The Man from the South – Intermediate Level

It was getting on toward six o’clock so I thought I’d buy myself a beer and go out and sit by the swimming pool and enjoy a little evening sun.

I went to the bar and got the beer, then carried it outside and walked down the garden toward the pool.

The garden was like a park with beds of flowering bushes and tall palm trees. The wind was blowing strongly through the tops of the trees, making the leaves hiss and crackle as though they were on fire. I could see many coconuts hanging down underneath the leaves.

There were a lot of chairs around the swimming pool and there were white tables and huge brightly colored umbrellas. Men and women whose skins were red from the sun were sitting around in swimsuits. In the pool itself there were three or four girls and about twelve boys. They were all playing together, making a lot of noise and throwing a large rubber ball at one another.

I stood watching them. The girls were English girls from the hotel. The boys I didn’t know about, but they sounded American. I thought they were probably young sailors who’d come from the U.S. navy training ship which had arrived in the port that morning.

I went over and sat down under a yellow umbrella where there were four empty seats. I poured my beer and settled back comfortably with a cigarette.

It was very pleasant sitting there in the sunshine with beer and a cigarette. It was pleasant to sit and watch the swimmers playing in the green water.

The American sailors were getting on nicely with the English girls. They’d reached the stage where they were diving under the water and lifting them up by their legs.

Just then I noticed a small, oldish man walking quickly around the edge of the pool. He was very well dressed in a spotless white suit. He had an unusual way of walking, and seemed to bounce along, pushing himself high up onto his toes with each step. He had on a large creamy hat, and he came bouncing along the side of the pool looking at the people and the chairs.

He stopped beside me and smiled, showing two rows of very small, uneven teeth, slightly yellow. I smiled back.

“Excuse please, but may I sit here?”

“Certainly,” I said. “Go ahead.”

He quickly walked around to the back of the chair and checked it for safety, then he sat down and crossed his legs. His white deer-skin shoes had little holes all over them to let the air in.

“A fine evening,” he said. “They are all evenings fine here in Jamaica.” I felt fairly sure from his way of speaking that he was some sort of a South American. And he was old too, when you saw him up close. Probably around sixty-eight or seventy.

“Yes,” I said. “It is wonderful here, isn’t it.”

“And who, might I ask are all these? They are not hotel people.” He was pointing at the swimmers in the pool.

“I think they’re American sailors,” I told him. “They’re Americans who are learning to be sailors.”

“Of course they are Americans. Who else in the world is going to make as much noise as that? You are not American?”

“No,” I said. “I am not.”

Suddenly one of the young Americans was standing in front of us. He was dripping wet from the pool and one of the English girls was standing there with him.

“Are these chairs taken?” he said.

“No,” I answered.

“Mind if I sit down?”

“Go ahead.”

“Thanks,” he said. He had a towel in his hand and when he sat down he unrolled it and produced a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He offered the cigarettes to the girl and she refused. Then he offered them to me and I took one.

The little man said, “Thank you, no, but I think I have a cigar.” He pulled out a crocodile cigar case and took one out, then he produced a knife which had a small scissors in it and he cut the end off the cigar.

“Here, let me give you a light.” The American boy held up his cigarette lighter.

“That will not work in this wind.”

“Sure, it’ll work. It always works.”

The little man moved his head to one side as if wanting to hear more clearly, and then looked at the boy. “Always?” he said softly.

“Sure, it never fails. Not with me anyway.”

The little man’s head was still to on one side and he was still watching the boy. “Well, well. So you say this famous lighter never fails. Is that what you say?”

“Sure,” the boy said. “That’s right.” He was about nineteen or twenty with a long freckled face and a rather sharp bird-like nose. His chest was still very white and there were freckles there too, and a few thin, light reddish hairs. He was holding the lighter in his right hand, ready to turn the wheel. “It never fails,” he said, smiling now because he was purposely building on his story. “I promise you it never fails.”

“One moment, please.” The hand that held the cigar came up high, palm outward, as though it were stopping traffic. “Now just one moment.” He had a strangely soft, even voice and he kept looking at the boy all the time.

“Shall we perhaps make a little bet on that?” He smiled at the boy. “Shall we make a little bet on whether your lighter lights?”

“Sure, I’ll bet,” the boy said. “Why not?”

“You like to bet?”

“Sure, I’ll always bet.”

The man stopped speaking for a moment and examined his cigar. I must say that I didn’t much like the way he was behaving. It seemed he was trying to make something out of this, and to make the boy feel bad. And at the same time I had the feeling he was enjoying a private little secret all his own.

