The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome;
engraving by Levasseur after Jules-Elie Delaunay
The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome;
engraving by Levasseur after Jules-Elie Delaunay
He wore only white because of the dandruff. On porn sites he lingered only on women of color. Greenbacks were tender based only on faith, and fortune came only out of the blue. All red-white-and-bluers were con men, and the sun ain’t yellow it’s chicken. The clues were all in the spectrum. Inside the white light of reality was a prism of partial truths with no outlines, and behind them the shades and shadows of doubt as deep as space. There was safety in all this uncertainty, a soft unknowable comfort zone simple answers could not supply.
Stick a fork in it. People were starving, and she was buying stew meat for her dog, a mut, a cur. He liked that word cur, a word with an onomatopoetic root—there were too few of those—Old Norse for growl. He knew that she herself was vegan, one of those in denial of their own incisors. Cloven-hoofed cud chewers, okay by Leviticus. She wouldn’t wear even faux fur. He followed her around the Winn-Dixie, pushing the basket in which children were not allowed. What if you were buying one? Or just frozen parts of one? On sale. Cheaper with your Winn-Dixie card. No telling country of origin. No USDA-approved stamp.
What to serve with them? Fijians had a specific leafy cannibal plant that they ate with human flesh, something like kale. Don’t waste your kill, eat your enemy. A turn down the feminine-products aisle, foreign, forbidden country. Why were the lightbulbs also in this aisle? No wonder he could never find them. Outside the store, people were dying. Not in the parking lot, but everywhere else, all over the globe. How often were you aware of living—and dying—on a globe? A fucking globe, the same shape as an 8 ball.
He counted the items in their basket in Roman numerals—XII. IV more and they would be banned from the Speed Checkout line. He knew better than to speak. Winn-Dixie was a deafmute sphere, the cone of silence. Private secrets, the kind that are not real or are in type so small on the backs of cans you know that they are lies. He wondered why she had worn red pants. Why had he not stayed in the car, safe and primed for escape?
That’s right, the lights. The bright colored lights in the store windows versus the darkness that swallowed him when she shut the car door.
Safe at the plate, safe at second. You can drill cut-off plays endlessly, but in the end it all comes down to judgement. Is judgement teachable? Bryant didn’t react. He didn’t say anything. Sometimes remonstrance is pointless. When the shortstop came off the field, Bryant just ignored him. As the years burned themselves out, Bryant found peace in ignoring—or pretending to ignore—things and people. Back in the day, as they say, he would have humiliated the jerk in front of everyone in the dugout. Now, just his normal distracted scowl was all he could muster. Down four runs, two innings left—it was as good as over. Dinner wouldn’t be too late tonight. They were on the road in Bowling Green. There was that mediocre steak house near the hotel.
The steak house was closed; it looked like for good. Bryant ended up at a little Japanese place. He had spent his final two years as a player with the Hanshin Tigers. He had learned to appreciate Japanese food. And Japanese femininity. His waitress’s hands were like a musician’s—delicate elegant strength, sinews and veins. She never looked up at him. He appreciated that respect. He was past the age when he wished to be looked at. It went along with disappearing. Just a four-hour drive up to Dayton for tomorrow’s game.
Cherokee. At least that’s what grandma said her grandmother had been. She hadn’t known what brand of Cherokee. That would make her—what?—one-sixteenth Indian? Was that enough? She would have to come out as an Indian if she wanted to include this new material in her act. These days you could only make fun of ethnics if they were of your ethnicity. Even then it was tricky; it had to come across as making fun of yourself. One public PC protest could crash a comic’s club career. She would again be just another Uber driver.
It was typical that Sylvie had no one to consult about this, to weigh the pros and cons of it. Bobby was useless. Yes, he was funny, but clueless. His humor was based on his lack of connection to reality. She knew what Nadia would say. Nadia no longer thought anything was funny. It was like laughter had become her existential enemy. She had that weekend gig coming up in Dayton. She could try it out there, and if it bombed drop it. Did it even have to be about Indians? Yeah, it did.
Sylvie knew the legends about the classic New York Jewish comics sitting late over coffees in a Midtown coffee shop, trying out new material on their peers, whose only response would be a clinical “That’s funny” or “That’s not funny.” Had they worried about what group they might offend? She was a woman. She could make jokes about tampons and husbands and boob jobs, playing with her stereotype. What other stereotypes were untouchable? Was that coffee shop still there?
