South Pacific Affair
This page formatted 2007 Blackmask Online.
For those—and they are but a tiny few—who never even think of buying a return trip ticket
In the sharp moonlight, Ruita's skin was a creamy brown framed by the jet-black blur of hair crumpled beneath her head. Her loose cotton print blouse probably was made in Japan, and the tailored walking shorts had come all the way from the French Riviera. Her hands played with the tiny white flower in the dark hair, and she seemed to be studying the tender gully her neat breasts made pushing against the blouse.
I sprawled beside Ruita, smelling the exciting perfume of her body—trying not to remember other perfumes I'd known. My eyes were also on the jutting molds of her bosom, and I wasn't listening to her small talk about methods of increasing the mother-of-pearl mussels in the lagoon. It didn't matter I wasn't listening... she really wasn't hearing her own words any more than either of us heard the wind in the palm trees, the sea thundering and hissing over the reef before us, or the small, clean noises of the busy crabs and rats in the sand and bush.
We were there neither to talk nor to listen—you don't take mats and lay in the moonlight to chatter about mussels. She talked to cover the awkwardness as she waited for me.
I closed my eyes and wondered what the hell to do—with women I cared about I always played the fool. Why couldn't I make love to Ruita and marry her? Or love her and forget her? Probably hundreds of popaas had sprawled on this very beach during the last century with “native” girls, and I was the only clown making a problem, a “thing” out of it. All the greedy popaas—bastards to their teeth.
I tried not to think, not even to listen to the meaningless words, the soft voice with the hazy French accent, the silly words flowing down her chest and past the breasts I wanted so much to kiss.
“... and the reason pearls have vanished,” Ruita said like a school girl reciting her lesson, “is that the mussels are taken out too quickly, to get the mother-of-pearl. They have no chance to form a pearl. Mussels are sensitive, require a certain depth and delicate temperatures, a hard coral bottom to cling... Ray, are you listening to me?”
“Yes. The tender souls of giant mussels.”
“Don't make fun of me.”
“I'm not making fun of you. I'm... nothing. Nothing!”
“The best place to raise mussels is a lagoon completely ringed by a reef. In that way the embryo mussels will neither be eaten or carried out to sea, nor will there be sharks to trouble the divers or...” She began to cry softly.
“Damn it, don't cry!” I said loudly. I opened my eyes, touched her hair which was soft and silky, looked at her thin features and wondered for some stupid reason if this was the white blood in her. I had to fight to keep my hands from her face and after a long second I said, “Ruita, don't cry, please. I'm—sorry about all this.”
She raised her head and tried to dry her tears on the collar of her blouse. “Am I so undesirable I must beg you to love me?”
“Hell, you know—”
“Then I shall beg you.”
“Stop it. I want you so much this is torture.”
“For me, too.” She turned and looked at me: her dark eyes and wet face seemed to sparkle in the moonlight. “What is the trouble, Ray?”
“I don't know. That is, you know how it is with a man and a woman... sometimes,” I said, trying to weasel out of it.
Ruita laughed, shrill laughter edged with hysteria that cut the other noises of the night. “But I don't know how it is with a boy and girl! This will amuse you, Ray. When I was in school, in Sydney, I wrote a term paper on how the island people were not neurotic because they never had to suppress their desires. Now, isn't that amusing? I am certainly the only girl in the entire Tuamotu Atolls who has reached twenty years of age and has not been with a man. Do you think I will be the first islander to need the services of a... how do you call these doctors who delve into the mind? I—”
“Cut it out!” I said, angry, then ashamed of my anger— which I knew I was using as an out. “Look, what do you want me to say? All right, I'll tell you—I'm scared!”
“Scared? Oh, don't worry, I will not give you back one of your popaa diseases!”
“Take it slow, Ruita. I thought we were past the color-line bunk.”
“Why are you frightened, then?”
“I'm frightened that I'll never be able to leave you,” I said quickly, almost in a whisper. “I'm scared for myself—not sure I can take it here.”
“I have much money, we can live elsewhere or ... are you afraid to take a vahine into the popaa world?”
“Ruita, don't twist my words. I can't take the... the... outside world. Neither can you. You know how much I want you but I am scared of spoiling it, of ... I can't put it in the right words,” I added, knowing how weak it sounded.
Ruita jumped to her feet and picked up her mat. She started to cry again.
“Wait, honey, I only—”
She walked toward the palms, calling out something in Tahitian which I think meant I had humiliated her. Humiliation is something atoll people don't know much of.
I sat on the mat for a long time, telling myself I was watching the sky for a shooting star, listening to a coconut crab digging at the base of the nearest palm. Yet I was glad I hadn't made love to her—and it would have been love because that's how deeply I felt about Ruita. In fact I was a bit proud and amazed at my will power. And I also felt like a prize jerk.
After awhile I got up and picked up my mat—the tidy touch—then I threw it away, started walking along the beach toward the village on the other side. Numaga is an island, not an atoll, one end almost reaching a height of three hundred feet above sea level like a mountain. Of course it was hardly a “hill” but in the flatness of the Pacific it seemed like Everest.
My sneakers were worn and the sand got in between my toes. I walked slowly, sweating a little in the cool night breeze, and so full of desire I felt feverish. I wanted a drinking nut but kept to the beach—at night you can't see them coming and while a falling nut may be a gag in the movies, a direct hit can split your head open.
I came around a slight bend in the beach, saw the sea breaking against a high point of the reef, sending up a wide luminous spray. I stood there for a moment, aware of some kind of tree with low heavy branches at the edge of the sand, behind me. The branches touched the sand and I heard a woman giggling, got a whiff of the sickening-sweet odor of strong palm wine.
A nude fat woman, her bosom swaying like soggy punching bags, lurched toward me, giggling something in the island dialect I didn't understand. In the moonlight I could see her glassy eyes, and when she stumbled against me, the stink of wine was all about us. Her body hot and moist with sweat, and that added sharp odor. Due to Milly and her perfumes, I was almost an expert on women's odors.
But this wasn't any bottled perfume, this was human heat. If the woman was old and flabby, in my sad state she seemed suddenly most attractive. Pulling her against me, I kissed her heavy lips, my hands digging into the damp softness of her hips. She sighed, giggled hoarsely, then abruptly pushed me away—playing it coy. She took a few steps sideways into the shadow of the tree. As I started for her, something hit my jaw and I was on my face in the sand, before I passed out.
After much difficulty I finally got the stars into focus; I was seeing various odd-colored clouds and flashing bright comets which certainly weren't in any sky. Sitting up, I shook my head, spitting out sand. I stood up slowly, kept telling myself it was an accident, the woman had butted me with her head. But she wouldn't have left me alone on the beach, and I knew very well there was only one man on the island, perhaps in the world, who could wallop like that.
As my head cleared, I got mad—I'd been Sunday-punched I Down at the water's edge I found a hunk of coral the size of my fist, and started to run. After a few hundred yards I panted up to the stinking copra shed, which was simply a tin roof open on all sides. Beyond it I saw Ruita's large modern bungalow with its coral cement foundation, double roof, and real glass windows. The screened windows glistened like silver in the moonlight, but there wasn't a light on inside. Standing by the shed, I got my breath back, as I wondered where Ruita was. I knew she liked to read before turning in.
It was all crazy: Ruita at first ignoring me, thinking I was merely another white trader, then believing the silly yarn of Eddie's, about me being part Sioux Indian—which I'd told him as a joke. Ruita and I speeding toward what should have been a natural beginning of love and...
Somebody moved in the shadow of the shed. Raising my hunk of coral, I approached softly. Through the copra-sharp odor I ran into a cloud of cheap bay rum, the sounds of somebody humming. I found my lighter, got a flame going.
A bleary-eyed old man held his face to the light, toothless mouth in a grin. He was wearing a torn, striped polo shirt and a loin cloth; his brown face was deeply wrinkled and his bushy hair a hard grey. He was lying across an ancient and rusty bicycle—the only place on the entire island smooth enough for riding was the village street—about one hundred yards long. He was one of Ruita's copra workers, but I couldn't remember his name. Waving an empty bottle at me, he asked in bad French, “God be with you this night—have you a cigarette?”
I put the lighter out, took a butt from my pocket and he pawed in the darkness till he found my hand. I gave him a light but he shook his head and placed the cigarette over one ear. “Merci. An American cigarette?”
“No, French. Have—”
“Too bad. I like the strength of Cam-Mells. But merci.” This was said in fair English.'
I asked, “Have you seen my partner, Eddie?”
He told me in Tahitian he didn't have the smallest idea of what I was saying.
“Eddie, Eddie, the ugly one, the strong man—where is he?”
“Ah, that one.” The old man got to his feet carefully, as if the bicycle were something delicate he might break by stepping on it. Now he came out of the shadows and waved the bottle—it was hair tonic, part of our trade goods. He said in French, “The one with the broken face is most wrong. He tell me this no good but I find it a most delicious drink. You have more?”
“Where is he?”
“There is anger in your voice, monsieur. I—”
“Damn it, do you know where he is?”
“No. I look for him too, I am anxious to buy more of these spirits. Have you any?”
“No, and no more on the ship, either,” I said, walking away. I went down to the small wharf made of coral blocks. Our dinghy was up on the beach and I walked over and sat down on that, lit a cigarette. Puffing hurt my jaw and I rubbed the butt out in the sand, put it back in my pocket. The coral rock was still in my hand. I suddenly threw it as far out in the lagoon as I could, watched the splash, the smaller movements of some frightened fish.
There wasn't any point in braining Eddie—he had a vast knowledge of knifing, kneeing, punching, I would only be kayoed again. Beside, it was stupid to blame Eddie for tonight; there was a joker back in Chicago I should have beaten to death. If I'd only slugged Barry once, perhaps tonight would have turned out differently. Or would I still be sucking around Chicago?
Glancing up at Ruita's dark house, I considered running up there and climbing into bed with her. But all I did was wrestle the dinghy into the water, row out to the Hooker. Climbing aboard our cutter, I went below, lit the paraffin lamp. Brushing fat roaches from my bunk, I poured myself a shot of rum, which only made me hotter.
Eddie was sleeping in his bunk, across from mine—his brown body in light contrast to the dirty canvas. The moplike black hair glistened in the dim light; his thick, puffy lips were open—the sweet odor of palm wine battled with the general copra stink of our boat or maybe they joined forces. Even relaxed, the great muscles of Eddie's squat body were heavy and firm, like lazy snakes.
I kicked his shoulder. Kicked because Eddie sometimes comes out of a drunken sleep dreaming he's still in the ring, punching.
He sat up too quickly—rubbed his eyes like a ham actor. When he sat up there was the wet imprint of his body on the canvas bunk. He'd swum out.
He yawned and saw the rum, reached for it I pulled it back as he jumped off the bed with cat speed, grabbed the bottle, took a fast swig and belched. Running a hand over his battered face, he asked, “Ray, did you make yourself and the lovely Ruita happy?”
“What's the idea of smacking—” My jaw hurt when I talked.
“Ruita is Tahitian for Louise,” Eddie rasped, the way he talked from too many head punches. “Glad you awoke me, Ray, I was dreaming a very bad dream. There I was, on the beach with this pretty gal, when suddenly a popaa comes from out of nowheres—with a skin-full, and dressed funny. Could be in this here dream I was back in the old, old days, and this was a sailor off a whaler. In my dream this popaa bent over us, offering the girl some trinkets. I saw she liked them. When I told him she was my girl, he kicked me—he was wearing shoes—says, 'Beat it, kanaka!' That's something, isn't it, Ray? Hardly hear 'kanaka' much, at least not down in this part of the Pacific. But I used to hear it too much. Now it's 'gools'? or—”
“Stop gassing! I want to know why—”
“Ray, you haven't heard the best of the dream yet I went over to this tall white man, pushed the gal away, carefully dug my toes into the sand, and belted him flush on the kisser. Man, it was a wonderful punch. But the silly girl, she cried and ran from me. That's when you woke me. Wonder, in my dream, if I would have caught her again?”
“You miserable goon, you know damn well you slugged me!”
“But Ray, why should I hit you, my partner, my friend?” Eddie waved his hand and I grabbed his left and looked at the knuckles. They weren't even reddened.
Eddie gave me a sly grin—he could hit a wall and not break the skin on his knuckles. “Ray, is that a way to be? I tell you I've been sleeping here for many hours. Maybe you were dreaming, too.”
I nodded at his wet outline on his bunk.
Eddie shrugged. “You never wake up in a sweat? In this dream—”
“Dream, my rear!” I pointed to my swollen jaw. “Does this look like any dream?”
Eddie yawned and stretched out on his bunk again. After a moment he said, “Well, all I know is my own dream. And stop worrying—a belt on the puss doesn't do much damage. You should have loved Ruita. You both need it.”
“Don't hand me any more of that dream. How did you know we didn't ... do anything?”
“Word of that gets around too. And why shouldn't it? These islanders don't have your phony popaa ideas of making a sex a dirty secret.”
“I didn't mean that. But if you were sleeping here all the time, how could you know?”
“Maybe it came to me in the dream. Aita peapea—so what,” Eddie said and began to snore—not loudly but a kind of low grating noise. I knew the sonofabitch was really asleep.
I had another shot of warm rum, blew out the lamp, then went up on deck because I don't like to go to sleep crocked on our boat. The story about copra bugs eating away a man's toes while he slept may be a tall tale, but I always like to sleep lightly so I can feel the bastards on me.
I sat with my feet hanging over the stern of the Hooker, examining the reflection of the stars and the moon on the smooth water, thinking what an idiotic evening I'd had. Every man in the USA secretly dreams of having a boat in the South Seas and a beautiful gal waiting for his love on some lonely island. I had the boat and tonight I could have had the girl, who was not only beautiful, but educated and interesting, and owned a whole wonderful island. But clever Ray was taming that down, afraid to give it a whirl, insulting Ruita. If Barry could see me, he'd go nuts laughing. But at least I was in the South Seas and he was still back in Chicago, dreaming about it or bulling about going, over cocktails. He was probably married to Milly by now.
I tried lighting a cigarette but the pain in my jaw made me give it up. I sat there for a long time, watching the Pacific and the reef and thinking of Barry Kent. There was a movie handle—Barry Kent. But it was really his name and he looked the part, one of these well groomed, handsome, get-ahead boys. He had money and looks, was Milly's boss and I really liked him; the two of us were South Sea crazy. Of course when he took Milly I didn't really give a damn because it had been all over between us for years and maybe there wasn't anything in the first place. Barry really did me a favor, but it still rankled the devil out of me that I hadn't done anything about it. Sometimes I was sure I'd handled it smartly but most times I felt lousy. I don't go for this self-respect slop too much, but still in my own house, in my own bed—I should have busted his face. He looked like a capable joker, though; he might have taken me and that would have made it worse. Despite my size I'm not much of a brawler.
I sat there feeling blue and sorry for myself and wished I could be a true islander and say aita peapea, nothing matters. Then I found myself dozing off and I went below and hit the sack.
The next morning we didn't get up till two youngsters came alongside in their outrigger canoe and threw a couple of karma fish on the deck. I vaguely heard them wishing us good eating and then some giggling comments about palm wine for a sleeping potion as they paddled away. The cabin was hot and I went on deck. Judging by the sun it was near noon.
The karava is a fantastically striped fish, a technicolor dream, and after I kicked them out of the sun I made my morning toilet by diving into the clear water. I swam around the cutter a couple of times and it needed painting. Even the name—the Hooker (Eddie's best punch was a left hook)— was hard to make out. As I climbed up on deck Eddie came out of the cabin and sat in the sun. He cursed wines in general and started the day off by puking over the side. The tide was going out and a moment later Eddie dived in and swam under the boat, came up the battered ladder as sober and wide awake as if he'd stepped out of a Turkish bath.
While I brewed coffee Eddie neatly cleaned the fish, lit the oil burner we kept in the bottom of a tin drum, and started frying the fish. I wanted them roasted over charcoaled coconut husks, but didn't feel up to telling him .Some days we jabbered all the time, repeating stories, jokes, and lies, over and over. Sometimes we rarely spoke for days, and each understood it was okay.
I squeezed some limes, opened two drinking coconuts. Soon we were eating fried fish and canned dumplings, dipped in lime sauce, strong coffee with tinned milk. My jaw felt okay, except when I touched it-Eddie lit one of his horrible cigars, made of native twist tobacco, almost outsmelling the sour stink of copra in the hold. I sat in the sun, puffed on the remains of a cigarette. After a long while he asked, “Ray, still want to make time with Ruita?”
“Why? Do I have to ask your permission?”
“Only thinking, if you and her are done with that, we ought to raise sail. No more copra here, and we haven't enough trade goods to try the atolls. Best we return to Papeete. Figure we've over a ton of copra, means about hundred and seventy bucks.”
“Okay. Well go on the tide. Have any more dreams?”
In a very matter-of-fact voice Eddie said no. When a Polynesian dismisses something from his mind it's completely dismissed.
I pulled the dinghy in, put on my T-shirt and sneakers. “I'm going to say goodbye to Ruita.”
Eddie sort of half sat up, sent a blob of spit over the side. He studied the spit on the water for a second, announced, “Plenty of time, tide won't change for four hours.”
Eddie held captain's papers but I never saw him use any instruments. He could merely glance at the water and tell exactly the time of the next tide. He steered by the sound of waves, by the sun, the clouds, the sight of birds, or the various kinds of seaweed floating by. Sextants, chronometers, and logs were mild mysteries for me but Eddie's navigation left me baffled. I suppose it was all for the best—the “latest” charts for the Tuamotu atolls, for instance, were almost a hundred years old and full of errors. Anyway, we'd sold our instruments long ago.
I found Ruita in the living room of her house, the room with the heavy old furniture, although there was a modernistic wrought-iron coffee table which has been flown in from Rome. She was reading a three-month-old Paris fashion magazine and listening to radio music from Papeete. There were plenty of chairs but like all islanders she preferred to sit on the floor. She was leaning against her record cabinet—Ruita had a high fidelity record player run by batteries—while in the kitchen I could hear the kerosene refrigerator. The motor needed cleaning; the damn thing sputtered and rattled all day long to make a lone tray of watery ice.
I stood in the doorway and waited for her to ask me in.
Ruita had a blue and white pareu wrapped around her and fastened just below her bare shoulders, which were strong and smooth. Her long black hair glistened with coconut oil and was tied in a kind of ponytail by a number of tiny pink flowers. She made a lovely exotic picture: the lush full lips, the light golden skin, the broad face, the large eyes faintly almond shaped.
She knew I was standing there and after a moment looked up with a practiced smile, said, “Ah, Mr. Jundson. Did you want to see me about something? Would you like to hear some of my latest records, or perhaps you care for an orangeade?”
The words were practiced too, and I said, “Or, tennis anyone?”
A puzzled look ran across her face. “Tennis?”
“A kind of joke, a poor one. Look, Ruita we're sailing in a few hours and—”
“I trust our accounts are clear. My mother usually handles the business end.”
There wasn't anything more to say, except goodbye. Ruita walked out of the room. I followed—we were in her bed room, simple furniture made of palm trunk wood. “Will you ever return to Numaga, Mr. Jundson?”
“Do you want me to?”
“I? I merely asked because Mother might keep some copra for you and—”
I grabbed her, turned her gently around. “Ruita, let's stop this kid talk. I'm really sorry about last night. It had nothing to do with you. You know how I feel about you.”
She pushed my hands from her shoulders.
“I love you,” I said.
“Do you, Ray, or is love merely a handy word?”
“No one really knows what love is, but as much as I understand it, I love you ...” I glanced past her face, saw the little perfume bottles on her dresser. “Do you like perfumes?”
Ruita gasped. Turning away from me, she asked fiercely, “Are we back to polite talk again, Mr. Jundson?”
“No, no. That is—perfumes were important in my... wife's life. I used to give her silly little bottles every payday.”
“They're not important in mine! We islanders bathe many times a day, have no need for covering dirt and odors! I never used these, bought them long ago in Sydney—a whim.”
“Milly never used hers for another reason. She didn't want the odor to remain in her ... lover's bed. His wife might have found out. It's a cute little yarn, all the way.”
“But if you've left her, never cared for her, then—why last night, Ray?”
“She had nothing to do with that I'm afraid to try living with you. I'm afraid I'll mess it up, make us both unhappy.”
She stood there, trying to figure it out. “Are you afraid because of our difference in color or—?”
“No, it isn't anything as stupid as that. It's—well, I love you so much I can't risk making you unhappy.”
“We could only bring joy to each other.”
I shook my head. “I wish I was sure of that, Ruita. I know myself and ... I can't explain it, it's mixed up in my mind. All I know is I can't chance hurting you.”
“Don't you think last night—now—hurts?”
“A tiny hurt compared to what messed-up lives can be. All I can tell you is that I'll try my best to come back to you.”
I reached over to kiss her and she slapped me hard across my face.
“Yes, Mr. Jundson, you'll try to come back to your native girl for a little fun. You'll expect her to be waiting!”
I grabbed her shoulders, and shook her. She began to cry. I held her close and kissed her. Her lips didn't respond. “Darling,” I whispered into her ear, “with us it has to be everything, all down the line or a bust-up. And if we messed up I'm not sure I could stand it, or that you could.”
She suddenly kissed me as hard as she could, her arms going around me like iron, her whole body alive and pressing. When I started to kiss her back, she pushed me away and said coldly, “Any time you return to Numaga, Mr. Jundson, we shall have copra waiting for you.”
She walked out of the room slowly and I stood there for a moment, then realized it was a little play to save face and I didn't blame her. I ran down to the beach.
It took us some time to make the Hooker ready, mainly because every time we were about to pull up anchor, some joker would come rushing out in his canoe with a request to deliver a note to his cousin or somebody in Papeete, or to see about buying this and that for him—although we hadn't said we'd return and this was the first visit we'd made to Numaga.
I was hoping Ruita would come down to see us off but she didn't. Some people paddled out to bring us a gift of coconut crabs which we tied to the rigging to keep fresh, and we kept horsing around so long I thought we'd miss the tide. I checked the bilge for gas fumes, got our old converted Buick motor working and then turned it off. “We've lost the tide,” I said.
“Naw, plenty of water. Get her going,” Eddie said as he pulled up anchor and took the wheel. We went over the reef, an angry rusty red beneath the surging water, without bumping the keel.
We hauled up the sails and the wind was good. I shut off the motor and let Eddie take the first watch since we were in an area of crazy currents. We didn't have any one method of standing watch. We were reasonable about it; each stood watch as long as he felt like it, then awoke the other. When we were a day or more away from any known islands or reefs, running before the steady trade winds, we'd lash the helm down and let the boat run herself.
Now as I sat atop the cabin and watched Ruita's island become a cloud on the horizon behind us, I felt proud of our boat. I'd really been lucky getting the cutter; she was a fine sea boat—forty-two feet over-all and thirty-two feet on the waterline, gaff-rigged, with a long pole bowsprit you rarely see these days. In fact, you rarely see a cutter like mine.
The Pacific was choppy and whenever we dipped into a gully of waves and lost some wind for a split second, the copra stench was sickening. We had a good boat, if a smelly one, probably never would luck up on any real money, yet for some unknown reason I wanted to be a seagoing bum rather than settle down with Ruita.
As Numaga disappeared on the horizon I tried to find the reason, but couldn't think of one that made sense. Eddie and I didn't have a bad life, nor a wonderfully good one; rather it was a painless way of passing time.
Still, living with Ruita would be just as carefree, and in many delightful ways even more so. Yet, while I was sure I could take life as a small-time trader, I was afraid to stick myself on some isolated island, even with a Ruita. Or was the real reason the fact that I was frightened of a second failure in marriage? Or was it that marrying Ruita would mean I'd stay in the islands forever? I kept telling myself I wanted to remain here for the rest of my days, but did I really?
Eddie leaned over the wheel and yawned, said, “Sure can't figure you and Ruita. A gal with everything—looks...”
“Why don't you shut up!”
He shrugged and we were on a silent kick for the rest of the day and most of the following morning.
Two days later when we were within sight of Tahiti, or rather the jagged outline of Moorea, Eddie opened the hold and, screwing up his tan face at the stench, removed a fifty-pound bag of copra. “This bag we hide—for drinking and movie money.”
“We haven't got much of a cargo as it is,” I began.
“Even if we brought in a full load of shell we'd still owe the Chinaman. He'll advance us trade goods against the next cargo, like he always does.”
“That's why we're always in debt.”
Eddie closed the hatch and held the bag at arm's length. “Ray, a lousy five or ten bucks ain't going to make us rich or poor, but it will mean a girl and I'm sure in need of one.”
“What was wrong with your, uh, dream girl back in Numaga?”
“That dream. She was kind of sloppy and it took me time to work up to it. Just when things were set this popaa came along, in the dream, spoiled everything. Guess I forgot to tell you that.”
Approaching Tahiti is one of the most beautiful sights in the world, although Papeete itself has some of the ratty atmosphere of a cheap carnival, a pitch show. With Moorea behind us, I got the motor going soon as we saw the beacon on Point Venus. We went through the pass and stopped at the tiny island of Motuiti opposite the Papeeta waterfront. In the old days the famous Queen Pomare used the island as a pleasure resort but now it's a quarantine and customs station.
There was a new officer on duty. I gave him our papers, our permit de sejour, and everything was in order. He took one look at Eddie's face, gasped, “Lion Face—you are a leper!”
Eddie ran into this one in every new port. His flattened nose, puffed lips, the ridge of scar tissue over his eyes, not to forget his wrinkled right “tin” ear, did give him a “Lion Face,” and you have the disease real bad when your face reaches that stage. Eddie explained about punches, not bugs, changing his face, but the quarantine office hadn't the slightest idea what a pug was and refused to let us go. Happily, as Eddie was getting angry, one of the old hands came in and okayed our papers.
As the sun was setting, trimming Moorea's rugged peaks with fire, I started the motor and we backed the Hooker into the quay and made her fast. The nearest ship to us was a very big schooner, the Shanghai, supposedly owned by a senile Tahitian who lived in a rum bottle and was a front for a Swede named Buck and a sharp Chinese supercargo named Tom Teng. Buck was in his late fifties, a wide powerful man with an odd face—the upper half seemed to run directly down to the tip of his big nose and gave him a kind of Andy Gump appearance. He and Teng were big traders, operators who ran booze and hired their own divers for mother-of-pearl shell.
The short tropical twilight is when most islanders take their last bath of the day. We had a swim and finished the last of the crabs tied to the rigging. Eddie cursed the quarantine man, because now was it too late to sell the bag of copra. We washed the deck down and I said I was going ashore anyway, just to walk among people. Eddie said, “Not me. Nothing worse than walking by the bars and girls without a franc in your pockets, like a hungry dog. I'd rather—”
There was some shouting aboard the Shanghai, followed by drunken laughter, and then a splash as somebody either dove off the high schooner or was thrown off.
In the dim light we could see a person swimming toward our boat and a moment later a hand grasped the rope ladder and a girl pulled herself aboard, flopped on the deck like a caught fish. She was buck naked, slim, with a rather plain and pretty face. She pressed the water out of her long black hair as she sat up. She was both drunk and angry. Looking toward the schooner, she shouted curses in French, then stood up and grinned at us.
She was about seventeen and for sheer physical beauty the most perfectly shaped girl I'd ever seen. She belched slightly, shivered with the night air, her pointed breasts dancing. She giggled, showing stubby teeth, then walked gracefully and casually down the cabin steps, telling us in Tahitian, “I am cold. After a good drink and some clothes, you can be my friends.”
She disappeared into the cabin and Eddie stared at me with open mouth, then asked, “Still going ashore?”
“You crazy?” Absentmindedly I searched my pockets for a coin, then took Eddie's knife from his belt and tossed it in the air.
He said, “Trade-mark up!” as I got out my lighter and we knelt to look at the knife.
The plain side was showing and I ran for the cabin.
I was passing Les Dames de Saint Joseph de Cluny, the Catholic girl's school in Papeete, and a number of the youngsters in neat smocks were out walking. Some of them smiled politely at me. I clicked my heels and slipped them a smart bow which caused the sister in charge to grin and the kids to giggle.
It was the start of a bright cool day and I was feeling very fine; for the moment I wasn't worrying about a thing, not even thinking of Ruita. Last night had been the South Seas of the phony books, the stuff Barry and I had bulled about in Chicago bars—you're on your own little ship and a beautiful girl comes to spend the night with you; a few good hours and it's all over and on to the next one. Wam-bam and thank you, Ma'am.
Her name was Heru and she had arrived in Papeete some five months ago from a far-away atoll, down near Easter Island. As I walked along I thought about her and why she was here. The atoll people are not only well supplied by nature with about everything they need, but each family averages some fifteen hundred dollars a year from shell and copra, working at it when ever they feel in the mood. But most of the atoll people leave their heaven as soon as they can—that's always puzzled me. The men ship over the world as sailors, while the girls rush to Papeete to whore, either as amateurs or as pros. In fact (I am told) many of them actually can be found hustling in Paris, which is certainly a long way to travel to walk a shabby street.
Heru was a girl of great appetites and very good at all of them. She was crocked when she came aboard, finished our last bottle of rum during the night, and was still able to walk a straight line between my bunk and Eddie's. They soon knocked me out of this sheet marathon and I managed to get some sleep. When I left the Hooker Eddie and the girl were snoring on deck, both nude and cold with the early morning dampness. I threw a blanket over them, made some coffee, and took off.
I walked along the Quai du Commerce where the largest shops are run by the French and where one can buy almost anything in the world, from a Geiger counter to rubber falsies. I turned down a side street into a regular Chinatown—Chinese women walking in long slit gowns, and dozens of stores all with Chinese characters on the windows. The Chinese are the merchants of the islands and in Papeete they have their own club, a very imposing building and every bit as snobbish as the Circle Bougainville or the Tahiti Yacht Club, where the business men and tourists flock for an aperitif before going home to dejeuner, or stop for a petit dejeuner on their way to the office or shop.
Mr. Olin, our agent, ran a general store and glorified hock shop, and also went in for money lending. His main store and office was a two-story ramshackle wooden frame building which seemed on the verge of collapse. But he had a modern brick warehouse on the waterfront, a fleet of three new Ford trucks, and probably could raise a million dollars any time he had to. One of his clerks told me he was busy at the moment so I sat down on some wooden crates of canned milk, got a cigarette working as the clerk handed me a San Francisco paper which was exactly forty-three day old. The worn newspaper gave me a strong whiff of the tension and Stateside rat-race—I was damn glad to be reading it in the shop of a Chinese merchant in Papeete. The messy news and headlines seemed unreal, another world away from me, except for some business about testing more atomic bombs in the Pacific. Would be part of the “march of civilization” for a radioactive cloud to drift over Tahiti and...
The Chinese clerk said Mr. Olin would see me now. I walked up the trembling steps to his office. Mr. Olin was a fat, short man wearing slacks ready to burst, and an outrageous bright green sport shirt. His face was as round and flat as a large pebble, with a tuft of short dark silky hair crowning it. He always had a good smile and his eyes seemed amused. Off-hand you'd think Mr. Olin a very mild joker; he was shrewd, sharp, and tough.
His office was plainly furnished—a rusty file cabinet, a table with some dusty samples of trade goods on it, and a single strong light bulb hung from the ceiling. He gave me his big smile as he stood up from behind his large polished desk and we shook hands. If the rest of him was flabby, his hand was hard. He said in English, “Ah, my cockroach trader. You have a fine trip, Mr. Jundson?”
The cockroach title was his private joke and of course had to do with the fact our cutter was a bug compared to the big trading schooners.
“Nothing to shout about,” I said, sitting in a bamboo chair. “Around a ton of copra plus a few small bags of shell.”
“One should be grateful for even the smallest of fortune's smiles. Will you join me in wine and cakes?”
I nodded. Mr. Olin pressed a button and a young man immediately brought in a tray of sugar cookies and a silver bottle of cool rice wine. This was what I liked about Olin; he treated us as politely as if we were important traders.
