Myrtle Beach, the Grand Strand, hot fun in the summer time. Welcome Canadians! in the fall. The International Parade of Corvettes in the spring. Nine golf courses, six water slides and three go-cart tracks. Five radio stations all dedicated to oldies. Go ride the Swamp Fox, the somethingest roller coaster in the country! Run over some animals on the way.
At some point, I realized that my personality was disintegrating. Is that what they call it? It happens on Law & Order a lot.
Whatever it is, the consequences are not good.
A few drinks wiped that little epiphany right out of my mind.
• • •
“Hello? Earth to Sharon.” He actually said that, Frank, the certified shrink. To whom the county was paying good tax dollars, on my behalf. DUI bought you six months of AA, or two of this, plus community service. Good thing I’d gotten that shiny new license, and that old junker, the one now crusting over in space number two. The deal was a no brainer, the math was easy, even to my soused brain. “If you don’t talk about it, you’re not going to make any progress. You do want your license back, don’t you?” In my brave new world, if you didn’t talk about it, it didn’t exist. Frank made a tent of his fingers and rested them under his nose. Uh-huh, he did.
“I don’t want to. I don’t find it to be a particularly fascinating line of inquiry.” Always a curve on what I said around this guy, trying to sound smart. God knows why; but fit in fine with all the rest of the inexplicables.
“I have the sense that there is a snake’s nest of unresolved issues here.” Dan called him Dr. Hollyweird. The guy said he was from LA. I had my doubts, but what was the difference? I just sat, looking out at the guys going into the surf shop next door. “So you left a lucrative career in the advertising business in New York, oh, and,” he swiveled around to his desk to check the notes. He ran his index finger down the yellow pad, tapped when he found the item. “And, a fiancé, and moved down here to Myrtle Beach to work at, uh, Molly’s Flapjacks, from where you were fired, um, last month? Have I got all that right?” Deadpan didn’t suit him. He had a squeaky voice.
“I was on my way to Miami.”
“Yes?” I turned my attention back from the surfers to Frank, his eyes, and realized only then that he didn’t believe me. I was inclined to let him just stay with his sense, there. Nobody here knew anything about where I came from, my choice. Robbie said I floated in on a half-shell. Acne scars and all, was my standard response. But even though I didn’t want to think or tell about it, it was a strain at times. I bit.
“Sick of it.” I shrugged. Enough said, far as I was concerned.
“It?” He had a little egg head and baby-cheeks.
“Fabulousness?” He wrote it down. It looked like it would crack more easily than most. Heads, it turned out, were surprisingly tough to crack.
“Yeah. Everything, everybody, every place was… so fucking fabulous. Never-ending game of one-upmanship. Never get away from it, not at the bodega, the laundry, the post office, the toilet.”
“Hey, if you want me to tell it, Frank, just listen and let me, okay.”
“I am chastised.” He raised his soft pink palms at me. Fucker.
“I was lugging five or so shopping bags – I’d been Christmas shopping all afternoon. I had made this discovery that lots of shops actually will cut the price if you lay out cash. I used to do big Christmases, and I had five thousand dollars on me that day. There were no cabs up by Barneys, yeah, I’m sure you do know it, yeah, isn’t it just.” I wanted to set Frank’s perky red hair on fire.
“Anyway, I took the E train, and there was a delay on the tracks. I was at my limit with people jostling and bumping, so I got off at Port Authority. The Salvation Army Santa outside was ringing his bell. Fabulous Santa, naturally.” I stole a glance at Frank. Blank. “So I gave SA Santa seventy-five cents and a token. However, no cabs down here either. Why the drivers change shifts during rush hour in New York City is one of the great mysteries of the ages.
“I started down Ninth, walking. Kept my eyes open for a cab – but nada. It was beginning to snow – wonderful Christmastime treat. Some carolers down Thirty-eighth street singing ‘Tidings of comfort and joy.’ Midway down the block, I was passing those empty parking lots when this Puerto Rican guy starts bouncing and skipping all around me, asking for spare change. That always made me nervous, and I always felt guilty about stereotyping at the same time. He seemed a little brain-damaged or something, and he was horribly skinny. And it was Christmas, so I opened my purse and pulled out a twenty. He blessed me, and went on and on about the miracles that were going to happen to me for a minute or so. I felt so happy about it, and pleased with myself, I blessed him back, and told him to stay warm. He heads across towards a diner on the far corner, ecstatic. I was thinking about getting home and telling my fiancé what I’d done, and enjoying how appalled he’d be. I was really impressed with myself.
