on the page magazine
issue no. 13 summer/fall 2006
unfinished business


What We Do without Money

by Victoria Polk

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Mike came in the day after I arrived. I was at Grace’s watching the harbor when a huge white yacht turned the corner into Falmouth. I listened to the radio and heard Mike’s voice call in for dockage, and ran down to the harbor to meet him. His boat was one hundred thirty feet long and gleaming white. It dwarfed the crew, so all you could see were tiny men dressed in white uniforms running around on deck securing lines. There was smoked glass on the windows and portholes so I couldn’t even see him but Mike was there somewhere, wherever the helm was, bringing her in. He dropped the anchor and backed into the dock. There’s a lot of windage on a boat that size but Mike had bow thrusters and twin engines and all these steering toys and he’s the best captain around. It was an eggshell landing. The uniformed dockmen and the crew secured the lines while the boat nudged in, surrounded by churning water. The transom was twenty feet wide with the name Goliath painted boldly across it.

When the mate had the hydraulic gangway in place I went on board. A cleaning crew hosed off salt as a stewardess put vases and sculptures back in place. The boat was so stylized and strangely lit I could barely find my way around. I looked for a nav station. The air was air-conditioned stale; not one open porthole. No mold spores, dust, or fresh sea air to waft in.

“Hey,” I turned and smiled. “Took you long enough to get here.”

“Ameee,” Mike growled and I leaned into him, holding him tightly, breathing him in and feeling his heartbeat. When I looked up our eyes met and I traced the lines around his with my fingers.

“You look like you’ve been squinting constantly since I left. What an old man you’ve become.”

“It’s all this white everywhere. I feel like I’m staring at the sun all day. Don’t laugh, it’ll happen to you, too. All the girls say they’re getting premature crow’s feet.”

“All what girls?”

He smiled. “The crew.”

I put my hands on his hard shoulders. “Mike—epaulets. I never thought I’d—white shoes ... ” I started to laugh, but Mike stopped me. He put his mouth over mine in a deep kiss. “You look like the ice cream man,” I said, breaking free.

He reached up and brushed the hair from my forehead, smoothing it down. The birds were there on his hands. I felt them with my fingers. There were frigate birds tattooed on the back of each hand in the curve between his thumb and forefinger. They were new when I first met him, and when he shook my hand the birds were red and swollen. Mike was the captain of a beautiful wooden ketch then. His hands were swollen not just from the birds but from years of wielding hand tools. He did the ship’s carpentry himself. He had all this authority and even ordered the blue-blazered boat owner around. I’d never seen anyone talk to a rich man like that before. Mike smiled when I stared at the swollen tattoos. He said the birds were his companions. Then he asked who accompanied me and I said no one, as sexy as I could, and looked right into his eyes.

Mike pushed his hands through my hair again. “Amy, you are beautiful—wild-looking ... ” His hands clenched as he grabbed my hips and pulled me toward him. He smelled like Mike, but the uniform bleach was overwhelming. “But for now, maybe you could put your hair up, or something. The owner likes a certain look.”

I pushed my hair down, flattening it. “I didn’t know I had to sell myself.”

“No, but humor him a little. He’s just a kid.”

“The owner’s a kid?”

“Shhh ... ” Mike looked around nervously. “He’s pretty young, yeah. His dad gave him the boat.”

Mike’s face was so tan it gleamed against his shirt collar. “It's a good gig, Amy. I’ll make more money in three months here than I made all last year.”

I sighed, looking around the boat. There was a bar set up in the main salon. Pink flamingoes and pelicans were painted on it, and the mirror behind the bar doubled everything in the room. There was off-white carpeting and ultra suede on the walls. Every fingerprint showed. There was a brass bar rail to polish every day.

“His name’s Stan. Look, I gotta go clear customs. He’ll be here in a minute. I’ll be right back.” He kissed me quickly, then left.

In the dark mirror I watched my reflection, standing there in my last clean pair of shorts and an old crew shirt. I knew I couldn’t match the other girls. I was older, the sun had done a number on me, and I was never that clean in the first place. I rubbed my calloused hands together and took off three rings and two extra earrings, then tied my hair back. I’d do what I could.

