Cayos in the Stream
You’re the greatest writer of the age, gone to ground and subsiding into drink. You always said you wanted to catch some of those Nazi bastards in the waters around your beloved Cuba. What happens when you actually get your wish?
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
So you fall in love. All the good stories start that way. When you do it the first time, you think all the good stories end And they lived happily ever after. That is how the fairy tales go, right?
Only this is not a fairy tale. This is life. You fall in love. You fall out of love. You fall in love again. You get bounced out of love. You fall in love one more time. You crash in flames, like a burning Sopwith Camel when the Red Baron prowls.
You keep falling in love. That is life. Every time you do, you are sure it will be perfect. You laugh at fairy tales. After everything you saw in Italy during the last war, you cannot do anything else. Somewhere down deep, though, you must believe in them. Perfect. Happily ever after. You are sure. Every single goddamn time.
You were sure with Martha, there in Madrid. Sure enough to dump Pauline. Sure enough to tie the knot again. Three-time loser now, they called you when you found out. Not me, you answered back. This one is for real. This one is forever.
They come out with a lot of crap. Every once in a while, though, they know what they are talking about. Sure, you wanted to jump on Martha’s bones. That is a big part of what love is all about. You wanted to make the earth move for her. You wanted to see the earth move for her. She is not the most beautiful woman you ever set eyes on. She is not the most beautiful woman you ever slept with, either. But she is the most vital. The most alive. Odds on the smartest, too.
Every single man she has ever been with wanted to be the one to make the earth move for her. Every single man wanted to be the one to make that clever face go slack with joy. Every single man before you failed. Martha knows she is catnip for the male of the species. She cannot very well not know. She likes men. She wants to make men happy. She gives them what they are after. Some of what they are after. She beds them, but she does not kindle.
Not even for you, not matter what you try. Not even that whore’s trick from Milan before you got hurt will do it. You always thought that would make a statue scream. Maybe a statue. Not Martha.
You work it out on the typewriter instead, there in the house on the Cuban coast. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Biggest bestseller you ever had. A movie, too. Even with two other wives to pay off, you will not burn through the money you bring in from this one.
You dedicate it to Martha. Fair is fair. The feeling was real for as long as it lasted. What you feel now, more and more, is the grit in the gears. It always seems to be there. Love can make you forget it for a while. But love does not make it go away. Love never has, not with you. You begin to wonder whether love ever will. If that is not a sign of middle age coming on, damned if you know what would be.
So once the book is done, once it is out, you get away from Finca Vigia, the house on the Cuban coast, when you can. Getting away is easier than fighting. Maybe not better, but easier. The friends you buy drinks for do not want to fight, except when they get very drunk. By that time, you are ready for a swing or two yourself.
And if you pick up a black eye or some bruised ribs, so what? You are fine again in a few days. You are ready for another go. The fights with Martha are not like that. You wish you could pop her one. You even wish she would haul off and belt you. Then, by God, you would both know what was what.
You claw each other with words instead. The wounds fester. They scar over, but they never quite heal up. Every time you are near each other, you feel the hurt. Even when you are not fighting, you both walk warily, talk warily. You never know when things will flare again.
Mojitos and bar brawls look like heaven next to that.
Then the Japs bomb Pearl Harbor. Hitler declares war on the USA. We are in another scrap with Germany. You saw more of the Germans in Italy than you ever wanted to. You saw them in Spain, too. Some of their work there was by proxy. It did not look much different, though.
Now they are out to grab everything they can reach. And their arms have grown scarily long. U-boats show up off the East Coast. They torpedo one fat freighter after another. American cities are only half blacked out. Doing it right would be bad for business. Ships marked against the lights ashore make hunting easy for subs.
And U-boats show up in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Caribbean. No one expects them there. No one has imagined they will be there. The Gulf is even less ready for them than the East Coast. They send ships to the bottom by the dozen.
You want to do something to the Germans. You want to grab Hitler’s stupid Charlie Chaplin mustache with a pliers and yank, hard. You cannot do that.
So you do what you can do. The older you get, the more you start to wonder if that is not what life is all about. There are advantages to being a world-famous writer. Especially, there are advantages to being a world-famous writer who is not broke.
You have a boat, for instance. The Pilar. Pilar is what you used to call your second wife, Pauline, when you were running around on your first wife with her. You did not give Martha a pet name when you were running around on Pauline with her. You figured Pauline would be wise to those tricks. The pet names Martha gave you . . . Binglie. Warp. Dimpie. Rabby. She still throws them around. One more thing to set your teeth on edge.
But the Pilar. Thirty-eight feet. All wood, so she gives with the sea like a lover. Black hull. Dark green superstructure. A flying bridge you can see a longish way from. Two engines, a 75-horsepower Chrysler and a 40-horsepower Lycoming. She will make sixteen knots—just about the speed of a surfaced U-boat—on both of them, five knots on the little guy alone. She sleeps six pretty well, eight if she has to.
And you have strings you can pull. People want to know a world-famous writer, especially a world-famous writer who is not broke. People like the American ambassador in Havana. People like the local FBI agent. Yes, there is one. It is not just that the Mob gets a cut from the local casinos, either. Not these days, it is not.
There are 770 Germans in Cuba. There are something like thirty thousand Spaniards. Most of them belong to the goddamn Fascist Falange. Only a baby fifth column, but a fifth column even so. Any cancer starts with a few cells going haywire. Leave it alone and it will kill you.
People say the fifth column in Cuba has set up supply dumps and fuel stores for U-boats to use. Maybe that is true, maybe not. Even your FBI buddy in Havana does not know for sure. But he worries about it. He gets paid to worry about things. So does the ambassador.
Damn few Navy ships patrol the Florida Straits. Damn few warplanes fly over the deep blue of the Gulf Stream there. When you say you want to take the Pilar out to hunt for German submarines, the ambassador and the local FBI man put their money where your mouth is. They pay you five hundred dollars a month for fuel and food. They get the boat a fancy radio rig.
And they help you get hold of weapons. When you first have this idea, you want twin .50s for the Pilar. The FBI man is the one who talks you out of it. If the Germans see the boat sporting machine guns, what will they do? They will sink it. If they think it is only a fishing boat, they may surface instead. Stealing the other fellow’s marlin and mackerel is easier and safer than fishing for them yourself.
So the Pilar does not mount those lovely machine guns. She does carry Tommy guns—one for every crewman and a couple of spares for anyone to grab in a hurry. She carries grenades. And she carries a charge a lot bigger than a grenade disguised as a fire extinguisher. Chuck that down the conning-tower hatch and watch the fur fly in a U-boat!
You are proud of the disguised bomb. Well you might be, since you thought of it. It is the ace up your sleeve, if you can get close enough to use it. If. You hope the U-boat will lie alongside the Pilar to take away your catch. You hope so, but you do not know that for a fact. If the U-boat does not, you are in trouble. Bad trouble. It has a deck gun, and a machine gun. It has torpedoes. It can smash you at a range where you have not a prayer of touching it.
You go hunting anyhow. Anything is better than staying in the house and picking fights with Martha. No problem finding a crew. Your friends are as crazy as you are. And once or twice, when you have them, you take your sons along.