He looked up again at the boy and said slowly, “I like to bet, too. Why don’t we have a good bet on this thing? A good big bet?”

“Now wait a minute,” the boy said. “I can’t do that. But I’ll bet you a dollar, or whatever it is in this country.”

The little man waved his hand again. “Listen to me. Now we will have some fun. We will make a bet. Then we will go up to my room here in the hotel where there is no wind. I bet you that you cannot light this famous lighter of yours ten times running without missing once.”

“I’ll bet I can,” the boy said.

“All right. Good. We will make a bet, yes?”

“Sure. I’ll bet you a dollar.”

“No, no. I will make you a very good bet. I am a rich man and I am a sporting man also. Listen to me. Outside the hotel is my car. It is a very fine car. An American car from your country. A Cadillac…”

“Hey, now. Wait a minute.” The boy leaned back in his chair and laughed. “I can’t put up that sort of property. This is crazy.”

“Not crazy at all. You strike your lighter successfully ten times running and the Cadillac is yours. You would like to have this Cadillac, wouldn’t you?”

“Sure, I’d like to have a Cadillac.” The boy was still smiling.

“All right. Fine. We will make a bet and I will put up my Cadillac.”

“And what do I put up?”

The little man carefully removed the red band from his cigar. “I would never ask you, my friend, to bet something you cannot afford. Do you understand?”

“Then what do I bet?”

“I will make it very easy for you.”

“Okay. You make it easy.”

“Some small thing you can afford to give away, and if you did happen to lose it, you would not feel too bad. Right?”

“Such as what?”

“Such as, perhaps, the little finger of your left hand.”

“My what! The boy stopped smiling.

“Yes. Why not? You win, you take the car. You lose, I take the finger.”

“I don’t get it. How do you mean, you take the finger?”

“I cut it off.”

“Jesus! That’s a crazy bet. I think I’ll just make it a dollar.”

The man leaned back in his chair with a look that said he was losing respect for the boy. “Well, well, well,” he said. “I do not understand. You say it lights but you will not bet. Then we will forget it, yes?”

The boy sat quite still, looking at the swimmers in the pool. Then he remembered suddenly he hadn’t lighted his cigarette. He put it between his lips, put his hands around the top of lighter to stop the wind and turned the wheel. It lighted immediately and burned with a small, continuous, yellow flame. The way he held his hands, the wind didn’t get to it at all.

“Could I have a light, too?” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot you didn’t have one.”

I held out my hand for the lighter, but he stood up and came over to do it for me.

“Thank you,” I said, and he returned to his seat.

“You having a good time?” I asked.

“Fine,” he answered. “It’s pretty nice here.”

There was a silence then, and I could see that the little man had succeeded in getting the boy to think seriously about his silly proposal. He was sitting there very still, and it was obvious that the pressure of having to make a decision was beginning to build up inside him. Then he started moving nervously about in his seat.

“Now just let me check up on this bet of yours,” he said at last. “You say we go up to your room and if I make this lighter light ten times running I win a Cadillac. If it misses just once then I lose the little finger of my left hand. Is that right?”

“Certainly. That is the bet. But I think you are afraid.”

“What do we do if I lose? Do I have to hold my finger out while you cut it off?”

“Oh, no! That would be no good. And you might decide to refuse to hold it out. What I would do is tie one of your hands to the table before we started. Then I would stand there with a knife ready to cut off the finger the moment your lighter missed.”

“What year is the Cadillac?” the boy asked.

“Excuse. I not understand.”

“What year… how old is the Cadillac?”

“Ah! How old? Yes. It is last year. Quite a new car. But I see you are not a betting man. Americans never are.”

The boy paused for just a moment and he looked first at the English girl, then at me. “Yes,” he said sharply. “I’ll bet you.”

“Good!” The little man put his hands together. “Fine,” he said. “We do it now. And you, sir,” he turned to me, “would you perhaps be good enough to, what do you call it, to… to referee.”

“Well,” I said. “I think it’s a crazy bet. I don’t think I like it very much.”

“Nor do I,” said the English girl. It was the first time she’d spoken. “I think it’s a stupid, crazy bet.”

“Are you serious about cutting off this boy’s finger if he loses?” I said.

“Certainly I am. Also about giving him the Cadillac if he wins. Come now. We will go to my room.”

He stood up. “Would you like to put on some clothes first?” he said.

