimed that he had cracked her open on the great barrier reef and he was waiting for her to be repaired.
one time, when he had told the same story again for at least the sixth time, i asked wolfgang, “so if she was wrecked in australia, why are you here?”
“she is being overhauled in florida.”
at night, i could hear wolfgang’s booming german voice from one or another of the marina’s yachts. he was quite charming at first, and easily parlayed that charm into a night or two aboard other people’s boats.
but, sooner or later, wolfgang would wear out his welcome. often by getting drunk and offending his hosts. sometimes by getting drunk and falling off the boat.
for a master captain, he fell off boats a lot.
and i don’t know if i would talk so much about running my boat into a reef if i were perpetuating a master captain vibe.
but that was wolfgang.
any place else, wolfgang would be called a hobo, a freeloader or just plain homeless. in Yacht Haven Marina, he was a character, even when he was eating out of a garbage can.
Gus was the polar opposite of wolfgang and the low crowd at the marina. i had seen him in and around the docks for a few days. unlike most of the characters, Gus seemed to be doing something. he was friendly with everyone, but he didn’t linger or loiter. he seemed to have a purpose.
which is why it was a surprise when he approached me one morning while i was having my morning sunkist in front of the market.
he was a stocky, weathered block of a man, heavily creased on the face. he walked right up to me and said, rather than asked, “you don’t sail.”
i considered ignoring him by pretending not to speak english, which actually worked on occasion, but Gus’s accent was flavored by something northern european and in my experience people from that part of the world had many languages at their command.
“that’s right... i’d like to, though.”
Gus took a long look at me, hunkered over my pathetic can of sunkist, and said, “you should. only way out of this pit.” and then he was gone.
the next day the DEA busted a couple of guys who cooked crack on their yacht in the marina. the ship was confiscated, a handful of locals were arrested, several yachts took up anchor and slipped away in haste, and the whole marina was abuzz with the excitement.
that night i ran into Gus again. he told me that his crew, a guy named alfonse, had gotten hauled off in the bust. he claimed that alfonse was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. that he would be set free eventually, but he--Gus--couldn’t wait; he had a boat to deliver day after tomorrow.
“you should sail with us. you need the experience. meet me at The Quarters for lunch tomorrow. bring your passport. 12:30.”
i started to ask a question, but Gus was gone again. busy man, that Gus.
pleased with my apparent good fortune and a little baffled, i started to head back to my boat. i would have to give george as much notice as i could, after all.
i was buttonholed by this guy, sam, that i knew. he was a young guy from the states, ruddy and good-looking, with a pretty extensive knowledge of boats. i trusted him about as much as i’d trust a snake in my shoe. as a rule i tried to keep sam out of striking distance.
“that guy, Gus. you better watch out for him... bad news.”
“why? what’s his story?”
“just don’t believe much of what he says, is all. i know a lot of people who he hasn’t paid... and he might be a narc.”
i thanked sam for the warning, assured him that i would keep my eyes wide, and headed back.
so i showed up at The Quarters a little early. it was the nicest restaurant on the marina by far, the sort of place locals rarely got to visit. it was a compound of wooden verandahs and porches facing the water on three sides. palm trees and bright flowering bushes in pots everywhere. white linen tablecloths. waitstaff in black with white aprons. nearly every beam in the ceiling swarmed with ceiling fans... pretty swank.
and it was a good thing i was keeping my eyes wide, because i saw sam before he saw me. he was leaving. i ducked behind a bush in the front and let him pass.
i had a pretty good idea how sam had come to be eating at The Quarters that afternoon.
my suspicion was confirmed when i followed his path back into the restaurant. sure enough, it led me straight to Gus, sitting at a table in the back. he was with an oily fat man who had wild blond hair, a graying beard, and a permanent snarl. the bus boy was clearing plates and glasses from a third setting in front of an empty chair.
Gus was warm and gracious. he introduced me to his mate, Deak. Deak wouldn’t shake my hand. if he looked at me at all, i don’t know. he appeared to have two walleyes. i never could tell what precisely he was looking at.
