Short Story / Writers / Writing

Halfway Round the World by Peggy Barnes

        A couple of slips down the dock, a man’s been yelling at his woman for hours. I’m afraid
he’s going to throw her overboard, or whatever boat people do when they can’t stand living together. Kyle says those cruisers are native Virgin Islanders and shouting is their in-born nature. Kyle never shouts at me, even when rum has ruined an evening. He’s afraid I’ll leave, and then who would he get for a first mate? He says pretty soon we’re leaving St. Thomas. Heading down island. Pretty soon, he says, if I keep scrubbing and he keeps repairing, DreamBaby will be shipshape, ready to ride the Caribbean. Maybe we’ll even lock through The Canal and sail on
forever.
        From our bunk I can see Kyle’s knife stuck point-down on the table. He’s been carving
our initials in the wood. The table is in the saloon. Funny name for a living room, but I’ve had to
learn to use different words for each part of a boat, one that’s only thirty-one feet long and ten
feet wide. I’m lying in the aft cabin. The sun shooting down the hatch always feels hotter than
Ohio sun. The hatch sucks in puffs of air, thick with brine, mingling with the smell of diesel
fume and sweat. At first light, Kyle unstuck his legs from mine, rolled off the bunk, then bent
down and kissed me in places that made me feel as if we were already under sail, floating free.
And then he left.
        Kyle’s job is to repair other boats, so, among other things, DreamBaby still has no hot
water. I sponge my face. All I can find to wear are the shorts I washed yesterday and draped
across the engine block. At Yacht Haven Marina, especially on the transients’ dock, you’re not
allowed to hang laundry on deck. The fact is: we are not exactly transients, more like permanent
residents since we haven’t left this marina since we first came down from Ohio in May, since the
dusty winds off Africa brought the hottest summer in St. Thomas history. Hundreds of boat come
and go, so we keep moving DreamBaby from one empty slip to another. No one from the office
has caught on yet.
        In the galley, I lean my face over the icebox. Can’t find the juice. I pull up a floorboard
and yank out the medicine chest. Can’t find the aspirin, only Tylenol, which I hear damages your
liver. I take three capsules anyway, wash them down with a sip of rum. Anything to stop the
hurricane bearing down on my temples. Breakfast comes from the small mesh hammock swaying
over the sink. I brush away the flies that ride on mangoes and bananas.
        The clock has seized up, but I know it’s late. Out the porthole, looking like a high-rise
floating in the harbor, is Sovereign of the Sea, the world’s largest cruise ship. Usually passengers
hang over the railing, peering through their binoculars at us sailors. Envious, no doubt. Now
Sovereign’s decks look empty, so the passengers must already be in Charlotte Amalie mobbing the duty-free stores. Today’s my shopping day, too. We sailors call it provisioning.
        I take a cart from one of the swanky yachts on A Dock and push it past the marina office;
the chandlery and dive shop; Bridge’s Restaurant, smelling of conch fritters sizzled in fat; a gift
shop; fresh-caught grouper flopping on the pier, a thatched-roof barge’s steel drum band, sing
songing—“Cruise over to St. John’s Bay. Drink rum punch all de day.”
Outside The Deli, a group of old men sit around a table where they’ve been since dawn,
steadying their hands around cups of coffee. Their shoulders-together, talk-around-the-table
reminds me of that AA meeting my mother forced me to attend. Ha! Those geezers are the ones
who should be twelve-stepping. They’re already popping Heinekens. Many times, I’ve sat with
them, listened to their stories: broken masts, boats tossed upside down, broken hearts, wives lost
at sea. Maybe a worn-out liver is no worse than that.
        “Hey, DreamBaby,” one man calls, “What’s-His-Name got a job today?”
        “Kyle,” I say, “Over on Hassel Island, working on that sloop from Portugal.” The men are
staring at my legs because I’m wearing three-inch platforms. You won’t catch me walking
around in Topsiders.
        “Oh, is that what he told you?” The men laugh, except one old guy who looks at me hard,
but kind of sweet, like I’m guessing a father might look at a daughter.
Mel, the man with the longest beard, holds out a Heineken. “Yep. That Kyle’s a great
mechanic. He’s gonna come in real handy.” He pats his crotch. “Here, sweetheart, have a
Greenie. On me.” The old sailors wheeze and sputter when I take the cold wet can and walk
away.
