This past June I went back to Bimini in the Bahamas to see old friends and to locate a few places that I visit in my dreams. One afternoon I rode my bike from the south end of the island three miles north to the tiny settlement of Porgy Bay, where my wife Bonnie and I spent magic summers when we were in our twenties. I like to say to people that Bimini hasn’t changed much in the past fifty years but that is just something I wish to believe. I passed a new medical clinic and athletic center, and ungainly concrete houses on both sides of the dusty road. I wanted to find a place that I loved long ago. I suppose I was trying to find something in myself.
In my twenties I had been struggling to get my legs under me as a writer and mostly failing. My short stories were rejected each week by magazines few people had heard of; and worse yet, I didn’t know what to write about or whether I would ever be any good at it. The tiny island was a place of respite and wonder. Bonnie and I rented a small cinderblock cottage in Porgy Bay from a local builder, a smart argumentative man named Charlie Rolle. Behind our house, in the clear quiet lagoon, there was a rickety dock where I tied up my twenty-foot open fishing boat. Every day Bonnie and I trolled in the Gulf Stream catching mahi mahi and blackfin tuna while trying to figure out how to land a 500-pound blue marlin without getting pulled over the side or speared in the head. Catching huge marlin was my ambition, along with writing great paragraphs, and my beautiful little wife was game to help me chase down these grandiose dreams.
In the late afternoon we raced the boat back to the little dock, tied up and washed her down. We gave away most of our fish to poor neighborhood kids whose families came to rely upon us for food, and we went inside for beer and a splendid meal fresh from the sea. Ernest Hemingway had once written novels on Bimini. I had the brilliant idea that if I put in my time trolling the same waters as the great writer, smelled the sea-scented night air heavy with longing, maybe his muse would tap me on the shoulder and confer immortality or at least the gumption to keep working to become a good writer.
So now I’m walking alongside my bike, trying to get my bearings among piles of trash and imposing new structures on the hill, when a hefty unshaven guy in his middle thirties hails me. “Freddy?” he called. “Yes,” I answered, with no idea who he was. He told me his name and I nodded to signal that I had a loving memory of him 35 years ago when he was a toddler, but really I had no idea who this unsavory man was. Then he started singing a song. “Once when I was hungry, hungry and fit to steal, I went up to Freddy and Bonnie’s house and asked them for a meal.” He was singing a bizarre and apparently unforgettable song my mother had taught some poor island children many years ago when she was visiting us for a few days. This scruffy fellow — later I would discover that he is a neighborhood drug dealer — recalled every single crazy word of my mother’s song. “There was a dead cat on the table, and chicken soup on the floor, and Freddy’s feet were in the soup, my golly I ran to the door . . .”
Back in the day when I was famous in Porgy Bay, stuffed with mahi and crawfish and a little drunk after dinner, I would grab two beers from the refrigerator and walk out to the end of Charlie’s dock to have a talk with my new friend, Dick Davis, who was gracefully holding a hand line, fishing for snappers. Dick and his wife Minnie lived on the hill overlooking the Gulf Stream in an aging wooden house caressed by soft summer breezes and Minnie’s lovely singing voice. The Davis family had no money, little food, no refrigerator. Dick was doing important family work on Charlie Rolle’s dock — no snappers, no evening meal for the family.
Nearly every night Dick would sit on the end of our dock casting out his bait of conch slops while reciting poetry, or passages from Shakespeare or Hemingway or Melville in his thick island crawling accent so that it was difficult to make out the words, but not the passion and island music. I would sit with him for an hour swatting mosquitos while he cast his line, pulled in plump feisty mangrove snappers and tossed them on the dock. We’d talk about literature or marlin fishing, because when Dick was a young man he had been a mate on one of the marlin boats. He would show me his hands deeply scarred from handling the wire leader on big marlin and bluefin tuna. I wanted him to teach me how to handle these big fish beside my boat, but mostly he preferred to talk about books he loved and recite passages. I tried to appreciate Dick’s recitals but it was hard. There were hordes of whining mosquitoes at the end of the dock and when they became too much for me, I went inside leaving Dick reciting verse until he began to argue with the voices that lived in his head.