Gus got me settled in, told me to order whatever i liked. for their part, he explained, they had already eaten and were about to begin drinking. he was straight up: they were considering taking another guy instead of me.
i told him i could save him a lot of trouble and money: i had seen sam leaving. sam was a sailor. i was not.
Deak raised a glass and exclaimed with glee, “blight!” which i think was meant to be “right!”
Gus shot him a glance, and Deak slumped back. i guess it wasn’t settled in Gus’s mind. he explained that sam was indeed a sailor, and a good one, by all accounts. but that meant that he would expect sailor’s wages, which would, frankly, cut into his (Gus’s) share. i appreciated his candor.
so i ate the finest meal i’d had all year--and meatless, to boot--while Gus lined out the job. he had to deliver a client’s yacht to him in st. petersburg, florida by early next week. it would be a straight shot around hispaniola, a right turn at cuba and done. he asked to see my passport, said i might need it if we ran into trouble around the dominican republic. even then, as clueless as i was, i found it curious that he didn’t mention potential trouble around cuba, which seemed to me a scarier proposition.
as if he could tell what i was thinking, Gus told me that the guy in charge of the DR (joaquin balaguer) was a bad seed whose minions liked to snatch boats from the seas around the island and hold them for ransom.
Gus looked at my empty passport, said, “you should get out more,” and handed it back.
we ate and drank and shot the shit. Deak just drank. rum on the rocks. by and by, i got the feeling that Gus actually liked me and might actually take me along. whenever i protested or pointed out my ignorance, Deak would snort, and Gus would coach me. the talk got down to compensation. Gus asked me how much i made working for george. i told him “room and board plus fifty bucks a week,” which was accurate. he told me he would give me room and board and grinned. then he added he would fly me back from florida to st. thomas at the end of the trip with three hundred dollars cash. that amounted to a pay raise of over 600 percent, which made me feel giddy. we were about to shake on it when Deak piped up. he had a heavy cockney accent, it turns out. straight out of a pirate movie, as god is my witness.
“i’ve got but one question for yeww,” he said, glaring at me and Gus, a ceiling fan and the bar simultaneously. (i think)
“yes sir?” i said.
“what’s the right side of a boat, boy?”
aha, i thought, he’s trying to trick me. if you’re facing foreward, starboard is on your right. if you’re facing aft, starboard is on your left. i started to say words to that effect, but Deak cut me off.
“shut up!” he roared, then added, “the TOPside, boy. the TOPside. remember that. if ya go over, boy, i won’t be goin in after yeww.”
“yes sir. got it, sir.”
so, the next morning, just as the sun was peeking over the horizon i climbed aboard a monstrous yacht named the Latria. george had some nice boats in his stable, and he derisively called anything under 60 feet a “dinghy”, but this Latria was a horse of a different color.
she was done up with highly polished teak and brass from stem to stern. not a dash of rust showed, even on the stansions of the railing, which, in my brief career in boat maintenance, seemed perfectly implausible.
i have lived in apartments with less floor space than the saloon on the Latria. two grown people could turn around next to each other belowdecks.
the berths were positively luxurious. i could have fit everything i owned in the glory hole above.
Gus set me to stowing our provisions in the galley. as i had expected, meat would be the main portion of my diet. that didn’t bother me at the moment, such was my excitement. i loaded steaks and chops and filets into a top-loading freezer, filled a refrigerator, put all the dry goods into spots that i thought made sense. i took extra care to latch every door and keep heavy items below head level. i didn’t want to imagine a can of beans working its way loose and konking Deak on the noggin.
i had imagined some grand ceremony to shoving off. if not anything grand, then i at least thought there would be some acknowledgment. as it was, i was loading bread into a pantry when i felt the Latria pull away from its mooring.
i got abovedeck just in time to see the marina slip away behind us. Gus and Deak swung the mainsail into position and the Latria leapt.
this is how green i was: i didn’t realize that when a boat is really zipping before the wind, it doesn’t ride level. it leans to the side at a pretty dramatic angle. that would take some getting used to, i determined, even on the spacious decks of the Latria.
