This Moby Dick-themed Macadamia Charles story was originally published in The Classical magazine’s Issue 8 in February 2014. (Please subscribe!)
Art, as always, by Joe Applegate.
“Call me Mac.”
“Whatever you say, Mr. Charl—er, Mac.”
The stammering attendant handed me my life vest, which smelled of stale brine and whatever unpleasantness the local municipalities had failed to keep out of the harbor. I tried not to breathe as I clipped the vest around my wet-suited body. But clipping wouldn’t make the smell go away or make me need oxygen any less, so I resumed breathing.
“What kind of lobster floats in the wind?” Dwayne Schintzius asked as he towered before me. His famous mullet, known as The Lobster, long ago had fallen victim to scissors and uptight GMs. Did he speak metaphorically?
“You mean like the winds of time and memory?” I asked. I figured Dwayne would appreciate a literary flourish.
“What kind?” echoed Derrick Coleman and Benoit Benjamin, in unison.
Dwayne reached into his bag and produced a pair of goggles. He had attached his unmistakable locks to the strap in the back. When he secured the goggles to his face, the mullet was restored, a flowing prosthetic.
“This kind!” he declared. He shook his head from side to side like a shampoo model, causing the hair to sway in his wake. “I am The Lobster, proud Sea-King!”
“Aye!” shouted Derrick and Benoit. “Sea-Kings we all!”
The attendant appeared to blush as he scurried back to the office.
Schintzius smiled at me as he affixed lobster claw-shaped water wings to his thick forearms.
“Understandest thou that The Lobster is the league’s sole crustacean, now or ever? Indeed, I may be the only sea creature in league history. Certainly I am the only one at center.”
“If there were other sea creatures,” said Derrick. “And The Bear doubts that—but if there were, certainly they were not pivotous.”
“Tark the Shark coached twenty games for the Spurs last year,” I said, referring to Jerry Tarkanian.
“Doesn’t count,” said Dwayne. “He’s a coach.”
“What about The Admiral?” I asked, referring to Spurs center David Robinson, who had served in the Navy.
“Pivotous, certainly” said Dwayne. “But merely a visitor. Is a lobster a land creature when he washes ashore? Should a lobster roll the sidewalks on a tank mounted on casters—a portable sea—shall we declare his nature changed? The Admiral is confined to moving land. He puts land over sea and wishes to be called a sea creature? All sea is over land; you do not hear the fish asking to be called terraneous. The Admiral is not of the sea.”
To rewind a bit: The Sea-Kings were a not-so-secret society made up of Schintzius, Coleman, and Benjamin, all of them members of the New Jersey Nets. (Benjamin was new to both the Sea-Kings and the Nets, a preseason acquisition who had replaced Sam Bowie on the harbor and the hardwood.) They’d read a great work of literature and then dress in costumes and discuss the book in its vernacular before mounting their jet skis and cruising New York harbor “in search of truths.” Hence the name: Kings of Sea, seeking truths.
This session’s selection was Moby-Dick, one of Dwayne’s favorites. (He’d resigned from his college team via a statement calling his coach Captain Ahab.)
Dwayne had long pressed me to become a Sea-King because, in his words, “You’re paid to find truths.” Nevertheless, I’d managed to avoid participating until this day: November 21, 1993.
I was in New York as the guest of Shaquille O’Neal, to see his Orlando Magic play the Nets at the Meadowlands. When we met for a beer afterward, Shaq couldn’t stop smiling, and for good reason: he’d dropped a triple-double in the win and his album, Shaq Diesel, was a hit. “I’m 21 now, Mac,” he had beamed, as the bouncer checked his license. “I don’t have to use Stanley Roberts’ ID anymore.”
The real reason Shaq had brought me to town, I learned, was to pitch a basketball P.I. buddy comedy starring the two of us: Shaq and Mac Take Gotham Back. “No thanks,” I had told him. “I’m a basketball P.I. I don’t play one on TV. Or in the movies.”
Apparently, though, I was willing to play a Sea-King.
