A Sad Story
Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
I was sitting at my usual stool at the bar in Sloppy Joe’s, sipping a watered down beer that was already warm from the heat. Josie had the ike on the other side of the bar tuned to one of the midday news shows. I watched a story about last night’s fight in Madison Square Garden and wished I had been there. There was a story about Hitler announcing plans for a regular transatlantic zeppelin route between Germany and the United States to cement friendship between the countries, and another with one of President Anderson’s economic experts announcing that the Depression would probably be over next year, just in time for the 1936 election. That was followed by a sick-making commercial for laxatives.
Growing tired of the usual stinko crap on the ike, I dropped my eyes to the mirror to look behind me into the saloon. At one table I saw some of the Marines there to keep an eye on the revolution in Cuba. Around them were a scattering of Key West’s finest–bums, rummies, conchs, and some vets from the work camp outside of town who the government had brought to Key West because they did not know what else to do with them and who were an embarrassment to everyone. There were also half a dozen coastguardsmen drinking their fill before heading off to patrol for the rumrunners who were probably now sitting within a few feet of them. With any luck the guardsmen would be drinking much better later.
I turned back to the ike for a news story on Anderson’s White House reception for Cuban dictator Machado. When Bronco Billy promised his undying support for that bloodthirsty bastard in the name of “liberty and democracy,” I almost puked. The Marines cheered. That was what they were in Key West for, after all.
“Could you change the channel?” I called to Josie, loudly enough for everyone in the bar to hear. “I can’t look at both those bastards at once and keep my lunch down.”
I watched the Marines in the mirror. There were four of them, with smooth faces, none older than twenty, their khaki jackets open to the heat. They were glaring at my back. I did not have to wait long.
“Hey, what are you, you son-of-a-bitch?” said one of them. “Some kinda Red?” I turned on my stool toward their table and eyed them one by one.
“Nope,” I said. “Just a genuine lover of liberty and democracy.”
They glared at me a while longer before one of them said, “Don’t you know it’s our job to kill Reds?”
“You pansies?” I said. “You couldn’t even kill time.”
They jumped to their feet. I stood and dropped my shoulders into a boxer’s stance. Then a sound like a shot turned my face toward the other end of the bar. Josie had just slapped the counter with the sawed-off billiard cue he uses to keep his customers in line. He held it up. Josie is not a big guy, but big enough. Except for his flabby cheeks he is hard and stringy like an old bantam, and no one doubted that he could use the cue.
“Ain’t it time for you to be on your way, fellas?” he said in his conch drawl. “I’m sure you don’t want no trouble.”
They glanced at each other but mostly at Joe and me.
“Come on, boys,” said one Marine with corporal’s stripes. “The beer here is flea pee anyway.”
They turned to leave. I started to say something else, but Josie stopped me.
“Lay off, Cap.”
“Why did you throw them out? It’s been a while since I punched a uniform.”
“Not in my bar. If I didn’t have business to discuss with you, I’d have to throw you out too. How about another beer?”
“I don’t know. I think the swamp water you cut it with is ruining my health.”
“How about a bottle of the real stuff? On me.”
I glanced over my shoulder before looking back into his slab of a face. “With the coast guard here?”
“Not hard liquor,” he said, lowering his voice. “Real Cuban beer. Hatuey. I got a shipment in last night.”
“How come I wasn’t let in on it?”
“Come on, Cap. Using you to pick up Havana beer? Why, it’s almost legal. I wouldn’t waste you on a milk run like that. I was saving you for something much better.”
He opened a bottle he pulled up from an ice bucket under the counter and filled my glass. The cold Hatuey pouring down my insides reminded me of how hot and damp I felt outside.
“You have a run for me?” I asked.
“Yep,” he said. He leaned toward me. “A big one. Some guy who looks like he’s from Palm Beach came by this morning. He wants a load of booze–whatever we can get and as much as we can get. I thought this would be a good chance to get rid of that stuff those Cubans dumped at Woman Key.”
“Have you seen his money?”
“He’s good for it.” Josie hesitated before giving me the rest. “There’s just a couple things.”
“He wants it taken to Miami.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
I thought about it.
“It won’t be easy. The coast from here to Miami is swarming with guard cutters.”
“I know it won’t be easy. That’s why I asked you.”
I thought some more. “How much?”
“A couple thousand. You’ll get your usual cut.”
“All right,” I said. “Is there anything else I should know?”
“He wants to go along.”
“Has he ever helped on a boat?”
