CHAPTER 7 — Caribbean Club

Must be getting crowded inside. Up until just a minute ago, the only activity around the dock and picnic tables had been two mangy dogs and an elderly gentleman dragging a big grey plastic garbage can. He had one of those, broom handle with a nail on the end, paper picker-uppers. The old man was nailing trash and the big black & tan was trying to do the same to the little spotted one. Now, as I watched, the backyard of the Bean Club, or whatever it’s called, was gaining in popularity. Two couples eased in at one of the green wooden tables and three guys in bathing suits and tee shirts lazily walked towards the end of the dock.

Better put the binoculars away, I’ve got some work to do.

On this tack, I would track six or eight hundred yards off shore so my plan was to bring her over to port, then furl the yankee. If I had been approaching a marina to tie up or in some tight anchorage with other boats, I’d bring down all the canvas and crank up the “iron wind”. No marina and no other traffic, so why end a perfect day of sailing with the smell of diesel exhaust?

Le Esperance is rigged with all lines running aft to the cockpit. The jib is roller furled with its spool line running in guides along the starboard rail. The halyard and downhaul for the footed staysail are pulley rigged just forward of the mast. The main has the same set up but its halyard is inside the aluminum mast with the pulley near the base. Both sets of halyards and downhauls run aft along the topside to wenches and cleats on the starboard next to the cabin hatch. Rope tailings are looped and stored on a pin rail. When lowering the sails, there is no need to hazard leaving the cockpit to stow canvas because both the main and staysail have their own lazy-jack or, in landlubber speak, a rope basket rigged to catch and keep them. By now, all you non-sailors are bored to tears but there’s a reason for explaining the ease with which this vessel can be handled without crew. Considering the sobriety, charm, tolerance, and overall congeniality of the Captain – he is almost always sailing by himself.

With the jib furled, I was on a starboard reach with stay and main. The course I was on would run me right in at the short dock but it doesn’t work that way. Even if I could drop the sails and pull off a miracle maneuver, there wasn’t enough depth that close in. As I rapidly approached the beach, more and more people streamed out of the building and into the yard. I had attracted quite an audience. To them, I’m sure it looked like I intended to join the party by beaching the cutter and, as she lay grounded and helpless on her side, just grab my drink, jump off, and wade ashore.

At the last second, I kicked the tiller to port bringing her over to starboard and up into the wind. With no back winded headsail, the boat slowed as both the main and staysail swung inboard on their booms and feathered. Instantaneously, I un-cleat and release the staysail halyard, un-cleat the looped continuous main halyard/downhaul and slack off its wench, then grab both downhauls and pull them in. The slackened sails drop in unison into their lazy-jacks as I release the lines and rush forward on the port side. Now, with the vessel virtually halted, I spin the chain anchor lead off the Samson post and slowly lower the danforth off its roller at the base of the bowsprit. As Le Esperance drifts back toward the dock in a light headwind, I give the anchor rode a tug to make sure there’s no drag before lashing it down. I’ll check it later to make sure but this’ll do for now.

On my way back to the cockpit, the entire shoreline erupts in cheering and applause! Probably 150 people are going “bananas” over my single-handed nautical accomplishment. Stepping up to the cabin top, hand furling and tucking the collapsed mainsail and securing the boom to the backstay – my adoring onlookers only get louder. Thirty or so yards is all that separates me from what, by all estimates, has to be a very knowledgeable party of seafaring men and women. They had watched my every move and were now showing their admiration.

Turning to face the crowd, clad only in my old straw Panama Jack and the same black nylon running shorts I had been wearing for the last three days, I waved and took a bow. Let me correct that, I took numerous bows – I bowed forward, I bowed aft, then, with hat in hand, I bowed again straight towards shore spreading my arms in triumph … I was Poseidon, God of the sea! My Court awaited my return and the more I bowed the more they roared with laughter and finger pointing.

Working the foot pump to inflate my Avon, I was kicking around the merits of taking a gallon bath vs. just rolling overboard for a swim. Still had a little daylight. Time enough to heat up water but, without rubbing alcohol, I couldn’t light the kerosene stove. There was a way, but it hurt to even think about it, use an ounce or two of scotch – ?… bad idea. After getting the dingy in the water, I’ll just swim around the boat a few times – might even scrub off the boot stripe. Then, when I climb back aboard, I’ll just hit the crotch and pits with a little bar soap, rinse off with some fresh water, and row ashore. After an hour or two I’d probably smell like a goat but I doubt that anyone would notice.

…like Bogie and Bacall, Starring in our own late – late show, Sailing away to Key Largo

After my swim and rinse, I had run the brush through my hair and changed into Levis, tee shirt, and Topsiders. No ladder, so I had gone in on the beach and walked the dingy back out midway on the little wooden dock, two-and-a-half hitched her bowline to a piling, and walked across the, now dark and empty, backyard.

