In Aruba the entrance to the Renaissance Marina a small red helicopter sits on a jetty waiting to take tourist on island tours. The rotors slowly spinning, the engine at idle and everyone can sense what is about to happen. On the opposite side of the entrance the cruiseships loaded with passengers from America climb off the boat to attack the shops that line the waterfront. Each morning when we go to shore and pass the helicopter on one side and the cruiseships on the other I can't help but think of Bill Gates.
We were in Hopetown, it was April and Anna spent the morning doing her taxes. Feeling productive, we decided to go for a walk, hoping to see the rest of Elbow Cay. On the way out of town a man in a flatbed truck pulled over and gave us a ride out of town. The truck pulled into a hardware store and we hopped out. On the ride we saw a couple hand painted signs in the shape of an ice cream cone with the words "Sugar Shack." painted in script. We decided to walk back towards the signs and see where they'd take us. Following the signs we turned off the main road and walked a few hundred yards. I began to smell basil and rosemary. On the right hand side of the road was a driveway where a golf cart was parked with two men in it. Walking past we waved and admired the garden in the yard where they sat. The size of three or four basketball courts, it was filled with greens, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and more herbs than I can remember. In front of each group of plants was a marker that was finely printed that said, "I am Mexican Parsley" or "I am cabbage." The garden was designed not in the familiar rows you'd expect but in a way much more beautiful, the way Disney would design a garden, incorporating, rocks, arbors, shells, with twists and curves along the path. I admired the cayenne peppers dancing in the breeze, their smooth glossy skin shimmered in the sun making them look deceptively juicy and sweet and not my-mouth-is-a-volcano hot. Just past the garden was a small liquor store. Anna and I went in and purchased two Sands Light and wandered back to the garden out of curiosity.
The two men waved us over to their golf cart and introduced themselves. Marcel was tan and alcoholic skinny, with large ears and eyes. He said he just turned 83. His Dick Van Dyke's smile combined with the name Marcel made him look French. He spoke with the wild enthusiasm of someone working a crowd, like he expected you to leave was trying to tell you everything he could before that happened. He leaned in when he told stories like he was about to reveal a big secret which made me think he had a lot of them, stories, not secrets. He introduced Bill Gates, the man sitting next to him as Crocodile Dundee. Billy Gates was 46, blond and could have passed for Paul Hogan in a dark room. He wore his hair back in a ponytail and owned a construction company on Elbow Cay. The garden was Billy's and the house behind which it sat his girlfriend's. She'd left that morning for New York where she worked coordinating fashion shows. As the four of us drank and smoked on the golfcart and tried to get to know each other Marcel would sidetrack the conversation by announcing one of Billy's gifts.
"What's your name again?" asked Marcel for the third time.
"Jeff, do you know this, I am 71 years old and this is my good friend the Crocodile Dundee? Like I told you this is Crocodile Dundee, you know the movie that this here is him, right here in the flesh." He goes right out there in the blue water and man I'll tell you...."and then he'd pause as if he'd suddenly run out of batteries and then suddenly start back up..."I'll tell you he goes right out and sees a shark he wrestles it."
"I thought you just turned 83?" Anna said.
Marcel said, "No I am 71, just turned 71."
Billy was a free diving spearfisherman and dealt with sharks not by retreating but by being the aggressor and spearing them too. "I just see the sharks and I don't like to run so I go for them with my spear." echoed Billy. "Tiger sharks, bull sharks it doesn't matter, you see them all here in the Bahamas." Marcel satisfied to be the friend of such a man put on a smile so big it doesn't fit his head and nods.
Billy encourages us to walk through the garden and pick anything we like and leaves to grab a few plastic bags.
"What's your name?" Marcel asks pointing his finger at me like a gun and looking at me with one eye shut.
"Jeff, you don't have to worry about me. I am as harmless as an unborn kitten. Do you know I used to build fixed and rotor wing aircraft? I even built myself a gyrocopter but crashed it in the ocean."
He held up his hand and said, "Honest, to god. I am not a liar and would never tolerate myself if I were. And I'll tell you something else. What's your name?
"Jeff, me and Billy have been building a cruise ship, it's almost done too, we've been building it for two years."
"If I'm lying you can cut my lips off."
Billy returned and took us on a tour through his garden. As we walked he'd stop and hold each plant and say, "Do you like dill?" and cut large swaths of it. Eggplants, fennel, marjoram, spinach, tomatoes, Billy gave us some of everything. As he was taking us through the garden a neighbor came over and asked Billy for a few tomatoes. He gladly obliged. The mangoes, guavas and bananas were not ripe but he loaded us up with vegetables and herbs.
Back on the golf cart Billy suggested we drive up to the liquor store (literally the next property over) and refill on beer. Anna and I suggested we go see their cruise ship. Marcel excitedly agreed as long as we didn't reveal it's whereabouts to anyone. One the way over Marcel told us he'd just turned 73 and asked my name twice more.