        I drink my Greenie fast, just outside the marina gates, before I pass by the government
housing projects. Most marina folks hurry down the other side of the street. They even bring cans
of Mace. If Kyle were with me, he’d be saying, “Handing out tax money robs folks of ambition.”
Like Kyle pays taxes. I walk slow and watch the children play. Between the buildings, little boys
hit coconuts with sticks and chase each other across the dirt. Teenaged girls smoke, flick ashes
away from their babies. I’d love to take those dollies in my buggy, parade them up and down the
streets of Charlotte Amalie, tickle their dusty bellies and make them smile.
        Someone has painted Free Mandela on a concrete wall.
        At night, cats from the project climb over the marina gates and dash, tails-down, along
the docks. When Kyle’s paying no attention, I sneak onto the foredeck and scatter bites I saved
from supper. The cats will eat anything. I hear their yowls and tell Kyle it’s only the spring-lines
rubbing against the pier.
        Feral cats are a problem all over St. Thomas, especially at restaurants and big hotels.
Bluebeard’s Castle sits on the highest hill. Sometimes I hike to that hotel, see the view from the
terrace, past spectacular gardens with flowers I can’t name, down to the red tile roofs of Charlotte
Amalie. The bay looks big as an ocean with all those sails fluttering, like lost kites.
You can get married at Bluebeard’s Castle without even spending the night. But, for some
reason, when I’m in the lobby, the reception lady can never find any wedding brochures. Once
she even asked me if I was old enough to get married. Kyle thinks it would be more romantic to
get married down island. Someplace less commercial, he says. A friendly island with a pink sand
beach. Palm trees swishing to and fro. Any week now, he says, we’re going to find the
Caribbean’s greatest pink sand beach.
        No beach at all in downtown Charlotte Amalie. The water bucks up against a low
concrete wall where the tenders from Sovereign release their passengers. By now they’re
realizing that all the duty-free stores on Front Street are pretty much alike. They’re sick of gold
chains, Colombian emeralds, and French perfume. How many embroidered tablecloths can a
person use? That’s when they realize they’d better scurry to the liquor store and get their one
gallon per person, because they’re tired and they don’t want to miss the afternoon buffet.
Of all the cruise lines, Sovereign gives the best discount coupons. At Ed’s Virgin Isles
Liquor, those coupons get you two for one. (Kyle says Ed gets a kickback.) Some days—but not
today—my job is easy. The coupons just lie on the street. People litter something awful, as if
they don’t respect St. Thomas.
        It’s bad for my business to stand in front of Ed’s with a marina cart, so I’ve made a deal
with Toby, the Rastafarian at the ice cream stand. Toby watches my property, and, once in a
while, I slip him a pint.
        If men just knew how easy they are to read. A hundred or more shuffling toward me right
now, and I can nail the one that doesn’t drink.
        Ha! This one looks like he should have a Holy Roller Convention badge stuck on his
Sovereign shirt. He’s not even glancing at the goodies in Ed’s window. Nope, this one wouldn’t
know Bacardi Black Label from Jack Sprat.
        “Hey there! You headed back to the ship? I think I met you at the midnight buffet. Ray,
isn’t it?”
        “Chuck, but I can’t say…”
        “Chuck, I’ve done the craziest thing. Gone off and left those discount coupons in my
cabin. My husband will kill me if I don’t come back with some sherry, a gift for his mother. He’s
already gone back to the ship. Amazing how those Pina Coladas can hit a person. At lunch he
said it tasted just like a pineapple milk shake. Then, bam! Had to guide him back to the tender.”
I’m talking faster and faster. “Still what’s the point of not taking advantage of those coupons?” I
get closer and place my hand over his chest, finger the papers in his breast pocket.
        “You mean those?”
        “Uh huh. If you aren’t going to Ed’s here, could I have yours? Please?”
He rummages through the coupon book, licking his fingers, pushing apart the slips of
paper. I see 20% OFF, and FREE EARRINGS flip by.
        “There!” I squeal. “TWO FOR ONE. That’s Ed’s.”
        He squints at the coupon like he might be missing something.
        “Hey! It’s getting late,” I say. “I’ll meet you back at the shuttle dock. We don’t want to be
late for the Talent Show.”
