I stared into the soulless black void for almost a full minute before add a dollop of rum to it.
At least I’d waited a full minute this morning. Up til recently, I’d have put rum in the coffeemaker instead of water if it would have worked.
Well ... Okay, I actually tried that one time. The black rum gummed up the coffee maker something fierce. And it boiled all the alcohol off so I had to add more rum to it anyway. The things you learn.
Everyone out here in the islands uses a name other than the one they were born with.
My name is Grease, short for Grease Monkey. Because I do engine work on boats. Or maybe they call me that for the grease stains on my shirts and shorts. Actually, I’ve not been too big on personal hygiene for a few years either, so maybe that’s the reason for the name.
I used to care. I used to be Thomas Knight, Lawyer. My high school sweetheart, Lily, had stood by my side through college and law school and put up with 120 hour weeks for years. We’d finally reached our time, we’d be financially secure and ready to start our family.
That didn’t work out like I planned.
Like we planned.
At first we thought Lil was just a little under the weather but it just kept getting worse. And worse.
Once the words were spoken, it was gasoline on a fire. She was gone in months. I started drinking.
I could quit any time I wanted.
I just didn’t want.
The job. The house. The cars. The bank account. Three DWIs and I was warned by the Bar.
So I said “Fuck it” bought a fifth hand boat and headed out to the islands. I’d grown up around boats in Florida, and worked on fishing boats through High School and college.
I vaguely dreamed of getting the boat fixed up and taking on luxury charters, maybe building a fleet of little charter boats.
I really should have stopped drinking so heavily.
After five years my boat was a mess, and I worked on engines to keep on drinking. Hadn’t even been out of the slip in two and a half. Stopped cutting my hair, or shaving, so I have a thick ratty beard, and a roughly tied back ponytail with a shitload more grey than I want to think about.
So, yeah, I’m Grease.
Everyone out here in the islands uses a name other than the one they were born with.
There’s Pogo, the owner of The Shack, which is an ex-pat beach bar and grill, pretty much for the veteran crowd. Has some kind of Special Forces logo on the back wall, and service flags from all the services – even the Coast Guard. The Shack is my usual hang-out, they put up with me because I can fix their boat.
There’s Loud Howard, a nearly permanent fixture at The Shack, the short guy with a classic napoleon complex. You know he’s there about 100 yards out.
Frank Rotuma hangs out there to avoid tourists. A lot. We call him Chief. Because he’s the local police chief.
There’s Monster and Ex, he’s called Monster because of the massive and horrible scars on the side of his face. The whole side of his face – looks like someone skinned a demon and stretched its skin over a human skull.
And Ex is, well, his ex. I have no idea why they are still together; they certainly don’t seem to be in love – more like business associates. But they are rarely apart and they’re down here about half the year.
There’s a bunch of others; like I said, everyone has a name.
In the next slip over from mine, for two weeks a month, in the really nice boat there’s Bobert. His real name is Robert Sandoval and I guess when he moved in he tried to introduce himself as “Robert-call-me-Bob”, and ended up calling himself Bobert on accident and it stuck instantly as such things are wont to do. He’s rich; a slick talking high end deal-maker, Rolex watches and a boat that would run you a cool 2 million if not more. I’d think he’d probably be more at home in New York than down here. He is sure as hell not welcome at The Shack and spends most of his time on the tourist part of the strip. I have no idea where he is when he is out of the slip.
Then there’s his wife. The reason I’ve slowed down on my drinking. Her name is Zascha. The first time I saw her, I thought I’d died. A golden mane of hair, a tall, slender model’s body, usually clad in tiny white shorts and blue and white striped short sleeve cropped top; it’s almost a uniform. On really good days she’ll walk the deck in a bikini.
And her face?
Utterly angelic. Ever hear the term “bee-stung lips”? She has them in spades. True wonders of the world. And despite her beauty, she projects purity and wide-eyed innocence; her cornflower-blue eyes seem to hold an air of permanent wonder. She has “Iowa home town girl” written all over her. She’s pristine. As if the corruption of the world cannot touch her.
But it does.
Again, and again, and again. Sometimes she wears a blue and white striped long sleeve shirt to hide the bruises on her arms. And sunglasses, to hide the blackened eyes. Rumor has it she sleeps around.
Because he makes her. To seal business deals.
And thus her local name – whispered behind her back, by everyone but Bobert. Shameless.
Bobert calls her that to her face.
I’ve seen her with other men at the bars on the tourist end of the beach. And I’ve seen her face when she is with them. There’s no joy, no anticipation, no lust. Her wide-eyed innocence is replaced by an impassive mask. Her expression never varies.
He watches them leave with a cruel smile. In some way he seems to enjoy it.
I couldn’t imagine treating someone the way he treated Zascha.
Zascha was obviously a Russian “bride” – basically a mail order long-term call-girl. I shouldn’t feel sorry for her, she chose this. She knew the unwritten rules as well as anyone. And she could leave whenever she wanted – Frank would escort any girl to the airport and personally put her on a plane home, with the flight paid for by the tourism board. He’d done it a number of times to get girls out, but they had to want it.
