Paul decided to shoot on the so-called witch island. It was saved for last because it would take all day, for only two or three shots. There was an Obeah woman on the island who used to cast spells for Yoko Ono.
We’d all been on each other’s nerves for weeks. A tremendous inventory of shit had gone down. We’d gotten some rushed from Miami that were, let’s face it, not brilliant. Some of the acting was incredibly wank. Bobby English in particular. His close-ups. When he had to do things with his face, react to somebody, you saw he had no idea what was going on. He wasn’t inside the movie at all.
Luis Vasquez screened the rushes at the alleged art museum one night. The museum director even made a little cocktail affair out of it. There was no sound track so we sat there looking at random footage while Paul explained things. We weren’t supposed to deal with drugs or the army or the government, so he made up an entirely different story line. The Vasquez boys had invited various local snobs, old queers, and dried-up party girls putting on an air of culture. Like a third-rate embassy party. Paul should’ve filmedthat.
The art was garbage, the people were trolls, what you could make out of the movie looked clunky. Life certainly provides plenty of occasions to remind you you haven’t become what you thought you were going to. I’d had my fantasies that Paul would make the kind of little independent movie that’s so original and striking it becomes a runaway international success. Something like Stranger Than Paradise that would put him back on the map. And put me back into movies. All I could see when I looked at the screen was amphetamine run riot.
The excursion to the Rosarios was supposed to be kept quiet. Paul didn’t want Bobby to go. People cabbed separately from the Bolivar to Boca Grande in the morning. Alex hired cabs to take us to the boat. Carlotta came. With a big picnic hamper. Valentina, in a sulky mood for some reason. Hannah’s leg was frozen in bandages. They’d taken off the cast and wrapped it in miles of stretch bandage. She bitched about something Vale forgot to do with her passport. Ciro had lost his, and we’d driven to some hovel in Boca Chica that served as the German Consulate to get a temporary, and Hannah needed some stamp put in hers and Vale hadn’t taken it. Maria, cheery as a magpie after a few days down in the dumps, because her boyfriend was arriving that evening.
Off the road to Pasacaballos there’s a little hidden harbor with an inlet. The yacht club is on one side of the inlet and on the other about a dozen rotting fishing boats lined up at a landing stage. There’s a booking office at one end. You pull into a dirt parking lot and across the inlet you see the stone retaining wall and cement pylons with iron rings, the lawn of the yacht club, willow trees.
The boat was a 30-foot wooden hulk with benches along the inner hull, a bulkhead, a pilot’s nest, and a half-canopy of rotting canvas. After the usual endless palaver we start going aboard, and then Luis Vasquez arrives in the Cadillac, with Rodrigo, and who pops out but Bobby. Swaggering for the boat, looking fiercely affronted and pleased with himself at the same time.
Nicholas had been running his video camera and playing the documentarian. Once he picked up Bobby in his viewfinder he decided his allergies were kicking in, got off the boat, and headed for one of the taxis. Paul got out and ran after him, you could feel the mood turning. I think several people wanted to jump ship and go drink a quart of whiskey in their hotel rooms. The concept of being trapped on a boat with Bobby—well, Paul came back looking rattled and said, “I can’t say as I blame him.” He avoided looking at Bobby.
Bobby must have had some flickering sense that we all despised him. Even a dog picks up that sort of thing. The Brothers Vasquez had probably told him he wasn’t wanted there, but being Bobby he didn’t make any connection between his arrival and Nicholas’s departure. But he did want to know from Paul why he hadn’t been invited. Understand, he was quite incapable of processing a real answer to that. Paul made something up: “Oh, we heard you weren’t feeling well.” Things a child would’ve seen through, but Bobby didn’t. Then he commenced his routines.
His routines and Maria’s routines were enough together to drive you bonkers. We’re trapped on this goddam boat for three hours, and Maria has a genius for starting conversations with two people at once. Always two people who can barely stand to look at each other. The boat is riding about two inches above water. Three minutes out of the harbor and the thing settles like a dead turd, there’s a three foot chop spraying over the whole deck, it’s scary. We all have these brave Queen Christina faces on but everyone’s thinking, this is it. We’re gonna go right to the bottom when the fucking scow capsizes. One’s thoughts went immediately to Hannah’s leg, how quickly she’d sink.
