It was his introduction that caused Mariella to burn her fingertips.
“And the referee, the internationally renowned writer, millionaire, and playboy Mr. Ernest Hemingway.”
Mariella’s eyes jerked up from her cigarette. He sauntered across the ring, hands up to the crowd, his whole face a grin. She’d seen him call before, but it was the first time they had introduced him as a millionaire.
“Ouch!” She dropped the match to the ground and shook her hand as she stepped up to the chain-link fence to get a better look.
“How goes it tonight?” he yelled.
The crowd at Blue Heaven bordello and playhouse roared and stomped their feet. They were a hundred poor, black, out-of-work men, with a smattering of whites and Cubans, and all were his.
“Big Bear from Bahama Village fights visiting opponent Tiny Tim!”
Mariella smiled as Hemingway held up the arm of Tiny Tim, a massive man with coal black skin, bulging biceps, and a neck as wide as Mariella’s waist. She knew the newcomers would bet on him, but she also knew that Big Bear never lost, so she’d bet that way. Her sister’s doctor bills were piling up and they were late on rent. She needed to win.
A group of noisy, drunken vets pushed by, nearly knocking her over. Mariella straightened up and tightened her father’s old baseball cap to make sure that all of her hair remained tucked inside. She had to stop herself from shouting expletives at them, because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself. She turned back to the fight, but rather than watch the boxers, she couldn’t take her eyes off Hemingway. Key West was a small town, so she’d seen him around, but she’d never much noticed him until tonight. His dark brown hair was a little too long in the back, his shoes were as ratty as hers, and a rope held up his shorts. He certainly didn’t look like a millionaire.
Her father, Hal, had mentioned Hemingway from time to time when he saw him at the docks. Hal thought him a decent guy, but her mother had read one of his books and deemed it vulgar. While this intrigued Mariella rather than putting her off, she didn’t have time to read. Caring for her sisters and trying to make money consumed her.
More than ever now that Hal was dead.
Big Bear’s every punch made contact with Tiny Tim in the first round. Tim was huge but uncoordinated, and he tired quickly. By the second round it looked like he’d lose, and some of the amicable cheers from earlier in the night took on an edge of shock and outrage. Losing money was no joke.
Hemingway sobered, too. He was into the fight and called it with all the intensity of a high-stakes referee. Mariella found it interesting that a man of his stature would participate in a poor men’s boxing match and take it so seriously.
She liked that.
When she finished her cigarette, Mariella licked her sore fingertips and blew on them. The suspense was killing her, and in the third round her heart dropped when it looked like Tim would get the better of Big Bear. That meant she’d lose all the money she’d earned the past week from odd jobs at the docks. That meant she’d have to beg the landlord for a few more days, when they were already late on rent. That meant the doctor wouldn’t come when they needed him. That meant no money for her secret stash.
Mariella felt her heart pounding and cursed herself for betting so much. She was a damned fool and deserved the tongue-lashing she’d get from her mother. How could she play with money like that?
Tim’s strength built like a tidal wave. Bear couldn’t get in a punch. Tim had him cornered. He was all over him, and finally, with sickening ease, Tiny Tim knocked out Big Bear.
She grasped the chain-link fence and pushed her face into her arms, listening to the men whoop and holler around her. She felt light-headed and sick, but forced herself away from the fence and toward home. As she passed the ring, she heard a commotion. A small white man from the crowd jumped the rope and tried to attack Big Bear, who sat with his head in his gloved hands.
“You stupid shit,” he shouted. “Give me back my money. I bet all my money on you.”
Mariella felt her stomach clench. She knew the man from the marina. He used to shortchange and overcharge her father, and she’d always hated him for it. Without thinking, she moved to push him off Bear. Before she got there, Hemingway jumped between Bear and the man and shoved him into the ropes. Hemingway’s jaw was clenched tight as a shark’s, and he put his face right into the man’s face.
“Don’t come around here again, asshole,” growled Hemingway. “If you don’t have the money to lose, you got no business betting it.”
