Author / Speaker
A Special Guest
Two weeks later Cedar received an unusual request.
The e-mail was exceedingly detailed, not one stone left unturned. There were, the writer explained, five men and two women in their group. Both women and four of the men were comfortable on boats. The fifth man would spend the first day at sea retching violently and then put it behind him. Two in the party were vegetarian; two were gay (so that there would be no whispering among the crew). Cedar liked how the writer did not identify any of the parties; she would figure it out by the first meal and the first night. She appreciated this forthright airing. The matter of sexual preference was an individual’s private business, but when you were spending a week on a 45-foot vessel with strangers it was best to know certain things up front.
They were free divers who spear fished. They were interested only in trophy fish – big tuna, possibly a sailfish if they were undeservedly lucky - though now and again they would spear something smaller for dinner. They all had a soft spot for fresh sashimi, which she and her deckhands were more than welcome to enjoy. They wished to charter the Wendell Holmes for a week. They would pay the going rate and two thousand dollars extra since she would not be able to charge for tanks and air. The fee would go up if they asked to be taken to remoter waters. The price of fuel these days, the man wrote, was an abomination. The oil companies were today’s pirates. He preferred the pirates of old, because you knew when they were running you through.
Cedar sat back in her chair and smiled. Maybe she would print up the e-mail and deliver it to Santy.
The writer did not identify himself until the end of the e-mail, and then only by signing his name.
She picked up her desk calendar. Her eyes walked along the days. She went to the bookshelf.
When Justin came aboard that afternoon, she stood there grinning.
“What?” he said.
She didn’t miss how his hand went, like a divining rod, to the small red mark on his neck. She wondered if there were marks out of sight.
“You’ll have to be more specific,” she said.
“Okay. What’s making you smile like I just told you I’ll obey your every word?”
“This is better.”
She gave him a long head to toe look, pausing at his neck. It was wrong to make him squirm, but she was running out of chances.
His eyes went to the book in her hand.
“What are you doing with Jimmy Maas’s book?”
“Figuring out the best place for him to sign it.”
“He just hired us for a week’s charter.”
“When you keep asking the same question the conversation goes nowhere.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Trust me, it will.”
He hugged her before she could react, giving her a spine-altering squeeze. He broke away just as fast.
“Jimmy Maas!” he shouted.
He performed a short jig, long arms and legs everywhere.
“I should have gotten you dance lessons,” she said.
She waited, savoring the moment. One last going away gift.
“It’s a long trip. We’ll need help. Issy can come if it’s okay with her parents.” She wanted to look at the hickey for emphasis but he had suffered enough. “You sleep on deck. She sleeps with me. The charter starts Thursday. Dawn. I have no doubt they’ll be on time. I’ll need help getting supplies.”
“I’ll obey your every word.”
“I’d like that in writing.”
“Yea,” said Justin, and she knew he hadn’t heard. He was pulling his phone from the pocket of his shorts, no doubt to tell Issy they’d be sharing a boat if not a berth, but he stopped. “Why do you think he picked us?”
Blue water hunting was a small world. Now and again she won a local spearfishing contest, much to the chagrin of the local males, but that was no reason for Jimmy Maas and his friends to travel halfway around the world.
“I can’t say,” she said.
Cedar would have smiled, but more and more this applied to the world around her.
Jimmy Maas was surprisingly tall in real life. Only as he walked down the dock did Cedar realize she’d always seen him photographed together with some otherworldly fish.
He was older, too. Except for a dark streak at his left temple, his curly hair was sugar white. The outstretched hand had age spots, along with liberal knicks and scars.
“Thank you for having us.”
Milky blue eyes acknowledged her briefly before performing a slow bow to stern appraisal.
She tried not to sound too apologetic.
“She needs a little work.”
“Working boats do.”
Jimmy Maas made quick introductions. Cedar conducted her own bow to stern appraisal. Each diver carried several spear guns, a dive bag and a single small duffel. She made a mental note to ask for packing tips. They ranged in age from mid-twenties to Maas, who Cedar knew to be just past sixty. All were lean and fit. Several faces looked familiar, no doubt from magazine photos.