Maria’s chatting up Alex. His mind is probably on the fact that he has to do a tender love scene with Ingrid on the island, and in reality she wouldn’t piss on him if his guts were on fire. I watch his mouth tighten in the shadow of his straw hat. He mumbles at Maria, then she hollers to Ingrid across the boat. The engine buzzes at a thousand decibels so Ingrid staggers up to the bulkhead, and then she’s trapped there with Alex.
Meanwhile Bobby’s perched himself on the bulkhead with the Vasquez louts, swinging his legs like a great naked fool, shouting stupidities at everyone. He has obviously never been on a boat in his life, so he has to show us what an old salt he is, scrambling around deck, balancing himself on the rail whenever the boat starts rolling in high waves. If you’ve got a hat on, Bobby just has to slip over and dart past you whipping it off your head. He tries it on and minces around apeing your mannerisms—I guess he finally caught on, after numerous evenings watching us all in the Arsenal, that Roy and Paul and I were a little bent, and of course we terrified him. So he attached himself to Luis and Rodrigo and Ciro, who were also queer as three dollar bills, but he didn’t realize it.
Alex had a great talent for ignoring Bobby so completely that Bobby never spoke to him. I found that very interesting. It must have been something Alex learned in prison. Bobby never left people alone if they ignored him.
Paul and Roy huddle together, smoking, looking murderous. Carlotta brings up her picnic basket. It then develops that some people had been asked to put in money for food and others hadn’t. The food was for Carlotta, Alex, Vale, and Hannah—and Ciro, who looked like a walrus and certainly didn’t need any.
I was sitting on a bench at the back of the boat, behind the engine. Ciro came over chewing a chicken sandwich. He sat down, crossing his fat legs.
“You didn’t want any lunch?” he asks. I had no appetite of course, but it pissed me off all the same.
Paul lurched down the deck and fell into the seat beside me.
“I can’t believe the rudeness of that woman,” he says, meaning Carlotta.
We sit with our backs pressed into the rear engine housing on oily plastic floation cushions. The air smells of petrol. A jet of water thrown up by the propeller makes a rainbow in the air.
“It’s Hannah’s fault,” I tell him. “I’m sure she told Carlotta she asked everybody.” Carlotta was guiltily doling out her own share of food.
Such a petty business. Paul loathed Hannah but the spitefulness of this food episode surprised him. Hannah sat up near the bow, chewing her sandwich, exchanging remarks with Alex. I thought, now it’s open war, she’s only feeding the producer, the director doesn’t count anymore. Valentina was talking to the captain. Then she went around assuring people who hadn’t eaten that the island had a restaurant.
Ingrid, bored, joined us at the back, drinking a can of beer. Her body was chunky at the hips and strangely tapered between the breasts and the navel. Like a drawing ripped in half and messily taped together. But she was more comfortable with her own flesh than Maria, who exhibited herself with false bravado, moving around the deck, stopping to pose here and there: an awkwardness I hadn’t noticed was coming out of her. Then Hannah, scrunched up with her lunch just behind the captain, purple blouse pulled over her bikini top, not touching Vale but making him stay beside her the whole way out. Vale was wedged between her and Carlotta, who wiped her bony fingers on a napkin and smiled at Alex across the bulkhead.
Alex had staked out his favorite “loner” pose, crunching into a pear, his white legs crossed on the bench, arm on the railing. Valentina stood near him, knee on the seat, holding the railing and staring at a supertanker miles away. We can see the rust-mottled hull, immutable, like it’s anchored in the same spot for years. The sun brings out the red in Valentina’s hair, the chunky volumes of her face. Like Alex she seems abnormally large. Alex and Valentina both move as though they grew up in tiny houses and still worry about bashing into fragile objects.
The only thing audible above the chainsaw noise of the engine is Bobby, clowning with Luis and Rodrigo, goosing and grabbing people when they walked past him, scrambling up on the hull, pounding his chest like Tarzan. He can’t endure a single moment when he isn’t the center of attention.
We pass an archipelago of tiny islands. Tall cypruses and bald patches of rocky beach. Fragments of old military architecture half-swallowed by vegetation. One island has a four-story Georgian house with mansards and a columned portico, shattered window glass and collapsed balconies. The sea choppy, slate-colored, spray sloshing the cushions. Bobby can’t bear the silence. He stomps over with his mouth open, eyes burning with imbecile energy, and stubs his foot on a loose plank, howls, drops to the deck.
