Following her was not hard duty. She had long well-toned legs, a compact derriere, and a walk that would have diverted any randy Hamlin rat from the Pied Piper’s entourage.
The first restaurant we came to – El Sol de Havana – looked “ethnic” enough so we walked up to a menu that was posted outside the front door. Unfortunately, we had to lean over the body of a weather-beaten, sleeping indigent who was propped against the wall. After reading the menu, I pulled a couple of singles from my wallet and stuffed them into his shirt pocket.
“Is that a good idea, Chauncey?” Girtha asked. “Aren’t you just encouraging him to continue panhandling?”
“I’m just hedging a bet. A friend of mine once told me you should always give money to a homeless man: he could be Jesus working undercover.”
“Miami’s a city of stark contrasts, from the ritzy mansions on Key Biscayne to the peeling stucco cottages of Liberty City and Little Havana; from bronzed, youthful bodies on roller blades to elderly citizens who seem to have been shrunk by years in the sun. Someone once remarked that Miami is a mecca for people-watching because without effort you can see the tree-ripened grapes and the dry raisins they will become. The flashy and the trashy co-exist in a metropolis so complex and diverse that anyone can call it their own.”
The other couple at the table was a disagreeable-looking pair. The woman, tall and fortyish, had raven-black hair and heavy white makeup that gave her a ghoulish appearance. Her hair had been pulled into a bun so tightly that it stretched the corners of her eyes as well. On the edge of her mouth was a small dark mole that had tiny hairs protruding from it, like the legs of a fly under a microscope. She looked slowly around the room through hooded eyes, like a snake on stakeout outside a mouse hole. She would have been more at home opening the door of Dracula’s castle to a stranded traveler during an evening thunderstorm or kicking Cinderella in the ass for not scrubbing the floors fast enough. She was wearing a long-sleeved, burgundy velour dress with a high collar—not typical cruise attire.
The man with her was no bargain, either. He radiated unpleasantness the way overripe cheese gives off stench. Tall and lanky like his wife, his long black hair was combed straight back and fastened into a ponytail. His most arresting features were long sideburns, which almost crept to his jaw, and a long, jagged scar that connected his left temple to his chin. He had eight gold rings on his fingers and enough dirt under his nails to grow potatoes. He was dressed in an expensive-looking, double-breasted silk suit and complementary designer tie—but neither helped the image: he still looked like gift-wrapped sleaze. He had apparently succeeded at something in life, but it wasn’t something I wanted to know anything about. When he smiled, I shuddered . . . as if someone had lifted a manhole cover to hell.
“I am Arturo Del Muerto,” he said in a heavy Spanish accent, “a businessman from Bogotá. This is my wife, Castrada. You must pardon her . . . she does not speak English.”
“What kind of business are you in, señor Del Muerto?” I asked.
He looked at me suspiciously; squinting with his left eye and lifting his upper lip until his top row of yellow teeth were bared. “In your country, I would be called . . . a headhunter.”
Whatever the señor was hunting, I had a feeling it wasn’t conducive to human health or longevity. A glance at Del Muerto had cured Girtha’s swoon, and she had picked up her knife either to butter a roll or in anticipated self-defense.
Obscured by my Panama hat and dark sunglasses, I engaged in one of my favorite pastimes: people-watching. I could justify not buckling down to read with the hope that, in scanning my fellow passengers, I might identify a crazed killer. However, the only person I saw with a knife and poultry was the chef at the roast turkey carving station in the buffet line.
Nonetheless, while the exercise was without benefit, it was not without interest. A young couple wearing matching “honeymooner” shirts had their lips glued together like a snail’s belly on the glass wall of an aquarium. Next to them, a man and woman in their fifties were doing their best to chaperone a young woman I supposed to be their overdeveloped granddaughter.
The man I cast as the grandfather had jowls that were separated by an oversized cigar that occasionally dropped ashes down his convex leghorn-white torso. I barely restrained a chuckle when he stood up—he resembled a golf ball on two tees. His wife’s appearance was no less intriguing. Her lipstick, which looked like it had been applied with a paint roller, was smudged beyond the perimeter of her mouth from chain-smoking through a cigarette holder long enough to play billiards with. Her hair was frazzled, most likely from a surfeit of tint jobs, which, sure enough, I could make out after she let it down. Distinct layers defined where it had been dyed different colors at varying lengths. It resembled the strata of Earth from a geology textbook. Between her lips and her hair, a pair of oversized sunglasses with rhinestone-encrusted frames attempted to cover a slightly swollen face. I guessed the bandages had recently been removed from her latest bout with cosmetic surgery. In fact, as I looked more closely, it appeared that her face had been lifted more often than a five-pound barbell at a busy gym.
The object of their devotion, the presumed granddaughter, was a precocious teen nymph who repeatedly jumped in and out of the pool, coyly tugging up her top after its contents had received sufficient exposure and admiration.