“A ragtag bunch with slipshod manners and habits, but we know those habits, which is important when you travel together,” said Maas. “I’m also a man of habit. I’m the one who gets sick.” His face puckered and unpuckered. He did not follow it with a smile. “Real sick and fairly quick.”
Man of his word, Maas started puking as soon as they passed beyond the breakwater and into the first rolling swells. Cedar had seen her share of mal de mer, but the retchings of Jimmy Maas were in a league of their own.
“He’s saved thousands of dollars skipping breakfast,” remarked one of the men. He scowled. “I think I’ll skip breakfast, too.”
It was piteous the way his whole body heaved.
“Is there anything we can do?” Cedar asked.
“Push him overboard.”
By lunch Maas was fine. He inhaled Cedar’s butter and cucumber sandwiches like he had skipped breakfast. He was also one of the vegetarians.
At Maas’ request they had stopped to investigate a string of kelp paddies. In the open-ocean small fish used them to hide. Small fish often drew bigger fish.
Maas wanted to dive the patties. It was already clear he made the decisions. Maas worked a bolus of bread and cucumber and stared over the side.
The other divers tinkered with their gear while they ate.
Justin held the tray and stared.
One of the men glanced up from his spear gun.
“He puts his pant legs on one at a time, when he remembers where he put his pants,” the man said in a clipped South African accent. Cedar remembered now. Away from diving, Jimmy Maas was famously absent-minded. “And, as he’s already ably displayed, he’d also do well to keep tabs on his bib.”
The man grinned at Justin, extending a hand.
“Hello, Justin. Murray’s the name. Pretoria’s home, although I could get used to this.”
Balancing the tray, Justin shook Murray’s hand.
“You’re all friends?”
Murray was nearly square, with an outthrust jaw that would have threatened confrontation had his eyes not resonated constant amusement.
“Most of the time,” he said.
Though he stood only a few feet away, Maas did not appear to hear them. Staring into the water, he stuffed the last half of his sandwich in his mouth.
Cedar nearly laughed out loud.
“Opted out of finishing school,” observed Murray.
Pulling his t-shirt over his head, Murray folded it neatly and placed it on the bench beside him.
Cedar tried not to stare. Murray’s entire torso, waist to neck, was covered with tattoos. Cedar had seen tattoos before; she had one of her own, a tiny leaping dolphin on her left ankle. But these tattoos were enormous, sweeping, artistic swirls that melded one into the next so that a mermaid’s hair became jellyfish tentacles and the body of the jellyfish, turned slightly, became a crescent moon. Or possibly a breast.
As his muscles moved, so did the tattoos.
There was something about the tattoos, but Cedar couldn’t quite figure it out.
Issy came up on deck with a pitcher of lemonade. Cedar was glad she had opted for a windbreaker over her bikini, although she could already see the men weren’t easily distracted.
“Wow,” whispered Issy.
“A living piece of scrimshaw,” a voice said. “Murray’s his own Sistine Chapel.”
The blond woman smiled at Cedar and Issy. She had freckles and big ears that would have been easily covered by something other than a bob. Cedar ticked through her memory, marching down Maas’ introductions.
“I’ve seen my share of tattoos, Mary Jayne, but I’ve never seen anything like that,” Cedar said. “They’re beautiful.”
“Thank you,” Murray said. “Bit of an ink addict. I get them to commemorate special occasions. It’s been a lucky life.”
“Oh my God,” said Issy.
Cedar turned, surprised. She had never heard the girl use God’s name, except when she said a mealtime prayer.
“I’m sorry,” she said, but Murray was already laughing.
“No need to apologize for being keen-eyed, young lady. Twenty percent of tattoos are cover-ups. Though I skew the percentage.”
Cedar saw them now, lines that wavered where they shouldn’t, as if, at points, the tattoo artist had handed the needle gun to a three-year-old.
