2008 Contest Shortlist

Drunken Pirates in the Caribbean

Piracy is a tropical mid-life crisis.

Down the North Shore Road is a narrow sliver of sand. I shifted up into second gear on my father’s motorcycle as the beach came into the view. I saw the thatched shack sunk into the sand, the breakers in the background, and the light haze of Saint Thomas far off over the Caribbean. Next to the shack I saw my friend Sean’s rental Jeep, an absurd creation of canary yellow suitable only for drunken tourists and high school blondes. It was the last remaining car on the lot when we arrived in Saint Croix two days ago.

Island hopping with a wealthy family friend of Sean’s from Baton Rouge, we joined their boat, a 42-foot Catalina, in San Juan and headed west toward the Virgin Islands. Sean and I had just graduated college and we were looking for one last adventure before setting foot inside the marble lobby of some New York City building with a freshly printed nametag and bloated resume, and a winter run over the Lesser Antilles seemed just the right move.

The skipper of the Catalina, a red-faced paterfamilias with a watery scotch permanently affixed to his right hand, agreed to drop the two of us off at the Christiansted wharf before continuing on to Tortola. He’d laugh and talk about the Saints and LSU, tip more scotch into his face and bark at his daughter about jibing while his wife sprawled on the white cushions like a dead lizard. Known Midwesterners, Sean and I sat passively for most the trip, helping when we could, but mostly we just drank. The skipper seemed to find drinking as honest work on open water, and if we were too inept to jerk ropes, we could at least show our appreciation for fine scotch. And so we did just that.

Rolling to a stop next to Sean’s ridiculous rental, I strode the crushed coral path to the shack. I could hear the whoops and war cries of midday drunks, and then I saw Sean, slumped on his stool wearing a leather pirate hat and liquid grin. Before him sat a garnished drink that rivaled his Jeep’s absurdity. This was where we came to know The Mutineers.

Once my father heard that we were swooping down through the West Indies he made sure we came through Saint Croix, where he’s lived the last five years”plus, Carnival was in full swing. After the red-faced skipper dropped us off we met my father, grilled shrimp, and went through the ritual catch-up. During this discourse my father told me about a friend of his, Tequila Mike, and his peculiar habits down on North Shore. Every other Friday he dressed in authentic pirate garb, swilled rum from vintage corked bottles, and shot 18th century flintlocks into the sea. This could not and would not be ignored.

I ducked under the thatched fronds of the shack and sat next to Sean, anticipating the weird. The proprietor, an old man named Calvin originally from Saint Kitts, said hello and poured me a shot of something homemade from a wax-dripped bottle. I’d been coming down to Saint Croix about once or twice a year since my dad moved, and always spent time down at Calvin’s shack, hiding from the tourist hordes on the boardwalk”their flaky shoulders and SPF perfume could only be tolerated for so long.

Now, summoning stools around us were The Mutineers. Sean introduced me to Tequila Mike, and I shook his hand, his wrist jingling with silver and jade bracelets. He looked like Blackbeard’s mad brother who repaired refrigerators during the weekdays. It was pure insanity. The degree of detail his costume possessed was maddening and far beyond a simple joke. Later I learned Tequila Mike purchased the outfit used from a Hollywood studio and sent it to Hong Kong for tailoring. Nothing new for this island; such places as Saint Croix seem to attract the eccentrics, the fringe element filtered out from the suburbs.

After a few drinks and dips in the surf I got down to the serious business of berating Sean about his vehicle. He would balk and say, “I’m certainly not riding on the back of that!” pointing to the motorcycle, and Tequila Mike would laugh and toss back a shot. By this time the sun was starting to set and Tequila Mike took out a burlap sack. He placed it on the bar and started removing its contents: throwing hatchets. As he lined the hatchets on the wooden bar he started to talk about their bimonthly meetings.

It originally started after jungle thugs robbed Calvin’s shack one night, Tequila Mike thought up the idea of dressing like pirates and defending the beach, but this was mainly for show and as an excuse to drink all night. When the robberies began to slow along North Shore Road, Tequila Mike and his fellow Mutineers started to take their duties a little more serious, or as serious as you could with a gut full of Cruzan rum.

“We’re liberators,” he’d scream, pounding the bar with a massive fist. Sean and I would just smile and take it in; this was how adventures began, with characters such as Tequila Mike and a satchel full hatchets.

After nightfall we all took turns throwing the hatchets at a wooden target Tequila Mike made, and dragged from the back of his pickup. A flagon of rum was screwed into the sand, the night air was warm, and calypso music could be heard over the water from the Carnival celebrations. It was precisely what we came here to do. But then the mood changed. Tequila Mike started talking about patrols.

“We need a few sorties,” he’d say, lobbing hatchets at the target. “You know?” his wild eyes would ask. “Sorties.”

Sean and I nodded passively, hoping this idea would disperse, or one of the other Mutineers would change the topic, but this would not be the case. With a head full of fermented sugar cane and molasses I found myself heaving my body into the back of Tequila Mike’s pickup with a bunch of middle-aged men dressed as pirates. It was time for a sortie. I knew, with a heavy sense of dysphoria, that this could only end in regret . . . and perhaps a fine.

So we headed off into the jungle roads, the place where the thugs liked to barricade both lanes with an old Cutlass, and force you to empty your pockets. Racing down the dark roads, squealing rubber with Tequila Mike white-knuckled on the wheel, I began to think of the utter lack of honor that accompanies death via rolled pickups through a Caribbean jungle with a bunch of drunken pirates. It was like some sick satire. And I started to consider jumping for freedom once the truck slowed enough into a hairpin turn, but then Tequila Mike stomped the brakes. All of us in the truck bed lurched forward, confused. Over the cab I made out dark silhouettes in our headlights. I think I heard Sean mumble an expletive and whimper. I looked again and saw the silhouettes held machetes.

This is the moment that in between struggling not to swallow your tongue and/or defecating, you have critical self-doubts and damnations. Questions and scenarios begin to form, and the endgame is always grim. Immediately I braced for Tequila Mike to whip the pickup around and shoot back the way we came, but he didn’t. He killed the engine!

And then came the screams.

These were not screams of fear, but of ferocity and drunken hubris. The entire pickup emptied of enraged pirates brandishing antique weaponry, charging the barricade. It was like what those hunkered in the Ardennes must have witnessed, a platoon of Nazis jacked on methamphetamines scrambling like demons across the battlefield.

It was bewildering, and not just to Sean and I. The thugs ready for easy loot panicked, bolting back to their car. One man, the farthest forward, seemed frozen as the pirates’ charge neared. What must he have thought? The sea-marauding ghosts of centuries past emptying out of a Ford pickup at 3a.m. could only instill massive trepidation and conflicting realities. Tequila Mike had his rapier over his head, spinning the blade with every step. Everyone howled. And then Tequila Mike lunged at the lone thug, breaking the point of his rapier off into the man’s thigh, causing him to drop his machete. I heard a yelp, and the tatter of dropped steel.

The car used as the barricade chirped away, racing into the dark with a cloud of exhaust. The lone thug turned and sprinted into the night, chasing the twin taillights into the dark fog. Tequila Mike and his Mutineers cheered as they piled back into the pickup, started the engine, and headed back to Calvin’s shack. The deed was done and libations were needed. The sick adventure was over. Sean and I had become mutineers, for good or ill”and most surely the latter.

Jake Lee Hannes