I drank a lot of wine, finished the cakes and we made small talk about business. Then Mr. Olin brought out his account book and announced that until he got the exact weight and condition of our cargo, we were still some eleven thousand Tahitian francs in debt, which is roughly about three hundred thirty dollars.
Debts never seem to worry either party in the islands and Mr. Olin made out a credit slip for sixty dollars worth of trade goods at his warehouse. This was decent of him; he didn't have to advance us a sou. As I stood up I asked, “Would it be possible to add about a thousand francs in cash?”
Olin shook his head. “Sorry, no money. You would only drink it up. You need but wind and water for your boat and there is more than enough of that. However, should you wish some money as a lien against your fine boat, I should be pleased...”
“No, thanks. Without the boat I'd really be a bum. Do you have a cargo for us?”
“I'm afraid not. Should anything come up I shall contact you immediately.”
We shook hands and I thanked him for the wine and cakes, said we'd probably hang around Papeete for a few weeks, hoping for a cargo.
“Mr. Judson, with a boat your size one makes a big mistake to deal in copra. Your boat is fast and strong and good for only one thing—smuggling spirits.”
“You tell me that every time. But we like trading. Who knows, maybe we'll luck up on a bag of real pearls.”
Olin smiled, showing his several gold teeth. “My dear sir, that is only done in the cinema, and not very successfully there, either.”
I left his shop and walked back to our boat, passing the market place which was a tremendous iron roof open on all sides like a copra shed, and very busy in the morning. People came in from all parts of the island to sell vegetables and fruit and gossip. I stopped at Olin's warehouse and ordered a case of tinned Australian beef, the usual aspirin, boxes of hard candies, combs and thread and safety pins.
By the time I reached the Hooker it was almost noon and Eddie was sitting on the cabin and smoking a cigar. He said Olin's truck had already picked up our cargo and did I get any cash?
I said I didn't and he laughed, told me, “See how smart it was to save a bag of copra? I shall sell it this afternoon.”
“Just be careful Olin doesn't hear of it.” Before I could ask where Heru was, she stepped out of the cabin wearing one of my old suntan shirts which only partly covered her sturdy round hips, gave her the startling look of a living barbershop calendar. She was munching on a piece of raw fish and looked as fresh and clear-eyed as if she had slept all night. She said hello, asked if I had brought any rum with me. When I said I hadn't she merely shrugged and Eddie said, “Get your upa upa taria out, Ray—if it works.”
Upa upa taria is Tahitian for phonograph and mine was an old wind-up portable. When I dug it out, the damn thing was moldy and damp from the sea air. I gave the motor a quick clean-up with oil and the machine turned slowly, completely distorting the Duke Ellington record I put on, whose grooves were well worn anyway. But Heru seemed to enjoy the queer noises and squatted beside it, playing the record over and over as she ate the raw fish.
I joined Eddie atop the cabin in the hot sun. “What's with her?”
“Seems the lads on the Shanghai owe her money. When she asked for it they tossed her over.”
“Guess we must have run up a bill with her, too. Maybe we can help her collect and square our accounts?”
Eddie flexed his powerful muscles. “Two minds with a single thought. But she says 'her man' will handle it. He's Henri Dubon.”
“You've seen him around, tall and soft, sharp-faced, always wearing a dirty linen suit and a tie. Pimp and tourist shill.”
“Oh—him.” I'd certainly seen him about—he was all over Papeete. I'd heard he had come to Papeete before the war as a minor government clerk, fresh from Paris. Then during World War II he had spent several years with the American troops in the Pacific—in what capacity nobody ever knew or could imagine—but he had returned to Papeete in 'forty-nine firmly imbued with the spirit of the fast buck.
The sun was making me sleepy and I kicked off my sneak-ears and half-watched a tubby old schooner heading for the pass. Eddie asked, “Pass the Post Office and see the sailing schedules? We might outsail one of these old loads, reach some copra first.”
“I will—later. I've had a hard night.”
Eddie nodded along the deck where Heru was sleeping peacefully beside the phonograph, the shirt tails way above her delightful middle. I gazed at her and thought how little this girl and I had in common. Now, with Ruita it would be different—only maybe too different. With Heru, if I ever pulled up and left, the tears would be short and then— aita peapea, and settling down with the next man. And who was to say which attitude was the more intelligent?
I was too sleepy to argue, even with myself. The next thing I knew Eddie was shaking me awake. I yawned and asked what was up. Eddie nodded toward the quay and said, “Watch this.”
Monsieur Henri Dubon was marching toward our boat. He walked with short, nervous, maybe authoritative, steps. His white-grey shirt was stained with sweat, as was his tight linen suit and straw hat Heru was watching him with little interest and I wondered how Dubon knew where she was. Dubon carried a battered briefcase under his arm and when I asked Eddie, “What's he got in the bag?” Eddie said, “Probably his underwear—looks like a briefcase hustler.”
We had a plank running from the stern of the Hooker to the quay—there's not much of a rise or fall in the tide at Papeete. Dubon marched up the plank and told me in English with a heavy French accent, which was probably his tourist special tone: “I am Mr. Henri Dubon and I have business with my girl.” He pointed a dirty fingernail toward Heru.
“Business is business,” I said with a mock bow.
“You are American?” Dubon asked, the accent dropping from his plain hard English.
He knew I was an American; it was part of the petty gossip blanket covering the Papeete waterfront. I said I was an American and introduced myself and Eddie. Henri shook hands with me, nodded at Eddie, then barked in Tahitian at Heru, “Where is the money?”
She explained about not getting it and Henri shouted, “You can not fool me with such childish lies!” and started for Heru. Eddie tripped him without seeming to move his bare feet. Dubon sprawled on our deck, dropping his briefcase which would have skidded over the side if I hadn't grabbed it. Eddie said, “Aboard this ship no one hits a lady without permission from the captain—that's me. And Heru tells the truth. She swam over here after they threw her off the Shanghai. She had no money on her. She had nothing on.
Henri stared up at Eddie's tough face, asked with almost servile respect in his voice, “You speak okay English. Hawaiian?”
It was comical the way Dubon kept up this polite game. Everybody in town also knew Eddie was Hawaiian. Eddie nodded and from the way he looked at the Frenchman it was obvious he didn't like him.
Henri got to his feet, brushed his suit, fixed his straw hat on his head once more. I handed him his briefcase. He asked Heru, “How much do the lying swine owe you?”
She shrugged. “I cannot remember.”
Henri swore in French, turned and informed me in English, “These natives have the business sense of children.” Then he told Heru in Tahitian, “You were there all day. I will demand a thousand francs and settle for not a franc less than eight hundred. Wait here. And get dressed—an English yacht is expected this afternoon.” Henri opened his briefcase and pulled out a new red and white pareu cloth, which he tossed at Heru. Then he took out a pocketknife, half opened the blade, and put it back in his pocket.
He marched off our ship and down the quay to the Shanghai.
Heru giggled and Eddie relit his cigar, said, “Lot of hot air.”
“Looks like he might be handy with that cheese sticker.”
“Sure. In a dark alley he'd be a wiz at giving it to you in the back.”
The Shanghai had what might be called a regular gangplank and Henri marched up that, was met by Teng, the super cargo. We could see much waving of hands as they talked. I saw Buck, the big Swede, come out of his cabin to see what the fuss was about. A moment later Henri was flying over the rail, frantically clutching at the air as he hit the water backside first. There was some laughter from the deck of the Shanghai although Dubon wasn't much of a swimmer.
Heru dived in and helped him to our boat. When we got him on deck I noticed his left eye was starting to swell. He was cursing in hysterical French as he went through his pockets and held up a ruined fountain pen and some wet papers. Finally, shaking his fist at the Shanghai, Henri screamed what to his mind was the lowest of all insults: “Your mother was the world's cheapest whore!”
Heru helped him off with his wet clothes and he stood shivering in white drawers, looking ridiculously pale from the neck down. She stripped and squeezed the water out of her hair, then went down to the cabin and came back with a towel to dry herself and Henri. The sun finished the job and Henri took a mirror and a comb out of his wet suit, started to comb his thin sandy hair. When he saw the swollen eye was turning a red-purple he started to scream and cry. “I will be the laughing stock of Papeete!” he moaned. “I cannot show my face for days and I have much business to do.”
Eddie found a fish he had stored in the shade of the cabin, dipped it in the water, then tore it in half, told Dubon, “Hold the insides to your eye and keep it wet. The black eye will hardly be noticeable in a couple of hours.” Eddie was sort of rocking on the balls of his feet and I knew he was getting ready to fight. He put on his sneakers as he told Henri, “You stay here. Ill collect the thousand francs owed Heru.”
“A million thanks, my friend!” Dubon said, looking like a surrealist picture with the raw fish on his eye. “I will gladly pay you a commission for—”
“Shove the commission. Heru has already paid us that. Anybody pays a commission it will be the whoever hired Heru.”
“That yellow bastard, Teng, the—”
“Cut the 'yellow' slop,” Eddie growled. He motioned to Heru and me. “Come on.”
We walked slowly toward the big schooner, the supercargo and several sailors watching us. As we came up the gangplank the supercargo said, “I am Mr. Tom Teng, supercargo of the Shanghai.”
“I am Captain Eddie Romanos of the Hooker,” Eddie told him very politely. “This young lady is a very special friend of mine and she claims you owe her two thousand francs. I am here to collect—without too much talk.”
Mr. Teng was wearing shoes, clean white duck pants and a new yellow T-shirt. He was tall for a Chinaman, and wiry. He carefully ran his eyes over Eddie's face and muscles, said in French, “I see you are a fighter. I warn you, I am a Judo man.”
“Good for you,” Eddie answered in English. “Two thousand francs.”
I was watching the two sailors, both short and stocky, figuring I could bring them down with a tackle, when Teng turned his back on Eddie and said to me in Tahitian, “I am afraid there has been a misunderstanding. This—”
“Talk to me, I'm handling this!” Eddie cut in.
The Swede appeared in the doorway of his cabin, his big body more than filling the door. He looked like a scrapper but at the moment there was an amused look on his pointed puss, as though he was at a ringside seat.
Teng said to Eddie, “In any event there has been a mistake made. The young lady was well paid in wine and food for—her services. Also, the price agreed upon was one thousand francs and...”
“My services call for another thousand,” Eddie said.
“... and this pretty creature has a tank for a stomach. She consumed well over the price agreed upon in spirits and food, especially in food. Therefore, as I explained to her pimp before throwing him off my ship—”
“Told you I came for the money, without too much talk,” Eddie said and drew back his right fist. Teng moved like a cat as he lunged for Eddie's right hand, only Eddie jerked it back and swiftly crossed a sizzling left to Teng's chin. Eddie could hook—the punch sent Mr. Teng several feet in the air and he was out cold before his body crashed on the deck.
Heru said, “Oh!” and both sailors stared at Eddie with big eyes. One of them—a Malayan I think—went for a knife in his waist cloth and before I could move, Eddie's left flicked out and sent the man stumbling backwards, holding his stomach, as Eddie growled in Tahitian, “Don't be a fool!”
Eddie knelt next to the still body of Mr. Teng, removed a thick wallet and a roll of bills, counted out two thousand francs. The second sailor moved and I stepped toward him— I was about twice his size and scared him badly. At this point Buck roared in Tahitian, “Leave him alone!”
The big Swede came over to us and I wondered if he was talking to me but he told the sailor to beat it, and I was relieved—Buck was several inches above my six-foot-three. Eddie pocketed the two thousand francs, gently kicked the rest of the money at Teng's face. Eddie straightened up and didn't even come to Buck's shoulders. Eddie said softly, “Don't come too close. I don't like to be crowded.”
The Swede held his big hands—and they were big—loosely at his sides and stared down at Eddie with hard eyes. Then he laughed, covering us all with a mild spray, and touched Teng with one of his shiny shoes. Buck said in French, “You are robbing us but I think it is worth it. All the time he reads books on this Judo and in the first real scrap—is he dead?”
With perfect timing Teng rolled over and sat up, worked his chin. Then he got the roll of bills in focus, pounced on them, quickly stuffed the money and the wallet into a pocket I was surprised he didn't count the francs.
Buck said to me, “Your boy has a magnificent punch.”
“I'm not his boy!” Eddie snapped in English. “I'm Captain Romanos of the Hooker, also co-owner of the boat!”
Buck held up a great hand, said in broken English, “Sorry, I no speak much Eng-lash.”
Eddie said to me, out of the side of his big mouth, “What a bird-beak he has for a puss! Made for a belt on the nose, wreck his whole damn silly face!”
Buck flushed as he told us in French, “That I understand!” Then he said to me, over Eddie's head, “Some of the worst features of our European civilization have clung to these people.”
“What European civilization?” I asked to annoy him. “Europe has no civilization, it's dead, starving.”
“Sir, I am talking of Western civilization, the Occidental—” Buck began, his voice thundering.
“Then you mean American civilization. You Europeans passed out of the world picture with the last war. Just one big hungry colony now, not worth as much as these islands,” I added, baiting him.
Buck's streamlined face turned a lobster red as he screamed at my face in French, “You have the arrogance of a German! I've heard of you and your—your rowboat! And I am thankful not many of you childish Americans go in for trading. Life would be unbearable! You Americans think because you have the bomb you can act like an idiot with a gun! Bah!” The force went out of his voice abruptly and he said in a normal tone, “We have enough of insults. Be so good as to join me in my cabin for a drink—all of you.”
Buck spun about and walked to his cabin without waiting to see if we were following. He turned at the doorway and called out to his supercargo, “Mr. Teng! We sail within a few hours. I trust you have checked the cargo, balanced the ship. If not, get busy!”
Eddie muttered, “Captain-of-the-ship-act!” and winked at me. I said, “Hell, why turn down a drink.” As we started for the cabin Heru grabbed Eddie's left hand and looked at it with wonder as she said, “Like a great club!”
Eddie rubbed his knuckles under her chin. “That's it, babes. I couldn't do much else in the ring but I could flatten 'em—if I caught 'em.” He said this in English and Heru giggled as though she knew what he was saying.
Buck's cabin was large and very neat, all the wood a deep red-brown and highly polished. Even the brass lamps were spotless and his bunk had white sheets, a real pillow. Buck put out four glasses and a bottle of Australian whiskey which has the thick smoky taste of Irish whiskey, poured big shots for us. As he handed Heru her glass he told her, “Your shoes are under the basin. Please take them. Well, let us toast Captain Romanos who has proved the old-fashioned ways are still the best.”
Buck took a ten franc coin from his pocket and neatly bent it between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. He tossed the bent coin to Eddie. “I am sixty years old and have engaged in brawls in every port of the world. Remember that, Captain Romanos, should you ever consider hitting my nose. Now if you will excuse me, we are sailing soon.”
Heru got her slippers and we went out on deck. Mr. Teng was peering down the forward hold, a sheaf of papers in his hand. As we passed he nodded, as though nothing had happened.
As we walked toward the Hooker Eddie picked up two stones and flattened the coin. He gave it to Heru. “Have a cup of coffee on Buck.” As she laughed he said to me, “And sometime I'm going to splatter that beak.”
Henri was sitting on top of the cabin, the piece of fish held to his eye. His linen suit was drying on the rigging. “You get the money?”
Eddie counted out a thousand francs, handed them to Heru. Henri merely held out his hand and she gave him the money. He told her, “Get back to your room. Some of the regular customers will soon be coming around.”
“Let me have money for a taxi,” she said.
“Walk, my pet, the exercise is good for your figure.”
Henri still had the wad of money in his hand and Eddie yanked out a fifty franc note, gave it to Heru as he said, “Take a taxi and rest up.”
She giggled and we all watched her walk down the plank, the sway to her hips. Henri said sadly, “She will not take a taxi, only drink it up. And never take money from my hand again. I do not like that.”
“Didn't think you did,” Eddie said, stretching out in the sun beside him. He said to me, “Now that we have money I don't feel much like going ashore. But maybe I'll see a movie tonight.”
Henri shoved his money down his drawers, asked casually, “How much did you make for yourself?”
“Two million bucks,” Eddie said, putting on an old pair of sun glasses.
I lit a cigarette and sat down. Henri didn't say he Wanted a butt and I didn't offer him one. After a moment he asked, “This is your boat?”
He was still playing his silly game. “Eddie's and mine.”
“Good for a pleasure boat but too small for cargo. You smuggle rum?”
He changed hands holding the fish, ran his free hand through his thin hair. “I know very well you don't run spirits. You are a couple of starving fools. You lack business sense.”
With his sun glasses on I couldn't tell if Eddie was sleeping or not, but now he jumped up and grabbed Henri— one hand on his hair and the other deep in his crotch. The Frenchman let out a shrill yell as Eddie ran him down the deck and over the gangplank, then tried to boot him along the quay but missed. Dubon looked silly in his drawers and when he had run a few yards he turned and saw Eddie return to the ship. Dubon yelled, “My clothes, please my clothes!”
Eddie took the linen suit, the shirt and tie from the rigging, tossed them ashore, heaving the briefcase as far as he could. Henri dressed quickly; then, with what might be called dignity, he came to the foot of the plank and said, “The fish for my eye, if you please.”
Eddie hurled the fish at him, missing, and Dubon picked it up, wet it, and walked away holding the fish delicately to his eye. We watched him for a second, then Eddie stretched out on the cabin and put his sun glasses on again.
“That stuffed goon,” Eddie said. “A lousy pimp trying to be a super pimp.”
“What makes a pretty girl like Heru hustle, and for a clown like Henri?” I asked, suddenly wondering if Ruita Adams was considered an islander or an outsider. Her mother was a popaa—a missionary, I'd heard. The switcheroo: the white woman missionary and the native man.
“Beats me,” Eddie said, shaking his head, then adjusting his sun glasses. He yawned. “Coming to the movies with me tonight?”
“Maybe. We ought to see about a cargo instead of going to the movies.”
“Hell, everybody knows we're in port—anybody needing a small boat will come to us. You want to look for a cargo, go ahead. I'm sleepy.”
Eddie dozed off and I lit a cigarette, considered going to the Post Office to see if there was any mail. But nobody knew I was here, or cared, and it was a luxurious feeling to be able to ignore the P.O. I knocked off a few hours sleep and awoke as this big English yacht came in the harbor. She was a pretty boat, about eighty feet, diesel powered and with beautiful lines. There was the cough of another diesel—the Shanghai was moving out under power. As the yacht passed her I saw several men playing cards on the deck suddenly point to the big schooner and laugh. I imagined they were saying, “Look at that old tramp tub—didn't think they still built them.” Of course they didn't know they were on an expensive toy and seeing a real ship. Mr. Teng was leaning over the rail and didn't wave as the schooner passed our berth.
I was hot and sweaty so I bathed by jumping in the harbor, and then ran up the sails which were still damp from the sea and rain, giving them a chance to dry. The noise woke Eddie. He lit a cigar and watched me, said, “Guess we should have done that the first thing this morning. We ever have to buy a new sail, we're sunk.”
Eddie went ashore for a chicken and a bottle. We had a big supper and got a little drunk and then went to the movies. There are two movie theaters in Papeete and one had a cowboy picture and I managed to talk Eddie out of that. The other showed a movie about a salesgirl who was probably making about forty-five dollars a week, take-home pay, but who somehow wore a fur coat, lived in an apartment with a dropped living room, and drove a fine car. Crazy as it may sound, I was glad I went to the movie for I was drunk enough to laugh like a loon at the “wrong” places. As the picture limped to its happy ending, I was full of a contented sense of freedom, felt I was my own master for I had a boat that would carry me anyplace there was wind and water. I sat there and watched the nonsense, even listened to the chatter around me, and thought of Ruita: glad I wasn't tied down.
Exactly what “tied down” meant I didn't try to think out. I didn't care. Sure, I knew the movie was only a movie, a dream, a caricature of life in the States. But it did remind me of my life with Milly, the dull hours I put in as a court reporter—at the keyhole of our society. At the moment I could have laughed in Barry Kent's face. I felt rather proud of myself that Barry had the motion picture name and looks, but I was really living the picture, and that's what counted.
As we left the theater I stuck my battered sea cap on my noggin at an angle and almost swaggered down the street, feeling every bit a hero. I suppose when a man is a hero to himself, that's something—for as long at it lasts.
Eddie went off to spend the night with some friends of his. I went back to the Hooker and had a drink. Suddenly I was sick of warm drinks. I went ashore for a whiskey with ice in it and didn't feel much better. There was a plump girl in the bar waiting to be picked up but I told myself we couldn't afford the money. Walking back to the Hooker I knew I didn't want a girl. A Heru was great for a few minutes, then you were sleeping with a stranger. I wanted Ruita, I wanted to talk and explain and argue, even fight with her. I wanted her badly.
The night breeze, the cool hupi which comes down from the mountains, made me glad to get under the blankets. I was sure I would dream of Ruita, but when I did dream it was of Barry's small smile, which seemed to say, “Sorry, old man, just one of those things.” In my dream I kept shouting at him, “Aita Peapea! Aita Peapea!” And somehow he knew what that meant; with a quiet smile he answered, “But Ray, old boy, it would seem some things do matter, at least to you.”
I awoke in the middle of the night with my throat dry. On shore I could hear the soft music of a guitar away in the distance. I got a drinking nut, the coconut water cool and sweet, and I thought to hell with Milly, Barry and even Ruita. All I wanted was to be left alone to do what I felt like. And I had that. I fell asleep again telling myself I really had that.
That night was the start of the restless feeling. Not that I was nervous or jumpy, or too unhappy. Rather I felt as if I was marking time, waiting for something to happen. Being broke didn't help things any. We spread the thousand francs thin, but it was only thirty bucks and at the end of a week we didn't have a franc left. Most of the time we lounged around the deck, sometimes we never left the boat all day except for a swim, or to walk down the Quai du Commerce and look into the shop windows like we had money. Every few days we made the rounds of the cargo brokers, dropped in to see Olin just for the wine and cakes, but we couldn't pick up a cargo.
Of course food wasn't any problem; we didn't touch our tins of trade goods. We had fish three times a day, raw, pickled, fried, broiled, chopped, baked, and every other possible way of eating it. We could drop over a couple of hand lines and get a meal within a few minutes but Eddie liked to go reef fishing at low tide, sloshing along in ankle-deep water, spearing fish. I think he did mostly it to show off. I didn't go for it; walking on a reef is tricky and a coral cut takes a long time to heal.
Now and then Eddie would come aboard with a lime pie, an armful of fruit or vegetables, or even bread. I never asked or cared where he got the food.
Our stay in Papeete wasn't all lazing about the deck. We patched the sails and put our equipment in order, took very good care of the cutter for she was our ace in the hole. Tahiti is shaped like a manta with a thick tail, kind of a crude figure-eight. One morning we got up sail and went by the black sands of Matavai Bay, around Point Venus, to the tail end of the island. We sailed into Tautira Bay on the Tai-arapu Peninsula, and up a small creek. At low tide we careened the Hooker and spent the rest of the day scraping the hull and keel, repairing and painting her. (It had taken two hours of pleading to get the paint from Mr. Olin.) It was a pretty spot. The mountains behind us rose nearly five thousand feet and in one of the many deep gorges we found a wonderful waterfall and took our first fresh-water shower in months.
Working on the hull left us so tired we slept late and missed the tide. It was high tide early in the morning so we stayed up all night and by noon had returned to our old berth on the Papeete quay.
As we were shaking the copra bugs out of our mats and settling down for a sleepy afternoon, one of Mr. Olin's drivers came by and said the old man had been looking for us yesterday. Eddie was already snoring so I went back to the office with the driver. Olin's fat face beamed as he said, “Good news!”
“What's the cargo and where is it going to?” I asked, sure he was going to tell me he had a rum-smuggling deal set.
“Not exactly a cargo—a passenger. A woman.”
“Hell, you know we're not equipped to carry passengers, especially women,” I said,' disappointed.
Mr. Olin took six thousand Tahitian francs from his drawer. “The passenger in question is willing to pay this for a short trip. To Numaga.”
There could only be one female passenger for Numaga— Ruita's mother. I was restless to get out of Papeete and if nothing else I was curious about Mrs. Adams, who was something of a legend in the atolls. But longing for Ruita so badly, I was more afraid than ever of seeing her again.
“You will pick her up at the Tiare Hotel and arrange the sailing—”
“Hold up, I'm not sure I'm taking it.”
“Look, my cockroach trader,” Olin said softly. “This is good money for such a passage. I will only apply half of it toward your debt, leaving you three thousand francs to spend as you wish, although I would advise using it for trade goods.”
“It isn't the money. How did Mrs. Adams happen to come to you?”
A smile lit up his fat face. “Ah, so you know the good lady?”
“Only by name.”
“But she knows you. I hear she was looking for your boat two days ago when she arrived from the Gilbert Islands. I also know you are out of the harbor. Since your interests are my interests, and since I have done business before with Mrs. Adams, I contacted her as a friend to both of you.”
“Okay, okay. Write off three thousand francs against what we owe, give me a thousand and send down two thousand francs worth of supplies. Perhaps cigarettes or...”
“I have something very special,” Olin said, handing me ten one hundred franc notes, “Two cases of stomach medicine imported from South America—forty-eight bottles to the case.”
“What sort of stomach medicine?”
Olin shrugged, all his chins dancing. “As to the medicinal value I can tell you little. The labels are in Spanish, but they will sell very well and bring much happiness, which is the best form of health, for each bottle is twenty-five percent alcohol. Now, will you join me in some rice wine and cakes?”
I nibbled at the cakes and quickly drank the wine, then walked slowly toward the hotel. I felt completely upset and confused. I was terribly excited at the thought of seeing Ruita again, but at the same time I had this feeling that if I saw her I was finished. I'd surely marry her and settle down on Numaga and probably go nuts—if I didn't become a lush.
I hadn't shaved for several weeks, was sporting a ragged blond-red beard, and while my shirt and pants were fairly clean they were obviously never acquainted with an iron. My “yachting” cap was bleached a pale blue and my sneakers were in shreds. I bought a new pair of sneakers, including a pair for Eddie, considered getting a shave and a haircut, then decided against it. I was silly putting on a front for Mrs. Adams—we'd be together on a forty-two-foot boat for at least a week and she'd see what a slob I was. Also, I was annoyed I even thought about dressing up for her.
The Tiare is a rambling old hotel once owned by the famous Lovinia, a wonderful woman around whom a number of South Seas books were written. However, no one ever wrote a book about the influenza epidemic which swept French Oceania after World War One and caused the deaths of thousands of people, including the generous Lovinia.
It was exactly two when I knocked on Mrs. Adams' hotel room door, time for the mid-day snooze to be over. I heard her getting out of bed, the sound of bare feet, and when Mrs. Adams opened the door I saw a little woman wearing only a thin slip. My first impression was of a sweet old lady, a retired school teacher but the sort of teacher you were fond of in school. She had close-cropped iron-grey hair, strong features, weather-beaten skin, and thoughtful eyes. I saw where Ruita got her nose and nice eyes from.
She looked me over, or rather we both looked each other over, then she nodded slowly and said, “Yes, you must be Mr.—” For a split second a blank, frightened look ran across her face, then she smiled quickly, showing good teeth and said, “Yes, you're Ray.” Her voice was calm and firm. “I'm Ray Jundson, Mrs. Adams.”
“Of course. Please come in. And excuse my memory—it plays tricks with me at times.”
The rest of her clothes were scattered over the one chair and on the ancient dresser were a number of sealed battles with specimens of plants and sea life. For a moment neither of us spoke and she still stared at me openly. I pretended to study the bottles and she said, “I am a student of botany. I take it you are willing to sail me to Numaga?”
“Yes, Mrs. Adams. Although you've overpaid for—”
She waved a thin hand. “Money has little meaning for me. And I want to have a chance to know you.”
She smiled. “I always like to know another human being, especially one my daughter likes.”
I didn't know what to say. I knew how gossip gets around but I was amazed it could jump several hundred miles of ocean in less than a month.
“Also, I am anxious to go home. When can you sail?”
“Whenever you wish, Mrs. Adams.”
“Let's make an end of this banal name nonsense, Ray. My name is Nancy.”
“Well, yes, although I've spent most of my life in these islands. I came here with Tom—Dr. Adams—in 1912. Where is your boat headed for?”
“Any island where we can find business. I must warn you our cabin is full of roaches and—”
“Come, Ray, I've traveled on island boats before. I'd like to make a few stops on the way, and perhaps you can do some trading. I've just spent several months in the Gilbert Islands—for my malaria.”
“The Gilberts are malaria islands?”
She nodded, scratched her thin breasts through the slip. “I went to get a good dose of malaria. You see, I contracted a disease long ago, without knowing it. And they claim malaria prevents paresis, although in my case the cure may be a bit late. Well, I have seen all my Papeete friends. I shall be ready to sail in the morning. Is that convenient for you?”
She said this in a quiet, soft voice. I stuttered as I told her, “S-sure, guess the morning will be f-fine. I have to check with my p-partner.”
I never had a sweet old lady casually tell me she was suffering from advanced stages—or any stages—of syphilis before.
We didn't sail the next morning. When I returned to the Hooker and told Eddie, he was all for it, and promptly took four hundred francs to buy some “shirts and things.” He came back two afternoons later, without any “shirts and things”; he merely said he had been sleeping off a drunk “someplace” and promptly went to sleep.
Mrs. Adams was a true islander, for when I told her we weren't sailing, that I couldn't locate Eddie, she accepted it as a normal thing, said it was all for the good because there was an old French movie she wanted to see.
But two days later she was at the quay bright and early with her woven pandanus bags, her jars, and several elderly Tahitian women who kissed her goodbye and gave her roasted chickens. Eddie and I—mostly I—had sprayed and cleaned the cabin, arranged to sleep on deck. When we stopped at Motuiti isle for the customs men to give the boat a going over for rum—there was a twenty-five buck fine for every litre found hidden away—Eddie suggested we eat one of the chickens. Nancy agreed and the three of us sat down and went through two fine-tasting roasted chickens.
The old lady turned out to be a good sailor and, of course, fell in love with our cutter. She took the wheel, did the cooking, spoke Tahitian, French, and even Chinese, and got along first-rate with Eddie. Like all Polynesians, even though he came from far away Hawaii, he had relatives in every island and atoll, and it seemed Mrs. Adams knew them all, in fact there wasn't an isle in the Pacific she hadn't visited. So she and Eddie sat gabbing about so and so ”... on Rarotonga. Ah, he is a fine man and all of his wives have always been good women.” And Eddie would add, “His second wife, Tar a, was a cousin of my mama's aunt.” Of course, I felt like a stranger.
On the first morning out when it was Eddie's watch he took the wheel from Nancy, glanced at the sun for a moment, told her “You're way off the course, Nancy. You're going south by southeast instead of by southwest.”
“I changed the course,” she said simply. “I thought we might stop at PellaPella. That's a small island near the Cook group. Ever been there?”
“Nope, but I heard of it. Isn't that the island of the great house?”
“It is and the house belongs to a very dear friend of mine, Edmond Stewart.”
I was a trifle annoyed at the high-handed way she had changed the course, then doubly angry at myself for being annoyed. She was paying for the cruise and what difference did it make to me where we went? I got into the conversation with, “Isn't he the writer, did all those books about the waving palms and eager, waving bosoms?”
The old lady laughed. “Indeed, Edmond has written some of the world's most trite novels and made a fortune. But don't let his books fool you. He's an intelligent man. This will only take us a few hundred miles off our course and no doubt you will be able to trade.”
“Sure,” I said, “we go any place the wind takes us.”
Later, wanting to know everything about Ruita's background, I asked casually: “When did you first come to the South Seas, Nancy?”
“Back in 1912. As Seventh Day Missionaries in the Marquesas. We were frauds. Tom started out studying for the cloth but gave it up for botany. He didn't want to teach and longed to come here. The only way we could swing it was as missionaries. We had three very fine years, then a year on PellaPella, followed by more wonderful years in the Tuamotus. Tom died there, in the flu epidemic which swept the islands.”