Bryant drove. He wouldn’t take the team bus, couldn’t stand being trapped with all those kids. He appointed one of the coaches as nanny. He also always tried to stay at a different hotel on the road. They weren’t a team that way—the always changing roster, kids coming and going, either moving up or crapping out. That shortstop. Doesn’t have it. It rained off and on all the way north. He stopped in Louisville for lunch. It was raining in Dayton. The game was rained out.
Sometimes it seemed like he had spent his whole life on the road. It was sort of home, if home is what feels most familiar. He had spent thirty years being traded, hired, and fired, changing cities. Hotel rooms, motel rooms, rented rooms—they were all the same. He never had to change a sheet, buy toilet paper, fix a meal. It was a sort of Zen existence—everything he owned he carried with him. Driving, he would pass vast rental storage places and wonder what-all people kept in them that they couldn’t fit in their already over-stuffed big houses.
The older he got, the more comfort he found in his routines. It was like the pleasure he still found in running practice drills, the repetitions like a timeless meditation. Whatever room he checked into, he followed the same routine, claiming it with his little rituals of unpacking, ending with a trip to the ice machine and his first bourbon on the rocks.
The Jolly Rodger Club, Dayton. “Is there anyone here tonight who identifies as Native American? If so, would you please join me up here on the stage? I need your help and protection.” No one came up. So, Sylvie went ahead and used the new material. No one protested, but there weren’t many laughs either. Tough crowd, but then she wasn’t at her sharpest. She felt more in-sync, more at home, with big city audiences, where she didn’t feel the need to excise the occasional prick or motherfucker or pussy like she did here in the boonies. What was humor without some off-color spice? A judgement call. Nadia thought vulgar language was cheap, demeaning, especially for a woman.
She was always too nervous to eat before a show, so afterwards she was starving. It was late. She had seen an Arby’s on her walk from the hotel to the club. It was still open. A drive-thru place, the only other walk-in patrons were a drunk couple arguing as they ate. She took her French dip and Swiss, fries, and large Mountain Dew back to her room. The downtown streets were deserted. She had an old routine about trash and the age of over-packaging she could revise and substitute for the Indian bit, make it local by listing how many wrappers and packets were inside her Arby’s bag. Hotel rooms made her paranoid. She double-locked the door.
It was a god-awful sound, a high-pitched, undulating electronic scream, like a female robot being tortured. Bryant jumped from deep dreamless sleep to an adrenaline rush of bright flashing white and red lights and abject panic. For seconds he didn’t know where he was, what was happening. Then he spotted the source of the sound and the flashing lights on the ceiling of the hotel room. Its message was flee.
As he fumbled to pull on his trousers and shirt, the attack on his senses continued, and panic transformed into anger. Shut the fuck up. I hear you. I’m out of here. With his palm he felt the door before opening it. In the corridor all was amplified. Other doors opened. Other guests in degrees of undress wandered out, a few just wrapped in blankets. No smoke, no heat, just the chaos of the alarms. Speech was pointless. Bryant headed for the Exit sign to the stairwell at the far end of the corridor. Others followed. He checked his pockets—room keycard, cash, cigarettes and lighter. The bedside clock had said 3:45.
Sylvie was awake in bed watching Raymond Burr crack another case when the alarms went off. Her nervous tummy hadn’t taken to the French dip and Swiss, and now she was waiting for Xanax to come to her rescue. She liked to think of her body as a keystone cops flic. She hit all the switches in the room, but nothing would turn the sucker off. Usually she slept naked. Or was it nude? Naked alone, nude with others? But hotel rooms made her self-conscious, and she was in shorts and a tank-top. If that sound and the strobe lights didn’t stop, she would have to leave the room. She went to the bathroom and brushed her hair. She wondered if Raymond Burr was descended from that other Burr, Aaron? Ray was Canadian and hadn’t Aaron escaped there after becoming famous?
Ray had hid being gay so well. There were other people in the corridor, all looking like zombie movie extras. Big women shouldn’t wear sheets. There’s a trick to tying a toga. The sound was even louder in the hallway, coming from all sides. People were headed for the Exit sign. What did they know that she didn’t? She was floating a bit. The Xanax had arrived right on time. Everyone was barefoot.