        “Isn’t that tomorrow?”
        I hold out my hand. He looks up and down Front Street like we’re dealing crack cocaine.
The coupon rips out clean, slides into my shorts pocket. “You’re a good man, Chuck.”
He raises his sunglasses, stares at my hip bone, now snug against his coupon. “I didn’t
catch your name.”
        “Mary Margaret.” I have a string of names I like better than the one I’m stuck with.
Chuck walks backward down the street, almost bumps into the ice cream stand, but keeps on
waving.
        Stepping inside Ed’s, I wave back, as if Chuck was my husband, and I’m just waltzing in
to pick up a few things for the swishy cocktail party we’re having later in our private suite. Come
at five o’clock, I would say, ’cause I’ve heard that’s the proper time to drink. As if this is what we
do back home. Of course there’s nothing in Ohio’s state liquor stores to compare with Ed’s
display cases of bottles, laid out like jewels. Colored lights flashing on the labels. Bottles dressed
in velvet. Behind-the-counter mirrors reflecting a skyline of bottles.
St. Thomas girls, just out of high school, still wearing their crisp maroon uniforms,
maneuver the crowded aisles, holding out trays. “Take a taste of de islands.” What they’re
pouring is local—Cruzan Rum. Four bucks a quart. Not bad really, so I take a cup. In the back,
near the crystal bottles, are samples of brandy-filled chocolate. Outside the restroom are some
dried papaya slices, cream cheese and crackers. A pretty fair lunch, I’d say.
I count my money again and, thanks to Chuck, there’s enough for eight bottles of Cruzan
or four of Jamaica’s finest—Appleton Twelve-Year-Old—melted golden fire on the tongue. Kyle
prefers gin, says rum makes his eyes itch, but I say we shouldn’t drink anything that tastes like
home.
        That last thought sends me drifting back to Ohio. Gin in the tackle box, catching lake
trout
. Before Kyle inherited his brother’s boat. Before he offered me a chance to sail with him
through paradise.
        The third cup of Cruzan has begun to taste like kerosene, a convincing argument for
buying Appleton. I’m afraid the cash register guy might recognize me from the other day. He has
that look on his face my mother would call uppity. Checking me over from stem to stern,
pausing on the grease stuck under my fingernails, he looks at my coupon and says, “Sooo..what
do you think of the Sovereign?”
        “Fantastic!” I tell him. “Especially the midnight buffet.”
“Well then,” he says, sliding my plastic shopping bag across the counter, “Bone Voy
age.”
        I hate people who fling around fancy words.
        My cart is waiting. Toby, who sells a lot more than ice cream, has saved me a sack of patties, curried goat-meat pies his mother makes. The day I met her, she offered to braid my
whole head in corn rows, same as Toby’s. “To keep hair outta your eyes,” she said, “when the
wind’s kickin’ mean.” If my mother brushed my hair when I was small, I don’t remember.
Even now the sky’s looking angry, clouds turning dark as the water. Seagulls fly ahead of
the storm. Toby gives me a plastic garbage bag to cover my purchases. It’s not easy, eating meat
pies, pushing the basket one-handed through the swarm of tourists. Plus these shoes are making
me wobbly.
        By the time I reach the marina, rain is sputtering. It occurs to me this might be a good
time to line up at the pay phone. The only person ahead of me is a woman about my age wearing
spectacularly white shorts. “Fresh ginger lilies, not Thursday’s shipment,” she says into the
phone. “Don’t think I won’t know the difference.” Her First Mate’s shirt is embroidered with the
logo of one of the big charter boats. Her hair’s as shiny as the gold buttons on her uniform. The
nails she’s tapping on the booth are all the same length. “Fine. Three bouquets delivered before
noon.” First Mate clicks down the phone and walks away, leisurely, as if rain wouldn’t dare fall
on her.
        Kyle says we may be taking charters when DreamBaby’s ready.
        I’m left staring at the pay phone. After the quarter clinks, it occurs to me this may be a
bad time to call home. With the time difference and all.
        Mother’s phone rings and rings.
        What if I’m interrupting her nap? She’s irritable when someone wakes her from a nap.
        Besides it’s too noisy. Those seagulls are circling, squalling like crazy.
        “Hello.” She doesn’t sound sleepy at all.