Eddie said he was sorry to hear that, the proper note of sorrow in his voice. I asked, “Did you meet Ruita's father in the atolls?”
“No, that was on Numaga. I really don't know much about Louise's father. Barely remember him at all.” Mrs. Adams said this in a very matter-of-fact voice, and I shut up.
Eddie was in one of his talkative moods. After he finished with his war experiences, he started on the ring—talked for two days. The old lady listened as if she were interested; maybe she was.
Mrs. Adams did lots of fishing, with an expensive glass rod and reel. Each fish became a short biology lecture, complete with the Latin name, feeding and breeding habits. Between fish talks and fight talk, I tried to steer the conversation around to Ruita but always came up against a blank wall. When I told her, “Ruita has many of your features,” Mrs. Adams looked puzzled and asked, “You really think so?”
We sighted the PellaPella late in the afternoon but stayed outside all night, tacking back and forth. In the morning I got the engine going while Eddie sat on the bowsprit, called back steering directions which weren't necessary as the channel was plenty wide and deep. The first thing we saw as we slid into the smooth water of the harbor was the Shanghai anchored there.
We dropped our iron on the other side of the small harbor, opposite the schooner. The bottom was sandy and Eddie growled that we would have to keep an anchor watch.
The forward deck of the Shanghai was full of sailing canoes, all of them lashed together. I saw Buck and Teng watching us through glasses. There seemed to be a lot of men gathered on the beach and when several canoes came out to greet us, Eddie and Mrs. Adams chattered with them in dialect, asked about Mr. Stewart. They told us the men on the beach were playing soccer, a last game, as most of them had signed on the Shanghai as divers. When Eddie asked about copra they said there was some we could pick up. Evidently Buck wasn't interested in a few tons of copra; probably expected to be away from Papeete so long the stuff would spoil.
Mrs. Adams was in a hurry to see her Edmond so we all piled into the dinghy and rowed ashore. The soccer players surrounded us to say hello and of course they were kicking the ball around with their bare feet. Eddie, the show-off, immediately flexed his heavy muscles, then picked up the ball and punched it, sending it high in the air.
When Nancy impatiently told him to come on, Eddie said he'd rather hang around the beach; it was best to keep an eye on the boat anyway in case the anchor slipped.
Nancy and I walked through the short village main street lined with well constructed huts, each with paths and flowerbeds bordered with empty beer bottles. Most of the islanders had bicycles and in front of one hut there was a 1947 Buick without tires, in various stages of rust. A young man told us rather proudly it was his.
It was about a half a mile of sharp uphill, zigzag walking to reach Stewart's house and while it was a kick to be climbing a hill after all the months of living on a deck, we had to rest several times. I was puffing harder than the old lady.
An old man came along carrying a pole with a hook on one end, pulled down a nut for us to drink. He had a wrist-watch on his left arm and a gold flexible watchband on the other. As we started up the mountain path again I asked Nancy where the people got all the beer, the car, the many bicycles, broken and running, and the wristwatches.
“When they dive they make good wages, sometimes as high as two hundred dollars a day for a very, very good day. Of course they are swindled out of the money. I'm sure that schooner in the harbor is loaded with cycles, fancy jewelry, and other trash, all of which will be sold at fantastic prices. Have you ever visited an atoll during the diving season, Ray?”
I shook my head.
“It's quite a sight. A carnival of cheating. The divers return —or are towed for fancy fees—with their canoes full 6f mussels and right at the edge of the beach are merchants hawking all kinds of junk—from ballpoint pens to bicycles and tins of food—along with gambling, prostitutes, rum, candies, shoes and clothing. The divers seldom return with any money but they all consider they have had a grand time.”
“It's a shame to exploit them that way.”
Nancy winked at me. “Whether we return with money or not makes little difference in our lives for money is not a necessity here, only a trinket.”
“Sometimes Eddie and I miss those 'trinkets,' but it doesn't worry us too much.”
“Money can be a burden. I am the last of my family—in the States—and from various inheritances, some from people I've never seen, I have almost a half-million dollars back in Boston. That will be Louise's some day, but lawyers constantly write me and are puzzled as to why I never invest.”
I stopped walking. “You have a half a million bucks?”
She looked at me sharply. “Why? Does that make any difference? If it was waiting for you in the States, would you give up all this peace, rush to get it?”
“Well ... I don't know.”
She suddenly laughed and reached up and ran her hand through my wild red hair, knocking my cap off. “I like you, Ray, you're honest—I think. Now, let's stop talking about a silly thing like money and start walking. Another turn and we'll be on the other side of this stupid hill, in view of the house.”
When I had my first up-close view of Stewart's house it was breath-taking. The house was made of hard pine wood, all bleached grey-white by the sun, and built like a Swiss chalet. It had three stories and how it clung to the sharp slope of the mountain was a puzzle. From the rear porch one could spit several hundred feet straight down.
“A monstrosity of conceit, isn't it?” Nancy said.
“It must have cost a fortune.”
“Indeed it did. Edmond sold two of his silly books to the motion pictures for a fantastic price back in—can't recall when. Sometime in the twenties. He spent it all on this—much like the islander who has the car below. Unfortunately he has been forced to live in one room for the last several years—he's bedridden. I am anxious for you to meet him, like him.”
We walked through a large and well-cultivated garden with pear and peach trees, along with mangoes and other tropical fruits, and reached the entrance of the house which was on the middle floor. A fat islander in clean white drill shorts came out to greet us, followed by several young girls dressed in pareu cloths. They greeted Nancy with great delight, hugging and kissing her and I could make out enough of their dialect to hear the man say, “We are pleased you return to us so soon, Mama. What is new in Papeete? Did you bring the cigarette holder I want?”
The “Mama” was merely a form of greeting, but the old lady had said she hadn't been here in years and now I wondered why she lied to me. She got a bit flustered and stopped their talk by taking out small gifts from her handbag.
I was standing in the doorway, lost in all this chatter. One of the girls asked if I wanted some cold beer. Before I could answer yes, a deep, bull-like voice roared through the house with mild thunder.
“Nancy Adams! Lord God, what are you waiting out here for? Come to me at once. And bring the young man for me to examine!”
The girls giggled and Nancy sighed. She took me into another room while I wondered how this Stewart knew I was coming.
The room was tremendous, the entire width and depth of the house, with great sliding windows giving a complete view of the harbor and the ocean. In a large bed near the windows a thin little man was propped up on two pillows. He had a crazy white beard starting below his eyes and going half way down his chest, where it was neatly tied with two red ribbons. His long face seemed all hair, but the eyes were sharp and alert, and what little skin could be seen was transparent and wax-like. The beard around his mouth was stained a dirty tobacco brown.
He waved a scrawny hand with two large black pearl rings at us, and his shoulders were bare, sickly and pale. He had a thin blanket over him, and an open book lay upon it. Books were also piled on the floor all over the room. As he waved his arm at us again, the covers fell back a Utile and I saw the butt of an automatic lying beside him.
This almost comic deep voice came out of his shriveled body as he roared, “Well damn it, young man, take a seat! You, Nancy, you look trim and young and if I was able I'd pull you down into bed with me.” This was followed by deep laughter which shook his little body. He had some kind of pillow under his legs for the lower part of the thin cover bulged.
Mrs. Adams laughed coyly, a shrill little laugh. “You must be getting senile, Edmond, you sound like one of your horrible characters.”
This snappy line seemed to amuse the old boy, who looked like he was at least a hundred, and he sent out more waves of bull-laughter. Then he asked, “How long are you staying, Nancy?”
She looked at me and I said, “A day or so, depending upon what trading we can do.”
His eyes brightened and from under the tobacco stains in his beard he said, “A sweet sea boat, Mr. Jundson. I watched you coming through the channel hours ago. A very pleasing boat, indeed. There is not much trading here. We don't bother with copra except the old men make some when they feel like it. Mostly the men go in for diving and naturally that filthy scoundrel, Buck, bleeds them out of every sou. If you were collecting junk and scrap, this would be the island for you.”
Nancy suddenly stood. “Edmond, if you are about to lecture on mankind, I think I'd rather spend the time taking a tub. Hot water working?”
“You know I haven't left this cursed bed for a year. How would I know if the blasted hot water is working? Go, go, wash yourself with smell soap, be a silly female. We men have talk.”
“I know,” Nancy said, heading for the door like a hammy actress murdering an exit line, “and man-talk is so boring.”
When she left, Stewart chuckled in his beard, told me, “Isn't it wonderful the way she is still a child at times?” His eyes were staring at me and I didn't know if I was supposed to answer, or not. So we both were silent for a while, as I tried to figure the old duck out. Then he asked abruptly, “How long have you been in the islands, Mr. Jundson?”
“Over a year.”
The eyes seemed to be judging me for a long moment, then Stewart said, “I doubt you're a crook. Remittance man?”
“Might be called that. I emptied my wife's bank account and came here. You see, I'd read a good deal about the South Pacific, including all of your books.”
Stewart actually snorted, the brown hairs around his mouth flying up. That impossible deep voice asked, “What did you think of my books?”
“Oh ... I'd rather not say.”
Tell me! I'm not a moron. I know they are pure crab dung, but I never thought anybody would take them seriously.”
“Well ...” I felt both angry and uneasy talking to the old guy—everything about him seemed so unreal. “Why didn't you write the truth?”
“The truth is a luxury few can afford. Someplace on the shelves over there you'll find a moldy manuscript. That's the truth. I wrote it in 1937 when my name was at its zenith but not a publisher would take it. I told the most sordid story of history, how every white pig, scum, and crackpot came to a paradise and committed mass murder. How in a little over a century we had killed four-fifths, or over eight hundred thousand, of the sweetest people the Lord God ever put on earth. The most needless and wasteful crime in history!” One thin hand crept down to the butt of the gun under the covers and for a second I thought he was going to shoot me.
I said quickly, “Guess we all came here too late for our dreams. Come starry-eyed and found—”
“Starry-eyed!” he shouted and how that bull voice ever came from the tiny body was a miracle. “That's utter cynicism, Jundson, and cynicism is a shallow thing, the shield of the stupid. Damn it, we weren't starry-eyed! We came out of a jungle of greed with deliberate murder and misery, with—” He stopped abruptly, the room thick with the boom of his voice. “Speeches at a wake are senseless. Jundson, listen to me, the dream is still here if a man is ready for it. The islands must become a retreat, a final retreat a palm monastery, if you will. However, if you're not prepared, then it's suicide. You go on the reef. Do you follow me, Mr. Jundson?”
“An honest answer, at least,” he said, brushing the hair from his mouth. I had a glimpse of thin wet lips. “Jundson, I'm talking to you like I've talked to few white men—and I don't use white in a color sense. The difficulty here is we try to live like Bostonians, or New Yorkers, or Londoners, with all the false values and standards, instead of living like islanders. I don't mean any nonsense like 'going native'; the very terminology is an asinine bit of patronizing—we don't have the skills of the islanders. No, consider that whore house called Papeete, the 'Paris of the Pacific' Lord God, Paris doesn't belong in the Pacific! It's as out of place as a palm tree in Pigalle!”
He stopped talking in that sudden way he had, reached under the bedtable and came up with a cigar. “Want one?”
“Not at the moment,” I said.
“When you do, take some.” He lit the cigar and threw the match on the floor, then turned his head and sent a batch of spit which missed the match. We both watched it burn out. I still had this uneasy feeling as I waited for him to continue, somehow certain Nancy had brought me here only to hear him. Finally I said, “It is difficult to—uh—adjust completely.”
“Young man, if you have to adjust you're licked. You must be ready to accept this new life. Be ready to give up ambition and this inane thing we call drive. Here it doesn't matter a tinker's damn if you have four coconuts and I have a dozen. I can't be any happier with my dozen than you with your few.”
“Have you been happy?”
“No. I wasn't prepared, or able to shed my old ideas, until it was to late. This caught up with me.” He held up the cover for a moment. I not only saw the gun again, but his horrible legs—like swollen lumpy potato sacks, the skin hardened and cracked. His thighs were several feet thick. Fey-fey is the island name for elephantitis.
“I'm dying,” Stewart said calmly, dropping the blanket and puffing on his cigar. “If a man isn't afraid to die he's got his life made. But in the months I've been lying in this linen cage, I think for the first time I've found peace—understood the islands and myself. Lord God, life should mean more than the memories of the number of bottles you've killed, the expensive foods you've eaten, the endless women—so many they have no identity!”
“What should it mean?”
“I don't know!” he snapped, glaring at me, moving the cigar around with his teeth. “I'm not a mystic, young man, but perhaps life is the things we don't understand but simply know are beautiful—the sense of peace living on an atoll gives one, the dawns and sunsets so vivid you want to cry, a man and woman locked in an embrace because of all the humans in this world they want only each other...” He lapsed into silence and after a few seconds giggled—an obscene laugh. “I don't know why I'm telling you all this, Jundson. If somebody had dared to give me advice when I first came here—Lord God, I wouldn't have paid him any attention.”
“Then why are you telling me this?”
“Because I'd like to see one popaa make it here—really make it.” He blew out a fierce cloud of smoke and shut his eyes. After a moment he said softly, “I have talked too much, I am weary. The twin monsters I call legs sap my strength. Did I say I wasn't afraid to die? This is a lie. Or maybe it isn't fear as much as curiosity which stops me from blowing my worn brains out. But enough talk. I will sleep.”
I stared at the long stained beard, the cigar still sticking up and smoking evenly, the ridiculous red ribbon bows. After a few seconds he opened his lips to snore—the cigar fell over on his beard. Before I could reach it, a girl raced into the room, grabbed the cigar, pinched out the few singed hairs. I stared at her as if this was all a nightmare—was her sole job to wait for the damn cigar to fall?
She was very cute, with crimson hibiscus flowers over her left ear—meaning she was looking for a sweetheart. As she bent over, I'd seen the delightful lines of her body beneath her pareu. Placing the cigar on the bedtable, she looked me over, her eyes teasing. I asked in Tahitian, “Why does he wear red ribbons?”
“Because it pleases him.”
Okay, ask a dumb question and all that, but I'd taken enough crap for one day. I walked out onto the balcony, around to another room. The village and harbor seemed directly below me. The Hooker looked tiny, a perfect toy boat; even the Shanghai seemed small. On the beach the soccer players crowded around a squat brown man who could only be Eddie. He seemed to be talking to two men in white shirts and pants.
I went inside. I was in a dining room. Going through the drawers of a sideboard, I found several pairs of German field glasses. With a view like this a man would have glasses about.
Putting the glasses on the group I saw Mr. Teng now stretched out on the sand. Buck was bending over him; he seemed to be shaking with laughter, pointing to an open book which lay on the sand. Eddie was smiling too, but the crowd of islanders seemed more puzzled than amused. Somebody brought a shell full of water to Buck, who dumped it on Teng. Teng got slowly to his feet and rubbed his face. He walked away, followed by Buck, who kept grinning like an ape as he pointed to the book back on the sand.
“Anything happening down there?”
I put the glasses down, turned to see Nancy Adams in the doorway. “Nothing much,” I told her. “Let's go.”
“Yes, Edmond will sleep for the rest of the day. We will see him tomorrow.”
We said goodbye to the man and the girls, started down the mountain road. The sun was directly above us, with not much of a breeze. I asked Nancy, “Why does Stewart keep a gun in his bed?”
“I suppose because he feels helpless. Only has the gun near when a boat is in. Some traders are a bit uncouth. I'm rather good with a rifle for that very reason, myself.”
“Perhaps he keeps it handy because he thinks of suicide?”
“Oh, one day he may blow his head off,” she said calmly, the easy way islanders talk of sex or death. “I'm going to visit some families I know. Like to come along, Ray?”
“Nope, I've had it.”
“I may spend the night at Edmond's house, depending on how tired he is. But in any case I shall send word.” Nancy turned off into a path. I kept going downhill, breaking into a trot.
When I reached the beach the dinghy was gone. I saw Eddie sitting on the deck of the Hooker. I waved and shouted he didn't seem to hear me. Finally two little boys who couldn't be fifteen years old between them, paddled up very proudly in a small open canoe and said they would take me out. I almost capsized them getting in. I bailed while they paddled furiously, and we managed to reach the Hooker, all of us soaking wet.
Eddie was squatting on the deck, trying to read the Spanish label on a bottle of stomach medicine. When I'd thanked the kids for taking me out and they paddled off, I asked Eddie, “Didn't you hear me shouting myself hoarse for the dinghy?”
“Damn, this is good stuff, whatever it is. Has a kick like rum. Why didn't you tell me we were carrying it?”
“Because it's for trade, not for warming your gut. Why didn't you come in for me?”
“I was going to, after I sampled this bottle,” Eddie said, taking a long swig. “Reason I came back to the boat, the damn anchor is slipping. I noticed she was inching away. I got another iron down, but we got to watch her tonight I've been busy while you've been socializing and—”
“Find out if there's any shell or copra here for us?” I cut in abruptly.
Eddie gave me a quick look as he took another swig, belched, then put the bottle in the shade. “Kind of jumpy today, aren't you, Ray? Don't take it out on me.”
“Take out what?”
“Whatever you're up in the air about. Look, a couple of old jokers started making some copra last week for the Shanghai but they're sore at Teng because he won't advance them any rum. I opened a case of this stomach medicine and we all got a jag on. So they're selling us their copra, sacking it this afternoon. They figure about six hundred pounds. Have a couple of fine looking gals here but they don't go with strange sailors—afraid of getting sick. What did you find up in the big house, rum?”
“Nothing but an old man full of advice and fey-fey. Ever see this Stewart?”
“No, but I've heard of him all over the Pacific. Old guy has been on a forty-year binge, everything one big party to him. By the way, Mama has been handing us a line—she was here less than a month ago.”
I sat beside Eddie, took a whiff of the bottle. It smelt like stale cough medicine. “Yeah. Also must have wirelessed the old gent we were coming. He handed me a fast pitch about what a dream it'll be to put my ass down on an island for the rest of my life. I don't get the play.”
Eddie lit an American cigarette he must have chiseled from an islander, took a long pull on the bottle, handed me the heel. “Take some, Ray, you ain't bright today.”
The stuff did have a bang, wasn't too bitter. “You full of advice today, too?”
“I'm full of this medicine, feeling high. Ray, he wasn't talking about any island, but about Numaga and Ruita. What's this whole voyage for, except Mama wants to learn the sort of son-in-law you'll make? Make certain daughter isn't placing her chips on a popaa who takes off after a few nights.”
“Everybody is goddamn busy minding my business!” I said, angry—because Eddie had it about right I was restless, tight as a coiled spring. Pulling in the dinghy, I told him, “Let's go ashore, see how they're coming with the copra.”
“In this heat? Everybody's sleeping, except on the Shanghai —they're getting ready to sail. Ray, I kayoed Teng again. There's a hard head for you. I was kidding around on the beach with the soccer players, when Teng comes along with that rat-faced Buck. Teng says, 'I have studied ways of countering a blow. I should like to fight you again. Are you willing?' I told him okay. The Chinaman has this Judo book with him, so when he turned to hand it to Buck, I flattened him. Thought the Swede would bust a gut laughing.”
We rowed by the Shanghai. Mr. Teng was bawling out an islander for not lashing his canoe on deck, but seeing us, he ran to the railing, waved his fist at Eddie as he shouted, “You are a dirty fighter!” The right side of his face was swollen.
Eddie laughed. “That's me. Read the next lesson in your book. What the hell do you think Judo is but 'dirty' fighting!”
Mr. Teng waved his fist a few more times, then went back to bawling out the islander. When we beached the dinghy we found two men fooling with a guitar in the shade of a group of stumpy trees that I'd never seen before. They promised to keep an eye on the Hooker, in case she started dragging her anchor.
We started down the beach and when I asked Eddie, “What kind of trees were those?” he said, “Don't ask me, ask Mama. She knows everything.”
I didn't know if he was razzing me or not, but I felt too mad to talk. We kept walking till we reached a point where the island narrowed—almost like it was pulled out—and nearly reached the reef. Several hundred nuts had been expertly sliced in half, piled in a small pyramid, meat side down to protect them from rotting in the rains. I picked up one of the half-shells; the pulpy white coconut meat seemed dry. There were some empty burlap bags at one side of the pile.
The walk had left us both dripping with sweat. We looked around for whoever was making the copra, but couldn't see a soul. Eddie said, “Let's cool off.”
We stripped and splashed around in the water, but didn't go out far in case there were sharks. The tide was still going out and the coral reef stood rusty red and rough above the water.
Returning to the beach we shook small crabs out of our clothes as we walked around, quickly drying in the scorching sun. Then we dressed and found some shade and stretched out. Eddie said, “This is a nice island Difference of temperature up on that mountain means they can grow a lot of good fruits and vegetables.”
I had my eyes shut against the glare of the sun on the sea and didn't bother answering him. I was thinking about Nancy Adams, both flattered and annoyed that she was taking all this trouble with me. And what an odd old woman she was— certainly the most uninhibited woman I'd ever met. Her knowledge of so many things, a sweet old woman with her dough back in the States. And her syph here with her. Did she pass that on to Ruita?
That was a silly thought. Was Ruita in on this business of pushing me into marriage with her? And what if she was? That was more honest than my fluffing off. I was suddenly full of a terrible warm longing for her—wanted Ruita in the sand beside me ... to open my eyes and see her lovely brown face, the good body, the delicate smell of whatever flowers she crushed into the coconut oil she used for perfume.
I fell asleep thinking of perfumes—dreamed of Milly, the usual dream, always so sharp and clear ... then the cowardly feeling for having run away.
I was home, going directly into the kitchen for a snack, as I always did. Must have been twenty minutes later when I went into the bedroom for a handkerchief. Milly was sitting in bed, smoking a cigarette. Barry was lying face down; even his back looked neat and handsome. Milly asked, “Well, Ray?” I didn't say a word. Barry finally turned over and faced me. He wasn't pale nor flushed. He said, “Sorry, Ray. Guess that's all there is to say, in a situation like this.”
At the time I really didn't feel a thing. I was a stranger folding his handkerchief, watching two people in bed. All that came to my mind was, they shouldn't have done it in my room. The bank book was in the same drawer with the handkerchiefs. I took the book, went out without saying a word; rode a cab to the bank, then another cab to the airport, and the next morning I was on a plane winging toward Hawaii....
Eddie was shaking me. “We're smart, sleeping in the sun. Feel baked enough to eat. Must be after three. They should be along to sack the copra. We'll need the dinghy to get the sacks back to the Hooker. You go back and row it down— and check the anchor. Ill help make copra here. I could use a little exercise.” He pinched his hard stomach.
I had to row the mile or so to the Hooker and back three times that afternoon, taking three seventy-five-pound sacks of copra each trip. By the end of the afternoon I was pooped and had drunk so many coconuts and oranges, I had the runs. Eddie went ashore, bought taro and rice at the Chinese store —after he explained his face to the storekeeper who gave him the usual “Lion Face!” scream—and made a thick fish gumbo which seemed to do some good. Then he suggested I try the stomach medicine and we both knocked off a few bottles and got high—and upset my stomach again.
Eddie and I had our mats atop the cabin and I was keeping an eye on the beach, but Nancy didn't show. Before I fell into a drunken sleep I kept telling myself she had a hell of a nerve. And by God I'd tell her off, let her know she couldn't walk all over me, scheme behind my back like I was a schoolboy.
I dozed off on this thought and the next thing I knew I was covered with stinking slimy slop. Eddie sat up, sputtering, yelled at me, “What the hell did you turn loose, you slob?”
“Me?” I managed to say, tasting something terrible on my lips. The night was clear and I saw the whole deck was covered with dripping slop and garbage. The stench was terrific. Eddie stoop up, shaking himself and cursing and as I got to my feet I was knocked flat in all this swishing, ripe crap and slops sliding over our decks ... as our stern gently bunked into the Shanghai, which loomed up over us like a cliff. While I scooped the garbage off the motor hatch, Eddie jumped into the dinghy and rowed like mad, trying to pull the Hooker away from the schooner.
Above us I heard a polite laugh and made out the flat face of Mr. Teng, heard his soft voice calling out, “Sorry, didn't know you were below us. You must have slipped your anchor.” This was followed by the laughter of the islanders who lined the rail.
Between strokes Eddie grunted from the dinghy, “I'll bet you didn't, you miserable crud!”
Eddie could barely move us with the dinghy. The heavy diesel coughed, then roared, and I was smothered with exhaust gas smelling worse than the slop. The Shanghai's anchor came up as she got under way, bumping us again and throwing me flat in the garbage—like a slapstick movie.
The slime and exhaust stink was making me sick so I dived in, swam over to the dinghy. With the two of us rowing we managed to move the cutter, then Eddie cursed again, said, “Stop rowing! Let's drift over the Shanghai's anchorage— must be a rocky bottom there to hold her.”
We spent the two hours before dawn huddled in the dinghy, mad and cold, and almost giving up every time we drifted in the lee of the Hooker. Eddie kept muttering about killing Mr. Teng, pushing Buck's pointed face inside out. Finally I said, “Aw, shut up! We're a fine couple of sailors—some anchor watch, both of us sleeping one off!”
“Ain't all our fault—there was a deck full of people on the schooner. Somebody must have glanced over the rail, saw us drifting toward them. And that was sure more than one pail of slops they dropped. Teng figured this out, all right!”
“All Nancy's fault for our corning to this crummy island!” I said like a kid. “She has to stick her nose into my business!”
When the sun came up we went aboard and threw out the mats and blankets we'd been sleeping on, started to clean up the boat. By noon we had her pretty well scrubbed down, although the odor remained. Luckily, nothing had run into the cabin. We made coffee, were just able to keep it down, when Nancy Adams, appeared on the beach, waved to us.
“Get ready to sail!” I told Eddie, jumping into the dinghy. I made the beach as if racing and Nancy looked at me queerly —I only had on a pair of badly torn, dirty shorts. She said, “I'm so sorry I forgot to send anyone to tell you I was staying the night at—”
“Forget it,” I snapped. “We're sailing.”
“Sailing? Edmond is expecting you for lunch.”
“Mrs. Adams, you're a passenger and as owner of the boat I am hereby informing you we're sailing!”
She looked startled. “Ray Jundson, you're being rude.”
“I sure am.” I pointed to the dinghy. “Coming?”
She went over and told a little boy something to tell Stewart, then I pushed the dinghy back into the water and Nancy took a seat, didn't say a word as I started rowing. Finally she said, “Mr. Jundson, you are an inexcusable boor!”
“I wouldn't speak of manners, Mrs. Adams. You've lied to us about not being on PellaPella in months—you were here several weeks ago. Also, I am quite capable of making up my own mind about settling down and asking your daughter to marry me without having a talking beard hand me a lot of gas!”
The old lady simply stared at me with hard eyes, then looked away. She stepped aboard the Hooker and sat on the cabin without saying a word to Eddie. While he tied up the dinghy, I worked on the motor. It took me about twenty minute to get it going, including taking some bits of fish bone out of the carburetor—and don't ask me how they got in there.
As we headed through the channel, out to sea, Nancy wrinkled her thin nose, announced, “Something smells.”
“Ray had the runs last night,” Eddie said, with a straight face. “But you're lucky—the copra bugs shut the door and your cabin wasn't touched.”
“Must you be so crude, Mr. Romanos!” Nancy said, going below.
Outside the reef a smart wind put the Hooker's port rail under and we sped away like a racing sloop as I cut the motor. Our decks were washed by spray and when I asked Eddie what the hell was the idea of straining the mast, he said, “I'm doing it on purpose—clean the decks.”
After a few hours the old lady came back on deck and started making lunch. She was humming to herself and seemed to have forgotten her huff. Eddie started telling her now he was going to break Buck's beak and then went into some bull about his ring career.
Matter of fact I was feeling pretty relaxed myself. The good clean breeze, the singing sound of the Hooker slicing the waves, the fact we had some copra, all made me simmer down and uncoil. It even struck me funny the way the Shanghai people must have watched us inching toward them, and start getting buckets of garbage ready.
Nancy made a simple lunch of roasted bread-fruit, crab legs, and opened a tin of sweet pears for dessert. As we were eating I told her, “Sorry I blew my top back there. We had an accident last night. The Shanghai dumped garbage on our deck, covered us both with slop while we were sleeping-drunk and—well—I was pretty hot about things.”
“It doesn't matter, Ray,” she said sweetly, maybe putting it on.
“Okay,” I said, deciding I could play the game too. Reaching up, Nancy pulled at my red hair. “Worry about such petty things and your hair will grey like mine.” I grinned. “I know, don't tell me—aita peapea.”
Ruita was laying atop the cabin, sleeping. She was wearing shorts and a halter made of red pareu cloth. She had a pink flower in her hair, over her left ear—which could mean, according to the island custom, she was looking for a sweetheart; or in Ruita's case that she merely felt like wearing a flower over her left ear.
Eddie was at the wheel and Nancy Adams was sitting beside him, both of them chattering about rain in general. I was watching the pitching horizon, the clouds, anything to keep my eyes off Ruita.
Eddie said, “I have some new shampoo I bought off the Chinaman in PellaPella. Maybe I try it now when it rains, although I have heard that to wash your hair makes for baldness. I like rain.”
Mrs. Adams said, “But only when there is high ground handy. Ever in a tidal wave, Eddie?”
“Been in a couple of small hurricanes but no tidal wave.”
“I was in a big one. It was the hurricane of nineteen— What was that year? Nineteen and—?”
Ruita wasn't asleep; she must have been listening, for she called out loudly against the wind, “The year doesn't matter, Mama.” I noticed whenever the old woman got this blank look on her face, when her memory tripped her, Ruita would step in and ease her over the rough spots. I was sure she knew all about her mother's syphilis.
“Well,” Nancy went on—bending Eddie's tin ear, “I'd say it was about 1937. We were on Forliga, the very atoll we're headed for now. It had rained hard for several days in a row...”
I was too restless to listen to tidal wave stories. I went forward, sat beside Ruita. “What about you, Ray, how do you stand with rain?” she asked, watching me through half-closed almond-shaped eyes. She looked all the adjectives—from exotic to sensuous.
“Never thought about it. Since I've been in the islands I like rain because it means a bath. Back home it merely meant rubbers, cold, and taxi cabs.”
“I love to watch the rain clouds building up; a dull angry grey, so threatening and clumsy—and often such a big empty bluff'.”
She had one arm near my leg and I touched her fingers, told her, “Now that we've covered the weather, let's get down to something interesting. You have lovely hands, long strong fingers.”
“Have I, Ray?” she said in an almost listless voice. “Sometimes I paint my nails, as in the fashion magazines. That's such a vain idea, a peacock idea. But I think on my hands it does look good because of the contrast, the red and my brown skin. However, on a popaa woman with pasty pale skin, I imagine it must look rather gaudy.”
“That's like with the rain—hard to say,” I said, not sure if she was needling me or not. I wasn't sure of anything with Ruita.
When we had reach Numaga I was wondering what sort of reception she would give me, what I would say to her when we were alone. But we weren't alone—no sooner had we raced over the reef and dropped anchor when Ruita came out in a canoe, told Nancy her half-brother was being married on the Forliga atoll, and there was to be a big party. They had sent word that they were holding off the ceremony till Nancy and Ruita could attend. Mrs. Adams said they certainly had to go to the wedding, so we refilled our water tanks and took on food while waiting for the next high tide, then sailed out with Ruita aboard.
Ruita's greeting to me had been both warm and merely friendly. I felt sure she was wearing the flower over her left ear for me, and when we shook hands her hand had been warm and demanding in mine. Yet all she had said was, “I am glad to see you again, Mr. Jundson,” which could have been the truth or politeness.
I had a little speech ready in the back of my mind, something about how sorry I was for what had happened on the beach the last time, and was glad I never had a chance to say it. For even now, as I sat beside her, my eyes eating her up, I still had a vague feeling this wasn't for me; I would only wreck the both of us. As that old goat Stewart had said, maybe I wasn't ready for the paradise “rut” although what the hell I was ready for I didn't know.