Beyond those highlights, all the expected components of the passenger pool were present as well. I picked out matrons that were trying to peddle their spinster daughters, hoping to achieve at sea what they had failed to do on land; nubile ingénues who displayed their assets under the pretense of working on stubborn tan lines; retired CEOs who were enjoying the fruits of their golden parachutes; recent divorcees who found themselves back on the market, their reentry financed with hard-won alimony awards; couples hoping to jump-start their boring marriages with a change of scenery; widows heavily involved with gin—playing it half the time and drinking it the other half. I noted women with their gigolos, hoping for love but settling for checkbook sex; and men with their rented mistresses who moaned on cue and stroked sugar daddy’s ego like a racehorse’s groom. I even spotted some gays, cavorting in thongs, rubbing lotion on each others’ bodies with fawning gusto and bitchy delight. Relatively few families ventured into my line of sight, probably because of the length and expense of the cruise. I could have observed indefinitely, but my attention was suddenly captured by the appearance of a familiar figure.
Bellying up to the poolside bar, and ogling all that lay before him, was señor Del Muerto. Martini in hand, he strutted among the sunning beauties, flexing his biceps and holding his stomach in whenever he made eye contact. In spite of his efforts, he wasn’t getting much response—though I couldn’t have guessed what part of his appearance was to blame: the black lace-up street shoes he was wearing with a pair of dark dress socks held up by red garters; the crotch of his black nylon swimming suit, which sagged and swung obscenely from side to side like the pendulum of a grandfather clock; or the large jagged scar on his hairy chest that resembled a fire break through a dense forest.
“Señor McFadden!” he greeted upon seeing me. “What brings you out in el sol, amigo? You look like you be more at home in a bakery, no es verdad?” He laughed at his own humor before spitting an olive pit into the pool.
“And you’d look more at home in a lineup, Del Muerto. What do we have to thank for your appearance today—early parole? Or did you break out of the pen in the laundry truck again?”
His response was a sneer that curdled the coconut cream in my piña colada. “You funny man, señor McFadden. You lucky I like you, el gordo,” he said, while pulling a switchblade from the front of his bathing suit. “This knife is not the only lethal weapon I keep in here, you know.”
Unfortunately, I couldn’t look away quickly enough to avoid seeing him grab his crotch. Fortunately, this conversation about Del Muerto’s testicular excess was short-lived.
“I must go now to shoot some skeets. You want to join me?”
“Why would I want to shoot skeets? They taste like clay and they’re hard to tenderize, no matter how long you marinate them.”
“May I ask you a question, Joey?”
“Sure. I’m out of the closet now.”
I was surprised at the turn in the conversation and offered my support. “Congratulations on being so open about your homosexuality—”
“I’m not gay. I’m a recovered agoraphobic,” he chortled. “Gotcha!”
“Erickson, you can skip the white-collar peccadilloes. I’m not interested in people with unpaid traffic tickets. I’m looking for a sadist who can methodically and dispassionately carve people up like a Pacific Northwest totem pole.”
“All right, all right, give me a minute,” I heard Erickson say over the sound of rustling paper. “Are you interested in rape, sodomy, or incest?”
“Only as a voyeur. Skip those, too—our crimes aren’t of a sexual nature.”
“Joey,” I greeted, hoisting myself up on an adjacent stool. “Isn’t it a little early to be drinking lunch?”
“It’s vodka and vodka—the latest Soviet diet fad . . . the rage of Caspian fat farms.” Joey lifted his head from his crossed arms on the bar.
“Judging by the number of shot glasses you’ve stacked, you’d better fasten the seat belt on your bar stool.”
“It’s the weather. “Storms at sea make me nervous. It’s either vodka or Dramamine, and I ran out of the latter hours ago. Look out there,” he pointed to the wall of glass being buffeted by howling gusts of wind and water. “It’s raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock.”
“Don’t worry,” I comforted. “The Captain’s name isn’t Noah, the cruise isn’t scheduled for forty days and forty nights, and we’re one comedian short of the required pair.”
“You’ll do in a pinch,” he complimented.
“Look, Chauncey,” Girtha said, looking up from a bottle she’d removed from a shelf. “This is Mambo Maybelle’s Magic Love Elixir. It says on the back label that if you ‘slip a couple of drops of this secret formula into your lover’s beverage, it promises to turn him into a human tripod.’”
“Forget it, Girtha. The only way I could become a human tripod is if my two legs were amputated.”
Girtha looked puzzled, replaced the bottle, and pulled down a cookbook. After thumbing through the pages a moment, she appeared infused with sudden enthusiasm. “This cookbook has recipes for ritualistic cooking. You can induce spells of love . . . pain . . . whatever . . . by using certain herbs and consecrated ingredients. Here’s a recipe for ‘Grab His Groin Gumbo’—I’m going to copy that one,” she said, searching through her purse for a pad and pencil.
