I’m so in love. She is so fine. I don’t give a damn what anyone says. She’s my girl. She’ll always be my girl.
I met her in church. I was on my knees praying for forgiveness. She sat down next to me. Her smile … her eyes … set me free. My soul was in torment. I was a sinner.
Her name is Ecstasy.
She came to me when I needed her the most.
She raised me from my knees.
She had me stand as a man.
I had done bad things. I was a wretch. But she blessed my soul.
Please, please, I must have a little more time.
Please, please allow me to make amends.
If you knew how I regret my sins.
How my heart yearns to set things right.
But I think my time has run out.
She points the pistol at me.
Ecstasy says that I must die this night.
So be it.
Bless my soul.
I stand here naked before the sun. There is no place to hide. I wear my sins as a cloak for all to see.
I’m on my knees, begging for forgiveness.
Although, what I have done in this life is unforgiveable.
Her name is written on the skein of time and space.
I sit here in my drunken stupor and regret so much.
There is so little time … so little time.
Soon I’ll be dead and gone.
How long before my sins are forgiven?
When my bleached bones wash up on a distant shore?
When she who I have wronged and demeaned is in heaven?
If I could … I would go back and undo what I have done.
Know this … my karma will follow me into the next life. Hopefully, once there, I will be allowed to make amends.
I loved you … I loved you … I loved you so much. And I am so goddamn sorry.
I grew up without a mother. My father told me that she had died shortly after I was born. To me, it was no big deal. You can’t miss what you’ve never had. My father, I think, tried to make it up to me in so many ways. In the morning, he always saw me off to school after having fed me a hot breakfast. He was always home from work in time to get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour. He taught me to hunt and fish like any father would, and he never missed a parent-teacher conference at school like many fathers do.
However, by the time I was twelve, I was pretty much self-sufficient. It gave the old man a break from his domestic duties. I was now making my own breakfast, although sometimes my father wasn’t too happy with my choice of foods. I can still hear him saying in mock anger: “That cereal you devour is nothing but pure sugar.” Putting aside my culinary choices, we had settled into a comfortable routine. And there was an unshakable bond between us.
I never did have many friends when I was growing up. I don’t know why; it’s just the way things were. After school and during the summer, I always found ways to keep myself amused. I was never into watching television. And this was way before the internet or video games. So, as a twelve-year-old boy living in a small town in the southwest corner of Tennessee, I made my own pleasures.
We lived at the foot of a small mountain. I used to go about halfway up and look down on the town. It was an exhilarating view. From up there, I was lord of all I surveyed.
There was a game I played where I would pretend the town was being invaded. Sometimes it would be the Mongol Horde and, other times, maybe space aliens. But regardless of who the invaders were, I directed the defense of our town from up on high. And every single time—due to my military acumen and my courage—I drove the aggressors back from whence they came.
By the time I was thirteen, I had outgrown that game. But I still went up to my place on the mountain. On occasion, I’d go up there at night to look at the stars. They were so bright and there were millions of them. I loved that place, day or night, for the privacy it afforded me.
Then one day, my solitude was shattered. I had brought a book with me and was engrossed in the adventures of Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins. I was using my rich imagination to visualize myself as the young hero of the story when a shadow fell over the pages of my book.
I looked up to see the silhouette of a woman standing in front of a low-hanging sun. Her face was in darkness, but the rays of the yellow sun shimmered through her yellow hair like gossamer strands of silk—giving her the appearance of a haloed saint. She saw that I was squinting into the sun and moved two feet to her left.
As her face came into focus, the first thing I noticed were her eyes. I don’t want to use a cliché to describe them. I do not want to say they were “limpid pools of blue” or “piercing blue” because that would diminish what I saw … would diminish what they were. Her eyes were blue in color, but not a blue I had seen before or since. The easiest thing to do is say that words fail me, but that would be the coward’s way out.
Picture a Caribbean island surrounded by that blue-green water you see in advertisements. Take the color of that water and add three smidgens of blue from a dark sapphire. Then finish the concoction off with one single, lonely drop of silvery-blue goodness and that was the color of her eyes.
I looked into those eyes for a good, long time and saw the universe when it was young. I saw stars being born. I witnessed the birth of humanity … and also its fall. I saw all the joy there was in the world. And I saw all of its pain.
To me the woman was ancient. Remember, I was only thirteen at the time. Anyone over eighteen was ancient. I later learned that she was thirty-five years old on the day that we met.
I said, “Hello.” She responded in kind, but she sounded funny. The word “hello” seemed to cut the air between us. It was a harsh hello. I thought there was something wrong with her voice. She saw the perplexed look on my face and pointed to her ear. “I’m deaf,” she said. “But I can read lips if you speak slowly.”
She was holding an artist’s sketch pad, so I asked if she was an artist. “At times,” she replied enigmatically.
“May I see some of your sketches?”
She nodded and sat down beside me. Before she opened her book, she said, “My name is Gretchen.” She had to say it twice before I got it. I felt a little embarrassed because I did not understand her the first time.
“My name is Mike.”
She put out her hand. “Glad to meet you, Mike.”
We shook and then she showed me her sketches. Some were of our town and the surrounding countryside, drawn from the perspective of being higher up on the mountain. Others were of people or animals. Her talent shone through the expressive eyes of the creatures she sketched, and through the precise details of the town’s landscape.
As she closed her book, she grinned. “I thought I was the only one who liked to come up here.”
“Me too. I mean, I thought I was the only one up here also. I wonder why I haven’t seen you before.”
Gretchen looked up at a point higher on the mountain and, pointing her chin in that direction, said, “I usually go up there.”
By now I had no trouble understanding her. But it was getting late and we had to say our good-byes. She was a nice lady and I was glad that I had met her. Although, I must admit, as I walked back down the mountain and remembered the look in her eyes, I felt Gretchen knew something about the world that I did not. That was not surprising, seeing how much older she was than me. But still it was kind of spooky.
My father was sitting in his chair, reading the evening newspaper when I walked in. “I thought we’d have TV dinners tonight,” he said without taking his eyes from the paper.
“Sure, Dad. Let me wash up and I’ll put them in the oven. You finish reading your paper.”
It was our custom to discuss the day’s events over dinner. It was our way to keep up with each other’s lives. Dad was the assistant manager down at the textile plant. I was quite proud of him. He had worked his way up from machine maintenance. And he had done it while raising a son on his own.
He filled me in on the latest down at the plant and then he asked about my day. “How was your first day of summer vacation?”
“I went up to my place on the mountain to read Treasure Island. But I didn’t get much reading done. I met someone and we ended up talking most of the afternoon.”
My father smiled. “You made a friend?”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t a kid. She was a full-grown woman. She likes the mountain too.”
“What’s her name?”
“Gretchen.”My father suddenly straightened in his chair. A strange look befell his face, and a little too loudly he asked, “What was her name?”
“I told you. Her name is Gretchen.”
It looked to me like he was thinking hard, then he sighed and said in a casual tone, “Tell me about her.”
“There’s not much to tell. She’s about your age. She’s blonde, she paints pictures … and she’s deaf.”
He nodded and abruptly changed the subject. “How are you finding Treasure Island?”
It was a good summer. Probably the best of my life—up to that time. After Treasure Island, I got into science fiction. I read all of Asimov and Clarke that I could get my hands on. One of my favorites from another author was Stranger in a Strange Land. Although I didn’t get its full message until years later when I read it for a second time.
Whenever I was up on the mountain, I would see Gretchen. We would talk or just sit there in silence and enjoy the view. One day, she asked if she could sketch me while I read. I was flattered and readily agreed. I took it home to my father and he liked it so much, he had it framed.
Gretchen taught me sign language. It took a while, but by the end of summer, I was proficient in signing.
She also drew me out. Living more in books than the real world, I was—to say the least—rather reticent. She wanted to know all about my life. There wasn’t much to tell. But in the end, she had learned of my hopes and my dreams.
She told me about herself. She lived on a farm that her parents had owned before they died. She had been married, but her husband was killed in an automobile accident five years previously.
In late August, I turned fourteen and was about to start high school. I didn’t entertain any false hopes that I would have any more friends in high school than I had in grade school. But that didn’t bother me too much. I had made a friend. However, with summer’s end fast approaching, would I lose her? We had only met on the mountain. With my days filled with school and the weather turning cold, would I ever see her again? I had never felt loneliness before, but I was sure that I would know its numbness if I never saw Gretchen again.