The rain came down swiftly, a sudden warm driving sheet of water. Ruita jumped up and ran for the cabin. She came out in a moment with a blouse of her mother's, a red pareu cloth, some panties plus two cakes of soap. She gave a cake to the old lady as Eddie shouted, “Take the wheel, Nancy. I'll go first and try out that shampoo.”
I grabbed the wheel and Eddie jumped down into the cabin, came out as Ruita and Nancy stripped and thoroughly soaped themselves in the fresh water. Eddie slipped off his shorts and started whipping up a lather on his head. He seemed to be having a big time.
Meanwhile Ruita washed her face and her breasts and her hips; then her clothes, using one of her slender thighs as a washing board.
“Civilized” people regard sex as a sin—whether they admit it on the couch or not—and nudity becomes sex and thus wanton and sordid. The islanders look upon nude bathing, or washing in the rain, as something very convenient and practical. I am sure they weren't giving it a second thought, but not having lost all of my “civilization,” I was gaping at Ruita's brown nakedness like a schoolboy at a keyhole.
While Ruita and her mother hung their clothes on the rigging—for the sun that would be out in a few minutes— Eddie came back and hung his shorts on the boom, said the shampoo was wonderful, and to take my bath. I shook my head—not out of false modesty, but to save myself a lot of embarrassment.
Mrs. Adams said, as the sun began streaking through the grey rain clouds, “Have the towels ready, Louise. More people get colds because they wait for the sun to dry them than—”
I said, “I'll get the towels.”
“Hurry,” Nancy said, running a hand over her sagging flat breasts. “Too much wind.”
Down in the cabin I took three towels, shook them free of roaches, then stood on the steps and tossed a towel at Eddie, handed another to Mrs. Adams, and stepped back into the cabin.
Ruita called me and I didn't move. I heard her feet at the top of the cabin steps, then she stood before me, her skin a soft wet golden brown. “You forgot my towel, Ray.”
“I didn't forget.” I held out the towel.
“What?” she asked, coming nearer, and I realized I was talking in a whisper.
She reached for the towel and I pulled it back. “Let me dry you?”
“Please,” I said and ran the towel over her shoulders, gently dried and blotted every inch of her body. Neither of us looked at the other, the hot stillness of the cabin a protecting blanket about us.
When I finished I saw sweat running down her sides and even through the rough towel I could feel the rapid beat of her heart. Her eyes were closed and for a moment I stood and stared at her naked beauty. Then I said the thing which was deepest in my heart. “Dearest, forgive me for not... on the beach... that time.”
She said, “Ray,” like a tiny sigh and when she opened her eyes they were warm and soft. Taking one end of the towel, she started to dry my shoulders. When I took her in my arms, kissed her, her arms circled my back and pressed me to her with such wonderful strength.
I awoke to find her still sleeping at my side. I let my hands explore the firm softness of her body. I kissed her full lips and she moved in her sleep; her hands caressed my body and her eyes actually opened like two dark pools of softness. The sunlight pouring in through two of the portholes spotlighted the blackness of her hair, the strong curve of her throat and shoulders. She placed both my hands on her breasts and we kissed as fiercely as possible, our lips pressed together tightly.
When I awoke the second time, she was propped up on one elbow, smiling down at me. We had a light blanket over us and the cabin was almost dark. There was a slight buzzing sound in the cabin and glancing through a porthole I saw a star on the pale horizon.
I sat up, brushing against her, said stupidly, “It's late!”
“Late? For what? For this?” And she flung herself on top of me, every part of her, lips, hands, legs, and body, eager and demanding. This time we didn't go back to sleep, held each other, full of a wild peace. Then I whispered, “I must get up—relieve Eddie. It's way past his watch.”
“I suppose you must. And we must eat. Oh darling, I'm so terribly hungry, wonderfully empty and tired.”
I kissed her lightly, then sat up and pulled out one of the drawers below the bunk, got a pair of pants and a sweater. As I jumped out of the bunk and dressed, I noticed Nancy Adams on the other bunk, snoring. I stood there, like an idiot, as Ruita said, “Ray, get me some clothes, I'm—”
“Shhh!” I said, pointing to the old woman.
“Oh, Mama sleeps soundly. Hand me that bag by Mama's bunk, please.”
I gave her the bag, put on my sweater, and stepped up on the deck. It was a clear night, the half-moon out bright and clean. The clothes had been removed from the rigging. Eddie was sitting at the wheel, wearing a sweatshirt and a pair of my old army pants. He was smoking a stinking cigar. When he saw me he said casually, “There's some warm tea in the box, breadfruit, and tinned beef.” He motioned toward the ten-gallon tin inside of which a pot of tea was resting on the slow burning oil stove.
“It's been six, seven hours, way past my watch. Why didn't you call me?”
He glanced at me as if I had said something too stupid to call for an answer. And I had. I took the wheel and he said, “Nice wind. Keep her headed toward that big star ahead of us.” He flexed his muscles for a moment, waved his arms about like a pitcher warming up, then he ran a hand through his thick black hair, said, “That damn shampoo sure makes the hair smooth and soft. Feel.”
He bent his head toward me. I pushed it away and he laughed, said, “I forgot, you have felt of all the soft hair you want, for now.” He grabbed a banana from the food basket next to the stove, went forward and stretched out on his mat atop the cabin.
Ruita came up and sat beside me. She wore slacks and a white turtleneck sweater. When I squeezed her hand and asked if she was cold, she smiled at me, said, “I'll never be really cold again. But I'm hungry.” And I thought if Milly had said she'd never be cold again, I would have told her to stop the soap opera cracks, yet from Ruita it seemed natural and true.
We drank lukewarm tea and then tore through the canned beef and doughy breadfruit. We drank nuts, ate bananas and some over-ripe mangos till we were too stuffed to move.
After awhile she yawned, then reached over and kissed me, asking, “When does Eddie take over so we can go back to sleep?”
“You'll have to sleep alone tonight. Having your mother makes me nervous.”
Ruita looked at me with surprise. “But what has Mama to do with it?”
“I like to love you in private.”
“Fine, then we shall sleep on deck.”
“Eddie will be at the wheel.”
“Eddie has certainly seen people make love so many times, it means nothing to him.”
“I know, but it means something to me.”
“Ray, I want to sleep with you.”
“I want to be with you, but not this way. It would spoil it—for both of us.”
“You and your silly popaa conventions. In the islands love-making is no more hidden than eating. Whole families live in one hut and babies see love-making from the time they are able to look. We are enjoying ourselves, why should not Mama sleep happily near our enjoyment?” She was so upset she said most of this in French.
“Honey, I'm not arguing with you. The point is, it makes me uneasy having people around. Also, I'm pooped.”
She giggled. “Po-oo-oped. That is a funny sounding word. I am full of a delicious weariness myself, but still... The popaa mind is hupe hupe.”
This meant “very ugly” in Tahitian. “Why do you have to keep raising this popaa stuff like a little wall between us?”
“There will never be a wall between us,” she said, kissing my ear. “You are the one who raises the crazy popaa idea —you half-popaa. Tell me, was your great-grandmother, the Indian, beautiful?”
I wanted to tell her that my great-grandmother came from Latvia and I doubted if they had Indians there, but I knew how much Eddie's story had impressed her—and Eddie. I said, “Well, I wouldn't know.”
“Were they ashamed of her?” she asked, pulling a little away from me.
I put her face against mine again. “Look, I wasn't around then. You really hate whites, don't you?” I said, not sure what I was saying, or wanted to say.
Ruita nodded, her soft cheek moving against my beard. “Yes, I dislike them all. It's easiest that way. Whites are so needlessly cruel and arrogant. They come here, to a world of brown people, and we do not look down upon them because of their skin. In Sydney, when one of the teachers found I was an islander she asked me, 'Have you ever been to the Marquesas Islands where the great Gauguin lived?' There was a happy and full life in the Marquesas—When popaas were freezing their derrieres in European caves, ignorant of fire. Yet to this smug woman the islands only meant a Frenchman who contributed a few more syphilis germs to the death of people.”
I wondered again if she knew of Nancy's sickness as I said, “But he was a great artist.”
“Of course, but his art was not as great or as beautiful as the life the Marquesas people knew!”
“But I—and Nancy—we are popaas? Where does that leave us, in your thinking?”
“No you are not popaas, you are humans, like the islanders. Ray, I love you so much. I hope soon we make a baby ... a pretty aiu.”
“Maybe,” I said, frightened cold at the idea.
“A little girl with my brown skin and your red hair, perhaps I shall let her even have your silly straight nose. And we will put drops of lime juice in her eyes when she is born, then feed her on coconut milk, and my milk. And fried shark's liver to give her vitamins so she will grow up tall and strong, like us, like all island people. Your American magazines, the fuss they make over these vitamins—-about which we here have known for hundreds of years. Ray, we must make lots of babies. The islands are wonderful places for children.”
“Guess they are,” I said, cautiously.
“You guess?” Ruita repeated, nibbling at my cheek. “They are! Children are loved here. A child can move in with any family and be raised with love and care.”
It was true. If a girl had a baby “out of wedlock,” to use our cruel popaa phrase, the family next door would be only too glad to take it, no matter how many children of their own they had. In a place where there is plenty of food for the taking, “another mouth to feed” is hardly a problem. The child would be raised as the family's, even though the real mother might spend all her life less than two hundred yards away.
At the moment children were farthest from my mind, I didn't even want to think about not having them. Ruita and I held each other close; I holding the wheel with one hand or sometimes with my knees. The Hooker was sailing smoothly, sliding a little off-course now and then—but our course wasn't that exact. When Eddie took over my watch he usually took a long look at the sun or the stars, and immediately corrected the wheel with his crystal ball navigation.
Ruita slept for awhile in this cramped position, then she got up and rubbed her legs, told me, “I go below now. Sure you will not join me?”
“Yeah, I'm sure, and you know why. I'll sleep out here. Look, do me a favor and put some water on to boil.”
“You want tea?” she asked, starting for our tin “galley.”
“I'm going to shave.”
She laughed, the sound soft and full against the slapping sound of the waves cutting across our bow. “No, Ray, don't shave. I like that rough stubble on your face, even when it hurts me. Also the way you are a nice brown all over, except around your middle, where you are white as a shark's belly. In Forliga we shall bathe in the sun together and then you will be brown all over like me. Good night, my Ray.”
She gave me a quick kiss and went to her bunk below. I sat at the wheel, hearing the sound of the waves and staring at the stars, listening to the faint wind... and not seeing or hearing a damn thing. I was in a numbed state of contentment, not trying to think of anything ... yet a number of vague, sly, thoughts were strolling through the back of my mind. Like: even if I ran out on Ruita later, tonight was worth it, for both of us, worth my being a rat. Or: I was suddenly amused by Nancy Adams being within a few feet from where I was sleeping with her daughter.
Eddie was standing in front of me, yawning and stretching. He glanced at the moon, said, “Must be after midnight. Why didn't you wake me?”
“No rush. How soon will we start closing in on the atolls?”
“Early in the morning. Where's Ruita?”
“You go to her. I can hold the wheel till morning and then the old woman can handle the wheel for awhile.”
“I'm bedding down on the deck.”
“Alone?” I nodded.
“Hey, have a fight so soon?”
“Nope,” I said, walking toward the cabin roof. I heard Eddie mutter, “Jeez, you mean she has some of them wacky popaa ideas in her, too?”
I was full of deep inner exhaustion you can only get from one thing, and I slept as soon as I stretched out. I awoke to see Ruita sitting beside me, sitting so her body shaded the morning sun from my eyes. She was wearing a loose white blouse and red shorts, and against the sun I studied the perfect silhouette of her breasts. She had made a flower out of palm leaves and was wearing it over her right ear—she had a sweetheart.
As I sat up she turned and smiled, said, “Good morning, darling.”
We kissed and there was an exciting warm smell to her. For a moment she drove me crazy by flicking her tongue in my ear. I jumped to my feet, pulling her up, both of us grinning. On the port horizon we were passing a reef, and on the starboard side a school of porpoises were convoying the Hooker, gliding in and out of the water some thirty feet from us. Nancy was at the wheel with Eddie, both of them watching the big fish.
Ruita tossed a pail over the side and came up with it full of water, said, “For your bath.” I stripped to my shorts and emptied the pail of cool salt water over my head. She went down into the cabin and returned with another pair, helped me take my wet ones off, asked if I was hungry as I stood naked, waiting for the wind to dry me off. She was very casual and I was embarrassed because I was embarrassed. I suddenly reached over, kissed her, said I was starved. She brought me a drinking nut, a fried flying fish soaked in lime juice, and the last of our bananas.
I was dry and put on my shorts, went back to the wheel where Nancy was playing checkers with Eddie. The old woman gave her daughter a little hug and slipped me a big smile. There was something too pat about Nancy's approach to me—as though she had me tight in the son-in-law bag— which annoyed me.
Eddie told me to steer at right angles to a group of clouds on the horizon and I checked this on the compass, to find something I could call a course.
Eddie and Mrs. Adams went on with their checker game. Each square on the worn board had a hole and each checker a nail driven through it—so it would stay put in the wind. I wasn't much of a checker fan, but sometimes Eddie and I would go on a spree, play for several days, and then not use the board for months. The same with the torn deck of cards we had.
Ruita said she wanted to get a book out of her bag, stopping on the lower cabin steps—out of sight of the others —to blow a kiss at me.
A breeze came up and for awhile everything was quiet, except for the washing sound the Hooker made whenever she dipped into a wave trough. Mrs. Adams beat Eddie, as usual, then went over and sat by Ruita, neither of them speaking. Ruita was deep in her book but the old woman stared at me, weighing me with her eyes; evidently she found it all pleasing to her. I felt like a butterfly pinned under a glass and for a wild moment wondered if Ruita wasn't in on the “plot” too— although that didn't make any sense, because if she merely wanted a man or a husband she could have her pick.
Eddie pointed up at several black frigate birds wheeling overhead, said, “We must be near the bigger atolls. Ugly birds.”
“Young ones make good eating,” Nancy said. “Taste like chicken. Did you know these atolls were first sighted by a Portuguese explorer named...” The blank look swept over her old face. Ruita said quickly, “Momma, you sound as if there weren't people living on the Tuamotus until Quiros saw them.”
“Louise, you know I didn't mean it that way.” Nancy turned to me. “Do you like the atolls, Ray?”
“Guess so. And birds.” I nodded at the frigate birds soaring in the blue sky. “Isn't it something—the feeling of freedom they give? Free to go anyplace they wish?” It was pretty cornball, but the old lady got it; her eyes turned very solemn.
Eddie awoke me before dawn, to take the wheel. We were in an area full of reefs and he climbed up the mast, calling down directions—masthead piloting till we were clear of the reefs. After breakfast I turned in for a nap while Ruita and her mother were busy sewing a dress they were going to give the bride.
Late in the afternoon Eddie called out, “There's Forliga, smack ahead of us.”
Eddie's accurate, instrument-less navigation fractured me, as usual. We all looked past his pointing finger and didn't see a thing. Eddie said, “See that bright spot in the sky on the horizon? That's Forliga. The bright spot is the sunlight reflected from the lagoon.”
Within two hours we began to close in on the atoll, which then looked like a low cloud... and soon we could make out the mist where the sea pounded the reef, then the tops of palm trees, and before sundown we were at the channel in the reef and a flock of canoes came out to greet us. I started the motor.
Some fifteen islanders leaped aboard the Hooker, tied their canoes to our stern for a tow. They all seemed to know Ruita and Nancy, welcomed them warmly with much handshaking and hugging. There were several young women in the group and of course Eddie, as usual, had his eye open for any girl he could latch onto.
After Nancy and Ruita, Eddie was the center of attraction, first explaining about his face, then showing off his muscular control, making one of his heavy shoulder muscles jump, nearly dance up and down his chest.
There was one islander who was almost as muscular as Eddie, but younger and taller, with long strong legs. He kept hugging and kissing Ruita and she kept her arms around him. I found myself getting steamed. Then she introduced him to me, saying, “This it Titi. He is the bridegroom.”
I wished him luck in French and he answered in Tahitian, thanking me, saying it had been many months since he had seen his beloved sister—and squeezed Ruita.
“Titi is your brother?” I asked her.
“Half-brother. He is my mother's son.”
Titi didn't look much over nineteen and when I asked Nancy if he was her son, it sent Ruita and the old lady into giggles. This was translated for Titi's benefit, and he doubled up with laughter.
Finally Nancy told me: “You don't understand. I am not Titi's mother but he is the son of Louise's mother. You see, I am Louise's mama faa-amu—the mother who gives to eat. I am her adopted mother.”
I said, “Oh,” and grinned stupidly. That meant Ruita was a full-blooded islander, which didn't mean a thing to me; and it also meant she didn't have the old lady's syph, which had been a tiny worry way back in my mind.
A stocky man in a new white T-shirt and old pants, who had been busy examining our rigging, now came over and hugged Nancy and then shook my hand, said he was Cumber, Chief of Forliga, and welcomed me to the atoll.
Actually Forliga was a number of small islets, one large atoll and one smaller one, all of it shaped like a rough horseshoe and surrounded by a reef. The lagoon was about fifteen miles long and nearly five miles wide, dotted with islets and coral heads. The highest land didn't seem more than eight feet above sea level, and neither of the two 'big' atolls were over five hundred yards wide. There were two villages, clusters of huts on the atoll, and we were heading toward the larger and main village.
More canoes joined us as we tied up to a dock made of jagged hunks of coral. Nancy and Ruita were swept ashore in a crowd of laughing men, women, and kids. They went over to Titi's house and Eddie and I stayed on the cutter: I cleaned up the motor, aired the bilge for gas fumes, while Eddie politely asked an old man about copra and was assured that within a few days, after the wedding feast, enough would be made to fill our hold. Eddie asked if there had been many marriages lately and found the usual shortage of women. He told me, voice glum, “Goddamn, I won't have a chance. This old man says there are bachelors on the atoll looking for gals to marry.”
Followed by a gang of laughing kids we finally reached Titi's large hut where we met his bride, a small and very cute young girl, who seemed to be four or five months pregnant—a fact which amused many of the islanders, although not the outhouse type of smirking it would cause back in the States. Many women patted her bulging stomach and congratulated the would-be bride and groom. Titi said that although it was his first child, he was sure when the pregnancy started and in a matter-of-fact voice described in detail violent love-making they had done “right after I returned from the diving season—that very night.”
After meeting the bride we were introduced to the entire population—some two hundred and thirty-two people—and I shook hands with all of them like a politician.
It was decided to have the wedding before nightfall. It seemed everything was in readiness, and had been for many days, awaiting our arrival. Everybody immediately pedaled away on their bikes and soon returned with cleaned pigs, fish, taro and all sorts of fruits and vegetables. A huge fire was started in a sand pit to heat the cooking stones.
At one end of the short village 'street' was a tiny church, complete with a small spire, all of it made of coral blocks so bleached and whitewashed it hurt your eyes. Somebody was ringing the bell in the steeple like crazy, and the frantic bell-ringing seemed to keep time for the frenzy of activity we saw all about us.
Women were busy burning coconut fiber husks to make charcoal for their irons. Many people had already bathed in the lagoon and changed into their Sunday clothes: the men in berets and badly fitting suits, the women in clean starched white dresses and broad hats. For the wedding feast they had bought out the Chinese storekeeper's entire stock of canned goods—on credit against the next diving season. A kind of deacon of the church and two catechists would perform the ceremony, which was really more of a singing festival than a marriage service. When the regular priest made his yearly visit to the atoll, he would “legally” marry Titi and his bride, and all other couples who had “married” since his last visit. But after tonight, Cumber the Chief would officially enter Titi's marriage in his records.
We had to dress for the wedding so Ruita took my arm and we ran back to the boat, sprinting like a couple of fools, to get her bags. She seemed very excited and the excitement had reached me too. We found Eddie handing out samples of our stomach medicine to a group of men who gravely said it was very fine and wanted to add several bottles to the punch, which the bride's father and brothers were mixing in four ten-gallon tins. The punch consisted of vanilla pods for taste, bottles of rum and hair oil and a little water. Other tins of coconut and orange beer had been brewing for days, so the entire atoll was set to tie on a good one.
I got Ruita's bags, and her mother's, and we took them up to the guest hut. Once inside Ruita kissed me, whispered, “Sometime in the morning, when we have finished sleeping off the meal, you and I are going away.”
“To a place where we will be alone—as you wish. I have arranged all things. Now hurry and dress, it is getting dark and the services will start soon so—”
Some old duck burst into the hut and gave Ruita a bear hug, including a gentle slap on her behind. Then he eagerly shook my hand and told me in Tahitian how happy he was to see me and I must see his “popaa machine” at once.
Ruita said, “This one is a sort of uncle of mine. A rarity in the islands—he is a miser. He even still has some bird money.”
“You know nothing about the islands,” she said, teasing me. “Everything I must explain to you—except making love; that you do well on your own, Bird money is from the old days when the whalers used Chilean silver dollars. These have a big eagle on the face, so they were called bird money. But now they have disappeared.”
“They have not disappeared for me,” the old man said, “I do not spend my money foolishly. Also, they are quite beautiful for their own sake, if rubbed well with a soft cloth. I have the best motor in all the islands and this too shines like coins when rubbed. It cost me many thousand taras. I must show you to it, it is a motor for the outside of a boat. Unhappily it no longer works and therefore I hope you may be able to repair it.”
I said I would be happy to see it and Ruita told me in English, “Look at his motor now or he will be hurt, but do it quickly. Then dress your best.”
I followed the old joker to his hut, and there I found a gleaming twenty horsepower outboard motor on an aluminum rack. “This is mine,” the man said proudly, as if showing off a jewel. “It cost many taras and is it not a thing of much beauty?”
I told him it was as beautiful as a sunset. A tara is a Polynesian dollar and equal to five Tahitian francs. This outboard probably sold for around three hundred dollars in the States, and at least a grand to this old man after he paid the various shipping charges. I said in my best Tahitian, “I am sure this makes a canoe travel with the speed of a shark.”
“Like the fastest fish it went on water—but only once. Then it does not work, although I give it clean petrol. Can you repair it?”
I found the name plate on the motor and felt sorry for the old guy—they had sent him a fresh water model, and what it needed was cleaning and oiling, scrape off the salt water corrosion.
“Can this popaa marvel be made to run with speed of a flying fish once more?”
“I think so.”
He had a large-featured face with a great nose and deep wrinkles, a rather solemn puss, but now it became one big smile as he shook my hand hard, asking, “You can truly do this?”
“If nothing is broken I will make it run again.”
“You will make me most happy. For an old man, new happiness is a rare thing. I make many sacks of copra for you. If I was younger, I would dive and bring you shell for trade.”
“I'll look at it tomorrow. Now I must dress for the wedding.”
“God be with you.”
Walking by the other huts I heard the hum of sewing machines, last minute preparations for holiday dress. On the Hooker Eddie was already dressed in a shirt and tie and an old pair of clean suntans. He had on his new sneakers and his hair was brushed down, heavily greased with a scented pomade he must have borrowed from an islander.
I dug out a white sport shirt and white drill pants which were in fair condition. As I dressed Eddie smoked an American butt he had chiseled, said, “We'll do okay here. The men are rested from diving and will make copra for us.”
We took a knife and a pair of scissors as gifts and walked toward the church, joining a steady stream of chattering islanders, most of them walking gingerly as if breaking in new shoes—or maybe breaking in feet which only saw shoes for an hour or so on Sundays, and on occasions like this.
The sun had almost disappeared on the horizon when we entered the church, or rather, got as near the doorway as we could. The islanders politely made room for us to step inside but we said it was okay—it was hot and stuffy in the church and there were about as many people outside as inside. The kids were up front, the women on the right, the men on the left, all of them sitting on the floor. The Deacon was dressed in a cheap black woolen suit which must have been very uncomfortable. He stepped up to the altar and read from a bible, the two catechists—also in hot woolen black suits— then read some more and the Deacon made a speech, which I didn't get as he was talking in the true Tuamotu dialect.
The bride's father spoke from the floor, then the Chief made a short speech, and at last came the hymn singing. The islanders sang loudly and with great enjoyment, for religion is alive, a thing of joy and pleasure in the islands.
I tried to find Ruita, but she was sitting inside on the coral floor. After another short talk by the Deacon, the church “ceremony” was finished and with much eager laughter presents were heaped on the bride and groom. Then everybody rushed toward the fire pit, where great piles of food were ready.
Overturned wooden crates covered with palm leaves served as a long banquet table—over two hundred people were eating—and at the head of it Titi sat with a portable radio which was blaring forth music and news from Papeete. Every few minutes somebody would pop up and make a quick speech, wishing the newlyweds much happiness, but aside from the radio music and the speeches, the only other sounds were those of solid eating. Using palm leaves as both plates and napkins, we ate sizzling portions of roast pig, rice, turtle meat, breadfruit, fish, chickens, crabs, canned meats, fruits, and for dessert a sort of coconut pudding. Of course everybody made many trips to the punch bowls between stuffing his gut.
- There is an art to stuffing yourself; it's something like getting drunk. You eat deliberately and slowly, pausing to rest whenever you feel on the verge of throwing up; one can not only put away a remarkable amount of food but your entire body takes on a heavy numb feeling. Added to this, the punch had a kick like raw whiskey. I was getting high as a kite.
Every once in a while I would turn and find Ruita smiling at me as she finished a mouthful of food. I would squeeze her hand or press her thigh, but nothing stopped us from the business at hand—eating. The radio gave out a steady stream of French classical music, jazz, and some island songs having the sour sadness of hill-billy ballads. When the island music was played some of the men would get up and dance— mostly a great deal of wild arm- and leg-flinging. Of course, these dances only lasted a few seconds; then the dancer, being stuffed, would fall to the sand and rest flat on his back. Others kept eating till they toppled over backwards; they lay, snoring and breaking wind, for a half-hour or so, and then they would sit up and tackle chunks of raw fish floating in lime juice.
At one point, the belching drowned out the noise of the radio. I found the lime juice good for calming my stomach— the skin over my gut was actually drum tight—and once when I was simply staring at the sand, too full to move my hands, Ruita passed a palm leaf with something on it that looked like a spaghetti. I'd never seen it before and it had an interesting oyster-taste. I ate them like I was hungry, asked Ruita what they were. She told me, “Palolo.”
“Darling, I'm too full to talk,” she said, rubbing her greasy mouth against my beard. “Mama, tell Ray what palolo is.”
Mrs. Adams, who must have put away food equal to her weight, belched our way as she asked Eddie to pass her some orange beer, and said, “They are worms.”
“Worms?” I repeated stupidly.
“A great delicacy,” the old woman said. “They come out of the coral and surface twice a year. Very easy to catch, simply scoop them out of the water with a pail.”
She finished a shell full of orange beer, most of it running down her dress, then said, “Weddings are wonderful affairs, aren't they, Ray?”
“Yeah. But take it easy, Nancy .You been needling me the past week and... well!” The hair tonic-rum punch made my tongue too thick for talk.
“I am like one drugged,” Ruita said, getting up on her hands and knees. “Mama, we must sleep off this food.”
“Indeed, we shall sleep and return to the feast again.” Nancy peered past me. “Where has Eddie gone to?”
“Off trying to make time,” I mumbled, staggering to my feet. All my weight seemed to be in my stomach, Ruita grabbed my legs and pulled herself up. Nancy tried to stand but sprawled out. Ruita and I pulled her to her feet; then, holding onto each other, we staggered a few yards away and sat down in the sand again. I opened my belt and stared up at the sky full of stars for a moment, felt Ruita's even breathing beside me, heard Nancy's snoring.
I awoke several hours later. My clothes were damp and the sky cloudy, so it must have rained. It was early morning but judging from the sounds, the feast was still going strong. I felt cold and rubbed my arms. Ruita was still sleeping; curled up with her dress way past her hips, showing tight panties. I pulled her dress back over her cold legs. Mama Adams was gone.
I considered going back for some coconut beer—my mouth was dry—then walked heavily down to the lagoon and relieved myself. A number of people were doing the same thing.
As the saying goes, I immediately felt like a new man, and after knocking off a drinking nut, I returned to Ruita. Nancy Adams was sitting beside her daughter, a blanket over the both of them. The old girl was finishing a cigarette as I sat down; she held up the blanket and I put my legs under it. She asked, “How do you feel, Ray?”
“Like a stuffed tomato.”
“These feasts are great fun. Where else in the world—this world of want—can one stuff himself to the point of unconsciousness?”
“Have a point there.”
“I love the atolls—and happily they haven't been of much value to the popaas, especially after the pearls ran out, so they have been left alone. Forliga is almost untouched, and I only pray it always stays this way.”
I smiled up at the moon peeking through the clouds. The way she said “popaas” as though she wasn't one herself. Although what makes a popaa? Certainly not a white skin, for the Chinese traders were popaas, too.
“I first came here about a year after Tom died,” Nancy said, thinking aloud over her cigarette. “I was a young woman but already starting to take on that dried-up look which seems to be an occupational disease among missionary wives. I came here to write a paper on the lives of the atoll people, came to Forliga because they were so untouched by Western ways. That seems like another life ago.”
“You ever write the paper?” I asked, not really caring. I was watching the beauty of Ruita's face in sleep, the rise and fall of her bosom under the blanket.
“Lord no, I never even started it. That was merely an excuse. With Tom dead I was at loose ends, yet I had this feeling I didn't want to return to the States. So I gave myself this would-be scientific task, tried not to be too much of a pest. I spent about six months here taking notes. The islanders were very polite to me. There's a coral head not far out in the lagoon—you can easily see it in the daytime, a speck of land with a few palm trees and brush. They had a custom on Forliga which has since died out, due to the lack of women. On a certain night young men and women went out to this islet, undressed, and everybody simply made love as often as possible.”
“Eddie would have gone for that.”
I saw her cigarette end turn toward me like a tiny beacon in the darkness. “And you, wouldn't you have been out there, too?”
“I guess so.”
Nancy sighed. “You remind me of myself in those days— you wear the so-called conventions like a badly fitting suit, refuse to make yourself comfortable. I went to the islet, as a spectator, of course. But it was a dark moonless night, and soon as I stepped ashore among all those trembling bodies, a man pulled me down. In a way it was much like this feast, you made love again and again, rested, then blindly searched for the nearest free man. Before dawn, everybody swam back to the atoll. You know I forget many things these days, but I hope I shall never forget the joy of that night. Within a few seconds I passed from blushing protest, even shame, to outright enjoyment, on to a passion which both surprised and left me proud.”
“Why did you ever leave Forliga?”
“When I adopted Louise I decided to raise her so she would have the benefit of both cultures. That was a mistake. She's been very unhappy ... till you came along. Her father was the son of the last chief of Numaga, so legally the land was hers upon his death. After the hurricane nearly washed this atoll away, we settled down on Numaga.”
I thought for a moment. “Why do you say it was a mistake? Don't you think there is such a thing as a popaa culture?”
“Of course there is, but she never had a chance to appreciate 'our' culture. Ruita was swamped with racial bitterness and frustration.” The old woman hesitated, looked down at Ruita to make sure she was asleep. “Ray, growing up is a wonderful and serene experience here—not a time for doubts and grasping, as it is elsewhere. Actually, in our 'civilized' countries, adolescence is a time of cruel torture. In the islands there are no hidden secrets of life, no worry about the future—each young man or woman knows exactly what his... uh... life's work, profession, will be. Nor are there sexual frustrations But in Louise's case, and I shall never forgive myself for this blunder, when she was sixteen instead of being on the beach with a young man of her fancy, she was in a stuffy school for 'young ladies' in Sydney, not only learning the banal inhibitions of our day, but also that she was 'colored.' I imagine she even got a small taste of that in school in Papeete. So she returned to Numaga bitter, afraid, upset. A weakling. You're weak, too.”