Your friends are almost as crazy as you are. One of them says, “You know, Ernie, this kind of reminds me of the dog that’s chasing the Buick. What will the son of a bitch do if he catches it?”
“Bury it like a bone,” you answer. Your eyes go to the dummy extinguisher. It sits on the cabin wall next to the real one. You know the difference. With luck, the Germans will not until too late.
With luck. Always with luck.
Your friend backs down. You are the top dog around here. “Take an even strain,” he says. “I was just asking.”
“Well, I just obscenity told you,” you rasp. You glance over at the explosive again. It is your best weapon. But a Type VII U-boat is a steel cigar almost 220 feet long. Next to the small, friendly Pilar, it might as well be a car next to a dog.
So is a bomb disguised as a fire extinguisher a good enough weapon? That is not the same as being your best one. Too bad. Too bad!
You tell yourself you are not alone on the Gulf Stream when you take your fishing boat out after dragons in the sea crueler than any marlin. To a degree, this is true. The Pilar had an ordinary radio set. Because you can pull strings, now the boat has Huff Duff, too.
That is the fancy rig. Huff Duff. HFDF. High frequency direction finder. It is a secret weapon. You are not supposed to know about such things. But you do—more strings. So now you have a Huff Duff set of your own.
It picks up any message a U-boat sends out. It does not necessarily read the message. It does give you a precise bearing. Pick up the same message on two Huff Duff sets and you can plot two bearings. Where they meet, there is your U-boat.
Even if only one Huff Duff gets a bearing, that is better than nothing. You can sail along it and hunt the U-boat yourself. Or you can radio your position and the bearing to the U.S. Navy. Warships, airplanes, and blimps will all go after the submarine then. That may not make you a hero. If it sinks a U-boat, it is . . . almost as good.
Meanwhile, the Huff Duff set fills up all of the Pilar’s little head. You and your crewmates have to go over the side of the boat. It is funny for a little while. Everyone makes the same stupid jokes. They get stale in a hurry, like fish on a hot day. So does hanging your ass out over the Gulf Stream, but you have got to do it.
Your ass also hangs out another way. You have to sign a receipt to get the Huff Duff set. If you ruin it, you are stuck for the bill. That bill will be upwards of thirty grand. Upwards of thirty grand is no chump change, even for a world-famous writer who is not broke.
You go out. You and your crewmates fish. You drink. You do not drink to the point where you get drunk and stupid. That is for the bars ashore and for after the fights with Martha. The Pilar and her merry men are part of what they call the Hooligan Navy. The regular Navy is dry, dry as the desert. It is an important difference.
Once, the ocean boils a hundred yards from the boat. “Jesus!” someone says hoarsely. Your mouth goes dry. This is what you were waiting for. Part of you—a big part of you—wishes you could wait a while longer.
And you can. The boiling in the sea is not a U-boat surfacing. It is only a whale coming up to blow. The whale is longer than the Pilar. Barnacles scab its smooth gray hide.
Only a whale. Thinking of a U-boat can make a whale into only a whale. You have trouble imagining anything else able to do that.
“Well,” one of the fellows says, “now we have a fish story to top every fish story since Jonah put to sea.”
You shake your head. “A whale isn’t a fish. It wouldn’t need to blow if it were a fish.”
“Thank you, Encyclopaedia Britannica,” he answers. Everybody else laughs. After a beat, you join in. Things will not stay smooth if you do not. And you know too well that Americans cannot stand intellectuals. To most of them, an intellectual is anyone who knows anything they do not. Your crewmate goes on, “What I want to find out is, how heavy a test line would we need to reel in that baby?”
“They don’t make test line measured in tons,” you say. “I’m goddamn sure they don’t make test line measured in that many tons.”
Now your crewmates laugh with you, not at you. You have to make them do that if you aim to lead them. You are no Navy officer. You have no shoulder boards or gold stripes above your cuffs. Come to that, you have no cuffs. If they are going to obey, it must be because of the man of you, not on account of rank. Leading like that is magic. But it is a magic you know how to use.
The whale slides under the sea again. As its front end goes down, its tail rises for a moment. The flukes go higher than your perch on the flying bridge. Then they slap the blue water. A wave circles out from the slap. A few seconds later, it kisses the Pilar’s wooden flank.
“Damn,” someone whispers.
“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” you say. You win another laugh. It is a small one, but it will do. You add, “I wonder how far away hydrophones will pick that up.”
When everything goes just right, a U-boat’s hydrophones can reach out past thirty miles. They can pick up the sound of a ship’s engine, and of its screw turning through the sea. A good operator can tell the difference between a fishing boat and a freighter and a warship. Does a surfacing whale sound like a surfacing submarine? You do not know for sure. You have done a pile of things in your time, but going below is not one of them.
Everything does not always go just right, either. The border between the warm Gulf Stream and the cooler waters to either side will throw hydrophones off. So will other things. Even the submariners do not understand them all. Sometimes, though, they do not know they have company until too late.
No U-boat skipper will fear your boat. Whether he hears it thirty miles away or sees it in his periscope from as close as the whale was does not matter. Fear is for important things. The only way the Pilar can be important to a U-boat skipper is as a fish market—one he does not have to pay. That is your big hope in going out on patrol to begin with. If you find a U-boat, you have a chance to surprise it.
A chance. If you find one. And if you and your friends can carry on the way you are supposed to. A whale coming up for air was enough to turn all the spit in your mouth to dust. What will you be like when you find a U-boat? If you find one.
Cuba is a big island off the shore of the American mainland. Smaller islands lie off the shore of the Cuban mainland. Some of the smaller islands have smaller islands still lying off their shores. Some of the smaller islands still have rocks lying off them. Some of the rocks have pebbles. Some of the pebbles . . . .
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em
And so proceed ad infinitum.
When you get to talking about the islands off the Cuban coast in a bar, you cannot resist quoting Jonathan Swift. People like it. They whoop and holler. It is pretty drunk out, of course.
Some of the people want to know whether that is yours. They will not know better if you say yes. But you tell them, “No, that is by a really good writer.” Grace under pressure. And the sure knowledge that, if you take on Dean Swift, you will be punching out of your weight.
To remind yourself of it, you give the crowd Swift’s next two barbed lines:
Thus every poet, in his kind
Is bit by him that comes behind.
More whoops. More hollers. They like it that you can use somebody else’s words to poke fun at yourself. Some of them turn what you say into Spanish for those who do not follow English well.
You do not talk about the islands off the Cuban coast by accident. You do it smoothly, but on purpose. There are dozens or hundreds of those little islands—thousands, for all you know. Just how many at any one time depends on tides and storms.
Some of the islands have villages. Some have goatherds. Some have fishermen who visit now and then. Some just have palms and ferns and geckos and hummingbirds. If you plant a supply dump on one of those, who will be the wiser? Only the sailors who row in from a U-boat to pick up what you have left behind.
All those Spaniards here in Cuba, organized into the Falange. Franco’s toadies. And Franco is Hitler’s toady. Without Hitler, what would Franco be? One more tinpot general who tried for a putsch but did not make it.