Three flights of stairs to the street door, six if you counted the landing turns. Still no smoke. Bryant was impressed by how quiet and orderly everyone was, as if they’d been drilled as evacuees. More people joined the flow at each floor. A woman carrying a sleeping toddler, a man on his cell phone. The stairwell was only minimally lit, but the noise was now muffled. At the street door the column halted. Outside, the rain had returned, heavy and slightly sideways in the street lights. Behind him people sat down on the stairs. They waited in silence. Outside now there were sirens, and the rain was lit by flashing red lights from vehicles they couldn’t see. A child started crying.
They waited, and Bryant got bored. He moved to the propped-open door and lit a cigarette. Almost immediately, calls of complaint came from the stairwell. A draft was pulling his smoke inside. It was as if, suddenly, the smell of smoke had unlocked all the fear and frustration and offered an acceptable target of outrage. Some man called out, “You fucking asshole.” Bryant took one last puff and flicked his Pall Mall into the rain.
Sylvie spent most of the wait playing games with Anthony, the eight-year old who had ended up on the step beside her. Eventually, a fireman came to a door above them and said all was clear for them to return to their rooms. No explanation. There was a lot of grumbling, but no one was going to confront a fireman. When she got back to her room door, she realized she was locked out. She hadn’t thought to bring her keycard. There were no pockets in her gym shorts. She just stood there, stupidly, staring at her door. A man walking past her asked, “Locked out?” It was that husky gentleman people had yelled at for smoking a cigarette. “Yep,” she said, “keyless and clueless.”
“I’ll call the front desk and let them know. 322? There are probably a bunch of folks in the same boat. Could be a while.”
“The shit’s creek without a key canoe.”
“Say, could I bum one of your cigs? So that I can at least break a law while I’m standing here?”
She ended up waiting in his room with an illegal Pall Mall and a Jim Beam on the rocks in a plastic glass. His name was Brian. He was cordial in a formal way, almost as if he was afraid of her or something. He reminded her of her dad that way.
Bryant was surprised she accepted, in this age of paranoia. Of course, she had no reason to fear him, but she didn’t know that. These days you were supposed to be wary of everyone you didn’t know, even though the vast majority of people who got hurt were hurt by those closest to them. He never got her name. When she asked and he told her what he did for a living, she said, “So, you’re an entertainer, too.” She said she was a comedienne. “Of course, your job is to make people cheer, not laugh.” He liked her unguardedness. She seemed to say whatever came to mind. She said her dad had taken her to Cubbies’ games when she was a kid. Bryant didn’t mention that he had played the bench for the Cubs for a season back then. He asked about her work. She just made jokes about it. There was a knock at the door. Her room was unlocked. She finished her drink before leaving.
He looked different in his uniform. It suited him, his Ruthian bulk. Not those pajama bottoms the players were wearing these days, but proper baseball knickers with high blue socks. The uniform was gray, of course, his team being on the road. He had that authoritative manager’s nonchalance as he strolled out of the dugout to meet the home-plate ump and the other manager and hand over his starting line-up, as if he had done it a thousand times before, part of the job.
The Dayton Dragons vs the Madison Muskies, a Saturday double-header to make up for the rain-out the day before. Sylvie had a good seat on the third-base line. The stands were half-empty. She was there because of her dad. She hadn’t been to a ball game in years, but she had nothing to do before getting ready for her act, and it was a perfect ballpark afternoon. The players all looked so young as they ran out to their positions. She had a bag of peanuts and a cup of beer.
When the Muskies came to bat, she was surprised to see Brian walk out to the third-base coach’s box. In the majors, managers didn’t do that. He did that job, too, giving the signs, clapping encouragement. In the sixth he was even jumping up and down as he waved a runner on to the plate. She cheered—to the displeasure of those around her—when the umpire gestured safe. The Muskies won. She had to leave before the second game, go back to the hotel to prep and get nervous.
Bryant got directions from the front-desk clerk. There was just the one comedy club in town. He’d had dinner and was feeling good after taking two today. The poster outside the club gave her name as Sylvie Silver. He’d wager a stein had been lopped off that last name. Time had been syncing in his favor all day, and she came on stage soon after he sat down with his drink. A youngish loud crowd. This was a college town.
She looked good on stage, as if she belonged there, in a long slinky dress with a slit up the side. She paced with the microphone as she worked. Her act wasn’t bad, but she was having trouble holding the crowd, mostly young guys getting drunk. She had hecklers to ignore. One especially obnoxious jock-type jerk at the bar was yelling sexist comments. Bryant got up and went over to tell him to stow it.