“Come, come, Ray, being a weakling can often be a happy circumstance. What I mean is this: Louise couldn't forget the white world she had run from. The false standards she had picked up in Sydney prevented her from enjoying the freedom of the island women, while her travel and education spoiled her ability to be happy with an islander. Then you came along—with your own problems, too weak to solve or forget them. Perhaps that is why Louise likes you, this weakness you have in common, this self-pity. Only you needed a push, a swift kick in the pants.”
“Which you gave me, so subtly!”
She shrugged. “Should I be subtle about my daughter's happiness?”
“Did it ever occur to you I worry about Ruita's happiness, too? That's why I've hesitated.”
“Ray, don't hesitate, don't nibble on the outside of paradise like a blind fool. And make no mistake, one can still make a paradise here.”
“If I could only be sure I'm ready for island living. I don't want to hurt Ruita, be thinking about her over a glass of rum in some crummy waterfront cafe in Samoa, Sydney, or 'Frisco.”
“But exactly what is it you are afraid of? You seem to care for Louise and she—”
“'Care?' That's an severe understatement!”
“Then what is there to be frightened about?”
“I don't know,” I said, trying to put it into words. The hell of it was, I really didn't know myself what I was scared of— except that I was scared of settling down with Ruita. “Call it wanderlust, although that doesn't mean a thing. Look, here in the atolls the people have the two things the rest of the world lacks, peace and security. Yet they leave their atolls to whore in Papeete and when they grow too old for that, they still stay there, old rum-pots peddling flowers outside the bars. The men become sailors—a hard life—and travel all over the world. Why? Maybe humans can't take peace and quiet...”
“Then why do they take off? Ruita and I need Numaga for happiness, but if I can't... take it... well... even the islanders don't seem able to stand the islands. Why?”
“That's something I have thought about too, and all I can say is we know of the tensions and fears of the outside world and the islanders don't. They assume the rest of the world is as friendly and peaceful as their atoll. Why so few of them ever return to their island—this really puzzles me. Perhaps the answer is, why do so few popaas ever escape from the dull, worried, lives they lead? Because our so-called Western civilization is quicksand; by the time you learn what it is, you are stuck in it, mired down. But you, Ray, you know what the world is like, you've been poor, unhappily married, a soldier. You must know what you can have here in the islands.”
“Must I? I'm like a lush who knows drink is bad for him, yet can't leave it alone.” I got to my feet. “Which reminds me, I'm thirsty. Shall I bring you some beer or punch?”
“No, thank you. I shall see how Titi's wife is. In her condition I hope she hasn't eaten too much. Yes, I will look after her—in a little while.”
The punch cans were empty. About fifty people were still eating and more food was being cooked The radio was silent and the only sounds were those of people snoring or eating. I found a tin of coconut beer but somebody had spiked it with hair tonic tasting like roses—old ones—so I spat that out and finally found a fairly cool drinking nut.
I went down to the lagoon again to relieve myself and stared out at the dark waters, thinking of a then prim Nancy Adams, with her notebook, stepping into a sex orgy—although orgy is probably a popaa word and idea. That must have been something—hundreds of sighing, twisting bodies, a little island full Of the soft cries and heavy smells of passion.
The old man who owned the fresh water outboard came staggering by, recognized me, and held my hand. “You will fix, canoe go with speed of shark?”
I said I would fix. Whoever was spiking the beer must have had a barrel of this rose hair tonic—the old gent stank like an ancient bouquet. He gave me a cigarette and I lit it. He staggered on toward the lagoon and I went back—probably staggering, too—to Ruita.
Her blanket was there, but no Ruita, no Nancy. I looked around and stumbled over a couple of sleeping people, finally sat down and had some canned peaches which were sickeningly sweet. I decided to check the boat and when I reached the dock, Ruita was waiting for me. She had brushed her hair and put on a fresh pareu, and there was a large crimson blossom over her left ear. With a big smile she pointed to a sailing canoe tied to the Hooker. “Come, the stars are starting to fade. It is the right time, we will be there before dawn.”
“Where is there?” I asked, feeling as sluggish as I sounded.
“You will see,” she said, taking my hand.
She looked so clean and cool, so startling pretty, I tried to kiss her. Ruita pushed me away, said sharply, “Aita! You too taata taero!”
This meant “No, you drunkard!” and while I was thinking this over, she stepped on the Hooker, ran lightly to the stern and untied the canoe, jumped in.
I followed her, taking off my sneakers and tying them around my neck before sitting in the canoe. She handed me a paddle and we dug in, making a phosphorescent wash as the outriggers skimmed the water.
We passed many islets, and the paddling was what I needed to sober up. Finally she steered the-canoe toward a little island about a hundred yards wide studded with coconut palms. We carried the canoe high up on the sandy beach. She took off her pareu cloth in one quick movement, told me, “Undress quickly.”
“Undress? Why?” Dawn was breaking in faint red streaks on the horizon, a perfect backdrop for her nude body.
She gave me an odd smile. “I always dreamed when I took a man it would be like this. We have this island to ourselves and we will come as my ancestors arrived—naked— carrying only happiness and love in our hearts. Hurry—it is cold.”
It started off better than any Hollywood movie—the two of us naked on an islet, alone and without a care between us; a happy dream come to life—and ended leaving me confused, restless, more certain than ever I couldn't make it with Ruita.
Ruita said, “I will show you all of the old ways. Actually I know more of the ancient times than islanders who never have left their villages, for in Papeete and in Sydney I made an effort to study these things in many old books. First, we must make a shelter.”
She tied a sharp hunk of coral in her hair, then climbed a coconut palm and, using the stone as a knife, cut off many branches while I stood below like a dummy, gaped at the graceful way she climbed, her strong legs hugging the palm trunk. When she came down, still using the sharp coral, she split the palm leaves down the center, then quickly wove them together to make a mat. Ruita made a number of these, while I stood around helpless; mats for us to sleep on, mats hung on sticks driven into the sandy ground to form a lean-to. Then we found enough coconut fiber around the various crab holes—the fiber the crabs had cut away in getting to the coconut meat—to put under our sleeping mats till they were fluffy as a mattress. Ruita stretched out on a mat and held out her arms to me as she said, “Come see how soft it is.”
“I know how wonderfully soft it is,” I said, going to her.
After, we used another piece of sharp coral to drive holes in one of the three eyes of a coconut and drank. Then, since we were both sweaty and the sun was out full blast, we took a quick swim. I was knocked out, still hung-over from the feast. While I dozed on and off in the shade of the lean-to, Ruita made a crude cloth by weaving the dry root fibers of the coconut husk together. Her nimble fingers moved with tireless speed and by the time I finally got my lazy male can off the mat, she had a fairly big piece of cloth. I kissed her, asked if she was making a skirt and she said, “Maybe later. I will make a cloth for you too, for too much sun on our middle parts is not good. For now I make this into a bag. See if you can find stones along the beach sharp enough to be used as a knife, then sharpen some heavy sticks so we can husk the nuts.”
I walked along the shore—you could circle the islet in about three minutes of slow walking—and didn't find any sharp stones, except small ones which nicked my feet. Walking barefoot was never one of my favorite sports, especially since they say you catch fey-fey and several other tropical diseases this way. When I passed the canoe I sat down and took a cigarette out of my pants. Then I got my knife and cut and pointed a few good strong sticks. Bringing these back to Ruita I held up the knife, said, “I cheated.”
She laughed. “Like the first popaas here—they cheated, too. Now I shall show you why one never need worry about food as long as they are in the shadow of a coconut tree. Get me an armful of brown nuts—not the new green ones, but the dark brown ones.”
There were many nuts around the base of the trees, most of them eaten away by rats and crabs, but I managed to pick up five good ones. And if you stare at a coconut husk long enough it spooks you—looks too much like an old shaggy head.
Ruita had driven one of the sticks into the sand, sharp end up, and on this point she stripped the husk off the nuts, then opened them. She shredded the white meat of the coconut with a jagged stone, the meat falling into the fiber bag she had made. While she worked on the other nuts, she had me cleaning out the half-shell of the first nut, and after it had dried in the hot sun for many minutes, I rubbed it down with coral stones, polishing it to a deep smooth brown; we had our first bowl.
When the bag was full of coconut shreds, Ruita squeezed it over the bowl till a thick creamy milk oozed out. Covering the bowl with a palm leaf, she said, “This will be for supper. Now we must hurry and get some crabs before the sun goes down.”
“Take it easy, I'll get them,” I said, although I had never caught a crab before—usually Eddie bagged them. Coconut crabs look awkward but although I ran and lunged after several of them, they always disappeared down their holes in the sand ahead of my hand. Ruita thought the crabs and I were putting on a comedy act; she laughed till she cried. She said it was just as well I couldn't catch them, for if I had managed to grab one by its claw—which the crab waved around like a boxer—I would have lost a slice of skin.
She made a long piece of string by braiding strips of coconut fiber, then tied one end onto a stick. A few green young palm leaves were attached to the other end of the string. Ruita quietly approached a crab hole and, using the stick like a fishing pole, jiggled the palm leaves over the hole. Soon as the crab got his claw on them, Ruita jerked him out of his hole and up in the air, expertly grabbed him behind his claw. She got four or five crabs, tied them together, then hunted around for a coconut tree with a nut whose covering was not fibrous, sliced the husk up with my knife, said, “Eat a piece. This will be our salad.”
“Eat coconut husk?”
“Of course. There are many types of nuts. Try it.”
To my surprise the husk tasted as crisp as cool lettuce, made a fine salad. With salad, drinking nuts, and juicy crab legs dipped in sea water and coconut milk, we had a good supper as we watched the sun go down.
We were both tired and quickly fell asleep as soon as we hit our mats, embracing tightly for warmth and waking several times during the night to change positions, warm the exposed parts of our bodies. Toward morning it rained lightly and we got as far under our lean-to as possible, but it wasn't far enough, so we took turns covering each other and Ruita said, “Today I will make more mats—we need a roof.”
“I don't mind this,” I said, and I didn't. It was a good feeling, the cold rain on my back and legs, Ruita's hot body against my chest and stomach.
We were up before daylight, both cold and damp, rubbed each other down with our hands to keep warm, then started work as soon as it was light. Ruita made enough mats to roof over our lean-to, then more fiber cloth to cover our hips. I polished up several coconut bowls, tried my luck at crab casting. After awhile I got the knack and managed to bag four of them without being nipped.
We slept a long time in the heat of the afternoon, then at night when the tide was low Ruita tied my knife to a stick and we went knife-fishing in the shallow water. She wanted to make a fire by rubbing sticks into fibre but I cheated again—no point in carrying this Scout stuff too far— by using my lighter, first kicking a tiny crab out of my pants pocket. Using bundles of coconut husks tied around a stick for a torch, we carefully waded in knee-deep water till we came upon a sleeping fish. Ruita would spear him the first time, but I always missed—to her delight I struck at an angle while the trick was to have the knife enter the water absolutely vertical, otherwise the water deflects the blade.
However, the fish I missed merely swam out of the light of our torch and went to sleep again, so in less than an hour we had enough for a tremendous meal.
I don't know why I use the term “hour” for we lost all track of time. I don't even know how many days we spent there; about eight or nine, at least. It was an ideal existence—for a time. We arose whenever we felt like it, ate when we were hungry, slept any time, made love any place. One cold and stormy night we spent beside a fire in our lean-to, talking all night long—about books, movies, radiation, Australia, America, even religion.
There wasn't a thing to worry about. Food was always within reach, we had a sandy beach and the clear Pacific at our doorstep for swimming and bathing, and if we lacked drinking water—we had nothing in which to catch the rain water—a cool drinking nut was as satisfying. True, we only had fish and nuts and crabs for food, but Ruita was so good a cook, the food never grew tiresome. We ate fish: raw, roasted, broiled, and once she merely tossed a big ten-pound fish on a fire of coconut husks, not even cleaning it. When I asked why, Ruita said, “This will be like fried fish—the guts provide our grease.”
The fish cooked till it was burned black, then Ruita tossed it into the sea, cleaned out the insides and the charred out side—and we had one of the finest-tasting dishes I'd ever eaten.
I sometimes wondered why I was making such a fuss over a little thing like a well-done fish, and realized that in our island it was the little things that counted—the extra few minutes' sleep in the warm sun, the heat of our pressed bodies against the night cold. If possible, I was more in love with Ruita, for I found her so capable, astonishing with knowledge of so many things, intellectual and physical... and last, and never least, the deep heights of passion we reached—a passion I never thought that I, at least, had in me.
It seemed a paradise, every man's dream come true. Yet after a while, maybe four or five days, I had to admit I was bored. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, except I wanted to do something. There wasn't a lick of work to be done, no problems, no need for even getting up if I didn't feel like it. Yet I was restless, jumpy. It frightened me because I could see the same thing happening if we were together on Numaga... this stupid restlessness building up till I did something crazy to hurt her—like taking off, or losing myself in a bottle. I tried to talk myself out of it, began lying awake at night and telling myself there were millions of men in the world tied in knots by tension and worry who would give an arm for what I had. But it seemed as if I had too much of peace and quiet. Not too much of Ruita; two people were never as intimate, sharing every second of the other's life—I wasn't tired of Ruita. It was simply this gnawing rotten feeling of wondering what was going to happen next in a little world where nothing was ever going to happen.
One morning after we had taken our swim—and bath— in the lagoon and were walking along the beach to dry off, I began to trot, then to run. Ruita ran with me, not the knock-kneed jerky style most girls use, but with long firm strides. We circled the island several times, running like sprinters, sweating and fighting for air. I was pooped and dropped to the sand, trying to get my breath back. Ruita walked around slowly, her chest heaving. Finally we both took a dip and lay on the sand. After many minutes of silence she asked, “Why did you run like that?”
“I don't know. I guess I wanted to tire myself out.”
“But why do you wish to tire yourself?”
I-shrugged. “Sometimes a man simply wants to exercise.” Of course I was lying. I'd run because I suddenly felt I had to do that stupid something, have some action.
She didn't say anything and I turned over to give my stomach a chance to dry. She laughed and ran a finger over the deep tan of my middle, said, “Now you are like an islander, like us.”
I wanted to say, “I wish I were,” but instead I merely asked, “Speaking of the islanders, how soon do we have to go back to the others, to Forliga?”
Ruita sat up. “Aren't you happy here, Ray?”
“Can you doubt my happiness?” I asked, pulling her to me, feeling the smooth coolness of her skin against mine. “It's... uh... just... Eddie will be expecting me. And Nancy must be wondering...”
“We do not ever have to return. If we wish we can stay right here for the rest of our lives.”
“You mean that?” I asked, floored by the idea.
“What reason is there for us to return?” Ruita asked, using French as she always did when excited or rattled. “Oh, Mama will come out to visit us and so will Eddie. But we have land, food, shelter, and each other. That is enough for a good life. In time we'll probably have children and be even happier.”
Holding her close to me, I looked into her cool eyes as I asked, “Would you be content with that?” And I told myself that there wasn't any real reason why we shouldn't stay here and be happy, yet I knew I'd blow my stack if I had to spend another week in this solitude.
She said, “Darling, if you want, I would try it—”
“No, honey, that isn't what I asked. Look, in a crazy confused way, your answer is very important to me. Is this what you want most, our remaining on this islet?”
She shook her head. “No. What I want most is to live on Numaga with you.”
“Why there instead of here?”
“Mainly because there is more to do there. In time I would get a little bored here.”
I kissed her. “Thanks! You've taken a load off my mind. This... uh... bored stuff was making me think I was cracked.”
She kissed me, little, light, hot kisses. “Is that what troubles you, you are bored with me?”
“Nothing troubles me.”
“Oh, yes. Something worries you, Ray. I feel it. This small drawing back, this unknown thing holding you apart from me at times.”
“That's nonsense. You dream it,” I lied, and then and there I made a large mistake. For if I had told her the truth we might have talked it out, saved both ourselves months of unhappiness. “What are you handing me, this East is East and never the... whatever it is... shall meet, slop?”
She tried to pull away from me, her eyes angry, but I held her tightly. She said, “That is a... a... mean thing, a cruel thing to say. We have found in our being together the greatest contentment I will ever know. Surely you must feel the same way.”
“Forgive me, I was trying to be clever. A minor Western sickness—we must make clever talk all the time. Darling, there's no need to twist words. I have been a little restless here because I'm not conditioned to lying around all day. Although I try to deny it, I suffer from another form of sickness—a reflex known as work.”
She kissed me, then laughed, her warm breath fanning my lips. “My Ray, do not sound so ashamed. No one can live in... this scientific name I learn years ago... yes, in a vacuum. One of your silly popaa words that—”
“Don't say 'your'—it puts a thin wall between us.”
She nodded, her black hair brushing my forehead and eyes. “I am sorry. I do not wish even a cobweb between us. Now do not be angry if I use another popaa saying I learned in school—all work and no play makes Jack a dull chap. And the same goes for all play. But here we have no difference between work and play. The thing is to have a number of ways to play. You understand me?”
“Aha?” she repeated. “What does that mean?”
“A slang way of saying yes.”
“Ah, I have heard much of this slang, some day you will teach it to me. Back on my island we will each have many things to teach the other. We will not only have what we have here, but also a fine house that needs little daily care, and an ice box in which many kinds of foods may be stored. And we will have a radio to be smug about the news of the peoples outside our island. Also, there will be my pearl cultures, which take up much time and are a wonderful game. We have many books and magazines, records, boats, and if we wish, we can do some 'work' by making copra. Oh yes, and there will be other people around us—not too many to spoil our privacy, but they have problems, gossip, and that is interesting. Now and then we shall go to Papeete, see the awful movies and the swaggering drunken tourist popaas, and we will be disgusted, happy to run back to Numaga again. Now, I have been waiting for you to say it first, but I will— shall we go back to Forliga?”
I nodded. She moved in my arms and I said, “But I think we have one or two things still to do.”
Late in the afternoon we put on our clothes and left the islet—not without some regret on my part, regret mixed with relief—and paddled back to Forliga. Passing the Hooker, I saw how low she was in the water, knew we had a full hold of copra. We put the canoe up on a wooden rack and waded ashore. Some kids told us Nancy was in the guest hut. Eddie was also there, along with the Chief, and several other islanders. They greeted us with the greatest casualness, as if we had merely returned from an hour's sail.
The radio in Titi's hut next door was playing a watered-down version of “La Jazz Hot” but we could barely hear it. He had probably shot his batteries playing the set all during the wedding feast. Nancy kissed Ruita and merely asked, “How are you, dear?”
“Fine, Mama. How is Titi's wife?”
“Very good and very large. I think she will have twins.”
Eddie slapped me playfully in the gut, said, “Got the boat loaded. Damn copra is almost turning rancid.”
The old guy with the rusty outboard shook my hand, said he had been waiting for me to fix his motor. I told him, “I hope I'll have the time. With a full hold, we will sail soon, take the Adams' home to—”
“You'll have time,” Eddie cut in. “There's a smallpox epidemic going around. The governor in Papeete has ordered all boats- to stay in port till further notice.”
“When did that start?” I asked, as though it made any difference when it started.
“We heard it on the wireless last week,” Nancy said. “Started in the Cook Islands. So far there have only been a few deaths and I suppose they'll have it under control if they can keep it from spreading.”
Cumber, the Chief, said a fast prayer in Tahitian, the other joining him; every family in the atolls had lost one or more people in the last great epidemic—flu. There was a moment of sad quiet broken by Ruita saying, “I look forward to staying here. Mama, I am hungry for rice and bread and...”
Cumber said softly, “We have only fish and fruits—and nuts. The wedding emptied the store and of course there hasn't been a trading vessel since then.”
I looked at Eddie and he shook his head. “Every can of food on the Hooker has been sold days ago.”
I caught Ruita's eyes and we both smiled—admitting for the first time how tired we'd been of our nut and fish diet on the islet.
I went down to the boat, to change from my “good” clothes —now slightly mildewed and sun-bleached—to a pair of trunks. Eddie came along the dock, asked me to throw him a cigar. He said, “In the hot sun the stink is pure awful. Hope we-can get away before the copra really goes rotten. I'll take out my stuff later, so you and Ruita can use the cabin nights.”
We had supper in Titi's hut—of fish, nuts, and a kind of white starch so rubbery I could hardly chew it, much less swallow the damn stuff. Cigarettes were still plentiful, and we smoked and listened to the faint sounds of Titi's radio. Then Ruita and I walked down to the boat, like old married people, without either of us mentioning it. And nobody else mentioned it, either.
Exactly thirty-four days went by in peace and quiet—and I counted the days for I monitored the radio news each afternoon. Ruita and I lived aboard the Hooker, sharing our privacy only with the roaches and copra bugs. She even put curtains of old pareu cloth on the portholes to add the proper domestic touch. Each dawn we left the boat to escape the copra stink, and hung around the village and gossiped. Sometimes we took hand lines and went to the lagoon entrance, spread crushed hermit crabs on the surface to attract the fish, and would bring back a canoe full of big fish.
I carefully took the old man's outboard apart, working whenever I felt like it, always surrounded by a chattering and eager audience. None of the parts were broken and I carefully cleaned them, scraped the rust off, oiled everything. When I had it together again, the old duck wanted to use it at once, asked me for gasoline. We had a forty-gallon tank in the Hooker and while I could have spared a pint or so, I used all the oil I had cleaning the motor. I tried, without success, to explain to the old man that he needed lubricating oil in his gas, and that he must run the motor in a barrel of fresh water as soon as he removed it from his canoe. Although he didn't like the idea he agreed to wait till a trading schooner appeared and he could get oil.
I was not only the master mechanic of Forliga—I also repaired bicycles—but the center of great interest for another reason. Each day we gathered around Titi's faint radio to hear the latest news from Papeete. The smallpox had spread to another of the Cook Islands, and several mild cases had appeared on Mopelia, due to some Rarotonga islanders making a long canoe trip there and carrying the germs. The ban on travel still stood, and the radio announced the Rarotongans would be jailed—some day.
The Chief, as part of his duties, listened to the news and then reported it to others, but by the time it had spread around, it was so distorted it didn't make sense. For example, gossip on Forliga had it that the Rarotongans had already been shot, and since they were from a British Island, war was certain between France and England. To simplify matters, I began taking the news down in shorthand—which floored everybody, including Ruita and her mama. Nobody could understand how the “worm,” as they called my shorthand figures, could possibly have any meaning. Several times a day I would be stopped on the village street, and asked to “please read the worms.” I'd take out my little battered notebook and read the latest news on the smallpox.
Ruita was so impressed at this odd “language,” I sat up half of one night trying to tell her how it worked, what the job of a court reporter was like. This started us on a long discussion of crime, something the island mind couldn't conceive of. Why should a man have to steal food when there was so much in the sea and on the trees, and if he did, why punish him? He was hungry.
Early one morning there was much blowing of conch shells and children racing through the village shouting that a schooner was coming. Everybody trooped across to the sea side of the atoll and there, still a good many miles off, was a large schooner. She was too far away to see clearly and of course nobody had any glasses. Cumber swore he had a pair “someplace” and even sent two of his daughters to look for them, till his wife reminded him he had sold them to a schooner sailor months ago for cigarettes and a silver cocktail shaker.
Cumber said, “It is strange. The ban on travel still exists, yet here is a schooner. Maybe it is good. At least we will be able to buy flour and tinned foods.”
“Perhaps it is a ship from Australia and they know nothing of the ban,” Ruita suggested.
Eddie, who had his hands to his eyes and was staring hard, like an old tar, said, “Naw, why should a ship from Australia be making directly for this atoll? Have to pass the Austral Islands and they would be stopped there. That's an island schooner, all right. I've seen those lines before.”
“No island boat would dare violate the government ban,” Cumber said, the voice of authority.
After much talk and speculation, we all went back to the village for coffee—without milk or sugar—and then returned to watch the schooner. By this time she was closing in on the atoll and Eddie shouted, “Hell, that's the Shanghai!”
There wasn't any doubt; even I could see it was Buck's boat.
The Chief said, “He may not have a radio, is not aware of the ban.”
“He's got a receiving set, for sure,” I said. “And where could he have been the last half dozen weeks that he didn't hear the news? The Shanghai is never at sea more than a few days at a time.”
Cumber nodded. “That is true. He has undoubtedly been at the other atolls, with his divers. Well, I shall inform him he can not land here.”
Cumber went to his hut to put on a clean T-shirt, shoes, and a white drill jacket, signs of his authority. We stayed to watch the schooner. As she sailed nearer we could see sailing canoes piled on her deck and Eddie said, “I'll lay odds this is the same bunch of divers he signed on at PellaPella.”
“I don't see a soul moving on deck—this is a sick ship!” Nancy added.
“Cumber will stop him from landing,” Ruita said.
“I don't think so. That Swede will out-talk him. We have to make absolutely certain nobody lands from that ship.” The old lady was looking at me as she said this.
I told her, “I doubt if even Buck would ignore the Governor—Papeete can be rough when they want to.”
“You don't know these miserable old traders,” Nancy said. “Buck will count on the fact that in time, soon as the sickness is over, the islanders will forget about this, not bother to report him. And he's right, Cumber hates to make out reports. If he has sick divers, Buck will want to dump them on Forliga, go on, and then return here months later to pick up those who are still alive.”
“We don't know if there are sick people on the ship,” Titi put in. “I would certainly like a bag of flour and some rum.”
“No, we can't allow any of his goods to come ashore,” Nancy began. “One bug is all we need to start a—”
Eddie cut in. “We can all stop guessing. She's at the channel now. Pretty narrow for a schooner her size—on a windy day they'd pile her up.”
We hurried to the lagoon side in time to see the Shanghai breeze through the channel, less than a yard of free water on either side of her hull. She dropped anchor and Cumber, along with two elderly men, paddled out. We watched them being hailed from the deck by Buck and Teng: the Chief went up the rope ladder. The faces of many islanders appeared at the rails, all looking toward us. After what seemed hours, probably was fifteen minutes, Cumber climbed back down to his canoe and was paddled back to the coral quay. At the same time a work boat was lowered from the stern of the schooner.
Cumber told us, “Buck say he receive special permission for this one voyage from Papeete.”
“Are there any sick aboard?” Nancy asked.
“He show you the permission in writing?” Eddie put in.
The Chief looked unhappy; his dudes were both weighing him down and confusing him. He held up his hands for silence. “There are a few sick on the decks. As for the permission, I did not see it, but he assured me he had it from the Governor personally.”
“You made it plain he could not land here?” Nancy asked, her voice loud.
“No. He has permission. I can not refuse him. Also, some of the sick have relatives here.” Cumber looked around at the other islanders for support. “After all, one cannot be so hard as to turn away sick relations who—”
“Listen to me,” the old woman almost shouted, speaking carefully in the old island dialect. “We cannot be of help to the sick, we have no medicines here. Nor do we have water and food for an extra half a hundred people, and be assured they will not stop here for a few days but for many months. If a single sick person comes ashore, many of us will die. We can only help them by insisting the schooner takes them to Papeete at once!”
Cumber shook his head. “If he has permission, it is beyond my power to stop him from landing. Also what would our relatives think if—”
“Have you forgotten our dead of the last epidemic!” Nancy screamed. Ruita tugged at her arm, whispered in French, “Mama, you are making a scene.”
There was an uneasy feeling in the air. The islanders were afraid of any sickness, yet they couldn't be so harsh as to turn sick friends and relations away. Even Cumber muttered, “It is difficult to know what to do. We have some iodine and boxes of aspirin here, perhaps—”
“Iodine and aspirin!” Nancy yelled. “You are killing these people and ourselves! They must go to Papeete where there is real medicine! You must understand what this ship brings!”
Eddie said, “Nancy, there's a long boat coming in now.”
We had all been so busy watching the old lady no one had kept an eye on the ship. A boat was pulling toward the dock. I saw Buck and Teng, and at the oars was a powerfully built blonde young man wearing a pair of gaudy pink trunks.
Buck and Teng jumped ashore while the blonde man tied up the boat, rested on the oars. On closer inspection he looked a bit flabby around his gut, but he had wide shoulders and strong legs—and the flattened nose and rough face of a fighter.
Teng and Buck were dressed in clean pants and shirts and smiles: Buck's Andy Gump puss looked like a nutcracker when he came up with the selling smile.
Mr. Teng took out a handful of hard candies and started to give them to the kids.
Nancy grabbed his hand, but he threw the candies into the air and the kids caught them with cries of delight, started eating. Teng told the old lady, “I bring small gifts for the children. What is wrong in that?”
Nancy asked in Tahitian, “When did you get permission to sail? Certainly if you were in Papeete they would never have allowed you to sail with sick people aboard.”
“We got it on the radio,” Buck said, his deep voice giving his words a sound of truth. “We had no sick when we sailed from Papeete. In fact we have only a few cases now—nothing really bad. The bad cases were buried at sea. We tried landing at another island but were refused. Well, we're running low on fresh food—although we have much flour and rice and canned meats,” he added, watching the faces of the islanders. “So I wirelessed the governor and was instructed to put in here.”
“Crab dung!” Eddie snapped, pointing at the rigging of the schooner. “You ain't got no sending set on there!”
I said, “I've been taking down the news from Papeete. I never heard them radio you any permission.”
“Ah, the rowboat traders,” Buck said, as if noticing us for the first time. “Did you get permission to land here?”
“We've been here for two months,” I said.
Buck slipped me what he thought was a charming smile. “Tommy was happy to see your boat for he has wisely given up Judo and has something better.” He waved a big hand at the man in the long boat. “Allow me to introduce one of your fellow Americans—Kid Marson. He was a famous boxer back in 'Frisco. Golden gloves, he says, were awarded him. Mr. Teng hired him on the spot I guess you can imagine why.” Both Buck and Teng sort of leered at Eddie.
Teng nodded. “This confirms our story, for we were in Papeete when we hired Marson. He was on the crew of a large American yacht. When the yacht was ready to leave, Marson and another sailor locked themselves in the freezer, were hospitalized for frostbite. By law they had to receive their passage money, but unfortunately, Mr. Marson spent his passage on girls, so we hired him. You Americans are rather crazy. The point is, it was then the governor gave us special permission.”
“If you spoke to the governor,” Cumber began, but he never had a chance for Nancy shouted, “You lying scoundrels! First you received permission on the wireless, now you say it was given to you in person. Where is the order?' '
Buck turned to Cumber. “There is too much talk about nothing, empty wind. The governor said he would put it on the wireless. Would you deny hungry people, relatives, fresh food? And we can pay for it with flour and canned foods, which I hear you are in need of.”
“Or with money,” Teng said, flashing a heavy roll.
“No one should go without fresh food and water,” the Chief agreed. “And we could use some—”
There was the sound of splashing and we looked out at the Shanghai to see sailing canoes being thrown over. Some islanders dived after their canoes, others were being carried down the rope ladder. On the deck people were busy untying the rest of the canoes.
Cumber and some of the older islanders had a short huddle. From the few words I could make out they wanted to call the Council, which was the Chief's cabinet, only nobody could recall exactly who was on this august body, it never having met. Teng kept talking loudly about the fine trade goods on the ship.
“Have you oil for motors?” the old joker with the outboard asked.
“As much as you need in exchange for three dozen drinking nuts,” Teng told him. “Also rum, canned pineapples, much rice, and many sweets.”
Nancy grabbed my arm, whispered in my ear, “If they land, Louise may die—the entire population can be wiped out!”
I looked at Eddie and didn't know what to do. I said, “Look here, Buck, if you're so concerned about the health of your divers, why don't you rush them to Papeete instead of horsing around here?”
“I have no business with you, American. There isn't any real sickness on my boat. Look at me.” He pounded on his barrel chest.
“You are probably full of penicillin—your own private supply,” Ruita said.
Buck addressed the islanders. “You know yourself it makes bad sense to go to Papeete. My divers only wish to return to PellaPella, when they have rested a day or two. In Papeete they would get lost, spend their diving money.”
“That is true,” Cumber said. “It is most easy to spend money in Papeete.”
I glanced around to ask Nancy what she expected me to do, but she was gone.