And a good many Cubans will line up with those Spanish fifth columnists. Yes, President Batista declared war on Germany and Italy and Japan after Pearl Harbor. But he was General Batista before he was President Batista. He finagled the impeachment of the guy who ran the country before him. He is smoother than Franco—he did not have to fight a war to take charge of things—but he is stamped from the same cheap metal. No wonder plenty of his countrymen line up with the Fascists.
You have got some hope of learning if they try to give the U-boats a helping hand. Spaniards are Spaniards. Cubans are Cubans—Spaniards mixed in this island bowl with Negroes and Indians. They all love to hear themselves talk. What one man knows today, four will know tomorrow morning, sixteen tomorrow afternoon, and the whole country in three days’ time.
You talk in bars yourself. You have never been shy about tooting your own trumpet. You have not been shy about anything for a long time. Making a big noise is what gets a man notice. But you know what seeds you are planting. And, no matter how much you talk, you also know how to listen. You thank God you do not have to be a reporter any more. Still, the little tricks you picked up in that trade come in handy even now. Listening while you seem to be running your mouth is not the least of them.
Something is funny on Cayo Bernardo. You hear it. Then you hear it again a few days later. You are pretty sure the fellow you hear it from the second time does not know the first man who told you. You are also pretty sure you never heard of Cayo Bernardo until that first man mentioned it.
Aboard the Pilar, you haul out your charts. Cayo Bernardo turns out to be a flyspeck on the map. It is not far from Cayo Santa Maria, a bigger flyspeck. Cayo Santa Maria, in turn, lies not far west of Cayo Cocos. Cayo Cocos gets close to being a real island.
Cayo means island in Spanish. On the far side of the Florida Strait, it has turned into key. You lived on Key West for a while. You first met Martha there, before Spain. Key West used to be Cayo Hueso—Bone Island. Language takes crazy hops sometimes.
“Heading off to chase wild geese again?” Martha asks you when you go from the boat to the house.
“It could be.” You try not to get angry. When you do in spite of trying, you try not to show it. She is after your goat. You do not want to let her know she has got it. You go on, “Men in boats and men in ships are chasing wild geese across all the oceans of the world. It’s part of the war. Wild geese by the hundreds, men chasing them by the tens of thousands. Sometimes they catch them. Sometimes, by Christ, they do.”
“Yes? How often?” she jeers.
“Often enough to make the chasing worthwhile,” you say.
“Ha!” A single syllable of scorn.
“Often enough to make the chase needful, then. There. Are you happier?” You know she is not happier. But you have been jabbed. You counterpunch, the way you do in the ring. And, jabbed once, you hit back twice. “These wild geese chase on their own, remember. If they catch you, you won’t see your home port again.”
“Ernest . . .” She shakes her elegant head. Whatever she swallows is bound to be better left unsaid. She contents herself with—no, she suffices herself with, for she is plainly not content—“What are the odds?”
“If I do go out, I have a chance of finding something. If I don’t, I have no chance at all. That makes the odds worth playing.”
She rolls her eyes. “How long have you wanted to be a hero?”
You do not answer that. The only true answer is always. The ambulance driving in the last war, the writing, the hunting, the drinking, the fighting, the womanizing . . . You have chased that one thing your whole life. Hero is a four-letter word, too. Sweet Jesus, though, what a four-letter word!
On the Pilar, if you find your wild goose, you will also find that one thing. “Odds worth playing,” you repeat.
“Playing.” Martha freights the word with more doubt than it should be able to bear. “But don’t you see, dammit, the Germans won’t be playing even if you catch up with them? They’ll kill you, they’ll log it—if they bother—and they’ll go on about their business.”
They may. For some men, war is only a business. They do not get excited about it, any more than other men get excited about selling shoes or changing spark plugs. Men like that also are often uncommonly good at their trade.
As for you, your log book is a joke. Any Navy officer with a log book half as vague and sloppy would have to commit hara-kiri like a Jap to atone for the disgrace. But you are obscenitied if you want to be like a Navy officer. All you want is to find a U-boat. No. All you want is to find a U-boat and to sink the son of a bitch.
You do not want much, do you?
“Oh, go on!” Martha throws her hands in the air. She is lefthanded, in her body and in the way she thinks. “Go play. You will anyhow.”
You give her the last word. How can you help it, when she is so right?
When you go play, your pilot is a sour-faced Catalan named Josep. Not José. Josep. He is touchy about that. He has lived in Cuba for many years, but he still speaks Spanish with the accent you hear in Barcelona. Any Spaniard will tell you Catalan is only Spanish spelled badly. Josep will punch any Spaniard in the teeth if he starts coming out with that mierda.
Josep used to be a fisherman in the Mediterranean. He has fished these waters since he crossed the Atlantic. He fished from other men’s boats when he first came. As soon as he could afford to, he bought his own. That did not take long. He has always worked hard. And he is as cheap as Jews are supposed to be.
He pilots for you now because he hates Fascists even more than you do. You are damn glad to have him aboard, too. What he does not know about the cayos and the channels spiderwebbing between them is not to be known. He knows those islands and the waters that wash them the way you know the hair and the scars on your leg.
“Cayo Bernardo?” he says when you tell him where you want to go. His eyebrows do not rise. The come down and pull together instead. They are black and thick and bushy. You wonder if he has Basque blood in him. Then his tanned, seamed face clears. “I can take you there. But why do you want to go? Nothing has happened on Cayo Bernardo since the beginning of time.”
“Something may have,” you answer. You do not want to contradict a man like Josep straight out. That is worse luck than taking a hammer and smashing every mirror you own.
He snorts. “Not likely!”
“The bar talk—”
“Bar talk? Bar talk is piss coming out the wrong end, nothing else but.” Josep pauses. Those heavy eyebrows lower and pull together again. “The bar talk about Cayo Bernardo is funny lately, isn’t it? A fisherman missing around there, it could be.”
You nod. “I’ve heard the same thing.”
If he does not take the Pilar to Cayo Bernardo, you will not pay him. This carries weight. And he will not be able to hunt Fascists there, if any Fascists are there to hunt. This also carries weight. You fiddle with your pipe. You give him time. You honor his pride. He is a man. You do not try to rush him into anything.
You get the pipe going. Josep lights a Cuban stogie that might be made from shoe blacking. The two smokes, sweet and harsh, war in the air. “We can see what the bar talk is worth. We can see if it is worth anything,” he grudges at last.
“Bueno. That’s all I want to do,” you say. “If it has no value, I’ll write Cayo Bernardo off the list and look for German U-boats in other places. If something is going on there, we’ll do what seems best when we see what that something is.”
Josep nods. He smokes without hurrying. He nods again. “Well said.” You nod back gruffly. Your heart sings inside you, though you would sooner die than show it. From a man like him, a man who is a man and who knows he is a man, such praise is more precious than rubies.
Two days later, the Pilar chugs east, toward the Archipelago de Sabana. You eye the chart. Cayo Bernardo lies near the eastern end of the archipelago. Only a speck on the map, as you have seen. A speck with a name, though. Some nearby specks have none. Does that make them more insignificant than Cayo Bernardo? Can an island be more insignificant than Cayo Bernardo and still be an island?