“What’s it to you, old man?”
“That’s my girl up there. She’s just starting out. Give the kid a break.”
Bryant just smiled. Dealing with Neanderthals was part of what he did. The guy shut up.
Sylvie got Bryant laughing at a skit about Indians with a princess named Running with Scissors.
I had always felt sort of goofy around her, a mix of overjoyed and unworthy. I got word that she was missing in a text message from a mutual friend asking if I had heard from her. It had been months—that was not unusual—but no one else had heard from her either. She wasn’t answering phone calls or texts. I don’t think if I went missing, anyone would especially notice. When you retire you disappear. It’s a mid-state, a halfway house to death. At some stage of aging, death sheds its mystery and tragedy and becomes just another given. People fade and vanish. The old address book starts to fill up with eclipsed entries. But her absence was noted.
I was closest. Her place in Nevada was only a three-hour drive away, and, besides, I was retired—what else did I have to do? I texted back that I’d go check. I wouldn’t mind getting out of L.A. It took me more like four hours because I don’t drive as fast as I used to. She was living in a town called Searchlight on the edge of the Mojave. I’d been there before. It was hot.
Edith Head, the costume designer, who won more Oscars than any other woman, was from Searchlight. Clara Bow had had a ranch there, where Hollywood celebs hung out, back in that day. If there were five hundred people in the town, most of them were hiding from the heat. Why she had ended up there I never did learn.
When you’re old and living alone you don’t shower that often. It’s one of those things that had once been so automatic as to be mindless, but now was a hassle easy to ignore. Who cared? There were a bunch of things like that. Like following the news or shopping. The calendar faded. My octogenarian Aunt Helen had once asked, “Is this the Saturday they call Wednesday?” It’s amazing what things no longer mattered. You learned them, dismissed them, sequentially. Each farewell another increment of freedom. There are enough confusions from the past to occupy your thoughts.
Once, right before I retired, in a fever that lasted for days—working on location in Costa Rica—I had made the effort to remember every woman I’d ever slept with. I wondered if they remembered sleeping with me. She was not one of them.
She wasn’t home, but nothing seemed amiss around the house. I’d always liked her wild yard. I sat there a while. It looked wild, but no place else around looked anything like it, so it couldn’t be just naturally wild. Selection and care had played some role. There were subtle tracks through it, surprises. There were patches of shade and bright sunlight. Things that shouldn’t be growing there in the high desert were. But there were no signs of the human touch—no chimes or borders or disturbed earth—just free plants living together. It was her unkempt garden. It was herself. I left a note for her stuck in the front screen door.
There was only one place to stay in Searchlight, the El Rey Motel—”Air-Conditioned Reasonable Rates.” I checked in there. There was also only one place to eat, a place appropriately called Terrible’s Roadhouse, a place with many more slot machines than customers. Another benefit of aging is becoming invisible. I think it may be chemical. After a certain age your body ceases producing the hormone that says look at me, and people don’t see you. Some folks—mostly female—rebel against this and insist on trying anything to keep being seen. Nice for them to have a hobby.
I rather like being inconspicuous. I’m an observer. I live in a visual world. It’s easier if no one notices me watching them. My hearing has been fading for years now, and that’s another plus. There was always too much distracting noise before. The women playing the slot machines—and there were only women playing in Terrible’s—were not there to be seen. They were at work, in frumpy work clothes. They were old and unshowered. The only mates they were looking for were three mated symbols in a line. If they won, the machine made a louder noise; but they remained the same, seemingly unmoved.
Some people who didn’t know her well had suggested she moved to Nevada to gamble. More likely, she had moved to the desert to get away from them. I wasn’t looking for her in the casino. I knew she had no use for games of any kind. She would laugh at me when I went to the track. It did not seem to have occurred to anyone else that maybe she wanted to disappear—the next step after moving here. That gen-X-and-after addiction to being constantly in contact had infected even some of our pre-gen-X peers. Call and response were proof of existence. For whatever reason, she had opted out.
Once upon a time it had been easier to vanish, and it was no big deal. The simplest escape had been to Baja, some beach beyond phonebooths where nobody cared who you were. Back before tans were carcinogenic. Was tequila really better then? You shed taste buds as you age, so that tastes become imbued with memory. You could hide out for weeks, and only your agent might wonder where you were, which beach town. Those shitty roads.
