Where it faced the highway, the Sunburst was just another motel, but behind the main building sat a cluster of a half-dozen concrete cottages with tiny rock gardens. Condominiums. It was on one of the Keys, the one just below Largo. Driving down from the Miami airport, Ed had pictured a resort hotel with terraces and tennis courts, but this was old-fashioned. He parked beside a crimson hibiscus and got out into the Florida heat. Number 4 was the one across the gravel road, with a clear view of the ocean. It was late in the afternoon and the light from the sky was intense.
Just as he came up, the screen door opened and a hugely fat man stepped out. The man wore Bermuda shorts and carried a wet bathing suit; he walked to the edge of the little porch and began wringing the suit into the bushes, scowling. It was him. Old as hell and even fatter, but there was no mistaking the man. Ed walked up to the foot of the steps, shading his eyes from the sun. “You’re George Hegerman,” he said, pleasantly.
The fat man grunted and went on with his suit.
“We used to know each other, in Chicago. . . .”
The man turned and looked at him. “I remember.”
“I’d like to talk business,” Ed said, squinting up. He was beginning to feel uncomfortable. It was extremely hot. “I could use a drink.”
The fat man turned and finished with the bathing suit. There was a wood banister at one end of the porch and he hung it over that, spreading it out to dry. The suit was enormous. He turned back to Ed. “I’m going out in the bay. You can come along.”
Ed stared at him for a moment. “In a boat?”
Hegerman stood at the wheel, wearing only the Bermuda shorts and dark glasses; he piloted the small boat expertly toward the low sun. The water was flat and shallow and as blue as any water Ed had ever seen; the motor behind him made conversation impossible except for an occasional shout.
After a while Hegerman pushed the throttle forward and the boat jolted ahead, skipping over the surface of the water like a flat rock and bouncing Ed hard against the seat. He stood up like the other man and held a rail in front of him. The spray hit against his face and drenched his dark glasses. They began to pass small, humped islands made of some kind of tangled plant. “What’s that?” he shouted as they passed one, and the fat man boomed out, “Mangrove.” Ed said nothing, feeling stupid for not knowing. His shirt was soaked now and there was water in his shoes. He seated himself and tried to get the shoes off, but the boat was bouncing too hard and he couldn’t manage it. The water’s color had changed to a startling aquamarine. The deep, unclouded blue of the sky was dazzling.
Abruptly Hegerman cut the throttle back and the banging stopped. The motor sound changed to a purr. Ed got his shoes off. Ahead of them was a real island with a narrow beach; they were moving toward it.
Behind the beach stood a mass of trees, through which the sun filtered toward them. When they were a few hundred yards out, the fat man cut off the motor and they drifted. Then he opened a storage compartment in the seat beside him and carefully pulled out something black. It was a camera. He took a tubular black case from the same place, zipped it open and removed a lens that was over a foot long. He fastened it to the camera body. Ed set his shoes beside him on the seat, watching the fat man who had now erected a tripod on the deck by his seat and was screwing the camera to the top of it. Ed knew better than to ask questions; he kept silent and watched. The cigarette pack in his shirt pocket was unopened and had stayed dry. He opened it now and lit up, then peeled the wet shirt off, wrung it out over the gunwale and spread it out on the empty seat beside him. The fat man had his camera ready now, pointed toward the trees. His enormous bottom filled the back of the boat seat; he had only to lean sideways to have his eye at the viewfinder. Ed leaned back and smoked, waiting. There were ripples on the surface of the water and they glowed above their troughs with iridescence. Water lapped quietly against the side of the boat.
Abruptly there was a movement at the edge of the trees and three tall, pink birds came walking toward them like apparitions. The fat man leaned over and his camera began to click. The birds were astonishing; Ed had never seen anything like them. They walked gravely to the water’s edge, looked to the right and the left. The one in the middle took a few silent steps, its knees bending backward, raised its pink-edged wings, held its long neck straight out and fanned itself into the air. Its ghostly awkwardness gone, it was flying. The other two followed. As the third took off, Ed could see that its long bill was strangely wide at the tip, as though there were a bulb growing there. It gave the big creature a lugubrious, comical look, but when it was aloft like the others it flew like a dream. The birds circled the island once and then flew away to the left, lazily and silently, their necks extended straight out from their bodies like experimental aircraft. Ed felt goose bumps. The fat man kept taking pictures, following them until they were out of sight. When they were gone he leaned against his seat, laying a huge arm across the back of it. “That’s it,” he said in a gravelly voice.
