“Oh noooo! Here he comes! How do I escape?”
Wylly smiled a tentative smile at the bearded man staring her down from his place on the ship’s deck. Picked up at sea by the US Coast Guard an hour or two earlier that day, Wylly was doing her best to look both glamourous and contrite as she lounged in the warm sun somewhere between Cuba and the Florida Keys.
She felt safe enough with the ship’s crew bustling around her, intent on the business of sailing the cutter, but there was something in the man’s face that made her unsure of just how to respond. Knowing he was a dreadful womanizer made her lean in a direction she’d never been very good with. While other women were flirting their way to what might have been considered a successful marriage by some people, Wylly had chosen what she viewed as a less restrictive path with more opportunity for adventure, than diapers and dinner parties.
She had planned the direction of her life at an early age after reading a copy of ” Little Women ” and deciding that she too wanted a writer’s life like the character “Jo” in the Louisa May Alcott novel. Growing up, Wylly had carved out a semi-permanent writing spot at one end of the dining room table grateful that her family ate most of its meals at the smaller one in the kitchen. The dark dining room with its heavy drapes and solidly built table had been her own personal retreat, a place where her imagination could take her anywhere, except on Sundays and holidays when her mother insisted they use the room for its intended purpose. Days when the Sunday roast or a Christmas turkey graced the table were times when Wylly would take her Bennett miniature typewriter that she had won in writing contest up to the window seat on the stair landing and tuck herself in behind the dark drapes that always seemed dusty no matter how often her mother cleaned them.
After winning her typewriter with a piece she had written for Odd Fellows’ magazine the year before at age ten, she had learned to type so quickly that she surprised everyone including her father who always acted as if he believed she could do anything. Wylly privately had wondered if the Odd Fellows editor would have chosen her as the contest winner if he had known she was a girl. She had sent the story in with her full name, William Michael Folk instead of the shortened version her friends and family called her, Willie or Willie Mike, and while neither of these would have seemed girlish or feminine, she had never quite believed that it was the quality of her story that given her the prize of the typewriter that she treasured above all other possessions.
By age seven or eight, she had already grown tired of always having to explain her unusual name to people. It didn’t help that she had two younger brothers by the time she was old enough tell people how her parents had wanted a boy for their firstborn and the surprise of a girl child did not stop them from christening her with the name they had already selected. Later she would realize that this was not intended as harmful gesture, but one which fit her parents desire to be a bit avant-garde amongst their small town peers.
Within a few years of her birth, the young family had moved to the more cosmopolitan location of Savannah, Georgia where her father could find more work as a bookkeeper, but Willie’s name continued to set her apart in the same way her desire for adventure would make it difficult to plan a similar future to the other girls in her high school graduation class.
Later after a secret marriage became public, she began signing her name Wylly Folk St. John taking her husbands name while keeping her own long before it became acceptable and in doing so, she found a name that fit the writer’s life she had envisioned as a child.
Wylly could almost forget about her husband Tom as she sat staring into the eyes of this famous man who at least from first appearances seemed to be every inch the cigar smoking, loud talking character, she’d read so much about. Knowing as she did that much of what he wrote was from his own life only made him more intriguing to Wylly and she thought for a moment about what she might say to make amends for what she had done.
Before she hired the fishing boat off the Florida Keys she had gone around to a series of bars talking with different boat captains before finding the one she thought would know where to take her in order to find the particular catch she was hoping to land. It had taken several days of walking in and out of hot dusty bars before Wylly had found the man who claimed to be the second cousin of Carlos Gutierrez, the Cuban fisherman whose stories had been the seed corn for the rich fish tale written by man now standing before her.
Wylly had worked hard to persuade the old man to take her out to sea and in the end it wasn’t a sweet smile or her polite southern manners that made him decide to do as she wished , but the sizable amount of cash that she’d had in an envelope, folded and tucked into the corner of the alligator handbag that hung by a short strap on the crook of her arm.
She had grown tired of the search and had almost gone back to the Atlanta newspaper in defeat having bet her friend and editor, Andy Sparks, that she could come back with the story. Wylly had been at the boat dock early this morning as she and the old sailor had arranged the night before and gave him half the money up front with an agreement to pay the rest if they found her story.
The morning had been cool for the Florida Keys, but then any bit of ocean breeze was more refreshing than all the hot air she had been wading through over the last few days. In almost all the bars she had visited, the impact of the slow moving ceiling fans did little to provide relief from the blistering heat of the summer sun. A heat which seemed to be compounded by an endless amount of hot air coming from the mouths of the locals that lined the bars complaining to anyone who would listen about how good things were before the tourists took over.
Wylly stood as the small fishing vessel took to the open water and looked back to see the land disappearing behind her. The things she would do for a story, she thought to herself, hoping that this guy had been telling the truth. Wiry and weathered, he moved a bit slower than Wylly would have wished, but she calmed herself with the thought that it was too late to do anything about her fears now. She wrapped the ribbons of her sun hat a bit tighter and turned into the wind watching the sea.
They had been out for what seemed like hours as they followed coordinates permanently charted in the old man’s mind never stopping to check a map or even to break for lunch. Wylly had offered him half her sandwich when he appeared to have no food, but he shook his head abruptly as if looking away from the sea for a second might take them off course. Seeing this Wylly began to think that perhaps her money had not been wasted after all and just as she was reaching into her bag to get an apple, she saw a boat in the water in front of them.
