This story first appeared in the December 2000 issue of Men’s Journal.
Hurricane Debby had broken up, humbled by shearing winds into a tropical depression, trailing a steady, bracing suck of breeze that stretched east from Cuba all the way back to the Turks and Caicos Islands, where, on Providenciales, a young islander in swim trunks helped me lug a mountain of gear from my Turtle Cove hotel to his pickup truck. I asked the driver if he was the boatman, too, and he said yes, he was Captain Newman Gray.
“Good. You can tell me where we’re going.”
“East Bay Cay.”
Twenty years ago, when I first came to Providenciales aboard the South Wind, a derelict ninety-eight-foot tramp freighter captained by Tay Maltsberger and his wife, Linda, the forty-nine Turks and Caicos were tiny, arid, sunbaked, and mostly useless outposts of the British Crown, still virgin turf for sportsmen, drug-runners, and real estate pioneers.
Now I was looking out the window of Captain Newman’s truck at the resorts and casinos crowding Grace Bay, remembering when there was nothing on its austere sweep of beach, when Providenciales did not have a jetport or a store, only an islander-run rice-and-peas shop at its dusty main crossroads and a warehouse stocked with booze, frozen steaks, and a thin collection of building supplies. Nobody was around on the bay then except my wife and me and Tay and Linda. We’d swim from shore to a nearby reef and spear lobsters, perform ballet with eagle rays and sea turtles, and slowly retreat from the tiger shark, big as a sports car, that regularly prowled the formation. At the end of the day, we’d walk carefully back through the thorny island scrub to where Tay and Linda had anchored themselves and were attempting an unlikely enterprise for professional seafarers: Provo’s first nursery and landscaping business.
“I know that place,” I said to Newman, pointing to the new parking lot and retail office of Sunshine Nursery. I told him there had been a time on Provo when everybody — whites and blacks, and the West Indians especially — knew and loved the couple who started that nursery. But the captain had never heard of my friends the Maltsbergers and made only the smallest grunt of acknowledgment. My memories were beside the point to young Newman, who had migrated from his home on North Caicos to Providenciales to take advantage of the recent economic boom. I was simply the latest job, an American who wanted to be dropped for ten days on some ideal island, the only criterion being that the place have no people, no nothing, except flora under which I could escape the sun.
Within an hour we were aboard the captain’s twenty-four-foot cat-hulled reef cruiser, flying toward East Bay Cay, a skinny sidecar that hugs North Caicos’s windward side, separated from the mother island by a half-mile-wide channel. I had provisioned myself modestly with rice, beans, fresh vegetables, onions and limes for conch salad, beer, a bottle of rum. Otherwise I planned to fish and dive for my food, which is what one does, happily, on a deserted island in these latitudes.
Captain Newman jutted out his chin to direct my attention to a narrow cut, which I could not yet demarcate, behind a glistening bar mouth between the big island and the cay. “This is the road in,” he announced, pointing to a slight taint of turquoise indicating deeper water — perhaps six inches deeper.
We came aground about a hundred feet off a rocky point, the terminus of the shaded white-sand beach I had been watching unwind for twenty minutes. We waded the gear ashore through transparent water, the two of us together hauling the heavy coolers and my main duffel bag, and finally it was done. I saluted the captain goodbye and then turned my back on him and (I hoped) every other human being on the planet for the next ten days.
As his boat receded into the distance, I pulled a celebratory beer from my cooler and sat down to engage myself in what could have been a most illumining conversation about the liberties we finesse for ourselves, but my mind went stone-blank with euphoria and I could only stare at the opulence of color — the blue of jewels, eyes, ice, glass — and the glowing white towers of late-summer cumulus clouds queuing across the wind-tossed horizon.
I was alone, as sooner or later we are all meant to be.
Texas, three days earlier. More than a few years had passed since I’d last bunked with Captain Tay, and this was by far the largest space we had shared: an expansive bed in a dim apartment annexed to the house in San Antonio that had once been his father’s and was now his son’s.
The captain’s one-room apartment had the ambience of an exhibit in some provincial museum — the Explorer’s Room — its walls hung with crossed spears, shark jaws, barnacled fragments of sunken ships, intricately carved wooden paddles, yellowed newspaper clippings, and glossy photographs of adventure.
