Jan/Feb 2012  •   Fiction


by Michael Barber

The guy at Shamrock Personnel rifled through his index cards and picked one out—a possible four-leaf clover in a cluster of maybes—and rattled off some of his notes: "Let's see now... Four Seasons Travel, Madeline Madison, owner, looking for a CPA immediately, had to fire the one she had last week." He peered closer at the card and frowned briefly. "Actually that makes two she's fired in the past three months," he added.

"Sounds like we're both equally desperate," I said.

He picked up the phone and called them. Then he looked up at me, somewhat taken aback. "How about in an hour?"

"I'm on my way."

He wrote down the address, shook my hand, and then gave me what I suspected was the standard Shamrock send-off: "Good luck!"

I would need it. I had spent the winter crewing aboard a charter schooner out of St. Lucia, and while I was exercising free will in my life, my means of support was now in free-fall. I was see-sawing on solvency, and prospects were running out. I needed a job.

Four Seasons Travel was in the heart of mid-town, wrapping itself around a busy intersection—sure to lure passers-by. The large plate glass windows were plastered with exotic and colorful travel posters offering escape from the gray grind of Manhattan.

A "Lucy" greeted me at the receptionist's desk. She was round, red-headed, and cheery.

"Mr. Flannigan?"

"That would be me."

I'm hard to miss. I'm black Irish, six-five, two-sixty. I have unruly black hair, a permanent five o'clock shadow, a smooth pelt of dark fur all over my body. A friend once said I was a dead ringer for Bluebeard the Pirate.

"Please follow me," she said. "I'm sure Madeline is anxious to meet you."

Yeah, right. She led me through an open area of red carpet with a dozen desks—all manned by women—most of them huddled with customers, pointing things out in exotic, colorful brochures. Lucy ushered me into a bright, spacious office looking out onto Madison Avenue.

Madeline Madison came out from behind a rich, rosewood desk to greet me. She was 30-something, short, slim, self-assured in her good looks. She wore a dark green business suit. Her handshake was firm, no-nonsense. No rings.

Lucy did the introductions and then slipped out to get us coffee.

"Please, call me Maddie," she said indicating a chair. There was a low, rich, Lauren Bacallish pitch to her voice which went with the desk. Her public persona seemed an optimum blend of cool confidence and warm approachability. She had casual down cold.

I had a moment to study Maddie as she scanned my one-page resume. The light from the window behind her played coppery tricks with her long, auburn hair, and she had the kind of light hazel eyes that could change colors like mood rings. There was a girlish spray of freckles across her nose. A bonny lass. Her mouth—just a trace of strawberry lipstick—was generous, the ends curling slightly upward in what I hoped was a parenthetical promise of wry humor. But there was something else going on just beneath the polished veneer: an invisible draft of something turbulent, as yet unclassified, but as real as wind.

Maddie pursed her lips as she read. My credentials were meager: small, sundry jobs keeping me afloat between sailing gigs.

She put down the resume and looked at me, her eyes picking up the green in her suit.

"Well... not much here is there," she said in an oddly intimate tone suggesting we were lone survivors adrift on a raft with precious few provisions. She cushioned the blow with a lop-sided smile; I had been right about the wry humor.

"Afraid not," I said.

That should have been that, but Lucy re-appeared with two coffee mugs. Maddie glanced discreetly at her watch, and when she thought I wasn't looking, spread out her hand as a signal to Lucy: five more minutes. She kicked back in her chair—polite was part of the package. We grappled through small talk, unable to find firm purchase, but then we happened to strike common ground: sailing. She told me she had recently bought an older, 31-foot sailboat she was planning to restore and take out on weekends.

"Not an H-31 by any chance?" I asked.

It was a lucky guess, and it managed to disturb her equilibrium. Her jaw dropped a fraction; her eyes widened, picking up some blue from somewhere.

"You're familiar with the boat?"

Time to reveal my real resume. "I sailed on one three years ago in the Newport-Bermuda race."

She sat back, looking at me with new interest, bumping the eraser of her pencil against her teeth. She narrowed her eyes, a bit of gray leaking into the blue.

"So... tell me all you know about an H-31," she said.

A test. My turn for casual. "Well, she's a lovely lady indeed," I began. "A classic Herreshoff sloop. Tall masthead rig, pretty transom overhangs, easy on the eyes. She's—"

"Are we talking about a boat or a woman here?"

I might have blushed; I tend to get carried away about boats.

She rescued me with another lop-sided smile. "Please go on."

"Well... she's got 360 square feet of sail and with a displacement of 6,500 pounds, she's stable in blow and won't hobby-horse in a chop. She's comfy with her nine-foot beam. Twelve-horsepower diesel kicker."

