PK sent me the link to a website that had this short story written by Hunter S. Thompson, published in 1961 in Rogue magazine. I skimmed it, was intrigued, then reread it. And reread it again. I’ve probably read it some dozen times since then. Something about the casual insinuation of infidelity, the quickened jealousy. Such a familiar feeling in such an unfamiliar place.
“When do we leave?”
“Monday at dawn, Bring your gear aboard tomorrow and we’ll get it stowed away.”
Laurenson stood up. “Good. We’d better get back to the hotel and pack.” He picked up his camera and started toward the hatch, stooping low to keep from banging his head.
His wife was already on the ladder. Halfway up, she turned and looked back. “It’s nice of you to take us along, Mr. Maier. I hope we won’t be any trouble.”
The skipper stood up. “Not at all – and don’t call me Mr. Maier. My name’s Chick.”
Laurenson smiled and helped his wife up the ladder to the deck, where a small fellow with a new growth of beard was patching a sail. He looked up: “You decided to make the trip?”
“Yes,” Laurenson replied. “Should be quite an adventure.”
The skipper lifted himself through the hatch and stood beside them in the hot Caribbean sun. “You may change your mind before we get there,” he said. “Two weeks at sea is a long time.”
“I think well love it,” said Anne.
Maier shrugged and lit a cigarette.
Laurenson watched him curiously. The skipper was a full head shorter than he was, but probably weighted about the same. He was somewhere in his early thirties, with heavy shoulders and short muscular legs. He wore nothing but a pair of ragged khaki shorts, and the hair on his body was three different colors: a crisp blond on his legs and head, dark brown on his chest and shoulders, and dull red in his beard.
Laurenson was about to step over to the dock when Maier called him back: “Why don’t you give me the money now, so I can get the groceries.”
Laurenson handed him the checks and Maier counted them. “Okay,” he said. “Get here about noon tomorrow. We have some work to do.”
Anne smiled impishly. “You want me to work, too?”
Maier looked at her. “I’ll put you to work,” he said quietly. “You look like you might be good for something.”
Laurenson felt his stomach tighten. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”
He followed Anne along the rickety pier. At the end they stopped to look back at Maier’s boat. It was an old, fifty-foot sloop with a black hull and the name “Sebastian” painted in gold letters on the stern. It was a little different from the others in the harbor. They were charter-boats, everything from tiny sloops to huge, three-masted schooners, and their naked spars swayed lazily against a background of green hills and bright blue sky.
The Laurensons were taking an island-hopping vacation. They had started in Trinidad and worked their way north to St. Cyr. Now, instead of flying back to Cleveland, where he was in his last year of medical school, they were going back to the States on the Sebastian.
After breakfast the next day they took their gear aboard the Sebastian and stowed it in lockers below their bunks on either side of the main cabin. Maier and the other crewman, Bill Eble, would sleep in the skipper’s cabin in the stern.
Maier had gone ashore and Eble told them what had to be done. He was young, slightly pudgy, and obviously working very hard to grow a beard. He told them he’d met Maier through a mutual friend in New York and had flown down several weeks ago to “give Chick a hand” on the trip back to Long Island, where the boat would stay for the summer.
Maier appeared late in the afternoon, still wearing nothing but the khaki shorts. He carried a can of beer and a thick piece of rope that he slapped on the mast, and occasionally on the palm of his hand.
Laurenson suspected he was drunk. Christ, he thought, the little ape carries this skipper act right to the limit – strutting around the deck with a goddamn whip!
Maier tossed the empty beer can into the harbor. “Anne,” he said, “go down and fix us a little grub”. “There’s some ground beef in the icebox, might as well eat it before it goes bad.”
Laurenson looked up from the rope he was splicing. “We’ll eat in town tonight,” he said. “We want to try the lobster at Gianinni’s.”
Maier shook his head. “It’s rotten – take my word for it.” He lit a cigarette. “No sense in not eating here. Like I said, you’re my guests for the next two weeks.” He pointed the rope at Eble. “Bill, go below and show Anne how to work the stove.”