I opened my eyes to stare at the ceiling, the morning sunlight a radiant border around the two makeshift curtains pinned over the windows, and finally called the old captain’s name. No answer, and when I nudged him, no response. Captain Tay was a self-proclaimed dying man, an arthritic and half-blind silverback awaiting winter in his bone-strewn lair, and I thought, Well, that’s it for him. Apparently he had slipped away in the night, fulfilling his chosen destiny by dying in the same bed his wife, Linda, had died in thirteen years earlier.
The night before, the captain had shown me a sketch on a legal pad: the outlines of a human body, front and back, with twenty-eight red X’s drawing the viewer’s attention to a catalog of the physical indignities Tay had suffered over the years: stitches, concussions, animal bites, punctures, cracked ribs, broken bones, and a shrapnel wound he had sustained from a mortar round in the jungles of Colombia while tagging along with his blood brother, a commander in the National Police, on a 1973 raid against guerrillas. Not indicated on the drawing were the recent, less visible assaults: a bad heart, diabetes, clogged lungs, an exhausted spirit. He had also handed me — one of his designated undertakers — his self-composed obituary, the last line of which read, “He will be buried at sea in the Turks and Caicos,” and his desire was that the burial take place over the South Wind, the ship his wife’s ashes had been scattered over in 1987. As I was leaving for the archipelago after my stopover in San Antonio, I thought it was damned decent of the captain to die with my convenience in mind.
But when I came out of the bathroom a few minutes later, Lazarus was sitting up, pawing the nightstand for his glasses and cigarettes. He was already dressed, because he’d slept with his clothes on. As far as I know he had always done so, ready to leap up at a moment’s notice into the godawful fray.
“I thought you were dead.”
“Any day now,” said the captain with a spark in his hazel eyes, lying back down to smoke, his shoulders and head propped up with stale pillows. He’d been lying there for six or seven years, a veteran recluse, the lone survivor of all that he had loved, shipwrecked here on this rumpled king-size mattress.
I offered him a respite from the soul-heavy inertia of his retirement, as I’d done annually since he had hunkered down. “Come with me, Tay. Ten days on an uninhabited island. The sort of thing you and Linda used to love. What the hell are you doing lounging around here, waiting to croak?”
This was a bit more irreverence than the captain was accustomed to, and I could hear the growl forming in his throat. “I’m seventy-one years old, I’m an alcoholic, my legs are going out, I’ve buried all my lovers, and I’ve done everything a man can do down there where you’re going,” he barked. “Get it through your head: I want to die.”
I tried to imagine him as he had been four decades earlier: a thirty-one-year-old man carrying a briefcase and umbrella, dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit, stepping aboard the commuter train in Westport, Connecticut, riding to Manhattan in the glummest of moods, believing he had traded his “real” life for a half-hearted commitment to virtues that read like a checklist of the American Dream — social status, upward mobility, material comfort — but were somehow entering his system tilted, knocking him off balance. He had married Barbara Rolf, a lithe, sensual blonde from the Ford Modeling Agency, a woman whose face was radiating from the covers of Life and Paris Match and who had borne him a son named Mark. Tay was natty, lean, dashingly handsome, husband of one of the world’s original supermodels, and the father of a towheaded three-year-old boy — all this, and yet he was still a despondent man riding a commuter train from Westport into the city. It wasn’t another company job he was hunting for, but a resurrection, some kind of a life in which he could breathe freely again.
He had had that freedom, had pursued it with Hemingway-esque flair — Golden Gloves boxer, three years with the 11th Airborne Division during the Korean War, the big man on campus at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, twice elected student-body president. In Mexico City, he had operated his own gymnasium, teaching boxing, judo, bodybuilding. Exciting opportunities had knocked relentlessly at his door. While doing graduate work in industrial psychology, he had led a group of scientists into unexplored regions of British Guiana, Venezuela, and Brazil. There was something wild in his blood that wasn’t going to be tamed, no matter how much he muffled it beneath button-down oxfords and dry martinis. Being Texan was likely part of it, he figured. His family had come to Texas just before the Alamo fell, and his great-grandfather had been a civilian scout for the Mormons on their trek to Utah. On both sides, his family lines were heavily saturated with footloose visionaries and hell-raisers and uncontainable spirits.