“Holy shit my fuckin toe.” His face a rictus of supplicating agony. He sits squeezing the injured toe.
“That must really hurt, Bobby,” Paul says with certain satisfaction.
“Are you all right?”
“Are you bleeding?”
Does Bobby, in his dim way, perceive that it gives us immense pleasure to see him in pain? Suddenly Maria is squatting over him, examining the foot, fussing over him, listening to his wailing. It takes him some time to notice that no one else is following the drama of his injury. Maria brings him a Coke and the last chicken sandwich. Eventually he feels well enough to annoy people again. Even the Vasquez brothers, insufferable clowns though they are, show signs of impatience.
“That’s enough of that shit,” Luis snaps when Bobby lunges for Valentina’s straw hat.
Shortly before you reach the Rosarios the mountains of Panama appear in mist on the horizon. The witch island has a rackety pier with a mangrove swamp on one side, white oval beach on the other. Up from the beach is a fenced-in children’s playground, metal swings and seasaws and slides. Two steep plain wooden staircases go up to the inn. Behind the building is an aviary full of parrots and a monkey house.
There’s a track that cuts through the jungle and swings up into the hills and the plantations. The plantations have all gone to rot. Slave descendants live on them in shacks. I wasn’t keen to meet the Witch of Cartagena. I stayed at the beach. Carlotta blew up her rubber raft and marched into the water and stayed there all afternoon.
It was such an odd sight, Hannah stumping off into the jungle on her crutches behind all the film equipment. Ingrid slathering sunscreen on her nose, Ciro and Vale lugging boxes, the whole procession stalking off in pursuit of some weird fragment of authenticity, after weeks of avoiding any real contact with the local culture. I just knew the Witch was going to be very old, very thin, not at all friendly person who made chicken noises—and of course, if you see the film, that’s exactly what she was. I decided to stick with the real witch.
But in fact I barely talked to Carlotta. I waded around in the mangrove swamp and pulled shells out of the surf. A few of the shells had hideous wrigging organisms inside them. Then I sat in the inn dining room and watched Carlotta’s behind and blond hair floating on that motionless water, and talked to the American hippy couple who ran the place, and chewed over everything that had happened and everything that hadn’t happened. I thought about going back to New York and wondered what I would do for money and various other problems. I thought about Paul, and Ingrid, and all the conversations we’d had since we came to that place, and how much I’d been drinking and how much amphetamine I’d taken, everything swirled through my mind all mixed up and I really had no idea what I was going to do.
Somewhere in the afternoon I heard a woman screaming, way off in the forest. After a minute or so there was somebody thrashing through the area back of the monkey house, then shouting, hard to make out, I heard Roy yelling, he said something like “You rotten little fuck.” Then more commotion, then silence.
Strangely enough these Americans listened carefully to all this and then carried on as if nothing had happened. I did not have the energy to move and I didn’t really care to know what was going on, but I did expect some ghastly situation to come pouring into the dining room any second, some final explosion of animosity involving x, y, and z. I asked for a rum and Coke and looked out the window at Carlotta floating on her raft, and waited, and waited.
The normal sounds of the island supervened. The rattle of palm branches in the trade wind, the parrots cawing and cackling in the aviary, the throbbing noise of the ceiling fan, the rumble of the bar refrigerator. Everything normal. I expected Ava Gardner to roll out a drinks cart.
More time passed. An hour, two hours. Then they all came down the hill. Everyone talking, ordering exotic drinks and food. Things were almost too manic and friendly. Carlotta came up from the beach. Lunch was served. I sat with Paul and Roy. I asked Roy what was that terrible uproar this afternoon and he said what uproar and I described it, and he said, Oh that, Yes what was it, Nothing, he says, just nothing at all.
I think Paul was about to fill me in, but just then the boat captain walked into the dining room—he was a skinny old man with beautiful brown skin, wearing a pair of jeans caked with grease, and he’d been drinking Mt. Gay from the bottle all day—to say that a storm was heading for the islands and if we wanted to get back that day we’d have to leave immediately.