Breakfast was good. Most restaurant cooks get their start doing breakfasts, so it’s one thing they all should know how to do. Checked out, I went back to her place, not because I thought she might be back, but because I wanted to sit in her yard for a while before heading back to L.A. She could stay lost as long as she wanted to, as far as I was concerned. My note stuck in the screen door was gone. I didn’t think it could have blown away, but I looked.
I was in the back of her yard where it dwindled off into the desert when I heard a car pull up out front. An old car door creaked closed and a young woman’s voice called out hello. The car was a venerable, battered, sun-bleached Bronco. The young woman was wearing a cowboy hat.
“You the guy left the note? I went to the El Rey looking for you. Mom says come on out.”
I followed the Bronco into the desert, headed for the foothills beyond.
Nevada is known for its gemstones, its opals mainly. There’s an ex-wife somewhere with a Virgin Valley Nevada black opal necklace I gave her. Of course, she could have sold it. It was worth something. That wife always needed money. I’ve been blessed by ex-wives who never looked back. They were all prospectors moving on. The Bronco was more at home than my Lexus on the dead-straight dirt road we took out of town. It was almost midday, so I couldn’t tell from the sun what direction we were headed. Did it matter? The girl had been wearing a silver and turquoise bracelet that flashed in the sun when she gestured for me to follow.
I had bothered to shower when I got up. Something about being on the road and sleeping in a motel bed. Now it felt propitious. The road branched to the right, up a dry-creek arroyo. I was watching the ruts in the road, and then suddenly there she was, gray hair gathered up off her neck and brow, that familiar smile, hands on bib-overall hips, standing in front of an unpainted structure of classic shack architecture.
“End of the road,” she said.
Nothing had changed.
“Heard you coming. My favorite cameraman. Welcome to Nirvana Mine.”
Of course, it had occurred to me that one of the reasons my relationships with other women had never lasted was because they were not her. “Tis I, come with my hands a hanging, not even a bottle of your favorite mescal.”
She gave me a hug. “What’s the occasion?”
“I’m your Stanley, come to find your missing Dr. Livingston.”
“Good work. I didn’t know I was missing.”
“You’ve been a bad girl, ignoring your fans.”
“Been busy. They should be.”
There was no air-con in the shack, but there were cold beers. There was no tablecloth on the plank table, but there was a rough, fist-sized chunk of raw turquoise.
“So, I’ve disappeared, heh? Disappeared from what? That little piece of the world has just been added to the rest.”
“You’re looking fit.”
She laughed. “Even compliments age. Once you would have said you’re looking good, or fine, even beautiful.”
“All those, too.”
“We’ve achieved a retrospective age. Nirvana Mine?” I asked, picking up the hefty chunk of sky-blue gemstone.
“Come on, I’ll show you.” On the way up a side gulch behind the shack she laid down the law. “You can’t tell anyone about this. It’s a total secret, even—especially—from the locals. Our safety here depends upon it.” There were just the two of them, she and her daughter. “I found it by chance, wandering.”
The mine per se was just a ditch dug into the side of the gulch. “The surface vein was thin, but it thickens as we go lower.” It looked like hard labor. Just walking there, I dripped sweat.
“All I know about gems is what jewelers charge,” I said. “What’s all this worth?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care. The gems are a gift from the earth, hidden in all this desolation. We’re just receiving them.”
Back at the shack, I helped her remove a few floor boards and haul out several heavy sacks of luminous stones, some of which she spread out on the table.
“What are you going to do with them?”
“Nothing. This, look at them. I only gather them to admire them, their timeless beauty. I certainly don’t need any more money. Isn’t this a winner?” She handed me a blade-shaped slab like a small modernistic sculpture alive with many colors. “Maybe when I tire of digging, I’ll select a few favorites as keepsakes and my daughter can take what she wants for her jewelry, and I’ll rebury the rest. They’re not really mine because I found them. The earth can have her secrets back.”
The afternoon was getting on, cliff shadow filling the arroyo. “You better be headed back,” she said. “You don’t want to try that road in the dark, and you can’t stay here in the girls’ dorm. But don’t go back to L.A. Stay at my place. The front door key is beneath the back step. Hang out for a while. I’ll be down in a day or two. I need a shower and some real food. We’ll get stoned and reminisce.” At the car she gave me a kiss and slipped a sea-green gemstone into my hand.