With that, Hemingway pushed the man over the side of the ring. He landed at Mariella’s feet, quickly righted himself, and ran off cursing into the night. Mariella turned back to the ring and saw the writer crouched down in front of Bear with his hand on Bear’s shoulder. She was moved that Hemingway stood up to the guy who lost his bet, but it reminded her of her own loss, and she felt sick.
God, all the money she’d lost.
She felt her head spin, and stumbled with the gait of a drunk toward home before anyone noticed her.
Mariella crept through the front door and closed it as quietly as she could. The room was black except for the moonlight shining through the front window. She was relieved to see that her mother’s chair was empty and she’d gone to bed, but it still held the impression of where Eva had doubtlessly sat all evening with her legs tucked into her, teary eyes gazing out the window, shoulders hunched under the weight of her grief.
Mariella reached up and squeezed her own shoulders, tense from the loss, the guilt from gambling, and the strain of watching her mother’s pain consume her just a little more each day instead of releasing her. While she and her young sisters had adjusted to Hal’s death as best they could, Eva was drowning, and Mariella didn’t know how to help her.
The floorboards threatened to expose Mareilla with each step, but she made it past her mother’s room and into the room she shared with her sisters. The girls slept together on a mattress on the floor—twelve-year-old Estelle curled in a ball, and five-year-old Lulu sprawled with an arm hanging over Estelle on one side and the edge of the bed on the other.
Mariella smiled and felt a surge of love for the girls. She moved Lulu’s arm onto the mattress, pulled the threadbare sheet up over both of them, and kissed them each on the head. She considered crawling into bed with them, but instead returned to the front room to try to catch a little sleep on the couch before heading down to the dock before they all woke the next morning.
In spite of her exhaustion, Mariella made it to the dock as the sun rose, warming the sky pink and orange like the inside of a shell. The soft lap of the waves against the pilings soothed her nerves, and she shook off the previous night’s loss. The dark forms of the fishermen and their boats already out to sea dotted the horizon, and just arriving at the docks were the tourists and wealthy sailors readying their boats for pleasure cruises.
The sound of an engine turning over and sputtering out broke the stillness. Mariella looked just down the pier to see a man in a crisp white sweater and khaki pants trying to dismantle his boat’s engine, while his passengers, two elegant women wearing brightly colored silk kerchiefs on their hair, and another impeccably dressed gentleman, looked on in helpless confusion. The man reached into the engine and jerked back his hand, cursing from the burn.
Mariella could see from the sweat on his brow and his troubled smile that he was embarrassed. She walked over to the boat.
“Sir,” she said.
One of the women noticed her first, and ran her eyes over Mariella’s hand-me-down men’s clothing with distaste. She turned her back to Mariella and pretended she hadn’t heard. Mariella felt her cheeks burn with shame, followed by anger, and was about to walk away when the other woman noticed her and smiled kindly.
“May I help you?” she said.
“I might actually be able to help you,” said Mariella, “if you let me take a look.”
The man working on the engine stepped to the edge of the boat.
“You know a thing or two about boats?” he said, wiping his clean, smooth hands on a towel.
“Good,” he said, “because I was about to dismantle the whole thing and make a real ass of myself. Come on up.”
Mariella climbed onto the boat, noting the wine and water chilling in the ice bucket, the neatly folded blankets on the plush leather seats, and the oversize picnic basket, no doubt full of fruits and cheeses for a late-morning snack. She ignored the rumbling in her stomach, and her pride, and stepped over to the engine.
It didn’t take long for her to see the culprit of the engine troubles—a can was tangled and shredded through it, sucked through machinery a little too powerful for its own good. She knew she couldn’t get the can out with her bare hands because of the temperature, but she was able to use a screwdriver and wire cutters from the man’s toolbox to disentangle it.
The small party watched in silence while she worked. Though the air still held the pleasant cool of morning, Mariella felt her shirt cling to the sweat on her back. She could feel their eyes on her and wished she’d taken more care with her appearance that morning. She hoped her solution would do the trick.
When she finished, she directed the man to start the boat. He turned the key and the engine started up and settled into a gentle hum. To her pleasure, the group applauded. She nodded and made a move to climb off the boat when the man stopped her and slipped a bill in her hand. She thanked him and climbed onto the dock, where she unwound the lines for them.