“Frank, I need a cigarette here. Really I do.” For once he nodded, and I lit up. “So, after the homeless guy bounces away, only a couple of seconds and a nice looking guy, well-dressed, swinging his briefcase and all, is passing me on the left. Turns his head and says, in this British accent, ‘You gotta love New York.’ Lips like Jude Law, so I smile at him, and then I’m suddenly down on the sidewalk, and he’s on top of me, yanking at my purse. ‘Just let go,’ he says. ‘Give it up, stupid cow.’ I was fighting him, of course––”
“Shush, Frank. You want to hear it or not? One time offer, no questions. Okay then. After that, the businessman’s dragging me, and it’s dark, and he cracks my head on the pavement, and that’s it.” It was fun to watch Frank fidget. I waited just until it looked like he was getting ready to pipe up again, and flicked ash on the carpet.
“Oops. Then this kid, a little boy, is shaking my shoulder and saying, ‘Lady, lady are you dead?’ Scared the shit out of me, I thought I was being mugged again, and, now, with impeccable sense of timing, I finally scream for the first time. And I don’t shut up. Kid freaks and runs away.” Frank started to say something here, but I held up my hand.
“My dime, Frank. And only three minutes according to your trusty clock. Yeah, the nice homeless guy was Puerto Rican, the mugger was white, ‘kay? So after I find that I can move, I sit up and check my head. Bloody and dirty, but not broken, I don’t think. I get to my feet, though I’m wobbly. Still no cabs. Our apartment is only fifteen blocks south, and I try to figure if I can make it. But I turn around and keep staring at the lights up at Port Authority instead. Honey will freak if bunny comes home like this. So, I’m just gonna go up and wash in a restroom there. Do as much damage control as I can. The weird thing is, I feel embarrassed, humiliated.” I looked up to see Hollyweird nodding sagely, with his eyes closed, like he was in deep inner pain. Then his lip budged.
“Can it, Frank, I know all about it. Forty-five seconds, and I’m outta here. Good. I’m unencumbered now, so moving around is much easier than it might have been. People are staring at me in the station, and three even ask if I’m all right or need help. Gotta love it, New York. But I’m in a zone, and I wave them off. I go into the Ladies’, not feeling like much of one. Fact is, haven’t felt like much of one since. Down, boy. God’s sake, Frank.
“I’m a horror show in the restroom mirror. A couple of my teeth are loose, but still attached. I wash out my hair – blood and parking lot shit, as best I can in a sink there, then look down at my clothes, and notice that I still have my fanny-pack. It was under my coat. I unzip and my cash is still there – looks like all of it. A miracle, I got an incompetent mugger. I feel light-headed, giddy. So much money, it seems to me now. So much more than it was an hour ago.
“I look at myself again, check to see if I’m fit to go home. Presentable. Watch myself staring at myself. See something in those mirror-eyes. Something is wrong with this picture, I think, and it’s not my fucked–up face.
“I suddenly have a raging compulsion for a cigarette – no I don’t smoke, didn’t, yes now, not then, Christ almighty! While I’m buying a pack at the newsstand, I hear an announcement for the Greyhound bus line. That moment I know I’m not going back to the apartment on Twenty-second Street. Back to the fiancé, back to the firm. Clear as a bell.
“I light up, cough a lot, but keep my cool, while I cross over and buy a ticket to Miami. I remember someone saying that it’s the closest you can come to being an ex-patriot without leaving the country, and I’m there. I also decide to start drinking heavily as soon as possible. I have a family destiny out there calling on me, I tell myself. Miami would be the perfect place to fulfill it. Why fight? By the time the bus hits South Carolina, though, I’m getting really tired, and sick of the smell. We’re trolling through Myrtle Beach, and I see the giant rollercoaster, and Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not, lots of neon, and swarms of tourists. Unreal, almost as good as Miami. Good enough. What the hell, I get off.” I stop-sign him with my hand again, and glance at the wall clock.
“Oh, would you look at that Frank, it’s five o’clock, we’re ten minutes over! I forgot all about the full fifty. Damn. So sorry. But, got to dash! No, really. There is all kinds of alcohol waiting for me around this carnival town.”
Frank moved to hold the door open for me, then gave me this sickly smile and asked if I’d like to go have martinis at his condo-by-the-sea. I pushed my face right up into his and said, “You’re not really real, are you?” He was fired. I didn’t go back.