A kid on the outskirts of the crowd started shouting and we saw some of the sailing canoes were being slowly paddled toward the dock. Buck turned to the Chief. “Cumber, your own cousins are coming to ask for a few nuts and some fish. Will you turn them away?”
“No. I cannot. Let them come and we will feed them. It will be for a short time only and—”
There was an assortment of noises on the dock: the faint boom of the waves on the reef, the sound of the wind, the talk of people—yet the bark of the carbine cut through all other sounds, leaving only a sudden and deep silence. Even the people in the canoes heard it—or saw the flash—stopped paddling.
Nancy Adams was standing at the end of the village street, holding the rifle. I guess she must have been carrying it around in her bags all the time. She fired another shot, over the heads of the canoe people, then turned the gun on Buck, telling him in a low voice, “I am giving you four minutes, by my count, to get back to your long boat, tell your passengers to return to the schooner with their canoes, then pull anchor and leave.”
“These people only ask food,” Buck began. “A small—”
“If one canoe comes ashore, I will shoot your dirty heart out, so help me God!”
“Mama, be careful!” Ruita cried, walking slowly towards the old woman. “Let the Chief make the decision.”
“It is wrong to let people go hungry,” Cumber said, eyes on the rifle. Others in the crowd chorused agreement.
Nancy said, “Then fill several of our canoes with nuts and fruits, take them out to the schooner.”
“Ah! That is right thing—for all,” Cumber said, relief in his voice.
“Buck!” Nancy shouted, “You have only three minutes more of life! Start back to your schooner!”
“Now see here, you have no goddamn right to—” Buck began, then started toward Nancy. As I jumped at the big Swede, Eddie either hit him in the gut or kneed him—all I saw was the giant crumbling to the quay like air running out of a balloon.
Teng didn't move, but the blonde muscleman jumped up on the dock, started for Eddie, then stopped abruptly when Nancy fired a shot near his head. She said, “I have five more shells left in this clip. And you have less than two minutes left!”
Kid Marson had stopped so suddenly, as if he had walked into an invisible wall, that the islanders began to laugh and Cumber yelled, “It is decided! You,” he pointed to Teng, “go back to your boat at once. The rest will bring nuts and fruits here and I will get three canoes. Hurry!”
While Teng and Marson pulled Buck to his feet, Cumber cupped his hands and shouted out over the lagoon to the people waiting in canoes that food was being brought out to the schooner. Ruita told him to add that Buck was taking them to Papeete for medicines. We couldn't hear their response—they were on the lee side of the atoll—but I felt certain they wanted to land, more than anything else.
Marson helped Buck into their boat, Teng stood on the dock for a moment, as if hesitating. Nancy fired another shot —coral dust jumped at his feet. Teng leaped into the boat, yelled at Marson to take the oars.
I wondered if Nancy knew the bullet might have easily ricocheted and killed Teng... and I felt a little like a coward. I told myself I hadn't butted in because I didn't want to act the all-wise popaa telling the natives what to do. But at the same time I felt foolish. In actual size I was the biggest man on the atoll, except for Buck and Kid Marson. Yet it had been Eddie who had dumped Buck and a little old woman who threw a gun on them.
Empty canoes were brought to the beach, and the islanders got busy filling them with nuts and limes, papayas, even a jar of pickled sharks' livers. Nancy came over to me, the carbine cradled in her left arm. Ruita followed, eyeing the old woman with awe and admiration. Mrs. Adams said, “Ray, I want you to write down as much of this as you remember, now, in your shorthand, so we can give Papeete a full report if Buck makes any trouble.”
I dug in my pocket for my notebook and pencil, thinking —Big Ray, flattening them left and right with shorthand!
“He's smack in the wrong, won't open his yap,” Eddie said, taking the gun from Nancy's arm. “These carbines are good old rifles—nice and light. Where did you buy it?”
“In Samoa,” Nancy said, her leather face relaxing as she smiled. “Had some idea I might use it for shooting fish. I'm not as agile as I used to be.”
“Mama, if they... they hadn't agreed, would you have killed them?”
Nancy stared at Ruita for a second, squeezed her hand and said softly, “Yes.”
There was a long dull cough out in the lagoon, followed by a collective wail from the canoes. We spun around to see the Shanghai making for the channel under power, leaving canoes full of sick divers behind in the lagoon.
There was a moment of shocked silence as everybody stared at the schooner making for the channel.
Eddie shouted, “Son of a bitch!” and fired a wild burst at the Shanghai.
Nancy moaned, “Now we're stuck with them!”
Cumber said, “Schooner captain pretty bad fellow.”
This understatement started me giggling and Ruita shook me, asked, “Ray, can you catch them in the Hooker?”
“We can sure try!” Eddie said, dropping the gun.
I grabbed him before he could take off, ripping his T-shirt. “The Shanghai is at least several knots faster, and by the time we get under way she'll be out of sight.”
“At least we can give it a try!” Eddie said.
“There's only one way of overtaking them Chief, empty your strongest canoe and bring it here. Eddie, get the reserve can of gasoline from the Hooker. Ruita, you find me a bowl or bottle of coconut oil—but fast!”
“What have you in mind?” Nancy asked as the others didn't move.
“You'll see. Come on, get moving!” The sudden burst of activity made me feel great, and a little like a horse's end— I wasn't used to giving orders. I ran through the village till I came to the hut with the outboard. The old man wasn't there. I managed to hoist the damn heavy thing on my shoulder and trot back to the dock.
Eddie was waiting with the gas beside a big twenty-foot sailing canoe, and he asked, “Will that work?”
“Only one way of finding out. Give me a hand.” We pushed the canoe out into knee-deep water and attached the outboard to one side of the stern. The canoe started to go under. Eddie grabbed the motor, screwed the clamps to one of the outrigger booms, close to the hull as possible. It balanced, but the outrigger went deep into the water. I looked around for a rope to lash the outboard to the boom, couldn't find one.
Ruita came splashing into the water holding a quart rum bottle full of coconut oil. I mixed this in the outboard tank with two gallons of gas and motioned for Eddie and Cumber to get into the canoe. I stepped in as Ruita and Titi held the sides and got us balanced properly. I motioned for them to push us out as the old guy who owned the motor demanded to go along. I shook my head, and Titi held him from jumping in and sinking us all. Of course the motor didn't start the first time I yanked the rope or on the second or third times. The Shanghai was already in the channel. I wasn't sure if I had the right mixture, or even if coconut oil would work.
She coughed and smoked on the fourth attempt: I was scared I had flooded the carburetor. But on the next spin of the starter the motor came alive with a roar and the canoe jumped through the water like a speedboat. Eddie shouted, “Watch out for coral heads—hit anything at this speed and we'll be killed!”
The outboard steered easily: I twisted and turned through the canoes of the sick divers, almost laughing at the frightened look on Cumber's face as he crouched in the bow—which was now completely out of water. Our timing was swell—the Shanghai was just leaving the channel; there wouldn't have been room for our canoe and the schooner.
I gave her full gas, figured we were doing thirty miles or better as we sped through the channel. Hitting the open sea was like running into a soggy wall. The canoe shuddered as the bow sank, and I was sure we were going to take on water. But Tuamotu islanders know how to build boats; as I slowed the engine, the bow came up and soon we were skimming over the crest of the waves. Within seconds we were circling the Shanghai, the Chief shouting for Buck to stop. Not a soul even came to the rail to answer him.
I glanced at Eddie—we had to board the schooner! They were towing the long boat and as I circled again and came up behind that, Eddie shook his head. I pointed to the rope ladder hanging down the side of the schooner but Eddie shook his head again, shouted, “The lines hanging from the bowsprit!”
That called for tricky timing: one mistake and the Shanghai would cut us in two. But we had speed, could turn like a fish. Eddie stood up as I ran the canoe under the bowsprit; he grabbed a line with both hands, was jerked out of the canoe, one of his feet clouting me on the head. Eddie dangled in the air for a moment, then got his legs around the rope, pulled himself up onto the bowsprit.
My noggin was ringing as I started the canoe in a figure eight, motioned for Cumber to take over the outboard. He carefully crawled back to the center of the boat, reached for the steering handle of the motor as I shouted in French, “You stay in the canoe—stand by!”
Like all atoll men he was an expert sailor and as I cautiously stood up, balancing myself, he took me under the bowsprit. I managed to grab a line and was flung out into the air. I was sure my arms were coming out of their sockets and I'd land in the drink. I began pulling myself up, like an overstuffed stunt man, somehow got my arms and legs around the thick bowsprit I hung there for a moment, trying to clear my head. The Shanghai was dipping with the swell: a big wave licked my behind, had the effect of a cold shower. I got right-side up, crawled along the bowsprit to the deck. Eddie had been waiting for me and now he started limping slowly toward the stern, with Teng and Kid Marson coming towards us. Buck appeared, a belaying pin in his right hand.
My head was still ringing and one clear thought came through: now that we were here, we didn't have a plan, hadn't even brought a carbine along! Kid Marson looked as if he could take the both of us without working up a sweat. Along with the dizziness in my head, I had a clammy feeling in my gut.
I started for the Kid, but Eddie pushed me to one side and walked directly at the big blonde, saying, “Come here, you amateur slob!”
Teng was coming at me. I had a quick picture of Eddie ducking under Marson's right, of Eddie's left hook hitting the larded stomach and sounding like a slap of a wet fish... Kid Marson doubled up.
Teng was about a hundred pounds less than me and I didn't expect much trouble from him. I started what I fondly hoped would be a sweeping kayo punch and Mr. Teng pushed my hand away, seemed to jump up on my chest and dig his speakers into my stomach. The next thing I knew I was sailing through the air. Teng's Judo would have worked perfectly except for one thing—I tried to grab at anything with my right hand and got hold of his shirt collar. As my two hundred thirty pounds flew through the air, Mr. Teng followed like a tail on a kite.
I hit the deck so hard the air crashed out of me. I lay on my back like a crumpled rug. The force of my landing made me let go of Teng, who kept sailing through the air. He landed flush against the cabin wall, slid to the deck— out cold.
I finally got things in focus. Eddie was dancing around Buck, not giving him a steady target for his belaying club. The rest of the crew, mostly Tahitians, were atop the cabin except for a man at the wheel, and they all seemed content to be spectators. Near the canoes stacked on the stern I saw several islanders on mats, their sick faces very red and puffed.
I staggered to my feet, spotted Marson up near the bow, still on the deck and groaning. I ran at Buck. He turned and took a vicious swing at my head with his club, but I was already diving for his legs, remembering what little I knew of sandlot football. We both landed heavily on the deck, Buck under me, and if he was a giant of a man he was also at least sixty years old; all the pep had been bounced out of him.
I got the belaying pin and stood up, my head pounding again. Eddie said, real disgust in his voice, “Jeez, Ray, what you do that for? I been longing to cool this big bastard.”
“Can you make the helmsman put about?” I asked, as we heard this shout and ran to the rail. About one hundred yards off the stern Cumber was standing up in the canoe, violently pointing into the water. The outboard was gone. The clamps had worked loose from the boom and the whole thing slipped off. I motioned for him to paddle back to the lagoon while Eddie went up to the wheel. Eddie had no trouble; the Shanghai turned in an amazing small circle, headed back toward the channel.
Teng had come to, but hadn't got to his feet; Buck was sitting up; and Marson was vomiting over the rail. I stood in front of Buck, told him, “You're going to pick up your divers in the lagoon, we'll supply you with fresh food, and then you're heading direct for Papeete.”
He muttered something and I bent over to hear him and of course that. Was what he was waiting for. I saw his legs move and his feet caught me behind the knees. As I fell backwards I managed to smack him on the knee with the belaying pin and he screamed, dropped his legs as I came down on my can and landed so hard that I shook the fog out of my head.
Eddie ran over and pulled me to my feet. “Stay away from this bastard—he's mine. After what they did to us back in PellaPella... damn, what a beak for busting!”
“He's going to take his divers to Papeete.”
“Hell dump them on the first atoll he can land at!” Eddie went over and jerked Mr. Teng to his feet, almost dragged him into Buck's cabin. A moment later I heard Teng shouting he couldn't do something, then abrupt silence, and they both reappeared on deck. Teng's right eye was already closing and Eddie had a small strong box tucked under his right arm.
Eddie smiled down at Buck. “This I learned in a shoot-'em-up movie. The box will be returned to you in Papeete, if the port records show you entered within a week from today!”
Buck started for the box. Eddie held it in front of his face, said, “Go ahead, try to take it from me! I'm almost queer for that banana nose of yours!”
Buck dropped his hands. “This is piracy. I'll have you hung!”
Eddie pointed to the lock. “The money is safe. It's locked and you have the key.”
“And to make it all legal, we will let Cumber hold it,” I put in.
“Yeah, this is what they call security—you're putting it up. We ain't got a thing to do with it,” Eddie told him.
Buck cursed under his breath, and for some reason stared up at the sky. For a small second I almost felt sorry for the old bastard, being shown up in front of his crew, knowing how word of this would get around the waterfronts.
The man at the wheel took the schooner through the channel with expert ease and the canoe people cheered as they saw the ship. Without our telling them a word, the crew dropped anchor, cut the motor. A few minutes later Cumber scampered up the rope ladder.
I handed him the box, said, “Give Buck a receipt for this. Just write one box as bond that the Shanghai will be in Papeete within a week. Otherwise the box belongs to the people of Forliga.”
I'd been speaking mostly in English and Cumber said in Tahitian, “Good,” as though he had understood what I was saying. “Now I tell my people to fill the canoes with food for the divers.” He held the box in one hand and started to dive over the side as Buck roared. “Be careful with the box, you fool!”
“I put that in report to Governor, you call Chief of Forliga a fool!” Cumber snapped, then went down the ladder.
Buck groaned again and I told Eddie, “Let's get the divers back on here before one of them paddles ashore.”
Eddie ran to the bowsprit and shouted in Tahitian, “Come back to the ship. The people on Forliga are sending out enough fresh food for all. Captain Buck has agreed to take you to Papeete at once, where you will get the best medicines. To land on Forliga would only make everybody sick.” Eddie called to Cumber, paddling to shore, to hold up the strong box. “Captain Buck has put up much money to show he does not lie this time. The sooner you get your canoes on board, the faster you will be in Papeete, then in PellaPella.”
They didn't like the idea too much, the coconut palms of Forliga were so close, but they all returned to the Shanghai. Eddie and I stood on the stern, watched the divers and their families come up the ladder, as the crew hoisted the canoes to the deck. About half of them looked in a bad way, watery blisters on puffed faces, shaking with chills and fevers. Buck had disappeared into his cabin and Teng and Marson stood by sullenly. I expected Buck to come out with a pistol, but he didn't.
When three Forliga canoes full of nuts and what fruits and vegetables they had came alongside, Cumber shouted for the crew to lower baskets for the food; no islander was to go up on the deck—undoubtedly Nancy's advice.
It took about an hour to empty the canoes and when the last atoll canoe headed back for land, I said, “Let's get off here before Buck pots us with a gun.”
“He won't do a thing, long as we have that box.”
I started to call a canoe back but Eddie said, “Well swim. And don't worry about sharks—all this paddling about will have scared them off.”
We dived off and swam to the atoll as the Shanghai headed for the channel. Swimming, I could feel every movement of her diesels, like the damn ship was bearing down on us. As we waded ashore Nancy and Ruita came running down and kissed me. The rest of the islanders crowded around us as if we were heroes. And with or without all due modesty, I felt like one: it didn't feel bad at all.
By the middle of the afternoon a small feast was under way —after everybody had gathered at the church to pray and sing. At Nancy's request I had written everything down in case we had to report to Papeete, and I was a little tired and sleepy. But I couldn't pass up the feast—of nuts, fish, and palm wine.
I sat besides Ruita and ate a little, felt exhausted. My head was starting to ring again. Somebody made a speech, I think it was the Deacon, in which he said it was truly a miracle no one on Forliga had been stricken by the bad germs.
He was wrong, One person turned real sick—me.
I had a chill late in the afternoon, a raging fever by night. Eddie and Nancy fed me lime juice and aspirins, refused to allow Ruita in the cabin.
By the middle of the night I had the shakes, was vomiting all over my bunk, as my head pounded into a delirious coma.
The last thing I remembered was Nancy holding a lamp over me, anxiously examining my face. A million miles away I heard her say, “Not the pox. From the sounds in his chest, pleurisy—and pneumonia.”
I awoke in a sweat as a fat roach raced down my chest. It took me a moment to realize I was on the Hooker. From the motion, we were at sea. I called to Eddie. Nancy appeared, asked “How do you feel, Ray?” and sponged my face with a cool rag.
“Where... are... we?” Speaking was such a great effort.
The old woman gave me a tired smile and a cup of coconut water, called up to the deck, “Eddie, he's come around!”
The sun streaming through the portholes hurt my eyes. As I closed them Nancy said, “You've been very sick, Ray. I've kept you on a lime juice diet, to break the fever. We're headed for Numaga. I have penicillin there.”
I dozed off. When I awoke she was still by my bunk, but I knew from the sunlight several hours had passed. She told me, “You're not sweating as much. I'll make tea. Lord, you gave us a fright.”
“Got ... the bugs bad,” I said, my voice dry. The cabin stank, the copra stink plus another lousy odor—me.
“Want more water, Ray?”
“Yes. Where's Ruita?”
“I made her stay on Forliga. Couldn't risk having her on the boat with you. When the trading schooner stops, they will bring her to Numaga.”
She gave me more coconut water, warm stuff that almost gagged me. I managed to ask, “How long have I been... out?”
“Almost two days. Eddie, bring some tea.”
I tried to think about the two days which had passed, asked, “How... what about the travel ban?”
“Still on, when we left Forliga yesterday. But Papeete said things were under control and traveling might be allowed within a week.”
“If Buck hears we broke the...”-
“Forget that monster,” Nancy said. “If he should report it, I am truly doing the safest thing for the atoll people in taking you away. On Numaga I can easily isolate you from the few islanders. Don't you worry, just get plenty of sleep.”
Eddie yelled down for Nancy to take the wheel and she gave my puss a last sponge-off, went on deck. Eddie looked as healthy and muscular as ever. He gave me a mug of warm tea which made me sweat. “Thought I'd have to look for a new partner for a time.” He put a big hand on my head, his palm cool and fresh.
“Getting ready to bury me at sea?” I asked.
“Damn near. The fever has broke. You'll be okay tomorrow. Want to pee? I'll get you a can.”
I shook my head, told him, “You're sure the ugliest nurse I ever had.”
“Go back to sleep now.”
Soon as he left I dropped off. In the morning I felt strong enough to go on deck. The sun felt fine and the light hot wind drove some of the sweat odor off me. I wanted to take a pail bath, but Nancy wouldn't let me. We were tacking back and forth off Numaga reef, waiting for the tide to reach its height. Although it left me very tired, I was able to start the motor as Eddie took the Hooker over the rusty reef.
I was taken ashore, stuffed with penicillin tablets and orange juice, and propped up in a soft bed with clean sheets —all of which made me feel a trifle silly. Nancy made some sort of egg pudding which I swilled down and fell asleep.
When I opened my eyes the sun was dipping into the horizon. I got out of bed and walked—slowly—down to the lagoon and bathed; I felt much better. The old lady saw me as I was returning, bawled me out, hustled me back to bed.
She had the radio going in the next room. I fell asleep listening to the Papeete news—the Shanghai had arrived with a load of sick divers. The governor thought the travel ban would be lifted within twenty-four hours if no new cases were reported.
I awoke early in the morning, feeling strong, and I took a swim. There wasn't a soul around. I didn't even see Eddie out on the boat. Nancy wasn't up, and I found some coffee nuts, roasted them over a charcoal fire outside the kitchen. When they cooled off I shelled them, put the roasted beans into a small bag, smashing against it a rock to grind the coffee.
This left me tired and sweaty. I rested while the coffee cooked, had breakfast, and went inside and played some jazz records on Ruita's hi-fi. The silence plus the records made me restless, almost homesick. I kept telling myself all this would be different if Ruita were here—but how much different? The old lady appeared in a nightgown, smelled the coffee and told me, “Ray, you didn't have to make that for me.”
“Know I didn't have to, merely wanted to do something,” I said. Nancy went back to wash, and then to cook eggs.
After breakfast Nancy said she had to start working on her new specimens, arranging them or something, and I thumbed through some old Paris magazines Ruita had, still felt restless. I went down to the beach. There was Eddie standing in water up to his knees, hunting for sea urchins. I helped him and when we had about a dozen of these little prickly balls, Eddie dumped them into a burlap bag and shook them around till all their prickly spines had rubbed off against each other. Then we sat on the beach, cut them open with a knife and, with a lime, ate the delicious reddish insides. Eddie lay back on the sand, said, “This is the life.”
“Yeah, making coffee and catching sea urchins—big deal!”
“We'll sail for Papeete tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” I repeated. “I figured on waiting here till Ruita comes back. Our copra in bad shape?”
“So-so. Nancy wants you to get to Papeete right away.”
“What the hell's all the rush about?” I had a strong feeling if I left now, without seeing Ruita, I would never return.
“Nancy wants your lungs X-rayed. If you have any liquid there, might give you TB.”
“Told you I feel fine.”
“Go argue with her. And she can be right about the lung stuff. Anyway, we can go to Papeete and return here before Ruita does. Take time for a schooner to make the rounds to Forliga, what with the ban screwing up things.”
“Shell probably be here in a few weeks, and the copra will keep,” I said, knowing how stupid my words sounded, but trying to give some reason for staying.
“Ray, if you think that copra will keep you'd better have your nose X-rayed too,” Eddie said. “Come on, let's go up to the house and get a cold beer out of the icebox.”
We made some more coffee. Nancy joined us over a new pot-full. I asked, “What's this about you giving me the bum's rush?”
She looked puzzled. “Bum's rush?”
“I don't want to leave here so soon.”
“Indeed you will,” the old lady said firmly. “I want you under medical care as soon as possible.”
“Don't you think you might consult me as to what I want? I was planning to wait for Ruita.”
“That will be nearly a... a... yes, a month,” Nancy said, her face straining for a split second as she tried to remember the amount of time “Eddie says he can handle the boat alone, so you can take things easy.”
“I told Ray we can make Papeete and back in less than a month,” Eddie put in.
“Yeah, I guess we can make it in a month—if we get a cargo going this way,” I said.
Nancy gave me a sharp look. “What cargo?”
“I'm still a trader, have a boat, and a pay load to think of,” I said, both of us knowing what I meant, fencing with words.
“There will be a cargo of copra awaiting you here,” Nancy said. “I will see to it, if you wish.”
“Thank you. I'm always interested in a cargo,” I said, and it all sounded stupid. But I simply had to let her know. I didn't want to be treated as something she had bought for Ruita, like the record-player, or another palm tree on the island.
Eddie and I spent the rest of the morning cleaning up the Hooker, going over the rigging, airing the bilge. I didn't do much of the work but what little I did left me exhausted. Finally I stretched out in the shade of the cabin, said, “I'm pooped. Might be best to hang around for another week or so.”
Eddie studied the cloudless sky. “No rough weather coming up. You can do all the resting you want on the way to Papeete. What's with you, Ray, don't you want to leave here? Hell, we have this stinking cargo and the sooner we leave, more chance we'll have of making it back before Ruita returns.”
“We've always sailed whenever we felt like it. Now everything is rush, rush.” Maybe I was steamed at Eddie because I felt he, and everybody else, was in my business, not letting me work things out with Ruita my own way. But what was my way—running out on her?
“Nobody is rushing,” Eddie said, “but we do have a cargo to get rid of before it spoils, and the X-ray of your lungs. Also, I could do with a girl.” Eddie ran a hand over his sweaty chest. “I need a bath. I'll look our keel over, too.”
I lay on the deck most of the afternoon, hearing the quiet of the Numaga lagoon, thinking this quiet would be my life from now on. Of course there was nothing to stop me—and Ruita—from sailing to Papeete or visiting some of the other islands when ever we felt like it. Only why couldn't I be happy without the cheap delights of Papeete? And in time Papeete would wear off; I'd want the States and that would be the end of that—Ruita would never stand for being “colored” with all the direct and indirect restrictions that meant. Even in Paris Ruita wouldn't be happy.
Nancy appeared in a gay mood at supper and after a big meal of baked rice and squid, spiced with shreds of pork, we sat around and listened to records. High tide was due at dawn—Eddie had determined this merely by holding his hand in the water for a few minutes. Nancy said goodbye before she turned in, told me a list of things she wanted in Papeete. When she asked why I didn't write them down, I said, “I'll remember them.”
“Wonderful to have such a memory,” she said, faint sarcasm in her voice.
Again there was that tense, unsaid something between us: she sensed that the reason I didn't write them down was because I didn't expect to return. No matter how many times I told myself I would return, my inner mind said I was a liar. I was running away, as usual.
Eddie and I were up long before dawn. I was working over the motor when we heard a canoe coming and Nancy stepped aboard. She said she couldn't sleep, decided to see us off. As Eddie was getting the sails ready, the old lady took me aside, asked me bluntly, “Ray, are you returning within the month to marry Louise?”
“Why ... uh ... I haven't asked her yet, of course, and...” The uneasiness was obvious in my voice.
Nancy fumbled in the pocket of her sweater, handed me a slip of paper. I held it in front of the lamp—it was a check made out to me, on a Boston bank, for fifty thousand dollars!
“What's this for?” I asked.
“Ray, I said once before that you are weak. I don't know what you are seeking in these islands. But if it is money, the bank in Papeete will honor this. If you came to make your 'fortune' and then leave, go now. Louise's heart won't be broken as much as it will be if you pull out in a year or two.”
“What the hell do you think I am?” I asked fiercely, feeling naked before her.
“I have, tried to find out but I am not certain what you are. Maybe you're a bit of a fool, maybe merely confused, not sure of yourself. But then I am biased: Louise is my daughter and only a fool would throw her over.”
“Look, this is something for Louise and myself—and only us—to settle. I'm goddamn sick and tired of your nose in my business.”
Nancy said softly, her voice weary, “I know I have been the scheming mother-in-law. I hate the role. But you have become part of my 'business,' for the only business I have left in this world is to be sure Louise is happily settled. My mind isn't getting any better and I have not much time.”
“Don't go dramatic on me. You're as healthy as a horse!”
“My body is healthy but not my crumbling brain. I shall not hang around to become a lingering idiot. One of these days I shall swim out to sea. Twice in my life I have nearly drowned, have learned that water is a painless suicide. I tell you all this because if you are somewhat of a fool, you are not a scoundrel. You have money, if that is what you have been searching for. The decision is up to you.”
“This is my decision!” I snapped, tore the check up and threw the pieces over the side.
She shrugged, studied my face for a long moment then said sadly, “No, I do not think you have reached a decision. I hope with all my heart this isn't goodbye, Ray.” She touched my hand, waved at Eddie, and stepped back into her canoe.
I got the motor running, Eddie pulled up anchor and we headed toward the reef. I watched Nancy standing in the canoe, waving at us, a lonely figure against the breaking, bleak dawn.
As we crossed the reef, ran up the sails, and cut off the engine I felt damn good I'd been strong enough to tear up the check in her face. But there was another thought haunting me, one which made me feel ashamed. Later, when Eddie asked what had happened between myself and Nancy, I told him, and he had the same thought, minus any shame.
He asked casually, “You think the check was good?”
I moved deeper into the shade of the cabin, watching the aeoei-shaded Papeete waterfront, hearing the sharp horns of the bicycles and frantic taxis on the Quai du Commerce. I was trying to sleep off a hangover. Eddie was stretched out near me, merely trying to sleep. I had been falling down drunk the night before; in fact I had been on a bender for several weeks.
It was all very dramatic and like a bad movie. Four days ago had been exactly a month since we'd left Numaga and Ruita had probably long since arrived there. I was still in Papeete, trying to find my future in a bottle.
We had sighted Point Venus on the third day out from Numaga, a stiff breeze pushing us all the way. Olin had taken our cargo, a doctor said my lungs were okay, and within two days after we landed there wasn't a single thing holding me in Papeete—except myself. And whenever I was sober enough to think, I held a number of all-night conversations with me as I lay atop the cabin, the cool night hupi drying off the rum sweating out of my pores.
They weren't very bright conversations. Sometimes I felt downright sorry for myself, giving up Ruita and our love, making a sacrifice for her happiness. I told myself I would be very honest—I was afraid of the responsibilities of another marriage, I didn't want to give up the carefree life of being a starving trader. Or I came up with a new idea: somehow I would get a bigger boat and Ruita and I would sail around the islands, trading. As I was chewing this one over, the hupi died down and the stench from our hold damn near made me give up.
Days and weeks went by with me either drunk—on credit while it lasted—or arguing with myself, and never winning an argument. Eddie wisely kept out of things. My “official” excuse was we were waiting for a cargo, which didn't make any sense: who would be shipping a cargo to an almost deserted island like Numaga?
Once, when we first ran out of francs and credit, Eddie came apart with, “You bastard, acting like all the other lousy popaas! I bet you've knocked her up already and are scared of—”
I clipped him with all I had in the way of a right hand and although he rolled with the punch, it still dropped him. When he jumped up and came at me, I dived over the side of the Hooker. Despite his being an islander, I was a better swimmer than Eddie, my fat making me more comfortable in the water. He knew he had no chance against me as long as I stayed in the water and after a couple minutes of cursing, Eddie suddenly laughed and shouted, “Come on out before you make the fish drunk.”
He helped me back on deck, asked, “No kidding, Ray, why don't you go back to Numaga?”
“I don't really know, except I'm scared.”
“If you're scared, don't go. What are you scared of?”
“I don't know,” I said stupidly.
Another time, when we were out in the dinghy, fishing, I told Eddie, “If I settle down on Numaga, you find yourself a girl and do the same.”
He shook his head. “No. I'll buy you out, pay you when I have the francs. Living in one spot ain't for me.”
“Why not?” I asked eagerly, hoping he had the answer for me, too.
“Because when I stand still some damn popaa comes along and gives me this 'colored' crap, the 'dumb, childish native' line. This way, on my own boat, it never catches up with me.”
It all added up to one fact: instead of being on Numaga with the girl I loved, I was slobbering all over the Papeete waterfront, making a damn fool of myself.
Now, I heard Eddie move and looked his way. He had his eyes half-opened, as if he was too lazy to either completely close or open them. There was couple of nuts in the shade near him and I said, “Hand me a nut—I'm dry as sand inside.”
Eddie rolled over, grabbed two coconuts and we each had one. He took out a cigar. I was surprised; we hadn't seen a franc in weeks. I asked him where he got it. He just said, “Found it,” and sent out a cloud of stinking smoke, making my eyes smart.
I felt Eddie's toes nudge me as he said, “We got a visitor. Dubon. Wish we had some francs. I could do with a night of Heru again.”
I raised myself on one elbow and looked toward the stern. Henri Dubon waved as he came up the gangplank, his face wet with sweat; the dirty linen suit was stained under the armpits.
He shoved his old straw hat back on his head, dropped his battered briefcase as he sat between us, cleverly announced, “Goddamn, is very hot.” He said this in English with the phony French accent he put on for tourists.
When Eddie told him, “Then why don't you jump overboard and cool off? You could stand a bath,” Henri grunted and answered in his best GI English, “Up yours. Can you spare a nut?”
Eddie pushed a drinking nut toward Dubon, who took out his switchblade and cut an opening, put the nut to his lips. A knife had to be real sharp to slash a nut like that.
Dubon tossed the nut overboard but it struck the railing and bounced back on the deck, at his feet. Henri took out a pack of English cigarettes, lit one, and quickly slipped the pack in his pocket. Eddie blew cigar smoke in his face, said, “Dubon, you smell like a pig but there's a rumor you're human. We keep a clean ship. Kick that damn nut into the water.”