On the day before school started, I went up the mountain in the hope of seeing Gretchen and if nothing else, to say good-bye. She was there sketching away. I looked over her shoulder and saw that it was a picture of her and me—just our faces.
When I mentioned to her that I was afraid I’d never see her again, she said something that I did not understand. She said, “I am you and you are me. We can never be apart. We were one before we met. I promise that you will see me again.”
High school wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. I kept my head down, went to classes, and spoke to no one. Two weeks into the school year, I was already missing my time with Gretchen. We had had far-ranging conversations. We talked about everything under the sun. She was well-read and knew so much.
One day I came home from school and found Gretchen sitting on the couch with my father sitting next to her—on the wall behind them hung an oil painting of me reading a book.
My father spoke first. “Come in, Mike. We have something to tell you.”
Gretchen smiled at me with her eyes. She pointed to a chair and asked me to please sit down. They both looked nervous.
When I was seated, facing them, my father spoke first. “Son, I have not been completely honest with you. I hope that you don’t hate me for the lies; they were necessary at the time, but things change and I … we … think it’s time you knew the truth.”
He halted for a moment. He looked like he was unable to go on, but then Gretchen reached out and gave his hand a squeeze. “It’s okay,” she whispered.
My father continued: “Gretchen is your mother.”
I had been leaning forward in anticipation, but now I slumped back into the soft enfolds of the easy chair. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. The wind had just been let out of my sails. I was adrift in a sea of confusion.
Gretchen came over and knelt in front of me. She took hold of both my hands and held tight. “I know it’s a shock. Two shocks really: That you have a mother and that I am she. But please listen to your father. He will explain everything. And I promise … no more lies.”
She went back to the couch, sat down, and took my father’s hand in hers.
With a deep sigh as though the weight of the world was being lifted from his shoulders, my father looked me in the eye and began his story.
• • • • •
The motorcycle tears down the country lane at a furious pace. Sixty, seventy, now eighty miles per hour. The rider leans into the curves with skill. He has had his bike up to 120—this is nothing. He rounds a dog-leg at eighty. He is almost parallel with the asphalt as he comes out of the curve. And there she is. Some stupid woman in the middle of the road. He doesn’t have time to right his bike and swerve. It’s either go down, or run into the woman. Damn!
He lays the bike down. And as he does so, he prays he’ll have some skin left on his right side. He’s wearing leathers and a helmet. Those should afford him some protection.
The woman looks to her left and sees a motorcycle and its driver sliding along the pavement. She stands transfixed as the bike and rider come to a stop just twenty feet away. Her first concern is for the rider. He’s moving, so he’s not dead. She runs to where he lies. He seems to be all right, but he’s yelling about something. Is he in pain?
The man rises to his feet—obviously no bones are broken—and stands before the woman. He’s about to berate her for forcing him to take the spill. But before he can open his mouth, he sees that she is beautiful, more than beautiful. She is an angel. And those eyes of hers! What color are they?
Instead of saying what he had planned, he removes his helmet and asks if she is all right. She cocks her head and says, “Please repeat that. I’m deaf, but I can read lips.”
That explains why she was in the road. Anyone else would have heard the bike from a mile away, it having no muffler. Immediately, his anger dissipates like a puff of smoke in a strong wind.
Speaking slowly, the motorcyclist introduces himself. “My name is John Toomey and it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m fine by the way. Are you okay?”
“I’m not the one who skittered along the road. Are you sure that you are all right?”
“Then I’ll be on my way.”
“Wait! At least tell me your name.”
The woman turns and favors John with a coquettish smile. “My name is Gretchen Lee and it has been a pleasure meeting you, John Toomey.”
John wants to say something else, but just then a car pulls up and the driver leans out the window. “Is everything all right?” he wants to know.
John has to get his bike off the road. When he has it righted and has it on the side of the road, he looks for Gretchen, but she’s nowhere to be seen.
• • • • •
My father hesitated for a moment and then said, “That’s how your mother and I met.”
I looked at the two of them sitting across from me. It wasn’t fair. Why the lies? Where had my mother been all my life? I needed to know more than just how they met. Why had I been denied a mother?
Gretchen saw the questions in my eyes. She knew the angst in my soul. In sign, she said, “There is much more to tell. Please be patient and let your father continue.”
• • • • •
It wasn’t that hard to find her. She lives with her parents on a farm not a mile from where they met.
It’s a Friday afternoon. John gets off work early and rides over to Tipton County. He’s planning on asking Gretchen out on a date. He hopes that she doesn’t mind riding on a motorcycle.
To his great relief, it is Gretchen who answers the door. As all young men who come a-courtin’, John would rather not go through the gauntlet of parents—fathers in particular.
“Hi. Remember me? We met the other day.”
Gretchen does indeed remember the handsome boy who stands before her. She had thought of him many times over the last few days.
“Yes. Your name is John, if I remember correctly.”
John smiles. At least she remembers me.
Summoning up all his courage, John blurts out, “Would you like to go out on a date with me tomorrow night? Maybe dinner at the drive-in?” It sounded lame even to him. Where can you take a deaf girl? You can’t take her to the movies or out dancing. He felt like an idiot. He just wanted to be with her. It didn’t matter where.
Gretchen is touched. Despite her looks, she hasn’t had very many dates. It’s not just because she’s deaf. Her parents think no boy would want anything to do with her because of her condition. “If any boy comes anywhere near you, he’ll want one thing and one thing only. That and he’ll want your money. We’re better off than most folks around here, so you gotta be careful of that white trash that comes sniffing around,” she has been told time and time again. Anytime a boy asks her out, her parents forbid her to go. Thank God they’re not home now.
She tells John that she will go out with him, but they should meet at the drive-in. “I’ll see you at seven. However, I’ll have to be home by ten.”
Gretchen figures she can tell her parents that she’s going out with a girlfriend. The library is open late on Saturday night. That’s where she’ll tell them she’s going.
John is ecstatic. As he drives down the long driveway, he’s thinking, Maybe I should get a haircut.
The next night, over hamburgers and milkshakes, John and Gretchen get to know one another. John is twenty-two. Right now he works at a Sunoco gas station pumping gas, but he hopes to become a first rate mechanic and then open his own shop. He and his two brothers are being raised by a single mother. His father was killed in the war. They don’t have a lot of money but they’re happy.
Gretchen is twenty-one. She lives with her parents on the family farm. She has no brothers or sisters. It’s 1960, so there aren’t many opportunities for women in the work force—still less for a deaf woman. But she plans to get a certificate to teach sign language to deaf children. She likes to paint, but that’s just a hobby.
Gretchen explains her situation concerning her family. “We have a little money and my parents think that any boy who shows the least interest in me does so only to get at my ‘great wealth.’” She laughs when she says that, because it is so ridiculous.
John rides her back to her farm, but lets her off at the mailbox. They have decided to see each other again, but not to let her parents know about it for the time being.
They are young, and somehow things will work out. But right now they only want to be together. There’s a fire burning within each of them. It’s the beginning of a love that will change their lives forever.
• • • • •
I rolled my eyes in exasperation. Why couldn’t they just get to the part where I was born and my mother abandoned me?
“Dad … Gretchen … can’t you guys just tell me why things turned out as they did? I mean, it’s nice to hear how you met and your first date and all that stuff. I know you finally got together and had me. But what happened after that?”
Gretchen nodded to my father. He nodded back and said, “This is important. You have to understand everything. And once you do, then you can take that information, process it, and come to a decision about how you feel about …”
Dad trailed off at that point, lost for words. Gretchen leaned forward and with a combination of sign and words, took up the narrative.
• • • • •
Over the ensuing months, the young boy and girl become lovers. It is a hot and passionate love. It is the first love for both of them. John is gentle as he explores Gretchen’s body. Gretchen quivers with delight at John’s touch. Sex is new to both of them. They are learning together.
It is a sweet agony when they are apart. They can think of nothing else but each other.
Four months into their relationship, John has changed jobs. He’s now working at the textile mill repairing their machines. It’s a good job and if he works hard, it will afford him a future. And with a future, he can ask Gretchen to marry him. He is so in love.