“Looking at him, I’d say no.”
“I don’t like it,” I said.
“You’ve taken plenty of landlubbers out before.”
“Yeah, for fishing or sightseeing. But not when I’m dodging the guard in the dark with a hold full of bootleg booze.”
“All right,” I said. “But he has to understand that I’m the boss on the boat, and that I’d as soon drop him overboard as take any crud.”
Josie shrugged. “You’re the skipper, Cap.”
After filling my glass with more cold Hatuey, he left to make a phone call from his back room. When he returned, he told me Mr. Palm Beach would meet me at Joe’s boat, the Anita, at six that evening.
“How will I know him?” I asked.
“You’ll know him. By the way, his name is Frank.”
“Well, I hope Frank behaves himself,” I said. “I’d hate to have to kill him.”
I really wanted to kill Frank around seven that evening, but I could not because he was nowhere in sight. I finally sent Carlos off to Sloppy Joe’s to make sure that the plans had not changed. It did not occur to me that a grown man could be an hour late.
Carlos returned fifteen minutes later leading the guy. I could see right away why he reminded Josie of Palm Beach. He was not very tall, probably no more than five feet seven, and looked out of place on the dock in white flannel pants and a polo shirt with a button-down collar. His wavy blonde hair was neatly combed, and he had a delicate mouth with thin lips that would have looked swell on a woman but that made you worry seeing them on a man. I had him figured for a fairy. He was in no hurry, and I had plenty of time to notice how short his legs were. He would probably have been average-sized if it were not for those ridiculously short legs.
It occurred to me to ask him if his short legs were the reason he had come an hour after the time agreed to, but instead I asked, “Where the hell have you been?”
He stared at me along his well-shaped nose. “You’re ready to go?”
“I’ve been ready to go for a goddamn hour.”
“Look, you,” he said, his thin lips getting thinner. “You won’t take that tone of voice with me.” He was speaking now in one of those clipped, fake British accents you often hear from people that went to college.
“I’ll take any goddamn tone of voice I want with anyone who’s kept me waiting for a goddamn hour.”
“I’ve hired you to do a job for me. If you can’t keep a civil tongue, I’ll take my business to someone who will.”
I shoved my fist under his beautiful nose.
“As the skipper I’m the one who gives the orders. If you don’t like that, you don’t have to come aboard.”
He stared at my knuckles.
“I should warn you that I studied boxing at Princeton,” he said.
“I guess they didn’t teach you that a lightweight shouldn’t take on a heavyweight.”
He had no answer to that. He lowered his sea-green eyes, taking in my khaki pants cut off at the knees and my skivvy shirt decorated with engine oil and fish blood.
“Come onto the boat,” I said. “We don’t have time for this crap.”
Leaving him to Carlos, I headed straight for the cockpit. I fired up the engines and pulled away from the dock. I was looking behind me to steer past the pilings when Mr. Palm Beach showed up.
“Is that spick going with us?” he asked.
I stared at him. “Carlos isn’t a spick. He’s a gallego. And he’s going with us unless you’ve had as much experience on a boat as he has.”
He frowned. “Can he be trusted?”
“I trust him more than most men.”
Still looking worried, he stared back to where Carlos was coiling the sternline on the deck.
“I suggest you relax,” I told him. “There’s a canvas chair out on the deck.”
He took my advice as I steered us out of the basin. When we were past the lights that marked the harbor, I strapped on my brown leather holster with my thirty-eight police special. Then I turned east toward Woman Key, to pick up the booze the Cubans had dumped in the mangroves.
A half hour later, when we reached Woman Key, the Sand Key light was still visible rising thin and brown from the sea to the west, with the sun near the horizon just north of it. I slowed the engines as I pulled near the shoals, then turned the launch and headed up the channel into the mangrove swamp. Where the channel opened up into a lagoon we could make out the sacks of liquor piled like huge hams on the sandy bank at the edge of the swamp.
After steering as close to the bank as I could, I cut the engines astern and threw the two clutches, then drifted near enough that mangrove branches poked into the cockpit while Carlos dropped the anchor. I took us about five minutes to haul the dozen sacks onto the deck while Frank looked on, offering no help but plenty of advice until I told him to shut up. It was almost dark by the time we finished, and since I did not dare use lights I could barely make out the outline of the mangroves and the channel as I steered us back toward the open sea. Past the shoals, I took my bearings from the compass and from the distant Sand Key light, then put the launch on an eastward course. I planned on going a few miles away from the coast before turning north toward Miami. Out toward the Stream there would be less chance of running into guard boats.