As they pulled out of the harbor and into open water, she looked down at the bill and gasped. Ten dollars! It was more than what she’d lost the night before.
She said a silent prayer of thanks, suddenly feeling in her heart that her father was with her.
The glare of the sun on the water told her the fishermen would soon return. Her father’s friend Mark Bishop often let her deliver some of his catch to buyers for a small share of the proceeds, and sent her home with good cuts of meat for her family. She stood in front of one of the restaurants and watched the water for Mark.
“Hermosa!” Nicolas Oliva called from the second floor of his restaurant, where he lived with his wife and six children.
“Hola!” called Mariella.
“Just trying to keep out of trouble.”
“You’d better. I got my eye on you!”
Nicolas disappeared from the window. Inside the house, one of the kids shrieked, her giggles blending with the deeper rumbling of Nicolas’s laughter. An image of her own father flashed through her mind, and a hollow spot formed under her breastbone. She turned away.
Mariella rolled up the sleeves of her father’s old work shirt and wiped the sweat from her forehead. She lit the cigarette she stole from Mark’s boat stand, adding it to the mental tally she knew she owed him. Through the smoke, she smelled a terrible odor, worse than rotting fish. She looked around the top of the pier but couldn’t see anything. Then she looked under it. Something was caught in an old net by the pilings. It looked like a shoe. She grabbed a nearby fishing pole and poked at it to pick it up, but when she did she saw that it was the body of a man.
Mariella froze in shock. He was badly bloated and facedown. She worried that he was a friend, but she didn’t recognize his clothes. The smell rose in waves, and she covered her mouth to stifle a gag. She threw the cigarette over the side of the pier and ran to get help.
“Shame you had to see that, missy,” said Deputy Bowler. “Fool was probably drunk and fell in.”
Bowler was there that day, three months earlier, when they’d found her father’s boat beating against rocks on the coast near the southernmost point of the island. Hal’s body had already been loaded into the coroner’s truck by the time the family got word. When Mariella arrived at the scene, the deputy held her back and wouldn’t answer her questions or let her see Hal. She still hated Bowler.
All her mother would say after her whispered, tearful meetings with police was that Hal had died of a heart attack and his boat was destroyed. Mariella thought his recent drinking and depression over money troubles must have contributed to his stress and pushed him over the edge, but she still had a hard time accepting it, and the loss of the boat.
Their plans for the future, their dreams of a long row of shiny boats to haul rich tourists on gulf excursions and sunset cruises, their ideas of making a living off the water while helping impart its beauty to the travelers: all gone.
Mariella shook her head, dispersing her dark thoughts. It was time to work, not mourn. Someone had to provide for them all.
“Who was he?” asked Mark Bishop.
“Dunno. No one reported him missing.”
As the body was loaded into the truck, Mariella felt a wave of grief at the unwelcome reminder of that terrible day just a few months ago. She wished she remembered her dad as the robust man he’d been, not as a lifeless face in a casket. She clenched her jaw, dug her nails into her palms, and blinked away her tears.
Mark put his hand on Mariella’s shoulder. “Come on; I got a decent catch.”
They walked to Mark’s boat and she helped him unload the snapper into the iced carts so he could take them to the restaurant owners and barter his way to a few lousy bucks. Mark seemed to sense her need for silence. She liked him because he didn’t feel he had to fill the quiet, and because he’d cried at her dad’s funeral. She was glad for the simple, monotonous task of filling the carts, because she hoped it would take her mind off her father and the dead man no one cried for or demanded to see.
Mariella hadn’t forgiven herself for not going with her dad that morning. Hal would usually wake before daylight and open her door a crack to let her know he was leaving soon. In that time, Mariella would decide to either stay home to help with her sisters or to join him. Most often, she’d slip on Hal’s hand-me-down fishing clothes, pull her long black hair into a ponytail, and make their coffee. They’d walk through town in the hush of early morning, meeting other fishermen along the way and exchanging silent nods of greeting. Until the sun rose over the water, they never said a word. That time was sacred.