Stepping off that train in Manhattan, he crossed the platform and caught the next train back to Connecticut. Off came the suit, the briefcase landed in the trash, and he hired on as first mate on a sailboat out of Westport that carried tourists around Long Island Sound. And then he was gone.
“All right, come die in the islands,” I told him. “Save me the sorrow of carry-ing you back there in an urn.”
“I’m not moving,” the captain snapped, but then he shifted himself upright and his voice became sonorous with care. “You have a good knife?” he asked. “Something that will hold an edge?” He eased up off the bed to rummage around in his moldy piles of gear. “Here, take this knife. I want you to have it.”
Ever since I had met Tay and Linda in Colombia in the early seventies — I was fresh out of college, a twenty-two-year-old tadpole who had decided to see the world — the Maltsbergers had seemed intent on teaching me how to take care of myself. I took the knife, just as three months earlier I’d reluctantly taken the pistol he’d been trying to give me for years.
“Any advice, Captain?”
“Keep your matches dry.”
Then I held him — this man who had taught me the vocabulary of freedom, schooled me in how it could be seized and harvested and lost, who had made his world so big and then made it as small as you can have it outside a coffin — and said goodbye to him. For all that, I could see that his inner world had never really changed, and that for those of high spirit, a life wish can at times bear a terrifying resemblance to a death wish, and a certain degree of metaphysical disorientation is bound to seep into the program. It was only that the seep had become a flood. You could walk on its banks all day long, throwing lines into the current, but the captain was indifferent to rescue, not dissatisfied with being swept along toward a promise he had made to Linda decades ago:
I will not leave you alone in the sea.
It was January 1971. Meteorologists call the type of storm that slammed into Tay and Linda in the Bay of Biscay, off the northern coast of Spain, an extra-tropical Atlantic cyclone — an out-of-season, out-of-place hurricane. Trapped in the storm’s cataclysmic center, the ten people aboard their boat, the Sea Raven, watched in awe and horror for seventy-two hours as the fury doubled and then tripled in intensity. Their efforts to reach port were cruelly defeated by straight-on winds, with the tops of the massive waves humping green over the bow. Force 6 became Force 8 became Force 10. The mainsail blew out, and the captain, unable to steer, ordered the crew to chop the mizzen sail off its mast to bring the ship under control. The pummeling wind and pounding swells vibrated the caulking out of the boards beneath the engine housing, and the ship lost power.
They issued a Mayday, but the answer from the Spanish navy only increased their sense of helplessness and doom. They were going to have to wait in line; ships were in desperate straits throughout the bay, and resources were fully deployed and floundering. Not far from the Sea Raven’s position, a tanker’s castle toppled into the water, taking sixteen men with it. Thirty people were rescued off an American freighter that was going down nearby. A boat put out from the port of La Coruña to respond to the Raven’s Mayday but had to turn back, heavily damaged. Linda watched the water rise up the hatchway steps as the Raven sank lower and lower into the colossal waves.
One summer night eight years before, she’d pulled up in front of Slug’s Saloon, an infamous bar and jazz club in Greenwich Village, in a green Porsche coupe. Linda Johnson, a bony doctoral candidate in experimental psychology at N.Y.U., was working in the lab at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She also was a girl who’d been stuck too long in the convent of her education, and she was beelining from Mary Washington College to Manhattan, the center of the universe, partying like nobody’s business and collecting so many speeding tickets in the city that she’d have to sell her beautiful car. She took a seat at the bar at Slug’s, where Tay, back after a year in the islands, was running the food concession.
Glamour-wise, Linda was the antithesis of Barbara Rolf. She was a big-toothed, stringy-haired blonde who talked with a corn-pone drawl and a skeptically raised eyebrow. The daughter of a Vir-ginia state senator, she looked like an egghead, her blue eyes blinking behind thick kitty-cat glasses she was always terrified of losing. What Tay saw when he came out of the kitchen that night was . . . brains, an irresistible, exotic quality, given the women he’d been dating. They talked just long enough to recognize themselves in each other: two dreamers in a barely subdued fever of restlessness, possessed with a great need to be on the move away from an ordinary life. She showed up the next night at a party at his loft, and they started seeing each other. She had finally connected with the man who would open the door to the controlling passion of her life: the ocean. When her mother suddenly died in 1965 and left her $20,000 and a Volkswagen, she and Tay hit the road.