It’s a crisp October day. The five o’clock whistle has just sounded. John puts down his tools, time to go home. If Gretchen can get out tonight, he plans to ask her to marry him. He is tired of all the sneaking around. He has a good job, one with a future. He’s a decent man. There is nothing her parents can object to if he wants to wed their daughter. He should have confronted them earlier. If Gretchen will have him as a husband, he will march right up her parents and, in no uncertain terms, tell them he loves their daughter and he is going to marry her and take care of her for the rest of her life. They can take their money and shove it for all he cares. Yes, that is exactly what he will do … if Gretchen says yes.
Gretchen is waiting for him as he walks through the gate. He sees her and a big smile plays across his face. “What are you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you.”
“Sure. My bike’s over here. Why don’t we go to the diner on Route 51 and get some coffee. We can talk there. It’s funny that you’re here, because I wanted to talk to you too.”
“Let’s not go to the diner. Can we go someplace private?”
“How about our special place down by the river?”
Gretchen smiles. “That would be perfect.”
She holds on tight as John guns the bike. They lean into the curves as though they were one. The wind drives the tears from her face where they hang in the evening air for a millisecond or two before falling to earth. Gretchen does not know if they are tears of joy or of fear. She won’t know until she speaks with John.
At the river, John walks her to the boulder they call their own. There’s an old oak next to it where John has carved their initials. This is their place. It is enchanted. No one knows about it but them. It is where they first made love.
Once seated on the boulder and facing one another, Gretchen hesitates. How is she going to tell him? He’s young and he has his whole life before him. He’s told me of his plans. How he wants to open a garage. How he wants to be his own boss. Can I take that away from him? Can I, in a few words, dash his hopes and his dreams to smithereens? Do I have that right?
If John had known that Gretchen would be waiting for him when he got off work, he would have bought a ring and had it ready. But he has no ring, so be it. What if she says no?
“So, what do you want to talk about?” says John, stalling for time.
“Ah … hmm … there’s something I think you should know.”
John is thinking, Here it comes. She wants to break up with me.
Gretchen takes a deep breath and looks John in the eye. “John, I’m pregnant.”
It takes a moment for John to comprehend what he has just heard. Naturally, Gretchen takes his lack of a response for what she had feared … his total rejection of her and the baby.
As soon as Gretchen’s words sink into his conscious mind, John leaps up in joy. He pulls Gretchen to him and hugs her like there’s no tomorrow.
“That’s wonderful!” he declaims.
John is ecstatic … Gretchen is in mild shock.
“You mean you don’t mind, John, about the baby?”
“Are you crazy? I was trying to get up the nerve to ask you to marry me.”
• • • • •
“So what was the problem?” I wanted to know. “Why haven’t we been a family for all these years?”
Gretchen said, “That’s a good question. One that should be answered. One that I’m not even sure I know the answer to. But here’s what happened after your father and I decided to get married and spend the rest of our lives together.”
• • • • •
There’s not much of a trousseau a bride can bring with her on the back of a motorcycle. But that does not matter. John and Gretchen have their whole lives before them.
The motorcycle screams down the country road. They are on their way to Covington. That’s where they’ll be married. A friend of John’s uncle is a Justice of the Peace. He’ll marry them and sanctify their union. There is no waiting period in Tennessee. As long as John has the $5.00 license fee, everything will be copasetic. On the way, they stop off at a Kresge’s Five & Dime and buy a ring. They are ready to go.
They’re sitting at the Justice’s desk, filling out the paperwork for the license, when the phone rings. The justice excuses himself and picks up the receiver. “Hello. This is Justice of the Peace Humboldt. How may I help you?”
Humboldt stiffens in his chair. “Yes. I understand, Sheriff. No, I’ll take care of it.”
He replaces the phone in its cradle and looks across the desk at the young couple sitting there in contented bliss. His demeanor has changed. Before the phone call he had been jovial and fatherly. Now he seems nervous. He fidgets with his pen and will not look John in the eye when he speaks to him.
John and Gretchen do not notice the change. They have eyes only for each other.
When the paperwork has been completed, Justice Humboldt says he will go and find his wife to act as a witness. He’s gone an inordinately long time. Soon, there’s a knocking on the door. Humboldt appears out of nowhere. He looks at the boy and girl standing at his desk, holding hands. They are so innocent. He sighs and then opens the door
In comes the county sheriff and two deputies. The sheriff takes Gretchen by the arm and moves her away from John. The deputies handcuff John.
“What’s going on?” demands John. Gretchen is speechless, but she has a feeling about what is going on. The sheriff is a friend of her father’s. Her father is a generous contributor to the sheriff’s campaigns for reelection. She should never have left that note telling her parents she was running off to get married. How stupid of her. There are very few justices in Tipton County. It wasn’t that hard to track them down.
Gretchen starts screaming. “No, no, no!” The sheriff takes her outside and puts her into one of the squad cars—in the back seat. There are no handles and no way out. “You sit there, little missy. As soon as I’ve taken care of Lover Boy, I’ll drive you home.”
• • • • •
“What happened then?” I asked.
My father did the honors. “After taking your mother outside, the sheriff came back in. He told me that I would never see Gretchen again. That he was taking me to the county jail and would hold me until her parents took her out of town.
“I wanted to know by what right he could do what he was doing. He told me he could do anything he wanted … he was the sheriff.”
“That’s it? You let some dumbass sheriff separate you and Gretchen?”
“I didn’t actually ‘let him.’ I was in jail and Gretchen was on her way to New York.”
I looked at Gretchen. “You meekly went along with all that? You didn’t fight back?”
“I did what I had to do. Listen and then you decide. Tell me what you would have done in my place.”
• • • • •
Gretchen sits, head bowed, hands clasped on her lap. Her mother is off to the side. Her father paces before her. The sheriff stands by the door, arms folded on his chest, a smug look on his face.
Her father stops his pacing and turns to her so that she can read his lips. “What were you thinking, girl?”
Gretchen raises her head so she can see what her father is saying.
“Imagine if the sheriff hadn’t gotten there in time. Why, you’d be married to that nobody!”
Gretchen says nothing.
Her father turns to his wife. “She’s your daughter. What are we going to do with her?”
His wife shakes her head in despair, but remains silent.
Gretchen is not worried. She has an ace up her sleeve and she will play it when she is ready.
After a few more minutes of her father haranguing her, Gretchen unleashes her secret weapon.
Her father stops in mid pace. Her mother turns white. The sheriff smirks over by the door.
“What did you say?” her father demands.
“You heard me. I’m pregnant. What are you going to do about that?”
It takes a moment for Mr. Lee’s brain to process what he has just heard. He turns to the sheriff and asks, “You have the boy down at the jail?”
“Yes. My deputies took him in.”
“I need you to hold him for a day or so. Think up some charge. Do what you have to do. I’ll call you when you can let him out. And thanks, Sheriff, for your assistance. Now if you’ll excuse us, this is a family matter.”
The sheriff nods and is about to leave when Mr. Lee adds one more thing. “I’d appreciate it if you’ll keep what you heard here today under your hat.”
“Sure, Mr. Lee. You can count on me.”
Gretchen is told to go to her room. “Your mother and I have to talk this over.”
“There’s nothing to talk over. I’m twenty-one. You can’t do this to me. I’ll run away with John … I’ll …” Gretchen runs out of words and starts crying. She looks first to her mother and then her father. She sees no sympathy, no love in their eyes. Only fear. This was to be her special day. She runs to her room and throws herself on the bed where she sobs into her pillow.
• • • • •
I didn’t know what to say. The whole thing was so unfair. I wanted to go over and hug Gretchen, but I kept my seat.
“So, what happened next?”
My father answered for the both of them. “I was in jail on trumped up charges. I think it was for vagrancy or loitering or something like that. The point is I couldn’t talk with Gretchen. I couldn’t talk with anyone. I was denied my phone call. Later on, I learned that my mother had been worried sick when I didn’t come home that night.
I think Gretchen should tell you how all this played out because she was there. I only got the full story years later.”
I saw a tear trickle down Gretchen’s cheek that she immediately wiped away.
• • • • •
Gretchen’s father looms over her. “I spoke with your mother and this is the way it’s going to be.”
She is lying face-down on her bed. She has not heard a word her father said.
Frustrated, Mr. Lee shakes his daughter’s shoulder. “Look at me,” he shouts.
