Big Bertha and the Big Wind

by Ron Van Sweringen


“God help me, I swear I’ll never touch another drop, just get me through this,” I said to myself, rivers of sweat running down my neck from the broiling Florida sun. The real estate agent standing next to me smiled and dropped a key in the palm of my hand. I could tell by the way he said, “It’s all yours,” that he was reading my mind.

1950’s flamingo-pink stucco filled my eye sockets, only now it looked more like washed out Pepto Bismol. Faded green awnings completed the picture. The colors reminded me of a girl I once knew. When she took her clothes off, her underwear was green and her nipples were the same shade of pink. I tried to think of her name, anything to keep from thinking about what stood in front of me on the burning white sand.

The Dancing Palms Motel, the sign said, the letters spelled out in blue neon tubing against the white hot sun. A pair of lizards played leap-frog with each other, trying to catch ants on the cracked stucco wall, and I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. I hadn’t noticed that the real estate agent was gone and I was totally alone with my new home and business venture, just south of nowhere in the Florida Keys.

It looked good the first time I saw it, and the ‘For Sale’ sign had ‘cheap’ written on it in green magic marker. The fact that I’d just spent four hours in the Roadkill Bar and Grill probably had some bearing on its appeal. In any case, it was time to stop running.

My month-long attempt at escape was over. A failed marriage and a business partner who was screwing me almost as much as he was doing my wife became abundantly clear when she asked for a divorce and ninety percent of everything I owned. This afternoon, after four tequilas and a cheap beer, I had reached the end of the line.

“You need some help?” Her voice ricocheted through my brain like a dropped toilet seat. She was short and brown with long black hair and a red hibiscus flower tucked behind her ear. Her accent sounded Cuban to me; it was not altogether unattractive. And a large pair of face warmers struggled for attention in a halter top two sizes too small.

“What’s your name?” I asked. I already knew the answer, from the tattoo on her shoulder.

“Rosita.” She smiled, planting her hands on her ample hips.

“Of course,” I replied, “what else could it be?”

So Rosita came into my life the same day as The Dancing Palms Motel. A “hole in two,” I guess you could say.

There were eight small units, each with a shower, sink and toilet, along with a one-room office attached to a two-bedroom apartment in my newly acquired domain.

Thanks to the lizards, the roach problem was minimal. All you had to do was leave a window cracked during the day and pick up any wings you found on the terrazzo floor at night. For some reason, lizards didn’t seem to savor roach wings.

Repairing the 1950’s plumbing under a leaky sink was harder than it looked. Rosita watched me crawling around on my knees with a wrench in my hand and said, “You need help. I have a friend who fixes pipes. You pay his bail and he fixes all your pipes.”

Two days later, Eduardo came into my life, along with his dog, Pepito. I consoled myself with the thought that a jailbird who sleeps with his dog can’t be all bad.

I was soon relieved to find out that Eduardo had been pinched for fishing without a license. For the fifth time. Seems Pepito had a penchant for broiled red snapper with lime juice. I decided to pick one up at the fish market every few days, for the sake of my sanity as well as my plumbing.

The three of us soon fell into an easy camaraderie. Rosita arrived on a battered Red Flyer bicycle five mornings a week at 8:30. Eduardo and Pepito, having no permanent address, shared a double mattress on the floor of the office.

Rosita was right. Eduardo was a wizard with pipes and I realized that his fifty-dollar bail fee and a couple of red snappers a week were a bargain. I realized something else as we worked the hot, lazy days, resurrecting the Dancing Palms Motel. For whatever insane reason, there was a purpose for getting up each morning. I began to feel good about myself again and best of all, I had no desire to visit the Roadkill Bar and Grill anymore.

We were like the “Three Musketeers”: one for all and all for one, except when it came to sex. Rosita preferred Eduardo’s mattress on the office floor, while Pepito and I shared a Corona and leftover red snapper on the beach in the moonlight.

For now at least, I was at peace watching the ocean with Pepito snuggled in my lap, nudging my belly with his cold nose and sending fish farts into the tropical breeze.

Three months after we had purchased The Rustling Palms Motel, our first paying guests checked in: an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, from Toledo, Ohio, fleeing the oncoming winter. The motel had undergone some drastic changes, including a thick coat of sunshine yellow paint over the Pepito Bismol pink of yesteryear.

Even the lizards seemed happier with it. The faded green awnings were replaced with zippy black and white stripes and Eduardo showed off his genius by tiling the small fish pond in fancy blue Spanish tiles I had found in a thrift store.

Bright Chinese red doors decorated each unit and several key lime trees, palms and ferns were returned to healthy exuberance by regular watering and fertilization. Rosita even managed to coax life back into some lavender and white orchid plants in the courtyard. All in all, the Dancing Palms Motel turned out to be the Belle of the Ball.

With my beard, my colorful Hawaiian shirt, bare feet and Pepito dancing on his hind legs to greet each guest, we were a class act. I was happy or at least content, until that sultry September day when Big Bertha appeared on my horizon.

She drove the longest Cadillac convertible and wore the biggest sunglasses I had ever seen. Her hair was the color of a Caribbean sunset, and she had a pair of cliffs the size of the ones they dive off of in Acapulco. After I got my breath back, the first thing that occurred to me was, “What the hell is she doing here?” Did I mention that the Caddy was pink with baby-blue upholstery?