“I have left New York — it’s true,” Linda crowed to a childhood friend four months later in a letter sent from Isla Mujeres, off the coast of the Yucatán. “With only two chapters left to write on my dissertation, eye to eye with a goal that has teased me through sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years of training, I pulled the reins on my job, my Ph.D., my career, all for a little taste of fantasy. After cooping up my spirit for so long in stiff-paged textbooks and overcrowded seminars, when it finally broke free it shook my whole foundation, like waking up with a dream intact, or falling through a keyhole you never thought existed. . . .” She promised her friends and family that she’d be back in several months, but that would never happen. Her jaunt, her waking dream, her infatuation with the questing beast, would last for almost twenty years.
And what exactly was that trip? A very old story, a myth, the type of tale humans have been telling one another for thousands of years: two enchanted lovers, a magical boat called the Bon Voyage, harrowing misadventures, a pot of gold — in this case sunken galleons in Cartagena Bay, off the coast of Colombia. They’d been together for five years when in the autumn of 1968 Tay got word that his ex-wife, Barbara, was dying of leukemia; back in the States, ten-year-old Mark needed him. By this time, Linda had fallen in love with Tay to the extent that she could no longer imagine a life without him, and their next few months were a whirlwind of sorrow and happiness: They were married in November, Barbara was dead by January, and before the winter was out, Tay and Linda and Mark were living together in Dallas, where a network of friends had helped Tay secure a job as foreman of a highway construction crew. But as soon as the three of them reached a level of comfort as a family, the shared lust for adventure churned back into focus. Their recurring dream: to get a bigger, better sailboat and return to Colombia. Linda took classes with the Coast Guard and earned her license as a full navigator, Tay began to cultivate investors, and together they constructed a castle in the air called Sea Raven Enterprises, printed stationery and business cards (Charter Service — Seafaris — Underwater Photography — Salvage — Cruising — Movies — Treasure), and sold shares of stock.
Linda had found the Sea Raven in Denmark, frozen solid into a fjord: a 99-ton, 110-foot, gaff-rigged-topsail ketch, a classic Baltic trader built in 1920, as beautiful as any ship ever put to sail. She purchased it for $13,000, and soon Tay and Mark followed her to the Danish coast. The three of them lived on the ship at first, out on the ice; then, when the harbor began to thaw, they set up house in a nearby shipyard and hauled the boat to dry dock for a year of extensive refurbishing.
And then, having sent Mark back to his grandparents in Texas and having welcomed aboard as their captain a former Dutch naval officer named Jaap Stengs, his movie-actress girlfriend (who had never been to sea before), and a crew of six free spirits, they were finally setting sail across the Atlantic, passing first through the Bay of Biscay.
By the fourth day of the storm, the Sea Raven was drifting aimlessly in sixty-foot seas and Force 12 winds. The ship’s main pumps had ceased to function, and two hundred tons of water had risen four feet above the bilge line. The nearness of death was like a dull pressure somewhere behind the freezing weight of Linda’s adrenaline-wracked fatigue, and it translated into a specific dread, which she expressed to Tay: With the Raven about to go under, Linda feared they would be separated, and she couldn’t bear the terrifying thought of being alone in the sea. Prodding her up the slopes of panic was the image of being tossed around — alone and drowning, with her eyeglasses slapped from her face by the waves, cruelly blinded at the one moment when clear vision, and thus a clear head, might provide her with one hope for survival. How could she swim to Tay if she couldn’t even see him? He calmed her nerves as best he could by roping her to him with an umbilical cord of sheetline. Come what may, he promised, they’d be together.
They waited for the ship to sink or for help to arrive, whichever came first. At last out of the howling gloom a Spanish tanker appeared. With superhuman effort a line was made fast, and the Raven was towed into the harbor of Gijón, where according to the official record of the Spanish port authority, “after having moored the Raven and put new pumps on board, Captain Jaap Stengs burst out weeping and was not to be calmed down within fifteen minutes. Then he fell asleep.”