        “It’s me.”
        “Who? Oh. It’s you.Well, speak up!” She yells in the phone as if St. Thomas were half
way round the world.
        “Things are really going great,” I say, “with the boat and all.” I never mention the name
Kyle to my mother.
        “Benita came by last week.” Benita is my aunt. “She says your cousin Emma’s pregnant.
Of course you wouldn’t care about any of that.”
        “But I do. Really.”
        “Was that a quarter dropping’ in a pay phone? Better hang up before we get cut off.”
        “Don’t worry, Mother. Talk as long as you want. I’ve got lots of quarters.”
        “It must be nice,” she says, “living on a yacht. I can just imagine how you spend your
days. Lolling around in the sun.”
        I think about the hours spent hanging upside down bailing out leaking lockers, scraping
crud off corroded metal fittings. “Actually, I say, “I have to work—:
        “—What’s that? Can’t hear you very…”
        Dial tone.
        My mother and I have had a two-quarter talk.
        When I hang up, the wind’s blowing stronger. Across the harbor, halyards clang on masts,
like anvils pounding.
        I take Toby’s garbage bag and cover my head. I run across the mud and gravel, jangling
the cart until I get to the transients’ dock. Kyle is not in the cockpit and the dinghy’s gone. The
gangplank shudders as I tote the bottles, one in each hand, balancing like a high wire walker. No one closed the hatch, so rain’s spilling right into DreamBaby. After fastening the latches, I mop the floor. No, I swab the sole. No, I mop the goddamn floor!
Kyle has left the charts out on the nav station. Now St. Martin, St. Lucia, all the Saints,
are just moist blobs on the Eastern Caribbean.
        From the ship-to-shore radio comes the buzzing of Channel 16, the communications
channel. All day and night, boats cry to boats. Hurry-up voices calling through the static. Kyle
says you’re never supposed to turn off the radio. What if there’s an emergency? So the radio
buzzes on and on, while I sit here, wet as sop, expecting to hear two big feet rattling on the
boarding ladder.
        “Come in, DreamBaby. Come in,” the radio sputters.
        “I press the button. “Kyle? Where the fu..uh…” Shut my mouth! It’s bad form to cuss over
the air.
        “I’m still working on that diesel.”
        “But it’s raining.” I hate yelling into the microphone.
        “……taking off tomorrow. First light.” Static crackles like a whip.
        “We are? We’re leaving?”
        “No, the boat I’m working on. Gonna be here all night.”
        “Did you get paid?”
        “The owner’s gonna send me a check next week. The skipper promised.”
I turn the channel knob as far as it will go past Channel 16, until there is not one voice,
not one speck of static. All I can hear is rain.
        From the coldest part of the icebox I pull out a bottle and using Kyle’s cheap, dull knife I – crack the seal and slam the bottle down on Kyle’s scarred table. I find my special glass, shaped so my hand fits perfectly around the bottom. It holds ten ounces of Appleton rum. In the saloon, the living room, I sit cross-legged on the gritty, soggy cushions, knowing they will always be gritty and soggy because in the tropics nothing ever really dries, salt just keeps sucking up the moisture, which is just one of the things Kyle did not tell me. I pull down the companionway hatch, pick up one cushion, one smelly useless thing and, as hard as I can, I throw it into the
cockpit. Then another cushion and another and then goes the mattress and the rugs and towels,every one I can find, through the hatches into the cockpit, into the pouring rain.
        I pull myself into the cockpit. Standing high on that hopeless mound, drenched to the skin, I dig in my toes, as DreamBaby wind-dances on her lines. I hold up my glass—to the
charter yachts, the cruise ships, to every sailboat that comes and goes. “Bone Voyage,” I shout across the bay, “Bone Fucking Voyage.”
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Peggy Barnes spent many years as a food and travel writer. Often her stories were based on the six years she spent living on a sailboat in the Caribbean. She received her MFA in fiction from Bennington College and has earned many awards and scholarships to writers’ conferences. She has recently completed First Daughter, Once Removed, A memoir of Abandonment, Addiction and Redemption.

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5 thoughts on “Halfway Round the World by Peggy Barnes

  1. For the record, the title of my memoir has been changed to I Knew You by Name: The Search for my Lost Mother. Due out this spring.

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