By Any Other NamebyAdrian Leverkuhn©
There are some stretches of road that are nothing less than Hell. Some stretches of water, too, for that matter. And mountains. Mountains are rather like life, too, but it's better to get by the rough patches and move on than it is to dwell on the toll they take. Sometimes there's just no way to avoid the rough spots; other times find us tempted by the idea of taking a short-cut around life, maybe missing out on a little pain or finding our way to happiness just a little quicker. Some detours work out fine, others don't. Some detours take you where you want to go -- eventually; other drop you off unexpectedly in the middle of nowhere, leave you confused and not just a little shaken. Some are full of pain.
'Beyond this place there be dragons.'
Wouldn't that be nice: little road-signs warning of imminent danger just ahead, that even the expected curves conceal dangers so unpredictable that mere words alone cannot convey all the implications of a single slip?
And why are these short-cuts so tempting? I'd really like to know the answer to that one.
I was northbound on the Atlantic Intra-coastal Waterway somewhere just north of Ft Lauderdale and headed for Palm Beach, deep in what's called Gucci Gulch, bound eventually for Port St Lucie. The homes that line this strand between the ICW and the beach are massive, rambling estates whose annual property tax bills are rumored to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fifty acre parcels of land are not uncommon, homes with fifty thousand square feet and private heliports abound -- these types of shacks are the norm along this stretch of the waterway.
Another feature of the waterway, and an unwelcome one at that, are the countless bridges spanning this section of the ICW. Roadways cross the waterway at fairly regular intervals: a very few are so tall that even large vessels can pass underneath without issue; most of these bridges, however, are not. Most of them carry simple surface streets across the waterway and boats can pass only after the bridge has been raised over or swung away from the main channel, and because road traffic in the area is so heavy these bridges only open a few times a day. Folks can literally travel all day long and, by missing bridge openings, find that they've traversed a stunning ten miles for the day; in other words at a pace even a Green Sea Turtle could walk away from. Needless to say, tempers can flare. This is the voice of experience speaking.
And another unique feature of this stretch of the ICW concerns the folks who man these bridges. They watch million dollar yachts and duct tape-patched inflatable motorboats pass by all day long so perhaps they are consumed with the thought that life has somehow passed them by -- who knows? Whatever the reason, some of these folks have a rather highly developed sense of humor, some more than others. Some tenders will let all the boats queued-up pass before closing the bridge; others will wait until just the right moment to close their bridge -- and cause the approaching skipper to ram his engine into reverse and take all kinds of (obviously hilarious) action to avoid having their boat turned into kindling. These bridge tenders can be seen laughing their asses off and generally having a fine ole time as they watch weekend warriors and old farts scrambling around and cussing while trying to save their boats. For want of a better word I've taken to calling these bridge-tenders "Bubba" -- and I mean no slight to people so named. Rather, there seems to be a mean-spiritedness to the actions of these crimson vertebrae'd fellas that seems uniquely Southern. I feel it necessary to add that I am myself a Southerner, or was once, and that I too have been accused of red-neck tendencies -- most frequently regarding my unqualified love of Lone Star beer and Carolina-style barbeque. Be that as it may, Bubba and I have been having a running dispute over his operating procedures for years: I shout at Bubba, shoot the bird at Bubba, I slam my poor old sailboat's transmission into reverse and throw the tiller over and just miss the closing bridge by inches and look up in time to see Bubba pointing at me and laughing his ass off. It's a tiring ritual primarily because I always lose.
On the day in question -- and it was a nice clear December day, by the way -- it was nearing evening rush hour and I knew I had to clear the bridge ahead or be caught waiting at least three hours for the next opening -- and I had the howling engine red-lined as I pushed the boat to make that opening. I could see a dozen other boats queued-up perhaps three hundred yards ahead when the bridge began opening, and was perhaps twenty yards from passing through when Bubba decided to close it.
Slam it in reverse, helm hard over, engine rumbling, diesel fumes billowing, rude finger gestures all around, more than a few impolite expletives tossed overboard -- and I look up in time to see Bubba rolling in laughter, huge gales of laughter. I had been utterly defeated and he knew it. The Score: Bubba, 340; Hapless Old Fart, Zero. Humiliating, really. No other word for it. I missed the bridge by inches, continued the turn until I was southbound and straightened out and ran down the waterway while I tried to calm down. Again.
