My Ship of Fools
"They dragged them out of a little house there and chained 'em to a light pole on the dock. There was two of them. Everyone was running around grabbing tires, kids and women rolling tires up the dock and dumping 'em around the pole. Me and Monkey Betts was coming back on the road from town drunk as lords and saw the whole thing. They lit the tires and started dancing around the pole. There was a couple hundred of 'em. Everyone was drinking Barbancourt and singing and screaming, and they burned 'em to death right there on the dock. This was right after Duvalier came out of power, and they say the men was Tonton Macoutes. I says to Monkey Betts, `Let's pull up the hooks and sail for Miragoane, get away from here.' Monkey Betts, he say, `Not a fuck. Sit down and keep calm. You seeing history.'"
Johannis Connors, captain of the coastal freighter Helena Sea Change
He came creeping through the door like an unrequited vampire, looking hungry and mean. "Christ, I feel like a hyena," he said, settling in next to me at the bar and ordering a wet gin martini. "I hit a cement truck on South River Drive. A pack of wild youths beat me with sticks and tried to set me on fire. I threw them the keys to the limo and swam across the river. Savages!"
He said he had been out all night driving aimlessly, trying to think up his Sunday column. He still hadn't found a topic. "Help me," he begged, whacking his palm on the bar. "I'll give you anything you want! I've got a satchel of Krugerrands buried at the foot of Mount Trashmore. We can go there tonight. I can offer you stock options." He downed his drink and stuck out his hand. "Lawrence," he announced, spitting an ice cube at the mirror behind the bar. "David Lawrence. Call me Junior."
I eyed him with disdain, and Conrad the bartender gave me a frightened glance. "Well, Dave," I said, swatting his hand away. "This is America, and time is money. I'll help, but it's going to cost you. We'll discuss the terms later. For now, let's get serious. You've done Tanya Glazebrook, right?"
"Check," he said, whipping out a reporter's notebook. "And Jorge Mas Canosa?"
"Affirmative," he answered. "And H.T. Smith, too."
"Well, forget about past glories. Dave, I want you to tackle Sarkis Soghanalian."
"Who's that?" he asked suspiciously.
"Lebanese," I explained. "International arms dealer. Some people say he's helped kill thousands and thousands of people, but don't believe it for a minute. He's a pillar of this community. Quiet type, lives on Hibiscus Island, but I wouldn't suggest you go over there right now. He's got the moat electrified, and there are armed Yanomamo Indians patrolling the dock. However," I added slowly, "I've got his private line."
He jumped as if someone had slapped him suddenly in the head, and stood up from the bar stool. His eyes were full of greed and murder. "Give it to me!" he shrieked. I told him about the secret passageway that leads from the bar up the back stairs to the New Times offices. "The number's on the wall in the bathroom," I told him when we got there. "Right down near the bottom of the urinal on the left side. Go on in there and copy it down."
As soon as he was inside, I slammed the door and fastened the padlock. I took the key with me back downstairs to the bar and handed it to Conrad.
"Goodness," Conrad said. "I was afraid he might turn violent. Who was he, anyway?"
"Just another poseur," I explained. "The city's full of them this time of year. Look, I'm going to Haiti. Hang onto that for me until I get back. Whatever you do, don't let him out. He is an extremely dangerous person."
It was almost dawn. I stumbled down to the Miami River. There was nothing to do; my head hurt and the river stank, but I was too weak to go anywhere else. The wharf beside the Miami Avenue bridge was littered with bums, who were just starting to stir. Among them, on battered chaise longues, sat a scattering of white boys in sunglasses. They were spraying each other with beer and watching the freighters come in, as they do every Saturday morning in that exact spot, whooping it up for no good reason, waiting to see the coke busts.
They didn't have to wait long. The bridge rose, and the steel prow of the St. Charles, inbound from Haiti, pushed its way upstream. The entire crew was out on deck, looking nervous. On land, a Customs truck sped past, followed by a green Border Patrol jeep. It took the feds a while, but they found 40 kilos of cocaine sealed in plastic tubes sunk in the bilges.