Never happened to me in New York, this guys-hitting-on-me left and right. Not when I was making the big dollars. When I was sober and my hair was always clean, except, of course, for those last couple of hours. Now I was a regular magnet, for flies.
• • •
The Sea Dip Motel, turquoise fifties dream. Room number two. I walked right in, flung off my shoes, dubbed it home and walked back out, barefoot, over to the QuikStop for a six-pack. I took it out onto the beach, twisted my ass into the sand, and watched the life guards pack up, last strollers of the day with their long dim shadows, a couple of kamikaze kids shrieking to split their mothers’ brains. Three beers down, I walked through the clammy sand up to the Pavilion and watched the colored lights spin in the amusement park across the way as I forked over two bucks for a corndog with mustard.
• • •
What I couldn’t get used to were the flattened squirrels, stray or not-stray cats and dogs, birds, frogs or possums littering the back roads. I racked my brain for a New York equivalent of road kill – but there just weren’t too many dead dogs lying in the middle of Broadway – the city’s own horrors notwithstanding. I couldn’t stop wondering why so many people mowed down living creatures for the sake of thirty seconds off their trip to Wal-Mart or the QuikStop, or, more likely, just to the next red light. My pervading concern.
• • •
“Cast it out, reel it in. Cast it out, reel it in.”
This long-legged guy was rocking back and forth on a barstool, miming the action while he and his sidekick laughed their asses off at whatever the story was. The fisher guy’s long curls shook when he laughed. Beautiful. The Blue Marlin was my first true find, about ten blocks from the Sea Dip. I’d been here two weeks, hadn’t gotten a car yet, so it was convenient. The music was great, too: blues-jazz stuff mostly. Tonight J.J. Cale was the main menu. And I hadn’t really struck up any acquaintances yet, either, so I thought I’d take my chances here. More promising than a lonely corndog on the boardwalk up at the pavilion every night.
“Hey, fellas, that’s not the way I learned to do it. I’d stick to cane poles any day, in that case.”
“Well, hello lady, what’s your name?” Said the lanky one with curls.
“Depends on who’s asking,” I answered, per script.
“I’m Dan,” Dan said.
“Sharon, I’m sure,” I said, extending my arm. He brought it towards his face, then stopped short and looked at me. I glanced at my wrist and the angle of my hand, and realized I hadn’t offered it so as to shake. My neck and ears flushed hot.
“This here’s Rob. He’s a cop, now, so you better watch out.” Yeah, and how. The sidekick was shorter, stouter, with a blond crew. I turned my attention back to Dan.
“Note taken. And, you’re what, let me guess, a fisherman!” My hand was moist, I wiped it on the back of my jeans.
“Well, yeah, in between gigs,” Dan shrugged and laughed.
“Shit man, you lie to the woman! The only gig you had in the last ten years is hanging paper,” Rob said.
“Shut up, bud, you’re blowing the impression all to hell. You know I’m the ‘Guitar Man.’ Which was playing on the sound system just then. I pursed my lips in acknowledgement of his hokum. “Gotta excuse my friend, here, that ol’ jealousy thang running back to high school days,” he shouted in Robbie’s face. This cracked them both up. “You know how drummers are. So. What’re you drinking there, Shar-one?”
“Vodka tonic.” I rattled the twist of lime at the bottom of my glass.
“Got that, Chop? Chop here is my brother.” He dropped his head back and looked at the massive bartender sideways. The guy must’ve been six-three and no less than three hundred pounds. Like a white Sumo, but with foot long dreadlocks, graying, for an extra ethnic spin. Not a literal brother. “Make mine the same.” Dan’s fingers lingered in the ‘two’ formation like a wilted peace sign.
While I was introducing myself to Chop, Dan elbowed Robbie in the chest. “Reel it in,” he said one more time, and they cracked up again.
“Well, I don’t think I’ve seen you around, Sharon. You down here beachin’ it this week? She doesn’t look like she’s from around here, does she, Rob?” Dan said, and mock-looked me over. He passed me one of the vodka tonics. “So what do you think it is, the way she walks?” A sultry number, slow undercurrent, had just come on, and I couldn’t help swinging my hips: Cale’s “Same Old Blues.” Dan sipped and nodded, pointing. “Yup, I think… maybe so.” He cocked his head, squinting at me, then handed his drink off to Robbie. “What say I take her out on the dance floor and you check, huh?”
