CHAPTER 1 – Captain Blood, 1936
It begins with blood and ends with blood.
I stared at the advertisement in the Amusements section of The New York Times willing it to come to life. There was a picture of a man with long hair holding a sword beneath the words, “The Seas Run Red in the Wake of Captain Blood.” Everything about this man was an invitation to adventure. If I closed my eyes I could almost hear him whisper, “Come with me.”
It was three days after Christmas, just before my seventh birthday. I’d stolen the paper from the pile outside my father’s room. That morning, like most Saturdays, my father remained asleep. He’d been drinking heavily and I knew by the sound of his deep, long snores that he would remain asleep far into the afternoon. This was a good thing, because when he was awake, he spoke with his fists. I’d never known my mother. She’d died giving birth to me.
My grandmother stirred an hour later, then left the house quietly, on her way to her Saturday church services. Tait Maddie Wymann believed in God above, the devil below, and hell on earth. Unlike my father, I couldn’t avoid Maddie. She schooled me at home six days a week and kept me in the house doing chores the rest of the time. To keep me in line she once placed my hand over our stove burner until the skin bubbled. Other times she lashed my behind raw with a belt, and black and blued my fingers with a wooden ruler.
It was the picture of a defiant Captain Blood that made me follow Maddie – that and a curiosity about the world outside of our house that Maddie, no matter how hard she tried, couldn’t beat out of me.
I opened my door and stole out into the living room, stepping carefully, trying not to make the floorboards squeak. I crept around the hard-backed chairs that served as our furniture and the small Christmas tree with a few strands of silver tinsel hanging from it that sat beneath a large crucifix with Jesus and his bloody palms by the front door.
I hesitated, staring at the doorknob, wondering if it would burn my fingers the way Maddie said it would if I ever tried to leave without her. I closed my eyes and reached forward, holding my breath. My fingers touched the brass. It was cold. I opened my eyes and exhaled, laughing, and covered my mouth with my hands. I opened the door slightly, then closed it—looking above me, then behind—to see if there were black-scaled demons waiting to drag me down into the underworld. There weren’t. I couldn’t believe it. No fangs or claws or long pointy tails—just my father’s snores. I thought, Maybe they’re all asleep. I shuddered, then reached back and quickly grabbed a jacket and cap. I opened the front door and stepped outside. The air was cold and crisp. I spotted Maddie disappearing down the block and ran after her.
There hadn’t been much snow that year, but there had been freezing days. My knickers covered part of my legs, but my knee socks were stretched out and hung around my ankles. The wind cut right through my jacket. I tried to keep up with Maddie as she walked quickly to the elevated station on Queens Boulevard. When I stopped to look up at the station a train passed overhead and the ground trembled beneath my feet. I shivered and swallowed hard. Maddie disappeared through the station door. I ran to the door and tried to pull it open, but it wouldn’t budge. A man opened it for me and, in a panic, I ran past him, up the steps. I saw Maddie pass money to a man in a small booth, then push through a turnstile. I tried to duck under the wooden arms, but got caught by one and hit in the back of the head as it rolled around. Someone yelled, “Hey, you!” but I stumbled through and got lost in the crowd. Standing on a bench on the platform, rubbing the bump on the back of my head, I could see for miles even though the platform was crowded. At one end of the tracks I saw a tall, needle-shaped building that seemed to shoot up out of the ground. Following it into the sky, my head started to spin.
“That’s the Empire State Building, son,” said an old man sitting to my right.
At the other end of the tracks small patches of farmland dotted the horizon between new half-block-long apartment buildings and piles of construction. I looked back from where I’d come and saw Sunnyside Gardens—my home. I pictured my father, asleep on his bed, mouth open, pushing out and pulling in the curtains with each breath, and marveled at how big the world really was.