It is a question like How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? But it is not quite like that. It is more like How many Nazis can dance on the sands of a cayo?
The smaller engine, the Lycoming, pushes the fishing boat along. The Pilar does not run fast, but she does not use much gas, either. You never get all you want in this world. Take what you can get and do not worry about what you cannot get and you will be happy enough. How often will you have to tell yourself that before you start to believe it? You want everything, and you want it right away. You always have. You always will.
You look down into the clear blue water from the flying bridge. The water is so shallow, you can easily see the bottom. You see sand and rocks and seaweed and starfish and spiny urchins and a turtle sculling along above its own shadow. It is like looking through blue stained glass from an old church window. Ripples in the sea could be flaws in the glass.
Then Josep takes the boat farther out to sea. The bottom falls away. Flying fish spring from the water. Mackerel leap after them. Terns and frigatebirds circle overhead. Sometimes one will fold its wings and arrow into the ocean. Maybe it will come up with nothing. Maybe a fish will thrash in its beak.
If a fish thrashes in a tern’s beak, as often as not a frigatebird will try to take it away. Frigatebirds are big and strong and mean and lazy. They would rather steal than work. Stealing is easier. Put a frigatebird in a uniform coat and give him a chest full of medals and he will make you a fine Fascist.
Seeing the small fish and the bigger fish chasing them makes you think of bigger fish yet. Sailfish. Swordfish. Marlin. A great marlin can go better than a thousand pounds. What you would not give to pit your strength against a grander like that! You have caught many big fish, but never one so big.
When you are up on the flying bridge, you are supposed to be watching for U-boats. Your eyes should not stray to the fighting chair at the stern. The stern is lowered. You have put in a roller there to help you bring aboard large fish. You are hunting Germans now. You should not remember you bought the Pilar to go after fish.
But you can watch up here only so long. After a couple of hours, you will not pay close heed the way you should. Then it will be time for someone else to come up and watch. You can bait a stout hook with half a bonito. You can sit down in the fighting chair and see how your luck runs. The day is warm and muggy. You can have someone fetch you a bottle of beer from an ice chest.
The American ambassador and the FBI man in Havana will not like to hear you are fishing for marlin while you are patrolling for U-boats. Well, obscenity on what they will not like. If you catch one, you and your crewmates will eat like kings. Nothing tastes better than a fish you have just pulled out of the sea yourself. Nothing. Obscenity on all the cans in the galley, too.
You do hook one, not half an hour after you take your place in the chair. He is not the monster you dream of. Life has a nasty way of not living up to your dreams, or why are you on your third wife and squabbling with her? But he is longer than a man is tall. He has to weigh as much as you do. And he fights for his life like the free, wild thing he is.
Line smokes off the reel. The marlin is furious and strong, so strong. You have a thick chest and muscled arms, but it is not the same after you pass forty. You shout and roar so you do not have to look at that, but it is not the same whether you look at it or not. You have the rod and the reel and the line and the hook. You have the fighting chair to brace against.
What does the fish have? Only himself. Yet you soon feel like an old man on the sea. But the marlin also feels it. Let him dive. Let him jump. Hook and line and rod still link him to your arms. You work the reel as you can. Sometimes the line pays out when he runs. More often, now, it comes in. You gain. Little by little, you gain.
“Come on, God,” someone behind you says. “Keep the stinking sharks away. Give us a whole marlin, not one all chewed to hell and gone.”
You are so wrapped up in the fight, you did not know someone stood in back of the chair. Neither do you know about God. If He is inclined to answer prayers, though, you hope He answers that one. You hate sharks. And a hooked, exhausted marlin is a feast at Maxim’s for them.
You keep on reeling in the fish. What else can you do? If a shark comes, he comes. That is the long and short of it. After most of an hour, you have beaten the marlin. He lies by the stern, spent but beautiful. No shark has torn that blued-gunmetal hide.
A gaff goes into the marlin. Eager hands pull him up over the roller. His mouth gapes wide. He cannot breathe air, but he does not know that, poor thing. “Watch the bill!” you say sharply. The marlin may spear someone even with his dying thrashes.
An iron pry bar comes down on his head, hard. Once, twice, three times. Eyes and skin dull. It is over.
You draw a knife from a sheath on your belt. You feel the soft yet firm resistance of flesh as the blade goes in. When you yank the knife from the gills down toward the vent, offal spills on the deck. You and your crewmates push the guts into the water.
Sharks now! The ocean behind the Pilar boils as they tear into the gift. A small stretch of sea briefly goes from blue to red.
“Holy cow!” one of the men says. “A big bastard just swallowed one of the little guys.”
“They might as well be people,” you say. “Give them shirts with collars and neckties and they will be running for Congress in the next election.” Your crewmates laugh. You are kidding, but kidding on the square.
You hack big, thick steaks from the marlin’s flank. The meat has almost the texture of beef. Grilled and seasoned with lime juice and salt and cayenne, it will be fine. The Japs eat their fish raw. You like it fresh, but not that fresh.
You haggle off another steak. Plenty of people want to stick knives into politicians after they lead them astray. They do not get the chance often enough. That they do not is another of the world’s sorrows.
Now you are well into the Archipelago de Sabana. Sometimes Josep takes the Pilar between two cayos through a channel so narrow you can piss on the beach to port, then go to the starboard rail and piss on the mangroves there. The seaweed under the boat’s keep sways in the water like grass in the breeze.
Josep never runs her aground. A good thing, too. She has gone aground before, more often than you wish she would have. It is hard on her. It is particularly hard on her motors and screws. And it is hard on your temper. When things go well, you always want everyone within buying range to share your good luck. But when things go wrong, chances are you will blame anyone else close by ahead of yourself. You are not proud of that, but you cannot seem to help it.
Then the warm sea opens out. It darkens ahead, which means it grows deeper. Josep smiles a thin smile at the wheel. His hands ease their hold a bit. Making a passage seem effortless is not the same as getting through it without effort. That is as true on the water as at the typewriter.
“Will we make Cayo Bernardo today?” you ask.
Josep considers. “We can, if you want me to fire up the Chrysler,” he replies in his peculiar Spanish. “Otherwise, tomorrow morning.”
“Save the gas,” you say after a little thought of your own. “Tomorrow morning will do. If there are Nazis on the cayo, better to have a whole day to find them and plenty of light to see them by.”
“Plenty of light for them to see us, too.” The stinking, twisted stogie jerks in his mouth.
“We can’t pull off these little tricks without taking a chance here and there.” You make your tone light. Once more, seeming effortlessness not gained without effort.
“Sí, Señor,” Josep says. It might mean anything. It might mean nothing, only Josep is not a man in the habit of saying things that mean nothing. He adds, “The niños will be ready.”
“The babies and the frags,” you agree. The niños—the babies—are the Tommy guns. You swaddle them in goatskins against sea air and salt water. You carry them in the skins, too, like little children. Someone who sees them in your arms may take them for botas: leather wine flasks. And the frags will settle anyone the niños do not. If you meet a U-boat before you make Cayo Bernardo, you have the bomb that looks like an extinguisher.
