Purple Blue Hibiscus

Hibiscus

Chalk’s Airline

In business since 1926

We’ve never had an accident!

“What do you mean, you’re not flying today?” I say. The Chalk’s Airline counter man at the Opa-Locka Airport looks out the window and squints at the bright white sky.

“I have to be there by tonight,” I say. “It’s crucial.”

I’m trying to get a flight to Cat Cay, a private island in the Bahamas. Don Brockett has booked me to play there for two weeks. Don, his wife Leslie, and the other performers are flying into Miami on a private jet from Pittsburgh. There is no airstrip on Cat Cay, so Don and his entourage will be picked up by one of the island yachts and transported over to the island. Because I’m coming from Haiti I’ll have to take a commercial seaplane over to Cat. I’ve never flown on a seaplane before, and I’m a little nervous about it.

“These winds are blowin’ way too high for us,” says Counter-man. “No way we can fly safely in this weather. Can’t land a seaplane on water this choppy. Nope.”

“Oh, no,” I say. “Well then, I’ll just have to take a boat or something. Is there a charter service in the area?”

“Yep. But you won’t be able to take a boat either. They got the warning flags up. No go, Miss. Not today, anyway. You come back tomorrow. Things’ll be calmer then.”

“But I have to get there tonight!”

“You got an emergency or something?”

I don’t know how to answer this question. Most people would not consider a piano gig an emergency. But Don Brockett expects me to be there on time to play the job.

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, it’s an emergency. To me it is, anyway.”

“Talk to that fat guy over at the phone booth. He’s got an emergency on the same island, and he said something about chartering a helicopter. A chopper can fly easier in this weather than a seaplane.”

“Thanks!” I say. I look across the room. A morbidly obese man wearing a natty blue blazer and freshly pressed chinos is hanging up the phone. Wow. I had no idea Brooks Brothers made clothing that large.

“Hi,” I say. “I’m Robin Meloy. I understand you’re trying to get to Cat Cay this afternoon.”

“I’m Billy Berg,” he says. He gives me the once-over, as if he’s being hit on by the local Opa-Locka hooker. We shake hands. He’s got fat on his knuckles, and his palms are cold and clammy. Normally I would run the other way, but Billy Berg is my only hope for a flight. I give him my most seductive damsel-in-distress smile.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Berg,” I say. “Some weather, huh? Did you have any luck with the helicopter?”

“The commercial services won’t fly,” he says. I detect a New York accent. “But I found an emergency rescue helicopter to take me. Why?”

“Do you think I could come along? See, I’m a pianist and I’m supposed to play on Cat Cay tonight for a party hosted by the president of the island association.”

Billy Berg’s teeny-tiny eyes, surrounded by great mounds of cheek and forehead fat, light up.

“I mean, I’ll be glad to pay my share of the flight.”

“My dear,” says Billy Berg. “It would be a pleasure to have your company. I’m applying for membership on the island, and I’m sure the president will be thrilled to have me deliver his pianist in a helicopter.” He claps his chubby hands with delight.

Funny what people will do to get where they want to go.

We walk, or rather we’re blown, over to the helicopter terminal, where a pilot wearing a bright-orange suit waits for us. I’m right behind Billy, using him as a windscreen. The helicopter is tiny, with lots of open space where the doors should be. It’s a rescue vehicle, equipped to carry stretchers. A worker named Vicki runs out of the terminal, trying to look official. That’s an odd thing about Florida. None of the officials looks very official. You can’t wear a kelly-green blazer and expect people to take you seriously.

“Uh-oh,” she says when she spots Billy Berg. “You’re gonna have to weigh in.”

I don’t know what Billy weighs, but I weigh 120 pounds and the pilot weighs at least 170. She instructs me to sit on the same side as the pilot. Then she piles all the luggage on our side as well.

“Gotta balance this baby or she’ll tip right over. Here’s your life jacket,” she says. “Put it on. Now.”

“Now?” I say.

“You never know. Better to be prepared.”

Billy Berg and I slide the big yellow life jackets over our heads. I buckle mine around my waist. Billy slips his waist straps into the pockets of his navy blazer. I’m fascinated by his blazer. There’s enough lightweight wool gabardine in that one jacket to outfit the entire freshman class at Brown.