The trip out of there was a nightmare. The boat tumbling around in the waves like a piece of cork, one side skimming the water, the bow ploughing into the waves and crashing down with heavy sheets of water smashing over it. Carlotta whooped with laughter the whole time while everybody got drenched, which I must say was rather steadying, like when you’re on a plane absolutely certain it’s going to crash and some old lady is calmly knitting a sweater. Suddenly, though, Valentina stood up and staggered towards the side and before she got to the railing puked a great wad of half-digested ceviche which had turned sort of green in her stomach. As soon as he saw that, Luis Vasquez lurched forward and blew his lunch all over the bulkhead. Carlotta began making faces and turned to let it go over the railing, she twisted around to stand up and a big wave smacked her in the face, sending her sprawling into the puddle of Valentina’s vomit. Next Maria tossed her cookies, fortunately over the side, while Carlotta started weeping, trying to get her balance while soaked in puke. Alex stooped to help her up and got a heavy whiff of the stuff and barfed all over her. All through this the boat is flying up and down on great seething waves, thudding hard on the water and pitching right and left. And then the engine went dead.
We were ten miles from anything, covered in vomit. It was … a piquant moment. The waves threw the boat all over the place, and the sky was becoming a very frightening mauve. The captain opened the engine cover and started fiddling around, not looking especially confident and dead drunk besides. We soaked our beach towels over the side and started cleaning off the puke. We all looked at each other without a word. Bobbing up and down. Even Bobby shut up.
The baton of shiftiness quietly passed from Bobby to the Vasquez brothers, who hired the boat in the first place. They now assured us that if we were stuck the Coast Guard would pick us up in no time. Alex pointed out that the boat didn’t have a two-way radio. Paul asked if there were any flares. Well, of course not. The flotation cushions in the boat were the plastic kind stuffed with kapok that waterlog and sink in about two minutes. Hannah didn’t blow her lunch but now you could see her getting seriously panicked. No way was she going to swim or even float with a mile of bandages on her leg.
For such a neurotic group we were surprisingly composed. It was such an intense moment, I suppose we all felt grateful to feel so alive for a change. I don’t know how long we sat there in the reek of vomit watching this rum-soaked sailor tinkering with a bunch of gaskets and valves, thinking we were about to be sucked up by the pitiless ocean and so on, but he did get the engine to turn over eventually, and once we were moving again Bobby made some awful remark and we all wanted to kill him again. I mean toss him over the side and club him with Hannah’s crutches if we had to, like Walter Slezak in Lifeboat. You know that French expression that means a person turns other people into animals? And then, just when we’re going into the harbor and the storm’s crashing in the sea behind us, Bobby starts clowning again, climbing up on the stern and leaning over in a diving pose. A collective groan goes up. In the blink of an eye he’s tossed somebody’s hat overboard and dived in after it.
Then something truly unforeseen occurred. The captain began circling the boat to pick him up, which was a little tricky since we were right in the mouth of the harbor and there were rocks on either side, Bobby in the middle, and as the boat goes into the harbor to turn around Maria spots something in the water, inside this circle. Bobby’s 50 yards or so away, out where the rough waves are, flailing around, swimming in towards the boat. Then Paul sees this thing and then we all see it, a big sleek blue gray thing under the water with a big fin sticking out of the water and the captain sees it and goes roaring full throttle towards Bobby and then the thing disappears and we go past Bobby, who’s waving and grinning like an idiot with the wet hat stuck on his head and then the captain backs up but he’s drunk and pulls the speed stick too hard and we hear this terrible crash and then Bobby’s screaming and there’s blood everywhere in the black water and Alex is pulling him into the boat and the great gray thing shimmers up through the water and kind of bumps into Bobby’s lower half and glides away with most of Bobby’s right leg in its mouth.
Everyone on that boat was screaming. Everyone. It was the freakiest thing I ever saw in my life. Bobby lost consciousness immediately, with this chewed-up bloody stump bleeding all over the deck. The boat’s roaring for the yacht club, people are sobbing and groaning and bickering over what to do, and Carlotta very calmly takes her drenched pukey blouse off and makes a tourniquet around the stump, which saved Bobby’s life, actually. He was chewed up pretty badly by the propeller, too, but after four months in the hospital they did get him patched together. He’s still around. I saw his face the other day in an aftershave ad.