“It was something.” Eddie said. He felt a lot better. Before the birds had appeared he was beginning to feel hustled; the whole thing was like a wild-goose chase. But they hadn’t been wild geese. “Herons?” he said.
“Roseates.” The fat man was dismantling his camera. When he got it stowed back in the compartment, he reached down to the deck beside him, lifted a cover and pulled out a bottle with tinfoil around its neck; he opened it and handed it back to Ed. The label read “Dos Equis”; it was Mexican beer. “Thanks,” Eddie said, and the man grunted. “Roseate spoonbills.” He reached down to a small green bottle and opened it. Perrier.
Ed grinned. “I remember you always drank imported beer.”
“I have a persuasive doctor nowadays.”
Ed took a long swallow from his beer. “What I want to talk about is a tour,” he said.
The fat man sipped his Perrier and said nothing.
“There’s a man with a cable TV company and he wants to put us on cable.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the fat man said.
“He wants us to go around the country playing each other while he films it for cable TV. It might go on Wide World of Sports.”
“ESPN? Home Box Office?”
“What’s Mid-American? Where’s the main office?”
Ed took another swallow of his beer. “Lexington, Kentucky. It’s where I live now.”
Fats said nothing. He began dismantling his tripod. “I want to get back before dark.”
Going back, he went more slowly, seated behind the wheel. The water had turned dark and was as smooth as gelatin; it look as if you could walk on it. The sun was behind them now. Ed took off his dark glasses. They moved toward shore, passing the mangrove islands, for several minutes before the fat man spoke. “I haven’t heard your name for fifteen years,” he said.
“I’ve been running a poolroom.”
“A waste,” the fat man said.
“It looked good at first. What do you think about this TV thing?”
“Tell me about it.”
“The contract gives us six hundred dollars each for an appearance, and twenty-five percent of residuals. That’s if ABC or somebody picks it up. And expenses.”
“How many cities?”
“Seven. We could start with Miami, in two months.”
The fat man finished his Perrier and put the bottle back in the deck well. “I don’t need it,” he said. “I’ve been retired six years.”
They were approaching a clump of mangroves that was larger than the others, and he cut the boat toward it. There was a narrow opening in the plants, like a tunnel. Ed ducked and they went through. Now they were going down an alley of black water, with branches overhead and the sounds of insects. Wet mangrove roots, interlacing and darkly tangled, rose above them to an impenetrable cover of leaves. It was primeval, like something on a TV show about the dawn of man. It was the kind of place that had snakes.
Just as Ed was beginning to feel uncomfortable, the alley-way opened up and they were in a broad, dark lake surrounded by mangroves, lit dimly and without shadows by the darkening sky. It felt like church. The fat man had a pair of spinning rods and reels clipped under the gunwale at his left. “You want to fish?”
“Open that well in front of you. There’s shrimp for bait.”
Ed pulled up the ring and looked inside. There was barely enough light to see the small shrimp darting around. He had done river fishing with worms and grasshoppers a few years before, when he was trying to find ways of just getting out of the apartment, but he had never fished in salt water or used shrimp. The other man handed him back a light spinning rod, saying, “Careful with the hook”; and Ed gritted his teeth, reached into the well and managed to snag a shrimp. It tickled the palm of his hand. He handed it up to the fat man. “Where does the hook go?”
“Through the tail. Cast near the roots, but don’t snag it.”
Ed got another shrimp and put his hook through its tail. “What are we fishing for?”
“Mangrove snapper.” The fat man’s arm moved out lazily, his rod swung in a graceful arc; there was a plop and then ripples about a foot out from shore, off to the left. A perfect cast, which was what you would expect. Ed cast his own off to the right, also perfectly. The old arm.