First the smell of the cigar, then the loud voice and a heavy foot on the companionway steps.

“You must be Amy,” Stan said, cigar dangling from his mouth. We shook hands.

“Yeah. Reporting aboard.”

“Mike’s amazing. I’m happy to have him, and anyone who’s with him had my okay right off.” He was barely thirty: round-jowled, sandy-haired, already out of shape with rumpled khakis. The privileged gene pool.

Through the window glass we watched a girl with tidy blonde hair and perfectly white shorts run by with a bottle of spray cleanser in one pocket and a scrub brush in the other. Stan watched her. “Look at that. I need you to take charge of the girls, Amy. They shouldn’t be running around on board with their pockets full. You know what I mean.” His eyes narrowed as he watched the girl bend over to scrub the anchor rode.

“Sure. That’s not a problem. What’s her name?”

“I don’t know. All these girls come by looking for work. After a while, they all look the same. And they’re cutthroat. I had a woman come by trying to get your head-stew job, and I finally had to tell her that I wasn’t going to cross my captain and replace his girl if I wanted to see this boat go anywhere this season.” He re-lit his cigar. “She got the picture.” Through the smoke, I watched his appraising stare.

When Mike came back I dumped my duffel in his cabin, officially moving in. It was a nice space with a small chart table, a narrow berth and our own head. We’d never had this much privacy on a boat before. I was used to sleeping somewhere near the bow with the rest of the crew. I ran my fingers on the walls. The bulkheads had the same burlwood veneer as the master cabin. Everything glowed in amber tones. “Looks like I’ll need a few things. There’s that secondhand crew clothing store next to the book exchange in English Harbor. I’ll get some proper khakis and makeup—Jesus.” In the closet I found all Mike’s uniforms lined up neatly in a row. “The stewardess does our laundry,” he said, and we laughed out loud.

Once I was settled in and knew the work detail, Mike and I got a hold of one of the ship’s zodiacs and headed for town. Mike was back, the day was over, and as soon as I pushed off from Goliath and we were gliding free across the harbor I felt fine. Mike seemed better, too. He was wearing an old workshirt and shorts, and looked more like himself.

I’d always felt good when I was on a boat with Mike. Even a little inflatable like this with Mike working the outboard was great. I leaned back and trailed my hand in the warm water, watching the stars. It was a perfectly clear and still night, and out there on the water away from land it was so beautiful. The stars shone down to the horizon where they mixed with the masthead lights of moored boats. On a night like this you could drive a boat right through the mirrored reflection of constellations, pushing a bow wave of phosphorescence in front of you. Mike was smiling in the darkness.

“I don’t want you to worry, Amy,” he said as we came close to shore. “We’re not going to be as bad off as we were ever again, okay?”

I grabbed the bowline as we slowed near the dock, “Broke, maybe, but never bad off.”

We drank rum in Falmouth, spending my last dollars recklessly. We were going to have a lot of money. Soon we’d have our own boat and make our own rules. Mike told some old stories to people we knew in the dockside bar, and we all laughed. I realized after a while that I could tolerate a Stan if that’s what was needed to get us our own boat. And I could see that Mike was happy. The gray in his hair and the deeper lines in his face looked all right when he was a well-paid captain. Before, they just fed his panic.

After a while it was time to go to Grace’s. I hadn’t had that much to drink, but I walked carefully. There were no decent roads once you left the harbor area, and we walked down unlit paths with deep trenches dug on either side for the rains that hardly ever came. In the dark, locals passed us by, nodding, whispering greetings. The sound of tree frogs rang through the hills and we walked silently. Dim lights shone in the homes we passed, the open windows covered with colored curtains and bedsheets. We heard music and smelled sweet curry in the air when we were close.

Mike had known Grace for years. All the sailors ate at Grace’s because the food was fresh, local, and cheap. So was the rum. If any crew was missing from a boat in the morning, the first place to look would be beneath the lime tree next to Grace’s. That’s where Leon put the ones who couldn’t make it home. Grace always had one of her daughters working. Her son Leon lived in the dark house behind the store, appearing every so often to take care of things like passed-out sailors.