No one moved for a moment, then Eble got up and started down the ladder. Anne followed obediently.
Almost an hour went by before she re-appeared. Her hair was mussed and her face was damp with sweat. “Ready,” she said meekly.
“Hot damn!” Maier exclaimed. “Let’s eat. Come on Laurenson. You look like you need it.”
The table in the main cabin was neatly set with four plates of ground beef and string beans. Maier and Laurenson sat on one side of the table, with Anne and Eble on the other.
Nothing was said until the meal was over. “We’ll take turns cleaning up the galley,” Maier said. “Tonight the job falls to seaman Laurenson.”
Eble went up on deck and Laurenson joined his wife in the kitchen. “Jesus,” he muttered, “this may not be as much of a lark as I thought.”
It was still dark when Maier woke them the next morning. “Let’s get going,” he snapped. “I want to clear this harbor before the sun comes up.”
Maier announced the watches while Eble hoisted the jib. “You and Bill will be together,” he said to Laurenson, “and me and Anne will take the other one. That way we’ll have one experienced hand on deck all the time.”
Laurenson was instantly awake. “How does this watch business work?” he said quickly.
Maier smiled, swacking the rope-whip against his palm. “I thought you were the big sailor, Laurenson. One watch handles the boat while the other sleeps. We’ll be four on, four off. That means you’ll work four hours, then sleep.” He paused for an instant. “And you’d better damn well get your sleep, because you’ll need it.”
Laurenson felt a flutter of panic. He tried to catch Anne’s eye, but she was looking down at the deck.
By the time the sun came up the Sebastian was in open water with the bow pointed north to Bermuda. The sea was smooth. Maier and Eble took turns at the helm. Anne made lunch and Laurenson did his best to grasp the basic elements of sailing.
At noon, Maier took a sun-sight with the sextant. “Get a good look at that land,” he shouted, pointing to St. Cyr on the horizon. “It’s the last you’ll see for a week.”
In the afternoon Eble showed Laurenson how to steer a compass course. The day passed slowly and he was tired when Maier called him for the eight-to-midnight watch. “Come on Laurenson, hit the deck. Me and Anne have to get some sleep.”
Laurenson steered for an hour, but found it difficult to concentrate. The cockpit was above Maier’s cabin and he listened carefully for any sounds.
Maier appeared exactly at midnight and Laurenson went below to wake Anne. She was already up.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“Fine. Is anything wrong?”
His next words were out of his mouth before he realized it. “Don’t let him bother you,” he whispered. “Call me if anything happens.”
She smiled and kissed him lightly. “Don’t worry. Nothing’s going to happen.” Then she flitted like a host through the cabin and up the hatch.
The wind was steady the next day and Maier put up the big Genoa to catch more wind. “We may hoist the spinnaker later on,” he said. “Take advantage of every puff we can.”
At noon he called for the spinnaker and sent Laurenson out on the bow sprint to haul in the jib. When the head of the sail fell into the water, Maier exploded. “You worthless bastard! Can’t you do anything right?”
Laurenson gritted his teeth and said nothing. Later, when the watches changed, he found Anne alone in the cabin. “One of these days I’m going to punch that hairy little bastard in the face,” he whispered.
She avoided his eyes. “After all,” she said. “You did drop the sail.”
“Well Christ,” he said. “Christ alive, he can at least be decent about it.”
That night, after going off watch, he lay in his bunk for almost an hour, listening intently for sounds from the deck. He could hear them talking, but couldn’t make out what they said. The conversation was broken by long silences and finally he could stand it no longer.
With his heart thumping, he climbed the ladder and stepped onto the deck. Anne was sitting in the cockpit, holding the tiller, and Maier was kneeling behind her with his hands on her shoulders. She was smiling and her blond hair glowed in the moonlight. Laurenson thought he saw the skipper’s hands moving slowly at the base of her neck.
Maier looked up. “What the hell are you doing up here Laurenson? You’re gonna wish you’d been asleep when I get you up at midnight.”