Almost immediately they both had fish bending the rods. When they reeled in, the snappers were no bigger than his hand, but fat.
After twenty minutes it was too dark but they had accumulated a string of more than a dozen. When the fat man was putting the rods away, he said, “Where would we play in Miami?”
“Benson’s Department Store. At a new shopping center.”
“And after that?”
“Cincinnati, Chicago, Rochester and Denver.”
“At department stores?”
“One’s a new movie theater. And there’s a fair, near Albuquerque.”
The fat man flipped on his running lights and started the motor. He swung the boat around and headed toward the cut they had entered by.
“I hope there aren’t snakes,” Ed said.
“No snakes, Fast Eddie,” the fat man said. He guided them through the dark tunnel and back out into the nearly dark bay. Then he pointed the boat toward shore and pushed the accelerator forward. The boat began to skip. Ed stood and held the rail again, feeling the spray on his bare chest now. Through the dusk he could see lights from Islamorada. They raced forward for about five minutes and then the fat man cut the motor back and they moved slowly in toward the dock, where gnats buzzed around a mercury vapor lamp. “I don’t like it,” the fat man said. “It’s cheap.”
“I can’t quarrel with you.”
“Then why come down here to see me?”
They were a few yards from the dock now, drifting toward it. “Well, Fats,” Ed said, “I didn’t have anything better to do.”
Fats’ condominium cottage had three large rooms, with expensive-looking furniture. He played classical music on his stereo while he cleaned the fish. Eddie sat on the sofa and had another beer. It was dark outside now and a warm breeze came through the big screens. After putting the filets into the broiler, Fats came into the living room, still wearing only shorts, and said, “How would we travel?”
“Rent a car or fly. Both.”
“How much for hotel rooms?”
“Sixty a night.”
Fats shook his head. “Cheap.”
“Forty a day for meals.”
Fats scowled. “Do you like capers?”
“On your fish.”
He had no idea what a caper was. “I’ll try it.”
Fats went back into the kitchen and worked for a few minutes. When he came out, he had a large plate in each hand. He set them on the table. Eddie walked over and seated himself. It looked professional, with the browned filets of mangrove snapper at one side and green beans and some kind of noodles with pepper. Fats got him another beer and a Perrier for himself and sat down. “I haven’t shot a game of pool in six years,” he said.
“They’ll never know,” Eddie said, grinning.
“My health is terrible.”
“It might do you good.”
Fats lifted a forkful of fish. “Shooting straight pool in shopping centers? Staying at Ramada Inns?”
“We used to live better.”
“Don’t talk about it,” Fats said. He ate the forkful of fish and then set his fork down. “I’ll do it for a thousand a game and a hundred for the hotel.”
“No way,” Eddie said. “Not unless we hook into ABC.”
“Then hook into ABC and ask me again.”
“This guy tried, Fats. They told him they wanted to see footage first.”
“What’s the front money?”
“Five hundred each, on signing. It comes out of the travel.”
“Get me a thousand a game and we’ll talk. You can use my phone.”
“Fats. . . .”
“Finish your supper, Fast Eddie.”
They had something called Key lime pie for dessert. Fats ate two pieces and then made small dark cups of coffee. It was like eating in the kind of restaurant Eddie liked back in the days when he had money.
“After you beat me in Chicago,” Fats said, “I thought you’d be back.”
“Bert Gordon was crowding me.”
“He’s been dead over ten years. They don’t have anything to do with pool anymore—not them, anyway.”
“I know. But I never got back into it.”
“Why don’t you do this tour by yourself? I’m an old man.”
Eddie finished his coffee. “They want us both. The man with cable TV says we’re a legend.”
Fats got up, went to the refrigerator, got himself a third dessert and brought it back together with a pill bottle from the top of the dishwasher. “They wrote me,” he said.
“Enoch told me. You didn’t answer.”
“I don’t like TV. I read books and I work in my darkroom.”
Copyright © 2022 by Walter Tevis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.