For five months Tay and Linda remained in Gijón, overseeing the repairs to the storm-mauled ship, but back in Texas the corporation Tay had started was imploding, riddled by infighting and embezzlement. The Maltsbergers’ shipyard account was suddenly cut off. To lose a ship in a hurricane was no injustice, but to lose a ship to crooks and double-crossers was an unbearable betrayal.
There’s a jimi hendrix lyric that poses what perhaps is the only question worth asking: Are you prepared to be free? Not free from responsibility, necessarily, but free from external oppression and internal fear. In everyone’s life, it seems, there is a season in which this question is addressed or withdrawn, one’s habits changed or calcified, one’s dreams realized or rejected.
When I was coming of age in the 1960s, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., my mother took to calling me, disapprovingly, a wandering Jew, implying that I was infected by some disease of waywardness that had the potential to undermine my future and land me in serious trouble. When I graduated from college in the spring of 1973, the gate finally opened on the mystique of other places, other cultures, other-ness itself, and four months later, instead of securing an entry-level position in my expected career as a journalist, I boarded a flight from Miami to South America. My mother’s suspicion was confirmed: At age twenty-two, I was declaring myself a type of hobo, falling from middle-class life into a pit of daily uncertainty.
Flying toward the San Andrés archipelago in the southwestern Caribbean, the cheapest destination available that was technically in Latin America, I was unaware that there were other people like me, people who might think of their urge to travel as an acceptable characteristic of a bona fide lifestyle. Romantics, to be sure; fools, possibly; escapists, probably. Dreamers who pursued irregular but nonetheless intrepid dreams of dubious value to the social order, their minds flaring with extravagant narratives. That’s who Tay and Linda were, the first adults I befriended who had decided to step off the well-marked path and keep going.
“I surge into the waves of time, fascinated by the billowing soul of man,” Linda wrote a few days before she died, composing her own epilogue. “What imponderable excess baggage we travel with on this trip bound for old bones and flaccid skin. Why ever let it be boring?”
I was grateful for the way she lived; she was the boldest person I ever knew. A life of bravery begins almost by default when you first find yourself oppressed by a low and unforgiving threshold for being bored. The only deliverance for the neurotic, the explorer, and the traveler alike is to throw himself off a cliff into the boiling waters of crisis. And then, to the best of his ability, to have fun.
“You know what’s funny about our adventures all those years?” Tay mused as we lay back down together in his bed, smoking cigarettes and watching the Weather Channel play a mindless loop of Hurricane Debby footage. “We never had any money.”
A friend, hearing in the Maltsbergers’ sad tale a raw need to move beyond the agony of the Sea Raven, mentioned he knew an old gringo in Colombia who had a gold mine high up in the Andes and was looking for help. Never especially pragmatic until they were already immersed in challenge or folly, Tay and Linda went off to live in a bone-chilling tamped-earth hut at 11,500 feet, above the jungles of Bucaramanga. Tay and the old man struggled to refine a process for filtering gold out of the large heaps of tailings left centuries earlier by the Spanish conquistadors. They collected seven or eight ounces a week, but it wasn’t enough.
After a year and a half the Maltsbergers packed their sea chests and descended the mountains all the way to the coast and beyond, to the San Andrés archipelago, where they had previously chartered out the Bon Voyage. This time, they homesteaded on remote Isla de Providencia, its barrier reefs dotted with the seduction of shipwrecks and the promise of treasure. On the edge of Providencia’s central town they rented a two-story clapboard building called Lookout House and opened a four-table restaurant, the only thing they knew to do to make a living while they engaged in their treasure hunt. Mark, by then fourteen years old, joined them; he was being home-schooled by Linda and living like a kid in the Swiss Family Robinson, every day a boyhood novel of adventures.
The first time I met them I was a customer in their restaurant, having sat next to one of their partners in fantasy, Howard Kahn, a diving instructor from Chicago, on the flight from Miami to San Andrés. After a fabulous dinner of baked red snapper, Linda offered us drinks on the house and sat down with us, her only customers. I had planned to stay on Providencia for a week, but before the month was out Howard and I had rented a house together down the beach. Soon I was strapping scuba tanks on my back to claw through the ballast stones of the wrecks that Kahn and the Maltsbergers were working, inconceivably, by hand, the salvage operation ill-equipped for recovering anything more note-worthy than a few copper nails and coral-encrusted potsherds lying half exposed on the bottom. At dinner each evening, Tay and Linda would open their mouths and it was like popping the cork on a magnum of rich stories. A year passed before I tore myself away.