There was a restaurant a ways back and I thought I might head back and tie up, grab a bite and waste a couple of hours before I gave Bubba another shot at my mast -- when I saw her.
She was standing on a private dock along the waterway, the dock behind a house somewhat larger than an aircraft carrier and just a little smaller than the Taj Mahal; said house was all the more unusual in that it was painted what I consider a revolting shade of hot pink -- but more often than not these subtle hues tend to be the norm along Gucci Gulch. The woman standing on the dock was dressed in hot pink, too, for that matter. Maybe I should have, in retrospect, taken that as a warning. As I motored down the waterway I saw her laughing, then she waved at me. Another warning?
So of course, like the moron I have long been accused of being, I waved back.
Now, is it just me or have you noticed that this is a behavior common to most people out on the water? What is with all this nautical bonhomie, this completely nonsensical "we're-all-brothers-while-on-the-water" thing? Why do complete strangers who would under other circumstances (and perhaps quite naturally, too) hate each other -- suddenly become so wonderfully receptive to other people once they hop onboard a boat? Put these spiteful people in a boat and they start waving like crazy at strangers in each and every boat they pass. It's downright spooky. And I'm as guilty as can be: when I get onboard I start waving like a flag in a hurricane. Just silly, I guess, but I do it.
Anyway, the woman in pink was waving, I was waving -- hell, everyone was waving, even Bubba.
Then the woman was motioning me to come alongside...
Third warning? Three strikes, Dude, and you're out!
I slowed and circled to bleed off speed, then idled alongside the dock she was standing on; I recognized her instantly. She'd been a singer of some repute in the 70s and 80s, mainly Country Music, and I mention that in passing only because if there's one thing I know absolutely nothing about, its Country Music. I grew up in a house with Perry Como and Andy Williams, graduated on my own to The Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin and had had only an occasional serving of Willie Nelson. But given the nature of celebrity culture in America and mass media coverage thereto -- I knew this chick. She'd been married a half dozen times that I'd heard of and been in and out of rehab more times than that. Her last husband -- some forty years older than her at the time of their nuptials -- had popped off a few months later and left her with something like twenty billion dollars.
Thinking back on things now I realize I should have motored-on down the waterway to the burger place, but I'm here to tell you -- people do dumb stuff when they get in a boat. Like wave back at people who wave at you. Stupid, really. Just plain dumb.
Judging from the hive of activity on the lawn behind her it was apparent that final preparations for a party of historic proportions were being completed. A stage had been erected, complete with lights and a sound system that looked bigger than anything Zeppelin had ever used, and tables and chairs for hundreds of people were set up and being attended to by an army of hired help. There were cops in the bushes and private security personnel in the trees and Secret Service types walking along the edge of the waterway, and as I approached the dock one of these fellows waved me away until the woman waved him away. I dropped the boat into idle and drifted toward the dock...
"Hi there!" she said in a Tennessee accent so thick you'd need a chainsaw to cut through it.
"Howdy," I replied in my best 'congenital-idiot-from-Texas' voice.
"I just hate the man operatin' that bridge," she crooned. "He's a bona-fide mother fuckin' prick!"
"Yeah, well, he gets my vote for asshole of the year." She laughed. I laughed. Very funny stuff.
"He likes to get sailboats," she said. "I don't think he likes sailors."
"That's quite understandable. I don't like bridge-tenders."
She laughed again, looked at me like she was measuring me for a tuxedo -- or a coffin -- then said: "We're havin' a little get-together here tonight. My birthday party! Would you like to stay?"
I didn't know what to say. "I don't know what to say, Ma'am; I didn't bring a gift."
"Say yes!" she said with a pouting lower lip hanging out like a Frisbee. "Please! I don't have a date!"
Ah. A damsel in distress!
"Well of course, I'd love to stay. Where can I tie up?"
She hopped up and down and clapped her hands, turned and called out to a stud named Skip and told him to help me tie off at the dock, then I hopped ashore and introduced myself:
"Bond, James Bond," I said as I held out my hand; we laughed at my idiocy, then: "Just call me Hank."