It was good and peaceful being alone in the cockpit, steering through the sea while night fell. But after a while Carlos came in complaining that our passenger was acting crudo. He wanted to open a bottle, and when Carlos said he would have to ask me first Frank had threatened to throw him overboard.
“He called me a ‘spick,'” said Carlos. “Me parece un cabrón.”
“Sí, a mí tambien,” I answered. “Take the wheel.”
“With pleasure, Señor Cap.”
I found Frank in the cabin, digging through one of the sacks of booze.
“Did you lose something?” I asked him.
“I thought there was supposed to be gin,” he said. “I specifically asked for gin.”
“Find some whiskey,” I said, “and I’ll fix us highballs.”
He found a demijohn and I made the highballs. We took our drinks outside, away from the smell of fish and gasoline tanks. When he took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, I saw by the cabin light that they were Marlboroughs and started worrying about him again. He offered me one, but I refused.
“Isn’t that a ladies’ cigarette?” I said as he put one in his mouth.
“Not any more,” he said. “Haven’t you seen the ads? ‘Marlboroughs–the cigarette with taste for people with taste.’ In fact, I wrote that line myself.”
“You’re an adman for the ike?”
“Yes,” he said, swelling a bit.
“You a Jew?” I asked.
“No,” he said, his swelling going down. “Why did you ask that?”
“I thought only Jews worked the ike business. Isn’t that why they call it the ‘ike’?”
“No, that’s just a bad joke. ‘Ike’ comes from ‘iconoscope,’ the original name the Russians gave it.”
“Wasn’t it invented by a Jew? You know, the guy that was all over the ike when he left Germany after the Nazis took over.”
“You mean Einstein?” said Frank. “No, he just perfected the principles behind the electronic tube decades ago while he was working in a Swiss patent office.”
We got to talking about the ike and how it had affected the last election. We repeated the chestnut about Anderson beating Roosevelt because Bronco Billy was an ike cowboy star while Roosevelt looked like a crippled old lady onscreen. This naturally led to bitching about how Anderson’s election allowed Prohibition and the Bible Belt mentality to last into the mid-thirties.
After fixing more highballs we moved to the cockpit, where I relieved Carlos. Frank wanted to know how much money I made as a rumrunner and how dangerous it was and how long I had been working the Stream. But I didn’t want to talk about that so I asked him why he needed all that booze if he worked in the ad business.
“Are you thinking of moving up from whoring to bootlegging?” I said.
I could tell he was thinking about whether to get offended or not.
“No. I’m doing this for a better reason,” he said. “The best reason of all.” He paused, and after a while I decided he was not going to tell me the reason. When he did go on, I realized he had just paused for dramatic effect.
“I’m doing it for the woman I love,” he said.
“That’s a lousy reason,” I told him. “The worst, in fact. Why would you be carrying a load of bootleg booze for a stinking woman?”
“Don’t talk like that,” he said. He scowled at me along his beautiful nose, his thin lips pinched together. I guess he was trying to appear haughty.
“The woman I love is the finest woman in the world,” he said.
“You’re obviously not married to her.”
“I should be,” he said. “Since we first met neither of us has really loved anyone else.”
He was feeling sentimental about the tragic implications of his romance, so I got to hear the whole story. He had been in his last year at Princeton, writing his first novel, when America entered the war. He had ended up at Camp Sheridan near Montgomery, Alabama, where he met his Zelda. He told me that so many of the men training as pilots used to buzz her house that the camp commander had to issue a specific order against the practice. One airman actually committed suicide by crashing his plane when she refused to marry him.
They had spent a lot of time in those “perfumed Southern nights,” as he put it, kissing and professing their love for one another. She had promised to marry him as soon as he could support her well enough. As he talked about it, he found it all very exciting and romantic, but his Zelda sounded like a first-class bitch to me.
The war ended before he got over. When he returned to Montgomery to resume his engagement with Zelda, he found that she was seeing other men. He knew that unless he could make his fortune and marry her right away, he would lose her to someone richer. He rewrote his Princeton novel and sent it to a young editor at Scribner’s who had earlier expressed an interest in it, but Scribner’s had been bought by an ike monopoly who let the editor go. That was the closest Frank got to publishing the book.
He did manage to sell a couple of stories to The Smart Set, the snooty literary magazine edited by Mencken before it became a snooty ladies’ magazine. Convinced he could still become a successful author, Frank got to work on another novel, but before he could finish it he learned that Zelda had married one Mr. Buchanan, of the Philadelphia Buchanans.