Whatever she was avoiding at home must have been pretty bad.
Still, I had a cardinal rule of non-interference. Who needs a drunk boat mechanic mucking around in their lives?
That all changed at the Explorer’s Day party at The Reef. It’s a tourist bar – all glitzy fake palm trees and hula skirted waitresses. Pogo had to close The Shack much earlier that day to attend a funeral, so I’d drifted down to tourist area and The Reef to get a drink or two. Or four.
I ended up at the table where Bobert was holding court with a bunch of tourists; Zascha sitting slightly off to the side. He was talking about what a great investment boats are – which is ridiculous – I’ve worked with boats my whole adult life. The definition of a boat is “a hole in the water that you pour money into”. When he made another particularly stupid statement about boats, I kind of rolled my eyes.
And realized Zascha was looking dead at me. She covered a tiny smile by taking a sip of her drink. But she kept her eyes on me. I’d already had a drink too many and took a chance, by silently parodying Bobert’s grand mannerisms.
She had to pick up a menu to hide a silly grin. Then she did the same thing.
And we went on like that for the next hour, trading childish expressions at Bobert’s expense. We’d never even said hello to each other, but this had been the best conversation I’d ever had with a woman.
From then on, though, whenever I ran into them, she caught my eye and with a wicked glint, she’d initiate the same game – we had our own secret world. It was the highlight of my existence for several months.
Just seeing her made me feel better about life. I don’t know exactly when it happened but I began cutting back on drinking – a very slow road, admittedly. I began taking showers three or even four times a week – which forced me to fix the water system on the boat. Which forced me to clear furnishings out of the hold. And since those were new furnishings, I went ahead and replaced the old stuff. The boat was gradually shaping up.
When his boat was in the slip, I hung out at The Reef in the off chance of seeing her. It was ridiculous, of course – Bobert had more money than I’d ever dream now. She couldn’t have any interest in me, but, as silly as it sounds, she made me want to be a better person.
Then, in October, Bobert offered her to me. For two weeks.
We were sitting at the Reef late and he was eyeing tourists – looking for ones to send Zascha with, no doubt, when he was given a message by one of the waiters and left to use the phone. A few minutes later he came back irritated.
“Hey Grease. How about taking Shameless for a spin?”
I saw Zascha stiffen – it was the first time I’d ever seen her react to him like that.
He noticed too and gave an evil smile.
Before I could answer he continued. “Take her back to your boat. For a couple weeks. Just use condoms. I’ve got to fly out to make a business deal happen.”
I thought for second. “Are you serious?”
He grinned nastily. “She won’t fight you. Just don’t mark her up too much.”
I nodded. “Okay”
Zascha looked shattered. Her mask of impassivity tried and failed, cornflower blue eyes glistening with unshed tears. Bobert shot her a victorious look and walked out.
She walked quietly with me back to the boat – head down watching her own feet. She walked up the gangplank slowly, feet almost dragging against invisible sludge.
When I led her down to the quarters and pulled open a hatch she looked confused.
“Wait a second, I have to get the boxes out of here and fold down your rack.”
She watched warily as I readied her small cabin, pulling out sheets and a light blanket.
“I know it isn’t really very clean, but I’ve been working on it, we’ll finish it up tomorrow. The head is on the right and I’m in the next cabin to the left – if you need anything just knock and let me know.”
When I stepped out of her cabin, I glanced back. The broken girl was gone and the look of wonder was back. More than enough reward for any effort or pain.
The next morning I was up pretty early, and had coffee going. She walked out slowly, cautiously, with a tentative, shy, smile.
She sat and gratefully accepted the coffee – adding enough cream and sugar to make me wince.
“I don’t really have any food – have you ever been to The Shack?”
She answered, and it took a second for me to get my heart started. It was really the first time I’d heard her voice. It was perfect, slightly breathy, just a hint of a Russian accent.
“No. Robert never took me there.”
“Would you like to try it?”
She smiled, an instant of sunrise washed over me.
“I would. Very much.”
The walk down the empty beach to The Shack took just a few minutes, but I stole glimpses of her when I could. Even up close, she seemed to be a study in serene perfection. I held her hand for a moment to help her up the seawall. It was hard letting go. I’m sure it was my imagination, but her fingertips lingered for a second longer than they needed to.
Pogo’s face darkened when I walked in with her. I sat her down at a corner table of the empty bar and went over to him to order.
His look boded poorly. And his words went straight to the point.
“Taking payment in kind from Bobert?”
I froze for second “What? Oh, god, no. She’s just staying in my spare cabin for a couple weeks while he’s out on a deal.”
He studied my face for a second, glanced over at her and seemed to come to some conclusion. He let it go.
We ended up eating fruit pancakes and, after a few false starts we were talking about our favorite foods. Time flew by, and the bar filled rather quickly – Loud Howard, then Monster and Ex, came in.
