'Well, they warned me, "El tome." He drinks! And so he did,' the Captain said.
'One night a big Norte, a norther, blew in off the Gulf of Mexico and it blew so hard . . . Oh, it was a big wind!
Almost bent the palm trees to the ground. And it took the roof off his house and carried it away.
'But instead of fixing it he got drunk and he stayed drunk for more than a month. After a couple of weeks his wife had come to begging for money for food. That was so sad. I think partly he got drunk because he knew everything was going wrong and the boat would never get built. And that was true. I ran out of money and had to quit.'
'So that's why we're drinking to him?' Lila said.
'Yeah, he was sort of a warning,' the Captain said. 'Also, he just opened my eyes a little to something. A feeling for what the tropics is really like. All this talk about going to Florida and Mexico brought him back to mind.'
The potato sticks were growing into a mountain. She was making way too many. But it didn't matter. Better to have too many than too few.
'What do you want to go back there for?' she said.
'I don't know. There's always that feeling of despair down there. I can feel it now just thinking about it. "Tristes tropiques," the anthropologist, Levi-Strauss, called it. It keeps pulling you back, somehow. Mexicans know what I mean. There's always this feeling that this sadness is the real truth about things and it's better to live with a sad truth than with all the happy progress talk you get up here in the North.'
'So you're going to stay down in Mexico?'
'No, not with a boat like this. This boat can go anywhere — Panama, China, India, Africa. No firm plans. You never know what'll turn up.'
The potatoes were all cut. 'So how do I turn this stove on, then?' she asked the Captain.
He went up on deck to watch the Hibachi and she set the pot on the stove and filled it with the entire bottle of oil they purchased at the supermarket and then put on the lid. All that oil would take a while to heat up.
She took the steaks out of the supermarket wrappers to sprinkle them with salt and pepper. In the golden lamplight they looked gorgeous.
The pepper worked but the salt shaker was clogged. She took the lid off and whacked it on the chart table, but the holes still were clogged, so she pinched a hunk of salt with her fingers and dusted it on that way.
She handed up the steaks to the Captain. Then she got to work on the salad, shredding piles of lettuce on to two plates, and using that sharp knife to slice a tomato. As she worked, she stuffed some hunks of lettuce into her mouth.
'Oh! Oh! Oh!' she said.
'What's the matter?' he asked.
'I forgot how hungry I was. I don't know how you can stand it, going on like this without any food all day long. How do you do it?'
'Well, actually, I had breakfast,' he said.
'Before you got up.'
'Why didn't you wake me up?'
'Your friend, Richard Rigel, didn't want you along.'
Lila looked up through the hatchway at the Captain for a long time. He was looking at her to see what she would say.
'Richard does that sometimes,' she said. 'He probably thought we were going to have lunch somewhere.'
He really had it in for Richard, she thought, and he was trying to get her mad again. He wouldn't leave it alone. On a nice night like this you'd think he'd leave it alone. It was such a nice night. She could feel the booze coming on.
'If you want me to go to Florida with you, I'll go with you,' Lila said.
He didn't say anything. He just poked the steak with a fork.
'What do you think?' she said.
'I'm not sure.'
'Why aren't you sure?'
'I don't know.'
'I can cook and fix your clothes and sleep with you,' Lila said, 'and when you're tired of me you can just say goodbye and I'll be gone. How do you like that?'
He still didn't say anything.
It was getting very hot in the cabin so she lifted her sweater to take it off.
'You really need me, you know,' she said.
When she got the sweater off she could see he'd been watching her take it off. With that special look. She knew what that meant. Here it comes, she thought.
The Captain said, 'What I was thinking about this afternoon while you were sleeping was that I want to ask you some questions that will help me fit some things together.'
'What kind of questions?'
'I don't know yet,' he said. 'About what you like and don't like, mainly.'
'Well, sure, we can do that too.'
He said, 'I thought maybe I could ask questions about what your attitudes are about certain things. What your values are and how you got them. Things like that. I'd just like to ask questions and jot down answers without really knowing where it's going to lead to and then later maybe try to put something together.'
'Sure,' Lila said. 'What kind of questions?' He's going to go for it, she thought. She saw his glass was just about empty. She reached up through the hatchway and got it, then filled it.
'What holds a person together is his patterns of likes and dislikes,' he said. 'And what holds a society together is a pattern of likes and dislikes. And what holds the whole world together is patterns of likes and dislikes. History is just abstracted from biography. And so are all the social sciences. In the past anthropology has been centered around collective objects and I'm interested in probing around to see if it can be better said in terms of individual values. I've just had feelings that maybe the ultimate truth about the world isn't history or sociology but biography,' he said.