“Who be you, Benoit?” asked Dwayne.
I looked over at Benjamin’s 7-foot form, wrapped in spandex that failed to hide his doughy physique. Like Flava Flav, he wore a giant clock on a rope around his neck—except Benjamin’s was digital and featured a number of displays beyond the time.
“I am Big Ben-Ben,” the former Lottery pick replied. “Time-keep of the seas, compass to the Sea-Kings!”
“That’s a big clock,” I said.
“Indeed, ‘twas special made for the Sea-Kings by Casio,” said Benjamin. “A sealant serves as bulwark against the sprays and soaks of the harbor.”
“You mean it’s waterproof?” I said.
“Aye.” He removed from his bag an odd-looking helmet. I recognized it as a partial replica of Big Ben, complete with the signature spire. Big Ben-Ben fastened the chinstrap and turned to Derrick. “And who be you, brother?”
“I,” boomed Derrick, “am The Bear.”
Derrick was fitting his wet-suited mass into a bear costume.
“Why The Bear?” I asked him.
“I am fast and strong and partial to winter naps,” he said. “And you, Charles?”
“Call me Mac,” I repeated.
“Despite thy name, thou taketh great joy from almonds,” said Dwayne. “We shall call thee ‘Almond Joy.’”
He approached me and carefully duct-taped an Almond Joy candy bar—still in its wrapper—to the hood of my wet suit, just above my eyes.
“You going to eat that?” asked Derrick.
I ignored him. I had seen a lot of absurdity in my nine years of investigating in the NBA, but nothing more absurd than this.
The boathouse had just three walls and opened onto the harbor, where four jet skis bobbed on their moorings, sunlight shooting off their polished hulls.
“I shall fuel the jets,” said Derrick, grabbing a plastic canister and walking outside.
“I shall prepare the texts,” said The Lobster, cradling four thick, hardbound copies of Moby-Dick.
“I shall keep time,” said Big Ben-Ben, lifting his clock and turning it toward his face so that he could see it.
“I’ll be here,” I said, leaning my head back to stare at the long wooden boards that made the ceiling. Later on, I would wish I had paid more attention.
Dwayne gathered us and asked us to take a knee. He took a knee himself. The meeting commenced with Benoit reading a passage in which Ahab professes his need to avenge himself against the whale.
“What madness we find in Captain Ahab,” Dwayne offered afterward.
Benoit and Derrick nodded and murmured agreement.
“We must ask ourselves,” continued Dwayne, “‘Is he but a cautionary example? Might we not also gain from obsession?’”
“I have asked myself such questions, Lobster,” said Derrick. “For years, fans and columnists, coaches and teammates; all have questioned my work habits. But I shall not—I shall not—make myself a candidate to be captain. Boeheim named me co-captain my senior year. ‘Lead us, D.C.,’ he said. I told him I didn’t trust captaincy, for it makes monsters of men.”
“Aye,” said Benjamin. “The compass spins to tyranny.”
“But you were still a captain, Derrick,” I said.
“Indeed.” His stare covered a thousand yards of harbor. His voice dropped to a whisper. “Never since, though. Never since.”
“So guys,” I interjected. “Who is our White Whale?”
“Our White Whale,” responded Dwayne, “is the truth.”
“Just one?” I asked.
He reached into his bag and retrieved a hammer, a nail, and a $100 bill. He nailed the bill to the wall of the boathouse. “Whoever finds that truth on the harbor today, this bill is his. Are ye with me?”
“Aye,” said Derrick, solemnly.
“Aye,” said Benoit, even more solemnly.
“Sure,” I said. “But is that all it’s worth?”
“Lower the boats!” commanded Dwayne.
“They’re already lowered,” I said.
The sunlit harbor sparkled with the promise of a thousand truths, or one one-hundred-dollar truth. Our engines churned the waters beneath us from a deep blue to a bright, foaming green.