Lookout House was sold out from under them, and they moved to Bottom House, the poorest village on the island, sent Mark back to family and to public school in Texas, and lived on the beach in a hut they nailed together out of hatch covers from a shipwrecked freighter. One day a pre-cartel entrepreneur plying the trade routes between Colombia and Florida sailed his sloop into the island, and the Maltsbergers sailed away with him to the Bahamas, passing through the Turks and Caicos, which looked to Tay and Linda like their kind of archipelago.
On Grand Turk, they opened a restaurant, only to have the newly elected government fire the sole airline that brought tourists to the island. They took to the sea again, with Tay as captain and Linda as first mate of the Blue Cloud, a five-hundred-ton freighter that sailed from South Florida to ports throughout the northern Caribbean. But after a year of offering themselves up to every petty bureaucrat in every customs house on the trade routes — imagine bringing a shipload of anything into the wharves of Port-au-Prince and you get the picture — they bought a few acres of scrubland on Providenciales and jumped ship, their long love affair with life on the sea having ripened and burst. I think they meant to start another restaurant on Provo, not a nursery, but they inherited a truckload of pots and potting soil from a bankrupt hotel and that was that. In their fifties, the Maltsbergers finally retired their quest for gold, more emblematic than real anyway, and returned to the fold of property-owning, tax-paying citizens.
My wife and I visited Tay and Linda in Provo whenever we found the time and money, and the last time the four of us drove the road between town and Sunshine Nursery, we stumbled out of the bar at Turtle Cove into the star-smeared island midnight. As we walked toward the nursery’s mufflerless old Chevy pickup, Linda tripped on a rock — the roads were unpaved then — and in falling to her hands and knees she lost her glasses, which we promptly found and placed back on her face. The four of us squeezed into the timeworn cab of the truck, Linda behind the wheel. “My God,” she exclaimed a few hundred yards down the road, “Bob, you’re going to have to drive.” She slammed on the brakes. “Tay,” she said fiercely in her molasses twang, “I’ve drunk myself blind. I can’t see a fucking thing.”
In the morning we solved the mystery of Linda’s sudden blindness: When she tripped coming out of the bar, the lenses had popped out of their frames, and they were still there in the dirt when Tay drove back to look for them. But on the road that night, her worst fear had finally materialized: She had lost her precious sight, the ability to see the world. She and I had climbed out of the truck to trade places in total blackness, not a light to be seen anywhere but from a canopy of diamond-bright stars above, with one big one blazing down as we passed each other around the front of the Chevy.
“God damn,” she said. “I may be blind, but I saw that. Beautiful.”
Seven years earlier, after a radical mastectomy, the doctors had given Linda six months to live, and she had lit into them, calling them frauds and swearing she would prove them and their voodoo wrong. She and Tay had been captaining the Blue Cloud then, and Linda had started visiting an experimental cancer-treatment center in Freeport and injecting herself daily with a controversial immunological serum she carried everywhere in a dry-ice-filled Thermos. Her cancer had been in remission ever since, but she could sense it was coming back, and it wasn’t very long after that night together on the road that they would sell the nursery, which was prospering as the island developed, and Tay would take Linda to the States to die. He brought her ashes back to spread them over the wreck of the South Wind, which had proved so unseaworthy that it had been sunk by its owner, a Provo entrepreneur, off the reefs of the island, to be enjoyed forever after by scuba divers.
After the star fell and we started down the road again, Linda, staring blankly into the darkness, surprised us by asking whether we believed in life after death. If there was life after death, Linda wisecracked, Tay had better watch out: Her ghost would come a-chaperoning his liaisons with other women.
But there would never be other women, because grief, too, is blindness, sight fading inward toward memory, and the captain was too heartsick ever to care to begin again.
“Last chance, Tay. You coming with me?”
No, he wasn’t, not today.