“That ruined me,” he said. “I went on a long bender. I came out of it in New York and stayed to take a job with an advertising agency. I hated the work but I was good at it. I kept writing stories, but all those good prewar markets like the Post had pretty much stopped publishing them because they couldn’t compete with the iconoscope. I tried screenwriting, but I couldn’t break in.”
“You shouldn’t feel bad about failing at that. Writing for the ike is whoring anyway.”
“But at least I’d be making my living as a writer.”
He tossed off the last of his drink. I could see by the cockpit light that at some point that evening his face had undergone a strange transformation. The skin had gone waxy and had pulled tight across his skull, making him look a bit like a death’s head. I did not think then that it could be the liquor because he had not had that much.
“You still haven’t told me why you need the booze,” I said.
“Zelda and Buchanan are getting a divorce, or at least those are the rumors. Haven’t you heard about it? It’s been all over the ike.”
“I don’t watch gossip shows.”
“They’re taking separate vacations this year. He’s golfing in the British Isles while she’s down here in Miami. You see? I have another chance. I know she never really loved Buchanan. If I can convince her I’ve become a success after all, she’ll divorce him and marry me.” His face fell. “Of course, after my own wife gives me a divorce.”
“You’re married too?”
“Well, a little.”
“A little married? What the hell does that mean?”
“I mean, we’re estranged. I don’t think Violet and I ever really loved one another. And anyway, it was only personal.”
After trying to make sense of this remark, I thought about my own second wife, who would not give me a divorce because she was more Catholic than I was and because I could not afford to pay her alimony.
“So you’re buying this load of booze to get your society dame drunk enough to marry you?” I said.
“No. I’m going to re-sell the liquor in Miami and win her by putting on the Ritz.”
I wanted to tell him that, if he wished to buy a woman, I knew some good, reasonably priced whores in Key West. I wanted to tell him that sex is much better when it is not mixed up with love. But I knew he did not want to hear that. Instead I said, “You don’t make enough money as an ad writer?”
“No.” He looked down into his empty glass.
“Because you’re a rummy,” I suggested helpfully.
He turned a death’s head scowl on me. “I’m not a rummy,” he said. “And even if I were, I have a right to be.” His voice grew husky. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to lose as much as I’ve lost.”
I thought of a good reply, but instead I asked, “So what happens when the booze money runs out?”
“By then she’ll have remembered how much she’s loved me all along. She’ll be mine. It’ll be too late for her to change her mind.”
“It wasn’t too late to change her mind the last time you were engaged.”
“This time it’ll be different. Seventeen years have passed. We’re more mature–sadder but wiser. This time we’ll stay together.”
“Bull,” I said. “You can’t remake the past.”
“Can’t remake the past!” He looked around, as though he was going to find the past somewhere in the cockpit. “Of course you can!”
As if to prove it, he repeated the story of his romance, only this time with some of the details rewritten. It was still a sad story, though not as sad as when you first heard it. I did not want to hear the whole thing over again, so when he got to the part where he could not sell his stories because the ike had ruined the paying fiction markets I interrupted by telling him I knew all about that myself. I must have brought it up only because I was tired of his romance, since the part of my life when I thought I could live as a writer is behind me. Unlike him I was not in love with the past and especially with past failures.
“You wrote fiction?” he said, amazed, as though it was incredible that a rumrunner had the brains to do anything else.
“Yep,” I said, already sorry I had mentioned it.
“Did you publish anything?”
“Yep,” I said. “I published a few stories in the transatlantic review back in the twenties when I was living in Paris.”
Excited, he asked me questions about literary life in Paris. He had always wanted to visit Europe himself, but had never had the time or money. Somehow I got from Paris to the story of my dispute with Heywood Broun over my competence regarding boxing, which ended with me punching him out on the ike as we both reported a bout at Madison Square Garden. After that I was pretty much blacklisted. I published a few magazine articles about fishing and hunting and bullfighting, but they brought me little satisfaction and less money.
He vaguely remembered the Broun episode and asked me my real name. I told him.
“Ah. So do you prefer being called Ernest or Ernie?” he asked.
“I prefer being called Cap.”
“Well, I prefer Scott.”
“Your name isn’t Frank?”
He told me his full name. His first name really was Francis, but he preferred Scott, his middle name.
“I can see why,” I told him. “A guy like you can’t afford to go around with a name like Francis.”