Grace was glad to see Mike. They hugged and he shook hands with Leon, who laughed and said, “Now Amy, I know you glad you turned a deaf ear when Mama talk to you or you’d be off dancing when Mike was here, eating roti and waiting for his girl.”

Mike looked at me. “Dancing?”

“It was Grace’s idea.”

“Don’t give me up,” Grace laughed. “I don’t like you making Amy wait, that’s all. At least she could have some fun while you played with boats.”

“I was working hard,” Mike said.

“Can’t call that working,” Grace laughed. “You just drive the big boat around, and get to be the big man. Let me hire you for a few days. I’ll show you real work. Right, Dulcie?” She yelled back to the counter and a dark head looked around. “Bring two roti, girl, and beer. No rum.” she said firmly, and Leon sighed.

We ate the roti and stared at Dulcie, Grace’s youngest daughter. She wore her hair slicked back straight over her sloping forehead and pulled down in a braid that covered the back of her long, graceful neck. She was tall and thin and moved slowly, never changing her expression. She kept her eyes low and her lips shut. Her face was smooth and carved into perfect features against her brown skin. “Maybe I lock her up at home with a sheet over her head, like the Muslims, you know?” Grace said. “At least until she married—to a doctor.” We laughed. Dulcie ignored us.

“She sixteen. Wants to go away and be a model. I say, a model—ha! What you going to do in a few years time when you look like me? How you live then? But she don’t listen. You know, I look at this girl of mine, my little one, and I feel the trouble coming.” She shook her head. “But that Grace’s burden, at least one of them. You still looking for an old wooden thing? Last wooden boat people in here ate my roti for two weeks then leave in the night without paying. I pry that boat open like a packing crate if it ever come to Falmouth again. So what you doing?”

“Remember that Feadship I told you about? Mike brought her in this morning. He’s the captain. I’m the stewardess.”

“Head stewardess,” Mike said.

Grace smiled widely. She was a beauty herself, with aquiline features and the smooth brown skin her daughter inherited. “I remember years ago. I seen Mike before, but then he’s with Amy and they are so happy, working like dogs on old smelly sailboats. I asked myself why.”

“It’s good to be on the water,” Mike said.

“I seen it every day of my life,” Grace said. “Always seem like a lot of trouble to me. Now you’ll make some money for a change, eh? It’s about time you two grew up and started acting right.”

“Acting like we have to, to keep the owner happy,” Mike said. “He pays the money, we do what he says.”

Grace smiled. “Nothing new. I roll the pastry, make the roti, and my kids go to university.” She looked back at Dulcie and sighed. “But I’m not resting yet. No, not yet. Good luck on the big boat, both of you. Don’t do everything the man says. He get too spoiled.”

Stan woke up late every morning and walked around the foredeck, cigar in one hand and Bloody Mary in the other. He laughed loudly and made calls on the sat-com phone, extending dozens of invitations to friends to join him in the islands. My days were full and I was working twice as hard as Mike, who spent his hanging out with the engineer, changing engine oil and replacing filters on the watermaker.

One evening Stan had friends in from Martinique. They’d spent the day snorkeling and now sat on the aft deck, drinking and watching the sunset; the men slightly older versions of Stan and the women starved thin, pounding cigarette stubs into oversized ashtrays. I stayed on deck, watching their wineglasses. The volcano on Montserrat fumed in the distance, and clouds swirled around the caldera just visible on the horizon. Everything turned orange, then deep rose, then dark violet. The tree frogs started. Stan looked around, grinning.

“Come on, let’s hit the town. You haven’t really seen this place. We’ll go to the club, and then maybe even slum it a little. My captain Mike was telling me about the local places. Worth a look. Isn’t that right, Amy?”

“There are some nice spots,” I said, trying to imagine what Mike had told them.

“Good. Listen, why don’t you get Mike over here, and he can give us a run-down.”

I was standing in the back with the crew when Mike came around. He smiled at the women and sat down with them, barely glancing my way. I watched the women straighten up, much more animated now with a new captain to entertain them. I watched him smile as he lit one of Stan’s cigars. I heard him name a few places in town. Then he mentioned Grace’s.

“So what’s so special about this place?” One woman asked, leaning forward as Mike lit her cigarette.

