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Authors: Elliott Mackle

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BOOK: It Takes Two
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The program Asdeck sold his investors in the Caloosa syndicate was considerably more radical than renting geisha girls and private rooms to horny, lonely officers. The Caloosa was conceived as both a year-round commercial establishment
and
as a top-dollar playground for winter visitors. Since my arrival as the new hotel manager that September, I’d busted my ass to make the right kind of changes, changes that would appeal to big spenders as well as to salesmen and manufacturers’ agents who worked long hours and often saw clients at night. The improvements I planned to discuss with Asdeck included additional conference rooms on the mezzanine, heightening security and replacing most of the dining room waiters with good-looking waitresses, shapely Doris Day types.

Lou Salmi’s return appearance at my elbow reminded me that the process wasn’t finished yet.

“Gotta problem, Lieutenant,” he growled, leaning down, his shaving lotion louder than his voice. “Got two gents ordering Haig Pinch on the rocks. Gents say they want the unopened bottle set right out here in front a God ’n’ ever’body. Guess they don’t trust us with their hooch.” He leaned closer. “Can’t do it,” he added, his voice now a mosquito’s whine. “You know what I mean?”

“Are they registered as club members?” I asked. “Did they just check in? What’s the problem?”

Ordinarily, there was no questioning a reasonable request by a guest. Rules were made to be bent.

“It’s Sunday, Lieutenant. Don’t want no complaints.”

I looked around. Salmi’s two thirsty gents—prosperous dentists from Orlando—seemed unlikely to complain to the authorities about illicit bar service.

“Take care of them,” I said. “Whatever they want.”

Salmi looked shocked. “It’s your call, Lieutenant. But I serve hooch out here and anybody can see it—passing by, like from a boat on the water. Could be our ass.”

Interpreting the finer points of liquor service was clearly not Salmi’s specialty. Just as Salmi closed his gaping mouth, Homer Meadows, one of the older, more experienced black waiters, emerged from the kitchen hefting a tray of lunch plates.

Staff-wise, Asdeck and his first two general managers had been heading the hotel in the right direction. Fighting Southern tradition, they’d replaced half of the property’s elderly black waiters with younger white men. Losing the Pullman conductors was an improvement but no real solution. In any case, Homer was a gem, the crème de la crème of the old dining car tradition, his dignified unflappability honed by years of faithful service on the Louisville and Nashville line. I couldn’t stand to fire him. And with waiters like Salmi on the loose and too many young women getting married and starting families, I couldn’t afford to lose him.

I flagged Homer down, pointed to the pair of dentists and told him to fetch a bucket of ice and an unopened fifth of Haig and Haig. “Tie a linen napkin around the bottle,” I said. “Tell the gentlemen it’s on the house. Explain that we can’t open their pinch bottle outside because it’s Sunday.”

Salmi’s mouth opened and closed like a beached fish.

“Close out your patio tabs,” I told him. “Homer’s taking over out here. Go check on his four-top. Then go see if Carmen needs you to pick up any tables for him in the dining room. When you’re through in there, get yourself a bath and fresh uniform. Report to the club room at two. Shift lasts until midnight.”

“Can’t be done, Lieutenant. Supposed to go fishing.”

“Throw a bucket of ice cubes in the tub to cool yourself off,” I said. “You get paid to carry trays, not chase pussy.”

He smirked. “Get paid for both, Lieutenant.” He looked around, proud as a terrier puppy lifting its leg for the first time. “Anyhows, that was your call. You set me up with Barbara and Mr. Mayson last night. And it all went OK, have to say.”

I was sick of looking at him, sick of his rancid smell and self-satisfied dodging. The guy thought with his dick—shoving the Mayson assignment in my face. “Get out of here,” I said. “Report to the club room as soon as you get back.”

I probably should have fired him on the spot. But, like I say, I was still short on decent help, including hotel security. One or two rooms had been broken into. Pilferage was higher than I liked. Brightening up the balance sheet with liquor and girls required countervailing muscle.

