by Barry H. Wiley
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story. The photos of inside and outside of a house are of Ernest Hemingway’s actual home in Florida that Barry visited.
The Writer pressed up against his writing table, its edge digging into his stomach just above his belt – if he had been wearing one. He used a knotted rope around his waist. His left elbow braced on the table, his head forward, cradled in his left hand as his right held a pencil hovering above the yellow foolscap pad of blue-lined paper.
Hovered … and hovered.
He had finally and angrily crossed out the first fourteen lines of the morning, written in his first twenty-two minutes that had given him such a confidence that the juices would flow today, as it usually did, years ago, with that kind of a boost to the day. But now he had 123 words that he had to regain in order to reach his minimum of 450 words before noon, to relieve his conscience when he went out to fish for the remainder of the day. A sudden vivid image his boat, Pilar, floated across his mind, and then vanished as he bore down on the pad at his elbow.
He noticed the five sharpened No. 2 pencils lying at the edge of the desk – three yellow and two brown. He had a yellow one in his hand. He threw it against the wall where it caromed off the white bookcase; then he took one of the brown ones. With pressure on, words seemed to flow better through brown pencils than any other color.
He pushed the inquisitive black and white six-toed cat away, but it returned to settle beside his bare right arm.
It yawned … she didn’t have to count words.
The Writer shrugged. He should have used that pencil line with the interviewer yesterday. It was a useless observation, instead of telling him that every good writer had to have a foolproof crap-detector or he would be lost. Better about the pencils than to waste a good line like that on an interviewer, whoever he had been … there were so many lately. There was no obligation to provide an interviewer with good lines; they’re paid to find their own … lines…
The Writer had also crossed out the preliminary title. He had no others in mind, but that would come when he made his customary list of ten or fifteen, usually taken from the Bible or the Oxford book on English Verse – he had told the interviewer yesterday that he sometimes made a list of a hundred titles before finally selecting one – and the man had assiduously scribbled that silly revelation down like a piece of a new Gospel.
“The Garden of Infinite Delight Thought.” Well, okay, that will do for the rest of the morning, at least; but readers now dissected his titles for hidden meanings, rather than recognize, like any rational reader, that the titles were simply better than just numbering everything.
The brown pencil still hovered, but was beginning to feel alive, animated, alert … yes, alert.
The Writer raised his head from his left hand. That man yesterday who had sat in the shadows at the end of the bar, on the Writer’s barstool – his face had seemed mottled like the remains of some lingering disease, and who had, between drinks, steadily examined him and the interviewer, like a tax collector taking notes. The interviewer never saw him, but the Writer had … and he had never seen him at the bar before.
The skinny kid, Eduardo, behind the bar had seemed nervous each time the man pushed another beer across the bar, each time the man snapped his fingers, as though the kid did know the mottled man.
The brown pencil descended and began to write, but the lead broke, and in reaching for the other brown pencil, the animating thought had vanished.
450 words to go. He glanced up at the rough graph on the piece of corrugated cardboard from a packing case tacked on the wall which he used to track his progress on this novel/story … whatever it became. Novel. The jumble of voices that woke him at night needed a novel. But at this rate, he would be lucky to write a greeting card. Two days ago 445, yesterday 654, and today a negative 123 … so far.
The mottled man had stood quietly at the door behind them, just within earshot, when the Writer and the interviewer stood near the taxi that waited to take the interviewer away, shaking hands and pledging to see each other the next time the Writer was in New York City.
Pissed, the Writer crossed out “The Garden of Infinite Thought” and wrote No.663 as the title. There was no relevance to the number, but for some reason he needed something there as a title … as though he might not be able to think of one later.
The Writer realized that he had seen the mottled man before, but not in the bar. Where? He straightened up and turned away from the writing table. Still carrying the brown pencil, the Writer picked up yesterday’s Key West Citizen – it was on the last page. Someone had poured sugar into the gas tank of a fishing boat. The engine had been ruined. It had been Eduardo’s father’s boat: El Mar Infinito, The Infinite Sea. The boat had been moored at slip G63, where the yachts used to be moored a decade or so ago. The blurred G looked like a 6. Now only local fishing boats tied there, but even then the slip was empty much of the time. There was no electricity there anymore; just ragged torn electric cables. Not even cables. The copper wire had been ripped out and sold, so only ragged insulation remained.