"This big Cuban bastard took me down to the engine room and beat me with his gun like a dog, but they finally let me go," one sailor said later. "I didn't even know about the stuff. It makes sense now - in Haiti the owner kept trying to get all of us off the boat all the time. I don't think the captain even knew about it. They planted it at night while we were partying."
Cocaine and stowaways are the only things worth hauling back from Haiti these days. The drug warriors have choked off much of the flow from the Bahamas, so cargo comes in now from Colombia via Hispaniola in record loads. For days at a time, the big Coast Guard spy blimps from Key West and Miami Beach hunker over the narrow Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti, trying to stop the drug traffic. But they don't. Meanwhile, life in the western hemisphere's poorest nation has grown even more squalid, and the going rate for shipping a single illegal alien to the United States has risen to as high as $3000. The usual penalty for doing so remains $1000 per head. They all deny trafficking, but at least a fair number of captains and ship owners on the Miami River regularly take the risks that make for a lucrative return trip from the land of voodoo.
The outbound journey is no less risky, and the cargo is equally questionable. If you skulked in the predawn shadows of the river long enough, you would see wide-eyed men and women slipping silently from the decks of returning ships and vanishing into the Miami night, new and unofficial citizens of the republic. And you would see boxes and drums being hurriedly off-loaded into brand-new four-wheel-drive trucks. But in the hours before that, on virtually any turn of the polluted, five-mile-long waterway that runs from Miami Springs to Biscayne Bay, you can easily see old men and boys wheeling bicycles across bridges and up to battered wooden boats or rusty, steel-hulled hulks. A few dollars change hands; the old men and boys go back over the bridges and return with plastic buckets, electric fans, mattresses, sacks of empty beer bottles, kitchen furniture, stereo speakers. Sometimes you can see them pushing automobiles down North River Drive, like dung beetles in the twilight, going from ship to ship until the car is finally sold and hoisted aboard.
By the time a freighter is ready to depart the Miami River - often several weeks after it pulled in - the deck is hidden beneath a glittering, top-heavy hill of trinkets only half covered by tarpaulins, the junk of an aging civilization. From the drunk on the street to the bureaucrat biting his nails on the 29th floor of Metro-Dade's administrative headquarters, no one who has lived in Miami more than a year has failed to look out at the Miami River from some meditative vantage point and wonder: What happens to all that stuff? Where do all those bicycles go?
"We know half the stuff is stolen," says a young Coast Guard inspector, drinking coffee in his car outside a shipyard. "Frankly, we don't care. We've got bigger fish to fry." Gesturing toward a loaded freighter, he adds: "To tell you the truth, I think these people provide a service to the community. They round up all the crap and take it out of the city. They're like garbage men. We just try to make sure they don't sink before they take it away."
Policing the approximately 25 ships per week that leave the Miami River for Haiti is not a task for the lazy or the weak of heart. On October 18, the overloaded Rachel keeled over and sank unceremoniously minutes after a harbor pilot in Miami turned the wheel over to the captain and wished the crew pleasant passage to Haiti. On March 20, the 62-foot Sary began its voyage by filling with water, drifting through the Bahamas, and being towed into Fort Lauderdale. It set out again, caught fire, and finally sank in the Miami Beach surf four days after casting off from the Miami River. On April 4, the bilge pump on the Sea Bod quit working 45 miles out of Miami, the engine room flooded, and the crew abandoned ship as it began going down near Great Isaac Light north of Bimini. Ten days later the 148-foot Melinda D rolled over and settled on the Great Bahama Bank 180 miles southeast of Miami, at approximately 23 degrees latitude and 78 degrees longitude. If you go there today, you can look down through 50 feet of clear water and see the wreck, still loaded with cars and trucks, the blue-and-white flag of Honduras waving underwater from a pole behind the wheel house.
I was too far out at sea to even hope of swimming back, passing, in fact, directly over the wreck of the Melinda D, when the second mate told me her former name: the Helena C. "But that's the name of our ship!" I
"Well, yes and no," he explained. "Our ship called the Helena Sea, sea with the word spelled out instead of just the letter C. Can't have two ships with the same name. That'd be bad luck for sure."
What an odd coincidence, I ventured, this similarity of names. "Coincidence got nothing to do with it," he said. "Captain, he wanted to name this ship after that wreck down there. You see," he said, pointing into the water, "the captain of the boat you riding on now used to be captain of that boat down there on the bottom."