With Gretchen looking directly at him, he forces himself to speak slowly. Mr. Lee does not want his daughter to miss a single word.
“As I’ve said, your mother and I have decided how we are going to handle this situation. First of all, pack what you’ll need for an extended visit. You and your mother are going to New York and staying with your Aunt Hilda until the baby is born.”
“I’m not going anywhere without John.”
“Yes, you are, little lady. And this is why. John is in jail and he will not be let out until you’re safely on your way. I’ve spoken with the sheriff. If you run away or try to contact that boy in any way, the sheriff will file charges against him. Of course, they’ll be phony, but when the sheriff gets done with him, he’ll be doing ten years at hard labor. Is that what you want for your boyfriend?”
Gretchen’s shoulders sag. Is there no way out of this nightmare?
“What about the baby?” she implores.
“It will be given up for adoption.”
• • • • •
Gretchen came over, sat on the arm of the chair, and hugged me.
“Do you see what I was up against?”
I did see. But I still had one question. “So, how did I end up with dad?”
“I had no power. As long as they held the threat of sending your father to prison over my head, I had to do whatever they said. But there was one thing. They didn’t care about the baby. In exchange for my cooperation in their evil scheme, I demanded that the baby, when it came, be turned over to its father. Then I would go along with whatever they said without protest.”
• • • • •
There’s a knock on the door. John opens it to reveal a man and a woman. The woman is holding something.
“Yes. May I help you?”
“Are you John Toomey?” asks the man.
“May I see some identification?”
“What is this all about?”
The woman speaks up. “Mr. Toomey, we have your son. Gretchen has sent him to you. We just have to make sure that you are Mr. Toomey. His name is Michael, by the way.”
• • • • •
“After making sure of my identity, they handed you over along with your birth certificate. In the early years, your grandmother helped out with raising you. But after she died, it was just you and me, kiddo.”
“Gretchen told me she had been married. Why didn’t she come back to you instead of marrying some other guy?”
“I’ll let Gretchen tell you.”
She was still sitting next to me on the chair’s arm. “I was allowed to keep you for two months, then I had to send you to your father. It broke my heart, but it was so much better than putting you up for adoption.
“After you were gone, my aunt and mother took me to Europe. We stayed over there six months before coming home. By then it had been almost two years since I last saw your father. The old sheriff was still around and the threat of putting John in prison was still held over me. I didn’t let your father know that I was back because I knew he’d come and see me.”
“Damn right I would have,” interjected my father.
Gretchen continued. “You must have been about five when the sheriff retired. And the next year both my parents died. But by then I was married. I had met him in France. He was an American … a rich American. My mother took to him instantly. I went out with him a few times just for something to do. When he asked me to marry him, I said yes just to get away from my parents. I didn’t love him, at least not like I loved your father. But he was a good man.
“When he died, I moved back onto the family farm. I wanted to be near you. I contacted your father and let him know that I was back. We decided that it would be best for you if we kept you from knowing the truth … that your mother was alive.
“But I couldn’t help myself. I had to talk to you. I had to touch you … I had to know you. Your father, to his credit, had no problem with that. So here I am. My name is Gretchen Lee and I am your mother!”
What a day it had been! It was a lot for a fourteen-year-old to take in. Hell, it probably would have been a lot for anyone to take it.
However, I did have one last question. “Gretchen … Dad, why haven’t you two gotten back together. The parents are gone. The sheriff is gone. What’s the problem?” It was a question only a kid could ask.
My father looked to Gretchen. She smiled and nodded.
My father leaned back on the couch and said, “Life goes on. By the time Gretchen came back, things had changed. I was a different person and she was a different person. We still have great affection for one another, but we’re not kids anymore.”
Gretchen touched my cheek with the back of her hand. She was crying.
Five months later, my father dropped dead on the plant floor from a massive heart attack.
I moved in with Gretchen at the farm. She was now wealthy from her parents’ and her husband’s money.
I’m twenty-six years old. I met a girl and married her when I was twenty-three. We are very much in love. I work at building websites. It’s a new business. I don’t know if this internet thing will take hold, but while I can, I’m going to cash in. I seem to have a knack for programming.
We were blessed with the most adorable set of twins you ever saw … and they have the most attentive grandmother in the world.
Life is good.
It was in the first year of The Great Famine—a hot July day—the sun was splitting stones, it was. On that day, Andrew Fitzgibbons’ world ended and his hell began.
Like most, his potato crop had failed, but unlike most, his family was eating, thanks to his son’s vegetable garden, and his rent was paid up to date. He did not know how long that would last, but for now he was holding on.
His wife was kneeling over the peat fire, boiling a cabbage for their noon meal. Andrew’s oldest son, Daniel, fourteen years of age, was tending his garden with love and care. The boy had the gift of a bhfuil ordóg glas—a green thumb, as the English would say. The younger children were playing near the house, under Andrew’s watchful eye.
Yes, things were bad in Ireland and getting worse as far as Andrew could tell, but for the moment, all was well. Then the clock ticked one tick and the fateful moment arrived.
A gang of the landlord’s drivers came up the stone path that Andrew’s father had laid when Andrew was but leanbh beag—a small child. There were seven in number, led by Thomas Cohan. Andrew knew him well. Tommy was the town bully and a thoroughly unpleasant man. He was tall, almost six feet, and his arms were thick with muscles. The smirk he wore upon his face announced to the world that he was enjoying himself.
Cohan got right to the point. “You have ten minutes to gather your possessions and your rabble, Andrew Fitzgibbons. His Lordship is increasing his pasture lands and you and your hovel are in the way.”
That was the moment Andrew’s world ended. But he did not yet know it.
“What do you mean, Tommy Cohan? My rent is paid.”
“’Tis no concern of mine. I’ve been told to move you off the land and that is what I will be doing. The ten minutes starts now.”
Andrew was dumbfounded. He could not think straight. He could not move. This was too much to take in all at once. His mind was reeling off the possibilities. Could he fight the seven men before him and drive them from his house? No. Could he plead for time so that he might beseech the landlord to reconsider? The look in Cohan’s eyes said no. Would God send down a lightning bolt to strike Cohan where he stood? Probably not.
“You now have nine minutes.”
Andrew called to his son. “Daniel, gather the little ones and bring them inside. Hurry!” He went into the house and told his wife to stop what she was doing and gather up all that she could carry of their belongings and take them outside. “Then come back for more.”
She stood immobile at the fire with her stirring stick in hand and a questioning look upon her face.
“I will explain later, but right now you have to do as I say.” Just then the children came in. Andrew told them the same thing he had told his wife. Daniel had overheard the conversation, so there was no hesitation on his part. The younger children thought it a grand game and readily joined in. His wife, seeing the fear in her husband’s eyes, placed the spoon into the pot of cabbage, picked up a rag, and took the pot off the fire. She took it outside and placed it on the ground. She was put off at seeing Cohan and the other men, but said nothing and hurried back inside.
When everything that they owned—which was not much—was standing in heaps outside the house, Cohan gave the order to remove the thatch. The family had no alternative but to stand there and watch the destruction of their home.
Andrew’s wife stood with her three small children, ages nine, seven, and five. Daniel stood next to his father. With the roof reduced to a pile of hay, the men started in on toppling the walls. Missus Fitzgibbons started to cry.
When the destruction was complete, Cohan informed Andrew that the family was to be off the land by sundown. “Thems me orders,” barked Cohan. “And I’ll be wanting no trouble from you, Andrew Fitzgibbons.”
“Where are we to go? What are we to do?” demanded Andrew.
Sneered Cohan, “Again, ’tis no concern of mine.”
Daniel, knowing the family would be needing food, ran to his beloved garden and started picking anything that was anywhere near to being ripe.
Cohan yelled, “You there, stop! That be His Lordship’s property.”
Daniel ignored him and continued with what he was doing. An enraged Cohan ordered two of his men to restrain the boy and hold him. To another he said, “You go along into town and bring back a constable.”
Andrew pleaded with Cohan to release the boy and they would be on their way. But Cohan was deaf to Andrew’s entreaties.
The constable arrived shortly thereafter, and based on Cohan’s testimony—and the law that stated a landlord owned everything on his land—he promptly arrested Daniel for thievery and destruction of property. He would not listen to a word from Daniel’s parents or the crying of his siblings.
The next day, Daniel went before a judge and was sentenced to two months in jail.