once Deak took over the helm, Gus walked me through the worst-case scenarios: where not to stand, what to watch for underfoot, what the foot of the sail should look like, which ropes should never be slack or unsecured. i got about half of it, honestly. it was fairly nerve-wracking now that we were pulling away from the sight of land.
after a while, i took over the helm for my first shift. Deak simply let go of the controls and walked away from the pit. i lurched into position, pale and sweaty. Gus patiently showed me what to watch and how to maintain our course. after a while, i was feeling more comfortable and Gus left me to steer solo. almost immediately the wind shifted and the acres of sail started thumping and beating a horrible, deafening din. the boat beneath me seemed to shudder as well.
Gus was back, yelling, “you’re luffing! you’re luffing!”
so that’s what i was doing, i guess: luffing. i didn’t think anyone would say that luffing was a good thing. i, myself, had developed a strong distaste for luffing in the last thirty seconds. problem was, i didn’t know how to stop luffing, even though i desperately wanted to.
Gus showed me how to get back in to the wind’s good graces. thankfully, he seemed much less worried than i was.
i kept us moving in the right direction without incident for a couple more hours. Gus came to take over, and i went down to eat.
Deak was already there, tucking into a bloody steak, a loaded baked potato and a bowl of mixed vegetables. i didn’t realize how strenuous staring at needles and wide open seas could be. i was famished. i ate that steak like i was mad at it.
Deak got up, pointedly leaving his dishes behind, and began rummaging through the galley. he was grumbling. i then realized he was saying something to me.
“here’s your tookus?” i thought he said. or, “where’s your pudding?” maybe.
he clarified, “where’d you put it?”
“what are you looking for?”
i pointed out what i had thought looked like a liquor cabinet. he opened it and then asked me where the rest was.
“i put away everything Gus gave me.”
he turned to face me. i think one of his eyes was trying to burn a hole through me, but it might have been following a fly. he grunted and went above.
i cleaned up my mess and Deak’s.
the night watch was sublime. stars upon stars. i got the notion that there were many successive sheets of lights laid over one another. my head spun when i began to connect all the lights of roughly the same magnitude and imagined them as a sheet at one altitude.
laying at anchor, the roll of the sea was much more noticeable than when the Latria was in motion. it calmed me and forced me to walk the ship to stay awake and alert to any commercial ships that might bear down on us out of the blackness.
the second day under sail was much the same. i was beginning to see how the monotony of a life on the water could make people a little nutty. i got the dog watch, the short shift right before darkness fell, so that meant the second night would be my opportunity to sleep through until morning. i was out the instant my head hit the pillow.
Gus shook me awake. it was light, which i wasn’t expecting. my watch should have started before sunup. i was mortified that i’d done something wrong and scrambled to get moving.
Gus told me to take it easy, that some “unexpected business” had cropped up overnight. he told me to get my day bag and meet him topside. i did and popped up into the morning air a minute later.
we were heading for land, but not under our own power. a naval vessel of some sort was towing us to port. Deak was nowhere to be seen. i turned to ask Gus what the hell was going on. he was at the wheel. he bent down and picked something up. i recognized it as an empty bottle of rum before Gus tossed it overboard.
i asked if there was something wrong with the boat, if Deak was OK, where were we heading and probably two or three other questions that i no longer remember.
Gus just said, “i hired you on because you seemed laid-back. don’t make me think i made a bad choice. everything will be fine.” then he went below. i could hear him talking on the radio, first in english, then spanish, then dutch or german. as far as i could tell he was giving his coordinates. to whom, i haven’t a clue.
when he came back up, he told me what he thought might be happening. he said he didn’t know for sure yet. as far as he could figure, Deak had gotten deep into the rum last night, somehow managed to loose the anchor and drifted the Latria too close to DR waters. he said it could either take a while or we could be on our way before noon. he said the fact that he had heard Deak cursing the DR coast guard officer’s mother when he came up earlier probably would make the former more likely.
i remember thinking i had slept through a helluva lot of commotion if that story were true.