NOT THE SMILE OF A VEGETARIAN
"I was up in New York, running dope for these Italian guys. For a while I went into business for myself, and then I came back here. I was sleeping under the bridge, down under the freeway, going around in the day getting copper wire and stuff. One morning I was sleeping and I had a dream. I saw Neptune, the god of the sea. He say, `What you doing on land? You a seaman!' I went back to the cruise ships I used to work on and filled out applications, but nothing ever happened. So I said, `Well, there's these Haitian boats. I'll try that.' I had about 30 pounds of wire. I put it on my back and walked down the river till I sold it, then I went around to two or three boats. One captain said, `Do you know how to steer a ship?' I said yes and he gave me a job. That was 1987, and since then I been going on these Haitian boats. Sometimes they pay me my money, but then again, sometimes they don't."
Clifton Easy, chief mate
Tom Cheatham looks like a Viking, and his son, Tom Jr., looks like a young, clean-shaven Viking. Both are born-again Christians. Over the years Tom Sr. has owned half a dozen freighters and made and lost several million dollars on the Miami River. He is planning to retire and turn his shipyard over to young Tom, but he hasn't done it yet. The boat business is a rough-and-tumble game. People don't pay their bills. People would weigh anchor and slip away in the night if you let them. Sometimes in life it takes two born-again Vikings to make a go of things.
Being a religious man, Tom Sr. steered me to the God Is Good, which had been tied up for two months on his patch of the river west of the 27th Avenue bridge. "These are God-fearing folk," he said. "You should be safe with them." He looked down the bank to where the Helena Sea was loading. Men were stumbling around on her deck, hanging wet clothes from the cargo booms; one appeared to be vomiting over the stern. A dog chased a rat up the gangplank, and a peal of drunken laughter came booming out of the hold. "I'd stay away from them if I were you," Cheatham said with a frown. "They resemble pirates."
It was all very polite. The owner of the God Is Good, a bowlegged man in a planter's sombrero, agreed to add me to the crew list. He gave me a tour of the ship. But when I showed up with a supply of drinking water, canned tuna, and Saltines, ready to ship out, the God Is Good was gone. "They seized her last night. Someone filed a lien for unpaid bills," Tom Sr. said.
"Did you get paid?" I asked.
"Ha!" he said jovially. "$11,000 down the drain!"
I went to see the pirates. Two of them were loading cases of Schaefer beer from the bed of a pickup truck onto the deck of the Helena Sea. The fat black pirate, drenched with sweat, seemed to be cursing the other pirate in French Creole; the other pirate, a scrawny man dressed in a greasy red jump suit, was screaming back in a strange mix of Spanish and English. Miraculously, each held a can of beer in his hand while he worked, throwing the cases onto the deck.
At first I couldn't tell whether the scrawny pirate was white or black or an albino with a deep tropical tan: his face and lips were so brown they were beyond any human flesh tone I had ever seen, but his eyes, rimmed with neon red, were a watery, electric blue. One ear appeared to have been chewed completely off. His eyebrows were a grown-together hedge of gray and white capable of great mobility, but the hair that flowed back from his forehead in an oily pompadour and forward into block sideburns was jet black. The bony feet that poked out from his undersize mechanic's suit were bright pink, and his hands were like that too. (Later I learned that half his skin had been burned away years ago in a chemical explosion in California.) A tattoo on his left forearm showed a bleeding heart with a commando knife stuck through it. A curling scroll emblazoned across the heart read "Love." He could have been any age at all; his face seemed old, but he moved like a large and violent cat. His smile was not the smile of a vegetarian. He looked like a man with nothing to lose, and his hands shook badly.
The fat pirate was the owner. The scrawny pirate was Johannis Connors, master of the 165-foot Helena Sea. They were finished loading the cargo and fuel, and now they were getting in the "groceries," they said. The crew was off in town, buying cigarettes and other oddments. As soon as they found a new chief engineer - the last one had jumped ship - they would depart for the Haitian port of Miragoane, about 600 miles to the southeast. The captain waved toward a sofa perched in the back of a Toyota pickup chained to the deck. "You can sleep up there," he said. "You want a beer?"
