Aruba, the bartender says,
is the place to lose this funk, because no one can be sad on that happy
little island. Bronze your unemployed ass and focus on the half of your
life still ahead of you, not the half you already managed to screw up.
Check out a topless beach. Dutch colony, he says, drawing a soggy map
on a beer napkin, a fuzzy dotted line to where six-foot blondes with
European ideals of modesty soak equatorial sun.
Eighteen crisp hundreds
-- the company's way of saying good-bye, so long and farewell -- flash
accusing Benjamin Franklin eyes as I stash them under boxers, roll them
up inside of socks, lay them flat inside a crusty shaving kit.
Flip-flop my way to a crescent
of sand and let the sun push the bad stuff out of me, sweat thick and
milky on my red skin. Gorgeous girl says she's from England but has
no accent, agrees to a night out, calls me high roller when six hundreds
skim across the green felt, into the waiting hands of the Blackjack
dealer. He smiles as he tucks them into the money slot, wipes his fingers
on his black vest.
I'm just getting warmed
up -- the carnival of slots chattering like pinball machines on speed,
the cool plastic of the chips making it feel like make-believe, the
free pastel-colored drinks in tall, narrow glasses aiding my Caribbean
amnesia -- when the guys in masks show up. Jesus fucking H. Christ,
the Blackjack dealer whispers, blessing himself with the Jack of Diamonds,
my Jack of Diamonds, the card I'd been waiting for, the card that could
turn everything around.
Karma travels, I tell myself
as I lay on the floor with everyone else. Luger: I read the barrel of
the gun shoved in my face while a man with hot, alcohol breath screams
at me in Papiemento until I drop my bulging wallet into the hungry mouth
of a pillowcase.
Mail order masks, I figure,
trying to picture a store in Oranjastad that sells cold-weather gear.
No one is supposed to look, but as the three men back out the glass
doorway of the casino, my eyes linger, begging, silently, for them to
take me with them; even as they go, I imagine the getaway as if I'm
part of it.
Out in the hot night, the
island's six police cars form a circle, unarmed officers walking around
in trances. Peculiar, one says, and we all follow as he tracks the messy
footprints in the sand to the beach, where they end in ankle-deep water
not far from where I sat that afternoon, waiting for something good
to finally happen.
Quickly, the crowd loses
interest and the cops give up, leaving me to wade alone into the calm
water until seaweed wraps around my leg, tugs at me to stay put and
then, of course, lets go. Relinquish yourself to drifting, the sea says
in a singsong voice. Set yourself adrift and maybe you'll wash up on
a friendly island where you can start over. Temporary calm settles over
me and I feel the ocean's ancient pull, the tug of the million-year-old
sand beneath my feet.
Usually, I'm afraid of the
water, especially at night, but now I'm on my back, stroking out on
the moon-stained water, letting myself dip further into the deep each
time. Vacations make me brave.
Wind pushes waves over my
chest and the first raindrops splat on my cheeks, the start of a desert-soaking
storm I know will last the week, trapping all the sun worshippers in
their rooms with their wet bars and glossy island guides. X-rated movies.
Yellowing bedspreads-things they'll remember long after their tans fade.
Zebra fish dart invisibly
into the shallows, flapping powerful tails against my legs as they chase
minnows that have nowhere left to go.
Keith Regan is a freelance
writer who lives with wife and daughter near Boston, where he received
an MFA from Emerson College. His short fiction has appeared in Alaska
Quarterly Review and Beacon Street Review.