"Hank? I'm Rose!" She held out her hand; it felt fine boned and her skin was cool and dry, she looked me in the eye with electric blue precision while I looked at her; we shook hands and she took my arm in hers and led me across the lawn. A smoother putting green I have never seen, except this one was about two hundred yards square. I shuddered to think what the descending legions of high heels would do to this masterpiece. It looked like a billiards table.
We made polite small talk while we walked; she asked where I was headed on my boat and I asked her about the house and the festivities about to begin: a couple of her dearest friends were going to drop by, George Strait was going to sing a couple of songs before dinner and Stevie Wonder -- her "oldest and dearest friend" was going to perform later -- right before the fireworks.
A little party. Uh-huh.
I think it was then that I looked down at my bare legs in all their knobby-kneed glory: plaid shorts, very off-white polo shirt, old navy blue Keds and no socks -- yes, I was the very picture of urbane sophistication. But she didn't seem to mind.
Caterers and florists scurried up to her, she made polite suggestions and they ran off; some seemed to approach in terror and left looking relieved, as though they'd escaped with their lives. All in all, I thought she was running a tight ship. Little did I know.
A portly young man in a white tux rolled across the lawn and walked up to her:
"Hi Mom; who's this?"
"Hank, this is my son Jerry; Jerry, Hank is my date for the evening."
Jerry's left eyebrow arched up: "Oh?" It felt like the guy was digging through my pockets looking for a Dunn & Bradstreet rating. Some piker out to cheat him out of his inheritance! Indeed! We'll see about that!
"Howdy," I said as I held out my hand. "Good to meetcha." He turned and walked away; I pretended not to notice.
"Prick!" Rose said to his departing back; if Jerry noticed he didn't let on. "Sorry. The Ghost of Husbands past."
"Ah. Troubled waters, then?"
"You know it, honey."
"What's he do?" I asked.
"Depends on who you ask," she chuckled -- but there was sadness in her voice.
"Well then, a man of many talents."
She turned and looked at me; it was a half mocking, half approving look: "Well my goodness, Hank. You're a gentleman, aren't you?"
"Depends on who you ask," I smiled. "Some folks I know might take exception to that."
"Fuck 'em, Hank! Fuck 'em all if they can't take a joke!" She threw her head back and laughed. She reminded me of a lioness, perhaps getting ready to pounce on a water buffalo and crush its neck.
"The very words I live by, Ma'am." She nodded and we resumed walking.
People were arriving now; hordes of people... and everyone I saw was in evening attire... everyone, that is, except yours truly. Guests began picking up champagne flutes from passing waiters, waitresses began drifting among little islands of beautiful people passing out canapés, men drifted over to one of a dozen bars and walked away with stiff drinks. Sooner or later most of them came over to Rose and said hello, took in my knobby knees while wishing her a happy birthday, and she seemed to delight in their obvious curiosity. 'Who is THAT?' I heard more than one say as they faded back into the whirling crowds.
As the sun went down the lights came up, George sang a couple of ballads, asked -- then begged Rose to join him on stage and she finally relented and they belted out a couple of numbers that seemed as familiar as the National Anthem to most of these people -- but were as completely unknown to me. She was in seventh-heaven, too; any blind fool could see that. These people had come to drink at her trough, sure, but they all obviously loved the dickens out of her too. It was quite a sight.
She came down after their last duet and walked up to me, kissed me as hard and long as I've ever been, threw her head back again and let out a long 'woo-hoo' and then laughed and slapped me on the back. She pulled me along to a table and indicated her seat; I pulled out her chair then sat beside her breathlessly and looked at her once again, but from another place now. She was a dynamo, a real firecracker.
Her eyes were alive, a bead of perspiration beaded her forehead like tiny diamonds; she was the happiest person I'd ever seen in my life and the whole place was feeding off her energy. Then two kids, teenagers as best I could tell, walked up to her:
"Happy Birthday, Mom," the boy said as leaned over and pecked her cheek. The girl was older, more reserved, even a little hostile, had a kind of arms-crossed-"yeah, whatever"-look on her face: she handed her mother a little box then looked at me.
"Who's he?" the girl asked critically.
"Hank? My son Tom, my daughter Becky..." I stood and shook Tom's hand; Becky turned and walked away...