Henri slipped Eddie a lazy glance, then grunted as he shoved the nut over the side. We all watched the splash. Henri wiped his forehead with a pink handkerchief, announced it was damn hot again, and what a busy-busy morning he'd had. A large yacht from Canada had sailed into the harbor the day before—a sleek mahogany and teak yawl anchored off the quay within sight of the Hooker. Henri jerked his thumb at the boat and told us he had been busy showing three fat couples the sights of Papeete that morning. At noon he'd suggested the ladies retire to their boat, escape the heat, while he had steered the men to Heru. Unhappily, he went on in explosive fast French, she had found a bottle of wine and was so drunk the yachtsmen had turned her down. Dubon finished by wiping his sweaty face as he cursed Heru, his luck, the tourists, and the world in general.
Henri opened his briefcase and took out a battered copy of Billboard, pretended he was reading it. I wondered how in hell he ever got ahold of the magazine and Eddie gave me the eye—we were waiting for his proposition. Henri never dropped in just to chatter and he knew we were broke, so he had a deal of some sort cooking in his fat brain.
Henri kept reading and finally Eddie's curiosity got the best of him and he asked, “What kind of a magazine is that?”
“A theatrical periodical from the States,” Henri said with comic seriousness. “One day I my take a troupe of Tahitian dancers on tour of the States and Europe.”
I said, “Old hat.”
“Old hat?” he repeated, puzzled, and asked in French what that meant. When I told him he repeated the words several times with great pleasure and I knew I'd hear the phrase the next time we talked. He said, “But this will not be any old stuff like the shimmy. A Tahitian hula will knock them in the aisles.”
“A real one is pretty hot,” Eddie agreed.
Henri sighed. “But these natives, they will not—”
“Islanders,” Eddie cut in.
“Yes, these islanders, they will not rehearse, make a name here so we can arrange bookings in the States. They have no understanding of making money. Look at the pitiful tourist business we get here. The government should encourage tourists, like they do in Hawaii.”
“Hawaii? Jeez!” Eddie said, neatly spitting over the rail.
“Everything is run here on a small scale, with great inefficiency as I have often said,” Henri went on. “The few tourists who do come here, like the people from this yacht we take them for only a handful of francs. We need a package deal.” He pronounced these last two words with great care, as though tasting them.
Eddie blew out a cloud of smoke. “A what?”
“You have been in America and do not know what a package deal means?” Henri asked, amazed. “I read much about it in this magazine and in other copies I have read. Instead of a cafe hiring a band, a singer, and dancers, the agent furnishes all the entertainment. A package means less trouble and more money for all. We should have a package deal for the tourist.”
“Like what?” Eddie asked.
“Dubon means he'll have postal cards already stamped, written, and addressed—save the tourist time,” I cornballed.
“I mean,” Henri shrilled, “we sell them what they want, they will pay hundreds of dollars instead of a hundred francs!”
“You give them what they want—when Heru is sober,” Eddie told him.
Henri didn't pay any attention to Eddie; instead he turned to me and added, “Monsieur Ray, if we tied our paradise package in bright pareu ribbons, we could make much money.”
“We?” My hangover didn't allow for any hard thinking.
Henri nodded, broke into fast French. “The pretty ribbons are the coral heads off Moorea—any place not more than a few hours sailing. These worthless dabs of land with a few coconut palms are too small for any use. But for us they become islets of dollars!”
“Okay, what about them?” I asked. This was his pitch— he needed a boat.
“Suppose we take over one of them, build a thatched hut? I put Heru there with flowers in her hair, some tapa bark cloth around her hips. We stock up plenty of food, let Eddie act like a nat... an islander. Perhaps we will cut in another tone and vahine. You see the package?”
Eddie and I shook our heads like puppets.
Henri waved a fat hand in the air, sweat rolled down his neck, onto his dirty collar. “Sometimes I believe I am the only man in Tahiti with a head for business! Now listen to me: instead of hustling these tourists for a few lousy francs, I pick out a man who has money. I get into a conversation with him at a bar, and off-hand I mention I know of an unknown island, so small no whites ever bothered with it.
On this island there is a beautiful vahine who it is said longs to see a nice popaa, all for free, of course. I say I wish I wasn't married here in Papeete, or I would surely go for this beautiful and lonely girl. The sucker bites, wants to know if it is possible for him to go there in the few days he has in port. I inform him it is possible in a small boat, that in truth I happen to know of a boat for charter—yours. We start off modestly, we charge the man three hundred American dollars. Are you interested?”
“What's the rest of this sales talk?” Eddie asked.
Henri waved the fat hand again. “Mon Dieu, can you not see it?”
I shrugged and Dubon said, “You are both blind! Once the man is on this boat, the money paid in advance of course, we sail out to sea and at night we cut back, so our sucker believes we have been sailing all night. Maybe we are only two dozen miles from here, say at the other end of Tahiti, off Point Puha. The exact spot we shall have to hunt for with care. But we land in the morning and Heru welcomes him as the great popaa god. Eddie cooks a big meal, a whole roasted pig and many fruits. Maybe we even hire some fool to drum and dance. Heru and Eddie are delighted with gifts of beads and other crap. The man has been fed well, and at night Heru will take care of his other appetites. The following day we sail, return to Papeete in the morning. Our tourist is most happy. At last he has seen the real South Seas, found a lovely princess madly in love with him. He will be the hero of all the cafe gossip back in his home town. Paradise in a package! This has many angles. Now, you like the idea?”
“Nobody would be dummy enough to fall for a set-up like that,” Eddie said.
“Yes, they would,” I said. “World is full of island-happy dreamers.” I almost added, “I know!”
“So what you think?” Henri asked impatiently.
“I don't like the idea, but what's our cut?” Eddie asked, re-lighting the stub of his cigar.
“Half. You will supply the boat and the food. I find the sucker, toss in Heru and what other... islanders we need. On the Post Office bulletin board there is an announcement of a round-the-world cruise ship putting into Papeete next week. She will remain four days. That is our chance.”
Eddie fingered his prune-ear and flattened nose. “Won't my puss make the joker suspicious?” .
“We have to be careful about speaking English or French. As for your face, we can tell him you really are a Lion Face... no, that would frighten him. Don't worry—with Heru around why should he worry about your face?” Dubon turned to me. “You have not made a comment, Ray.”
I belched several times by way of an answer. I felt a little better—the deal wasn't too far-fetched. Our cut would be a hundred and fifty bucks, more than we cleared on a cargo. Of course this would put us in Henri's class, kind of panders by accessory. But with seventy-five bucks I could bring Ruita something decent—even a real wedding ring. I told myself maybe that was the thing troubling me. I felt like a poor relation, a kept man; she had everything.
Dubon said, “Why the silence?”
“I'm thinking,” I said.
He stood up and pulled a wad of money from his pants pocket, peeled off a thousand franc note, said, “Perhaps this will seal our deal.”
I glanced at Eddie. He nodded. “That will bind it for Ray, but for me—maybe I'll go over and see Heru now. One partner talking to another.”
“You are welcome to her,” Henri began. “I will—”
“I didn't ask you if I would be welcome or not.”
Henri handed me the money, got his magazine and briefcase together, straightened his greasy hat as he said, “In a day or so we shall find our hunk of paradise and prepare things. Come, Eddie, I shall take you to Heru.”
As Eddie stood up, Dubon took his arm. Eddie pushed him away. “I can find her myself.” As they walked off the cutter Eddie called over his shoulder, “Save a bottle for me, Ray.”
I didn't run off the ship and buy a bottle—right away. I sat on the cabin, a little excited about the deal. Maybe I could make the Hooker a part of a real sightseeing business, daily cruise around Tahiti? Hell, I was only helping Heru make some folding money—if she gave it all to Henri that was her business. And if the tourists were looking for that, it really didn't make any difference where they found it. There was talk of more cruise ships, tourist planes, stopping at Papeete, this could be the start of a real business; I could settle down in Papeete with Ruita, be a big man in the islands.
The idea was full of holes—I didn't want to be a big man, Ruita hated Papeete. Also there was no point in kidding myself, I was pimping. Without arguing about it, I decided I was going through with the deal. That decided, I went ashore and bought a litre of rum, got properly juiced.
Two days later, with Dubon and Heru aboard, we pulled anchor, went hunting for our islet. Although we were leaving port we didn't bother stopping at customs. The Papeete gossip already was broadcasting our plan and customs knew we weren't doing any trading on this trip. Henri was in a bad mood; he had wanted Heru to stay ashore and tend to her regulars, but she hadn't been sailing since she came to Papeete, and like all atoll people, she loved boats.
Eddie wasn't in a bright mood either. The night before he had been against the whole idea, saying it made him feel crummy. I'd told him, “But we've spent Dubon's francs.”
“Let him whistle up his nose for it. So he put on a show with his knife, slashing that nut open—a shiv don't mean nothing to me.”
“No, we've committed ourselves, we're in it,” I'd said, and somehow the whole messy idea fascinated me—as if I was punishing myself for being such a jerk with Ruita.
We sailed around Tahiti's tail end, which sticks out like a clam neck, with a number of coral heads long ago fertilized by bird droppings and seeds till palm trees and brush had sprung up. But there were too many villages on the mainland, not to mention a car scooting along Boom Road now and then.
We sailed around Moorea, whose jagged mountains made the sunsets as seen from Papeete so terrific. We found a tiny island which would do, but it was impossible to bring the boat up close, and I wasn't risking the Hooker for any seventy-five bucks. We decided to try the island of Huahine, which is about eighty miles from Tahiti—a six-hour sail for a fast boat.
We got there late in the afternoon and found our islet— an oval-shaped hunk of sand and coral about three hundred feet long, with a cluster of coconut trees in the center, plus some brush. It was part of the reef, and about a half a mile from the main island of Huahine, but there was enough water for the Hooker and we couldn't see a hut or a person on the mainland.
We spent the night on the boat, all of us sleeping on deck, each of us taking a three-hour anchor watch. Henri had been thoughtful enough to bring a couple of jugs of vin ordinaire and Heru got high. She seemed stupidly vulgar to me, a coarseness which was neither islander or Western, but rather unreal.
When the sun awoke us we went ashore. Heru looked pretty bad. She was wearing a gaudy green satin dress, wide feet crammed into slightly cockeyed high-heel shoes. Her eyes were bloodshot, her dress stained with sweat and wine. Eddie managed to climb a palm tree and throw down some nuts and leaves. A drink of coconut water seemed to straighten Heru out and she kicked off her shoes, washed the dirty make-up off her face, and wove the leaves into mats. For a second I thought of Ruita on our islet and felt so angry with myself for being a lousy coward that I started working like an eager beaver. We cleaned the island of coral rocks, built several lean-tos and one good hut, dug a fire pit, and in general made things look livable. We all worked hard, even Henri who refused to take off his shirt or linen suit although they were both soaking with sweat.
An old man paddled over from the island, politely asked what we were doing. He was a fat man with a very large face making him look bigger than he was. Somehow his name was Jack Pund. We told him we were about to rehearse a movie. He asked if Bill Cody was with us as he saw him every week on the screen. Eddie later found out they had one movie on Huahine, a Western, which was shown over and over.
Dubon gave Jack a slug of wine and a few francs and he helped us make more mats, showed us a spot where it was possible to swim without cutting yourself to pieces on the coral. Henri sort of hired Jack to look after things—and mainly to keep his mouth shut and keep any of the other islanders away—with the promise we would bring him a glass ash tray from Papeete. We sailed before sundown and reached Papeete in the morning.
Two days later we reached the islet in the middle of the day, put Eddie ashore with Heru, a small live pig, fishing spears, some food, and a couple of cigars. Tack Pund came paddling over wearing a torn shirt and a pair of almost new dungarees. We set up the mats to form a hut and a number of lean-tos, started a fire. Eddie gave me last minute instructions on how to sail the Hooker to Papeete and back by compass, wrote down the exact course. We agreed I wasn't to try it single-handed unless the weather was perfect.
“I can steer,” Henri said. “I have been to sea in—”
“Shut up,” Eddie said, gazing up at the sky and then at the horizon. “Don't think anything will come up within the next few days, but remember, Ray, if you have any doubts about the weather, stay in Papeete.”
Heru was sleeping under a palm tree and Jack Pund reminded us we hadn't brought his ash tray, a red glass one he wanted now. He was busy making a little brew by the simple process of putting sugar in a nut and carefully burying it. The last thing we took off the Hooker was a bolt of blue and white Pearl cloth to be worn as a pareu. Henri told Eddie, “Remember, now, plenty of flowers for Heru's hair, you and Pund wrap some of these around yourselves. Hide your clothes and her dress good. The cruise ship is due tomorrow, so we should be out by tomorrow night or the next morning.”
Jack Pund told us in Tahitian not to forget his ash tray, then asked, “Why must I wear a silly cloth around my behind instead of pants?”
“I'll explain later. It is part of the movie we are doing,” Eddie told him, then added in English, “Be best to keep this joker drunk.”
We made it back to Papeete before dark and I was damn proud of my navigating. Henri talked all the way, about how tough it was to make a fast franc in France these days and what a smart operator he was for staying in the Pacific. Some day he would surely return with a fortune and settle on the Cote d'Azure.
When I asked if the Riviera was as pretty as Tahiti he looked at me as if I was a moron and said, “But, Ray, the Riviera is in France!”
I was glad to dock and be rid of him. I cleaned the decks and slept like a rock. In the morning, flags were hoisted on the tower atop Signal Hill and a few hours later the cruise ship entered the harbor. She was a twenty-two thousand ton beauty and dwarfed everything. I sat on the Hooker as she steamed by, watched the tourists watching me. She was too large to anchor at the quay and soon boats were busy ferrying the tourists in, the men wearing slacks and loud shirts as though they were a uniform; most of the women fat and noisy in light dresses. Of course everybody was sporting a camera.
Late in the afternoon Henri rushed aboard, said he was working on a possible sucker, but this pitch took time and by tomorrow the sucker would either bite or we had wasted a few days. I was so angry at the very thought that this might fall through, you'd think I pimped every day. I cursed Henri out and he told me to stop acting the fool, gave me some francs to buy a bottle.
“What the hell is this, a handout?”
“When a man is in need of a drink he should drink. Now be patient, I am very busy on this deal.”
Henri left and I cooked a can of beans and went ashore. It was funny, maybe pathetic, to see the several hundred tourists decked out in flowers like walking corpses, haggling over trinkets, and then dumping dollars into the merchants' hands. My red beard was a big attraction and I must have been photographed a hundred times to the whispers of, “Look, a beachcomber!” Or: “He looks big enough to be an American.”
All the bars were doing a big business and as I passed one a woman cried out with a slight drawl, “Herbert, you stop smiling at those nigga-gals!”
I turned to see what this specimen looked like, and saw him. He was sitting alone at a table near the door, handsome face in profile toward me. He was wearing a new yachting cap at a rakish angle, a light blue silk jacket and a very white silk scarf knotted around his neck. He was toying with a lime and gin.
It had to be Barry Kent. I knew that handsome face too well, and the outfit was exactly what he would wear. I wondered if Milly was with him. But somehow, from the way the empty chairs were close to the table, I knew he was alone. I stared at him for several uncertain minutes, wondering what I should do. He took out a pack of cigarettes and put the entire pack to his mouth, pulled the pack away, leaving a cigarette between his lips. That did it—it was Barry, all right; I'd seen him do that practiced movement too often.
I saw myself in the dusty glass window of the bar. My sneakers were tom and without laces, my pants bleached a dirty tan by the sun and salt, my T-shirt was sweat-stained. My “yacht” cap was all out of shape, while my face looked as if a handful of red hair was hanging down over my chin. I looked exactly like what I was—a sea-going bum.
Walking into the bar, I passed his table and he didn't recognize me. I came up behind him, swallowed, then asked as casually as I could, “Spare a cigarette, Barry?”
I had to hand it to him, he didn't react the way I expected. He barely reacted at all—merely glanced up at me, his eyes widening a little but nothing else disturbing that groomed after-shaving-lotion face. Then he threw back his head and laughed, real deep laughter.
I pulled out a chair and sat down. “Thought I looked a fright, not funny,” I said. ”
“Ray Jundson! So this is where you've been staked out!” he said. His Dale Carnegie voice hadn't changed. “My God, I've looked all over the country for you, even hired a private dick. It's rather funny to stumble across you here! What are you doing in Tahiti?”
“I didn't come on any cruise ship with a round trip ticket in my pocket,” I said, taking a cigarette out of his pack and lighting it. I still couldn't feel angry at the guy.
He finished his drink, his eyes taking in all my torn and worn clothing. He held up his empty glass and I nodded. He ordered two. Barry said, “You look good. Weather-beaten face, body leaner. Just what are you doing here?”
“Living the good life, the one we always bulled about. I'm a South Seas trader, with my own boat and all the rest of it. Or has the South Seas kick worn off for you?”
“No, the dream is still there. Or I wouldn't be on this cruise. Ray, you really went and did it, like in the books?”
“Yeah. The books were liars but it still is pretty good. I've even been to the house of Edmond Stewart.” The waiter put bur drinks before us and I grinned at Barry. “Like the old days, gassing about the islands over cocktails.”
Barry pushed his hat back. “I can't believe it. Never thought you'd have the nerve.”
“You gave me that,” I said, taking a drink. The gin was smooth and strong. “When I... uh ... found you and Milly, this seemed to be the ideal way of getting even. How is she?”
“You really want to know?”
“No, but how is she?”
“Exactly as you left her, hard, tough, pushing. You know, Ray, I always thought of you as a good-natured dope. Not about Milly, but in general, a slob in a middle-class rut. But by God, you fixed me! I never thought you'd be here, living my dreams and ...”
There was sincere envy in his voice and I enjoyed it. “Milly with you?”
“Hell no, she certainly is not with me. Frankly, Ray, I kind of ran off. She's put me through a grinder this last year and when I lucked up on a small windfall, returned taxes, I simply chucked everything and left. Does she write you?”
“Doesn't know where I am.”
“You don't know she divorced you?”
Barry slapped his hand on the table. “That bitch! Said she was in touch with you all the time. You were out west supposedly drinking your sorrow and getting ready to sue me, big scandal stuff. Milly even nicked me for a couple of grand to 'keep you quiet.' Then she insisted I get a divorce and marry her. I had to give my wife damn near every cent I had.”
“This is mere curiosity—did you ever care for your wife, Barry?”
“In a way. She was convenient, like a perfect maid. Ran my house exactly right, could be relied upon to say the correct things when we entertained. She was a wife in quotes, never came alive for me. Much as I hate Milly, in her own bitchy way she's real—all Milly. She secured a divorce, claimed with your consent—and by God, maybe her divorce isn't legal! Wire my lawyers to look into that. That would be the first piece of luck I've had since you pulled out.”
“You and Milly are married?”
He nodded. “Trapped would be a better word. She's got her hooks into everything I have, tied me up proper. Even pulled a phony pregnancy trick on me to make sure I married her. Milly is ... I didn't come to Tahiti to talk about Milly. Man, tell me the truth, how is it—really?”
It took me a half a dozen drinks to tell him, and I told him pretty straight—about Olin and Buck and Forliga and Pella-Pella—puffing things up just a little, maybe forgetting about the copra stink and the bugs. Barry sopped it all up, envy on his face. And we both kept drinking gin and limes, were pretty crocked by the time I got around to Ruita.
He said, “God, a beautiful girl and an island, too! But if you didn't know you were divorced how could you consider marrying her?”
“Still have your suspicious mind, don't you Barry? Look, in the islands the marriage ceremony isn't important. People live together because they want to, not because a hunk of paper binds them together.”
“But are you married to her or not?”
“That is a question I've been trying to decide myself,” I said, staring at his expensive yacht cap: where the gold anchor was I saw a small TV screen and on the screen was the scene of Barry and Milly in my bed, me merely turning and walking out of the room without hitting him. I kept watching this scene, over and over, right on his cap—and knowing I was damn drunk—as I tried to explain my doubts about settling down with Ruita.
When I finished, Barry stood up and swayed as he fought to keep his balance, announced, “Ray, you've been selling me a crock of bull. You have a dream girl on a beautiful island but you're worried about too much quiet! Know what I think? You haven't a boat, haven't a damn thing! You're on the bum here. By God� bet you've only been here a few days at that, probably thrown off some tramp freighter!”
When he stood it was hard for me to see the scene on his cap. I stood up too, said, “Okay, I'll show you my boat. Pay for the drinks, executive.” Now the scene came into sharp focus. Barry on his stomach, Milly sitting up and saying, 'Well, Ray?' What a stupid, pained look on my puss as I turned and left the room, like a noble motion picture gentleman.
Barry called the Chinese waiter over, grandly waved a twenty-dollar bill in his face as he said, “Here, keep the change. I know you're overcharging me, but I'd do the same if I was in your place. All right, let's see the alleged boat.”
We staggered out into the street and down to the docks, holding onto each other like queers, for balance. We were the subject of much local giggling and camera snapping.
“You still can't hold your liquor.” He took off the cap. “Stop staring at it. Here, I'll make you a present of it.”
When he took the cap off my little private TV screen disappeared and I shouted, “No! Wear it. Damn it, Barry, put that cap on!”
“Afraid I'll get sunstroke? Trade it for your cap.”
I pushed his hand away from my head and he put his cap on, with a mock bow which nearly upset the both of us as he said, “Aye, aye, Captain. Ahoy, Captain. Captain Ray Jundson of Papeete—oh, God!”
Soon as he put the cap at an angle, the tiny TV scene returned.
The sun was dropping and it was fairly cool when we reached the quay. As we staggered up the gangplank of the Hooker I said proudly, “This is mine. Finest cutter afloat.”
As if caressing a woman, Barry wandered around the ship, feeling the wheel, touching the rigging, the sails, looking into the cabin. He kept mumbling, “My, my, what a sweet job I Oh, what a honey!” Then he said loudly, curtly, “Ray, you're a lying swine. This can't be yours!”
“Ill show you the papers,” I said, but Barry had walked off the gangplank and was standing on the quay, where he had a full view of the cutter's lines. He sat down and held his knees, stared at the Hooker.
I staggered over. He was weeping. I sat beside him, so I could see the scene on his cap again, and asked, “You sick?”
“Sick with jealousy,” Barry said, drunken tears slopping down his handsome face. “Listen to me, Ray, I have some money, let me stay here as your partner!”
“Already have a partner. As for money, I tore up a check for fifty grand yesterday—no—that was over a month ago. A long lousy month!”
“Ray, I'm sick of the States. Everything is all double-talk. Ray, we can buy a larger ship, a—”
I shook my head and it almost came off. I hadn't had any gin in a long time and it was really kicking me. I was having a hard time keeping Barry's cap in focus; the picture of myself being so smart and noble. The perfect sap in...
“Ray, you're not even listening to me. With my money we can get a better boat, do more business.”
“I don't want a bigger boat and there isn't any better. Barry, go back to Chicago where you belong.”
“Who the hell are you to tell me where I belong? Ray, please, maybe I can get a native girl and then the four...?”
On this cap my face suddenly filled the screen, a close-up reflecting the painful resignation, the stupid cuckolded husband walking away from it all.
I vaguely heard myself mumbling, “They are islanders, never call them natives...” Then I couldn't stand the picture of myself any longer: I swung on Barry.
Even though I was sitting I managed to get enough weight behind the blow to knock him sideways. His lips were bloody as he scrambled to his feet. Barry looked fantastically big and tall standing over me, yelling, “Get up, you dumb bastard!”
I started to get up. Something exploded on my right eye. I fell on my back. The punch rattled my brains, sobered me up. Of course there weren't any more pictures on his cap.
Getting half-way up, I tackled Barry and we rolled over and over, throwing short punches at each other. I tasted blood in my mouth but blood was running from his nose and mouth, his fancy scarf was ripped, his hair was mussed—the first time I could remember seeing it that way; even in bed it had been perfectly combed—and above all, the panic in Barry's eyes was the sweetest thing I ever saw.
Even though we were both puffing and grunting, I knew I was in better shape—till Barry got a knee working in my stomach and I blacked out for a split second. I vomited up all the lime and gins, over the both of us, and had a moment of wild relief as I got my shoulders off the sand and belted Barry on the nose.
Blood spread over the lower part of his face and he rolled off me, gasped, “Okay, Ray, I've had it.”
We lay flat on our backs, breathing hard. Oddly enough, not a soul was standing around or watching us. Barry stuffed the torn ends of his scarf up his nose to stop the bleeding. “What did I say that was wrong? What started this?”
“I've been thinking about smacking you for a long time. This is what I should have done when I found you with Milly.”
He shook his head and a little blood started from his stuffed nose. “I don't get it. Even if you felt that way, what's the point in slugging me now?”
“Has a lot of point, for me. Trite as this may sound, now that I've hit you there's a big load off my chest.”
Barry said, “Oh, for Chrissakes, this climate is softening your head!” and got to his feet. “Where can I wash up? Use the bathroom on your boat?”
“The bathroom on my boat is right here,” I told him, pointing to the water's edge.
We washed our heads and faces, went aboard the Hooker and made some bad coffee. My eyes was turning purple and my lower lip was puffed, while Barry couldn't stop the blood trickling from his nose, had a bruise on his cheek, a nasty cut on his forehead, plus a torn shirt and scarf. When we finished our coffee he said, “I have to buy some clothes, cant go back like this.”
“Why not? You'll be the hero of the cruise, battled a beachcomber and all that derelict stuff.”
He said, “Ray, you know you've become a mean bastard?”
“No, I never could get mean enough, I guess. Look, to buy clothes you'll have to go to a Chinese store, the others will be shut by now. Come on, I'll show you.”
I took him down through one of the Chinese streets. He bought a white sport shirt and a new cap, threw his old ones away. We stopped for a sandwich and more coffee. When we hit the street I told him, “I have to return to the ship, expecting a joker on a deal.” And I thought how hysterical it would be if Henri's sucker turned out to be Barry.
Kent said, “Look here, Ray, I may have been drunk awhile back, but I meant that about going in with you.”
“No dice. Hell, nobody stopping you from going to the States, taking what cash you have and returning.”
“It wouldn't work. I'd have to make the break now or never.”
“That's right,” I told him, “and for you it will be never. Just as well. You're not ready for anything but armchair sailing.”
“Damn, you've become a smug bastard as well as a mean sonofabitch!”
I laughed at him. “I been eating crow for a long year, maybe all my life. Let me be smug for tonight.”
Barry told me to do something to myself and walked away. From the rear, in his new clothes, he looked as smooth and confident as ever.
I walked back to the quay, feeling jerky, childish... and wonderful. As I approached the Hooker I saw two men standing beside the gangplank. As it was growing dark I couldn't make them out, but a second later Henri called out in his tourist special thick accent, “Ah, Cap-a-tan Ray, there you are!”
He had a tall stout man in tow who looked in his late fifties and everything about him—the carefully brushed silver-grey hair, well-fed pink face, seersucker suit, and thin nylon shirt—shouted money, folding money.
I said, “Hello, Henri. Come aboard,” and walked up the gangplank ahead of them.
In this cockeyed broken English Dubon said, “Cap-a-tan, I am tres glad to zee you. You have been in zee fights?”
“Nothing much. Who's your friend?”
Henri hit himself across the chest and bowed to the stout man. “Excuse my man-hairs I Cap-a-tan Ray, these is most good friend of mine, Monsieur Brad Randall. He, too, is from zee America.”
We shook hands and Randall said, “We Americans sure get around. Thought Dubon was stringing me when he said there was a Yankee running a trading schooner here.”
“Not exactly a schooner but a good enough boat. What business are you in, Mr. Randall?”
“Don't say. If you have any goods with you, nails, hammers, pliers, screws—all good for trading in the islands.”
Randall slipped me a deep chuckle. “I also sell sporting goods and you look like a prospect for a headguard—or is the other guy cut worse?”
“Guess it was a draw. Seriously, if you have goods...”
Again the chuckle that rocked his stomach. “This is strictly a vacation trip for me. I was having a drink with Dubon here and he mentioned this island that...”
I cut him off by turning on Henri, asking, “What you telling people about that island for?”
“I do wrong? Monsieur Randall is most interested in zee islands. So I happen to say zee petit island you tell me.”
Randall asked anxiously, “It is true, isn't it—this untouched island?”
“Yes. Nothing there but a few people. No copra or shell to make it worthwhile for trading. It's off a larger island, but regarded as taboo for some reason, so the islet people are rarely visited, and of course never by a ship. I heard about it by pure accident.”
“Have you been there, Captain Ray?” Randall asked.
“I've been to the larger island but never to the islet. As I said, nothing worth stopping for. Why do you ask?”
Randall was one of these direct jokers, especially when in heat. “Can you take me there?”
I gave him an idiotic grin. “Now, Mr. Randall, you're a business man. You understand I have a regular schedule, stops to deliver and pick up cargo, I can't just—”
“But my good friend, Ray,” Henri said quickly with a fine touch, “you say yourself you are between zee cargos now.”
“Yeah, things are a little light at the moment, but I can't take off a couple days to go to a worthless island.”
Randall cleared his-throat, “Captain, the island is not worthless to me. I am talking about chartering your vessel. As I understand it, this island is about a day away and as you know, the cruise ship sails in four days. Now, what would it cost to hire you and your boat for, say, three days?”
I pretended I was doing some figuring in my noodle, felt so gay I almost suggested he get Barry and split the costs. I finally said, “On a trip like this, to little-known parts, there's always a risk of piling up on unchartered reefs and all that. Three days—five hundred bucks.”
Randall didn't even blink. He would have forked over the five hundred there and then except Henri went into his song and dance. He slapped his face, took off his dirty straw hat and pulled at his thin hair as he pleaded and moaned I was betraying his friendship, Randall was a dear friend of his and therefore a boon buddy of mine.
I said I would do it for four hundred dollars.
Henri was so busy hamming it up I couldn't catch his eye, tell him the mark was more than willing. When I told him in Tahitian to cut the act, he didn't listen but shouted in his best broken English we were both old Pacific hands and who the hell was I kidding, four hundred bucks was an outrage!
I said, “I didn't ask for this, it's Randall's idea. I don't like to haggle—three hundred and that's final.”
“That's good with me,” Randall said. He went down into the smelly cabin and wrote out three travelers checks. “I'd like to leave tonight I can return here within the hour. Have to explain this to my wife. You see, she's a poor sailor and could hardly take a trip like this.”
“I'm sure she couldn't,” I said, trying not to sound too sarcastic. “Let's try to leave before midnight. We have a long sail ahead of us.”
“Yes sir, Captain!” Randall said, excited as a kid.
There was only one place I could cash the checks and I practically ran all the way to Olin's, doing a little broken field running among the drunken tourists. Olin was going over his books and didn't ask where I'd got the money from but only how much did I want to pay on what I owed him?
“Nothing. I merely ask you to do me a favor and cash these. Most of this money isn't mine.”
Olin gave me a flat noncommittal look as he opened a desk drawer and counted out thousand franc notes. He said, “I know. You keep very odd company, even for a cockroach trader. Although I did not hear you had a fight.”
“That's something. I didn't think a man could change his socks here without the whole town talking about it.”
He handed me a stack of bills, telling me, “I say this as a friend: a fool can never see himself in the mirror of life.”
“I feel too good to argue with you.”
“Drunk?” Olin asked.
“Yes, but not on wine. I have erased a ghost of my past who's been spooking me. Look, I need this at once—two baskets of assorted fresh fruits, vegetables, a case of beer, good Australian export beer, a few tins of rice, coffee beans.”
“They will be at your boat before you return,” Olin said, figuring the bill. “Some rice wine and cookies?”
“No time, but thanks,” I said, paying him and heading back to the Hooker. I wasn't used to having my pockets stuffed with francs, even if they weren't mine. I stopped to have a beer and a couple of sandwiches, wondered where Barry was, and by the time I reached the Hooker, the supplies were neatly piled on the deck. I put them away and the stars were out bright and clear, so I knew the weather would be okay. I went to get a drum of gasoline and when-I came back a taxi was waiting. Randall was there, along with Henri and a fat old woman who had the skin and figure of an uncooked jelly doughnut.