“Hey man, watch your mouth. Don’t be rude to the lady, now–” But Robbie’s voice was fading as Dan pulled me by both hands. This was between me and him.
He had great arms to go with the legs, was a terrific dancer. I hadn’t been out dancing in forever, and it was a blast. We stayed out on the floor for the next several songs, and eventually people started hanging at the edge of the floor, drinking and watching us. Nothing like it as an aphrodisiac. Robbie left sometime around “Boilin’ Pot,” and we kept on dancing ‘til I can’t remember.
One two three, hooked. The lowest common denominator, but I’d been getting stupid and stupider since I got off the bus.
• • •
He took me out to the Gulf Stream in his father’s twenty-five-foot Bertram over the first couple of months. Out in the salt wind with the shimmer coming off the waves, way out beyond the sight of land, I thought I was in heaven. Getting brown, color in my skin was a novelty. And making a haul with the mackerel along with a few amberjack.
Robbie went two or three times. Nice enough guy, quieter than Dan, but who wasn’t? He was a gung-ho fisherman, though. By the last, back to just me and Dan by then, I was doing most of the fishing by myself. Dropping a line into the water and the rod into the holder had gotten to be a waste of effort in Dan’s view – he liked to just cruise around out there. He was into mellowing out on his days off – Percodan did it for him real well. And I liked to drink. Beer was the ticket for catching fish– Budweiser, “the King of beers,” my father ‘s recipe for success. The family code. What a beautiful body, though, my god. A slightly slender Michaelangelo-perfect. Those calves and thighs. The image of one of those deltoids sloping down to meet its bicep almost made me lose my good sense.
• • •
On the other hand, we didn’t have much sex, me and Dan, mostly for the same reason he stopped fishing. Love of the drug, his. Or not what I would personally like to think of as sex. Turn over, what? Oh, okay, arf, arf. All in all: not much. After four months, I was drinking enough that I didn’t much care one way or the other. I did notice that I didn’t particularly care for the smell of Percodan seeping through his pores, however. The smell of wallpaper paste had been much nicer.
He lived in his parents’ beach house at Surfside. Said I couldn’t move in because they could show up at any time.
I hadn’t asked.
• • •
A typical date with Dan. Today’s variation went like this.
Bracing my arms against the dash of his old MG, screaming “Shit!” and “Watch out!” Then I felt the slight, sick bump.
“What the fuck!” he yelled back at me. He slammed on the brakes, jolting us both.
“A squirrel, Dan, a squirrel. Right in the middle of the road. Are you blind or what? Plain as day – right in the middle. The middle! What is wrong with you?”
“Goddamn. Don’t ever do that again. Hear me! The squirrel was dead, Sharon! Already deader’n shit.”
“It could have been alive!”
“Well, it fucking wasn’t!”
“It doesn’t matter! Don’t you have any respect?” The screaming was shredding my vocal cords. “You are a monster. Why did you have to run over it like that, like it’s a piece of garbage? You, just like any of the rest of them.” I burst into tears, scalding hot, and fumbled with the door handle. “I hate you, I just fucking hate you.”
“So you gonna take your weekly stomp to the Marlin from all the way out here, this afternoon? It’s further than you think, Sharon.” He revved the engine. It sounded tinny. I don’t know if he would have let me back in the car even if I’d been willing. “See you around midnight, if you walk fast.” I kicked the door closed and then his fender, before he squealed off, leaving me with a cloud of exhaust and plenty of weeping Spanish moss.
• • •
“Cast it out, reel it in. Irregardless of the weather.” Three guesses who, at Chop’s house over on Sandy Island. The line almost made me sad, remembering back, but not quite.
“Now hear, this! There is no such word. As irregardless. Hello!” I stepped in from the dock, meeting the doorframe for a quick pas de deux on the way. “Just so you all are all clear on that fine point of the language.” I took a bow to the crowd. Francine, with the big tits, from Conway, was sitting on the floor near Dan – barca-lounging in Chop’s beat-up recliner. How generous of her.
“Well, Miss She-she, what do you know? Roused from the deep.” Dan drawled at me. Me, She-she. “Hand me another one of them Millers there, Rob.”
“Get your own damn Miller for a change, Dan-dan.” I pulled one out of the ice bucket for myself, fuck him. “In case you hadn’t noticed Rob’s not in here, he’s out on the dock, fishing. Fishing, Dan. That’s Francine there beside you. Franci, meet Dan. Hello, Franci. Why, hello, Dan-dan.” Chop handed me my beer back, top off, and patted me softly on the back. Huh? Oh, good boy bartender, Chop. Beer on, beer, on… whiskey! Beer on whiskey. What was the rest? I swayed against the screen door.