“Now look,” says Vicki. “In the event of an emergency, uh, water landing, you will unbuckle your seat belt, jump out, then pull the cord. Repeat after me, unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord,” Billy Berg and I squeak. We sound like the Alvin and the Chipmunks.

“Again. Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Again. Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

         Alright already.

Vicki makes us practice jumping out of the helicopter, but I think she’s really checking to see if Billy Berg can fit through the passenger-side exit.

“I can’t swim,” says Billy Berg as he heaves his way through the opening. He lands delicately on his Gucci-loafered feet. “Maybe I should call my wife before we leave. If this chopper goes down and I’m found dead, washed up next to a blond piano player, she’ll think I was up to no good. Are we anywhere near the Bermuda Triangle?”

“Let’s go!” says the pilot. “Wind is pickin’ up.” Vicki straps us in, and up, up, and away we go—the fat man, the piano player, and the emergency rescue pilot in the orange suit. As soon as we’re up in the air, I relax. The flight is smooth and graceful—beautiful, even. Billy Berg white-knuckles the strap hanging down from the roof. He yells at me from the front passenger seat, but with all the helicopter racket, I can’t hear a thing.

helicopter

 ***

Cat Cay is fifty nautical miles from Miami. The island has a spacious marina and hosts some of the largest yachts in the U.S. Registry. Membership on the island is determined by a board of directors that meets six times a year. Once an individual is “selected” for membership, he must pay a $25,000 initiation fee along with a $10,000 annual membership payment. Splendidly appointed rental housing is available only for members and sponsored guests. That’s what I am, a sponsored guest. Or maybe I’m hired help. Either way, I’m an outsider.

There are no automobiles permitted on Cat Cay, and most of the guests transport themselves in golf carts. There aren’t very many places to go: the Cone Bar for drinks, the Victoria Restaurant for more drinks, and then, if you’re feeling like a drink, the Nauticat Restaurant and Lounge, Bu’s Bar, or the Haigh House Bar for a nightcap. Most of the members of the Cat Cay Club are WASP-y Republican high-society types, the owners of big homes, big businesses, and big bar tabs.

We’ve been hired to keep the president’s guests entertained for two weeks. I play cocktail piano whenever there’s a piano handy—on yachts, in the restaurant, in the bars, at private homes. We’re scheduled to perform one big theatrical cabaret show at a sit-down dinner for seventy guests later in the week and do a couple of numbers with the Lester Lanin Orchestra out of New York at a big hula-dula dinner dance at the end of the two weeks. For the rest of our stay on the island, we’re expected to show up everywhere and be entertaining.

These people are lovely, really they are. Considering we’re a ragtag bunch of struggling-artist Democrats with several homosexuals in our ranks, I think we fit in quite nicely. But I can’t shake the feeling that we’re here as token bohemians—gypsies paid to titillate imaginations without threatening notions of the way things should be. Our group doesn’t drink nearly as much as they do, but we follow the dress code and show up—with cautious enthusiasm and carefully coordinated resort wear—to every gin-and-tonic pool party, champagne brunch, and Bloody Mary breakfast our hosts offer. We tell amusing anecdotes, conduct sing-alongs, and allow the rich right-wing titans of industry to think they’re being given a privileged peek into our flamboyant artistic lives. It’s hard work.

To blow off steam, we go out and race around in the golf carts.

Dave and I, tired of driving from bar to bar to pool to bar, go exploring. Dave is Don Brockett’s assistant, a handsome young man with a hearty sense of adventure and a great wardrobe. We commandeer a golf cart and drive past Windsor Downs, the pristine golf course; the tennis courts; and the Olympic-sized swimming pool. We come to a long path lined on both sides with purple hibiscus, drive past a couple of sheds that hide the garbage bins from the delicate eyes of the island members, onto a dirt trail, through thick jungle vegetation, and into a clearing.

“Vultures!!! Holy shit, Dave. We need to get out of here, fast. Those birds look like vultures.”

vulture

“Oh, my God,” says Dave. “ I thought vultures only lived in Africa. There must be a thousand of them.” Actually there are about fifty, but that’s still a lot of vultures.