As they drew near, she saw the elusive man she’d been hoping to find, but the old man piloting the boat acted almost as if he didn’t see the famous yacht in front of him and suddenly Wylly’s screams were competing in volume with the man on the opposite boat, who was shouting and waving his arms with a franticness that confirmed they were in real trouble. Just as they were about to slam directly into the boat she could now identify by the familiar name Pilar, the old man she’d hired to help her, gave the wheel a sharp spin and the boat veered at the last minute scraping a good piece of the hull from the Pilar while tearing a substantial chunk from the one she was on.
Uncertain what of to do, she gathered her belongings quickly when she saw the water spilling in through the hole and climbed up on the edge of the boat holding on while the two men argued. ” Damn it Carlos,” the younger man said ” just what in the hell were you trying to do!” ” Carlos, but I thought he was his second cousin…” she said first in the old man’s direction and then a bit louder to the bearded man who looked as if his heart might stop from the exertion and the venom he was spewing.
With no one really listening, she picked up the dirty radio mike uncertain if it would even work and remembering what she had learned from an interview during the war, She began to send out a request for help by screaming Mayday, Mayday over and over until the subject of her search, Earnest Hemingway finally took a good look at her and said, ” Good God woman…now you’ve alerted the damn Coast Guard, this will be all over the newspapers by nightfall! “
He said all this perhaps realizing somewhere between newspapers and nightfall, that the press might be closer than he thought. ” Listen lady,” he began, ” you better not be a reporter…” Her silence was the answer and he snatched his battered cap off and threw it in the direction of the man she now knew as Gutierrez. What rich luck was this she thought, having mistakingly hired the old sea captain people were saying was the model for the old man in Hemingway’s latest novel. She picked up the cap where it had fallen unnoticed as they began a back and forth shouting match that had all the rhythm and familiarity of an old married couple. Tucking the cap into her bag, she thought that this was a far better souvenir than the rum she had planned to bring back and she thought it was hers to keep until she saw the shadow fall across her a bit later while sunning on the deck of the coast guard clipper.
Looking into eyes of the man who had bagged bigger game before than her, she shivered as she heard him say…” I believe you have something that belongs to me.”
If you read my story last week, you may remember I wrote about my great aunt Wylly and then I used photographs of her and her home to set the stage for our story topics this week. It gave me a tremendous amount of pleasure to send her on an adventure as a reporter in search of the big story. I hope you enjoy reading it as much I as did imaging the possibilities of an encounter with consequences.
Big thanks once again to Judy Harper who joined me again this week. Her story can be found here. Also joining in with a story of her own, Gaelikaa’s words can be found here.
I want to thank everyone who left a topic sentence for us and for TMAST. It’s always more fun when others participate and I hope you’ll consider writing a little story of your own next week.
Please go here to find the pictures for next week’s TMAST and offer up suggestions for topic sentences based on the photographs. I need to warn you that in honor of Halloween, these pictures are intended to inspire a scary story or two. Even though they’ll be posted after the goblins are gone, I hope you will all come back next week to see what we dream up.
Wow! I knew you were basing your stories on your aunt, you had me believing that she met Hemmingway! Good job! Your Aunt Willy was something else! Whatever happened to her husband or was that fiction as well? If she really was married, why keep it a secret? The story of Willy and her husband would be an interesting story!
Is Wylly Folk St. John really your aunt?!!!!! I am so excited! I read a book of hers many many years ago and for the last 20 years I have trying to come up with her name so I could see if I could find that book. I loved that book!
Your story is fabulous. I always enjoy reading them!
Wow is right!
Beautiful story and a lovely tribute to your aunt. The personality of the woman comes through very strongly, particularly the ‘Jo’ comparison. This short story is obviously based on a real life incidence which happened to your aunt. Am I right? I loved the ending.
Thanks Judy, Lauren, and Gaelikaa for your comments and interest in this mini-short. I wanted to take a second to answer a few questions about what was truth and fiction in this story.
When I write, I always ask myself if what I’m writing is believable and based on your comments….I think I succeeded. I’m really pleased and I think Aunt Wylly would be too.
Here is what is factual and what is not:
Wylly Folk St. John was my grandfather’s only sister and my great aunt.
She really was married in secret to Thomas St. John while still at the University of Georgia. I believe it was because women couldn’t be married and enrolled.
That really is her on a Coast Guard clipper (her youngest brother was in the CG) I imagine she was on it because of him.
Andrew Sparks was a writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Magazine at the same time Aunt Wylly was along with Olive Ann Burns, his wife and author of ” Cold Sassy Tree.” They were all part of a writer’s group when they were younger and later he became an editor at the same paper.
She really did win an Odd Fellow’s contest at age nine or ten, but I believe it was a poem she wrote.
Her parents really did name her William Michael and although she was born in a tiny town in South Carolina, her parents moved to Savannah fairly soon after.
Her father really did work as a bookkeeper.
” Little Women ” really was a significant story for her and she did identify most with the character , Jo.
What is not true and a complete fabrication:
She did not win a typewriter in the contest. I don’t know if there was a prize.
I don’t know where she wrote her stories as a child or if she even did produce much of anything in childhood.
I have no idea what the inside of the house looked like or where the family ate their meals.
I don’t know if she ever visited the Florida Keys, but I am sure she never went on a fishing trip in search of Hemingway.
Everything about the boat trip is from my imagination, although I did include a few commonly known facts about Hemingway and his life when writing about their “meeting.”
Thanks so much for your interest in her.
I enjoy reading about real life characters, especally those that weren’t inhibited by the rules of their time. Such as your Aunt. She’s like my grandson and daughter, she traveled her own road and from your informatin, lived life to the fullest! I envy her! Thanks for the additional information.