Gus looked me in the eyes and said, “don’t let me down.”
right. whatthefuckever, man, i thought. i am selling you right the fuck down the river first chance i get if it means saving my own hide.
we came to port, a ramshackle little affair with a quonset hut and wooden pilings. a coast guard officer boarded us and banged the shit out of the Latria trying to moor her. eventually he allowed Gus to do it, and stood back clutching his automatic rifle, looking supremely important.
i think he was about fifteen.
he goose-stepped Gus and me off the boat, where we were taken into custody by four guys a little older who clutched their rifles with similar talismanic bravado. they took us into the office. i noticed that none of their uniforms were exactly the same.
we went past a waiting area, where a strikingly beautiful woman worked with a clipboard on a kitchen counter that had been repurposed into a reception desk. we were whisked behind a door and met a swarthy toad of a man in a military dress uniform. i call him a toad of a man because he was squat and shiny, with warts on his nose, and his tongue darted out at apparently random intervals.
it was obvious that this guy was some sort of brass. he had an air conditioner blowing in his office.
he spoke to Gus. Gus answered him in perfect spanish. they chatted amicably, it appeared to me, and then Gus handed him the papers he had brought with him from the boat. the toad dismissed us, and the guards led us back to the reception room. we stood there, watched closely, for about an hour. doing my level best not to let Gus down, i didn’t make a peep.
the toad shouted something from down the hall. the guards prodded Gus in that direction, and i made to follow. they cut me off. Gus turned back and gave me a wink and a nod.
that would be the last time i saw Gus for a week.
after a while, i had to pee. i explained my predicament to one of the soldiers. he waved his head for me to follow. we stepped outside and he jabbed the barrel of his weapon at the side of the building. i made sure that he was telling me to pee there, then did my business. from here i could see the Latria. there appeared to be people in civilian clothes on board. the soldier whisked me back inside when i finished.
after another half hour or so, the toad came out, handed a sheet of paper to my toilet escort, then returned to his office. the guy read the paper, then motioned me to follow. we went outside, where a guy in a totally different uniform waited in a jeep. i got in the front. my chaperone climbed in behind me. the driver knew where he was going apparently. nobody said a word.
“a donde va?” i asked the driver eventually. my toilet escort jabbed me in the ribs with his rifle and hissed at me. the driver said nothing.
we drove around for about fifteen minutes, mostly in a pretty little forest on tiny lanes. when we emerged, i was fairly certain that we were on the other side of the quonset hut that we had started from.
on this side, however, the sign above the door read “Prision de las Mujeres,” which i took to be “Women’s Prison.”
and i was correct.
the woman i took to be the warden made me hand over my day bag. there was no paperwork to sign. nothing was explained to me. when armed guards came to take me, my cool ran out, Gus be damned.
i started demanding answers and lawyers and rights and phone calls in a jumbled mash-up of spanish and english that wouldn’t have made sense to a native speaker of either language. i refused to move until my questions were answered. the guards stood silently, staring at the floor. they were two butch ladies in blue uniforms. they held automatic rifles as well. the warden listened to me as a mother does a three year old ranting in a department store. when i stopped and folded my arms across my chest, she said, “chill out, dude.”
i nearly rushed to her. “you speak english?” i asked, incredulous.
“no,” she said, and motioned to the guards.
they tried to get me to turn, but i resisted. quick as lightning, the butts of both their rifles smacked into the backs of my knees. i crumpled. they caught me under the arms and dragged me off.
holy fuck, that hurt.
they dragged me through a courtyard to a row of what looked like stables with chain link gates for doors. the one guard leaned her rifle against the gate, unlocked a padlock and i was escorted in. i decided my resisting was over for the day.
my cell really must have been a stable at one time. it had a dirt floor surrounded by cinder block walls on three sides. the blocks did not reach the ceiling, which was eight feet above. i pulled myself up six inches and could see out. it was obvious that in a pinch i could easily escape. i could probably shimmy my way through the opening. or i could dig under the gate. hell, i could probably just rip the gate off its hinges, for that matter, i thought.