It wasn't necessary for Henri to hiss in my ear, “This monster is his wife!”
Randall said, “Captain, I want you to meet my better half, Erestine.”
I shook her damp hand for a second and she asked, “Is that little boat of yours safe?” Mrs. Randall must have thought her lips were too large so she only painted part of them which gave her mouth an odd look.
“Don't worry, this cutter could take you to California.”
“You are an American although I don't know why any sane man would want to hang around this dirty place. My —you have a black eye.”
“Now, Erestine, the Captain enjoys living here. As I have often tried to tell you, we are all not made of the same molecules. You go back to the boat and tomorrow take the guided tour, play bridge with the other women. Don't worry about me.”
“I still think it's crazy,” she said. “And you'll be sick as a dog in that little boat. But, if that's what you want... Bradberry, just don't forget our agreement.”
“Yes, dear, the new car as soon as we reach home.” Randall kissed her and she got back into the taxi which took off like a racing car. Randall grabbed his pigskin overnight bag and hurried on board. I got the motor going and Randall came out of the cabin wearing a cap and heavy white turtleneck sweater which made him look a little ridiculous. He insisted on helping Henri with the mooring lines, and as we headed for the pass, one of the customs men on the isle of Motuiti waved at us. I waved back and kept going. When we hit the open sea and started to bounce, Randall took it like a sailor; spread his feet apart for balance, took a deep breath and announced, “This is wonderful!”
“But expensive, or has the price of cars tumbled since I was Stateside?”
He smiled. “You know women.”
“I doubt that I do,” I said, almost to myself.
“Erestine is a fine woman but can't possibly understand what this means to me. She was against going around the world, wanted to spend the time in New York or Palm Beach, but for once I insisted. How long have you been in the islands, Captain?”
“Over a year,” I said, setting the ship on course.
“You're a lucky man. You have the world by the tail.”
“Have I? I couldn't even buy the hub cap of a car.”
“But you don't need a car here,” Randall said, taking out a pipe. “Captain, you must think me an old fool. I know Erestine does. But ever since I was a kid I've dreamed of the South Seas. I've read all the books of O'Brien, London, Stone, Hall...”
“And Edmond Stewart?”
“Especially his. Is he still alive?”
“Half alive last time I saw him. Take you to see him instead of where we're headed.”
“No. The trouble is when you're finally able to travel, you're either too old, or the dreams of youth have been distorted. Honolulu was miserable. Papeete—Coney Island in the Pacific. When I heard of this untouched island, I simply had to see it.”
We were safely beyond the reefs and Henri started hoisting sail. Randall gave him a hand. Soon as we were racing ahead of a stiff breeze, I shut the motor, asked if he wanted to take the wheel. “Give you something to tell the Rotary back home.”
“Don't make fun of me,” he said, holding the wheel as I shut the gas cock. “Not doing this for any bull session. For the first time in my life I'm living!”
Closing the motor hatch, I asked, “What do you expect to find on this island beside crabs and rats?”
“Merely true simplicity, native charm.”
“You'll find the charm,” I said, trying not to smile.
Henri made a pot of coffee and we had a hot cup. Dubon bedded down for the night sleeping in his clothes of course. After awhile Brad said, “Sailing this boat is wonderful but perhaps I ought to get some sleep too. If I can sleep. I don't want to miss a second when we reach my island.”
That “my” island gave me a laugh. I took the wheel and Randall went below. Henri immediately left his mat, came over to whisper, “My share of the money.”
I gave him a hundred and fifty dollars' worth of francs and he counted it. He said, “You had me worried. A fine time to get into a fight.”
“I ran into a very good friend of mine.”
Pocketing the bills, he said smugly, “You see how easy it is to operate in a big way? One needs only to use brains, a little daring, and—”
“Knock off, Dubon. I have a long night ahead of me.”
“But admit this was my idea and it is a tremendous one.”
“Okay, you're a tremendous one yourself.”
He ate a banana and went back to his mat. I sat by the wheel and listened to the sloshing sound of the boat cutting the waves, a kind of song of contentment. I felt like singing myself. There was not only the business with Barry Kent taken care of, but this was the second time I'd ever sailed the Hooker single-handed and I was both pleased and confident. For a fast second, like a kid showing off, I almost wished we'd run into a little rough stuff. Then I remembered Eddie saying, “You always got to respect the sea, be a little afraid of her. Once you stop respecting her, she'll get you.”
What the hell, there was something to this life which was clean and good, as Randall said. He envied me, so did Barry. What more freedom could a man want than a strong boat under him? Hell, I'd been thinking only of Ruita's happiness. How about my own, why should I give up a life I loved?
About one in the morning I lashed the wheel down and made some more coffee. Henri was sleeping with his mouth open, his bad teeth making it a living sewer. Brad Randall suddenly stuck his big head out of the cabin, looking unreal in baby blue pajamas. I asked if he was sick and he said no, turned, and raised the back of his pajamas. The hard shell of two-inch roach was embedded in his fatty back. I pulled out the shell and he bled a bit. Randall got a first aid kit out of his overnight bag and I put some iodine and a band-aid on. He slipped on his sport jacket, said, “Sure cool at night. Roaches are nasty buggers, aren't they?”
“The bugs, the copra stink, coral poisoning, and a few other things, the movies always forget.”
Randall laughed and lit his pipe. “I don't mind it, Captain. I suppose we Americans think of heaven as a place with first class toilet and brass plumbing. Wouldn't a spraying of DDT get rid of these bugs?”
“Sure—for a day or so. It's easier to get used to them. Want some coffee?”
“I'd—uh—-rather have a nut.”
I got one and took out my knife and he asked for the knife, punched a clumsy hole in one of the eyes of the nut drank it, then tossed it overboard with a today-I-am-a-man air. We talked for a couple of hours about taxes back in the States, the chances of war, a depression, and other things making me want to shout, “This is where I came in!”
As he was in the midst of baseball session, some birds flew over and I got a little worried. According to Randall's wrist watch we'd been sailing for over seven hours and should be near Huahine—and reefs. I couldn't see a thing except waves and swells ahead of me, so I swung the boat at right angles to our course, began tacking back and forth, taking about twenty minutes on each tack. I sent Randall up to the bowsprit to listen for the sound of breakers, as if he could tell, and every few minutes he would call back, “Don't hear a damn thing, Cap.”
I felt kind of silly about it, could picture myself tacking back and forth in the middle of the ocean. But when it started to grow light, there was Huahine about fifteen miles off our port!
“That the island?” Randall asked, getting out his camera.
“No, that's the big island. Ours is a spit of sand and coral off that. We'll be there in about two or three hours.”
Henri got up and added a little water to the ocean, then made more coffee. He asked Randall how he felt and added, “I am almost as anxious as yourself to see this wonderful isle. Fifteen years I have spent in these waters and this is the first unknown island I have heard of.”
The sun was coming up strong when I sighted the islet. I let Randall take the wheel while Henri and I lowered the sails. Starting the motor, I made it backfire several times— to wake Eddie up. As we closed in, a canoe shot out and soon Eddie jumped on board, bright pareu cloth wrapped around his ridged middle like a diaper. He glanced at my black eye with interest, then bowed low as Henri and I went through French, pidgin English, Tahitian, and a lot of outright nonsense, telling him we were friends. Eddie played his role like a true actor, asked suspiciously, “No trade, taboo island. Why you come?”
“This popaa,” I said, pointing at Randall, “want be bon ami you.”
“He—bon ami—me?” Eddie repeated, a stupid look on his face which nearly made me break up with laughter.
Henri took over and after a two-minute oration of gibberish, Eddie came forward very solemnly and shook hands with Randall, who immediately handed him a new penknife. Eddie pretended he didn't know how to open it, and with a patronizing smile Randall showed him. Eddie clapped his hands, went nuts with joy. Then he said, “Me welcome great popaa friend. Me pilot boat—very danger—here,” and he took the wheel.
Randall went down to the cabin to dress. I whispered to Eddie, “Hollywood needs you—what acting!”
Over a sneer Eddie whispered, “Me, no understand big boss talk. What means Hollywood and who gave you the clout on the eye?”
Henri nodded at the cabin, glared at us as he held a finger over his lips.
Eddie took the Hooker in over the reefs and when we had the anchor down, Jack Pund swam out. He was almost staggering drunk. Eddie introduced him as, “This one old man. Old, old.” He pointed to his head. “Him old chief, Chief-Lushie. Now ...”
“Guess he means the old joker is senile,” I cut in, afraid Eddie would overdo things.
Randall handed Jack a pack of cigarettes. Jack belched and asked in Tahitian, “Where is the red ash tray?”—
Of course Brad didn't understand Tahitian and Henri shoved Pund away, told Randall, “I translate. Chief here say be welcomes you to his island as honored guest. He say he hasn't much, and most of his people are out diving. But he say everything on island is yours. Also you must meet his daughter, Heru.”
“Tell him this is... is... wonderful!” Randall blabbered.
Jack Pund and Eddie took the canoe in while the three of us got into the dinghy and rowed ashore, Henri explaining Eddie was sort of an acting chief since Pund was too old to rule. As we stepped out on the sand, Heru came out of the large hut and Randall let out a fierce choked cry. Even I had to gasp.
She was sober and rested, probably had slept around the clock. Heru was absolutely beautiful with a crown of snow white delicate tiare flowers in her black hair, eyes clear and bright, red lips parted in a shy smile, slender body nude except for a bit of cloth barely covering her hips. Her breasts were proud, the nipples glistening with coconut oil. She really looked the part—a dream girl. A sense of tragedy cut into my high feelings; this must have been Heru before she hit the Papeete waterfront.
Randall's hands trembled as he pulled out a string of bright red beads, part of the junk he had purchased on Henri's “expert” advice, and handed them to Heru. She made the proper gushing noises of delight, put the beads around her neck, then hugged Randall. He turned a slight pink as he awkwardly tried to back away, touched her breasts in doing so, and then his face became lobster red. Happily, Heru didn't laugh.
Henri said, “Now, Monsieur Randall, since these people welcomed you, and it is amazing, most natives do not take to whites, I will ask the acting chief where he wants you to to stay.” He turned to Eddie and asked in Tahitian, “Everything all right?”
“Yes, you miserable flea!”
“What's the matter with you? Motion with your hands, like you are giving him the island.”
“He can have this hunk of sand—right up his nose!”
Henri tried to smile. “This is business, you fool!”
“The cemeteries are full of businessmen, remember that!” Eddie said. He turned to Randall and pointed to the sand, then waved his hand about.
Henri told Randall, “I now translate. Acting chief say island is yours. You are to stay in the big hut, as honored guest. He say perhaps you are tired from your trip and like to rest. You go to hut and soon Chief and daughter bring you papaya juice and many cool fruits to eat.”
“He doesn't have to go to any trouble,” Randall said, his eyes trying to stay off Hem's bosom.
“My dear sir, this is not trouble but the real—how you say —hospitality of the old islands. He will feel insulted if you refuse. Cap-a-tan Ray and myself will retire to the boat for a rest.”
“I sure don't want to insult the Chief. Say, will it be all right if I take some pictures?” Randall asked.
Henri told Eddie in Tahitian, “We have his money, don't blow the deal.”
Eddie said, “Tell him he's going to be able to get a picture of me busting your face!”
Heru said, “Talk, talk—it is hot out here.”
Henri looked at me and I told Randall, “They say you can take pictures but—don't be too obvious about it.”
Henri picked up Randall's bag and followed Eddie to the hut, Randall and Heru walking behind them, the air full of the heady scent of the tiare blossoms in her hair. At the entrance Henri turned and called out to Jack Pund, “You, bring the food in from the ship!”
Pund and I got into his canoe, paddled out to the Hooker, the old man saying, “This is crazy business. When we make movie and where is my ash tray?”
“In time we shall make a picture. The ash tray was purchased but by accident left behind in Papeete. You'll get it.”
I gave him the food, told him to give it to Eddie right away and he looked at the case of beer with big eyes, said he would dig a cool hole in the sand to store that at once.
Back on the beach Eddie and Henri waited for the canoe full of food. Eddie helped unload it as Henri rowed the dinghy out and jumped on deck, wiping his face and asking, “That Eddie, he nearly screwed the works. What's wrong with him?”
“I don't know, or maybe it's too long a story to tell you now. I'm turning in. I need sleep.”
“We have nothing to do now but wait. We should have charged more.”
“He would have gone for five hundred but you were so intent on your act, you didn't give him a chance.”
Henri shrugged, said in a grave voice, “One learns by experience.”
I checked the anchor, put a mat in the shade of the cabin, and went to sleep. I slept for a few hours and awoke when the sun hit my face. I moved the mat and while eating an orange, saw Randall in a pair of yellow swimming trunks yelling like a child as Eddie and Heru showed him how to spear the bright-colored reef fish. Eddie seemed to be enjoying it, too.
I knocked off a few more hours of shut-eye and awoke to find Eddie shaking my shoulder. Eddie said, “Your eye looks better. How was the trip?”
“Nothing to it. What did you do to Heru? She looks like something out of a book.”
Eddie smiled. “I didn't do anything to her. Just let her sleep and take it easy. Burns me up, a louse like Henri making money off such a pretty kid.”
I sat up and looked at the islet—no one was in sight. “What's playing now?”
“Randall is sleeping. The sun and running around pooped him. Heru is sleeping—by herself. Jack got to a couple of bottles of beer, and he's sleeping. The pimp is pounding his ear up near the bow. I have cooking stones heating in the fire pit and in a little while I'll shake Jack awake and start the 'feast.' This is sure sticky, us islanders doing all the work.”
“Hell, it's only an act. Tomorrow we pull out.”
“You get the dough?”
I nodded. “Have our half in my pocket.”
Eddie sat down and lit a cigar—a Stateside one he must have got from Randall. “Henri is a boy with real ideas. According to Heru he has an angle working he forgot to tell us. Plans to get the address of a guy like Randall and in a couple of months write him, in Heru's name, saying she is going to have a baby soon—his.”
Eddie shook his head, blew out a fog of smoke. “Not exactly, rather a polite request for money to help out. She supposedly plans to go to a hospital in Papeete. Then maybe a note once a year thereafter, a gift for the 'young prince on his birthday.' With a dozen Randalls kicking in say, a hundred bucks a year, this would be a long-range jackpot for Henri.”
“That's a ratty deal.”
Eddie stared down at me through a crooked smoke ring. “And what does it make us? Cats? More I see of Henri, less I like him and I didn't care for him to start.” Eddie stood up and flexed his muscles. “Guess I'd better get back and start the food going. When do you think this slob will leave?”
“Sometime tomorrow. He isn't a bad sort.”
“This is a slimy deal and you're all smiles.”
“I'm feeling all smiles about something else.”
“That guy you belted?”
“Yeah. I've been wanting to wallop him for a long time. And he isn't a bad sort, either.”
“All the world is one big chum for you, it seems.” Eddie shook his head. “I don't know whether to feel sorry for Randall or bat him in his fat gut. The way he acts, as if this was real, he'd expect the islanders to fall all over him because he's a fat popaa with a few lousy trinkets.”
“Guess he means well. He just read to many phony books.”
“The islanders never read the books but they still get the wrong end of the stick. Got any rum?”
“Good,” Eddie said. “Heru is itching for a shot, but beer will hold her. You're right, we're in this and we might as well take the dough. But this is the last time for me. See you when it gets dark.”
“Yes sir, acting chief.”
We both laughed and when Eddie paddled ashore I jumped over for a fast swim, then found more shade on the deck and went back to sleep. Henri awoke me. “The feast is about ready.”
It was twilight and I stared up at his sweaty shirt, dirty tie, the yellowed linen suit, asked, “Don't you ever put on clean clothes, take a bath?”
He swore in French. “What is eating you and your partner? All I get is insults.”
I sat up and slipped on my pants and a light sweater. “I was merely asking a polite question. By the way, don't let Heru lap up the beer. It's supposed to be a novelty to her— according to the script.”
“I will handle that bitch.”
“Bitch?” I repeated, pulling in the dinghy. “No way to talk about your meal ticket.”
Henri waved a modest hand. “Wasn't for me, silly little girls like Heru would be starving. I am her meal ticket.”
“You believe that?” I asked, as we got in the dinghy.
Henri gave me a fat-shouldered shrug for an answer.
Eddie amazed me; his feast was a first-rate job. We sat around palm leaves spread ner the fire pit, stuffed ourselves with tasty roast pig, fish baked in seaweed and lime juice, canned yams, a thick soup of some sort of greens, fish, rice, and shredded beef which was cooked and served steaming hot by the simple process of putting a hot stone into the pot.
Randall had a string of flowers around his thick neck, was wearing his seersucker suit but with the shirt open. He ate and sang and bragged about catching some of the fish we were eating, squeezed Heru's hand, “accidentally” touching her breasts now and then... the picture of a very happy fool.
I'd oiled my phonograph and we listened to scratchy music. When Eddie opened some beer bottles, Randall asked, “Beer? How did they get that?”
“My contribution to the feast,” I said.
“Say, that's right nice of you, Cap,” Brad said as he poured some into a coconut bowl and handed it to Heru. She took a sip, made a face, then spit the beer out as though she had never tasted the stuff before. Randall roared with idiotic laughter, downed the brew in one fast gulp.
Jack Pund, who had been watching Heru as if she was completely nuts, finished a bottle of beer and then stood up and did a crazy dance to the hill-billy record on my phonograph, throwing his arms and legs out as he spun around and around, finally hitting the ground and passing out.
Randall was impressed, said, “Seems an authentic war dance. Is he in a trance now?”
“Yes,” Henri told him. “And on the morrow he will be hung over from his trance. Well, we eat much, now we should sleep.”
Randall got up, went over and touched Jack Pund's heart. The old man immediately leaped up like a zombie, put a finger to his wet lips, then bounded off to return in a few minutes with his bug juice—an armful of fermented coconuts. These nuts must have been cooking since the first day we were on the islet and were powerful. Randall drank one, flushed, and a moment later joined Jack in a stupid dance, both of them lubbering about and trying to fling their feet high in the air.—
Henri, Eddie, and I watched the dance with pained looks —Heru was eyeing the rest of the fermented nuts. After a couple turns of this new dance, Jack hit the sand again, really out. Brad staggered around till Eddie led him to the hut, where he fell into a snoring sleep as soon as he touched the mats.
I tried one of the nuts and it immediately warmed my guts. Henri jerked Jack Pund to a sitting position, started bawling him out in French for making the bug juice. Since Pund couldn't understand much French, even if he was conscious, I thought it very funny—proving how strong the juice really was.
Henri was trying to twist Pund's ears when Eddie came over and said, “Let him go. He was only trying to be friendly.”
“Friendly?” Henri shouted, in Tahitian. “He almost spoiled everything!”
“Cut it,” Eddie said in English, “you give me more of a pain—”
“Watch it!” Henri screamed in Tahitian. “What are you saying?” and clapped a hand over Eddie's mouth.
Eddie pushed him away, sending Henri tumbling in the sand, then wiped his mouth, turned to me and asked, “What you standing like a dressmaker's dummy? Help me with Pund.”
We carried him over to the dinghy and I rowed him out to the Hooker, managed to roll Jack up onto the deck, then climbed aboard myself, full of food and drink. As I dozed off I could vaguely hear the tinny sound of the phonograph ashore, where Heru was sitting by the fire and playing records, marking time when Randall would come to and she could “sneak” into his hut. For a very short moment even in my drunken state it gave me a spooky feeling, a severe sense of wrong-doing. Then I told myself, so what, if he was in Papeete he'd be in her room anyway.
I had a nightmare in which I was arguing with Ruita on the porch of her house and she was saying, “If you go way, I shall go to Papeete.”
“You don't like Papeete.”
“I am still young, I can do things there.”
“You know what things.”
“You don't mean that. You're not like the... well.”
“Not like what?” Ruita asked. “Am I not a full-blooded islander? And is there anything finer for a native girl to do than whore around in Papeete bars?”
“Keep it up—you're saying this to annoy me.”
“Annoy you? You are leaving me, running out, and yet you accuse me of annoying you!”
I reached over and shook Ruita, saying, “All right, goddammit, stop it! Let's talk slowly—with sense.”
In my nightmare we went through this routine several times and when I was shaking her again, I awoke to see Jack Pund bending over me, his fat face almost in my whiskers.
He whispered one word, “Trouble!” As I sat up, I heard screaming on the islet and we both jumped into the dinghy, made for the shore.
It was quite a tableau: a nude Heru was sprawled on the sand, screaming and sobbing, one hand to her bruised face, her right cheek and eye swollen and cut. Eddie was kneeling beside her, trying to comfort Heru, although from the way she was beaten up, I was sure he must have socked her. Wearing his baby blue pajamas, Randall was yelling like an enraged bull at Henri, who was completely clothed as usual in his dirty linen suit.
From what I heard then—and later—it seemed Heru had finally gone to Randall's hut and after she left him snoring again, had lucked-up on a couple of Jack Pund's fermented coconuts. Then she kicked Henri awake and asked for her money. He had stupidly offered her the usual few francs, and she had blown her drunken top.
While she was cursing Henri for cheating her—in plain French and English—Dubon had hit her and she had screamed. The racket had aroused Eddie and Randall. Eddie went for Henri who pulled out his knife, and the two cussed each other out—all cuss words made in the USA. Of course Randall, hearing the three of them swearing at each other, realized he had been taken. Seeing Randall, Henri had put the knife away, tried to go on with the act.
There was something terribly pitiful about Randall's frantic rage as he called Henri every kind of miserable bastard; Brad seemed on the verge of an hysterical explosion. When I told him to take it easy, he turned on me and shouted, “You! You call yourself an American! My God, last night I envied you. You—you're as much scum as this crummy pimp!”
“Aw relax, big boy,” Henri said in straight English, minus the tourist accent. “What you getting into an uproar about? Sure it's all a fake, so what? So much noise is old hat. You wanted 'romance' with all the fancy trimmings, and that's what you got. It cost more than you're used to paying, but we did put on a hell of a show for you, a package deal which—”
Randall drew back his fist, swung like a hammer-thrower. He hit Henri high on the forehead. I was certain he'd busted his hand. The force of the wild blow made Dubon do a rubber-legged dance before landing on his back.
Dubon wasn't out. “It was a deal worth the money!” Henri wailed. He sat up and rubbed his head.
“You lice! You damn perverts!” Randall screamed, his voice breaking as he began to sob. “Who cares about the goddamn money! Don't you see what you've done to me? Don't you see what you've done!” He sprang on Henri and started choking him. Brad may have been an elderly man but he was also big, heavy and powerful. Even in the moonlight I could see Henri's face turning pasty pale as he clawed at Randall's hands.
I pulled at Brad's hands but couldn't get him loose. I grunted for Eddie. He came over and hit him in his heaving gut, a short little punch which not only made Randall let go of Henri, but roll over on the sand, grasping his belly, his mouth open wide as he could possibly get it.
Henri made it to his feet, his clothes a mess, blood streaming from nose and mouth. He stared down at Randall, who was still on his back like an overturned turtle, then sent a glob of bloody spit down on Randall as he said, “You crazy old—”
I pushed Dubon away. “Leave him alone. We've done him enough harm.”
Dubon put a hand to his nose to stem the blood, which started down his sleeve, as he said in Tahitian, “Sorry, something went wrong. But we have his money. And suckers never run to the police or tell others about—”
“Stop talking, you damn fool!” I yelled. If the whole thing had seemed cheap before, what we had done to Randall was now sheer tragedy. I felt crummy; not even thinking about socking Barry could shake the crummy feeling.
While I was standing there, staring at everybody and seeing no one, Randall sat up, his heavy face still wet with tears, lines of pain around his open mouth. I was about to say I was sorry, but no words came out of my dry mouth. Heru came over, one hand to her puffed eye. Her good eye stared solemnly down at Randall.
Henri, who had been stuffing his shirt in his pants, straightening out his clothes, turned on Heru with tiger-speed, shrilled, “You're the cause of all this, you dirty drunken—”
It was an all-around bad night for Henri. Eddie's left hook flicked through the air and crumbled Henri into a heap. No staggering or falling backwards; the clean sound of the fist hitting and Henri went down. It was the hardest punch I'd ever seen. I was positive Dubon was dead.
Randall moaned, “Oh, my, my...” while Eddie rubbed his knuckles and said, “There's something I been waiting to do for a long time. The slimy... slimy—” Eddie walked down to the water and carefully washed his knuckles.
Jack Pund bent over Dubon, said softly, “This one will never arise again.”
I pulled Randall to his feet, told him, “Look, Mr. Randall, there isn't much I can say. I know how you must feel, and I'm sorry. Sorry isn't much of a word but... Well, you'll get your money back.”
“It doesn't matter,” Brad said in a whisper. He rubbed his stomach, looked down at Dubon, muttered, “He's a pug, isn't he?” He nodded at Eddie who was coming towards us, shaking his wet hands.
“Used to be. He had to hit you or you would have murdered Dubon.”
“You're all thugs! Where's my clothes?” Randall turned and slowly walked to the hut, rubbing Henri's bloody spit off the side of his face. Heru shivered and put an arm across her bare breasts. The little cut over her eye had stopped bleeding. Eddie told her to get dressed, added, “I will get some raw fish for your eye.”
Jack Pund was still squatting over Dubon and I told him to move, knelt, and felt of Henri's heart—it was under the wallet in his inside pocket. He was still alive. I took out the wallet, old, sweat-stained, and thick. He had all the francs I'd given him plus a fat rubber-banded bundle of one thousand franc notes and several American twenties. Beside his identity card, there were a few scribbled addresses I couldn't make out, an old army PX card, and a faded hunk of newspaper— an ad for a correspondence course in public speaking.
Randall returned, wearing his seersucker suit over his pajamas, carrying his pigskin overnight bag, sport cap stuck on his head sideways. I held out Henri's wallet. “I'll give you the three hundred we took you for.”
He shoved my hand aside. “How soon can I reach Papeete?”
“Probably by morning. Take the money, please.”
He pushed by me, went down to the dinghy and sat on the stern seat. Heru came out of one of the lean-tos wearing her gaudy dress, high heeled shoes slung around her neck. Eddie was walking beside her, holding a hunk of raw fish to her purple eye. I gave her Henri's wallet, told her to keep it. Then I took a thousand franc note out, handed it to Jack Pund. “Forget what happened here. And when he wakes,” I said, pointing at Henri with my foot, “paddle him to the mainland of Huahine.”
He grabbed the money eagerly, shoved it into his loin cloth, asked, “When you return with my red ash tray?”
“You can buy a dozen of them with that money,” I said.
“You no return?” Pund asked sadly.
“No, the show is over. Don't forget, take care of him.”
Eddie said, “Why not let the louse stay here till a passing canoe picks him up? Maybe he'll even starve!”
“Stop it,” I said, suddenly feeling very weary. “We're as much in this as Henri. Let's get out of here.”
We three walked down to the dinghy and got in, nearly swamping it. As I rowed I faced Randall and I told him, “You really don't know what happened here tonight. I'd like to—”
“Goddamn you, can't you shut up!” he snapped. “You think I Worry about the money, that I was rooked? I don't!”
“I want to explain what—”
“When a fellow is young and has some sense, he dreams, then settles down to hard work, making money,” Brad went on. “When he's too old for living he realizes he should have paid more attention to his dreams, they are important as money, maybe more important. Even if this was a fake, why did you have to spoil it? Ruin the greatest thing ever happened, to me? If I had left there still thinking this was all real, I'd have been the happiest man in the world! But you pimps, this cheap whore....”
“Sure she's cheap—she didn't get any new car!” I cut in. “Look, Randall, Henri isn't any more to blame than we are, and by we I mean all of us, including you. In a sense we're all trying, in our own way, to find the same dream you were chasing, even Dubon. We came here too late—Eddie and Heru should have been born two hundred years ago. All of us are the ugly by-products of too many years of cruel exploitation, double-crossing, and greed. We've been dreaming in a sewer. I thought sailing around in my own boat was clean and good, especially yesterday after I met up with them —the point is, I thought it the best life possible, but now that's dirtied up, too. I don't know if I'm making myself clean and good, especially yesterday after I met up with Kent responsibility for this mess.”
Somehow it seemed terribly important to me to explain all this, as if I had suddenly hit on the core of what was wrong in the islands—for me. But I was talking to myself. Randall was miles away in his thoughts, Eddie was whispering to Heru.
When we reached the Hooker, I stepped aboard and helped Randall on, although he pushed my hand away. Eddie and Heru jumped on deck. I got the motor working and we upped anchor. Eddie took the wheel. Once outside the reef we raised sail and Heru went below to sleep, while Randall sat on a mat in the cockpit, held his head.
He sat like that all night, maybe he was asleep. An hour or so after daybreak-we sailed through the Papeete pass, saw the spire of Notre Dame as we came into the harbor. When we docked Randall stood up stiffly, straightened his clothes and lit a cigar. I offered him his money once more but he brushed by me, jumped down onto the quay, and walked with strong rapid strides. The look on his face was still that of a puzzled, hurt child.
I watched till he was out of sight. Suddenly I didn't give a damn about Randall, or the Barry Kents in the world. I was full of an eager impatience—to get out of here, to never see another face, white or brown, except Ruita's. Even the Hooker or Eddie didn't mean a thing to me; I only wanted the peace and quiet of Numaga with Ruita for the rest of my life. I felt as though I couldn't lose a second, had to start at once.
Eddie said, “The poor jerk. In a way I feel sorry for him. Although I don't know why, all he cared about was having his fun with Heru and the hell with anything else, like my old man. The islands are just a big house to popaas. Let me have my dough, I need a bottle.”
“Eddie, how long will it take you to buy us enough supplies for a three-day sail?”
Eddie stared at me. “What's with you, Ray? A three-day sail? I'm bushed now.”
“Then I'll take the Hooker myself. I have to get to Numaga in a big hurry. Look, sail me there and the Hooker is all yours. You buying that?”
Eddie's battered face seemed to relax into tired lines, making him look old, uglier than ever. He held out his right hand. “Give me some money. I'll be back in an hour.”
“Make it faster,” I said, giving him all the money I had. “If I stay here too long, I'll go nuts.”
Eddie was back in a taxi he dug up somewhere in less than twenty minutes, with baskets of food and fruit. I'd spent the time staring around the harbor like a stranger seeing it for the first time. It didn't look beautiful, it didn't look exotic, or even quaint—it seemed decaying and tumbled down, a dying city. It looked so horrible I shut my eyes. I knew now what Edmond Stewart meant by the final retreat—I was more than ready for it.
As Eddie stored the food, cast off the lines, I started the engine, headed for customs. For some crazy reason it gave me a savage sense of satisfaction to think this would be the last time I'd ever see a customs man.
The sun was coming out, hot and powerful, and either the light or the motion of the boat awoke Heru. Her eye was a delicate purple against the honey-brown of her face. Yawning, she pointed to the quay over our wake, asked, “Where we go?”
“To Numaga,” I said, figuring she and Eddie could live on the other end of the island for awhile. I'd forgotten all about Heru in my haste to get away. “You'll get plenty of rest, a change of air. Later, Eddie will take you back to Papeete, if you so wish.”
“Be the best thing in the world for you,” Eddie said.
Heru turned and stared at the waterfront for a hot second, then jumped down into the cabin. She was out a moment later, her shoes tied around her neck, the wallet in her teeth. She dived overboard, a flash of brown legs, hardly making a splash. We watched her swim the few hundred yards to shore.
Although I couldn't stand the thought of any delay, I asked Eddie, “Shall we put about, pick her up?”
He shook his head. “What the hell do you make of that? Henri will beat the dough out of her when he comes back. Why did she do that?”
“I don't know or care. Maybe we each have to work out our own paradise in this world. Could be Papeete is hers. Some day when I'm rusting my can on Numaga I'll certainly try to think it out, maybe philosophize, grow mellow over it. Right now I don't know the answer to a damn thing, except I'm long, long overdue on Numaga. I don't even know the why Of that. But it doesn't matter now.”