Before long, Mark returned and didn’t have much for her. Just twenty cents and a fish for dinner. Mariella thanked him, sliced up her snapper at the stand, wrapped it in old newspaper, and rinsed her hands in a bucket of seawater. She slipped another cigarette into her pocket and was moving west down the pier when she heard her name.
She turned to see Chuck Thompson, the owner of the hardware store, a man who gave her odd jobs for small pay, standing on his boat with Ernest Hemingway, sunburned and smiling. His dark hair was disheveled from the wind, and his white teeth flashed beneath his mustache. She felt a jolt go through her and couldn’t help but smile—until she realized what a mess she was, with fish blood on her father’s old shirt, rank fish smell on her hands, and dirty, wet hair. She reached up to smooth it away from her face, hoping they wouldn’t notice her burning with embarrassment.
“Hi, Mr. Thompson. Mr. Hemingway.”
“Call him Papa,” said Chuck.
“Papa,” said Mariella.
“You look like you’ve been working hard,” said Papa. His eyes traveled over her, and when they met hers she felt the jolt again, in spite of her shame over her appearance.
“Still a beauty,” said Chuck.
“Come see what we brought in,” said Hemingway.
Mariella stepped over a big roll of rope and walked to the edge of the boat. Hemingway reached down to her and she took his hand as he helped her on board. His hand was big and hot, and she felt a current of electricity run up her arm. She hopped down on the deck and saw, lying there, a gigantic marlin.
“Damn near took my arms off,” he said, “but she yielded in the end.”
“It’s beautiful,” said Mariella. Then she felt stupid for calling a big dead fish beautiful, but it was. Its nose was pointed and fierce, but its eyes were big and sad. Its silver-gray skin shone. She ran her hand down its side.
“It is beautiful,” he said. “Do you ever go out?”
“Used to, with my dad.”
“Ever see a marlin like this?”
She had, but she lied. “No.”
“You’ll come out with me sometime, huh?”
He winked at her. Was he flirting? Mariella felt her heart race.
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll teach you a thing or two.”
He threw back his head and roared with laughter.
Mariella climbed back onto the pier and started home. She pulled the cigarette out of her pocket, lit it, and turned to wave at the men, but they were already tending to the fish.
Mariella couldn’t get used to the hollow woman her mother had become. Eva sat in her chair by the window with a full ashtray at her side and a worn rosary in her hand. She drank watered-down coffee made from the same grounds she’d been using for three days. They had no sugar and the little ones needed the milk, so the thin, dirty liquid must have tasted like someone spit old coffee into hot water.
Eva had once been a beauty—glossy black hair, big brown eyes, small, sharp features. Now she was gaunt. Her hair had gray streaks. Her eyes were perpetually wet and rimmed in shadows.
“I’ve got dinner,” said Mariella.
Eva blinked, pulling herself out of her memories. “From Mark?”
“Yes,” said Mariella. “And ten dollars.”
She expected Eva would brighten at the amount, and was dismayed to see her mother’s eyes darken with suspicion.
Suspicion—the new look that crossed her mother’s face now whenever Mariella left the house at night or brought home a decent amount of money. She wasn’t used to such scrutiny, and found herself feeling more anger than pity for her mother. Mariella tried to ignore the spark her mother’s look had ignited within her, and walked over to the cabinet to pull out a pan, hoping the simple act of cooking would help her simmer down.
Mariella scooped a spoonful of fat from the cup by the sink and heated it on the stove. Once it sizzled, she unwrapped the snapper from the newspaper and placed it in the pan. She sprinkled a pinch of sea salt over the fish and pulled a lime out of her pocket that she had picked up on the way home when the man at the fruit stand wasn’t looking. She rolled it over the counter, sliced it open, and squeezed it over the fish. It smoked and filled the air with its tangy smell. Mariella flipped the fish and poured four glasses of water, squeezing the rest of the lime into each glass. She put the water on the table and set out four plates.
There. She felt calmer.