but, of course, i had nowhere to escape to.
i guess the crime rate among women in that part of the DR is pretty low. i did not hear or see another inmate my entire stay.
twice a day a guard brought me a basket with food. it was delicious. it tasted like it was homemade, not from an institutional commissary. usually it was a bean dish and a side of plantanos or a sweet type of cornbread. i looked forward to the meals, and not simply because it was the rare break in the numbing boredom. i tried to make friends with the guards. they never showed any interest.
once a day, near noon, i was allowed out to walk in the courtyard for about fifteen minutes. the first thing i did was hustle to a semiprivate corner. the guards were complicit and averted their eyes while i dug a hole and took a dump. surely, i thought, there has to be proper sanitation in this place. the staff had to go someplace, right? i dug carefully, just in case.
and i discovered that my hunch was correct. from one corner of the yard, i could see the docks. i could see by the mast that the Latria was still there. somehow that gave me hope.
it got cold at night. the guards sat out in the yard around a tire fire. the smoke scorched my eyes and throat, but they didn’t seem to mind it. after a few days of asking for any and every thing i could think of each time a guard came by, i was given a blanket.
i fell asleep before the tire fire every night after that.
i would have killed for a TV Guide or a Thrifty Nickel or any kind of reading material whatsoever. i was growing a little strange living in my head for so long. i sat in my stable, daydreaming for hours on end. when those flights would turn dark and depressing, i tried to sing the clash’s album SANDINISTA in order, in its entirety. i got close, i think.
after four days, i whittled my list of demands down to one. every time i saw a prison official, i would repeat, like an incantation, “mi abogado. mi abogado.” i hoped i was saying “my lawyer. my lawyer.”
be careful what you wish for.
on the seventh day i was hustled out to the front office, where i met a smiley little man who told me, “i your lawyer.” he wore a brown suit and carried a black briefcase, so he sort of looked the part. he introduced himself as Ruben something-or-another and smiled incessantly. i asked him if he spoke english.
he replied, “my better part,” and kept smiling.
“that makes no sense, Ruben. do you speak english?”
smiling, “my better part.”
“tell me what you know about my case, please, Ruben.”
still smiling, he tapped his watch and said, “time,” and led me out of the prison.
we got a ride from the same jeep guy. this time he was alone. he took us through the pretty little forest, then merged onto a highway for a few minutes then pulled into a little whitewashed town. he deposited us at what appeared to be a courthouse. ruben smiled, gave the driver some money, and led me in, smiling all the while.
the courthouse was clean and bright. it looked like it had been in operation for at least a century. the people were courteous and well-dressed which made me extremely self-conscious. i had not shaved, showered, brushed my teeth, changed clothes nor been able to wipe my ass thoroughly in over a week. i was pretty gross.
that didn’t seem to bother Ruben. he led me in to one of the court rooms. we went to the front and took seats at a table to the judge’s left. the judge brought down his gavel, and a man from the table opposite us approached the bench. he spoke with the judge. the judge made some sort of pronouncement in our direction, then asked me, i think, if i understood.
“no, senor. no. no. ho hablo espanol, your honor.”
to Ruben the judge asked , “habla ingles?”
Ruben stood up, said, “my better part,” and smiled at the judge.
the judge was not amused. he thundered his disappointment. for a moment, i thought Ruben would stop smiling. but he didn’t. instead, he gathered his papers and motioned for me to follow. “i no your lawyer,” he told me.
just outside the courtroom, i started to demand to know what the hell was going on. but i was curiously distracted.
right across the hall, a guy in a silk suit was fuming at three young men sitting on a bench. they had their heads down, weathering the assault, which was in unmistakable american english. and then i noticed the kid on the end.
even in the tumult of being dressed down in public, this kid was sitting there, flicking his fucking ear.
i guess their end-of-summer Caribbean jaunt had been interrupted in much the same fashion as mine.
i was a few steps from charlie castle when he barked at the boys, “now let’s get the fuck out of this hole before i change my fucking mind.” brian and his friends rose as one and the whole party, which seemed to include a couple of dominican lawyers in better suits than Ruben’s, headed for the exit.