“Murray is also our resident chew toy,” Mary Jayne said, and Cedar knew they had used this joke a thousand times before. “Swallowed to the shoulders by a white shark off Cape Town. Alerted to his change in circumstances by sudden darkness and an odd grinding noise. That was the shark working on his head. Bad luck for the shark, sampling the only meatless part.”
“Talk me up,” said Murray.
“Your diving does the talking,” said Mary Jayne.
This time, Cedar knew she wasn’t joking.
By the end of the first day, they had adopted Justin and Issy as their own. Cedar let Justin dive the kelp patties with them. She told him he was supervising, but that was ridiculous. Justin spent the day unabashedly orbiting Jimmy Maas. Each time Maas bobbed to the surface, Justin surfaced not far away.
“I didn’t think I’d lose him to another man,” Issy said.
Cedar and Issy stood on the stern, watching the watery slick where Maas and Justin had just disappeared.
“You could start doing yoga.”
“Even that won’t work.”
The girl looked genuinely downcast.
Cedar touched her elbow.
“Men are always infatuated with something. If not themselves.”
It wasn’t a compliment. It was a statement of fact.
“Not this time,” Cedar said.
That night Justin was so exhausted he barely offered half a hand with dinner and an eighth of a hand with cleanup. At one point Cedar was fairly certain he was sleeping on his feet.
It didn’t matter. Everyone pitched in. Murray had speared a good-size wahoo. One of the men made an improvisational paste – the most noticeable ingredient was ginger – that transformed the fish into something just short of heaven. Another man made baklava that attained equivalent heights.
“Tony and Allen own separate restaurants on the same block in Healdsburg, California,” Murray confided to Cedar when he brought his dishes to the sink. “They only take vacations if the other one does. Four Michelin stars are not built on blind trust.”
Ernan ate with them. He usually ate by himself, but to Cedar’s pleasant surprise at lunch he had asked if he could join everyone at dinner.
Reading her face, he had said, “This is not your average group. I can learn from them.”
At dinner Ernan learned that four members of the group had been to Manila, and that everyone was curious about the place. Cedar learned things about Manila, and Ernan, that she had never known. He discoursed eloquently on the history and economy of the Philippines. He spoke of the gated communities along Roxas Boulevard overlooking Manila Bay as if he had lived in them; and the slums as if he had written a graduate thesis on Manila’s economic extremes.
After dinner and clean up was done, Cedar followed him up to the bridge.
She stood quietly while he reached for his chewing tobacco and then checked the GPS.
When he turned, she smiled.
“What was that?”
“Checking our positioning.”
“Very funny. I meant at dinner.”
“That was too much talking,” he said, and spat into the paper cup.
“You were the life of the party.”
“They are good people and genuinely curious.”
“And you should be the Philippine ambassador.”
Ernan turned and looked out over the water.
“I prefer the view from here.”
That first night Issy changed in the bathroom. The bathroom was half the size of a small shower stall. Cedar lay in bed, smiling as Issy banged about. The girl’s sudden decorum was endearing.
She came out nursing an elbow and smoothing a football jersey down past her knees.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Cedar said.
“Neither has Justin.” Issy smiled. “It belonged to an infatuation.”
Women, thought Cedar, were a surprise even to women.
Cedar woke before dawn. The radio in the galley was on and so was the coffee.
She went up on deck, stopping to look down at her softly snoring son.
Jimmy Maas sat by himself, legs dangling off the bow.
An orange scrim scratched the horizon. It was warm already, the warmth like a comforting blanket.
She loved it here.
She prodded her son with a toe. His eyes were clear the instant they opened.
“Good morning, Mom.”
Putting a finger to her lips she nodded toward the bow and whispered, “It certainly is.”
Justin wormed silently from the sleeping bag, his salt-stiff hair shooting off in one direction as if he inhabited his own quadrant of howling wind.
Down in the galley, Cedar said, “You might consider a comb.”
“We’re just going back in the water.”
She tried to sound casual.
“Hear anything last night?”
Justin pushed down his hair. It sprung right back up.
“Nope. Slept like I was dead.”
They were just words, but Cedar hated them just the same.