She didn't know what he was talking about. All she could think of was Florida.
She handed him up his glass. The blue flame of the stove was hissing away under the oil. She lifted the lid on the pot and saw the heat stirring the liquid inside, but it was so dark she couldn't really tell if it was time to start the potatoes.
'You're sort of another culture,' he said. 'A culture of one. A culture is an evolved static pattern of quality capable of Dynamic change. That's what you are. That's the best definition of you that's ever been invented.
'You may think everything you say and everything you think is just you but actually the language you use and the values you have are the result of thousands of years of cultural evolution. It's all in a kind of debris of pieces that seem unrelated but are actually part of a huge fabric. Levi-Strauss postulates that a culture can only be understood by reenacting its thought processes with the debris of its interaction with other cultures. Does this make sense? I'd like to record the debris of your own memory and try to reconstruct things with it.'
She wished he had a frying thermometer. She broke off a bit of potato and dropped it in the pot, and it swirled slowly but didn't sizzle. She fished it out and had another bite of lettuce.
'Have you ever heard of Heinrich Schliemann?' he asked.
'He was an archaeologist who investigated the ruins of a city people thought was mythological: ancient Troy.
'Before Schliemann used what he called the strato-graphic technique, archaeologists were just educated
grave-robbers. He showed how you could dig down carefully through one stratum after another, finding the ruins of earlier cities under later ones. That's what I think can be done with a single person. I can take parts of your language and your values and trace them to old patterns that were laid down centuries ago and are what make you what you are.'
'I don't think you'll get much out of me,' Lila said.
The booze is really getting to him, she thought. All day he's been so quiet. Now you can't shut him off.
She said, 'Boy, I sure pushed a button when I asked about going to Florida with you.'
'What do you mean?'
'All day I thought you were one of those silent types. Now I can't get a word in.'
He looked like she'd hurt his feelings.
'Well, I don't mind,' she said. 'You can ask me all the questions you want.'
Finally the oil looked hot enough. She used a slotted spoon to lower the first batch into the pot with a roar of bubbles and a cloud of steam. 'Are the steaks getting close to done?' she asked.
'A few minutes more.'
'Good,' she said. The smell of the steaks mixed with the French fries coming up from the stove was making her almost faint. She couldn't remember when she'd ever been this hungry before. When the potato bubbles quieted down she spooned the potatoes out, spread them on a towel and showered them with salt, then put in the next batch. When these were done, she waited until the Captain said the steaks were ready. Then she handed the plates up for him to put the steaks on.
The Captain came down. They opened the dining table leaves, moved the plates and whiskey and mix and extra French fries on to the table, and suddenly there everything was. She looked at the Captain and he looked at her. It could be like this every night, she thought.
Oh! The steak was so good she wanted to cry! The French fries! Oh! Salad!
'You don't know what this is doing to me,' she said.
'What is it doing?' He had a little smile on his face.
'Is that one of your questions?' she asked. Her mouth was full of French fries. She had to slow down.
'No,' he laughed, 'that wasn't one of them. I just wanted to know more about your background.'
'Like a job interviewer?' she said.
'Well, yes, that's a start.'
He got up and refilled their glasses.
She thought for a while. 'I was born in Rochester. I was the youngest of two girls ... Is that the kind of stuff you want to know?'
'Just a second,' he said. He got up and got a notepad and a pen.
'You mean you're going to write all this down?'
'Sure,' he said.
'Oh, forget it!'
'I don't want to do that.'
'Let's just eat and relax and be friends.'
He frowned a little, then shrugged his shoulders, got up again and put the pad of slips away.
As she took another bite of steak she thought maybe she shouldn't have said that. Not if she wanted to go to Florida. 'Go ahead, ask some questions anyway,' she said, 'I'll talk. I like to talk.'
The Captain handed her drink to her and then sat down beside her.
'All right, what are the things you like best?'
'And after that?'
She thought for a while. 'Just what we're doing now.
Did you see that light from the city across the bridge? All of a sudden it was so beautiful.'
'Men,' she laughed.
'Any kind. The kind that likes me.'
'What do you dislike most?'
'Mean people . . . Like that lady in the store back in town. There's a million people like her and I hate every one of them. Always trying to make themselves big by tearing somebody else down . . . You do it too, you know.'
This afternoon. Talking so big about a boat you never saw.'
'Just don't be mean like that and we'll get along fine. I only get mad at mean people.'
'What after mean people?' the Captain asked.
'People who think they're better than you are.'
'Lots of things.'
'Well, there's lots of things I don't want. I don't want to get old. I don't want people to be mean. Oh, I said that.'