“Oh, fishing! Well, speaking of fishing, oh shit!” I spilled beer all over my best orange tee shirt swiped from I don’t know who. “Well, never mind. But fishing! Awful lot of advice about fishing, for someone who hasn’t had a rod in months, don’t you think, Dan? Why don’t you try it? Why don’t you take Franci there,” I indicated Francine with the mouth of my half-empty bottle, “Francine there, FISHING and show her your daddy’s big BOAT?” I cracked myself up, then fell backwards through the screen door.
“Don’t worry about ol’ She-she, she’s in a headspace,” Dan might have said then.
“Yeah, well with a master, past master-master of the King’s English language for a boyfriend, what’re ya gonna do?” I told Robbie, who was picking me up. “Go fishing?” I wagged my head. “Wrong.” Stage whisper: “Hey! Robbie! Do you think Franci knows, yet. YET!” giggling and hiccoughing now, “that he has nothing to cast?”
• • •
My dream, however, wasn’t. Either turquoise, or pretty.
Face stuck to the plastic mattress cover when I woke. Sweat pooling at the corners of my eyes, around my mouth; dry as sand inside. Hot salt air through the window, where the wedge of light was too bright. The ocean was too loud, waves crashing with the volume turned up to max. The pink awning flag-flapping in the wind next door. Jeans cutting into my hips, twisted up damp behind the knees. Bile at the back of my throat, and though I felt like puking, I was pretty sure there was nothing left. Wasn’t going to be a beach day today. I fell back under.
Next time I woke up, it was only worse, so I dragged my way towards the open window, feeling a bruise where the brass zipper had pressed into my pubic bone all night. Or something. The pulse throbbed in my ears.
After I’d shut out the noxious heat, I strained to switch on the AC. Nothing. I slammed it with the flat of my hand until my palm rang and tried the switch again. Dead. Shoved the window sash back up, and jerked the roller-shade the rest of the way down. It fell out of its brackets and crashed down on my wrist before I could move.
“Fuck!” I punched the air conditioner with my foot, a few times I guess, before the vent cracked, as my heel went through the plastic, and then I kept on kicking, finally with both feet, until the pounding on the door got through to me.
“Hello! Hello! What’s going on in there! Hello! Ms. Shealy, are you all right? Hey! Answer the door!” The manager guy. Pretty great voice, deep and smooth. He was a substitute DJ at one of the local oldies stations. Who would have thought he looked like he did, listening to him?
“Yeah, yeah.” Clearing my throat, aiming now toward the door. “Yes. Yes! Yes!” I rolled off the bed and groped my way over.
The door caught on its chain, luckily, before I realized that I had on no shirt, no bra. Why jeans? And that dinky chain was all that had been between me and the whole circus out there – the door was unlocked. A weak pull to remember how I wound up in this condition flickered and disappeared.
“Hold on, hold on.” I snatched an orange tee shirt that I didn’t recognize off the back of the chair – and swam my way into it, about five sizes too big. Now off with the chain.
The guy’s face was strained. John, Bill, Andy? Never could remember. “I heard all this noise back here, and I was worried whether you were all right.” He glanced into the room behind me but I inched into the doorway and narrowed the gap.
“Oh, that’s so sweet. I was watching, um, you know, a comedy show, and got a little carried away.” I rubbed my forehead. “Those guys kill me, you know?” He didn’t bother to acknowledge my bullshit. I desperately wanted him to fix the air conditioner, but it would be sure eviction to let him in the room now. The place was trashed.
“Well, good thing you got it off now.” He tried to see into the room again. “I was just about to come up here anyway. Your car is the only one left in the parking lot. You ready to leave now, I’m hoping? You do know there’s a hurricane coming?” I raised my forearm to block out the light but ended up pressing it across my brow. Something. Anything. It was awfully bright out considering how overcast it was. The sky looked odd. “Um, are you sick or something?” Good guess, fish-lips. And my car had been in that spot for two months.
He reached towards my face and I jerked backwards.
“I was only–– um, you have a hair in your mouth, Sharon.”
“Sharon, now. What’s that Ms. Shealy shit anyway? New company policy of the Sea Dip?” He kept moving his hands in and out of his pockets. Back front, right left. “Hey, have you got a cigarette?” Beyond his beefy shoulder, on Ocean Boulevard, I vaguely registered something like a traffic jam, bumper to bumper.