For that, I’d penciled in the name of Bud Wright. If Asdeck gave me the go-ahead, I intended to offer him the job of security chief at ten dollars a week more than I knew he was getting from Lee County. Loyal, trustworthy, honest and all the rest of the Boy Scout agenda—plus his wartime experience as a Marine—guaranteed he’d keep the property battened down, lined up and looking as close to legal as necessary.

And, if he worked in the hotel, maybe even slept in a spare room occasionally, I’d see a lot more of him. A connecting room next to mine probably wouldn’t appeal to him right away. But I could wait.

Figuring first things first, I hadn’t brought up the subject with Bud yet. Though I doubted Asdeck would balk at any part of my plan, I also figured the proposition would sit better with Bud if permission was already granted and the money budgeted. Asdeck and I would settle the matter on Tuesday.

 

 

 

The rest of the day went like breakfast—small problems to fix, guests to satisfy, staffers to cajole or discipline, account books to tally. Emma Mae’s fishing trip took off on schedule, a new supply of inflatable life preservers stowed in the forward cabin. The party returned safely, beer chests empty and fish lockers full.

Following innkeeper’s routine kept my mind off Bud, at least for a while. But by eleven P.M., after a room-service supper of broiled, freshly caught sea bass with lemon butter, mashed potatoes and Regal beer, I wanted to see the guy a lot. Though I knew it was cold shower time, I kept drinking. And thinking.

The events of the morning—two dead bodies, prisoners in uniform, a crazy woman with a gun, a man I cared about risking his life for me—all of it had gotten under my skin more than I wanted to admit. I needed to know the reasons behind what had happened. I’d been shot at before. But that was in wartime.

The night my ship was torpedoed in August of 1945, I’d counted dozens, maybe hundreds of men in the water, some dead, others dying. We stayed there, out in the empty Pacific Ocean, for nearly a week, ignored by the otherwise triumphant U.S. Navy. It wasn’t long before the sharks arrived.

I’d dreamed of those cruising sharks ever since, dreamed of oily seawater and starry darkness, of watery graves and fire cutting through the war’s familiar blackout zone. Worse, I’d dreamed of the temptation to quit fighting, suck salt water and turn shark bait. Though I was usually able to douse the night-time flames with beer, and in extreme cases with stronger stuff, I hadn’t found a permanent cure. Grabbing on to someone in the dark was the only way I knew to shut down the nightmares.

That Sunday night in Fort Myers, I figured the nightmares were due. By the time I popped open a fourth long-neck, the drawling voice of Ensign Mike Rizzo was falling softly on my ears. Mike was goofing off, shucking his sweaty clothes after a long watch below decks, repeating words he’d said there in our stateroom on the USS
Indianapolis
. He was talking about luck, saying that I was his luck, that the gallant old ship was lucky, that he needed to be with me, that I gave him all the luck he’d ever need.

And then, as always, he disappeared. The night turned cold and black, as dark as the Pacific after our cruiser upended and sank. But I could hear Mike calling to me out across the water, calling, “Where’s my lieutenant? Why aren’t you aboard when you’re needed? Who’s going to fight the fire with us, ride the ship on down to hell? Ahoy, Lieutenant, ahoy.”

Mike always called and called until I woke up, wet all over, my mouth as salty and rotten as a bay beach at low tide.

Setting the half-finished Regal on the room service tray, I pushed back from the table, stood up and pulled a clean shirt and a cotton windbreaker out of the closet. On the way out of the building, I let the desk clerk know I’d be taking a long walk. Then I headed for Bud’s rooming house. After what I’d been through that Sunday, I was damned if I’d sleep alone.

Ensign Rizzo

 

 

 

The University of Florida at Gainesville  was my hotel school and commissary college. As a Phi Delta Theta freshman, I bussed dishes, peeled spuds and swabbed toilets. Senior year I served as fraternity house manager and treasurer. In between I waited tables at the faculty club, lettered in swimming, joined the Navy cadet squadron and cracked books just often enough to keep the dean in charge of athletic scholarships happy. On graduation day, the Navy gave me a commission, a new set of uniforms and orders to report to the Navy Yard at San Francisco within two weeks. Fifteen months in the Pacific gave me a man’s wartime experience. As junior supply officer aboard the
Indianapolis,
I managed the officers’ wardroom, whipped slippery squads of stewards into shape, learned to keep the coffee flowing during battle and was promoted the expected couple of notches.