I am writing this at her kitchen table, with a view out the rear window into her wild yard. I think I’ll stay as long as she will have me. The quiet of the place sort of grows on you. I’ve turned off my iPhone. The last text message I sent was, “She’s not here.”
Anthropologists like funerals and weddings as windows into folk culture. They ought to add barbershops. I had my hair cut at the local East End Barber Shop the other afternoon. When I got out of the chair, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay and just sit and watch and listen. Life, a community—workingmen, mothers with their boys in tow to get clipped, black people, white people, banter, stories, laughter, different accents, unsweptup hair like sheep shorn in dunes around the barbers’ chairs. The young lovely in tight jeans and tattoos and the long Kentucky vowels who cut mine had a scripted ink message on the inside of her perfect bicep that I could almost read without my glasses. Maybe I should get out more often.
I grew up above a barbershop on Main Street. Red and white striped pole on our front lawn. For a while when I was in grammar school, I would get a snip and comb every morning on my way to school. Mr. Crist, the barber, would splash some smelly stuff on there. There were mirrors on both walls, and, high in the chair, I could see myself repeated into the vanishing point.
Fifty years ago, I had an Italian grandmother-in-law who called me barba, beard, the same as in the original Latin and root of the word barber—but not of barbarian, which, I think, is how she meant it. I wasn’t patronizing barbershops at the time. And I was Irish.
Funny profession, being paid to groom strangers, but it goes back to the origins of luxury and specialization. Better than being a bricklayer. When you think of a groom, you think horses, someone who attends to the many needs of a beast, not just brushing its mane. And for ages that is what barbers did—not just cut hair and beards and give shaves, but also trim nails, lance boils and cysts, clean ears and scalp, pull teeth, set bones, and apply tourniquets. Your go-to man (always man) for your physical surface needs. In fact, that red-and-white striped poll in our Main Street front lawn originated as the symbol of a tourniquet applied to a wounded limb.
At some point, the barbers moved their trade in off the streets to shops, which evolved into neighborhood social points where men (always men) could enjoy the camaraderie of their peer beasts being groomed, and eventually, regrettably, into barbershop quartets.
The ladies have a separate history, culminating in their beauty salons, about which I am not authorized to comment. Suffice to say, the word beauty never appears in the history of masculine establishments.
I eventually married a hairdresser. Or was she a beautician? I’ll have to ask. This stroke of frugality freed me from barbershops for several decades. It was not so strange being groomed by someone I loved. The arthritis in her hands finally forced Connie to pack away her scissors and shears, and I have had to return to the world of barbershops. Or at least to the East End Barber Shop. Next visit I will bring my glasses and try to read the line of script on the papyrus-white skin of my groomer’s lovely underarm.
Twice a year, around equinox, Stefan had the kids clean the books. They didn’t like it, but it wasn’t about them. He had them take down each book, clean it with a rag, check it for insects, and put it back where they got it. Ruth was better at it than Aaron and didn’t complain as much. He had to watch Aaron. Stefan didn’t mind the spiders. It was termites mainly. These Polynesian termites liked books. If they got a colony started, they could quickly and secretly destroy a shelf of books, turning them into blocks of cement-like castings, leaving just the spines and bindings intact as if nothing had changed. He had learned the hard way.
Stefan took pride in his library. His wall of books was his favorite decoration—hard-cover history texts mostly, biographies, World War Two, complete sets of Dickens, Twain, and Will Durant, and his prize collection of classic sci-fi. He was sure no one else on the island could match it. Books weren’t a big thing here. There was not a single bookstore. There was a Christian shop where you could buy Bibles and such along with a good selection of the wide neckties ministers liked to wear and assorted Savior posters. There was a public library, but there was a good chance that the book you were looking for had been stolen or never returned.
The Peace Corps had brought Stefan to the islands several decades before, and he never left. He stayed on to work for the government. He guessed it agreed with him. He had not found a reason to leave. His salary, while humble by mainland standards, afforded him a first-class lifestyle here. His job was a mindless, undemanding sinecure. He was like a token white man, kept on by inertia. The years just slipped by in identical days.