Soft lighting, Engelbert Humperdinck singing After the Lovin’, no one in the room except a bow-tied bartender polishing sniffers, and absolutely the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life … long dark hair, dreamy blue eyes, full sensuous lips like fire and ice, and an absolutely perfect figure. She was sitting cross-legged at the bar in a pair of 4 inch heels toying with a glass of white wine and smiled in my direction. Her dress was tiny and black. A simple strand of pearls highlighted a modest but enticing neckline. As I approached, she lowered her gaze and subtly nodded towards the seat next to her. In my mind, the erotic aroma of perfume mixed with the heat from her well-tanned body promised a doorway to heaven.

No, wait a minute! It was in my mind, all in my mind. That’s the way every man alive momentarily imagines his entrance into any strange bar. Resigned to reality, I left the balmy night air and walked inside.

The Caribbean Club was one huge rectangular room with a few tables and a stool surrounded island bar in the middle. A three-piece local band and middle-aged male singer took up a far corner surrounded by a small area that passed for a dance floor. A large picture window on the back wall framed the darkness hiding the beach and Blackwater Sound but all of the other walls had frames of their own – a lot of frames, picture frames. Turns out; the Club, and especially the little dock out back, was where the waterfront scenes from the 1948 movie Key Largo were actually filmed. Small black and white photos of Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall were hanging everywhere. One picture showed them standing with cameras, sound booms, and a production crew next to the very piling where my dingy was tied. Smiling to myself and shaking my head – here I had been listening to Bertie Higgins for the last week or so and didn’t realize that he was not only telling me to “sail away to Key Largo”, but also exactly where to set the hook. Here’s lookin’ at you kid. I didn’t know if I could find it once again, or even what I was looking for, but only something good could come out of this.

“You see anybody you know in those pictures Jose?”

I didn’t have to turn around. There is only one person in the world that calls me Jose.

“You son-of–a-bitch” – it was all I could say as I turned to face Frank Matheson. “What in God’s green earth are you doing here?”

He hadn’t changed. An inch or two shorter than me but still well over six feet and trim and handsome as ever – his full head of blond hair was a shade darker and his face had a few new lines but there wasn’t a woman in the room that wouldn’t look twice! Frank and I had been football and basketball teammates all through high school and best of friends on into our twenties but I hadn’t seen him in years.

Frank had been sitting at the crowded bar and had already registered and made his intentions known with a young barmaid while simultaneously, with his smile alone, laying the ground work for negotiations with two very attractive unattended ladies on the far side of the bar. After getting a couple to move over one, I eased in on the next stool.

“Okay Jose, what are you doing here? You alone, and what’s been going on for the past – what, ten years?”

I brought Frank up-to-date over conch fritters and a Lite beer. I noticed he was drinking diet Coke and decided to ease off a little myself. After an hour or so, I had covered the highs and lows of married life, raising adolescents, building a business and, obviously of most interest to him, my recent sailing sabbatical from all of the above! Frank really perked up when I told him about Linda and the Regatta.

Almost like he was standing at the free throw line with a big game in the balance, he brought the first three fingers of his right hand to his mouth, first licking and then rubbing his thumb over them, he faced me, got that sheepish grin on his face and turned back the clock. “So, did you get any pussy?”

I cracked up – he hadn’t changed.

Soon, I had Frank telling me what he had been up to. I knew he had married for the third time and moved out of his apartment in Palm Beach but then the trail got cold.

With a slight shrug, he began to fill me in–“You know Jose, I really wanted to be a good husband and father. In my last marriage, I even went out and bought a bar-b-q grill. We joined a church and played cards with the neighbors – I did everything I was supposed to do but it never works. I’ve come to the conclusion that women just can’t count on me and it’s always been that way. Do you remember a girl named Patsy Saunders? She was in my third grade class and lived near my house. We would walk home together after school and one day she came up with an idea – we would climb up in the big banyan tree on the corner and play a game. The rules were simple: she’d show me hers if I’d show her mine.”

Frank got this little grin and continued – “The problem was, I didn’t know if I could trust her? I only said okay after she agreed to take her pants off first.”

At this juncture, the cute young barmaid overheard our conversation and, with a quizzical smile, leaned over to catch the ending. Frank had already introduced himself and, even if he hadn’t, his good looks alone were enough to demand her attention. Add to this the fact that the “your pants first” pick-up line would be a novel and seldom used approach, even at the Caribbean Club and she had to ask:

“Okay Frank, so what happened next?”

Surprised that his young friend had jumped into the conversation, he went on –

“She lifted her dress up and tucked it under her arms. I forget what color her panties were but they had flowers or teddy bears or something on them and, before long, they were dangling off one of her bare feet! She had her legs together but I could still see the crack. I asked her if I could touch it – she said ‘No! It’s your turn’ and started pulling them back up.”

A customer on the other side of the bar was waving and calling for the barmaid, so she chimed in – “come on, hurry up, what happened next?”

Turning from me and looking at her with his blue-green eyes and patented stoic smile – “What happened? – What do you think happened? – I giggled, jumped down from the tree, and ran home!”