In his hurry to get away from the menacing flock of birds, Dave mistakes the golf cart reverse gear for forward. We lurch up onto a big boulder and hover over the ground, our wheels spinning as the vultures begin to surround the golf cart. We look like Fred and Wilma Flintstone, out for a drive in Death Valley.

“This is excellent, Dave,” I say, trying not to panic. “We’re going to be pecked to bits by vultures. This is supposed to be a luxury island. We’re here for two weeks, and now look at us. Stranded on a rock with giant birds of death threatening to eat our eyeballs. Nice work.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose. You try driving this thing. It’s bad enough that I have to drive on the left. These damn foreigners. Why can’t they drive on the right like everyone else?”

“Dave, we’re on a path in the woods. Not a four-lane highway. And we’re down here with a bunch of Americans, for God’s sake.”

“Okay. Sor-ry. Maybe we should call for help.”

“Are you kidding? We’re on the ass end of the island and it’s cocktail hour. No one will hear us. I think I’m scheduled to play for dinner tonight. But they’ll be so squished by then, they’ll never notice I’m missing.”

”Here’s the way I see it,” says Dave as he smooths out the wrinkles in his white linen pants. Dave can be very analytical when necessary. I’m surprised he doesn’t take out a notebook and start making lists of pros and cons. “We can sit here and rot and wait for an inebriated CEO to find our bones, or we can get out of the cart, get it down off this boulder, and try to drive it back to Bu’s Bar.”

“I’m not getting out of this cart, Dave.” The vultures stare, just waiting for one of us to make a move.

“Think this through, Robin. Vultures don’t eat live people, just dead ones. We’re still alive. They won’t be interested in us. Plus I heard the club is serving grouper for dinner tonight. And key lime pie. And if we don’t get back soon, we’ll miss it.”

That convinces me. I jump down out of the cart.

“Shoo, shoo, shoo!!!” I say. The vultures just stand there like lawn ornaments in a George Romero zombie film.

“Shoo, shoo, shoo!!!” I say again. The birds cock their heads, unimpressed by my flailing arms. Dave shoves the cart off the rock. We zip out of there, race into Bu’s Bar, and tell the bleary-eyed crowd about the vultures.

“You never know what you’ll run into if you stray too far from the golf course,” says the president of the island association. His speech is slurred and he’s wearing bright yellow pants with little lizards embroidered on them. He winks at me. “The world can be a dangerous place. How about a little drinky-poo?”

“Ahhh,” whispers the Bahamian barman. “I see you meet our island turkeys. Dey live back there. Wild turkeys. Dey could fly away, but dey too dumb.”

***

Martini1

The golf cart gets us into lots of trouble. Our third night on the island we’re scheduled to attend a cocktail party at the president’s house. Dave and I drive the cart over to Don and Leslie’s beachfront apartment. The cart is designed for six passengers, but we can squeeze seven onboard. Don, wearing a snappy pair of Nantucket-red pants and a sailor-cloth shirt that laces up the front, lumbers out to the cart with Leslie, who is dressed in a batik-print caftan. Barb Russell, David Pressau, and Danny Herman run across the manicured lawn and jump onto the rear-facing back seat. We’re ready to go. Dave, once again intending to drive backward, shifts the cart into forward, hits the gas, and knocks Barb, David, and Danny onto the gravel driveway.

“Jesus Christ, Dave,” says Don, growling. “You don’t know how to drive this thing. This is a car for big babies in diaper-pants—how could you screw it up? Let me drive, for God’s sake.”

We change places, with Don grumbling and David and Danny brushing away the dirt from their evening clothes.

“I’ll be right back,” says Barb. “I gotta get a Band-Aid.”

“We’ll be late for the president’s cocktails,” says Don.

“Fuck the president, my knee is bleeding,” says Barb.

“You know, we finally get a job where they don’t make us come in the back door, and we’re late,” says Don.

“Yeah, well, being treated like a guest is hard work,” says Danny. “Can’t we just eat sandwiches in the employee cafeteria or something?”

“The employee cafeteria is on Bimini.” says Don.

Barb hobbles back to the cart.

“Okay, Don, are you straight on this forward and reverse shit?” she asks.

“Nothing to worry about, Milady. I’m at the helm,” says Don. We pull out of the parking bay and drive 200 yards to the president’s house.