The cruisehip they appropriately named Driftwood lay resting in Marcel's backyard in front of an old green lazyboy recliner. They found a twenty two foot fiberglass hull at a dump and built a small cabin atop. The holes in the hull had been patched and remained unpainted. The cabin was constructed of home materials rather than boat materials making it look like a strange amalgamation of land and sea. Accessed with a screen door the interior smelled of filth and urine. It contained one bed and a couple of cast iron pots. Marcel excitedly showed us his double sinks which were actually just two five gallon buckets filled with water. Marcel told us he'd been living in Driftwood to get away from his Haitian wife, whom he hated and referred to as a witch.
Marcel was now so intoxicated he literally could not walk without holding on to the side of his boat. We sat down, Billy in the recliner and Marcel told us stories about God. I couldn't determine if he liked God or not but whatever it was he was passionate about and grumbled, now barely coherent. Although he was still able to recite the alphabet backwards for us with incredible speed and accuracy. This pleased him and he sat smiling at his boat. Driftwood was his oasis in his backyard, the vessel that would allow him to sail away, maybe, to some place without his Haitian wife, a place where he was much younger than 71, 73 or 83. A small black girl no older than 12 brought him a coke and he introduced her as his daughter. He asked us to admire how beautiful she was which made her blush. I was uncertain if she was more embarrassed by her dad or by what he was saying.
I asked Marcel about his gyrocopter and he perked up, his eyes went from shut to slightly open and a smile came over him. Billy said, Marcel had built a small helicopter, it took him years, maybe ten to put together. It had a pontoon that allowed him to land on the water around Elbow Cay. One day he'd unknowingly landed it on a conch shell which punctured one of the pontoons and caused it to fill with water. Now off balance and weighted with hundreds of pounds of water Marcel took to air and shortly after crashed. The copter was destroyed but Marcel walked away entirely unscathed.
Billy suggested we go back to his girlfriend's house and have some wine. Marcel drunk, now settled into a state of grumpiness that allowed us to excuse ourselves without inviting him back to Billy's place. "He'll be better off here where he can pass out with his cruise ship."
Billy's girlfriend, Joann had a beautiful house, the garage covered with jasmine and the house with red, white and orange bougainvillea. Billy told us how he'd built the house with his ex-wife and then sold it to the woman who became his girlfriend. Which made us laugh and wonder if it was Joann or the house that was so special to him. We sat on the porch and drank wine as Billy told us about how much he loved Joann, how wonderful she was and how much he'd love for us to meet her. The way he spoke about love was unusual, not because he was slurring, but because he spoke about it casually and comfortably. More like a poet than the owner of a construction company. Still it was difficult to imagine a New York, fashion show producer with a Bahamian Crocodile Dundee.
When a golf cart pulled into the driveway, he immediately recognized it as his mom's. She'd come to berate him for being drunk and to request a special plant from Billy's garden. A friend of hers was going back to the States and their friend had cancer. The cancer wasn't responding to treatment and his mom new one Billy's plants as a remedy to all ailments. It's leaves were to be made into a tea for the woman. Billy suggested a few ways they might hide it to get it through customs like putting it inside of an empty shampoo bottle.
Anna and I called Philip, Amber and Chris on the VHF to invite them over to Billy's house. They came over with vodka and ate the cookies Joann left for Billy. Billy offered to get us pot from his dealer Francis. Philip informed Billy that Francis was out, as Philip had already tried buying from Francis. Billy called Francis and kept getting disconnected. Frustrated, Billy decided it was a good idea to just go over to Francis's house and talk to him in person so the six of us climbed on Billy's golf cart. Francis met Billy in the driveway and insisted that he go home. Billy told him what he wanted and this infuriated Francis. Francis told Billy he was too drunk, too drunk to even buy pot. Slightly agitated Billy turned the golf cart around and drove us back to Hopetown to our boat where we said goodnight and thanked him for the vegetables.
A few days later when Anna and I found ourselves at a beach restaurant down the road from Billy's house we asked the bartenders if they knew our friends Billy and Marcel. We told them about drinking with Billy about the cruiseship and asked them if Marcel really crashed his gyrocopter. They confirmed the stories and told us "Billy Gates is the second biggest drunk in the Bahamas. The biggest is Marcel. When Joann leaves, Billy drinks and when Joann comes home Billy is sober. He's really not supposed to be drinking.....But did you see his garden?"
When we leave the shore in the evening to head back to our boat, the sunset showing off like a child that needs attention. Reds, pinks and purples colliding. The red helicopter is parked back on the jetty after a day of tours and the cruiseship is loaded back up with passengers about to head to Cozumel or Grand Cayman or wherever. Billy and Marcel are back in the Bahamas. Billy's working in the garden of the house he built with his ex-wife and sold to the woman he fell in love with. Joann is coming home soon and he's taking a bag of empty beer bottles out to the trash. Everything is in its place.