Broadening his smile while taking the barmaid’s left hand in both of his, he lightly caressed her and continued: “But I’m more refined and mature now and things have changed. I’ve come to realize that I have to treat the women in my life with greater respect. I’m determined to walk the second mile and give them twice the attention and consideration I have in the past. Tonight, after you get off work, we’ll go back to my place and if you show me yours – I promise, I’ll show you mine twice!”

Frank and I both broke out laughing as the girl slowly shook her head, flipped the bar towel over her shoulder, and left us with that famous, one word, female quote of frustration and disgust: “men…!”

“You know Jose, they’re smarter than we are – women I mean. Ever notice how they like to get you to do all the talking? Things they say like, ‘we need to talk’ or ‘tell me about yourself’ – you never hear a man come out with shit like that. I’ve even come up with a theory: a man talks to a woman to get sex and a women uses sex to get a man to talk. You and I are only after one thing – pussy, and they know it. I think their mothers teach them how to string us along until they can find out if we’re worth keeping around. Once you figure them out and start playing the game their way, it makes getting laid real easy – problem is; by then you’ve lied to a couple hundred women, gotten the reputation for being a worthless playboy, and all of the, what’d we use to call them?, – ‘good girls’ have found Mr. Right and disappeared. The next thing you know – you’re 42 years old, been divorced 3 times, got a 20 year old son you see twice a year, and your sitting in a dive on Key Largo talking snatch with an old high school teammate while trying to decide if it’s ‘worth it to hit on a barmaid that’s young enough to be your kid’s girlfriend’?”

“Well Frank, that’s an upbeat outlook on life. There’s do doubt you’re single again but from what I just saw, a lot of fathers can unlock the chastity belts. Midnight Matheson has definitely slowed down! Where do you call home these days and what are you doing for a living, still in real estate and insurance?”

The look on Frank’s face saddened, his voice lowered, and his words were halting–“I’m renting a little one bedroom condo down off LeJeune Road near the Airport. It’s close to my work and it’s all I can afford. No need for me to try to shit you Jose, I’m not doing real good. Betty, she was number three, or I should say her father made me sign a pre-nup. The old man’s got a lot of loot and sorta’ saw me coming. Anyway, all I ended up with was the old Chevy and enough cash to buy the truck I use for my business. That’s right Jose – you heard me: your ‘Playboy of the Palm Beaches’ is now a Miami truck driver.”

I didn’t want to act surprised and, since I had spent a few years behind the wheel myself, I came back with – “What kind of business you got Frank?”

“I haul luggage to and from cruise ships on Dodge Island, usually from the Miami Airport. People fly in from all over the world to leave out of the Port of Miami to cruise, gamble, and visit straw markets. Most of them come right back at the same dock in a week or so and return to the Airport. Transporting their suitcases and golf clubs is the same game my ex-wife’s family is in and I made a few connections before she dumped me. There’s this bunch of Marielito Cubans that picked up the contracts on some of the independent Panamanian Registries’. The big haulers like Betty’s father get all the vessels from the major cruise lines but a few smaller ships slipped through cracks or got bought off, or whatever happens? I try not to get too involved. Anyway, all I do is show up at the same Calle Ocho cafe every Tuesday and Friday night, meet this guy named Carlos, and get my “programar”. I think that’s Cuban for “where I’m supposed to go” and it’s all written in English. Then I just make sure I’m parked at the designated Airport or dockside U.S. Customs location at the exact time and follow the exact route and etcetera. They pay me in cash and I don’t lift a finger or even touch a single suitcase. I never come in contact with any of the tourist. I stay in the driver’s seat and seldom even see the guys that load and unload my truck. All I do is wait until I hear a slap on the door and drive away. Except for Carlos and one of the baggage handlers at the Airport, I don’t know any of them and that’s fine with me. Sometimes I hear them talking but, as you know, I cheated my way through two years in Mr. Gomez’s class and still couldn’t tell you what Camino Real on my textbook cover translated into.”

Something didn’t sound quite right, especially Frank’s professed ignorance and his brief emphasis on the exact route and the “etcetera” part of his abbreviated run-down. Nobody ever uses that word in conversation unless it’s something not worth talking about or they are hiding or running away from the truth. Maybe he’d tell me later, or maybe not, but he obviously didn’t want to stay on the subject so I decided to give him an “out”.

“You must have taken the weekend off, how long are you going to stay in the Keys?”

“No Jose, I’m not taking any time off – I wish I could! My trip down here is business but it’s something I’ll tell you about some other time. Right now, I’ve got until tomorrow morning to spend with my old compadre and I’m not going to screw it up by talking about work. You told me you needed to go to the grocery store and I haven’t checked in at the motel yet – too late for Winn-Dixie, let’s hop in the Chevy and hit that 7-ELEVEN at the Card Sound Road cut-off. When we get back, you gotta show me this yacht.”

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