Dwayne led the way, with Derrick and Benoit riding side-by-side in his wake and me bringing up the rear. Once I got used to the speed and the cold spray in my face, I began to understand why the Sea-Kings enjoyed this so much. Turn one way and you were flying at the clustered towers of the Financial District. Turn the other and you zoomed toward the solo majesty of the Statue of Liberty. The truth, according to Dwayne, lay somewhere in between.
None of the Sea-Kings was known for playing hard. On the court, they were 21 feet of first-round-pick disappointment, of loafing and half-applied talent. But here, in this harbor, on these jets, beneath this sharp November sun, they rode hard. Dwayne seemed especially possessed. His hair streamed behind him like flames. He leaned into the mist to boom his moniker into the void. “LOBSTER” carried in the salty wind.
I was surprised when he slowed his speed and pulled up alongside a touring cruise boat. He stood as upright as his Sea Doo would allow and shouted, “Hast seen the White Whale?”
The tourists on deck seemed unable to hear him over the combined motors and the wind. A few smiled and waved.
“Hast seen the White Whale?” he repeated.
“She proceeds dumbly,” said Derrick. “Avast!”
Dwayne tried the same question on a tugboat and got the same result. If this was our method of search, I suspected the truth would evade us.
Shortly after the tugboat, Dwayne sputtered to a stop.
“How now, Lobster?” asked Derrick.
“How now?” replied Dwayne. “How now, Bear? I can go no further. Didst thou gudgeon me with false fuels? Didst thou siphon my jet fuel, so that The Lobster might be stranded in this bay as in the cursed waters of a seafood department’s sea-through cage? Awaiting only the hot fires of the pot, its boil-bubbles evaporating like my last tortured breaths?”
“Nay, Lobster!” said Derrick. “Thou art my brother, a fellow Sea-King. There be no Cains in this watery field, least not among us three. Nets and Sea-Kings, we all!”
“Indeed,” said Benoit. “I am Big Ben-Ben, Time-keep of the Seas, and I am your brother, both.”
They looked to me.
“I’m just along for the ride.”
“This is a great affront to The Lobster,” declared Dwayne. “To defuel a craft is a low blow on the high seas.”
“Indeed,” confirmed Derrick.
“So true,” said Benoit.
I nodded in sympathy. Technically, these were not high seas. But then, technically, Dwayne was not a lobster. I saw his point.
A swirling wind materialized, a tiny tornado in the harbor. The resulting mist obscured all things distant, so we heard the engine before we saw the boat’s long nose rushing toward us. The driver expertly curved it to a halt, though, kicking spray in our faces like sand.
He was a tall man; I could tell that much. But his balaclava and black-pajama driving suit obscured nearly everything else.
“Outta gas, Lobster?”
“Aye,” said Dwayne, warily. “Hast thou seen the white whale?”
The driver laughed. “Indeed. But I expected better from you tubs.”
I keep a trim physique, so I knew he wasn’t referring to me. And while none of the Sea-Kings was in exemplary shape, it seemed a little harsh to call them tubs.
“There is something uncommon familiar about him,” muttered Derrick.
“Need a lift?” asked the driver.
“’Tis kind,” said Dwayne. “But I knowest thou not—”
“Psych!” yelled the dude. He revved his engine, the motor nearly erasing some of his parting words. “Psych! Ye know me well, motherfuckers! A mighty foe I be.” At least that’s how it sounded.
He hurled a plastic canister in our direction. It bobbed and floated beside our jets. As he accelerated into the mist, I recognized his boat: a Scarab 38. Miami Vice.
Dwayne made it back to shore on the gas in the canister. If the mystery mariner had sabotaged Dwayne’s Sea Doo, he’d also been kind enough to help The Lobster back to land.
I wasn’t sure this was a basketball case, despite the driver’s height. But I accepted it out of sympathy for Dwayne, and because it’s not often I get to work a case where I was present for so much of the action.
Also, I feared I might have been the target.