You have almost given up on meeting a U-boat. The ocean is wide. The Pilar is small. Even from the flying bridge, you cannot see far. Nor is a U-boat large, not as vessels made for war go. The top of a conning tower does not rise high above the sea. U-boats are made to be hard to spot while surfaced. When they dive, they vanish.
But a periscope does not let a U-boat under the water see far or see well. And a submerged U-boat moves slowly. It soon uses up its battery power. So U-boats hunt on the surface when they can. They go under to kill or to get away.
You can see all the way to the bottom here. The sea is as clear as a full bathtub before you get in. It is not much deeper than a bathtub, either. If the Pilar passes right over a U-boat lurking in the bath-warm water, you will see it. You will see it, yes, but you will not be able to do anything about what you see.
With its periscope, a U-boat can see you even if you do not pass right over it. The skipper in his white-crowned cap—the white crown is the only way to know he is the skipper—can take his time deciding what to do about you. If he chooses to sink you out of hand, your tale will be one of those that have not a happy ending.
Yet why should he squander a torpedo on the Pilar? Why should he spend even a few deck-gun shells? The Pilar is no destroyer. No navy yard spawned her to slay submarines. She looks like—she is—a pleasure craft, a fishing boat.
A U-boat skipper will not know you have aboard what is left of that fighting marlin. But a canny U-boat skipper will suppose you carry something worth eating. If you have had some luck, it will be marlin or swordfish or tuna. If your luck is out, you will still have cans of roast-beef hash. You will have beer or whiskey or rum. You will likely have beer and whiskey and rum. You may have orange juice.
When did German U-boat sailors last taste orange juice? Before the war started, chances are. Or maybe when they plundered some other fishing boat.
Up on the flying bridge, your field glasses sweep the sea. They also sweep the cayos scattered across the sea at random. Cayos with beaches. Cayos with jungle. Cayos with goats that have chewed the jungle down to nubs. Cayo Bernardo was where the Nazis were—where you think they were—when word of them got to you. Nothing says they have to stay there. Your glasses sweep all the cayos.
They say a watchstander on a U-boat conning tower cannot go longer than two hours at a stretch. After that, the strain starts to tell on him. He sees things that are not there. Worse, he misses things that are.
This is the Hooligan Navy. It does not run by the clock. Your time up here is not rationed to the minute. Still, you have been up here a while. You feel it in your neck, and in your back. Pretty soon, you will go down to the deck and hand off the glasses so someone else can sweep the sea.
Handoff. Sweep. It sounds like a football game. Newspapermen write about football as if it were war. It is not war. It is a game, a kids’ game. If it were war, the players would carry knives and .45s. A halfback would score a touchdown only after the defenders went down wounded or dead.
Blood would run in the stands, too. Football stays on the gridiron, where it belongs. War has a nasty way of slopping over.
Well, what do newspapermen know? Not very goddam much. You wrote for the papers. You get that if anyone does.
You sweep the glasses along one more time. You are about to give it up and have someone else take a turn. Then—by themselves, it seems—the field glasses snap back along their track.
The water seems to boil there, a couple of hundred yards to port. It is not a dolphin leaping for joy. You see that much right away. You need just a heartbeat or two to realize it is not a dolphin’s larger cousin, either. It is not a whale rising to blow, as it was before.
It is a U-boat, a German U-boat. It dwarfs the Pilar. You knew it would, if you ever met one. As with so many things, knowing takes a back seat to seeing for yourself.
You did not know the U-boat would be ugly as old sin. You have studied photos of German submarines. But those turn out to be like photos of Hollywood starlets. Their subjects seem prettier than they really are. Hollywood starlets already look good. Type VII U-boats damn well don’t. But this one is uglier than any photograph you ever set eyes on.
That should not surprise you. A lot of your photos come from German propaganda pieces. Dr. Goebbels wants to make the Führer’s subs look as good as he can. His pictures do not show quick, sloppy welds. They do not show peeling paint. They do not show rusty patches, either. If any barnacles grow like mange on the hulls Dr. Goebbels orders photographed, his retouchers have made them disappear.
The sailors popping out of the conning tower are a mangy lot, too. They have not shaved in weeks—months, more likely. Where the face fuzz does not hide them, their skins are corpse-pale. They wear torn, grease-stained shirts and creaseless dungarees.
They can kill you even so, of course. They have the machine gun on the conning tower and the deck gun. The deck gun is an 88. It is made to sink freighters so the U-boat does not have to waste torpedoes on them. One or two hits from it will not just sink the Pilar. They will rip her to splinters and everybody aboard her to cat’s-meat.
Quietly, the men bring the niños up where they can grab them in a hurry. Swaddled in goatskins, the Tommy guns could be anything. Sure as hell, Josep tips his to his mouth, pretending it is a wineskin. No one gets excited or afraid because a submarine is in the neighborhood.
No. Nobody acts excited or afraid because a submarine is in the neighborhood. It is not the same thing. It is not even close. Your balls have climbed up into your belly. Your heart drums loud and fast in your chest. Beads of sweat dot your palms. If you try to spit now, what will come out? Dust, as in ashes to ashes, dust to.
“Won’t be long now, boys,” you say. Despite your flannel tongue, you sound like yourself. It is a neat trick. You wish you knew how you did it.
One of the Nazis on the conning tower wears a cap with a white crown. Not a very clean white crown, but still . . . That is their captain. If he plays it smart, you have not got a prayer. He will not let you near the submarine. He will send over a boat and take whatever you have that he wants. The Germans at the deck gun and the machine gun will cover the Pilar. You will not be able to do a thing.
That is, if he plays it smart. He had better not play it smart, then. The best way you have thought of to keep him from doing that is acting like an idiot yourself. Well, almost. The best way you have thought of to stop him is acting like a famous idiot.
Who says you will be acting? You hear Martha’s acid voice inside your head. She is not aboard the Pilar. She is back at Finca Vigia. You hear her acid voice anyhow.
If you are going to act like a famous idiot, the time to start is now. “Hand me the megaphone,” you murmur to one of the men who has put his life on the line along with yours.
“Here you go, boss.” He gives it to you. He figures you know what you are doing. He would not be out here with you if he did not. Maybe he is the idiot. Or maybe you are, after all.
You raise the megaphone to your mouth. It does not weigh anything much. It looks like one a high-school yell leader would use. The only difference is, it has no high school’s name painted on it.
“Ahoy, the submarine!” you bawl through it. “Can you give us a hand, please? I’m Ernest Hemingway!”
If no one on the conning tower speaks English, this will not work. It may not work any which way, but that will scuttle it for sure. But the Germans on the tower—and the ones at the 88 on the rusty deck—jerk as if you poked them with pins. The skipper calls something down the open hatch. After a minute, someone hands him a megaphone a lot like yours.
“You are . . . Ernest Hemingway?” he calls back to you. His English is accented. It is a hell of a lot better than your scraps of German, though. “The Ernest Hemingway? Do I hear this rightly?”
“The Ernest Hemingway.” You try to sound like a proud, famous idiot. “See for yourself.” Proudly, you lower the megaphone.