I was nothing special, in other words, except for one easily overlooked detail.

The detail was my relationship with Ensign Mike Rizzo. Mike was a dark, compact, slow-talking mechanical engineer from Baltimore. We began sleeping together three days after he carried his sea bag into my cabin. For almost a year, we were what is now called “lovers.”

“Ship is goddamn noisy,” Mike had called down from the upper berth the second time we sacked out on the same watch. “Too much racket up here. I got to get some shut-eye.”

“That’s just old Lieutenant Andrews,” I called back over the ship’s roaring din. “They say he departed for mid watch one night in 1938—and never reported back. He only comes out when there’s kamikazes in the area.”

Though I didn’t expect Ensign Rizzo to take me seriously, he did, at least at first. We were both kids, remember, and he was just out of college.

“You’re fucking with me,” Mike said. “My grandma had a ghost in her attic in Alexandria. Told me she saw it twice, both times on Christmas Eve. Fuck, now I’m scared too. It’s like a boiler-plate factory up here.”

“Andrews always preferred the upper,” I called. “I couldn’t sleep either, the first couple of months after I drew that rack. Quiet as the Waldorf-Astoria down here, though.”

“We could switch,” Mike said hopefully. “Since it doesn’t bother you anymore.”

“Junior man gets the upper. That’s in Navy regs somewhere.”

“What?”

“You’re junior man. Andrews was the junior man.”

“I’m the scared junior man. You mind if I come down there, Dan? That OK?”

Like a kid at a campfire, I was just telling ghost stories, so I didn’t think much about it. Swinging his legs around, Mike lowered himself to the deck and turned to face me. He’d sacked out in a tan GI undershirt and nothing else. The dim light was behind him. I pulled my feet up to make room at the end of the bunk. He folded himself into the farthest corner. There wasn’t much headroom and he had to lean over to fit. As he settled down on the mattress, his hand landed on my ankle but he jerked it away quickly. When I didn’t protest, he put it back where it had been.

“Lot quieter down here,” he whispered. “You’re right.”

After about thirty exhilarating seconds of feeling Mike’s skin on mine, I slowly pushed my foot against his leg, as if stretching. Then I withdrew it, suddenly terrified.
Is he testing me?
I wondered.
Or are we both wanting to risk this?
Navy regulations may or may not have dictated that junior officers occupy upper bunks, but they had plenty to say on the subject of sodomy during wartime.

Mike squeezed my ankle gently. I’d never been touched this way, but I liked it and it made no sense to fight what was going on. So I slid my foot under his thigh, amazed at the welcoming, unfamiliar feel of his wiry hair on my naked skin.

“Kind of cramped at this end,” he said eventually, his voice and his breath going heavy. “So maybe I’ll come up there with you.”

“Yeah,” I whispered. “I mean…sure.”

Taking a deep breath, he slowly slid his hand up the groove between the bulkhead and the mattress. I reached for him and pulled him in behind me. The cabin was hot. We were both drenched in ice cold sweat, the kind that starts in your armpits and between your legs and quickly soaks your sheets.

Curling his arm around my waist as if we’d settled everything, he patted my stomach and spooned himself up against my back and legs. “I was hopin’ you wouldn’t mind,” he added. “Feels a lot safer this way.”

“Think I’d better click the lock on the door,” I said. “Don’t want old Lieutenant Andrews busting in where he doesn’t belong.” Men at war take their pleasures, and chances, as they find them. The locked door was a hell of a chance but this was the first trusting physical companionship either of us had found. We never speculated on what other men might be doing behind closed doors, or on what we would do if the war stopped. We didn’t have words for what we meant to each other, or for what we did. We never used the word “love.”

 

 

 

Fear Itself

 

 

 

BOOK: It Takes Two
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