He paused before saying, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, you look so delicate, and you smoke those fairy cigarettes,” I said. I must have been sore because he had got me talking about the past. “If I were you, I would rather be called Scott than Francis too.”
“That’s not funny.”
I stared through the dark windshield and waited.
“I don’t really want to fight you,” he said. “But I swear I will unless you take that back.”
“Forget it,” I said. I was not feeling sore any more, only gloomy. “Pretend it was just the whiskey talking.”
I was glad when he gave it up and returned to the cabin, leaving me alone. But the being alone was not peaceful and good this time. Instead I felt the death-loneliness I feel when I really think about my writing and about wasting my life. It did not help to tell myself that there was no point worrying about it and that what was important was that I had written as well and as honestly as I could. There was no point brooding about what might have happened if the dice had landed differently; no point blaming the ike and the monopolies and the other things you could blame for crapping out. The best you could do was keep your guard up and get whatever you could and shut up about the rest.
A while after midnight I finally saw the lights of Miami coming from behind the key and turned west toward them. Just as I was approaching the entrance to Biscayne Bay I saw the lights of another boat heading toward me. Not taking any chances, I killed the engines and then the binnacle light. At first I heard only the lapping of water against the hull, then the distant but growing noise of the other boat as it approached off our port bow. It sounded too powerful to be just another launch. Besides, no pleasure boat would be on the water at that hour. I went out to the rail with the binoculars for a better look.
By the time I was sure it was a cutter Carlos had turned up at the gunwale beside me. I told him to drop anchor, thinking the cutter might pass us by if we played dead. Frank showed up, looking pale.
“What is it?” he asked. “Why are we stopping?”
“Company,” I said. “Coast guard.”
“What should we do?” I heard panic in his voice and prayed he was not going to do anything stupid.
“Sit here in the dark and hope they don’t notice us.”
“What if they do?”
“If we’re lucky they’ll just arrest us and fine us and keep the liquor and the boat. If we’re not so lucky, we’ll get a few years of room and board at government expense.”
“Oh, no!” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”
“Swell. If they board us, you can explain it to them.”
“Could we bribe them to let us go? It often works with that class of people.”
“I’d love to see you try.”
“Well, we can’t just sit here!”
The boat sped on a straight heading toward us.
“You have a better idea? I can’t outrun a guard cutter.”
“Dump the liquor!” he said.
“Toss it overboard!”
“But you paid two thousand dollars for it.”
“That doesn’t matter!” he said. “It’s not going to do me any good if I’m arrested and have to spend the next ten years in prison.”
“Maybe your rich-bitch sweetheart will come and visit you. If she loves you as much as you say, she could pay to get you out. That often works with that class of people.”
“You’re wasting time,” he said. “Throw the liquor overboard!”
I stared hard at him.
“You don’t want the booze?” I asked.
“No! Dump it!”
“It’s your money,” I said at last. “You wait here and keep an eye on the cutter.”
I went to Carlos and told him in Spanish what we were going to do. After a couple of minutes in the cabin, I returned to where Frank stood. The cutter had almost reached us.
“Well?” he said.
“It’s all taken care of,” I said. “You’re safe.”
“I didn’t see you throwing anything overboard.”
“No, and neither did the coast guard. We have a hatch below that lets us dump right into the water without being seen.”
I heard him sigh.
The cutter’s engines cut to idle about fifty feet away from us. A floodlight hit the launch and scanned us from bow to stern. A voice came at us through a megaphone.
“Ahoy! Everything all right?”
I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled back.
“Why are you dead in the water?”
“We’re on our way from Key West to Bimini. We just decided to stop for a few winks.”
“Why didn’t you dock in Miami?”
“Miami’s too rich for my blood.”
There was a pause before he said, “What’s that gun doing on your hip?”
“It’s for sharks,” I answered.
They were asking too many questions, and I tried to think of some way to get rid of them.
“Say, would you like to come aboard for a cup of coffee?” I asked. “We were just about to make some.”
I listened. Except for the idling engines I could not hear anything. Just as I was starting to worry I got the answer I had hoped for.
“We’re on duty. Maybe another time.”
After some last words they geared up the engines and took off across our bow. Frank had stayed quiet beside me during the conversation and only now spoke up.
“They didn’t even board us.”
“They were thinking about it.”
“We could have kept the liquor.”
“You made your choice,” I reminded him.