Just one story from An Gorta Mhór—The Great Famine.
Banyan Bay is a marina located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It has been my home for the last eight years. However, it’s time to move on to another port of call. But before doing so, I thought I’d tell you all a little about the place and the people who inhabit said marina … and my interactions with them.
My name is Andrew Joyce and I write books for a living. I’ve lived on a boat of one kind or another going on forty-three years now. I’ve owned and lived on sailboats, houseboats, house barges, and motor yachts of all sizes. I’m currently living on a motor boat with no motor. But that’s alright. I’m not really into boating per se. It bores the hell outta me to cruise around just for the sake of being out on the water. I like to sail, but let’s not overdo it.
Anyway, I like living on a boat because it affords me a certain amount of freedom. I don’t have to put up with uptight neighbors like I would if I lived in a house or an apartment building. I’m a little crazy, and my neighbors in a suburban setting—I think—would be calling the cops on me at least once a week. But boat people, I mean people who live on boats, tend to be as crazy as I am … if not a little more so. Hence, there is very little calling of the police.
Before moving into Banyan Bay, I lived in a nearby marina rent free, for sixteen years. It was a good deal. They allowed no other live-a-boards but me. The place went through three owners and they all kept me around. I don’t know why. Perhaps they just wanted a warm body there at night in the hopes that thieves would be held at bay. And mostly they were, but we were hit a few times.
I eventually got thrown out because I’d had a little too much to drink one day and told the latest owner to go fuck himself. Of course, he told me get out. I asked him if I could stay for a month until I found some place else to dock my boat. He said, “Sure.” At the end of the month, I asked for another thirty day extension and he said, “Okay. But this is your last month. You really gotta go.”
At the end of the second month, I asked him if he would give me a tow to my new marina, seeing as how my boat had no engine. He must have really wanted to get rid of me because he had two of his employees tow my boat to its present location, Banyan Bay.
Okay. Now that you know all about me, I’ll tell you about some of the people I’ve met since I’ve been here.
When I first arrived, there were ten people living on their boats. That number has now soared to over sixty. I won’t introduce you to everyone because I don’t know everyone. And some of the people you’ll be meeting are no longer here, but while they were, they made an impression on me.
Angelique was the first person I met after I moved over to Banyan Bay. She lived with her boyfriend, Randall. They had this custom that, at the end of the day as the sun was setting and turning the western sky a kind of scarlet-orange-pink color, they would set up chairs under a large banyan tree and break out the beers. Anyone who wanted to stop by could help themselves. It was a mini party every night. Well, this one evening, Angelique went behind a bush to relieve herself—if you know what I mean. But there was only one problem. Although from our vantage point we couldn’t see her, the people on the street had a bird’s eye view.
So there she is, squatting down; her smooth white butt reflecting the pale light of the setting sun. And guess who comes barreling down the street? The owner of the marina. That’s who! He saw her and the next day she was evicted. Too bad … she and Randall were very generous with their beer.
I had been introduced to Don and Ed by Angelique before she was so unceremoniously ejected from our little enclave. Don is a saint. Don does not live on a boat at the marina. His boat is on a trailer; he just stores it here. But he comes every Saturday with a cooler of beer and passes them out like there was no tomorrow. Everyone wishes he would come around more often. Not because of the beer, but because he’s such a nice guy.
I’ll give you just two examples of what I’m talking about. One time, the faucet on my galley sink died. It leaked continuously and there was no way to fix it. I called the boat manufacturer and searched online for a replacement—all to no avail. Then one Saturday, Don showed up with a faucet he had bought and he installed it for me. The second example: My neighbor, Bart, needed an oven and couldn’t really afford to buy one. Guess what? Don bought him one. Don’s always doing stuff like that.
Then there’s Ed. We call him Old Man Ed because at the time there was another Ed living here in the marina. Him we called Crazy Ed. That way, we could tell the two of them apart when speaking about them. The first Ed was old. He was seventy-eight at the time. He’s now eighty-five. The other Ed was crazy. But he had a good excuse. He did some heavy shit in Vietnam and he was never right after that. Crazy Ed left us a few years ago and we haven’t seen him since.
Old Man Ed is still around. He doesn’t live in the marina, but he has two boats that he docks here. He comes by about four or five times a week. And like Don, he’s a good guy. He’ll buy roasted chickens and pass them out to the less affluent of us. He also buys clothes for some of the women. You gotta understand. We are not a high-end bunch (except for me). Just working folks trying to make ends meet.
The aforementioned Bart is now dead. He drank himself to death.
Then there’s Lloyd. He’s always meeting women online and falling in love. The relationships last about a year. When twelve months have gone by and I ask him where his latest love is, he says the same thing every time. “We split up. She’s bat-shit crazy, man.”
Nowadays when I see him hooking up with a new love, I know the love affair has an expiration date. I like Lloyd. He laughs at all my attempts at humor. He also got me the drunkest that I have ever been.
One day (before I became a rich and famous author), I went over to his boat to beg a little liquor off him. All he had was some old Neapolitan brandy. Not my usual drink … but hey … any port in a storm.
By chance, a friend of his, Jeff, was there (he also lives in the marina). He’s a boat captain. He captains mega yachts, one hundred and fifty feet and larger. He’s also a far right idiot. Don’t get me wrong. I love Jeff, but he’s nuts. I’m a far left loon. I’m so far left I make Obama look like Ronald Reagan.
Anyway, I got into a discussion with Jeff about politics. And I’m swilling down the brandy while trying to bring Jeff into the light. By the time I had finished the bottle, I gave up. The hell with it. Let his soul rot in hell for all I care.
I had never been so drunk in all my life. I left the boat (somehow) and got on my bicycle. I made it about ten feet and fell over. My head hit the asphalt. I didn’t know it and I couldn’t feel it, but blood was pouring from my wound as though I had been shot numerous times.
I turned over onto my back and looked up at a beautiful blue sky. There were puffy white clouds moving from left to right. It was so peaceful. I wanted to spend the rest of my life lying on that black, warm asphalt looking up at God’s wonderful creation. Then it was all taken away from me. Lloyd’s face appeared over me, blocking my view. “Are you all right?” he wanted to know.
“I’m fine,” I countered.
“You know your head is lying in a pool of blood.”
“That’s nice. You’re blocking my view of the sky.”
“Are you just going to lay there and bleed to death?”
“I can think of no finer place to do so.”
“You better get up. You’re lying in the middle of the road.”
With a heavy sigh, I allowed Lloyd to help me get to my feet. I got back on my bike and made it halfway back to my boat before my head again met asphalt. This time, I opened up a whole new wound. Blood sprayed all over the marina’s white work van. (The pool of blood was impressive. Of course, at the time that did not enter into my thinking. But the next day, I went over to see what everyone was talking about. And, wow! The blood was all dried up, but damn it. There sure was a hell of a lot of it.)
I made it almost back to my boat when I took another spill. This time my friend Juan’s girlfriend found me. She was horrified. She called 911 and soon the EMT guys were bandaging my head. They said they were going to take me to the hospital. I said, “No you’re not.”
I refused to go. They told me if I didn’t go into my boat and stay there, they would call the cops and have me arrested for my own good. I swore I’d be a good boy and go home. Which I did. But as soon as they left, I re-emerged and promptly fell down. Even as drunk as I was, I figured it was time to call it a day. And it was only three o’clock in the afternoon!
So anyway … it was all Lloyd’s fault. And that was the day I became a local legend in Banyan Bay Marina.
Now on to Lloyd’s sister, Beth. Lloyd had been in Fort Lauderdale for a while when I met him. But he was originally from Texas (hence, having Jeff—a right wing wacko—as a friend).
Beth was living in Texas and at loose ends. Lloyd called her and told her she should move to Fort Lauderdale. He said he had found her an old boat that didn’t run and needed a “little” work. So, Beth packed up her pickup truck and headed east. (Of course, she had a pickup truck; she’s from Texas.)
When I ran into her, she had just arrived. Her boat was still a work in progress, but Lloyd was busting his ass getting it livable as fast as he could. At the time, he had a full-time job, so he could only work on his off hours. (Now he’s a lazy son-of-a-bitch, living off the fat of the land.)
Beth is deaf so it was hard for her to make friends—that and the fact that there weren’t many people living here at the time. She and I became friends because of Lloyd. I would go over to her boat so she could show me the daily improvements that her brother was making.