Laurenson wanted to smash his arrogant mouth. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he said.
“What the hell do you think the head is for?” Maier snapped, not taking his hands off Anne’s shoulders.
Laurenson headed for the stern, looking straight ahead. “It’s easier back here,” he mumbled.
He had to pass Maier to get back to the hatch, and as he did, the skipper looked up. “You satisfied?” he said, smiling faintly.
“Yeah,” Laurenson muttered, turning to go down the hatch. Halfway to go he paused to look at Anne. She was smiling again, and now he was sure Maier’s hands were moving on her shoulders.
The next day Maier was after him constantly:
“Laurenson, scrub down the galley. The place stinks like a pig-hole!”
“Laurenson, straighten the sail-bags in the lazerette. I want them in order in case we hit a squall.”
“Laurenson, get down there and pump the bilge. We have enough dead weight aboard, without adding a hundred gallons of sea-water.”
In the afternoon, according to Maier’s prediction, they entered the Sargasso Sea. It was like a huge, dirty lake in the middle of the ocean. Great chunks of sargasso weed drifted slowly past the boat. The sails flapped and fluttered in the dying wind, and even the light ballooner jib was almost useless. The Sebastian had no engine and Maier seemed resigned to drift in the doldrums for as long as God willed. “Not a damn thing I can do about it,” he said with a shrug. “Just try to keep moving and pray for wind.”
Laurenson had the midnight watch on their second day in the doldrums. He and Eble sat across from each other in the cockpit. After an hour of nervous silence, with the boom clattering back and forth across their heads, Laurenson got up and went below.
Before he was halfway down the ladder he sensed that Anne was not in her bunk. It was pitch-dark in the cabin and he groped in the cold sheets that lay tangled at the foot of the bed, clinging to some faint hope that he would find her.
Then he looked to the galley, striking a match to make sure no one was there. She wasn’t on deck, so she had to be in one of two places – the head, or Maier’s cabin.
He felt his way back to the stern, breathing rapidly. Both doors were closed and he heard nothing. He touched the door to the head, wanting to jerk it open.
But he couldn’t. Nothing could make him knock or call her name. Maier’s door was behind him, but he couldn’t look at it. He just stood there, stroking the door to the head.
After several minutes he climbed back to the deck. His hands trembled and his eyes seemed unable to focus. Eble had one foot on the tiller, watching the North Star. He seemed startled as Laurenson stumbling into the cockpit and slumped down on the cushions. “What’s wrong?” he said.
Laurenson put his head in his hands. “I’m sick,” he mumbled. “I’ve got to get off this boat. I’m getting sick.”
Eble watched him for a moment, and then looked down at the compass. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “I think I know what you mean.”
Laurenson said nothing for several minutes, then suddenly got to his feet and picked up a steel winch handle half the size of a baseball bat. If she was down there with him, she was a whore – he’d beat them both to within an inch of their lives. He moved purposely towards the hatch.
Eble called after him: “Where are you going?”
“To settle this damn thing!” Laurenson replied, starting down the ladder. At the bottom, he looked into the main cabin.
Anne was in her bunk. There was enough light for him to be sure there was a body between the sheets. He tip-toed in and lit a match. She was sound asleep. He put the match up to the bunk and saw shadows flicker in her blond hair, saw her naked shoulders glow in the dim light.
Maier shook him awake at dawn the next day. “All hands on deck! We’re about to get a workout.”
Laurenson kicked savagely at the hand on his leg. “Don’t touch me!” he screamed. “I’m getting up!”
Maier’s eyes narrowed. He turned and walked away without a word. Laurenson began dressing.
When he got on deck he saw what Maier had meant. A dangerous looking squall blackened the whole northern horizon.
They ate a hurried breakfast and the squall struck just as they finished. A light rain came first, then a hellish wind, and finally a roaring, pounding sea that threatened to smash the boat to splinters at any moment.