“But I ended up with nothing,” he said. “I needed that liquor to win Zelda. I had to borrow the two thousand dollars, and I can’t even pay that back.” He swung toward me. “I think I should get a refund. Why should I have to absorb the whole loss? I paid you to carry that liquor to Miami, and you didn’t.”
“You told us to dump the booze over the side.”
“It’s not fair,” he whined.
“Since when has life been fair?”
I discovered in the next moment that he was drunker than I thought, because he should have had more sense than to throw a punch at me. In daylight I would have seen it and blocked it, but in the dark he took me by surprise and landed the blow on the side of my head. It did not hurt much but it made me sore. I belted him in the jaw and knocked him to the deck. He may have blacked out because I did not hear anything from him for a few seconds. Then he groaned and sat up. I was standing with my feet apart and my shoulders dropped waiting for him to come at me again, but he stayed down. It took me a little longer to realize he was weeping.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said.
“Shut up!” he sobbed, holding his head in both hands. “Just shut up!”
“Why don’t you come inside? I’ll fix you another drink.”
“I can’t stand it. I just can’t stand it any more.”
I went inside to fix him a highball and had just closed the bottle when I heard a splash. Carlos began to yell.
“Señor! Señor Cap! He has jumped overboard!”
Swearing, I came out.
“Va a ahogarse!” Carlos said.
“Donde está?” I asked.
He pointed. I saw Frank floundering in the water. Swearing again, I kicked off my shoes and dove over the side. It took me a minute to grab him and to swim one-armed to the side of the Anita, where Carlos was waiting with the boat hook. I sent Frank up first and then crawled up into the launch myself. Carlos and I carried him into the cabin and laid him out on the deck. I pressed on his chest. He choked up some water, but he had not taken in enough to really hurt him. I knew he was all right when he moaned.
“Do something like that again and I’ll let you drown,” I told him.
“Sorry,” he said weakly.
“What’s happened to you is just life. You do what seems right at the time, and you have either good luck or bad luck. If you have good luck then there’s no problem, but if you have bad luck you take it and go on.”
He rolled his head in the puddle, looking away.
“Now let’s get out of these wet clothes before we catch pneumonia,” I said.
The idea of pneumonia worried him, and he mentioned his weak lungs as we both stripped down to our underwear. We wrapped ourselves in gray wool blankets. With the demijohn I had opened earlier, I fixed a round of whiskey sours to fight off the chill.
Carlos at the wheel, we got across the Bay without having to stop again. After Frank and I put our wet clothes back on, I took over steering until we moored in the yacht harbor. Even with the blankets over our wet shoulders, the half-mile walk to Frank’s hotel chilled me, and I knew I was going to come down with a sore throat later. By the time we got to his room, he was really worried about pneumonia and insisted that I get a thermometer from the night clerk while he changed into dry pyjamas, and I did after I could not convince him that it would be a waste of time. When the thermometer arrived, I put it under his tongue while he lay still under the covers. He seemed disappointed when I told him his temperature was normal, and he made me take it again.
When it came out normal the second time, I told him, “See, you’re going to pull through all right.”
“No.” He rolled his face away on the pillow. “I have nothing to live for. I have no money. I’ve failed to achieve my dreams. I’m married to a woman I don’t love, and once more Zelda is going to slip away from me.”
His voice was filling with tears again.
“If only things had turned out the way I wanted,” he went on. “Who knows? In a different world, we both might have become successful authors.” He squeezed his eyelids shut. “Oh my God, successful authors.”
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
I sat by his bed until he sobbed himself to sleep. It was sickening to watch. But as I shut his door behind me I could not help muttering, “The poor son-of-a-bitch.”
Luck stayed with us, and Carlos and I left Biscayne Bay without any problems. When we were out in the open water heading back to Key West, I dragged the gasoline tanks off of the hatch in the cabin and lifted it. I stared down into our secret smugglers’ hold, eyeing tonight’s catch: the sacks of booze that Frank had ordered overboard.
You did not often get a chance to make the same profit twice. And in this damn Depression you could not afford to pass up such opportunities. Sometimes you do what you have to even if you do not feel good about it.
I made myself another sour and told Carlos to get some sleep. Unfortunately, steering the boat in the dark did not keep me from thinking about the last few hours and the last several years and about the really swell bastard I had become. I reminded myself that somebody has to lose and only suckers worry. But often even winners take nothing.
What a lousy, stinking life I lead. Maybe Frank was right. If we had become successful authors, everything would have turned out different. But if I thought about that I would end up killing myself.