The train pulled up, wheels clacking on electric rails. As it stopped I jumped off the bench and ran toward where I’d seen my grandmother disappear into one of the open doors. Steeling myself, I stepped across the gap between platform and car, and entered its belly. Not far away, amid the forest of men’s pants and women’s wool-covered calves, I saw Maddie’s sagging black socks and swollen ankles. The doors closed and the car jerked forward a few times before its ride smoothed out. I grabbed a pole and held on tight. Every time the train stopped I was thrown forward, then back, knocking into heavy coats and women’s thick purses. A barking man’s voice came from outside the door shouting the names of streets as the doors opened and closed, letting some people off and others on. Maddie sat down on a bench. I pressed my face against the pole and lowered myself to the floor. The windows darkened as the train went below the earth. My ears popped and the lights went out. I thought Maddie had found me out and punished me by taking me down into hell.
“Church services, church services,” I repeated over and over as the train leveled out and the lights came on. The journey seemed to go on forever. Finally, we came to a screeching halt and for a moment all was still. Then the doors opened and the voice barked, “Times Square, last stop.” I got up just as the crowd around me surged toward the doors.
Maddie stood and walked quickly out, passing through tunnels, around winding corridors, and up stairs. Finally I heard wind howling up ahead. A large sign above me said hold your hat, and all around me people grabbed for theirs with free hands. I held onto my cap as a sudden gust of wind tried to tear it free. The light of day blinded me when I reached the surface.
Giant buildings loomed over me on all sides and bright lights, lit even during these morning hours, surrounded signs for Planter’s Peanuts and Wrigley Spearmint Gum. There were vendors selling a frank, kraut, and lemonade for five cents, sitting on tomato crates next to their pushcarts, warming their hands at their small fires beneath giant yellow and green umbrellas. Fruit vendors yelled, “Apples, apples, apples for five cents!” and “Two peeled oranges for a nickel!” There were rattling trolley cars, honking taxis, and men yelling from doorways with posters of half-naked women behind them: “Yes, you sir, come in and see Lucinda Hellenesca whose virgin legs—as long and lithe as Eve’s—lead up to the sacred temple that tempted Adam.”
I couldn’t believe this was where Maddie went to her church services. It was terrifying and exciting at the same time. No wonder she went every week.
I lost Maddie as the sights and smells made my stomach rumble and my eyes dart from one attraction to another. I could have forgotten her completely if I hadn’t been knocked over by a kid running up the stairs.
“Watch where you’re goin’!” he shouted as he passed.
Getting up, my knee scraped and bleeding, I saw Maddie standing beneath a large white sign crawling with red letters: captain blood. It was like a miracle, from straight out of the newspaper to big broad letters right in front of me, scrawled across the sky. It was a sign from God. I could see Maddie’s face as she looked up at the marquee. Her wrinkled cheeks flushed bright red as she smiled, clasping her gnarled, black-gloved hands in front of her. She wore a large gray woolen overcoat that gave her figure a boxy shape and made her seem small beneath that sign—small but happy. I’d never seen her happy before—it surprised me. People were lined up alongside the building and off into the distance, puffing out frosted air in white gusts that hovered above their heads like clouds. But Maddie didn’t seem to notice them as she looked up at the words in red. captain blood.
Then she turned around and spotted me. Her smile disappeared and I froze. She pulled out her pocket watch and looked at it before she looked back down at me. Then she pointed one long finger and slowly curled it in, beckoning me. I swallowed and walked toward her whispering, “Church services, church services.” As soon as I was in range, she cuffed the back of my head, sending my cap flying to the ground. When I reached down to pick it up, she grabbed my hair and twisted it hard enough to make my eyes tear, then pulled my face up toward hers.
“You’ll not say a word of this to anyone,” she said, her lips pursed and thin. “You understand?”
“Yes,” I said, not understanding at all.
She relaxed her grip and pushed me toward the box office.
“I’m cold,” I said.
“What’s inside the big house?”
“The face and voice of the devil, now shut your mouth.”
She gave thirty-five cents to the cashier and bought two tickets, looking around quickly as if she were afraid of being seen, then led me to the back of the line. Huddled between the thick fur coats of the women surrounding us, I was at least warm. There were children, too, like me and older, with stained brown bags in their hands and dirt on their faces. They pushed and shoved each other while adults talked above them.