Laurenson watched from his perch on the leeward deck, clinging to the cockpit rail to keep from being washed overboard. The sky was almost black and it was impossible to see more than twenty yards in any direction. The Sebastian was heeled over at an impossible angle and every big white-cap he saw brought him closer to panic.
Suddenly a wild shout came from the direction of the bow, scaring Laurenson so badly that he almost lost his grip. “Chick! The jib!”
Laurenson looked up and saw the top of the jib literally going to pieces in the wind. Three seams had parted and two more ripped out in the space of thirty seconds.
“Haul it down!” Maier shouted. “Get the bastard down!” He turned to Laurenson: “Get me the staysail out of the lazerette! Goddamnit, move!”
Laurenson was petrified with fear. He was only six feet from the lazerette, but as he looked back at it, trying to make himself move, it seemed like sixty yards of open water. Maier’s scream jolted him into action. “Laurenson! You stupid bastard! Bring me that sail!”
Laurenson began to inch his way along the deck toward the lazerette. He moved sideways on his belly, feeling the water rush over him as he clung to the rail. His hands were numb, and ice-cold saltwater raced through his crotch.
The instant he lifted the cover to the lazerette the sea jerked it out of his hands and carried it away. It sank instantly and the loss filled him with such fear and despair that he began to cry. He lay there on his belly, sobbing as he groped for the bag that contained the staysail.
He pulled it out, barely able to see, and started crawling along the deck to the bow. As he passed the main hatch he saw Anne standing there on the ladder, wearing a rain-jacket and watching him with an expression on her face he had never seen before. He turned his head as he passed her.
Maier was screaming savagely when he finally got to the bow. “The sail! You stupid bastard! Give me the goddamn sail!” He was out on the bowsprit, his legs wrapped around it, facing the stern and hanging on to the forward stay.
Laurenson worked desperately with the knot at the top of the sail bag, but it was soaking wet and his hands shook so badly that he could barely hold it.
“Cut it!” Maier screamed.
Eble reached over with a knife and slashed the rope. Laurenson jerked the bag open.
The first thing he pulled out was a brown sweater. The spray was so heavy that he could barely see what he had in his hands, but he knew it wasn’t a sail. Desperately, he reached in again. This time he came up with a pair of khaki pants.
Maier’s scream made the sea seem calm. It was a wild, piercing shriek:”Oh crazy God! You’ve brought me a bag of clothes!”
Laurenson looked up; his face twisted with fear and confusion, and saw Maier hurl the jib halyard at him. The big steel leader thumped into his chest like a cannonball.
He fell backward, tripped over the hatch, and slid down the deck toward the rail. He grabbed for the mast, but couldn’t hold on. Just at his feet went into the water, he felt his arm hit the wire lifeline.
He hung there, sobbing and gasping while Eble went back for the staysail and the two men put it up. Finally, they hauled him back aboard and he lay on the deck, gasping for air and vomiting water.
Somehow he got down to the cabin, where he slept for several hours. When he woke up the squall had passed. No one spoke when he appeared on deck, so he sat alone on the bow and watched the sun go down. Just as it got dark they saw a light on the horizon. Maier looked up from his seat in the cockpit. “There’s Bermuda,” he said quietly. “That’s the Globe Hill light.”
There was little conversation when the watches changed at eight. Laurenson took the tiller and concentrated on the tiny, blinking light far out on the horizon.
He could never forget the horror of this day. Bruce Laurenson, proud scion of one of Cleveland’s best families, insulted and beaten – by a common sailor, a vicious ignorant bum. Reduced to hopeless jelly by a cheap sea-thug. And if that wasn’t enough, his wife was somehow attracted to the brute, maybe even whoring with him.
He wondered what his friends would say if he came back without her. What about his parents? And hers? What could he say? He thought about it for a while and finally decided he’d simply tell them the truth – that she had suddenly turned into a whore.
The light was closer now and he knew it was only a matter of hours. He would get a plane, with or without her. He would ask her, give her a chance but that was all. No forgiveness. And once they got back to Cleveland he’d really lay into her.