In our meeting, Shaq had tossed around a number of buddy pairings as comparisons, but he kept coming back to Miami Vice’s Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs. The driver of the boat might have been referring not to “tubs,” but to “Tubbs.”) Shaq fancied himself a funny man, for sure, but he also wanted to be cool. Crockett and Tubbs drove Ferraris and Scarabs and bedded beautiful women, but Crockett was the jock and the guy whose name usually came first.
Could it really have been Shaquille?
On one hand, the guy didn’t sound like Shaq; on the other, Shaq likes to do voices.
On one hand, the guy looked too skinny to be Shaq; on the other, he was dressed in black, and black is slimming.
On one hand, Shaq loved ninjas, and they are frequently depicted in black garb. On the other, he was never able to get Bayou Ninja to stick as a nickname at LSU.
Something told me Shaq wouldn’t do something like this without wanting credit for it. I gave him a call.
“Mac!” he said. “You changed your mind.”
“No, Shaquille,” I said. “That’s not going to happen. Just wondering if you’re still in town or if you guys flew out last night.”
“The team flew out. I stayed.”
“No, just a couple endorsement meetings, and wanted to spend some time with the foos.”
“The Fus. Fu Schnickens. Chip Fu, Moc Fu, and Poc Fu. I had a Top 40 hit with them this summer. ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ Don’t you remember?”
“Yes, I remember them. The Schnickens.”
“The Fus,” he huffed. It was easy to rile Shaq up. “We were out on their boat. They got that Miami Vice boat. I felt like Sonny Crockett. Coulda used a Tubbs.”
“Ah, and where were you cruising?”
“East River. Brooklyn crew, Brooklyn waters.”
“Seems to me they’re just as much Manhattan waters.”
“They’d never let you take that thing out by yourself, would they?”
“You know I got skillz,” he said. “You know I took that thing solo. All the way to the Statue of Liberty. I was like, ‘This beauty runs on Diesel!’”
“Anyway, what’d you call for?”
“Was wondering if you wanted to grab a cup of coffee, but I just got a page. I’m working a case.”
“College, actually,” I lied. Seton Hall’s P.J. Carlesimo had just offered me a case involving missing mustard, but I turned it down.
“You sure you don’t want to do the movie?”
“I’m sure, Shaq.”
“One day,” he said, “I’m going to make a movie where I’m a genie. You won’t be in it, and you’ll be sorry.”
He hung up the phone.
The Nets played the Lakers that night, and the Sea-Kings shot a combined 10 for 30, though they rebounded well. I suspected that they were playing angry, that the incident on the harbor had taken a toll.
After the game, Dwayne confirmed as much. But Derrick dismissed the notion.
“Mac, I come from The D,” he said. “And I’ll be going back when I’m done, try to build something, y’know? Right now? I’m paid millions of dollars to play basketball. I have time to read great works of literature and ride jet skis with my friends. You think I’m sweating a pit stop on the harbor?”
“Can you believe it’s 7:30 in the morning in Moscow right now?”
“I can,” I said.
I caught a cab back to my hotel.
That night, I dreamed about the case. Esteban Calderone rode a white whale like a true cocaine cowboy, or like Major Kong on the bomb. Crockett and Tubbs dodged the jets of leviathan spray—was that powder?—on their Scarab, while a dueling Scarab piloted by the man-in-black zipped under the arcing harpoons of Ahab and crew. The Sea-Kings zoomed wordlessly, figure-eighting through the chaos in their endless pursuit of truth, Benoit’s clock frozen on zeroes.
As for me, I was craftless, treading water. Cold, thick, heavy water. My limbs could barely cut it. I gargled salty waves.
“Help!” I shouted, sea spilling from my lips. “Someone, help!”
Crockett and Tubbs swerved hard toward me, burying me in a cascade of waves. When I cleared the water from my stinging eyes, Tubbs was leaning over the side of the boat, his hand outstretched to help me up.
“Don’t be distracted by this circus, Mac,” he said. “Remember the wound that drove Ahab mad. Follow it to the whale, who has already given you his name.”