“No,” the boy answered. “I’ll come like this.” Then he turned to me. “I’d consider it a favor if you’d come along and referee.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll come along, but I don’t like the bet.”

“You come too,” he said to the girl. “You come and watch.

The little man led the way back through the garden to the hotel. He was full of energy now, and excited, and that seemed to make him bounce up higher than ever on his toes as he walked along.

“I live in the new section of the hotel,” he said. “Would you like to see the car first? It’s just here.”

He took us to where we could see the front driveway of the hotel and he stopped and pointed to a shiny light green Cadillac parked close by.

“There she is. The green one. Do you like it?”

“Say, that’s a nice car,” the boy said.

“All right. Now we will go up and see if you can win her.”

We followed him into the new section and up one set of stairs. He unlocked his door and we all walked into what was a large pleasant double bedroom. There was a woman’s coat lying across the bottom of one of the beds.

“First,” he said, “we will have a little Martini.”

The drinks were on a small table in the far corner, all ready to be mixed, and there was a shaker and ice and a number of glasses. He rang the service bell and began to make the drinks. Shortly after there was a knock on the door and a colored maid came in.

“Ah!” he said, putting down a bottle he was holding. He took a wallet from his pocket and pulled out a one pound note. “Will you do something for me, please.” He gave the maid the pound.

“You keep that,” he said. “We are going to play a little game in here and I want you to go off and find for me two… no three things. I want some nails, I want a hammer, and I want a chopper, the kind of knife used for cutting through meat bones. You should be able to borrow one from the kitchen. Can you get them?”

“A chopper!” The maid opened her eyes wide and held her hands together tightly in front of her. “You mean a real chopper?”

“Yes, yes, of course. Come on now, please. You should surely be able to find those things.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll try, sir. Surely I’ll try to get them.” And she went.

The little man handed round the Martinis and we stood there drinking them. The boy with the long freckled face and the pointed nose, was wearing nothing but a pair of brown swimming shorts. The English girl, a large-boned, fair-haired girl wearing a light blue swimsuit, was watching the boy over the top of her glass. The little man with the colorless eyes standing there in his spotless white suit, was looking over the top of his glass at the girl in her light blue swimsuit. I didn’t know what to make of it all. The man seemed serious about the bet and he seemed serious about the business of cutting off the finger. But hell, what if the boy lost? Then we’d have to drive him to the hospital in the Cadillac that he hadn’t won. That would be a fine thing. Now wouldn’t that be a really fine thing? It would be a damn silly unnecessary thing so far as I could see.

“Don’t you think this is rather a silly bet?” I said.

“I think it’s a fine bet,” the boy answered. He had already downed one large Martini.

“I think it’s a stupid, crazy bet,” the girl said. “What’ll happen if you lose?”

“It won’t matter. Come to think of it, I can’t remember ever in my life having had any use for the little finger on my left hand. Here he is.” The boy took hold of the finger. “Here he is and he hasn’t ever done a thing for me yet. So why shouldn’t I bet him. I think it’s a fine bet.”

The little man smiled and picked up the shaker and refilled our glasses.

“Before we begin,” he said, “I will give the key of the car to the referee.” He produced a car key from his pocket and gave it to me. “The papers,” he said, “The ownership papers and insurance are in the pocket of the car.”

Then the colored maid came in again. In one hand she carried a small chopper, and in the other a hammer and a bag of nails.

“Good! You got them all. Thank you, thank you. Now you can go.” He waited until the maid had closed the door, then he put the things on one of the beds. “Now we prepare ourselves,” he said. And to the boy, “help me, please, with this table. We need to carry it out a little.”

It was the usual kind of hotel writing desk, just a plain table about four feet by three with pens and paper. They carried it out into the room away from the wall, and removed the writing things.

“And now,” he said, “a chair.” He picked up a chair and placed it beside the table. He was moving quickly and very lively, like a person organizing games at a children’s party. “And now the nails. I must put in the nails.” He got the nails and he began to hammer them into the top of the table.

We stood there, the boy, the girl, and I, holding our drinks in our hands, watching the little man at work. We watched him hammer two nails into the table, about six inches apart. He didn’t hammer them right home; he allowed a small part of each one to stick up. Then he tested them for firmness with his fingers.

Anyone would think this horrible little man had done this before, I told myself. He never stops to think what to do next. Table, nails, hammer, kitchen chopper. He knows exactly what he needs and how to arrange it.

“And now,” he said, “all we want is some string.” He found some string. “All right, at last we are ready. Will you please sit here at the table,” he said to the boy.