Maddie had become quite still. Lucy re-appeared, ready to escort me out, but Maddie held her hand out again to her—this time like a traffic cop—and Lucy about-faced.

"I bought her for a song, but she needs work and the diesel isn't working," she said. "Tell me, do you own a boat yourself?"

"Can't afford one, but I crew a lot."

She glanced down at my resume. "Hence, all these gaps."

"Afraid so."

"You're very honest."

I shrugged. "May I ask what happened to your last two accountants?"

"I had to fire them."

"Any specific reason?"

"They were both men," she said, as if that explained everything.

I raised my head as if she had just made a salient point. "Ah," I said.

She studied me, made some sort of decision.

"The first one had an affair with one of my agents. He also told her how much money I made. I fired him, and then I fired her. The second one was indiscriminate: he chased all of my agents."

"Who are all women," I said.

"You noticed."

"I did."

"Are you married, Mr. Flannigan?"

"Never have been."

"Are you a woman chaser by any chance?"

I had to laugh. "Do I look like a lady killer?"

She shrugged—point taken. She pushed my resume aside, resting her chin in one palm.

"Tell me, do you like working on boats?"

"I do."

"Are you good with engines?"

"I've worked on a few."

The eraser was bumping her teeth again. "I'm looking for a crew as well—she's too much to single-hand."

"I'm available. I can also—believe it or not—do the accounting work you need done here."

She leaned back and stretched in a feline kind of way, her eyes turning green again, catty. "You don't say?"

We worked in close quarters in the weeks ahead, both at the office and on her boat. The company books had been left in disarray and required Maddie's frequent input. I was assigned a cubbyhole off the main floor. My only window faced the interior, where fashionably dressed women drifted back and forth like tropical fish. Off to my left I could see into Maddie's office, and it wasn't long before I would witness manifestations of that turbulence I had first sensed from her. There were short, fierce outbursts from Maddie behind closed doors against various unfortunates. I could distinguish her wild, animated gestures flickering through the Venetian blinds like a silent movie. On occasion, she would steal into my office afterward, close my door, and then pace up and down in front of my desk to continue her rant. Then—just as suddenly—she'd slip out the door again as if I had never been there. There seemed to be an unspoken clause in my job description: sounding board.

A few days later, a big, red-faced man barged past Lucy into Maddie's office, venting his frustrations over a recent trip to Jamaica Maddie had personally arranged. Bad weather, bad food, bad service. As he was backing her into a corner—demanding a refund—Maddie caught my eye across the way and cried out "Mitch!" Without thinking, I rushed over and wrapped my arms around him in a bear hug, kicked his feet away, and then escorted him out the door like a UPS man with an unwieldy package. Yet another addendum in my contract: Chief of Security.

The real work—the work I'd been essentially hired for—began on the week-ends. Maddie and I would meet at the Greenwich marina where her boat lay forlorn on her cradle. I did most of the grunt work: scraping barnacles, sanding the bottom, replacing hardware and wire-rigging. The diesel turned out to be the evil twin of The Little Engine that Could, and often, I would roundly curse the beast. It was the first time I heard Maddie's deep, bawdy laughter.

"Now, now, there's a lady onboard, Mitch," she would always say with a smile.

It was a warm, dusky laughter, and I couldn't hear enough of it. So I regaled her with sea stories. Like the time I had awoken a new crew member for his midnight watch. I was naked and when he woke, he had screamed in fright at my hairy presence. From then on I was known around simply as "Bear."

Maddie busied herself with other tasks: varnishing the bright work, mending sails, restoring creature comforts below. All the while, she chatted, smiled, laughed—a completely different person. I was growing more than fond of her. She was, however, reticent to talk about herself, and what little I knew about her past I got from Lucy. Maddie had been married twice. Both had died: the first, seven years ago, in some sort of boating tragedy; the second, just two years ago, in a hiking accident. Maddie's reticence became understandable, and I knew well enough to leave it alone.

We spent most weekends together—working, eating, sleeping on the boat. Maddie slept in the large, private berth forward. I managed to squeeze my bulk into the quarter-berth just aft of the galley. Our arrangement soon became common knowledge around the office, setting off flurries of speculation around the water cooler. Lucy kept us abreast of all the gossip. I was currently known as Maddie's "toy bear."

We were spending more and more time together, becoming a couple of sorts, but it was difficult to define our relationship. There seemed to be no traditional molds in which we could comfortably fit.

One cold gray night, Maddie set up a portable TV in the cabin and we huddled close to the heater. We just happened to tune into a show called "Unlikely Animal Friends." There was a lioness who had adopted a baby gazelle as her own, an orangutan and a tiger, an elephant and a dog—well, you get the idea. My particular favorite was a cat and a black crow. It was while watching the cat and crow wrestle in fun that Maddie reached over and placed her hand on mine. It was as if we were watching ourselves: oddities of the human world.