“They’re back in the office.” He hitched his thumb behind him. “I’ll go get you one while you get your stuff together, and then I’ll give you a hand putting it in your car. You are just about ready to take off, aren’t you?” His eyes hung on the orange tee shirt. Well, no bra.
“Uh, yeah, sure. In a jiffy, skipper.” My mouth had a life of its own. Much less effort for me that way. Fish-lips gave me a stubby thumbs-up and turned away. One ugly set of thumbs. I collapsed against the door, closing it. No clue. Maybe I was getting evicted for the trashed room anyway, or maybe it was non-payment. Cut-off and kicked-out had gotten familiar. I couldn’t exactly remember where I was on the room charges, but my crafty jungle instinct advised me just to nod, or better yet, stone-face ‘em, but never let on that you don’t know what’s what, which you rarely do anymore.
I picked up the phone and punched in Dan’s number. So what if I had no pride.
• • •
No, not the way it was. A little back-tracking in order. New details drifting up from the muck.
Stinging sand blowing in through the screen – a fine layer collecting on every surface, my face included. These things I noticed after the sticky plastic sheet, with a trail of vomit beside the sweat. Then the angry ocean, really really pissed.
When I finally stumbled my way to it, the door wasn’t merely unlocked on the chain – it wasn’t fastened at all. I’d lunged for the orange tee and yanked it on. So what, a little flash. The glare from the streetlight hurt my eyes. Yeah, night, I guess. Too much trouble to stand up at the door, so I slumped into the chair to talk to fish-lips, winding damp, greasy strands of hair around my index finger, picking bits of vomit out. He said the electricity was down, predictably, and shoved a warm can of Coke my way. He laid his fat hand on my shoulder and told me to wake up and get a move on.
When he trundled off, I picked up the phone to call Dan, but there was no dial tone. Somebody had yanked the cord out of the wall. Me, most likely. I couldn’t figure out how to go plug it back in. Somewhere outside a woman was screeching at Jason to hurry up, and a kid started to bawl.
The wind was terrific, shit was banging all around. Lot of car horns from the Boulevard. It seemed like there was something really important that I needed to do, but I couldn’t quite get a handle on it. Then I passed out again.
My father’s mother always said, “Accidents will happen to those who are not paying attention.”
First time I remember her telling me that it was when I tripped and fell on the front steps, reaching for a butterfly. Tough love, Grandmother. She should have said it a few thousand more times to her son. His biggest accident was a fatal stroke, alcohol-induced, at the age of fifty-three. To be fair, my accidents had taken on an unsavory pattern of their own.
• • •
“Hey! You can keep the tee shirt. Orange looks real fine on you,” Gary, the fish-lipped motel manager said as I flip-flopped my way from the ice machine back to my room, some morning or other. Too much to contemplate.
“Real fine,” he DJ–crooned. Lucky for me, that time I did throw up. I barely had time to make it to the toilet, so there was none left over for thinking.
In semi-conscious states, I mused on the kinds of things that happen, ones that you couldn’t see. Ants strolling into electric outlets and frying themselves. Germs on handrails and counters, lurking for an unsuspecting hand. Sharks prowling in the ocean merely three yards from a juicy swimmer.
Motel managers crawling into unlocked rooms and fucking women who were temporarily disconnected from their bodies. Women who had forgotten to mind the store.
Things that might be happening, or might not.
• • •
I didn’t get up to answer the pounding door at all, because I couldn’t get off the mattress. I’d been floating in and out, hearing all kinds of bizarre shit outside. Hammers pounding. Waves crashing. Tires squealing. Wind whipping and whistling. People shouting. Running steps on the concrete. Car horns. I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t.
After the door pounding waked me, I passed out again. Besides the puke sand and sweat, there was blood on the plastic sheet. My kicking foot. I’d kicked in the air conditioner all right, but sometime earlier, during the night.
Also, sometime during the night, another night, I’d had an unexpected visitor. Time had begun to run together. That was the night with the unlocked door. Or was it?
I was way too fucked up to manage something as tricky as a phone.
The immediate clamor moved from the door to the window.
“What’s a pillow doing jammed up in your window?” (Good way to close it when you can’t handle the normal mechanics.) “C’mon Sharon, let me in! We’ve got to get moving.” Dan. No, Robbie. Dan’s sidekick, the cop. Robbie?