A DEADAND EERIE SILENCE
"I had a Dominican girl there in Gonaives, and she come over to the boat and told me about this pig. I said, `A pig that look like a human?' I wanted to see that, because I'm curious, you know. I got some other guys to go with me. There were about three of us. And really, I saw the pig, you know. They had it in a fence. He would be walking around in circles, and half of him, the back, was pig. From the middle of the pig forward was like a human. His hand was like a human hand. I never did hear him talk, though. I waited a long time for him to say something, and he never did. But there's a Nicaraguan captain in Miragoane - where we're going right now - who some Haitians turned into a cow. You can see him. He has gold teeth, and he will talk to you. He'll say he's from so and so place and he has a wife and two kids. You see, this captain had sex with a little Haitian girl, and then he left her and went with a whore. The girl's parents turned him into a cow."
-Edward Scott, chief engineer
Miami was slipping below the horizon when the engine slowed gradually and then failed altogether. We were twenty miles out in the Gulf Stream at sunset and everyone on deck was pleasantly drunk. Charles Clinton Crawford, the second engineer, had been telling me about his divorce and his kids in Cleveland. We discovered we had grown up in the same place and were slapping each other on the shoulders and cuddling Charlie's white-and-tan bull terrier, who answered variously to the names Spot, Sport, and Spuds. It was Spuds's first ocean voyage, and he was still getting his sea legs. Even as we were teaching our little mascot to drink imported German beer, I had been noticing that Spuds's master got louder and louder the more he drank. I remembered someone telling me that on the last voyage the captain had found it necessary to beat Charlie stupid with a chair in a bar in Miragoane. At the same time, I was noticing that the low rumble coming from the engine room had been ominously decreasing for some time and finally seemed to have quit.
"Charlie," I said with a friendly smile. "What happened to the engine, anyway?"
"What engine?" he said, pitching a bottle into the swells.
"You know, the engine," I hinted.
He pricked up his ears. Then he offered a string of profanities and made a hobbling dash for the engine room. Charlie is a large and sturdy fellow, but he was born with one leg a weak and shrunken partner to the other. He made it halfway down the stairs from the bridge, tripped, and smashed his face against a bulkhead. At the same moment, Scott, the chief engineer, appeared from his cabin, wiping the sleep from his eyes.
"You sack of shit," he said, standing over Charlie and whacking him in the stomach with a flashlight. "You deaf, or what? We going to eat that dog for supper and then drop you on the first island we see." Scott disappeared down a ladder, and Charlie began crawling after him on all fours, bleeding from the mouth and nose and making strange noises.
The light was dying. The five-foot swells we had been riding for the last few hours were now throwing the engineless ship around with considerable vigor. Water was breaking across the deck, and the chains that held down a big refrigerated delivery van midway between the wheel house and the bow began to groan loudly with each roll of the ship. The cook, a black Carib from Honduras named Estanislao Zuniga-Glores, came up from the galley in an apron and muttered something in Garifuna. Adolfo "Rongo" Maybet, the second mate, explained: "Cookie say he sick. He say the refrigerator fall over and break all the eggs. Eggs all over the floor. Refrigerator still rolling around down there with all the pots and pans." The announcement set off an explosion of laughter in the captain. He lit a Newport and twirled the huge stainless steel rudder wheel pointlessly. The cook leaned over the side and threw up, then began a long coughing attack that sounded suspiciously tubercular.
Captain Joe stopped laughing abruptly and ran screaming out of the wheel house onto the bridge. Taking aim with a half-full bottle of Beck's, he pitched it long and high toward the plunging foreward mast. There, observing Captain Joe cooly, and not in the least impressed by the bottle that whizzed past its roost, sat a large, shadowy bird. Captain Joe squawked and flapped his arms for a time, then came back inside, resigned. "Fuck, boy! We doomed now for sure," he said, opening another bottle of beer with his teeth. "That's the worst kind of bad luck you can get, have a owl come and sit on your mast."
He was right, too, because fifteen minutes later, while Charlie and Scott were trying to pump 30 gallons of water that had mysteriously entered the starboard fuel tank, they blew out the electric generator. The cabins below and the pilothouse above went black. The running lights disappeared. With the generator gone, we pondered our situation in a dead and eerie silence. The Helena Sea was turning slowly in circles, drifting north in the Gulf Stream with no lights and no engine. We could see a big cruise ship coming toward us out of Miami.