At the time, she didn’t have a computer and she asked if she could have access to mine on occasion; she wanted to check in with her Facebook friends and stuff like that. And being the wonderful person that I am, I said, “Sure.”
Actually, I’m not that wonderful. She had to use the computer on my boat. I wasn’t about to let it out of my sight. I needed it for my writing (still do as a matter of fact).
One time, Lloyd saw me escorting Beth onto my boat and I went up to him and said, “I’m not trying to make your sister. I’m just going to let her use my computer.”
He laughed and said, “I don’t care. She’s a big girl and can take care of herself.”
So much for brotherly concern.
The whole thing became moot the day she was sitting at the table, banging on the keys of my laptop, and a roach crawled out from somewhere. Beth jumped an inch off the bench and made a face. It turned out she doesn’t like roaches. Who knew? That was the last time she came onto my boat.
I’m happy to say that she is still here among us. And now she has her own computer.
Alicia was my next-door neighbor. She was a recovering alcoholic and went to meetings seven days a week. She was intense, but I liked her. At the time, Alicia was into Scientology and was doing some sort of study with the “church” that involved massage therapy. She was taking the course online, and one day, she asked me if I’d be kind enough to allow her to practice on me. And once again, being the wonderful person that I am, how could I refuse? I went over to her boat and she had everything set up. The bed was ready for me, candles were burning, and Alicia was charged up.
Hmm, maybe I’ll get lucky, thought I.
Well, I did get lucky, but not in the way I had imagined. The cockamamie massage worked. I felt great when I walked off her boat. A few weeks later, she had learned some new stuff and wanted to, again, use me as a guinea pig. No problem. A few days after that, she wanted to try some stuff on Danny, my dog. He seemed to like it as much as I did. Alicia later said that Danny was nice to let her give him a massage without biting her.
Alicia was somehow saved from the “church” and now lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she is going to school.
Before I go any further, I’d like to tell you about the Tiki Hut at Banyan Bay. A Tiki Hut, for those of you who don’t know, is a structure consisting of four open sides and a pitched roof covered with palm fronds. Our Tiki Hut sports a refrigerator, a microwave oven, and four grills—two gas and two charcoal … and one deep fryer.
I had to get that out of the way because a lot of what goes down in the marina takes place at the Tiki Hut.
When I first moved in, there were only three entities that made use of the Tiki Hut. One was a part-time employee of the marina. His name was Tommy. He would sit at the Tiki Hut all day long if he was not working (he also lived here). He was a little guy who wore a beard. He was also an ex-navy man. And he always had a beer within arm’s reach. In my discussions with him, I found him to be well-informed and very smart. Everyone else thought he was a loser, but I saw the light under his bushel. Tommy was a great guy. He was a drunk like the rest of us, but I think his soul was a little bit purer … less unsullied than the rest of ours … at least mine. Tommy is now out in Colorado, working on a legal marijuana farm or ranch or whatever they call it.
The other entities who hung out at the Tiki Hut were two stray cats: Momma Cat and Tommy (I think that cat was named after Tommy).
Now I’ve got to talk to you about Juan. He was something else. For some reason, the minute he moved his boat in here, we hit it off. I don’t know why. But it was like we had known each other all our lives.
There are so many stories I can tell you about Juan, but I’ll keep it short. He worked on boats. Mostly he painted boats. When he first moved here, he was working for a company, but he got fired or quit or something. Then he started his own business. Anyway, when he learned I had, in a previous incarnation, owned a business that did fiberglass, painting, and gel coat work on boats (this was before I became an internationally known, best-selling author and bon-vivant), he co-opted me to help him out in his new endeavor as an entrepreneur, working on boats.
At the time, I had one novel under my belt and was trying to secure the services of a literary agent. It was time consuming. I’d spend all day at the computer sending out what are called query letters to agents around the country, but mostly in New York City.
So, just to get out of the boat for a while as I waited for all them New York city slickers to wake up and see what a literary genius I am, I went out with Juan to work on some of his jobs. He never paid me. But he always kept me in beer while I worked and he’d buy me lunch. He thought he was getting away with something. However, I was doing what I wanted to do. To paraphrase Bob Seeger, He used me and I used him and neither of us cared.
Then my book sold and I became a big shot. I had fans from all over the world. One lady in Germany emailed me and asked where I lived. She also wanted a picture of my boat. (My author bio said that I lived on a boat.)
Now at the time, I was living on a real piece of shit boat (and still am). I didn’t want to send her a picture of my boat, so I took a picture of Juan’s and emailed it to her. That was a mistake.
A month or so later, she emailed me and said she and a friend, who also loved my book, were coming to Florida and wanted to look me up while they were here.
I’m kind of a private person, so I lied and told her I had to be in New York on business during the time she was going to be here. I thought I had dodged a bullet. Then one evening around sunset, Juan comes over to my boat and says, “There’s two ladies at my boat looking for you.”
They had gone on Google Earth and found out where I lived. And then, with the photo of Juan’s boat in hand, they came to the marina on a pilgrimage to see where the great Andrew Joyce lived.
I was cornered … or caught … or whatever. There was no way out short of suicide.
The short version is that, in spite of myself, I had a great time with the German ladies. And it was all because of Juan. I had stopped driving (voluntarily) a few months before, so Juan drove us around to restaurants and bars at night. He was a life saver. No matter how much free labor I gave him, I still have a warm spot in my heart for the son-of-a-bitch.
Juan had a co-worker from his days of painting boats. His name was Mike. One night, Juan showed up at the Tiki Hut, trailing Mike. A few of us were there, including Beth. Well, it was love at first sight between Mike and Beth. The next thing any of us knew, they were living together.
I think Mike has had more influence on my life than any other person I have ever known. And it’s funny. At first I didn’t like him all that much. But over time, I warmed to him. Once I got to like him, I started going over to their boat for evening cocktails and we would talk about this and that. On occasion, he would tell me he had cancer. I never believed him. He was healthy-looking and he worked every day. I thought he was just trying to elicit a little sympathy from me.
As all couples do, Mike and Beth had their ups and downs. But things finally came to a head and Mike moved out of the boat and into the shop where he worked. He was cool with it. He still had friends here in the marina and would come to visit almost every night. One of his best friends was Big Joe.
One day, shortly after he had moved out, Mike was hanging around and he casually informed us that he had just been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and that he was on his way out.
Big Joe immediately, very forcefully, and in no uncertain terms, told Mike that he was moving out of the warehouse and onto his boat, which was kind of ironic because Joe’s boat was docked right next to Beth’s. Mike could have moved back onto Beth’s boat, but he was still pissed off at her.
Now, this is what I wanted to tell you about Mike. One day he wanted to go to the hospital and see what could be done for him. He had very little money and no health insurance. So, another Mike (we called him “Crabby Mike” because his business is selling stone crabs) and I loaded Mike into Crabby’s truck and whisked him off to the hospital.
We waited around while he was admitted and then went in to see him. It was a sad sight, seeing him in that hospital bed. Mike had always been a little guy. But he now looked shrunken in that massive bed. Or maybe it was that the bed just appeared to be massive against Mike’s slight and frail frame. We said our good-byes and told Mike we would come to visit him in a few days.
The next day, I saw Mike standing on the dock outside Big Joe’s boat. “What the hell are you doing here?” I wanted to know.
“The doctors told me they could extend my life by about two months, but I’d have to stay in the hospital. That sucked. The hospital sucked. I ain’t stayin’ there to gain a lousy two months.”
That was it. Mike had decided to die on his own terms. And boy, did he! A few days later, he told me he had cried throughout the previous night. That was his moment of doubt. But after that, he had an amazing attitude. He even joked about dying.
When I said Mike had a profound effect on my life, what I meant was that he showed me how to die with dignity … and without fear.
His family lived up in Jacksonville, about a five-hour drive to the north. They sent him a train ticket so that he could go up there and be near them. They had a hospice all picked out for him.
Now on to Big Joe. He was probably Mike’s best friend. One day, shortly after Mike left for Jacksonville, Joe told me he was going north to see him one last time. He wanted to know if I’d like to go along.
We set out before sunrise on a Sunday morning.