The U-boat skipper looks you over with a big pair of binoculars. “You are Ernest Hemingway,” he says through his megaphone. Even across that stretch of ocean, he sounds amazed.
“Told you so.” If you are going to be an idiot, be a big idiot. Be a big, smug idiot, in fact. That makes you seem even stupider.
“We are at war, your country and mine,” the skipper says. At his gesture, one of his men runs up a flag. Red, white, and black, sure as hell. An ugly old swastika—is there any other kind?—in the middle. The Nazis’ calling card.
Oh, you bet we are, you think. “Well, so what?” you say. Yes, be a big, smug idiot. Who could want to hurt a world-famous writer? Except for some ex-wives and an editor or two, that is? Nobody at all. So you go on, “What are you going to do? Sink me?” You laugh as if the idea has never once crossed your mind.
“It did occur to me, ja.” Even speaking a language not his own, the U-boat captain owns a dry wit.
You laugh to show you notice. Always notice when they think they are funny, whether they are or not. Especially when they are not, in fact. It disarms them. Just for a moment, you eye the 88 aimed at the Pilar. If only you could literally do that!
“What the devil for?” you say. “Our countries may be fighting, but I’ve got no beef with you. No beef—but I’ve got some marlin steaks in the ice chest.” You swell yourself up like a proud, smug idiot. “Caught the marlin myself.” You are not even lying . . . there.
All he needs to do is put some men in a boat and send them over to take the marlin steaks. Then they will see the niños up close or the Huff Duff set. Then you will have to kill them. Then the U-boat captain with the dry wit will have to blast the Pilar to matchsticks. Incidentally, he will have to murder you and all your friends. It will be a shame, but it is part of the cost of doing business. He may even note what a shame it is in his log. Not that that will do you or your friends a nickel’s worth of good.
You have to keep him from remembering that is all he needs to do. “You can even do us a favor, if you’d be so kind,” you shout across the blue water.
“You mean, besides letting you live?” Yes, the skipper’s wit is dry—dangerously dry.
You laugh as if you know he is kidding. Knowing he is not makes the laugh come harder, but you bring it off. “Of course, besides that,” you say easily. Your voice insists he has to be making a joke. Nobody but an ex-wife or an editor could ever want to harm the great Hemingway! “What happened was, my fire extinguisher pooped out. If we can get a fresh charge from you, that’d be swell.”
If you can’t convince them, confuse them. Somebody in Hollywood said that while they were filming For Whom the Bell Tolls. You do not remember who, but it fits Hollywood much too well. And it fits more places than Hollywood alone. You need that fellow in the white hat—he would wear a black one in a horse opera—to forget he can do as he pleases with you. You need to make him think he is doing you that favor.
Small in the distance, his mouth opens wide. He laughs, too. As long as the U-boat keeps that distance, your weapons are useless. His slay at far longer ranges. Out past a mile, in fact. You do not want to remind him of that. You want him to worry about your stupid fire extinguisher instead.
You lift it off its mount and show it to him. The one you lift will not put out a fire, but the U-boat skipper does not have to know that now. You have found an excuse to get your hands on it, so maybe he will find out later. Maybe. If you are lucky enough. If you are distracting enough.
He raises the megaphone with his right hand while he waves with his left. “Come alongside, then!” he shouts. “Slow and easy, mind you. And do not think we won’t clean you out of marlin, because we will.”
The U-boat skipper has reached past the fire extinguisher you are holding. He remembers the fresh fish in your ice chest. Because he has had to reach past the extinguisher in his mind, the remembered marlin seems more important to him. A character you are writing might work that way. Nice to see it happen in real life.
You hold the extinguisher with one hand to raise your own megaphone. “Coming alongside, slow and easy!” you bellow. You lower the megaphone. Softly, in Spanish, you tell Josep, “Lay us right next to that bastard, amigo. He’ll never know what hit him.” With luck, he will never know. Always with luck. You do not say that. It is one of those things that, yes, go without saying.
“I’ll do it,” the pilot answers. He nods to you from the wheel. The little engine, the Lycoming, picks up revs. Slowly, without any fuss, the Pilar closes the gap to the U-boat.
Your men have the niños. They have frags, too, but the Tommy guns are more important now. You pick three to kill the krauts at the 88, two more to deal with the machine-gun crew. After that, they will rush the conning tower. So will you. The thing that goes without saying runs through your head again. With luck. Always with luck.
“When I say now. Not till then, for Christ’s sake,” you tell them in English and in Spanish. They all seem to pay attention. You will find out when you say now. Or maybe you will find out a little before then. You hope not. Like anything, you hope not. But maybe you will.
You shut up when you get close to the U-boat. The skipper savvies English. So do some of the sailors. Better to take no chances.
The Pilar smells none too fresh. The breeze brings you whiffs of badly washed sailor. Short showers with saltwater soap do not get a man clean.
But as you come up alongside the U-boat, you decide the Pilar might as well be drenched in Chanel No. 5 by comparison. The rusting German boat is a Sears, Roebuck catalogue of stinks. The poor, sorry swine aboard her cannot shower at all. They have to make do with basins and wet rags. Food spoils, all the faster in these latitudes. Better not to think about the heads, especially late in a long cruise. Bilge water traps all the stenches and makes sure they never go away.
No wonder the white-capped skipper smiles, up there on the conning tower. The foul air still wafts up out of the hatch. You can smell it, so he can, too. For now, though, he is not trapped inside that stinking steel tube with the hatch dogged shut.
He says something in German, too quick for you to follow. You tense. Does it all go sour here? Then two sailors step away from the deck gun and toss lines so the Pilar can tie up to the U-boat. You wave to the skipper. He does not suspect a thing. You have played the big, smug, famous idiot well enough to win an Oscar.
Maybe you have even played the big, smug, famous idiot well enough to live.
Waving still, smiling fit to break your face, you yell, “Now!”
Things seem to happen very slowly. Only piecing them together afterwards do you realize everything that matters is over in a few seconds. If it were not, you would be much too dead to worry about piecing things together afterwards.
All the Tommy guns start chattering at once. As if in slow motion, the Germans at their machine gun tumble away from it. Red splotches—darker than movie blood—spread across one man’s dirty white tunic. A .45-caliber round blows out the back of the other bastard’s head.
Both sailors from the deck-gun crew who tossed lines to the Pilar’s men are down and bleeding. A glance shows you the rest of the Nazis at the 88 have fallen, too. Good. None of them had time to duck behind the mount. Thank you, Jesus. You remember your religion at times like this. Times like this are what religion is for. And one shell from that ugly chunk of steel would have mashed your boat and everybody on her.
As soon as the German sailors at the guns are out of action—maybe even before they all are—your guys hose down the top of the conning tower with the niños. The skipper goes down. Away flies his white-crowned cap.
“Follow me!” you shout. “Frags!” You jump from the Pilar to the U-boat. The false fire extinguisher is still in your arms. The damned thing is heavy. Your breath sobs in your lungs as you scramble up the iron ladder at the rear of the conning tower. You are getting—no, you have got—too old for this kind of craziness.
But here you are anyway, square in the middle of it.