Charlie and Scott came up from the engine room shining their flashlights, faces mottled with grease. "No need to call the Coast Guard," Scott told the captain. "We just taking a little rest." Rongo and I yanked a garish, orchid-spackled sofa out of the deck cargo and hoisted it up to the bridge to provide a comfortable smoking seat for the engineers. "Couldn't call them if we wanted to," Captain Joe said evenly, tapping a citizen's band radio mounted on the ceiling. "This piece of shit hasn't worked in weeks."
"I was a steward then. Instead of getting groceries, I'd get whiskey and sell it to the crew. That would more than pay for the groceries. I was making good money on that ship. Everybody had a scam going. We was working out of Port Suez, running to Saudi Arabia through the Persian Gulf. Nice run, boy. I remember we would catch thousands of goggle-eyes - that's something like a jack. I've never seen a place that had so many goggle-eyes in my life. Anyway, there were these two brothers from the Cayman Islands. Hard men they were. They decided they was going to take control of all the scams on the ship. They would go breaking into the crew cabins, beat up the crew, and take their money. Everybody was scared of these brothers.
"But the way they screw up is they didn't bargain on Captain Funk. Captain Funk, he was from Baltimore. One day he caught them breaking into the cabins with a fire ax, and he say, `Enough! You and you go up on deck, and we going to forget I'm the captain of this ship. This just between us.' The whole crew come up on the deck, and so did the Cayman Island brothers. One of 'em had the fire ax, and the other had the fire extinguisher. I was just a little boy then, sixteen or seventeen. I couldn't believe what was happening. Captain Funk, he come up and say, `Boys, I want to tell you something. I'm from Baltimore, but I ain't from the nice part of town. There's some bad streets in Baltimore, and I live on the worst one there is. The farther down it you go, the worse it gets. And my house is the very last house on that street.' Boy, let me tell you, they went at it. And when they got done, wasn't no fire ax, wasn't no fire extinguisher. Them Cayman Island brothers was lying down like they were dead. He beat 'em like dogs, he did. Captain Funk. That old man must be dead by now, but I can see him like it was yesterday."
Something was very wrong with the magnetic compass, and no one onboard the Helena Sea had anything more than a vague idea where we were. But the ship was moving again. We had left the Gulf Stream behind three days ago, after successfully pumping the starboard fuel tank. The engine was running smoothly at its top speed of seven knots, and now we were cruising down that giant submerged sandbar called the Great Bahama Bank.
In Miami the ship's owner, Donald Gilles, had yanked the satellite navigation system from the pilothouse and stored it for weeks in a damp closet to guard against thieves. The back-up batteries had run dry, and the tiny navigation computer, now utterly useless, had lost its memory. Captain Joe, clutching the instruction manual, swung between fits of hapless tinkering and stomping rages in which he threatened to toss the machine over the side. The radar worked sporadically, but there was no land for it to pick up. There was no second compass. There was no sextant, and no one knew how to navigate by the stars.
In fact, though we were steering directly into Orion and the Little Dipper by night, three of the crew had never heard about constellations. My faulty description of what they were set off a violent, 40-minute argument that woke up the cook and the chief engineer and nearly ended in bloodshed. Oily smoke was gusting out the door of the toilet, and the ship was listing ten degrees to starboard. The beer had finally run out, and the captain's hands were shaking badly. The second of two barracudas we caught trolling off the stern bit Spuds on the nose at dawn the second day out, and now the little thick-necked beast lay on the newly painted floor of the wheel house, one paw over his snout, sliding slowly and smoothly from one side of the room to the other like a shuffleboard puck. The whole ship was filled with the sweet stench of vanilla, from a half-gallon bottle that broke days ago in rough seas.