“Might as well; that won’t be on the menu at Waffle House. Hey, here’s one— ‘Jump Her Bones Jambalaya’.”
“Nothing to tell,” I told her. “She was memorable but short-lived—like a rented prom dress.”
“I’d be afraid to give him even one bullet, though. When it comes to security, he’s as helpless as a monkey trying to fuck a wet football.”
Constancia glanced at her watch. “Speaking of Bo, I have a date to trip the light fantastic with your new sidekick, so I’ll give him the news: I’m dying to see the look on his face. But, I do have one question about him…”
“Bo is certainly a studly specimen, but do any parts north of his navel work?”
“He’s not a dazzling, sophisticated urbanite but don’t be taken in by his cornpone ambience. He’s as solid as he wants to be. As for tonight, just hold a nickel between your knees and you should be
Constancia stood and brushed her hair back from her face. “I never take loose change on a date. Besides I’m a little curious—I could feel him poking my knees at dinner, and he was sitting on the other side of the table.”
“Limbo looks pretty interesting,” Constancia said, after watching one agile dancer inch his way under the stick. “I’d like to give it a try.”
Bo laughed and nodded at her healthy bust. “Sweet thing, the only way you could get under that stick is face down. But, I may give it a try.”
Constancia looked at Bo sweetly, smiled, and counterattacked: “Pocket rocket, the only way you could get under that stick is to tie your willy to your leg.”
“Tit for tat,” Bo replied, enjoying this repartee.
“You wish, tat,” Constancia shot back.
Girtha and I were in stitches. “You two ought to take your testosterone-and-estrogen act on the road. You could be a contemporary update of Nick and Nora Charles, replete with raging hormones, who
spar with each other more than they fight with criminal forces.”
“That sounds like a great idea to me,” Bo said enthusiastically. “Can we start rehearsing the love scenes now?”
“Let’s wait for the script. Oh,” Constancia exclaimed, touching Bo’s arm sympathetically. “That may be a problem for you—you’d have to know how to read—and act.”
Bo laughed. “They can do a voice-over unless we’re in bed; then, I’ll do my own voice and stunts. I’ll have you know I was in a couple of plays in high school—I even played King Lear.”
“Bo,” Constancia laughed, “the closest you’ve been to royalty is watching reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Constancia and Bo were nearer the water. She was laying face down on her blanket, her face resting on her crossed arms and the string to her bikini top lying listlessly at her side. He had worked
himself into a straddling position over her thighs and had advanced from lotion application to massage.
“Sweet thing, your little old body is just full of tension. You must have a stressful job. Good thing you took a few days off when you did. It’s going to take me a while to work out all these knots.”
Constancia’s only response was to purr and say, “I must admit, for a man with such a hard head you do have soft hands…”
“I was raised on a farm. I had to milk thirty cows every morning before breakfast. Turn over and I’ll show you my technique.”
Constancia smiled. “I rather suspect your technique was developed in the back seat of a ‘57 Chevy at the Hoot ‘n Holler Drive-In–not in the family barn.”
“There, too. In both scenarios, I had ‘em mooing contently, begging for more.”
“Most of the Caribbean islands are usually agreeable to extradition requests. They’re eager to avoid the expense of lengthy and costly trials and prison confinement,” Bo said.
“You were pretty rough on poor Fifi last night,” Constancia said with a grin.
“I was trying to prepare her for the rough nights ahead. You know as well as I do that with that face and figure, she’ll be passed around like kielbasa hors d’oeuvres at a Polish wedding reception.”
Constancia smiled. “Sadly, that’s true. If you ever visit a women’s prison, you’ll hear a lot of them refer to themselves as a ‘LURD.’”
“What’s a LURD?” Girtha asked innocently.
“Lesbian Until Release Date,” Constancia replied.
“Speaking of weddings, I’ll never forget the last one I went to,” Bo said.
“I’ll bet you’ve never been to a wedding where the bride wasn’t eight months pregnant, waddling down the aisle with four little barefoot bastards picking their noses and hanging on to the hem of
her dress and marrying a close relative who was being nudged to the altar by a shotgun held at his back.” Constancia teased.
“That’s true for most of the weddings in my part of the country,” Bo acknowledged. “My own wedding had to be postponed a couple of times until enough bridesmaids could be bailed out of the slammer to attend it.”
“You were married?” Constancia asked in disbelief.
“That’s a fact, sweet thing.”
“How long did your marriage last?”
“One day? What happened?”
“Right after the wedding ceremony, my mother-in-law opened the bathroom door at the church and caught me with my pants down.”
“What’s wrong with that? She should have knocked first.”
“I was in there with the naked maid of honor.”
I shook my head. “That must be some kind of record, Bo. I’ve had bowel movements that lasted longer than your marriage.”
“My intentions are good; it’s just that I get easily distracted,” Bo said, shaking his head in comic introspection.