It’s a beautiful home, right on the beach, surrounded by palm trees, exotic bushes, and peachy flowers that complement the dusky Bahamian sky. Our hostess, the First Lady of Cat Cay, stands in front of the garage door awaiting our arrival. She’s wearing a lemon-yellow Bill Blass sleeveless evening gown, and she looks stunning.

“Don, Leslie, kids!” she says, doing the queen’s wave with one hand and balancing a highball glass with the other. “How delightful that you’re here!”

“Okay, kids, everybody wave and smile!” Don whispers. “Leslie, get a picture of the First Lady.”

“Hiiiiiiiii!” we all say, in unison as Don pulls up to the garage door.

“Don’t park here. Park out by the charger,” says the First Lady. “That way you can tank up your cart while you’re at the party!”

“No problem,” says Don. “Hey, love that dress! Is that a Bill Bla—”

He throws the cart into gear and hits the gas pedal, but instead of reversing, we lunge forward, pinning our hostess to the garage door and throwing David, Danny, and Barb back onto the driveway.

Barb, who is picking gravel out of her knees for the second time in ten minutes, says, “Now might be an excellent time to get that picture of the First Lady, Leslie.”

I uncover my eyes, and there is our gracious hostess, stuck between the cart and the garage door. Amazingly, she’s not injured, but she’s trapped, with the headlights of the car pressing into her Blass-clad thighs. She has a smile frozen on her face and her hand remains in a waving position.

“Maybe somebody should go get the president,” says Don. “We need to unpin his wife.”

The First Lady, regaining control of the situation, sips her drink. “Don’t worry,” she says. “This happens all the time.”

“What drug is she takin’?” says Barb. “I want some.”

“Maybe I should just move the golf cart,” says Don.

“NOOOO!” we scream in unison. “Get her out of there first.”

The president rounds the corner. “Don, Leslie, kids! So nice to see you!!! Hey everybody, the kids are here! Now what’s this I hear about you pinning my wife to the garage door? Heh, heh, heh . . .”

“Hello dear,” says the First Lady with a girlish laugh. “Just a little, uh, problem with the gearshift thingy. Perhaps you could get me unstuck so I can serve the cheese ball.” A crowd gathers in the driveway.

“Anyone got a Band-Aid?” says Barb. Everyone laughs.

“What I need is a drink,” I say.

“No problem!” say three men at once as they run off to fetch a vodka and soda.

The president, Dave, and Danny push the golf cart back and free the First Lady.

“My goodness, that was exciting!” she says as she limps over to the terrace.

“Are you okay?” Leslie asks.

“Oh, I am fine, fine, fine. But I could use another drink.”

“What’s she drinkin’?” says Barb. “Get me one.”

“I’ll just park the golf cart,” says Don.

         Silence.

We all turn around to watch. Barb dives into the bushes.

Don, looking back over his shoulder, shifts the car into forward and drives through the garage door, putting a large hole in the white wooden paneling.

Everyone laughs. They think we’ve staged the whole thing.

“You kids are just a riot!” says the president.

I meet and greet and go to the living room, take a slug of my vodka, and begin playing the white piano.

***

Martini2

Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats, a Bahamian band from Bimini, has been shipped over to play with Dave and me as we welcome weekend guests who are just arriving in their yachts and seaplanes. We do one number together, “All Day All Night Maryanne” in the key of F, with the following lyrics:

 

         Welcome, welcome, to Cat Cay!

         President’s weekend’s gonna be,

         Time of great frivolity,

         Thanks to the Pres and the First Lady.

         Golfin’, swimmin’, fishin’ too

         Whatever is your whim,

         Maybe if the sun’s too hot,

         You’ll take a little swim,

         Drink a Cat Cay cocktail or

         Whatever is your choice,

         It’s president’s weekend party now,

         Come join us with your voice,

         Everybody now!

         Welcome, welcome to Cat Cay!

 

Dave and I have rehearsed this song with Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats. Last night, for two hours, we fiddled with the arrangement and sang it through with the band about fifty times. Now we’re in position on our little stage next to the immigration desk. The first plane arrives, and Don gives me the cue to start.

“Okay, guys, let’s go!” I say. I count off the tune.

“Hey lady, what we playing?” says Doctor Love.

Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats are stoned out of their minds.

“‘Maryanne’ in F,” I say.

“Who’s Maryanne?”

“The song! ‘All Day All Night Maryanne!’”

“Oh, yeah, we know dat.”

“So could we play it? Now? Please, Doctor Love.”

The first pink-and-green-clad ladies are ushered past us. A waiter hands each of them a cocktail and they stand there, in the blazing sun, with expectant smiles on their smooth faces, waiting for us to do something.

I count off again.

         You know, says Voice of Doom. There is nothing worse than snapping your fingers and saying one, two, one, two, three, four, and having a band just stare at you. Look at them! They have NO CLUE what they’re supposed to play. What kind of a musical director do you think you are?

“What kind of intro you want, lady?”

“The one we rehearsed last night would be nice,” I say. “Never mind, just play the song. In F.”

“Sounds better in G.”

“FINE. Just play it.”

Doctor Love takes a big swig from his rum-filled Coke can and plays. The Cats play along. Dave and I, dressed in flowered shirts and silly straw hats, do our little song-and-dance routine, and everyone starts to feel the Island Spirit.

“So why do they call you Doctor Love?” I ask as we sit relaxing after our afternoon gig.

“Why you tink?” says Doctor Love.

“Because you’re, uh, romantic?” I really sound like a twit sometimes.

“Oh, dat is true,” he says. “But I am also de fahder of twenny-two children, each one wid a diff’rent woman.”

I manage to resist Doctor Love’s charms in spite of his good looks and gleaming, gold-toothed smile. His band performs on Cat Cay several times during the week. Doctor Love and the Cats make a living playing for rich white folks who want a touch of island flavor added to their parties. They’re quite good—when they lay off the weed for a couple of hours.

 ***

fox trot

We’re invited to a big pool party. There are flowers and candles floating in the water, torches on the beach, and huge tables of food that everyone—except for us—pretty much ignores. At the far end of the pool is a large animal roasting on a spit. Dave and Danny and I balance oversized plates on our laps as we perch on the diving board with our feet dangling over the candlelit water.

“Long way from Pittsburgh,” says Danny.

“Yeah,” I say. “A long way from anywhere.”

“Anywhere real,” says Dave, licking his fingers.

“I saw one of those pig-on-a-spit things in Pittsburgh one time,” says Danny. “At a Tamburitzan festival at the Civic Arena. I think they cook stuff like that in Poland or Yugoslavia or one of those countries.”

“I think this one here is a goat.”

“Goat, pig, doesn’t matter. You cook something on a spit and dump enough sauce on it, it all tastes the same.”

“Look at Don and Leslie.” They’re holding hands and walking down to the beach. Making an escape from the party, no doubt. There is a full moon low in the sky behind them.

We’re quiet for a moment.

“I wonder how long it will be before someone falls in the pool.” I look around at the men in their jewel-colored dinner jackets and the women in their designer evening wear. They foxtrot around the edges of the water while Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats serenade them.

“Oh, my God,” says Dave. “Listen.”

“What?” I say. “That’s the same song these guys have been playing all week.”

“No.” says Dave. “Listen to the words.”

Doctor Love’s song is called “Sell That Pussy.” And that’s the tame part of the lyric. It’s probably the raunchiest tune I’ve ever heard. But it’s catchy.

“Hi, kids!” says the First Lady as she cavorts past the diving board. “Isn’t island life just fabulous?”

All I can hear is Doctor Love singing sell that pussy, sell that pussy, sell that pussy.

“Fab-u-lous!” yell Dave and Danny in unison. They get up, stretch, and mambo back to the buffet.

The invited guests don’t notice the lyric to the song. Or if they do, they ignore it. They frolic around the pool, a cotillion of madras jackets and Lily Pulitzer prints, swirling and swaying under the starlit sky as if they’re the lucky ones. The band is on one side of me, the guests on the other. I’m perched on a diving board over the deep end of an azure pool, not quite sure where I belong. The song ends. I look over at the band. Doctor Love nods, smiles, and toasts me with his Coke can.

sunset

***

Excerpt from Piano Girl: A Memoir [Backbeat Books]

Used by permission

©2005 Robin Meloy Goldsby, All Rights Reserved