Gentle reader, it was at this time it occurred to me that I was going to starve or drown with six dangerous dingbats and an injured dog on a smoking ship lost at sea and loaded with one dump truck, six hearses, 100 bundles of secondhand clothing, several stacks of clay tile, 60 burlap sacks filled with empty beer bottles, three broken refrigerators, a mountain of strung-together plastic buckets and Mazola bottles, four brand-new four-wheel-drive Isuzu jeeps, one diesel van with a bent chassis, six sets of automobile leaf springs, a Honda motorcycle, five dozen bicycles, and a mound of stained mattresses, coffee tables, cracked television sets, and hideous parlor furniture.
The truth was, though, that we were all in a good mood. The crew ate big portions of oatmeal, cow's belly, and plantains, and cracked hilarious jokes that sent them reeling out on deck to hee-haw at the sky. We were burning up eighteen gallons of fuel every hour, sailing into oblivion, and no one seemed to care if we got there or not. We told tall tales all night and all day in the wheel house, sometimes everyone jabbering at once. Cops, wives, boredom, and empty pockets had driven these misfits out to sea, but once at sea, in their element, they didn't seem like misfits. Their pasts were perilous, complicated, and unapologetic, and their futures were absolutely unpredictable. Most of them had made this crossing dozens of times, under worse conditions and in smaller boats, for less pay. (These days Captain Joe and Scott the chief engineer were pulling down $1800 per month; the cook, Rongo the second mate, and Jamaican-born chief mate Clifton Albert Easy, known as Rasta, earned $500 per month; Charlie, who signed on to take a break from his job as a night watchman at Cheatham's shipyard, was getting $100 for the round-trip voyage.) These were men knowledgeable enough to rebuild a four-cylinder Bronse turbine at midnight in a mean sea, yet saw nothing unsound in their theory that the 82-foot Freedom vanished on its way to Haiti two years ago because of a giant whirlpool. They laughed at maritime disasters that would make a landsman weep, but chickened out on their alimony payments. They argued for hours about the limits and language of the United States Constitution, but sincerely believed a man could be turned into a cow.
"Lobos! Lobos! Lobos!" Rasta was hollering from the bow, pointing frantically toward the horizon. He had been taking a bath, and now came running back to the wheel house latherd with soap and laughing hugely. We looked and saw nothing. But by-and-by, a speck appeared. It was the lighthouse at Key Lobos, the marker for the Old Bahama Channel. Somehow we had gotten turned around and were approaching Key Lobos from the wrong direction, but no matter. By evening we saw the mountains of Cuba, and that night and the next day we chugged east down her coast. The emerald green of the Bahama Bank dropped away, and the water turned dark blue. A pair of Soviet container ships crossed our bow, and the lights of Cabo Lucretia twinkled brightly. If we didn't stray inside the twelve-mile limit and get shot by gunboats, we might make it yet. The captain's hands had quit shaking, and everyone was sobering up.
I was asleep on the cushioned banquette at the captain's table, and then all at once I was on the floor, awake. The wind was howling. An extremely skinny rat was staring at me from across the room. The rat scurried up the companionway and I followed after him. There was no one at the wheel in the pilothouse. A breaking swell slammed into the side of the ship, and I grabbed the wheel. I heard a loud creaking and booming, and an even louder metallic banging. The ship was pitching from side to side in a sea of whitecaps. Out on deck, through a curtain of rain, I could see two dim lights bobbing wildly. A moment later Rongo appeared.
"Captain lost his mind completely," he announced. "He going to fuck around and drop overboard." An hour earlier Rongo and Captain Joe had idly aimed their flashlights out the window of the wheel house and seen the refrigerator van rolling loose, back and forth across the deck. "We almost get run over when we fix the chains back, and they still not fix very good," Rongo said. "Now he out there trying to smash the back of the truck open. He say it fulled up with TV, and he want to dump 'em overboard."
Sure enough, when I looked out to the end of Rongo's flashlight beam, Captain Joe was clutching the rear of the truck with one hand and bashing away with a small sledgehammer. He was bellowing incoherently between licks, his hair slicked back in the rain. I guessed we were about in the middle of the turbulent Windward Passage and it was about four in the morning.
"Well," I said. "I'm going back to sleep. Do you have any more Marlboros?"