“brian!” i yelled. “brian castle. it’s me. robb, from brown todd & heyburn.”
the entourage stopped, and charlie castle wheeled to face me. he looked me up and down. “do i know you?” he asked.
i thought about giving him a detailed employment history, including what his corner office on the 16th floor looked like, but i thought better of it.
“you may, or you may not,” i said, “i’ve worked at BTH on and off for about four years. i worked with brian at the warehouse this summer... i’m kind of in a jam here. i got marooned here. and my lawyer doesn’t speak english. and i’m being held in a women’s prison out in the styx. i could use a little help...”
this is what charlie castle said he could do for me, “i’ll notify your family.”
this is what brian castle did for me: he turned around and left the building with his dad and friends and lawyers.
if i hadn’t been so utterly stunned breathless i might have leapt on one or both of the castles and throttled them.
i am happy to report that no one has treated me that shabbily since, and i’ve run into some pretty shoddy people.
and luckily i didn’t throttle anybody or in any other way cause a scene, because before i could turn back to Ruben, someone had their arm around me and was rushing me toward the same door.
“you smell like shit, son,” Gus said.
a vertiginous wave took the strength out of my legs. Gus must have been anticipating such a reaction. he squeezed me to keep me moving. his eyes darted to a policeman walking with him on his other side.
“don’t let me down now, ok? you’ve got a plane to catch.”
we got into a police car, Gus in the front, me in the back. i didn’t open my mouth. i listened intently as Gus chatted to the policeman in spanish, hoping to piece something together. the windows were down as we hurtled along a highway, but i think they were talking about fishing.
what i guessed to be an hour and a half later, we arrived on the outskirts of what could only have been santo domingo. the cop drove us up to the airport terminal with lights flashing. he went with us to the Dominica Airlines counter. Gus spoke with the ticket agent, who handed me a ticket.
they took me back to the gate, where my flight was already boarding. Gus clapped me on the back, told me, “thanks for everything, mate,” and shook my hand.
he pressed some paper in my palm when he did that.
“thanks for everything, captain,” i said and headed down the gangway. only after i had found my seat and locked myself in the bathroom did i dare look at what he had given me.
it was five $100 bills.
whatever he had going on, Gus had saved my bacon. i would never find out what kind of deal the expedition truly was, nor what role i played in it. had he stolen a boat and fenced it in the DR? had he delivered it to someone in the DR after its owner reported it lost or stolen? where the fuck was Deak? i didn’t feel that everything that happened was on the level or was what it appeared to be on its face, but $500 was just enough for me to keep on not letting Gus down, i figured.
i flew to san juan on an ancient 727, then arrived in st thomas in the dark. i took a cab to Yacht Haven Marina. it was too late to bother george and his family, so i skinny-dipped in the marina pool, got dressed in my same foul clothes and crawled up behind the store.
i woke up to wolfgang singing. he was dipping a cup into the pool and gulping it down between verses.
i tried to sneak into the store without him seeing me, but failed.
i bought him a sunkist as well and found him out at the tables. we talked, and it quickly became apparent that he didn’t know i had been away.
i decided to keep it like that.
i was trying to extricate myself by saying that i should be getting back to george. that’s when he said something that made me change course.
“you know, you are just like my son. he is always being so responsible. i am so proud of him. and i am so proud of you. just like a son.” he tried to hug me, but i was too quick.
i went to the pay phone and called delta airlines. i booked a flight to louisville for the day after tomorrow. i went and found george and told him of my intentions, then i bought a bottle of rum and hiked up the hill to where my compatriots worked.
we tied one on the next night, and i fell asleep in a room that had formerly housed goats. i woke with a crushing hangover and headed down to where i could catch a cab.
before i flew out, i called my folks to tell them i was coming home.
they were happy to hear it. and, as far as i know, charlie castle never contacted them.