I managed to catch hold of the pillow’s corner, just enough to tumble it down. I saw blurry Robbie leaning into the screen, shading his eyes to see inside. So far away. But looking lots better than I’d ever noticed.
“Hey, I was worried about you after Chop’s yesterday afternoon. You were, uh, well, you nearly fell off the ferry into the river coming back over. And I couldn’t track down Dan either, so I thought I should swing by. Sharon? Get up. This storm is some serious shit. The waves are up to the dunes already.”
Deep inside, that sounded familiar. Meant something, dimly. Dozens of hurricane stories, with evacuations, from my father. My own first hurricane, and I was going to miss it. Other people would have to have it without me.
“Go away, Robbie, I can’t.” I couldn’t manage more than a weak whiny moan.
“Sharon, what the hell are you doing, babe? We got to get your ass out of here.”
“Hm?” I tried to raise my head.
“They’re saying it’s going to be a category five.”
My ears were ringing, and everything was grey around the edges. Speeding heart rate, uneven. I tried to breathe evenly, pleading with my heart to slow down. But there was not much air in the cabin.
Chest pain. Chest pain. Chest pain. Numbness in the extremities.
“I think… I think…” Too hard to say. Whisper, then: “Robbie, I’m really sorry, but I think I’m having a heart attack.” I couldn’t feel my face. “Could you come hold me, please?”
It occurred to me that maybe I should make promises – to somebody – that I would be good, very, very good, if only I could make it through, not die here in my puke.
• • •
What Robbie did was slap me hard, on the face. I remember that. And then we were moving, or something was moving me. Him, after he slit the window screen and climbed through. Very inconvenient, but the unlocked door was a different dream.
In the end, it turned out to be only was an anxiety attack, or something like that, but I spent days in the county hospital anyway. For good measure. And for some reason they kept alcohol off my diet. I was very sick.
It rained and stormed ferociously for three days straight, I hear, but the hurricane didn’t hit us head-on. Thank God it moved on up the coast to rip up some North Carolina town, where the people were strangers.
When I walked out of Ocean General, Robbie was there at the front doors in his patrol car. I tumbled in, biting and tearing at the white plastic hospital bracelet, and he lifted my wrist and cut it off without a word. In the back seat sat a box and a couple of milk-crates. My stuff.
It seems I had finally gotten thrown out of the Sea Dip. I might have countered, but, like Daddy always said, you get what you pay for. Later on, I burned the orange tee. I wasn’t calling it even, but I was calling it a day.
• • •
Robbie said I could crash at his place for the time being. Seems that Francine had moved in with Dan over the weekend, not that my feelings were hurt.
So it was that we headed out to Robbie’s trailer park. Bumping down the dirt road in his patrol car, we passed all manner of yard art, notably a concrete alligator, day-glo plastic pinwheel flowers, appliances both in use and out, a miniature white picket fence with coral roses, a confederate flag painted and peeling on plywood. My hopes lifted when we rounded a bend in the dirt drive and headed toward an Airstream, with bright yellow awnings, shining in the sunlight. Robbie drove on past. He stopped at a standard issue beige-with-woodgrain corrugated job. I had just about made up my mind that I wasn’t going to give it up if I didn’t get to do it in an Airstream. Of course there’d be a price, why not? This guy, though – I had to hand it to him – had made some spectacular improvements on his piece of turf: a stone-wall foundation, flower boxes with gardenias, no less, and hummingbird feeders. Plus a paper man-target hanging inside the screen door. When I got up close, I saw a ring of bullet holes circling the center, where the heart was supposed to be. NRA, here I come. The new levels of low I could plumb impressed even me.
“Like that, huh? That’s my burglar alarm.”
“Uh-huh, when the burglar sees that, he gets very alarmed.” He grinned at me, heedless. Nice teeth, though. Hazel eyes, too. Wondered why I never noticed.
“I’ll just bet. Only Dan could have thought up something that bad.” Guy’s face fell six inches. As houseguest who hadn’t even made through the front door, I was off to a roaring start.
The trailer wasn’t so bad inside. Beat the hell out of my room for housekeeping. Furniture was pretty decent – some of it I even liked. And it had a spare bedroom.
Robbie made dinner: he pulled a couple of bass out of the freezer and threw them on the grill out back, from our fishing expedition out at Chop’s. Pretty fuzzy, and almost impossible to fathom that it’d been less than a week ago.
After dinner, we watched Law and Order and ate popcorn.
