It was night. It was hot. The sea wasn’t far away. But I wasn’t on it, I was near it. I could hear rollers breaking on a beach. And between me and the sea the swish of fast moving traffic.
I was lying in blood or sweat. Liquid trickled down the cords of my neck and got snared in the hair on my chest. The air was as humid as it was hot and filled with the cloying fragrance of night-flowering nicotiana. It smelled like a funeral parlor.
I sat on the edge of the bed and fought a spell of dry heaves. I wished I had a drink. I wished I knew where I was. I knew that I was naked. The chances were that I was broke. A farm. That was a laugh. I’d be standing watch on the bridge of some wallowing freighter until they sewed me in canvas.
I felt through the dark for a lamp and found one. There was a table beside the bed. It was a small table. Just big enough for a bottle of rum, a glass, an ash tray, and some cigarettes. I drank from the neck of the bottle. Then I lit a cigarette and lay back, still drunk, wondering how big a fool a man could be.
I was in a tourist-court cottage of some kind. Outside the window, on the drive, a woman wanted to know if the cottages had inner-spring mattresses.
A girl’s voice said they had.
I wove to the window and looked out through the Venetian blind. I was in a first-class motel. The cottages were stone and fancy brick built in a U around a landscaped court. On the far side of the court I could see a lighted bar with a huge purple neon parrot perched on the slate roof. A half-dozen spotlighted palms fronted on U.S. 101. Across the highway was the sea. Up two cottages on the drive a pretty brunette in her early twenties was talking to a hatchet-faced dame standing beside a car with Iowa license plates. As I watched them the hatchet-faced one asked the brunette if the cottages were clean and how much it would be for one night for two adults and two children.
I didn’t like her looks. I didn’t like her voice. It rasped. I walked back to the bed and drank from the bottle again.
I hadn’t the least recollection of checking into the court. I forced myself to think.
The last of the cargo had gone over the side at ten o’clock. What day? I’d kissed Ginty, the company agent, and the line good-by a few minutes before noon. That had been in the company’s dock office in San Pedro. I was through with the sea. This time I meant it. I’d saved my pay for three years. I was going home. I was going to buy a farm, get married, and settle down.
Ginty had been in his cubbyhole, raising hell with someone over the phone. When I’d told Grace, his secretary, she’d stopped beating her typewriter. Shocked. "You’re sick, Swede," she’d accused. "Of an old sickness, baby," I’d told her. She’d wanted to know if I had picked the girl. I’d told her not yet.
Then Ginty had come out of his cubbyhole, swearing. "God Almighty. First that nitwit on the City of Boston gets stuck for eighteen thousand dollars’ demurrage. Now you happen to me. What do you mean, you’re quitting the sea?"
"Just what it sounds like," I’d told him. And gone away from there. Carrying my sea bag on my shoulder. My heels thudding on planking, then cement. Smelling new coiled hawsers, white-hot metal, tar. Hearing the snick of chipping hammers, the suck of the tide around the pilings, the watch on the S.S. Lautenbach striking eight bells. Twelve o’clock noon in San Pedro. Five P.M. in Amsterdam. One A.M. tomorrow in Hong Kong. Wondering if I could quit the sea, after eighteen years.
I’d checked into a small hotel. I’d bought a bus ticket for Hibbing, intending to leave San Pedro at midnight. I’d had a few drinks in a bar. I’d seen a movie and had dinner. I remembered a brunette and a redhead. Both of them on the prowl. Both of them run-of-the-Simmons. Typical overweight water-front dames with thick thighs and flabby running lights. I’d bought them a few drinks for kicks. Then what?
More of it was coming back now.
I’d moved on down the highway to a joint near Laguna Beach. Drinking heavier now. My money in my belt. Spending what I had in my pocket.
I remembered sounding off about some headline in the evening paper. Something about the body of some rich guy in Chicago being found when all of his friends had thought he’d been in Europe for three years. Back of the Iron Curtain. And now the F.B.I, was looking for his wife. Both the barman, a lad named Jerry, and myself had agreed we wouldn’t want the F.B.I, on our tails.
Then, sometime, there’d been a crap game. In the back room of the bar. With two avocado ranchers, some construction stiffs just back from Guam, and a greasy-haired Mexican pimp. I hadn’t been able to lose for winning. I’d had money in all my pockets. Three or four thousand dollars. On top of the twelve thousand in my belt.
Now I didn’t even have any pockets. The thought made me sad. I’d never been so sad. I watered my sadness with rum, listening to the dame with the nasal voice arguing about the rate. She thought eight dollars for five people was too high. I wondered what she wanted for her money, oysters in her beer and dancing boys?
Then there had been a fight. I remembered the fight distinctly. The Mexican had accused me of switching dice. He’d pulled a sap, shouting, "Kill the big Swede!"