She thought for a while. 'Sometimes I don't want to be so lonely. You know, I thought George and me were really going to make it. And then this Debbie comes along and it's like he doesn't even know me. I didn't do anything to him. That's just mean.'
'Isn't that enough? It isn't any special thing that makes me feel bad. I don't know what it's going to be until it happens.' She looked at him. 'Sometimes there's something that just comes over me and I get scared . . . That happened this afternoon.'
'It wasn't just the wind. It isn't like anything. It's like a storm coming and I don't have any house. I don't have anywhere to go.' She took another bite of steak. 'I like this boat. Do you have storms on this boat?'
'Yes, but the boat's like a cork. The waves wash over it.'
'That's good. I like that.'
'Why are you all alone like this on the river?'
'I'm not. I'm with you.'
'Well then, last night,' he said.
'I wasn't alone,' she laughed. 'Don't you remember?' She reached over and put her hand on his cheek. 'Don't you remember?'
'Before you met me.'
'Before I met you I wasn't alone for five minutes. I was with that bastard, George. Don't you remember?
'All spring I saved money so I could take this trip with him. And then he runs off like that. They wouldn't even give me my money back . .. Oh hell, let's not talk about him. He's all gone.'
'Where were you going to go?'
'Ohhh,' the Captain said. 'So that's why you want to go with me to Florida.'
'Uh-huh,' she said.
While he thought about it she started on her salad. 'Don't ever do this to me again,' she said. 'Let's just fill this whole boat with groceries, OK?'
'Somehow you didn't answer my question,' he said. 'Before you met me, before you knew George, why weren't you married?'
'I was married,' Lila said. 'A long time ago.'
'You're still married.'
'No, he got killed.'
'Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.'
This steak was cooked just perfectly, but it needed just a little more pepper. She reached over and got the pepper shaker by the cutting board and added just a pinch to the steak, then handed the shaker to the Captain.
'That was a long time ago,' she said. 'I never think about him.'
'What did he do?'
'He drove a truck. He was on the road most of the time. I never saw him much. And then one night he didn't come home and the police called and said he was dead. And that was it.'
'What did you do then?'
'I got some insurance money. And they had a funeral, and I wore a black dress and all that, but I don't think about that any more.'
'Why didn't you like him?' the Captain asked.
'We always had fights,' Lila said.
'Just fights ... He was always suspicious of me. Of what I was going to do when he wasn't home ... He thought I was cheating on him.'
Lila looked at him. 'Wait a minute . . . When I was married I was married. I didn't do anything like that . . . Don't get me mad.'
'I'm just asking,' the Captain said.
She had another bite of the salad. 'He never had respect for me.'
'Why did you marry him?'
'I was pregnant,' Lila said.
'How old were you?'
'Sixteen. Seventeen when she was born."
That's too young,' the Captain said.
Those drinks before dinner were making her high now. She'd better slow down, she thought, and watch herself and not do something dumb, like she usually
did when she got drunk. She was already talking too much.
She felt dizzy. Then she saw the lamp swing. 'What's that?' she said.
'A wake,' the Captain said. 'A big one . . . That's the first one. In a second there'll be . . . here it comes . . .'
Another even bigger wave came and the whole boat rocked, and then after a while a smaller one and another one, each one getting smaller.
The Captain got up from the table and went up.
'What is it?' she said.
'I don't know,' he said. 'It's not a barge . . . Some power-boat probably. He may be on the other side of the bridge.'
He stood there for a long time looking around outside. Then he looked back down at her.
'How old is your baby now?' he asked.
That surprised her. That was a new one. 'What do you want to know that for?'
She watched his eyes. She didn't like them. He looked mean.
'You mean accidentally,' he said.
'I didn't cover her right and she smothered,' Lila said. 'That was long ago.'
'Nobody blamed you though.'
'Nobody had to. What could they say . . . that Ididn't already know?'
Lila remembered she still had the black funeral dress. She remembered she had to wear it three times that year. There were hundreds of people who came to her grandfather's funeral because he was a minister and lots of Jerry's friends came to his funeral, but nobody came for Dawn.
'Don't get me started thinking about that,' she said.
She sat back in the berth for the first time and stopped eating. 'Ask some other questions,' she said, 'like, how long will it take to get to Florida?'
'So you never married again,' the Captain said.
'No! God, no. Never! I would never do that again.
'These people who get married,' she said. 'It's the cheapest trick on a person there is. You're supposed to give up all your freedom and everything just for sex every night. That doesn't make them happy. They're just always looking around for some way out. Don't you want some more of these French fries?
'I just want to be free,' she said. 'That's what America's about, isn't it?'