The boy put his glass away and sat down.

“Now place your left hand between these two nails. The nails are only so I can tie your hand in place. All right, good. Now I tie your hand secure to the table… so.”

He wound the string around the boy’s wrist, then several times around the wide part of the hand, then he tied it securely to the nails. He made a good job of it and when he’d finished there wasn’t any question about the boy being able to pull his hand away. But he could move his fingers.

“Now please, make a fist with all except for the little finger. You must leave the little finger sticking out, lying on the table.”

“Excellent! Excellent! Now we are ready. With your right hand you work the lighter. But one moment, please.”

He quickly went over to the bed and picked up the chopper. He came back and stood beside the table with it in his hand.

“We are all ready?” he said. “Mister referee, you must say when to begin.”

The English girl was standing there in her light blue swimsuit right behind the boy’s chair. She was just standing there, not saying anything. The boy was sitting quite still, holding the lighter in his right hand, looking at the chopper. The little man was looking at me.

“Are you ready?” I asked the boy.

“I’m ready.”

“And you?” to the little man.

“Quite ready,” he said and he lifted the chopper up in the air and held it there about two feet above the boy’s finger, ready to bring it down. The boy watched it, but he didn’t try to pull back his hand and his mouth didn’t move at all. However, I could see from the look on his face that he was not happy with what was happening.

“All right,” I said. “Go ahead.”

The boy said, “Will you please count out loud the number of times I light it.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ll do that.”

With his thumb he raised the top of the lighter, and again with the thumb he gave the wheel a quick turn. There was a spark, and the lighter burned with a small yellow flame.

“One!” I called.

He didn’t blow the flame out; he closed the top of the lighter on it and he waited for perhaps five seconds before opening it again.

He turned the wheel very strongly and once more there was a small flame.

“Two!”

No one else said anything. The boy kept his eyes on the lighter. The little man held the chopper up in the air and he too was watching the lighter.

“Three!”

“Four!”

“Five!”

“Six!”

“Seven!” Obviously this was a lighter that worked well. When you turned the wheel it gave off a strong spark which lit up a good flame. I watched the thumb push the top down onto the flame. Then a pause. Then the thumb raising the top once more. This was a totally thumb operation. The thumb did everything. I took a breath, ready to say eight. The thumb turned the wheel. There was a spark. The little flame appeared.

“Eight!” I said, and as I said it the door opened.

We all turned and we saw a woman standing at the door, a small, black-haired woman, rather old. She stood there for about two seconds then ran forward shouting, “Carlos! Carlos!” She grabbed the wrist holding the chopper, took it away from him and threw it on the bed. Then she took hold of the little man by the front of his white jacket and began shaking him very forcefully. As she did this she was talking to him fast and loud and angrily in some Spanish sounding language. She shook him so fast you couldn’t see him any more. He became a quickly moving form of which you couldn’t see the details, like the inside of a turning wheel.

Then she slowed down and the little man came into view again and she pulled him across the room and pushed him backward onto one of the beds. He sat on the edge of it opening and closing his eyes and testing his head to see if it would still turn on his neck.

“I am so sorry,” the woman said. “I am so terribly sorry that this should happen.” She spoke almost perfect English.

“It is too bad,” she went on. “I suppose it is really my mistake. For ten minutes I leave him alone to go and have my hair washed and I come back and he is at it again.” She looked sorry and deeply concerned.

The boy was untying his hand from the table. The English girl and I stood there and said nothing.

“He is dangerous,” the woman said. “Down where we live at home he has taken forty-seven fingers from different people, and he has lost eleven cars. In the end they said that if it happened again they would have him put away somewhere. That’s why I brought him up here.”

“We were only having a little bet,” said the little man from the bed quietly.

“I suppose he bet you a car,” the woman said.

“Yes,” the boy answered. “A Cadillac.”

“He has no car. It’s mine. And that makes it worse,” she said, “that he should bet you when he has nothing to bet with. I am ashamed and very sorry about it all.” She seemed an awfully nice woman.

“Well,” I said, “then here’s the key of your car.” I put it on the table.

“We were only having a little bet,” said the little man .

“He hasn’t anything left to bet with,” the woman said. “He hasn’t a thing in the world. Not a thing. As a matter of fact I myself won it all from him a long while ago. It took time, a lot of time, and it was hard work, but I won it all in the end.” She looked up at the boy and she smiled, a slow sad smile, and she came over and put out a hand to take the key from the table.

I can see it now, that hand of hers. It had only one finger on it, and a thumb.