Inside the theatre both the cigarette smoke and the noise grew thicker. Maddie rushed me inside and we grabbed seats in the crowded back row, facing a large white wall. The seats folded down and sprang up when you got off them. I did it four or five times until Maddie smacked me to make me stop. There was an ashtray on the back of each seat in front of us. I could barely see above the people in the next row, so I folded my legs under me, sat back on my heels and, with a little shifting around, found my balance.
Then the overhead chandelier dimmed. Music swelled from everywhere. A silver beam appeared above my head and split the darkness, flooding the wall before us with light. At first I thought it was God speaking to me and I nearly peed my pants. Then I realized it wasn’t God but a photoplay, a moving picture, a real talking film.
A giant antenna appeared on the wall, followed by men in uniforms marching, bombs dropping, and airplanes soaring. Then the wall went black and the music stopped. In the darkness I couldn’t breathe. Then a different kind of music came on that grabbed me around the chest and wouldn’t let go. Trumpets blared. Crossed cutlasses and ships painted on stretched canvas filled the wall. Words splashed onto the ships in what seemed to be letters that stood hundreds of feet high, so tall I thought they would fall off the wall and on top of me. Then the light disappeared and left the world in shadows. A horseman appeared, galloping through cannon fire, searching for Doctor Peter Blood. And then came Captain Blood in the flesh and handsome as the devil. I forgot about my grandmother. I forgot about my father. I forgot about church services. I forgot about everything but the giants above me, their crashing cannons, their heaving ships, and their clashing swords.
I emerged from the theatre rubbing my eyes as I tried to adjust them to the light of the lobby. My grandmother left me there, whispering, “Don’t move till I come back.”
I stood on the marble floor beneath the crystal chandelier that marked the beautiful entrance. Through squinted eyes I stared at the winking lights above me. There was a commotion by the front doors and a group of men and women entered, the men in tight-fitting suits—dapper black tuxedos with tails—smoking cigars as big as zeppelins. The crowd parted in front of them and they walked up to me. One man in particular—black-haired, clean-shaven, dark-eyed, with a thin, athletic look—seemed to be the center of attention. He had a woman on each arm. Each wore a low-cut dress that shimmered like stars as she moved. The man puffed on a stogie that wreathed his head in smoke. I was in their way and unable to move. The man looked at me and released the two women. He bent down on one knee and withdrew his cigar from his mouth.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked with an accent I’d never heard before. His hair was oiled and slicked back perfectly. His teeth gleamed.
I shook my head.
“Someday, when you are bigger, you will come to know who I am. This man, Flynn” —he pointed with his cigar at the life-size poster of Captain Blood above the popcorn stand— “they say he is a great swordsman. He uses his sword up there, on screen. Not here, in—in flesh.” He took my hand and placed it in his. “See?” he said. “This is flesh, not screen. Flesh.”
I nodded and shook his hand. He shook back, laughing. It was a strong grip for such a thin man.
A flash of light blinded me.
“Great shot, Flanagan,” someone said.
I smelled something burning. When my eyes cleared, the man, and the crowd of people around him, were gone.
“Do you know who that was?” a man in a worn doorman’s tuxedo asked me from behind.
I turned around and saw a man, younger than my father, flexed in the same position Captain Blood had been when he swung his sword—knees bent, right arm forward, left arm curled up toward his ear. I shook my head.
The doorman lunged forward and I dodged. He laughed and pretended to swing an imaginary sword from side to side. “That,” he said between cuts and thrusts, “was . . . Aldo . . . Nadi!”
“Fesniv!” the manager yelled from the box office.
The doorman froze, sweat dotting his forehead.
“Fesniv!” yelled the voice again.
The doorman winked at me. “He just gave a fencing exhibition with Santelli and Costello at the Plaza Hotel. They say he’s the greatest swordsman who ever lived.”
“Greater than Captain Blood?” I asked.
I never heard him answer because Mad Maddie Wymann grabbed my ear and dragged me out into the cold.
“A villain at heart, and nothing but trouble,” she said. “You’re just like your father.”
I hoped that wasn’t true, because even then I hated my father more than anyone else in the world.