Maddie christened her boat the Lady M. "It's what I hope to become," she had confessed to me as we drank champagne out of paper cups. Finally, on a chilly June morning, she picked me up at the town dock, the diesel purring. I felt a thrill as the Lady M emerged regally from the mist. It was to be our first sea trial: a day's sail up the Connecticut coast, an overnight in Essex, returning on Sunday. Maddie looked endearingly lost in a bulky green sweatshirt; there was a smudge of varnish on her nose. I heaved my duffel bag aboard, and we chugged out of the harbor. Once out, the wind freshened out of the south. Maddie held the Lady M into the wind while I duck-walked forward to hoist up the main and jib. Maddie cut the engine, the sails filled, and water began to boil merrily along the lee rail. The sea has always been my spiritual savior, and I felt a rush of renewal and expectation.

We beat against the wind—gaining sea room away from the rocky coast before heading east. There was a good three-foot swell working as we got further out. Maddie, with just a light touch on the tiller, coaxed the best out of her boat with practiced ease—slipping her up close to the wind to slide over the crests, and then letting her fall off the wind again to gain momentum for the climb up the next wave.

I looked back at Maddie. She looked as eager as a young girl, her windblown hair alight, her eyes a kaleidoscope of colors. Old fool, I thought. Like the boat, I, too, was slipping, sliding, falling for her.

We changed course to the east and eased sails for a fast beam reach, arriving at Saybrook by late afternoon. We doused sails and chugged up the Connecticut River to Essex. We found a protected anchorage close to shore and dropped the hook.

I furled the sails, made sure the anchor held fast, and then joined Maddie in the galley where she was making western omelets. I was stooped over her shoulder, admiring her deft movements as she chopped peppers and ham.

"Is there anything you're not good at, Maddie?"

She gave me a quick look of appraisal as she whisked the eggs. "You know why I like you so much, Mitch?" she asked back.

"Because I flatter you so shamelessly?" I suggested.

She tossed a pat of butter into the skillet; there was a pleasant sizzle of expectation.

"Yes, you do flatter me shamelessly," she said. "But that's not the reason." She glanced up at me. "The reason is I know you mean it. And that's not flattery now, is it. Unlike Jackie who I had to fire today."

"Yes, I heard about that.

She didn't look surprised. "Another reason why I like you—you always mind your own business."

I dismissed this with a shrug. "Don't have to," I said. "I know you'll tell me sooner or later.

"For the last two weeks, Jackie has been sucking up to me. ‘Oh, what a nice office you have, your hair looks so good that way'—blah, blah, blah—all the while sneaking her digs in at Linda whose job she wants. She's determined to take over Linda's cruise desk. I couldn't take it anymore."

"You... patience personified?"

"I told her to hit the road."

After dinner, we went topside and had the sunset for dessert: flaming cherries jubilee with a somber splash of brandy, which prompted Maddie to pour out the real stuff into two snifters. We hoisted glasses in a silent toast. Soon, a fat, yellow moon rose sending a shimmering path our way. Follow the yellow brick road. Lights winked on along the shore and a few early crickets were tuning up for the evening symphony.

"Did I ever tell you about Trevor, my last husband?"

We both knew she hadn't. I sat quietly, listening to the soft orchestration of wind and water.

"We were married for three years... three long years. Trevor used to be the star quarterback at Ohio State back in the early eighties."

"Ah, Trevor Madison," I said.

She turned slightly toward me. "You've heard of him then."

"Who hasn't? And I don't even follow football."

"Well, that was part of the problem—everyone knew him. And wherever we went, there were always people who recognized him which, of course, he lapped up." She turned to me again. "Tells you something right there, doesn't it."

A statement. I remained quiet.

"I was literally spending my life listening to him talk football with total strangers... it got intolerable really."

She took a healthy slug. "We met in Chicago. After college, he went to a law school you've never heard of. It took him three years and four tries to finally pass the bar exam, but somehow, he managed to land a position with a respectable law firm. I was working as a lowly trainee for Merrill-Lynch at the time. I was young, naïve, lonely... I guess I was ready for a Trevor. He was, after all, handsome, well-known. He had a promising future and he was very attentive toward me at first. Even my name seemed a perfect fit." She turned again for confirmation.

"Ah, yes, Maddie Madison. Tailor-made."

"Trevor didn't know how unhappy I was. We spent most weekends entertaining his friends or business associates. I had no friends of my own. I was actually more lonely than before we got married. Listening to old football stories over and over. It was like water torture. I was reaching my cracking point."