On East Bay Cay I savored the exquisite waste of time, time that other people were using to prosper in the world, time forged by others into progress and still others into dreams. I dove for lobster and conch, speared snapper, fly-fished for barracuda just for the violence of the hookup. Down in the sand I walked for miles, beachcombing in a daze. I scribbled dry observations in my journal as if it were a ship’s log, and I slept soundly every night, lulled by the constant noise of nature: the far-off thunder of waves on the reef, the constant hiss and flutter of wind, the lap of shorebreak. For ten days I did precisely what I wanted: I read. Great books have made me unemployable; I can’t pick one up without completely shutting down my life. In this respect Linda’s influence continues to inform my days, for it was she who introduced me to Gabriel García Márquez, she who gave me my first copies of Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga, Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone on the World, Graham Greene’s The Comedians.
I knew what I was doing here on this far-off island — I knew how to take care of myself, how to enjoy myself — but I couldn’t quite explain to myself why I had come, what I was looking for. Perhaps it was only a rehearsal for my final voyage with the captain. Or maybe it was an act akin to a transmission overhaul, lubricating the machinery damaged by life’s inevitable grinding down of the romantic dream.
I thought of Captain Tay, back there on the king-sized island of his isolation, about his influence on how I’d lived my life, and about how I might measure the difference between us. Technically, at least, we were two of the most cut-loose people on earth: Americans, white males, sometimes penniless but possessed of the skills and tenacity that would always stick enough money in our pockets to get by, with a powerful and abiding sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. We were doing what suited us and what often made us happy. But Tay’s obstinate disconnection from a world he had formerly possessed with such ferocious energy had unsettled me. Perhaps I saw myself doing just that: disconnecting. What is it that finally conquers your appetite for the world? Fear? Exhaustion? The formerly wild places now sardined with stockbrokers on tour? Paralyzing nostalgia for the way it was? Age and health? Self-pity?
The epiphany of my relationship with Tay and Linda Maltsberger, the revelation that had become as clear and guiding as the North Star, still struck me as the larger truth: Whatever your resources, the world was yours to the exact degree to which you summoned the fortitude and faith to step away from convention and orthodoxy and invent your own life. Tay and Linda knew better than most that there’s never a good reason to make your world small.
An image presents itself from aboard the South Wind, an abominable vessel with a history as a drug-runner, eventually rehabilitated to run fuel between Provo and the Dominican Republic. In 1980, her owner coaxed the Maltsbergers into bringing the freighter down from a Florida boatyard. They hired me on as ship’s carpenter to enclose the toilet on the stern of the boat — Linda never did get much privacy in her life with Tay — and to help them deliver the South Wind to Provo.
On the fourth day out we entered an armada of vicious squalls in the channel off the Exuma Cays. At midnight I took the helm from Tay, and for the next three wretched hours I fought alone in the darkness to keep the ship on course, waves breaking over the bow and foaming down the deck, lightning strikes erupting on all sides, white rain pelting horizontally into the windshield. Toward the end of my watch Linda awoke, stepped over to the radar screen, and proclaimed that she didn’t know where we were, but from the looks of it I had steered too far west and we were about to crash into unseen rocks. Terrified, I changed course twenty degrees, and Linda, storm sibyl, as always so transcendently composed, walked out into the tempest. Sometimes I had to shake my head clear to see her properly. Her physical self, her sense of style — the clothes, the cut of her lank hair, the clunky eyeglasses — seemed so retrograde, so bolted down to the Camelot sixties, as if she still was and always would be some bookish chick from N.Y.U. who couldn’t quite finish her dissertation on the urban insane.
After the ship’s mechanic crawled up out of the engine room to relieve me at the wheel, I went looking for Linda and found her back at the stern. The worst of the storm had passed, and she stood in the cone of illumination under the pole that held our running light, her body swarmed by hundreds of shrieking birds that had sought refuge with us, swirling like snowflakes past the fingertips of her outstretched arms, landing on her shoulders, her head. It seemed for a moment they might carry her away. There was a look of extreme delight on her rain-streaked face, and she turned toward me and nodded as if to say, How marvelous! How miraculous! And then she retreated back inside to chart our position and bring us men safely through the night.