Monster didn’t seem to react, but a look of intense distaste passed over Ex – Pogo saw it and pulled her aside for a few minutes of quiet discussion and she seemed to relax.
Loud Howard came over and talked to me about getting a fuel line replaced on his Boston Whaler before he got it repainted. He actually had a house on the island somewhere. You don’t live on a Boston Whaler. Zascha joined the conversation asking about the paint colors and the name of the boat – pretty soon we had half dozen people over. I made sure I introduced her as Zascha. And made sure everyone understood that was what she was to be called.
Ex drifted over and began to talk to Zascha.
“So, you’re staying with Grease for a couple weeks?”
Zascha smiled – a huge, amazing smile “Yes! Two weeks. He cleared out a cabin for me last night!”
Ex gave me a sidelong glance to see if I had heard that. I nodded.
“It was kind of short notice, I was using the cabin to store some parts – had to tarp them on the deck.”
Ex fixed me with her gunmetal grey stare. “So what’s your plan”
I shrugged “Don’t really have one – just showing her this end of the beach for now. I have a couple jobs to do and some work to do on the boat. I figured I’d show her this place so if she gets bored while I am out, she will have a place to hang out.”
The unspoken part of that was that it was a place where she wouldn’t be treated like a hooker.
Ex didn’t say anything at the time, but caught me at the bar when I went to get a couple more cups of coffee.
“Her own cabin?”
“It’s just a couple weeks – I’ll move stuff back in if I haven’t used it. May have the hold done by then anyway.”
“Look, I know the deal with ‘Bobert’ and ... Zascha. When he loans her out, it isn’t for her to sleep in a spare cabin. You afraid of catching something?”
I shook my head “I don’t know the whole story, but I won’t be yet another asshole treating her like shit. She’s a great girl and she should be living a better life. He just flat offered her to me for two weeks last night with no warning because he was going out of town. I figured she could use a break.”
Ex stared at me, searching my face, then finally, “Don’t fuck this up.”
When we got back to the table, Ex engaged Zascha more directly and quickly discovered that she didn’t have any clothes for the two weeks other than what she was wearing. Before I could even say anything, Ex spirited her away, saying she’d get her back to my boat by dinner time.
I took the rest of the day to get the repair jobs done; when I got back to the boat, Zascha was there, looking radiant. She was cleaning up the galley, wearing blue shorts and a t-shirt. Her hair was just tied back in a ponytail and she was humming tunelessly, but happily.
As soon as I stepped in, she smiled brightly and immediately began talking about going with Ex. They’d picked out some clothes and talked and walked for a long time. The beach clothes on the strip weren’t exactly expensive – typical tourist stuff - and Ex had covered it, telling her not to worry. Still, she did a little bit. Ex had made it clear that we were expected to be at The Shack for dinner to eat with her and Monster. I wasn’t really concerned with Ex, but the idea of crossing Monster gave me pause. Something about him was just a little “off”. He was always distantly friendly, but I had the same feeling around him that I got when mako sharks were in the water with me.
In any case, we had to eat. So that evening, I put on a clean-ish shirt and we headed over. It was the most social evening I’d had in a very long time – and I didn’t’ drink much at all. I felt like if I did, I’d disappoint Zascha. We listened to music, talked and generally had a great time. Monster was a better conversationalist, than I expected and even seemed to speak some Russian. Still, when he glanced my way, I felt my spine crawl.
Walking back to the boat across the moonlit beach was wonderful. Zascha gave me an almost tearfully grateful look when she went into her cabin.
I vowed these would be the best weeks of her life.
And worked hard at it every day. She spent time with Ex, but she also helped me on the boat – on one long day we even re-finished the entire deck. It absolutely glowed. We grilled on the beach and ate at the Shack. She was a favorite at The Shack in just a couple days – like a living ray of sunshine. She was older than she looked – almost 30 years, and she had apparently studied at a university, although she always kept her life details vague.
I didn’t have to see that broken look or impassive mask the entire time. Three days before Bobert was due back, Ex handed me a couple tickets.
“The Governor’s Ball – dinner and dancing the day after tomorrow. We ended up with extra tickets, so maybe you and Zascha could go?”
I stared at the tickets.
“I really don’t have...”
She cut me off “Monster has an extra suit – you’re about the same size. And I have a couple dresses Zascha could wear.”
That pretty much killed my argument right there. I nodded. Then asked why.
For just a second I think her eyes teared up, but it stopped instantly. “Because I had something wonderful once and I lost it forever.”
She turned and walked away.
I told Zascha about the invitation and she practically exploded in joy. The next day she spent hours picking out a dress with Ex.
When she came back to the boat she had a beautiful light blue dress.
And a pair of scissors.
“You must look your best.”
I grumbled, but within an hour, my hair was short and my beard was trimmed. I barely recognized the face in the mirror. The grimy warf rat was gone, replaced by e I hadn’t seen in years.
Zascha was unreal – she applied just enough makeup to enhance her looks, and the blue gown set off her cornflower blue eyes. An Angel come to earth, ethereal and unbelievable.