The Writer had expressed his sympathy to Eduardo’s father and his lost fishing days. Eduardo had whispered to him that his father had been blessed with finding an area apparently untouched by other fishing boats and was hoping for 2-3 days of large catches before any other fisherman discovered the area.
The Writer found the mottled man on the inside page, in a small photo in the lower right-hand corner. There was no name in the caption but he was standing with … Oh, what was the name?
Eduardo’s eyes lit up when the Writer slid onto his time-honored barstool. He turned away to pick up the white rum and jigger to immediately begin preparing the Writer’s favorite, at which the Writer almost stopped him. He wanted information from the boy that would allow him to go fishing even with a negative 123 words on the wall chart. But only one Doble … this time.
When Eduardo, grinning, handed the chilled goblet to him, The Writer almost handed it back. It was cold, yes, but not cold enough; but, only one so it didn’t really matter this one time. One sip, the Writer nodded, Eduardo grinned even wider. The Writer put the frosted goblet down.
“That man a short while ago who sat on this barstool. Do you know his name? I think I do, but cannot recall.”
Eduardo’s grin vanished. The boy was frozen like the Doble, in one place, not moving. “He … he is Señor Cayetano Ruiz. He does not live in Key West.”
Another sip, his fingertips becoming pleasantly numb from the goblet. “Where?”
“He comes over from Habana.”
“Why is he here?” Another sip. Better. How could it be getting colder, or were his fingers just getting old?
Eduardo didn’t move when a man called to him from the other end of the bar. Then a woman called to him from one of the tables.
“The woman first, Eduardo, then your answer,” said the Writer.
Two, perhaps three sips later, Eduardo was back. “The Señor, he has taken my father’s boat in payment.”
“Payment for what?” The drink was getting colder. “Why would Ruiz take a boat with a ruined motor in payment for anything? “
Eduardo’s face went blank. The Writer knew the look; he had seen it many times in many places; the blankness in a man’s face when something was really wrong, when his courage wavered. Eduardo leaned over the bottles to whisper into the Writer’s ear. “Señor Ruiz paid my father fifty dollars American to fish in another place. But when my father came in with a large catch, his first from that new area, Ruiz heard of it and the interest other fishermen took. The talk was that the others would follow my father the next time he went out … but then his motor was ruined. And Ruiz seized the boat. So now we have nothing.”
The Writer stepped down from the barstool. “Where can I find your father?” The frosted goblet was empty.
Eduardo’s father was hunched up against the wall of a small weathered warehouse at the far end of Duval Street, almost slipping down onto the bench. His eyes were closed, his breathing deep and sonorous. Startled, he awoke at the Writer’s sharp knock against the wall.
The Writer saw the fear in his eyes that only barely faded when the fisherman recognized him.
Speaking in fluent Spanish, he said, “Hola, amigo. Que tal?” as the Writer settled onto the bench beside the fisherman.
The fisherman knew the Writer could be trusted, thus he responded when the Writer asked the location of the new fishing area. “But I cannot go there any longer.”
“What did you see other than the fish?”
The fisherman slowly shook his head. “I saw nothing other than three or four wooden boxes behind the brush. I … I went too close to the shore to follow the fish. I saw no markings on the boxes.” He added quickly, and then shrugged. “The fish were too small that close to shore. I would never have gone back.”
The Writer spent a few minutes with the Key West police, and then started to walk back to his home on Whitehead Street. Ruiz appeared to be the rum and gun smuggler the authorities had been suspecting was getting more active. With the location of the drop identified, the Writer received a note within an hour of returning to his writing room that Ruiz had been captured.
Now the Writer could fish with a clear conscience … at least until he had to look at the wall chart tomorrow morning. He scratched the head of the black and white cat who sprawled across his foolscap pad. There was one other thing. Eduardo’s father would regain his boat with Ruiz in a jail cell, but a motor would be needed before he could catch any fish. Well, the Writer had to go to the docks anyway, his own boat was waiting.
And tomorrow, the Writer would start with brown pencils.
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