"Don't mind her," Tom said. "She's been crabby all day."
"Right," I said. "Tom, can you join us?"
He looked quickly at his mother, took in the little shake of her head: "No sir, I have finals this week. If I don't ace my history exam in the morning I'm doomed."
"Ah. Yes, understand."
"You don't know anything about the collapse of the Weimar Republic, do you?" he asked quietly; I noticed his mother had turned and was talking to other people at the table and he clearly saw this as an opportunity.
"A little, yes."
"Why did it fail, then? France? Reparations?"
"Well, Tom, a lot of people believe it was doomed to fail from the beginning..." I launched into a brief narrative of anti-Semitism in German politics and how the global financial panics of the early and late twenties fed those anxieties, and how rightist factions exploited those fears...
"That's kind of like what's happening now, isn't it?" he interrupted.
"There are some parallels, yes," I said, "but there are strong anti-hate laws in Germany now..."
"Not Germany," he said like I was a dunce. "Here, in America!"
"Now Tom," his mother said, "why don't you go back in and..."
"Tom!" There was a harshness in her voice that took me back, was a little unsettling.
"Yes Ma'am." And a capitulation in his that was equally upsetting. He left and I turned to look at her.
"He seems like a good kid," I began...
"Oh, he is." She paused, seemed to consider her next words carefully: "You're good with kids, aren't you?"
I shrugged. "Been accused once or twice."
She leaned close as if to whisper in my ear but I felt her tongue instead, felt her warm breath, and things seemed to grow a little dim.
"I wanna fuck you," she whispered, "so much. Ever since I saw you out there, on the water."
I pulled back, looked at her face, leaned in and kissed her lightly on the lips. "Well, Happy Birthday Rose," I said softly while I smiled at her.
"Now!" she whispered with some urgency.
"The boat?" This, I thought, was getting interesting.
"Let's go." I stood, looked down at the gray hair on my knobby knees and wondered which worked faster, Viagra or Cialis.
I went ahead, slipped down below and hastily cleaned up my cabin, felt her hop aboard a few minutes later; I went aft and helped her down the steps and she was on me...
Some boats are better than others, I suppose, for this kind of activity. She was probably used to yachts the size of the Q E II but if that was the case she didn't show it. We kissed, I held her close, we moved forward and I helped her up on the berth then threw her legs over my shoulders and went to town on her for what felt like quite a while...
...then there was a gentle knocking on the hull...
"Uh-Ma'am?" came an insistent voice somewhere on the dock, "Ma'am, I think you're needed -- now!"
"Shit!" she said as she sat up, then: "Hank, you sure know how to eat pussy!"
"Thanks." I think I smiled.
"Uh, Ma'am?" the disembodied voice continued. "I think Jerry's headed this way..."
"Right!" she said. "Well, a mother's job..." I stood back and helped her up.
"Go take a seat, I'll fix you a drink..."
"Balls," she said. "Don't bother!" She stomped off the boat and strode like an army general back toward the stage.
"She's a goddamn force of nature!" I said.
"You got that right, buddy," the invisible voice said.
All in all, things felt a little surreal.
Well, really, maybe more than a little.
I slipped on some trousers and made my way back up to the party a while later, wanted to at least thank Rose for a memorable if not downright unforgettable evening. I felt a little disoriented, really, and while things were slowing down on the lawn I was feeling a little invigorated. I saw Rose standing in a group of people and stood off to the side to watch... then saw her daughter staring at me like I was the anti-Christ.
"Hank! Come meet George." I guess Rose didn't miss much.
She introduced me to her friends and admirers and pulled me in close, as if protecting me from too much too soon. I looked at Becky across the lawn from time to time, noticed her staring at her mother and myself.
"What's with Becky," I mentioned once. Rose stopped what she was doing, looked around at her daughter, then at me.
"Oh, just ignore her."
I had the impression that was just what had been going on, and probably for far too long. At one point Rose walked over to another group of friends and I walked over to her daughter. She didn't take her eyes off me as I approached.
"Is there something the matter?" I asked. She just stared at me but I could tell she was screwing up the courage to let a big one loose, then:
"Did you fuck her?"
"You heard me. Did you fuck my mother?"
"Well not that it's any of your business, but no, I didn't."