She also felt her mother’s eyes on her and wished Eva would offer to help set the table. Mariella couldn’t help but think that if Eva would just engage more in day-to-day tasks or even look for a job, she might start to feel better.
“Tomorrow I’ll try to find work,” Eva said, as though she’d heard the wish.
Eva’s words had the opposite effect on Mariella that she knew her mother wanted, because she knew Eva had no intention of trying to find work. Her anger returned in a flash.
“Go find the girls and I’ll watch the fish,” said Eva.
In spite of her offer to help, Mariella didn’t trust her mother to remember to take the fish out on time. The last time Eva offered, Mariella went to find the girls, only to come home to charred, inedible snapper, and her mother, lost in memories, staring out the window.
“It’s okay,” said Mariella. “I’ll get them once the fish is done.”
Her mother stubbed out her cigarette in a smash and sat up in her chair.
“¿Crees que no lo puedo hacer? Who do you think did the cooking before your father died?”
Mariella was taken aback by her mother’s outburst. “I didn’t say you couldn’t cook. It’s just that I’m almost done.”
Eva exhaled, looked out the window, and mumbled something in Spanish. Mariella turned her glare to the fish.
The door burst open and her sisters came in, with Lulu leading Estelle by the hand. Before they could start eating, Mariella shooed the girls away to wash up before dinner. Eva walked over and sat down, staring at her food as if she wanted someone to feed it to her.
When the girls returned, Lulu filled the silence with her chatter about the nuns at school, and Estelle, practically mute since Hal had died, hung on her sister’s every word as if it were a buoy. Mariella noticed Eva still staring at her plate.
“Better eat before it gets cold,” said Mariella.
Mariella tried to remember what it was like to have Hal at the table telling fish stories at night. It had been only months, and already her memory of him at the house grew dim. Memories of her parents’ arguments were louder in her mind. She remembered how anxious her dad was when the money got really tight, and how Eva had told Hal to leave fishing.
He said he didn’t know anything else. She said to learn. He said their luck would change. She called him a fool. He encouraged her to reach out to her family in Cuba. She argued that they hadn’t spoken in years, and contacting them when they needed money wouldn’t get her anywhere. He told her how much fishing meant to him and to Mariella, and how well-off they’d be once they started the charter boat business. Eva said there wouldn’t be any rich tourists to take on fishing excursions if the depression continued. And on and on.
Mariella remembered that her father started staying away, coming home late, drunk, and then it was as if his light went out.
Then he died.
“Can we go to the Point soon?” asked Lulu, snapping Mariella out of her painful thoughts.
“Of course,” she said. “We haven’t been to the beach in a while.”
Mariella felt the unspoken words that made the silence fall over the room. They hadn’t gone to the beach since Hal died.
Eager to end dinner, Mariella stood to clear the plates and walked them over to the sink. She heard Eva’s chair scrape over the floor and the door to her room close. Mariella sent Lulu and Estelle to their room to do their homework while she washed dishes. She was relieved to be alone.
That night, Mariella dreamed of Hemingway.
In the dream, it was a glorious, sparkling day. They were on Hal’s old boat, drinking and fishing. When it got too hot, Hemingway took off his shirt and shoes and jumped in the water. He tried to coax Mariella out of her clothes to join him.
The rest of the dream was fuzzy. She didn’t remember taking off her clothes, but suddenly she felt the cool water around her body, his arms pull her into him, and then she awoke, breathless and sweating, troubled and aroused, and unable to fall back asleep.
Mariella thought it strange that someone who had meant so little to her just days ago now invaded her dreams, and she felt guilty for dreaming about a married man. But of course she dreamed of him. He’d been on her mind since the night at the boxing match, and the following day when they were introduced at the dock. The jolt she’d felt when he touched her hand unsettled and confused her.
But her interest in the writer was also practical.
She stared at the window until the pink glow from the morning sunrise filled the panes. Suddenly Mariella sat up, quickly dressed, brushed her hair, and stole out of the house before anyone awoke, headed for Thompson’s Hardware Store with an idea.
- Genres: Historical Fiction
- paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: NAL Trade
- ISBN-10: 0451237889
- ISBN-13: 9780451237880