There were the occasional cyclones, of course, when his library needed to be protected. He had perfected that emergency drill. He and the kids had it down. As long as the roof stayed on, they were fine. Stefan got all his books in the mail. Oftentimes that took a while, so that when a slip appeared in his P.O. box saying he had a package to pick up, he couldn’t be sure what book it was. They were like presents that way, a surprise he got to unwrap. The feel and smell of a fresh, unopened book, its dust jacket still pristine. Something he would have forever.
He never loaned out books. They were his alone. That would be like pimping for his daughter. But then no one ever asked. He knew no one who would, and visitors to the house were rare. Stefan had learned to keep his distance. Friendships with islanders always led to trouble of one sort or another, and most whites were just passing through, gone before you got to know them. It paid to be polite, but no reason to overdo it. The kids had native friends, high school classmates, but they knew enough not to come by.
There were days when Stefan did not go into work. No one seemed to miss him. He would stay home and read. He often did so on days when the cleaning woman came. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her—this one had not yet helped herself to any of his belongings—but he thought she did a better job if he was there. He could never remember their names—except for that one he had had to report to the police after her teenage helper daughter had stolen and amateurishly tried to forge and pass some of his checks.
But this day the house girl did not come. Stefan checked; it was Thursday, her usual day. He had no way to contact her. This irritated him. Nothing major, just that he liked scheduled events to occur as scheduled. The new book, on the African campaigns, could not hold his interest. He decided to go out, to the P.O. to check his mail. He left the house unlocked in case she did arrive.
He was rewarded. There was a package pick-up slip in his P.O. box. He wondered what it could be. It was too soon for the Jay Gould biography. You had to go to the P.O. back door to pick up packages, hand your slip to the man at the desk. This time the man asked to see Stefan’s driver’s license, as if he had changed from the person he had always been. The package was addressed just to his surname. It felt too light to be a book. A surprise paperback? He thanked the man and left. Two other uniformed men were waiting by his pickup truck in the parking lot. They took the package from him and told him he was under arrest. One of them put handcuffs on him. They were too tight.
Stefan did not know if the lawyer he got was good or not. How would he know? He’d never needed a lawyer, not even for the divorce. The charge was serious: felony importation of prohibited substance—methamphetamine—with intent to sell. The judge was kind enough—first offense, long-time resident, family man–to keep him out of the vile local jail by setting bail at what Stefan’s pickup was appraised at and taking his passport. Stefan was supposed to be grateful. A hearing date was set.
The return address on the package was bogus, of course, but it had been mailed from San Diego. Stefan didn’t know anyone in San Diego, but his islander ex-wife was somewhere in California. When the lawyer learned that Stefan had two teenage children, he posited that perhaps the shipment was meant for one of them. That didn’t make any sense, because Stefan always picked up the mail and would have opened it, thinking it a book. Besides, Aaron wouldn’t be involved with anything like that, would he? The lawyer also wondered if Stefan had any enemies—his ex-wife, say—who would like to frame him.
This made Stefan laugh. Where would she get that kind of money? What had the police said? Street value ten grand? And if she had that kind of money or the drugs, she sure wouldn’t have wasted it on him. The lawyer told him the drugs were not worth anything like that. There wasn’t that much and they always exploded the street value. In addition, the meth was of poor quality, stepped on too many times. It would be worth next to nothing back in the States. Garbage, he said, good for only third-world export or setting someone up.
If indigenous justice in the islands had always been swift (and often fatal), the imported variety was anything but. Preliminary hearings, injunctions, changed court dates, amended charges. Stefan got his first lawyer bill, with the warning that non-payment would mean end of services. Stefan had been terminated, or rather, his government position had been eliminated. His only possessions worth anything were his books. He got on-line to his usual sites, only this time he was selling not buying. His first-edition, signed sci-fi would bring the most. They went first. The P.O. was suspicious of all the books he was mailing out.
At one of his court appearances, the judge, a new one, concluded the proceedings with a speech blaming white outsiders—he used the local slang word for Caucasians—for the drug epidemic among the island youth. He noted that the post office had reported that Stefan had received many such packages before, by the grace of God, he was caught. How long had he been poisoning their community? They were a warrior people. They could resist any external enemy, but this was a different sort of enemy, the insidious outsiders among them, with their evil introductions, attacking them, eating away at them from within.