“Got a vacancy?” she managed in a breathy voice two octaves lower than normal.

“Sure do.” I smiled, trying to get myself around what I was looking at. “Forty dollars a night, AC, TV and me.”

“Sold,” she replied, tilting her head and looking at me over her sunglasses. “ So there really is a Robinson Crusoe.”

Her name was Big Bertha. She was a stripper on her way to a gig in Key West. I should have guessed it when a mile-long pair of legs in black fish-net stockings slid out of their baby blue cocoon under a purple bikini bottom. She towered over me and took my breath away.

“Can ya put a move on, hon?” she half-whispered as I fumbled for the keys to Number Six. “I gotta tinkle.”

Life was never the same at the Dancing Palms Motel after Bertha arrived. First off, Rosita went into shock when she saw all five feet, eleven inches of her. It was as if she’d found a long-lost gigantic sister at a K-Mart convention.

Eduardo had a bad case of eye strain when he saw her, but I could tell by his irregular breathing that her size intimidated him. I had no such problem. Bigger is always better.

Bertha signed in for three days, to rest and tan herself before hitting the stage in Key West. A private palm-fringed beach twenty feet behind the motel became her staging area.

I wondered why four repair men were hanging from the lone telephone pole next to my office at ten o’clock the next morning. I soon discovered the reason. Bertha was stretched out in the warm sand, sans bikini top. It was a sight to make grown men cry or lose their footing on a crowded telephone pole, requiring a 911 call a few minutes later. Bertha’s appendages had that kind of effect on people.

Two days after Bertha arrived, the Florida sky turned as purple as her bikini bottom. The plastic radio in my office crackled something about a hurricane warning before the electricity went off. I began to have that uncomfortable feeling two notches below a panic attack. I had never seen a hurricane, and the hard wind that sent the Palm fronds bending sideways told me that was about to change.

Rosita appeared at my office door with a wild look in her black eyes. She had a yellow Mae West life preserver covering her chest and two words on her lips, “Holy Christopher.” I assumed the Saint had been blown away along with the customary red hibiscus in her hair.

“Close all the shutters,” I barked at her, suddenly taking over as if I knew what I was doing. By now the sky had gone from purple to black, and the sea gulls were being swept away like pieces of lint in a rinse cycle.

Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were gray-faced in their cabin doorway when I arrived. The blank look in their eyes told me I’d better move fast while they were still standing. All I could think of was the Saturday morning movie serials I saw as a kid, where the covered wagons always made a circle before the Indians attacked.

My office would be the safest place, surrounded by the cabins and stuccoed walls. It also had the benefit of a small loft which might come in handy as a last resort. The “last resort” thought kept bouncing around my brain as I led Mr. and Mrs. Johnson through the tiny court yard toward the office.

Eduardo threw the office door open for us and the wind blew Rosita into the room behind us, fresh from her chore of shuttering the windows. It suddenly occurred to me that Bertha was missing. Cabin 6 was at the far end of the court yard and by now the wind was fierce and difficult to fight.

I finally made my way into her cabin, the wind slamming the door behind me. “Woo-eee,” Bertha let out a squeal, “this is going to be a hum-dinger.”

“You got that right,” I replied breathlessly, stunned at the sight of her in a filmy pink nightgown with ostrich feathers floating in the air.

Our eyes met and she whispered, “How long has it been, honey?” sensing the animal magnetism that was making itself more than obvious in my shorts.

“Too long,” I replied. She looked down at me and slid her arm over my shoulder. A clap of thunder followed a few minutes later, shaking the room and setting off a fireworks display bigger than Coney Island had ever seen.

“It has been a long time.” Bertha giggled. “Let’s do it again. Hurricanes turn me on.”

* * *

Dawn broke the following morning with a burst of golden fire that warmed our hearts. The Rustling Palms Motel had a new picture window with one less wall in every cabin. What was left of the red tiled roof stuck out of the lagoon like the top of an underwater Howard Johnson’s.

“That does it,” I sighed, looking at the five bedraggled survivors surrounding me. “We’re out of business.”

“You can’t give up,” Rosita protested, shrugging off her Mae West life preserver. “We can build it back.”

“Sorry, honey, I had no insurance, which means no mooo-la to build anything back,” I replied.

“We hate to leave you in this predicament, son,” Mr. Johnson spoke up, his arm around his wife’s shoulder. “Heard they’re expecting a blizzard back in Ohio next week.” He winked at me. “If we hurry, we can make it.”

Eduardo stood sad-faced with Pepito in his arms and for the first time, the enormity of the situation came down on me. Everything we had worked so hard for was gone.

Bertha stood up, her red hair on fire in the morning sunlight. “I have an idea,” she said slowly, as if thinking out every word before saying it. “That dump I’m playing next week in Key West is for sale,” she continued, tapping her fingernails on the edge of my desk. “I’ve put some bucks away, but I’d need help running it.”

There was total silence in the small office as her meaning sunk in on us. Rosita’s eyes popped so wide they looked painful and Eduardo’s wide smile exposed a gold tooth I’d never even seen before. Even Pepito lost it, dancing around on his hind legs and begging from everyone.

“I’ve always wanted to ride in a pink caddy with baby blue upholstery,” I laughed, catching Bertha’s eyes and wondering how long it would be before I lucked out with another hurricane.


Copyright © 2013 by Ron Van Sweringen

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