I’m loathe to use the word mystical, but that is what the trip was. It was a white day. The entire four-hundred-mile journey was shrouded in fog. A thick fog … and it only got thicker the closer we got to Jacksonville. That was weird. In Florida, fog never sticks around after sunrise. As we drove north, the sun was to our right. It was a white sphere hanging low in the sky. I could look directly at it without hurting my eyes.
Jacksonville was eerily quiet that day. The fog dampened all sound. It was as though the city knew why we were there and was showing its respect for the beautiful soul that was Michael.
I smuggled Mike’s favorite booze into the place and we all had a few drinks. Joe and I toasted Mike and said our good-byes. Then we left our friend to die a peaceful death. (We also stashed the bottle of booze in the bottom drawer of the cabinet next to his bed … for easy access.)
A few days later, I got a call from Mike. He had forgotten where I hid the bottle, he wanted a drink. I told him where to find it and spoke with him for a few minutes, filling him in on the latest marina gossip. That was the last time we spoke. He died a few weeks later … two days after his birthday.
I’ve got to give a short shout out to Johnny and John. Johnny owns the marina and John runs it. If I had any bitch with either of them, now would be the time to bring it up, seeing as how I’m outta here. But I don’t have a bitch. They have both treated me fairly and have been gentlemen in all our dealings. (Okay, Johnny … now that I said good things about you, how about that reduction in my last month’s rent?)
A few years ago at the marina Christmas party, I cornered them. They were trapped. They smiled and looked at me expectantly, waiting for what I had to say—what golden words would pour forth from my mouth. I didn’t keep them waiting long. “I got a bitch,” I said.
Their faces fell and their smiles faded. I could almost read their minds. Oh no. Not another asshole.
I waited a tick or two and then said, “Just kidding. I want to thank you for throwing this great party for us.”
The look of relief on their faces was priceless.
Ashley runs the office for Johnny and John. She runs things so well, those two guys come in just so people will think they work for a living. Actually they’re either at lunch or out fishing most of the time. But they have no worries, Ashley’s on the case.
Next, there’s Jeff. He’s the right wing wacko I spoke of previously. He’s okay. A couple of times when I was broke, I borrowed money from him. And both times when I went to repay him, he said he had forgotten all about it. How can you not love a guy like that?
John and Will were a married gay couple. They lived next to me for a while. John had read a few of my books and told me that he loved them. So of course, I loved him. Will was a great cook and many a night he would knock on my boat to share with me his latest culinary masterpiece. They’re in South Carolina now where gays are so openly welcomed. (Just kidding about the “openly welcomed” part.) I sure miss ’em.
Next we have Dave and Big. Dave was a guy and Big was a dog, a Rottweiler. One day we were hanging out, and my dog, Danny, got interested in Big. He was sniffing around and trying to play with Big. Big put up with it for a short while, but then turned on Danny and chomped down on his leg. Danny freaked out and screamed. I was trying to pull Big off when Crabby Mike came to the rescue by kicking Big in the stomach. Big let go of Danny and turned his attention to me. He again chomped down, but this time it was on my inner thigh. Two inches higher and I would be singing soprano in the church choir.
The only thing that pissed me off was that Dave sat there with a stupid grin on his face while all this was going on. He didn’t even try to intervene. I mean, if my dog was mauling a much smaller dog, you can bet your boots I’d be in there trying to break it up. So I yelled at Dave, saying something like, “You are a son-of-a-bitch, motherfucking asshole!”
The outcome was $800.00 in medical bills. I had gotten infected from the bite and I let it go too long. But we eventually beat it. By the way, it was $300.00 for me and $500.00 for Danny.
Dave and I eventually kissed and made up. A few months later, when he had to be out of town for two weeks, he asked me to look after Big. And I readily agreed. But I didn’t bring Danny with me when I took Big for his walks. Dave and Big now live on a boat in Alabama.
I have a good friend a few boats over by the name of Otacilio. He’s from Brazil. He works his ass off. I never see him during the week, but on the weekends he invites me over for breakfast. He’s introduced me to a lot of cool foods that they eat down there.
We have two Jays here. One lives in the marina and the other stops by every day on his way home from work. To keep them straight, we call the Jay who does not live here, Jay. The other one we call Rizzo, seeing as how that’s his last name.
Jay (the one who does not live here) is a great guy. He, along with Mike Rodriguez (who we’ll get to in a moment), takes care of all the cooking at the Tiki Hut. He also feeds the eighteen stray cats we got around here. It’s funny. When his car drives up, the cats come outta nowhere. I say they got “jaydar.” When he’s within a mile of the place, they start to get antsy.
Another thing I like about Jay is that he always makes sure I’m well fed. His sister, Kelly, is a phenomenal cook. There has been many a night that Jay has brought me a heaping plate of food prepared by Kelly. And she throws in a dessert every time!
Rizzo is a different kind of animal. He showed up here driving a bicycle that he had thrown an engine on, and not a pot to piss in. Now he owns six cars and three boats. And he’s done it all from monumental hustling. He is always doing something. Making this deal or that deal. Or collecting scrap to turn in for money. Or whatever he can do to hustle a buck.
And he too is a great guy. If you need anything, you just mention it to Rizzo and before you know it, you got it. He never charges anyone. I once asked him to keep an eye out for a basket for my bike. It took a few months, but he found one and then, unbeknownst to me, he mounted it onto my bike. It took him an hour because there were complications. The son-of-a-bitch is storing up good karma all over the place.
The only bad thing that I can say about him is that watching him work hurts my head. He never slows down. We were talking once and I said to him, as a joke, “I liked you when we first met, but then I got to know you.” He thought that was the funniest thing he had ever heard and repeats it all the time.
Might as well tell you about Alfie now. I’ve known him for about twenty-two years. We first met at the marina I was thrown out of. He used to work there. Now he’s kinda like the head ramrod at Banyan Bay. He keeps things moving. There are over three hundred boats here, counting the ones on trailers and on the storage racks. Alfie is the only employee who knows where every boat is and who owns it. The office would be lost without him.
Alfie is an ex-fisherman from Cape Cod. He has captained boats up there and here in South Florida. He’s of Portuguese extraction and he doesn’t seem to age. (The son-of-a-bitch!) He smoked and drank all his life. He even drank more than I currently do. And that’s saying something. Anyway, he stopped both vices cold turkey with no problems at all. He just walked away from that stuff and that was it. Probably the Portuguese blood flowing in his veins.
Nowadays his only vice is playing scratch offs. He keeps a running total of his wins and losses for the year and he comes out a grand or two ahead every year. A few weeks ago, he hit a $1,000.00 scratch off and then did the same the next day. Then the day after that, he hit two $400.00 tickets.
He’s also a sport. One time, I was behind him in line at the convenience store, buying a twelve pack of Heineken. When I got up to the cashier, I was informed that the gentleman who had just left had paid for my beer. Just this morning, he hit a $500.00 winner and tipped the guy that sold it to him $50.00. “I always give ten percent of my winnings to the person who sold me the ticket.” Talk about good karma.
James is a genius. He lives on a sailboat. He does something with plasma machines (whatever they are). And he’s always inventing stuff and making computer boards on his boat, which is amazing, seeing as how his boat is rather cramped.
James ended up here, living on a boat, because he got divorced. He used to make good money because he is such a genius. Companies flew him all over the place to invent things and fix their multi-million dollar machines when no one else could. But because he has to pay his ex-wife $3,000.00 a week in alimony, he’s lost the incentive to work. “It all goes to her anyway,” he says.
Nowadays, he sits on his boat and designs things I don’t even understand. He has a 3-D printer and prints out stuff and tries to explain them to me, but I don’t get it. James is way too smart for me.
The only other person here that lives on a sailboat is Steve, which is kind of funny because he is also a genius. But his genius lies with computers. He writes code and all that good stuff. He’s kind of weird. Before coming here, he lived “on the hook.” That means he lived anchored offshore. No running water, no electricity, and to do anything, he had to row into shore. Did I mention that he did fourteen years of that shit? However, he had set up solar panels to run his computer.
He and James are always out on the dock talking about genius shit. They’re the only ones who can understand what they’re saying. The rest of us (mostly me) just have a dumb look on our faces as they yak away.
Louie used to play bass for Ted Nugent and other bands. When I first moved in here, people up at the Tiki Hut would mention Louie in passing. Finally I had to ask, “Who the hell is Louie?”