And he and the construction stiffs had tried. But a lot of lads with cracked skulls had tried that. Men who were good at the business. In Mozambique. In Alexandria. In Tangiers. With brass knuckles and curved knives.
Then what had happened? I tried to remember, and couldn’t.
Outside on the drive the penny-pinching dame decided not to take the cottage. She said she thought she could get one cheaper closer to L.A.
There was a grind of gears. Wheels crunched on gravel. In the hot silence that followed the departure of the car, the smell of the nicotiana seemed even sweeter. I could hear the whir of a sprinkler. The re-teat, re-teat of cicadas was added to the swish of fast moving traffic and the slap of the waves on the beach. Then high heels tapped across the wooden porch. The spring on the screen door screeched like an angry cat. The brunette I’d seen on the drive came into the cottage, smoking a cigarette. My lack of clothes didn’t seem to shock her.
"How you feeling, sailor?" she asked.
"Fine," I lied. "Just fine."
I hadn’t paid much attention to her. Not half enough. Her hair was brown and straight. Her cheeks were flat, her cheekbones high. She was striking rather than pretty. Her yellow two-piece bare-midriff play suit accentuated her figure. It was as nice as her smile. The top half of her breasts were bare and straining against her bodice. Her stomach was concave. She curved in in back, then out. The skin I could see was tanned, as if she spent a lot of time in the sun.
I patted the bed. "Come here."
Her smile turned wry. "Any port in a storm, eh, sailor?" She lifted her hair away from the back of her neck. "What would Corliss say?"
"Who’s Corliss?" I asked her.
She came part way into the room. "You don’t even remember her, huh?"
"No," I admitted. "I don’t. What’s the name of this joint?"
"The Purple Parrot."
The name meant nothing to me.
Her smile turned nice again. "Just get paid off, mate?"
I lighted a cigarette from the butt of the one I was smoking. "That’s right"
"The S. S. Lautenbach."
"Only in the islands. We got caught on a shuttle run when that business in Korea started."
"Oh," she said. "I see."
"What’s your name?" I asked her.
She said, "Mamie."
"I’m Swede Nelson," I told her.
I wanted to ask her who Corliss was, what kind of joint I was in, if she knew whether I had any money. And if I hadn’t, what had happened to it. But something about her stopped me.
She wet her lips with the tip of her tongue and gave me a long once-over. From my feet to my bandaged head. Pausing where her fancy pleased her. Not the way most women look at a man. The way most men look at a woman. Appraising. Weighing. Speculating. I patted the bed again. She was breathing harder than she had been. "I’m tempted, Nelson," she said. "Believe me. I’ve watched you sleep all day."
"Then why not?"
She said, "For various reasons."
Her eyes were gray and smoky, like ashes over a wood fire. They made me feel like a fool.
I said, "Do one of two things, will you?"
She asked, "What?"
"Either come here or get out."
Her smile turned wry again. "I think I’d better go. But if I were you, mate, I’d get dressed and walk over to the bar."
I asked her why I should.
She said, "For some food to cushion that rum. You were drunk when Corliss brought you here. You’re not much soberer now." The taut spring screeched as she opened the screen. Then she closed the screen door and came back. All the way to the bed this time. "No," she said. "Don’t do it. You look like a nice guy, Swede. The kind of guy I used to think maybe I’d meet someday. Where were you headed when you got drunk?"
I told her, "Hibbing, Minnesota."
"To buy a farm. To get married."
Her eyes searched mine. "Then get out of here, Swede. Don’t even stop at the bar."
"Because I’m telling you."
I got to my feet and pulled her to me. "Look, honey—"
Breathing as hard as I was, she said, "No. Please. Don’t. The screen’s unlocked."
I said, "To hell with the screen," and kissed her.
She crushed her lips against mine, then pushed me away and slapped me. "Men," she said. "Men." Like it was a dirty word.
Then the spring screeched again. She was gone.
I drank from the bottle again. Then I looked in the clothes closet of the cabin. My uniform was hanging on a hanger. Someone had washed and ironed my shirt. My shoes were shined.
I looked in the pockets of my coat. Then in and under the bed. My papers were intact, but my money belt was gone. So was the money I’d made in the crap game.
I even looked in the bathroom. There was a safety razor and some brushless shaving cream. I shaved and showered, staying under the cold water a long time. Then I put on my shorts and skivy and walked back and sat on the bed.
The name Corliss was vaguely familiar. I tried to tie a girl to the name.
The Mexican had accused me of cheating. He had yelled, "Kill the big Swede!" He and the construction stiffs had tried. Then what had happened?
Then I remembered Corliss. Gold and white and smiling. I began to breathe hard even thinking of her. God almighty. Of course. How could I forget Corliss? How could any man, drunk or sober, forget her?
The whole of the night just past came back.
Copyright © 1952 by Day Keene