The Captain took some French fries and she got up and took her plate over to the cutting board and took the rest of the French fries and put them on her plate. 'Give me your glass," she said.
He gave it to her and she lifted the lid of the icebox and scooped some more ice into it. She added mix and booze and then filled her own glass. She saw the booze was halfway down the label already, when she heard a CLUNK! It was against the side of the boat.
'Now what?' she said.
The Captain shook his head. He said, 'Maybe a big branch or something.' He got up and went past her and up on deck and she felt the boat tip a little as his footsteps went over to the side.
'What is it?' she said.
'It's the dinghy.'
After a while he said, 'It's never done that before . . . Come on up and help me put some fenders down and tie it alongside. We'll bring it up in the morning.'
She came up and watched him take two big rubber fenders and tie them to the rail so that they dangled over the side. He went over to the other side of the deck and came back with a long boat hook. She stood next to him while he reached out with the hook and brought the dinghy up against the side of the boat.
'Hold it there,' he said, and gave her the boat hook.
He went to a big box by the mast and opened it and took out a rope and then came back. He dropped the rope into the dinghy and then stepped and lowered himself down over the guard rail.
She looked around. It was so quiet here. Just the rolling of the cars across the bridge. The sky was still all orange from the light from the city but it was so peaceful you would never guess where they were.
When he was done the Captain grabbed the guard rail and pulled himself up again.
'I figured it out,' he said. 'It's because the tide is changing . . . This is the first time I've seen this . . . Look around at all the other boats. You remember when we came they were all pointed toward the bridge? Now they're all skewed around.'
She looked and saw that all the boats were facing in different directions.
They'll probably all be pointing away from the bridge after a while,' he said. 'It's warm enough out - let's sit up here and watch it. I'm sort of fascinated by this,' he said.
Lila brought up the bottles and ice and some sweaters and a blanket to put over them. She sat next to him and put the blanket over their legs together. 'Listen to how quiet it is,' she said. 'It's hard to believe we're this close to New York.'
They listened for a long time.
'What are you going to do when you get to Manhattan?' the Captain asked.
'I'm going to find a friend of mine and see if he can help me,' she said.
'What if you can't find him?'
'I don't know. I could do a lot of things. Get a job waitressing or something like that . . ." She looked at him but couldn't see how he took it.
'Who is this person you're going to see in New York?'
'Jamie? He's just an old friend.'
'How long have you known him?'
'Oh, two or three years,' she said.
'In New York?'
'So you've lived there a long time?'
'Not so long,' Lila said. 'I always liked it there. You can be anyone you want in New York and nobody will stop you.'
She suddenly thought of something. 'You know what?' she said, 'I bet you'd like him. You'd get along fine with him. He's a sailor too. He worked on a ship once.
'You know what?' Lila said. 'He could, help us sail the boat to Florida ... If you wanted to, I mean ... I mean I could cook and he could steer and you could . . . well, you could give all the orders.'
The Captain stared into his glass.
'Just think about it,' Lila said. 'Just the three of us going down to Florida.'
After a while she said, 'He's really friendly. Everybody likes him.'
She waited a long time but the Captain didn't answer. She said, 'If I could talk him into it would you take him?'
'I don't think so,' the Captain said. 'Three's too many.'
'That's because you haven't met him,' Lila said.
She took the Captain's glass and filled it again and snuggled up to him to keep warm. He just wasn't used to the idea.
The cars rolled over the bridge one after another. Bright headlights went in one direction and red tail lights went in the other, on and on.
'You remind me of someone,' Lila said. 'Someone I remember from a long time ago.'
'I can't remember . . . What did you do in high school?'
'Not much,' he said.
'Were you popular?'
'You were unpopular?'
'Nobody paid much attention to me one way or the other.'
'Weren't you on any teams?'
The chess team.'
'You went to dances.'
'Then where did you learn to dance?'
'I don't know. I went for a couple of years to dancing school,' the Captain said.
'Well, what else did you do in high school?'
'In high school?'
'I was studying to be a chemistry professor.'
'You should have studied to be a dancer. You were really good last night.'
Suddenly Lila knew who he reminded her of. Sidney Shedar.
'You're not much of a ladies' man, are you?'
'No, not at all,' he said.
'This person wasn't either.'
'Chemistry's not so bad if you're into it,' he said. 'It gets kind of exciting. I and another kid got the key to the school building and sometimes we'd come back at ten or eleven at night and go up to the chemistry laboratory and work on chemistry experiments until dawn.'
'No. Actually it was pretty great.'
'What did you do?'
'Adolescent stuff . . . The secret of life. I was working hard on that.'