Blood and bodies on top of the tower. A couple of the bodies thrash. The Tommy guns did not kill clean. Human beings are harder to kill clean than anyone who has never tried it thinks. But the Nazis are out of the fight. That is what counts.
A German sailor pops up from the hatch like a jack-in-the-box. He has a Schmeisser in his hands, but he never gets to use it. He needs to look around for a second to find out what the hell is going on. You already know. And your time in the ring pays off. You catch him smack on the button with the sweetest right uppercut you ever threw.
His eyes roll up. He falls down the hatchway. A yell from below says he falls on top of the squarehead coming up behind him. They both fall the rest of the way together. More yells say they land on other people.
You yank the fuse on the fire-extinguisher bomb. A frag arcs past you and down the hatch. It blows up no more than a second later. The yells down there turn to screams.
You drop the bomb down the hatch. “Get away!” you shout. There is a lot more explosive inside that casing than in a grenade.
You are on the ladder when the bomb goes off. Then, all at once, you are sprawling on the deck. Fire and smoke shoot out through the hatch. Blood runs into your eyes. You have a cut on your forehead. You must have banged it when your head hit the iron decking.
Up on your feet. Not gracefully—you stagger as if you took one from the Brown Bomber. But you are moving. And your wits work. Smacking your head did not scramble them.
“Back to the boat!” you call. “If any more krauts pop out of the hatch, we’ll shoot ’em from there.”
As soon as all your men are aboard the Pilar, you cut the lines the helpful sailors tossed you. No more U-boat men come from the hatch. Only smoke pours out. It is thick and black—thicker and blacker by the second.
When the breeze blows some toward the Pilar, it burns your eyes worse than your own blood did. Breathing it makes you cough as if it were poison gas. With all the rubber and paint and insulation burning inside the U-boat, it may well be.
You tell Josep to bring the boat upwind of the stricken submarine. He sketches a salute to you. He has never done that before. “Señor, I will do it,” he says. His voice also holds something new.
Only after a few seconds do you know that something for what it is. You heard it in your own voice in Spain. You were talking with Republican soldiers on leave in Madrid. They were men who had seen much and done much. You talked to them as an ordinary man talks to heroes.
Now Josep talks to you that way. And damned if you have not earned it. All your hunting and boxing and fishing and tomcatting could not give it to you. Storming a U-boat and chucking a bomb down the conning-tower hatch did, though. At last, by God, you are a hero yourself.
You radio Guantánamo. The pipsqueak lieutenant, j.g., who takes your call does not want to believe you. You give your position. You say, “Send out a PBY, you no-balls son of a bitch.”
“I’ll have you court-martialed for that!” he says shrilly.
Oh, how you laugh! “Good luck, sonny. You can’t throw me out of the Navy. I’m not in the Navy. Send out the flying boat. He can sink the U-boat—it’s dead in the water. Or if I’m lying, he can sink me instead.”
You wait. You cook up some more marlin steaks. Why not? The Germans never got the chance to steal them. And you break out the beer and the rum. No, you are not in the Navy. If you deserve a drink, you can have one. Or more than one, for that matter.
The flying boat does not get there till the afternoon. Then the pillar of smoke from the U-boat guides it straight in. It drops its bombs. By then, you are half a mile off. The blasts stun your ears even so. The U-boat turns turtle and sinks.
The PBY turns and flies low over the Pilar. It cannot be more than twenty feet over the flying bridge. The pilot waggles his wings to the boat in salute. You wave back to the plane. You hope its crew can see you. They can—another low pass, another waggle. Then the PBY roars off to the southeast, back toward Guantánamo.
You nod to your crew. “Well, boys, we did it,” you say. “Now we go home.” For, you realize, this is the end of it. Publicity will mean you can never take the Pilar U-boat hunting again. Reporters and newsreel cameras will come down on you like vultures onto a dead cow. You will have to tell them something. You do not intend to tell them too much. You want to write about this yourself, after all—and to get paid for writing about it.
“Right, boss.” “Sure thing, boss.” “Sí, Señor.” Everyone on the boat talks to you the way Josep did. You are a hero to the crew. They are heroes, too, though they may not feel it yet. If they did not shoot straight and fast when you gave the word, you could not have done what you did.
You are greeted as heroes when you come into Havana. Guantánamo must have spread the word. Tugboats blow their steam whistles. Fireboats shoot streams of water high in the air. American and Cuban Navy officers come aboard. They pound you on the back. They shake your hand. One of the Cubans quietly slips you a shot of rum. It is some of the finest you ever drank. It slides down smooth as mother’s milk, then explodes like a frag in your belly.
As soon as you go ashore, the reporters jump on you. Flash bulbs pop as fast as a Tommy gun can fire. Movie cameramen grind away. You give them as much of the story as you want to let other people write. They want more, and more, and more yet. Soon, you almost wish you never set eyes on the U-boat.
“What kind of medal will the Navy give you for this?” one of them asks.
“I didn’t do it for a medal. I did it because I hate Hitler,” you answer, which is true enough. They write it down. You are not even sure the Navy can give you a medal. As you told the j.g. in Guantánamo, you are not in it. It would be nice if they could, though.
You drink your way through the night. In the morning, you feel exactly like death. They give you the hair of the dog that bit you. It was one big, mean dog. The hair warms you up to death warmed over. They pour you onto a C-47 and fly you to Miami. It may be an Army transport, but it has rum on it. By the time the landing gear hits the runway, you feel amazingly lifelike.
More reporters. More newsreel cameras. You give the same spiel you gave in Havana. You give as much of it as you can remember, anyhow. You look manly. You smile. You shrug. “We were in the right place at the right time,” you say. “Anybody who goes out hunting U-boats needs some luck on his side. We had it.” Heroes do not brag. They do not need to. What they have done speaks for them.
The Navy puts you on a train to Washington. You sleep well in a Pullman. You have had plenty of practice. And there is a club car on the train, even if the dry Navy put you on it. You get to Washington the next day. You are just fine when you do.
Still more photographers and reporters meet you at Union Station. It is almost in the shadow of the Capitol. The flashbulb barrage seems brighter in the gloom than it did in Havana. When you blink, green-purple blotches cloud your sight.
A vice admiral also meets you at Union Station. He pumps your hand up and down like a man working a jack to fix a flat. “Congratulations, Mr. Hemingway!” he booms. “You have done your country proud. And you have done the Hooligan Navy proud, too.”
You like him better for that. “Thank you very much, sir,” you say, and you sound as if you mean it.
Then damned if he does not pin a gong on you. It is the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. “This medal is given for exceptionally meritorious service to the government in a duty of great responsibility,” he says. “It is awarded to persons in the Navy and the Marine Corps. It has also been given to officers in the Royal Navy. Because of that, we decided a skipper in the Hooligan Navy should be eligible to win it, as well.”
Except for a blue enamel circle, the body of the medal looks like a goldpiece. There is a gold star with an anchor on it above the body. The ribbon is sky blue, with a vertical gold stripe. But you do not care what it looks like. It could be a Blatz bottle cap with a ribbon of silver paper from a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint. You care about what it means.