“Nothing really, I guess. It’s just where the locals go.”

The woman blew smoke out in a long, steady stream. “And we would find that charming?”

Mike shrugged. She reached out and held his wrist. “How unusual,” she said, turning his hand to see the bird tattoos in the dim light. “What are they?”

“Birds of flight,” he said, pulling away.

“Yes, I see how fast they move,” she laughed. They pushed their chairs out and stood up. I motioned to the staff and we moved in quietly to clear the table. Mike gave instructions to the mate to get a tender ready as the woman with the cigarette watched him closely. “Aren’t you coming?” she asked.

Stan laughed. “Don’t be silly, love. Mike’s got to stay with the boat. They go together. It’s a package deal.”

“Pity,” she said, and turned to toss her last cigarette into the wine glass I was carrying away.

I didn’t bring it up until later that night. “I’m surprised you didn’t go out with them.”

“Why would I do that?” Mike said. He sat with his shirt undone, finishing an entry in the day’s log. The cabin was dark except for one gimbaled light above the chart table. “They didn’t want me with them. They just wanted to know where to go.”

“I don’t know why you told them about Grace’s. She doesn’t want Stan and his crowd around, you know that.”

“Why wouldn’t she? It’s money, right? She needs it just as much as we do. They’ll probably tip her well. She doesn’t get much of that from sailors or locals, that’s for sure.”

“Mike, you know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t,” he said, closing the log.

When Mike left to check the lines I stretched out on the narrow berth, listening to his steps along the deck. I didn’t know exactly why I started in on him like that. What I wanted to do was have a huge fight with him over nothing, like we used to do to blow off steam. It’s what boat couples do, and it’s usually pretty amusing for the rest of the crew. It wouldn’t go over on Goliath , though. In this world of synchronized serving and crew that wore spray cleaning bottles in holsters on their hips, there wasn’t much room to breathe.

Stan didn’t get up the next morning. His guests packed their bags and asked Mike to convey their goodbyes. They drank black coffee and left, wincing in the sun on their way to a waiting taxi. Sometime after noon Stan rallied, ordering two glasses of water, aspirin, and a Bloody Mary. He took a swim and sat on deck, dripping wet. Then he asked me to get Mike.

“What a time!” he yelled out, bleary-eyed when Mike showed up. “I don’t know where we were or what we drank, but what a night. You didn’t warn me about that girl, though.”

“What girl?” Mike asked.

“The one at that Grace place, Dulcie. I’ve never seen anything like her. I think I’m in love,” he said, grinning.

Mike’s eyes narrowed. “Lots of pretty girls around the islands.”

“Not like this one,” Stan said, shaking water out of his ears.

That night new guests came by to visit Stan. They were a more raucous crowd. They stayed on board for most of the night drinking, but left around midnight, yelling “to Grace’s, me boys!” at the top of their lungs.

In the morning Mike was up and out of the cabin long before he was due on deck. I acted like I was sleeping.

Stan was having dinner at the club that night so the crew was off. At sunset the mate took the ensign in and I went to the bow to cover the seat cushions. Mike was there sitting with his head in his hands, watching the sea. He looked at me and in the dying light I could see the strain in his face. A warm breeze came off the land from the east. It stirred his hair and I brushed it back in place, leaving my hand there. He put one arm around me and leaned back on the other, holding me fast. I was so glad he came to me like that I just buried my face in his shirt. With my head down I saw the unlit cigar wedged between his fingers. “So you’ve got a new bad habit.”

“These are Cubans,” he said. “Might as well do it right. I’ve been waiting all day to smoke this.”

“I hoped you were waiting all day so we could talk.”

Mike lit the cigar, squinting. “Amy, I’m sorry, but I just don’t know what you’re so upset about. This isn’t the first time we’ve had an asshole for a boss, but it never got to you before.”

I threw his cigar overboard. Mike grabbed my wrists; furious. “It stinks.” I closed my eyes and felt his hands on me. We went below and when we got to the cabin we pushed hard against each other in the dark. I could barely move and in the airless room I tried hard to breathe.


Victoria Polk sails with her yacht captain husband and lives in Rhode Island. Her work has been published inThe Caribbean Writer.

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