She looked over again for either confirmation or understanding—I wasn't sure which. I said nothing. Her voice was rising, struggling for control.

"God, how tired I got hearing him talk. I realized I had married this shell, a caricature of a man without any substance. He never saw past his own ego, was never even remotely interested in anything or anyone else—especially me. I was just another trophy. I wanted to end it but wound up remaining the faithful wife, hoping—I don't know—things would change somehow, that maybe he'd grow up." She took a deep swallow. "But no such luck. We took a hiking trip—just the two of us—to the Smoky Mountains. I suggested it. I told him we should spend some time just by ourselves for once. But it was the same—total strangers came up to him and he just couldn't refuse the attention. But maybe we could get lost in the mountains—you know—reconnect or something.

"So we started hiking. There were signs grading each trail by difficulty and, of course, Mr. Macho insisted we climb the most difficult one leading to the top of the highest peak. We didn't see anyone along the way—small wonder. It took us three grueling hours to reach the top. There was an outcropping of rock jutting out over the valley hundreds of feet below and we sat down. All those magnificent fall colors—it was worth the climb. It was so peaceful there. I was about to reach for Trevor's hand when he suddenly got up and faced me. He stood close to the edge with his arms raised high and I thought maybe, just maybe, something good was about to come out of his mouth, something inspirational." Her voice cracked. "Oh, it was inspirational all right. He said this moment was just like that top-of-the-world feeling he had felt after winning the national title!"

She put her drink down, and began to massage her temples with her fingertips. "I couldn't take it anymore. As I said everyone has their breaking point and I had finally reached mine. Without even thinking about it, I raised my right foot and kicked him off the ledge. Right off the mountain. That look of surprise... I'll never forget it. He didn't utter a sound as he fell." She raised her right foot off the railing and kicked, to show me just how she had done it. "Just like that," she said. "And you know what? I didn't even feel a twinge of guilt at that moment. I was just happy to be rid of him."

There was a sudden cacophony of crickets; I was grateful for the distraction. Words were impossible.

She abruptly rose. "I'm turning in, Mitch," she said matter-of-factly. "Thanks for listening."

She was gone before I could think of a response. The clamor of the crickets now seemed accusatory. I stayed up on deck, my mind reeling around the constellations until I heard the click of her cabin door.

I went down below, changed, and was about to stuff myself into the aft berth when I heard the click of her door again and then a soft, plaintive cry from within. "Mitch?" It struck me on the same elemental level as her urgent cry from the office that day, but this cry was somehow more compelling.

I went into her cabin and looked down at her girlish sprawl. Her face squinted up at me, her eyes seeking mine.

"Please, Mitch. Please... just hold me?"

I squeezed myself onto one side and she rolled over to me. She began to sob softly, her body shaking against mine. I held her close.

"Please don't let me go," she whispered.

As if I could. I held her all night. Sleep came on and off. I lay on my back, looking through the Plexiglas hatch above me, the stars blurred, as if they belonged to another universe.

Inwardly, I wrestled with the unanswerable question: Why did she tell me? Had the remorse and guilt of such an act finally caught up with her? And did she now need someone to share her unbearable secret? A confidante? I thought about her story. Was all she had said about Trevor true? Could a man really be that one-dimensional? How would I ever know? Had Maddie inadvertently made me an accessory to murder?

I had been right about my first impressions of Maddie. She was volatile, even uncontrollable at times. I reviewed the silent movies I had seen, remembered the clear sense of paranoia permeating her rants. The world was always blowing against Maddie; I seemed to be her only anchor to windward.

Morally, I was in the dark. Who was I to judge? Then again, who was I to forgive? All I could do was accept.

I batted these thoughts about in the dark, the black crow holding the cat protectively under its wing. All I knew for sure was this woman had become my universe, filling a void within me I hadn't been aware of until now. I had placed all of my emotional chips on her; she was my last chance at happiness.

We got through the next week easier than I expected. Routine has always calmed emotional waters; time would keep them still. All seemed forgotten and, at times, I wondered if I had dreamed the whole thing. Maddie suggested we take three days off together. We would leave early Friday afternoon, lay over at Essex again, then sail to Block Island the next day. I think we both looked forward to it as a new beginning.

We had good sailing. The fresh breeze swept away any lingering thoughts I had of that night. We were now sailing into the future—for better or worse—leaving the past in our wake. Once in Essex, we moored close to the same spot we had had last time.

I shared her cabin again that first night, this time without tears. Later, we went topside. The harbor lights seemed festive; a pale, crescent moon flew above us like a kite. Maddie poured brandy and we toasted one another. The ensuing silence was warm, comfortable. Finally, all seemed right with the world.

Until Maddie spoke.

"Did I ever tell you about Robert, my first husband?"