“You just don’t get it, do you?” Briscoe was bracing a suspect.
“Do you guys ever say that? Nuh-uh. No, does anybody ever say that?”
“And here, at least once an episode.”
“I was going to write them a letter and tell them to get some new dialogue. You, know, advice from a real life cop and all.”
“You should. Get it out of mothballs, jeez. Next he’s going to say–”
“Take it downtown,” we said together. It was amazing simply to laugh an honest laugh, stupid as it was.
“Still, I admit I watch the show every week. Most of the guys do,” Robbie said. “Gotta love Law & Order.”
“Gotta.” Filmed all over my neighborhood in Chelsea, not that I was mentioning it. “You know, I’ll take another beer.”
“You know, I’m all out.” The nice teeth again.
They showed Briscoe and Green walking past The Port Authority Terminal. I threw a handful of popcorn at the building on the screen. I was, for a change, really having a good time.
Robbie pointed to the screen. “You ever been there?
“What, Port Authority,” I snapped. I watched him for a second, then settled down. “Okay, I guess a vodka will be fine.” No thunderclouds on my mood that night.
“That too.” He made the international cupboard–is–bare sign with his hands. “No, I mean New York City. Ever been?”
“Hasn’t everybody?” I lit a cigarette, shook the match out, and then some. Looked around towards the kitchen. “So what do you–” Just a finger, across my lips. Then a kiss.
• • •
At the QuikStop, Robbie bought rubbers and I checked out all the different flavors of Life-Savers. We hadn’t done it yet. He thought I should have my “own space” for a while. Different, for sure. I’d been at the trailer for two weeks. But we’d decided on it now.
I nicked a roll of cherry flavored, slipped it in my pocket, because I was in that kind of a mood. On the way out, I stopped to pick up a BargainFinder and asked how much. “Free dollars,” the guy said. I slapped the paper back onto the rack. “What! That’s insane!” “ FReeee dollars,” he said, pressing his belly against the counter. What’s with the guys around here – they all look pregnant. Not Robbie, but I was beginning to get cold feet and I wasn’t at all sure those rubbers were going to come into play, after all, that afternoon.
“It’s free, Sharon,” Robbie said. “No charge, a gift from the nice folks. Take it, and come on.” I looked back at Paunch‑o the Magical QuikStop Cashier, who beamed, or leered, back at me. Comedian, hilarious. Robbie wrapped his hand around my elbow to steer me out of the store, and it was all I could do not to jab him in the stomach with my other one. Such a rush to get laid. I was getting a little cranky.
In the end, though, I let myself be persuaded. Love in a trailer park by the salt marsh. God knows, it took pitiful little to persuade me of anything. But if I’d had any clue how good it was going to be, I wouldn’t have wasted precious seconds in the QuikStop, stalling around with the stupid BargainFinder.
Good, good, good.
I liked the texture of his skin; it made my hands feel alive. Nice, after so much numbness. And look, ma, no chemical smells. I’d forgotten. Perhaps when you’re drunk ninety-nine percent of the time, not to mention, with a guy who can’t – but then, why bother with that line of thought?
Here and now, amigos.
• • •
I finally got my license back. It was – it is – my first day driving again, on the back road to Robbie’s. It has just started to drizzle; but I am feeling fine. Christmas in just two days, and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve cut way down on the booze, too, with no ill effects, aside from a periodic hankering. So far.
The cat comes out of the roadside scrub, moves into the road toward the center yellow line. I see it from five or so houses away, plenty far. I brake, but my car doesn’t slow like it should. I press harder, and swerve. Oil has risen to the top of the barely wet road – it’s slick as hell. I am close enough to the cat now to see that something is wrong with the cat, in its movement, but it isn’t stopping either. It is a calico, I see.
I pound on the horn, short bursts, and this time press firm and steady on the brake – but both cat and car are maintaining their courses.
Me. My course. I am the one driving. Veering directly towards this lame calico cat. Contrary to the rules of the road, because I simply cannot bear it, I close my eyes. And for the first time in God knows how long, and regardless of the improbability, I make promises.
Catherine Davis’s work has appeared at 52|250 A Year of Flash, kaffe in katmandu, Blue Print Review, and elsewhere, and has received the Joan Johnson Award in Fiction. She is an Assistant Professor teaching writing at a small college in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In another life, she created sets for a bunch of films, from Blue Velvet to Brokeback Mountain. She is a once and future gypsy.