The Kindness of Strangers
Drifting down the Clearwater docks before dawn. The rain had stopped, but I was soaked. After a day and a night of hitchhiking down from the Panhandle, I had learned one valuable lesson of the road: cars were dry, stay in them as long as possible. Maybe I was just dog tired with no real sleep in a couple of days, but my joints ached like I had the flu and I felt feverish and shivery.
Boatmen were already arriving to set up charters for the day.
Someone yelled at me, “You looking for a job?”
Hot damn! Living on the road was off to a good start.
“Yeah, I am. What do you have?”
“Short a deck hand. Ever worked a party boat?”
I had, in fact, been out on my uncle Steve’s Seahorse several times. He put fishing trips together for the guests at his resort. Seemed close enough to count for job experience.
“Yeah, lots. Worked the Seahorse out of Panama City. Ever heard of it?”
“Panama City? Yeah I heard of it.”
“I mean, the Seahorse.”
He just starred at me.
“It was kind of small, my uncle’s boat, that he kept at the Villa for the guests . . .”
“Who gives a shit?”
“Not you, Cap’n.”
“Ain’t the fuckin’ Cap’n. My name’s ‘Sailor.’”
“Sailor?” This was too much. He had to be yanking my anchor chain.
“Sailor . . . Martin. You laugh I kick your little maggot ass.”
Little? I was taller than Sailor Martin by several inches and weighed about the same, but I wouldn’t want to mess with him. He had a certain “look.”
“Aye, aye, Sailor.”
“OK, first day you work for meals. Maybe I like you. Next day we start paying you. Got it?”
I jumped into doing what deck hands do on party boats: cut bait, bring out the gear, rig the lines. After a while a woman brought hot pork sandwiches and hushpuppies in paper shopping bags. Breakfast. I managed a couple of hushpuppies, but I really wasn’t feeling well.
The party of about twenty grumbling tourists arrived, complaining about the weather which had showed no signs of improving. We motored out into the Gulf of Mexico several miles through moderate swells, anchored and started bottom fishing. Bottom fishing is mainly what you do on party boats. This was not trolling for marlin and wahoo. Drop the rig to the bottom, haul up snapper and grouper. Unhook ‘em, re-bait. Do it again. When not helping the tourists, you clean fish, fetch drinks, and hose vomit off the rails, the benches, the bulkheads, and every other surface where the wind has blown it, including your legs.
Smell of puke and diesel fumes, unceasing rolling of the boat, bone-deep fatigue, stress, chills from the freshening wind, lack of food and wet clothes. It was one of the worst days of my life. When it started to rain hard about mid-afternoon, I was relieved because it meant we had to go back in early.
The return trip was nasty. Sailor Martin wanted it all done when before we berthed and busted my ass without let-up. All the fish had to be filleted and wrapped, the lavatories cleaned top to bottom, gear stowed, decks and cleaning tables scrubbed, more drinks for the tourists.
I was sick and getting sicker.
We docked and secured the boat. I asked Sailor if I could sleep aboard, and the answer was, “not a chance. But,” he said, “you can roll up in a blanket and sleep on my floor.” With gratitude, I accepted. We walked a few blocks inland to a boarding house, went up a flight of rickety stairs. Sailor unlocked the door and we went in. To call it shabby would be a compliment, but it was dry, it didn’t rock, and there was a radiator that Sailor managed to get hissing.
“Here’s a blanket. You can dry your clothes on the radiator.”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot, Sailor.”
He gave me a strange look. “I’m going for supper and a drink. You want something?”
I told him no, I just wanted to lie down and go to sleep. He left, locked me in. I took off all my clothes and spread them around the radiator. I grabbed the seat cushion from a lawn chair, the only furniture except for the bed and a dresser, dropped it on the floor, wrapped up in the blanket that smelled faintly of urine, eased myself down to the cushion, and passed out.
I didn’t hear him come in, didn’t even know he was there until I felt the weight of him sitting on me, naked, pinning my arms to my sides under the blanket. I woke up to the stench of his breath in my face. He was breathing hard.
“What? What’s going on? Get off me!”
He snapped the filleting knife right across my mouth.
“Shhhhhh. Pretty Boy. I tell you what we’re gonna do. First, you’re gonna suck my dick. You’re gonna suck my dick real good or I’m gonna cut your fucking head off.