THANKSGIVING WITH THE SAVAGES
"It was after the Six Day War. We were tied up in Cairo and the whole ship stank of camel fat. At that time you had to have three Egyptians for every American crew. It came Thanksgiving Day. We all sat down in the galley for our meal, and here came the turkey. It was beautiful brown, the best-looking turkey I ever seen. I'm telling you, it was gorgeous. We had cranberry sauce and everything. So we start in eating, and I notice there's fat through the meat, and I know in a turkey it's separate - you've got your light meat and dark. I say to the cook, this big Egyptian guy, `You got any more of these turkeys?' He says, `Yeah.' So I make him take me and show me. We get in the galley and go to the freezer. He pulls open the door and I reach in my hand. There's a whole stack of 'em there on pans with the heads still on. I pull up one of the heads and take a good look at it. `You son of a bitch,' I say to the cook. `You think I'm too stupid to know what I'm eating? You been feeding us Cape Buzzard for Thanksgiving supper.'"
We came gliding in after midnight under a new moon. The foothills behind the cathedral were a solid bank of darkness, and the sea near the town was still and quiet like a pond. Before we could drop anchor, the ship was surrounded by Dominican prostitutes in dugout canoes. When the fourteenth and last whore had clambered up the Jacob's ladder onto the deck, Captain Joe twisted open a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and began pouring everyone drinks. Rongo sent a man in a rowboat back to town for rum, and when the man returned, Captain Joe threw him a large chemical drum for payment. The man seemed overjoyed.
After the whiskey was gone, the crew began disappearing into their cabins with the prostitutes, until Rongo and I were left on deck with several of the largest and most hostile women. "Come on," one of them said, grabbing at my crotch. "It's three in the morning! What are you standing around for?"
"Hands off!" I said. "Father wouldn't stand for
"What father?" she demanded.
"Captain Joe," I offered.
"Captain Joe your father?" she said, narrowing her eyes. "Why he never bring you with him before?"
"I've been in college," I explained. "I'm studying to be a priest."
"It's true," Rongo said. "He prayed the whole way over."
"What's your excuse then?" she said, turning to Rongo.
"You know very well," Rongo said darkly.
So we all sat on the orchid sofa and had a chat, passing the binoculars around and watching the town take on color as day broke. Rongo told me about his girlfriend, and pointed out the house on the mountainside he rented for $285 per year. His girlfriend was a prim and jealous mistress, he explained, and he had to guard his reputation carefully in this town. The women described the flood of competition pouring into Miragoane from Santo Domingo, and bemoaned the ill will they suffered from the local Haitian prostitutes. Someone said the Leo, a cargo ship that left Miami just behind the Helena Sea five days previous, capsized and sank on the way here. The St. Philomene, another coastal freighter, had lost its engine two nights ago and drifted into Cuba. Someone else said two coups d'etat in the capital had failed while we were in transit. The women talked about the upcoming national election, saying it made everyone in the country nervous.
There were half a dozen freighters anchored near the Helena Sea, waiting their turn to pull in close to shore and unload cargo. It might take days. There are no port facilities in the port of Miragoane; there is no dock and there are no dock cranes. When they see their chance, ship captains in the harbor weigh anchor, make for land two at a time, and jam their prows into the mud. Side by side, the two ships use each other's cargo booms to lift larger goods onto land. The lighter cargo is carried down the gangplank by hand. Already, before dawn, there were hundreds of people standing around on the shore, waiting in hope of jobs as human mules. Meanwhile, people with small boats paddled out to freighters at anchor and began a lively bidding war for Miami merchandise. In some cases whole cars are hoisted from ships into big rowboats and ferried across the harbor to dry ground. The city's most striking feature is its French colonial cathedral, but Miragoane's central attraction in recent years has been its corruption: ship owners who send their cargo this way know they will pay little or no customs duties, provided they slip the port officials a fake cargo manifest and a little gift. The entire town is an open bazaar of Miami's wayward junk.
As we lounged on the sofa, Charlie came stomping up from his cabin, cuddling a bottle of rum and a huge box of soap powder. He marched for the bow, singing at the top of his lungs and sprinkling generous amounts of cleanser on the decks. "Thanksgiving Day!" he slobbered merrily. "Time to get spic-and-span!"
"Oh, God," said Rongo, holding his head. "This what happened last time."