“Thank you, sir,” you say again. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Doing what I did was my privilege. And it was my pleasure.” The reporters write it down. Their pencils scritch across their notebooks. You give good copy. You always have. You always will.
The vice admiral whisks you away to a studio. They want you to record a spot for buying war bonds. You ask if you can fiddle with the script before you read it. They let you. They had better! It sounds a lot better once you go through it. You give good copy all kinds of ways.
Then they take you to the White House for dinner with the President and the First Lady. Dinner with photographers, too, of course. Martha is friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. They write back and forth. Eleanor has personality, no doubt about it. But she is as homely and dumpy in person as she is in photos. For his sake—for the country’s sake—you hope Franklin gets some on the side.
He says, “You had to be crazy to pull a stunt like that. It may have worked, but you had to be crazy to try it. That’s my professional judgment, Mr. Hemingway.” He was assistant secretary of the Navy during the last war. His professional judgment is worth something.
“I may have been crazy to try it, Mr. President, but it worked,” you answer.
FDR likes that. He laughs. His cigarette holder twitches. Then he gets back to dinner. It is nothing special. The lamb has been cooked to death. You hope he gets some decent chow on the side, too.
They take you up to New York so you can tell your story on the radio. Once you have told it three or four times, it might as well have happened to somebody else. But while you are there, you make a book deal to tell it properly. After For Whom the Bell Tolls, you are hot. You get a fat advance. And the hat-check girl at your hotel is frisky in the sack.
By then, other news starts to crowd you out. The war makes sure there is plenty of other news. The publicity machine has done what it can with you—and to you. It spits you out and lets you go.
Go you do, gladly. Back to Cuba. Back to your life. Back to your wife.
No man is a hero to his valet. You do not know who said that. You do not even know if it is true. But it sounds as if it ought to be true, which is nearly as good.
You also do not know whether no man is a hero to his wife. You soon know too damn well you are no hero to Martha. She is even angrier now than she was before you sank the U-boat.
You do not want an angry woman at Finca Vigia. You want a woman who will give you a proper hero’s reward—and never mind the hat check girl. The hat check girl was for the fun of it. Yes, Martha takes you to bed. She knows it means something to you, although it has never meant so much to her.
The two of you are still in bed together, though, when she starts in on you. As soon as you roll off her, she says, “Good Lord, Ernest, you must have been out of your mind.”
“What?” you say irritably. You did not mind when the President made cracks like that. But your own temper always catches fire from the sparks she strikes. “Can’t you at least give it a rest till we’ve both had a cigarette, for Christ’s sake?”
“No.” Still naked, she sits up. Looking at her, you remember why you had to have her. One hell of a lot of woman there. One stubborn bitch, too. You ground down your other women till they suited you. Martha does not grind down. She grinds back. “It was bad enough when I thought you were playing games out on the ocean.”
“I told you I wasn’t,” you growl.
“You tell people all kinds of things. And sometimes you mean them, and sometimes you’re full of crap. I don’t think you always know which is which, so how is anyone else supposed to?”
“Games.” You say it again. It rankles, like a burr under the saddle.
“Games.” Martha repeats it, too. Her voice drips scorn. “Fishing games. Drinking games. Men’s games. Little boys’ games.”
“I told you I wasn’t.” You repeat yourself one more time. “I was hunting U-boats in the Pilar. And I caught one. I caught it, and I killed it.” Now you echo her: “Little boys’ games? I ought to bop you in the nose for that.”
It is not easy to quarrel when you have just made love. It is not easy to quarrel when you have not got a stitch on. The two of you manage, though. You make it look easy, in fact.
Martha aims her forefinger at you like the barrel of a Tommy gun. “Yes, little boys’ games.” She echoes you echoing her. “And you must have thought so yourself.”
“Oh? Now you read minds?” you fleer.
She fleers right back: “Not much in there to read. But if you weren’t playing boys’ games—if you didn’t think you were playing boys’ games—how come you took Patrick and Gigi along on your stupid patrols?”
That brings you up short. Your two sons did sail on the Pilar. They had a hell of a time. So did you. But would you have let them come aboard had you known you would find what you were looking for? For you were in danger of your life when you lay alongside the German U-boat. And your boys would have been in danger of theirs.
“Boys have to turn into men sooner or later,” you say. “The way you turn into a man is to do the things men do.”
There are also things you do not say. Gigi—born Gregory—can be a little devil when he feels like it. And he feels like it too often to leave you easy in your mind. You sometimes even worry he will wind up a fairy. So anything you can do to help straighten him out, you do. With some coaching from you and some natural talent, he has become quite a skeet shooter, for instance.
“The way you turn into a dead man is to follow where your father leads when he doesn’t know where the hell he’s going,” Martha says furiously. “You can give me all the garbage about manhood you please. The truth is, you didn’t even think about the chance you were taking.”
Is that the truth? What is truth, anyway? You laugh at yourself. Pontius Hemingway! What Martha says may be some of the truth. You do not think it is the whole truth.
Martha cares nothing for what you think. She jumps out of bed and starts throwing on clothes. “What are you doing?” you ask.
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m leaving, that’s what.” She snaps snaps and buttons buttons. “When you aren’t here, I miss you. I tell myself you can’t possibly be as big a son of a bitch as you acted like the last time we were together. Then we get together again, and there you are—a revolving son of a bitch, all right.”
“What’s a revolving son of a bitch?” Like a marlin, you cannot help rising to the bait.
“Somebody who’s a son of a bitch any way you look at him,” Martha answers with relish. “Somebody like you. You want to break me, the way you break all your women. Only I won’t stick around for it. This was coming, sooner or later. We both know it. It may as well come sooner. It may as well come now.”
You have walked out on your share of women before. Maybe on more than your share. Wives and others—you are not always fussy. But now a woman is walking out on you. You are not so used to that.
It makes you mad. It makes you want to haul off and deck her for real. Hitting a woman, though, will get you talked about the wrong way. It is not the kind of thing heroes do. Even if they do not, they sure must be tempted to.
So you do not slug Martha, not with your fist. You saved that for the Nazi sailor. One hell of an uppercut it was, too. You slug Martha with words instead. “You phony, pretentious bitch!” you say. “You were always in it for what you could get, weren’t you? Your ambition brought you here, and you’re just as ambitious going away. Well, go on, then. If I never see you again, it’ll be too goddam soon.”
Beneath her tan from the fierce Cuban sun, she goes pale. “I loved you,” she says. “I did. For a little while, I think you tried to live up to what I thought of you. Being a bastard’s easier, though, isn’t it? And I was handy to keep around when you needed someone to copulate on. No more. Not with me. You may be a hero, but you’re still a prick—and a small one, at that. So find somebody else.”
She strides out of the bedroom. A good thing, too, or you would loosen some teeth for her. The front door slams half a minute later. Hero or not, you are here by yourself—except for the servants, and they do not count.
For now, you are. But a hero can always find somebody else. Not right now. You are sated right now. But pretty soon. When you feel like it. You lie back in the mussed bed. It should not be long.
“Cayos in the Stream” copyright © 2013 by Harry Turtledove
Art copyright © 2013 by Gregory Manchess