After his fishing career Dick had become a house painter, and then after the voices in his head became too relentless and violent he did little else but spend days arguing in his bed in the tiny wooden house on the hill, until it was time to fish for snappers in the evening on Charlie’s dock.
Minnie was the mother of 11 of Dick’s children and still beautiful at 60. She had a voice like a lullaby and was smart as Dick, though less booked up. They had no money at all since Dick had stopped house painting. None. Dick stayed in bed all day and Minnie sang to him sweetly and put clean sheets on his bed. “Dear, I am living in another world,” he would say to her. “No you are not. You are living right here,” she would reply. And sometimes when the voices were screaming in his head he would say to her, “Dear, I could cut your throat right now and there is nothing you could do about it.”
“There is nothing a Dick can’t do,” Minnie would answer, annoyed or coquettishly depending on her mood.
Some mornings I would find Dick’s bloody snappers on the dock half eaten by flies and dogs because after catching a couple for the night meal, there was no way to keep any more without a refrigerator. But also there were nights when the voices were urging him to steal and kill and Dick became disgusted, yelling back at them, and then he lost interest in the snappers, and went home to his clean sheets and the family didn’t eat that night.
Then I got the idea. If I could buy the Davis family a refrigerator in Florida and ship it across the Gulf Stream on the mail boat, there would be a place to keep Dick’s snappers, room to freeze a few for bad weather days, and also I could give them some of the fish that Bonnie and I caught in the deep water. Maybe Dick and Minnie could even sell fish to neighbors because there were limitless snappers off the end of Charlie’s dock or so it seemed. A refrigerator would change their lives.
When I was in my twenties and living in Porgy Bay hunting for marlin, I still believed at some level that mortality was remedial or at least negotiable. The idea of Dick and Minnie’s refrigerator became larger than life in my head. It became the panacea for happiness and redemption for people that I cared about. Like Dick’s voices, I couldn’t turn it off.
So I went to Florida and bought a used refrigerator and arranged shipment to Bimini on the weekly freight boat. What a day that was in Porgy Bay when the refrigerator arrived. Bonnie and I and eight or 10 island kids carried the refrigerator up the hill to Dick and Minnie’s shack — a holy moment in Porgy Bay for even a non-believer like myself. The Davis family was dumbstruck when we set it on the dirt floor of their kitchen. Minnie remarked to her husband, “Do we deserve this, dear?” and ever proud Dick answered, “Yes, I think we do.”
The years passed with alarming speed. Dick finally got free of his tormenting voices when he died of a stroke. Two of their grown children spoke of rebuilding the house, making it a grand breezy home on the hill. But then they both suddenly died before touching the shack with a hammer. Minnie became 80 and then 90 and moved to Nassau into the modern home of one of her grandsons.
Now I was looking for Dick and Minnie’s house. I knew where it should be, more or less, but it seemed to have vanished. There were four or five ungainly three-story concrete houses on the hill where the house used to be, unless I was mistaken about the location. I was beginning to doubt myself.
Or maybe it was gone. Thirty-five years ago their little home was already worn from bad weather and neglect, the front steps rotten and the porch where Minnie sat on an old rocker was swaybacked but the sea breeze and view of the Gulf Stream made their place seem eternal.
And now I saw it. The house on the hill was wedged into a narrow alley between two ugly new homes as if they were devouring the memory of Dick and Minnie. Only parts of the walls were left standing and these were mostly obscured by creeping vines and thorny bushes.
I made my way around discarded gas canisters and a thousand beer cans sinfully tossed from the tall houses. I was hoping to find some trace of Minnie and Dick, some telltale sign of the days when Minnie sang while Dick mumbled in his sheets before meeting me after dark for fishing and poetry.
Then in the center of a room open to the weather, I found the refrigerator we had carried up the hill one magical afternoon 40 years before. It was tumbled over onto its front, rusted out and in the background there were warped planks bleached to an inviting off-white or blue pastel.
Strange though it may seem, in the rubble, with sunlight streaming through gaps in the roof, our refrigerator seemed fresh and lovely to me, transformed by time and weather and yet still lush with emotion like a masterpiece abstract painting, and I was filled with sadness and wonder.
Fred Waitzkin is a resident of West Tisbury and New York city. He is the author of Searching for Bobby Fischer and, most recently, The Dream Merchant, a novel about a good man who does very bad things.