When the Sebastian was finally secured Maier seemed almost cheerful. “Okay,” he said with a smile. “Let’s all get a good night’s sleep.”
As they started below, Maier put his hand on Eble’s shoulder. “I thought you were going to sleep on deck.”
Eble hesitated. “Oh yeah,” he replied. “That’s right.” He stayed on deck while Maier went below and handed up a rubber mattress.
They were getting undressed – Anne behind a curtain at the foot of her bunk – when Maier looked in to say goodnight. His voice was friendly and his face looked relaxed for the first time since they’d left St. Cyr.
Laurenson stepped over to Anne’s bunk. She was lying on her back with the sheet pulled up to her chin. As he started to speak she reached out for his hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry about this afternoon,” she whispered.
He looked down on her. “Don’t worry,” he said gently. “It’s all over.”
She squeezed his hand again. “I wish we’d never seen this boat,” she whispered. “I’d give anything to wake up at home tomorrow.”
“We can fly,” he said quickly.
She stroked his arm. “We can’t afford it,” she said.
“The hell we can’t,” he replied. “We have at least that much – probably a little more.” He leaned down to kiss her on the lips.
She held him there for a moment, then rolled over on her side, turning her face to the wall. “I’m so tired I can’t think,” she said wearily.
He climbed into his bunk and turned out the tiny light above his head. She’ll go, he thought. She hates it as much as I do.
His mind was too busy to let him sleep, and he’d been lying there for almost an hour when he heard her whispered call: “Bruce, are you awake?”
He kept his eyes shut and feigned sleep, hoping she’d try to wake him like she did when they were first married – by stroking his thighs and stomach until he came trembling to life.
Then he heard the sound of her bare feet padding toward the stern.
Words froze in his throat. His body tensed as he waited for the next sound. Was she going to the head? It had a sliding door and he waited for the unmistakable sound of it opening.
It was faint and slow when it came – not the sound of a sliding door, but the creak of hinges, of a door being opened with slow and painful stealth.
It was the door to Maier’s cabin. He clenched his fists, waiting, and heard it shut just as slowly as it had been opened.
Then, after what seemed like a long time, he heard a sound – a strange waling moan, the sound of a human voice forcing its way, under terrible pressure, to open air.
It took him several seconds to realize the sound was coming from his own body. Without realizing how he got there he found himself on deck, vomiting over the side.
Then he was back in the cabin, tears streaming down his face as he jammed his clothes into a suitcase. He paid no attention to the noise he was making, but when he got back to the deck Eble seemed fast asleep. Laurenson ignored him and climbed over the rail to the dingy. The little boat lurched wildly back and forth as he tried to cast off the rope that held it to the Sebastian. But the knot was wet and he couldn’t break it.
Sobbing with pain and frustration, he groped in his shaving kit for the razor. It took him several minutes to sever the half-inch rope. He cut himself several times before the rope finally parted.
He shoved away, leaving bloody fingerprints on the Sebastian’s hull. His hands hurt so badly that he could barely row, and his groans floated across the dark water.
When he got to the pier he climbed out of the dingy and shoved it away, hoping some wandering tide would carry it out to sea. He stood there and looked out at the boat, a long ghostly shape several hundred yards away. Then, for a brief instant, he thought he saw a light – maybe a match, or a cigarette lighter. It enraged him to think they’d been standing there on the deck, watching him row away and listening to his groans. “You bastards!” he screamed, waving his fist in the air. “You rotten bastards! You scum!”
He heard his voice echo around the harbor and waited for a reply. When none came, he jerked his suitcase off the pier and hurried past the yacht club to the dark street.
There were no cars on the road to the city and he walked for more than an hour. Finally, numb with exhaustion, he collapsed in a field beside the road and slept until morning.
A Negro driving a bakery truck gave him a ride into the city the next day and he took a cab to the airport. By noon he was on his way to New York. He would be there in a few hours, and then change planes for Cleveland. According to his ticket, he would be home by nine-thirty that night