“He lives here on a boat, but he doesn’t mingle that much.”
I’ll say he didn’t. At that time, I had been at the marina for about a year and I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of anyone called Louie. That was then, this is now. Louie and I have become good friends and sometimes, in the evenings, we’ll kick back and have a beer or two and shoot the shit. Louie’s a good sport. He’ll let me go on for hour after hour telling him what a genius writer I am. And he’s a good actor too. He actually makes me believe that he gives a damn. I like Louie.
Brian is a newcomer. He’s been here about three months and seems like a decent bloke. I say bloke because Brian has lived all over the world, the last place being England. Funny story, that.
A friend had asked him to house sit. “You can live rent free,” said, said friend.
“Sounds good,” said Brian.
There was only one problem. The house contained three hundred pounds of cocaine.
When the cops came, they didn’t want to hear that he was only house sitting for a friend. “If that’s true, give us the name of your friend,” the cops reasonably asked.
Long story short: Brian would not give up his friend and was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. He did three years in solitary before he was remanded to the United States to complete his sentence. I reckon you could say that Brian is a standup guy.
David and Peggy are friends of mine; they live on the other side of the marina. I don’t see them as often as I’d like to because they’re always busy doing silly things like working for a living. They’re from New York and I met them shortly after they arrived. They weren’t here a week before the whole family had jobs. By “whole family,” I mean them and their two children.
They invite me over for dinner once in a while. Peggy is a great cook and so is Dave. I was there last night, and Peggy outdid herself with a shepherd’s pie. She made it because of my Irish heritage and because it was a going-away dinner they threw for me. They are really nice people. I’d love to run off with Peggy, but David would beat the shit outta me if I did. He’s a big guy and I only fuck with him when I’ve been drinking.
Pete and Nilza live next to David and Peggy. They are also a married couple. Nilza is Puerto Rican and Pete is Alabamian. How those two hooked up, I’ll never know.
At Thanksgiving they invited me over. Not just me, but some other people from the marina. I’ve got to say right here and now, that was the best damn Thanksgiving dinner I have ever had. They had turkey, they had ham. They had eighteen or nineteen side dishes. They had three kinds of pie for dessert. When it was time for me to leave, Nilza made me a to-go plate. It was so heavy that I needed help getting it home. And to show you what a good heart she has (Pete not so much), when I asked her if I could take a plate for one of our fellow boat dwellers that was down on his luck (broke), she made me a plate for him that rivaled mine. I was a little jealous.
Just to show you how things work around here, Pete had a boat that he lived on. When he got another boat, he sold the old one to Bart. When Bart died, his next-of-kin didn’t want it and signed it over to the marina. They, in turn, gave it to Louie who at the time was living in a warehouse and taking cold showers from a hose. Louie, now that he is rich and affluent, bought a new, bigger boat and sold his old one to Captain Trash.
Captain Trash is called Captain Trash because he has a business that hauls trash. He leaves trailers on people’s property, they fill them at their leisure, and then he comes back and hauls them to the dump. He makes a pretty good living doing that. I like him because he is always buying me six packs of Heineken.
I’ve mentioned the Tiki Hut throughout this narrative. But the Tiki Hut would not be the Tiki Hut if not for the Rodrigues, Mike and Ximena (pronounced HE-MAN-NA for you neophytes).
Before Mike and Ximena moved in, we liked the Tiki Hut the way it was. We had a few crappy Christmas lights hanging around and we thought that was so cool. We had a refrigerator that did not work—only the freezer worked. And the grill situation was really sad.
Ximena took one look at our pitiful situation and said, “Whoa!”
The next thing we knew there were strings and strings of new lights hanging from the rafters. A new refrigerator magically appeared. There were new grills and deep fryers and the place was clean. Ximena had taken a pressure washer to it.
As all this was going on, I was a little put out. I had grown used to our crappy Tiki Hut. How dare this woman tinker with our Tiki Hut! I thought.
But now I’ve got to admit, I like our new Tiki Hut better. As I write these words, Ximena is out there staining wood at the Tiki Hut. No shit. God bless her.
Ximena does her thing and Mike does his thing. He is our master chef (along with the aforementioned Jay).
Mike is a professional. Every goddamn thing he cooks comes out done to perfection. Well … there is one area where I have a beef (pun intended) with him. He does not know how to cook hamburgers. He doesn’t burn the hell out of ’em like he should. They must be well-done. Everyone knows that.
Every time there are hamburgers on the grill, I have to go toe-to-toe with Mike. Like two fighters in the ring, we circle each other. I’m looking to land a figurative punch and Mike is trying to defend himself from my heathen (in his mind) onslaught. Sometimes, I’ll be awarded a TKO and get a hamburger with no pink in it. At other times, I must retire to my corner in defeat—eating around the pink and giving what is left to the cats.
I’ve mentioned Crabby Mike before. He’s a real character. There are a lot of stories I could relate about Mike, but I’ve got a special one I think you’ll like. He tells this story all the time and, in some perverse way, he seems rather proud of it.
Mike had this “friend.” She would come over on occasion and they’d have sex and that was it. No love involved. She had something Mike wanted and he had something she wanted—weed.
Well, as the legend goes, one sleepy, dark night, the “friend” came to visit. She brought a bottle of rum and herself as presents for Mike. He poured a healthy portion of rum into his glass. She was only drinking water that night. Mike rolled a few joints and sat back, sipping his rum with a big smile on his face. He was going to get laid.
But things didn’t quite work out for Mike on that sleepy, dark night. He started getting sleepy and his vision was turning dark. The next thing he knew, it was morning and the goddamn birds were chirping right outside his boat. He had a massive hangover. His head was pounding. He wished those damn birds would just shut the fuck up. He looked over to see if his lady love was still there, but she had gone.
He got out of bed, thinking a swig of rum might make the headache less headachy. But funny thing, the bottle was gone. Then he started looking around. His cell phone was missing, along with his wallet containing $300.00 in cash and his credit cards. By then Mike was fully awake and his headache was forgotten. He rushed to his stash place. It was empty. The $1,000.00 he had made the previous day from selling crabs was gone. Damn!
Now here’s the weird stuff. She also took the glasses they had been drinking out of, a fancy cigarette lighter, all his weed, and … the garbage. Mike swears she took the garbage because of trace amounts of DNA lying in that plastic bag that might have identified her. And she took the glasses because of fingerprints, and the same for the bottle.
He doesn’t seem to understand that all she had to do was wipe down the glasses. She took those items because she wanted them. The rum was probably drugged, so that’s why she took the bottle. And as for DNA, no one is going to run a DNA test for a simple robbery. Rape and murder, yes. But not for robbery. Why she took the garbage is anyone’s guess. I can’t come up with a credible hypothesis.
Here’s the kicker. A year later, the thief shows up where Mike is selling his crabs. She buys a bag and Mike doesn’t recognize her until she’s about to walk away. “You piece of shit! How dare you show up here? Blah, blah, blah.”
“I’m different now, Mike. I’m clean … blah, blah, blah.”
“Get out of here and don’t ever come back!”
Everyone at the marina thinks Mike has learned his lesson. But I know better.
I’ve saved the best for last: Captain Ellis. Ellis hails from New England … Gloucester in particular. He was famous for his fishing acumen. If you’ve ever seen that show, Wicked Tuna, you’ll get a feel for what Ellis did, but he did it so much better than those guys.
When he was fourteen, he went out and landed a 750-pound bluefin tuna, using only a hand line. A few years later, his charter boat, the Cape Ann, was the most sought after boat for going out and capturing the bluefin. He set a record that hasn’t been beaten to this day. He has been written up in Sports Illustrated and, at the height of his career, he closed down shop and moved to Fort Lauderdale where he set new records, but this time in a different profession. Let me just say this: The guy’s life has been so over the top and interesting that I’m writing a book about him. I’ve got seven chapters done so far.
That’s it. Those are the people of Banyan Bay. I’ve left out all the embarrassing stuff. That will be in a second volume that I’ll sell to certain individuals (and you know who you are) so it won’t be published for broad consumption.
Two things come to mind as I wrap up this piece. One, I sure got fed a lot! And second, how the hell do I know so much about everybody? I try to keep to myself, but I must be doing something wrong.
As I start out on my new adventure, I am damn glad that I have gotten to know all the people mentioned above. They sure have enriched my life.