All at once Donald Gilles was there, having come out from town in a launch with the port police. His ship, listing badly to one side and littered with cups and empty rum bottles, was covered from one end to the other with a slick of ivory granules, and seemed inexplicably to be under the command of a crew of listless whores. Gilles looked stunned, but his face was nothing to compare with the visage of Captain Joe. Through some seafarer's sixth sense, Captain Joe had awakened at exactly the same time the port police were climbing daintily aboard the Helena Sea. Now he was standing on the bridge with his mouth open, a split second away from issuing the loudest and most savage human scream I have ever heard.
The biggest of the port police, apparently the chief, instinctively removed the revolver from his hip pocket, but Gilles said something to him and he put it away again. Captain Joe made a charge down the stairs for Charlie, and Gilles made a charge for Captain Joe, interjecting himself between the second engineer and certain death. The women were screaming giddily and the men were shouting and I noted several curious people paddling toward us in dugouts. Captain Joe chased Charlie around in circles, swinging his fists, but Gilles managed to hold him back. The dog was in a frenzy. Somehow things calmed down into a violent argument, and the port police began stamping passports. Charlie announced he wouldn't work on a ship where he couldn't peaceably scrub the deck.
"How you gonna scrub it?" Captain Joe retorted. "With a firehose? We'll never get this soap powder off the deck!"
The shouting match began afresh. Charlie started selling his personal effects over the side, belongings that included a refrigerator and several TV sets.
"Don't do it!" Rongo hollered at him. "They'll eat you and the dog both before you make Port-au-Prince!" But Charlie, a man scorned, had made up his mind.
I left the Helena Sea in a rowboat with one of the Dominican women and a mosquito bite that would turn into dengue fever. The woman had two ten-speeds and four plastic buckets. "How did you get those?" I asked as we neared the shore. "What do you mean?" she answered. "These sailors never have any money. This is how they pay us. With bicycles. Bicycles and buckets."
"There's six million people in Haiti, and every one of 'em must got at least ten bicycle by now, straight out of Miami. In Haiti, when you travel around, you don't see that many people riding bicycle. You got to ask yourself, `What are they up to?' In my opinion, you see, they are trying to corner the market. Either that, or they re-exporting all these bicycle to Cuba, and we just don't know how they doing it. Maybe they got a tunnel that lead between Haiti and Cuba and they just riding them over. I don't know. I seen plenty of thing down there you wouldn't believe. Nothing would surprise me."
In Miami I took a cab from the airport to Tobacco Road. Conrad was behind the bar reading the New York Times.
"My goodness," he said, folding the paper. "You look weathered!"
"Yes," I said. "My eyeballs ache in a very strange way."
"Your boss was down here looking for you about an hour ago," Conrad said. "Frankly, he was ranting. He said there is a man locked in the bathroom who claims to be David Lawrence."
"You didn't give him the key, did you?" I asked.
"Of course not."
"Good," I said. "Can you make me a wet gin martini?"
When Conrad set the drink on the bar, he asked: "How was your trip?"
"Uneventful," I replied, producing a tiny vial from my pocket. "And disappointing. I looked all over Port-au-Prince for this stuff and couldn't find it. A cab driver sold it to me on the way over here."
"What is it?" Conrad asked indolently, handing over the key.
"Zombie juice," I explained, prying off the cap. "A few drops induces instant paralysis. After a twelve-hour coma, you're as good as new. But considerably different."
"My!" Conrad said, and went back to his paper.
I sprinkled a touch of elixir into the martini and went up the stairs to the New Times offices. I unfastened the padlock on the bathroom door. He was hunched in a corner, studying a back issue of the paper.
"Mr. Lawrence, there's been a terrible mistake," I said. "We had you mixed up with a dangerous criminal. Here, I've brought you something to drink."
He eyed me coldly, but finally reached for the martini. "Well," he said. "Good men sometimes make bad decisions. I think these wounds will heal with time. This is a glorious city. Anything can happen here."
"I've always said that myself," I replied, smiling as he drifted off to sleep.
Returning to Miami, the Helena Sea ran out of fuel and was seized by the Nassau port authority for nonpayment of $2000 in rescue fees; owner Donald Gilles, according to one sailor, has "abandoned" the ship in the Bahamas and returned to the United States; the crew, unpaid and hungry, now faces jail and deportation.
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