I don’t put much stock in dreams, but I had little else to go on in this case. Especially after a phone call to Chip Fu revealed that the Schnickens’ boat was not a Scarab and that Shaquille had not taken it out himself.
I wasn’t able to reach Dwayne; I figured he was either holed up somewhere reading or out on the harbor on his jet ski. Dwayne’s therapies were no mystery.
I hired a high school kid from the local Amateur Basketball P.I. Society to check with local boat rental businesses about seven-footers renting 38-footers and got on with my end of the investigation.
It was a brilliant, sunny Monday with a mercury reading well north of 50. I left my jacket at the hotel and began the walk uptown in my sweater. The city had a festive vibe, perhaps in anticipation of Thanksgiving.
I was pleased to find I had the library’s microfilm room all to myself. I posted up with my 20-ounce coffee and pen and paper. It was going to be a long afternoon of scanning the sports pages for stories about Schintzius—particularly stories in which he was somehow defeated or humiliated. It was a long shot, but in the context of a search spurred by a dream, a few hours of research made plenty of sense.
Three hours later, I had something good. “Seikaly Humbles Schintzius,” read the headline. The gist: When he was a freshman at Florida, Dwayne talked a bunch of mess about Syracuse’s Rony Seikaly before their teams met in the NCAA tournament. “In the days leading up to the game, Schintzius had, as always, spoken highly of himself. He said he was a great center. He said he was going to take the game to Seikaly and get him in foul trouble.”
Rony finished the game with 33 points and Syracuse got the win. Rony was quoted as saying he was so mad he couldn’t sleep the night before. Dwayne finished with six, but was unrepentant, doubling down on his previous boasts and vowing to get Rony next time.
I spent another hour finding box scores, and every time the two matched up, Seikaly had a huge game, and Dwayne did not. But knowing Dwayne, I suspected he hadn’t stopped talking.
Remember the wound that drove Ahab mad. Follow it to the whale, who has already given you his name.
The guy in the boat had said, “Psych. Psych. Ye know me well, motherfuckers. A mighty foe I be.” But it had been loud when he spoke, with the wind and the motors obscuring inflection and rhythm. I played with the syllables in my head.
Could it have been “Seikaly. Seikaly. Know me well, motherfuckers. A mighty foe I be”?
Derrick had though the culprit “uncommon familiar.” He and Rony were teammates at Syracuse, an imposing duo one might liken to Crockett and Tubbs.
I checked the schedule. The Heat were playing the Knicks in town this evening. Their previous game was in Washington, two days earlier. It wouldn’t have been hard for Rony to make it up here for some fun on the harbor yesterday morning.
I hit the change machine to load up on quarters and found a payphone. It took a few calls and posing as Heat minority owner Billy Cunningham, but I finally got Rony on the phone at the team hotel.
“Rony,” I said. “Macadamia Charles here.”
“Is there a mystery I don’t know about?” he asked.
“Did you take the gas out of Dwayne’s jet ski?”
“Of course. I told you guys it was me.”
“Why?” I asked, though we both knew the answer.
Rony didn’t hesitate. “That’s what he gets for talking that skoupídia.”
All that was left was to tell Dwayne. I found him in the boathouse, lounging in his wet suit and drinking Hamm’s.
He didn’t seem surprised when I told him.
“I’ve yet to get the better of Seikaly. He truly is my White Whale.”
“A lot of people in college called you White Whale,” I reminded him. “You told me that yourself.”
“I wish I were that powerful,” he said. “They were just calling me fat. White and fat.”
He tossed me a beer. I sat on the damp bench and cracked it open, the sound echoing off the concrete walls. I gulped most of it in one go. It went down cold and clean. This case had been more stressful than I realized.
“One question, Dwayne,” I said. “What was the truth you were searching for out there on the harbor?”
“I’ll know when I find it, Mac,” he said. He shook his head to the side in what I could only assume was an attempt to toss his missing mullet. On instinct, he ran his fingers where the hair once lay. His eyes were sad. “I’ll know when I find it.”