Stefan wondered about his chances for a fair trial. The minimum sentence was five years. He had no real defense beyond the fact he knew nothing about the package and that when the police had ransacked his house, including his library, they had found nothing collaborative—no other drugs or paraphernalia or stashes of cash. Then, three days before jury selection was scheduled to begin, his lawyer came to him with news.
“I got it,” he said. “I know what happened. I can’t tell you how I found out. I have my sources. You were never supposed to receive that package. It was addressed to you because you received many packages that size. Someone at the P.O. was supposed to intercept this one. If it happened to get sniffed out before that, you get busted, not them. Well, the system failed. Their interceptor took a sick day and missed it. Who knows how many times it had already worked?”
Exoneration. Only, he could not use the story in trial. “I know what happened, but I don’t know who. And even if I did have names, I couldn’t use them. Hearsay. Not to mention I have to live here and I’d be accusing unnamed persons—related to everyone—to a conspiracy to commit unreported crimes in a public office. That tool is not in my defense attorney’s tool bag. Plus, I have to live here and argue in that court again.”
Stefan forbade the kids from coming to the trial. They wanted to, to show their support. Seeing as he had no other supporters, they would have been on their own. The paper’s headline read, “Drug Kingpin Convicted.”
Marina grew up with too many parents. She can’t be blamed for that, but how she learned to manipulate that situation was volitional. You could read it like a rap sheet. In the car on the way up, Marina got stoned and confessed her past and life MO to Jessie. Jessie disliked confessions because she could never forget them. Between them, Marina’s parents had racked up five semi-permanent mates after their divorce. So, Marina had had four fathers and three mothers, at one point and another. She had been bounced between households like a refugee.
The dictionary defines evil as “the condition of being immoral, cruel, or bad.” That’s pretty loose, isn’t it? All judgement calls. In Marina’s judgement, her actions had never—or at worst, rarely—been immoral or bad, only necessary; and as for cruel, well, that could only be determined by the targets of her actions, whether or not they accepted the fact that they deserved what they got. Pretty simple. Jessie knew simple was seldom a sufficient answer.
They were waiting in line for the ferry now, the windows rolled up. It was raining, of course—the default condition here on the sound. Marina’s cannabis cloud got so dense that Jessie had to open a window, one in the back seat so they wouldn’t get wet. Marina was explaining what happened to Frank, her mother’s last husband. Jessie was thinking, this could be a cable TV surreality show. Jessie had missed the exact nature of Frank’s digression, but Marina was clear about his retribution. Jessie wondered if Marina’s parents’ poor track records with mates didn’t have something to do with their daughter.
In Clinton, where the ferry dropped them, there were already Christmas lights up and lit, even though it was still three weeks away and it was the middle of the afternoon, a wet, dark-gray afternoon. They looked like lipstick on a corpse. There’s not much to Clinton. Jessie followed Marina’s directions from the ferry dock. They had to drive across the island. Jessie had tried pot three times. The first time she threw up. The other two times she fell asleep, once while having sex. It didn’t seem to slow Marina down.
Jessie envied that. And when Marina slipped in phrases like “I was in Morocco then” or “we had to get out of Oaxaca,” Jessie realized she had nothing to say, no reason to interrupt. Everyone wants to talk about themselves, but most don’t. Maybe because they’ve been raised that way, maybe because they’re too bored to say, maybe because they’re ashamed. Jessie would only talk about herself if someone asked; no one ever did. But Marina had a lot to tell, and she was not shy about it. Jessie never had to ask, just listen, or pretend to listen as she drove. There was no traffic to speak of.
The driveway was long. The house was big and on the water. Marina knew where the key was hidden and the code for turning off the burglar alarm. It was chilly, only slightly warmer, inside. It smelled abandoned. Marina found the thermostat and turned it up, but they stayed in their outdoor clothing. There was a fireplace in the parlor, but no firewood. Marina joked—?—about breaking up the furniture to burn. Among the framed photographs on the mantle was a black-and-white of a tall man in a suit and a frail-looking woman in a sun dress; between them a girl of ten or so in a dorky dress scowled at the camera. “That’s Dad,” Marina said.
Jessie had signed up because she needed every gig she could get and she liked to drive. It was a service offered by her local women’s co-op, a sort of feminist-protective Uber. Its logo was that silly symbol of a circle with a cross stuck in it like a vampire stake and the adjoined word trip. Let your sisters take you where you need to go. No more creepy male drivers looking at you in the rearview mirror. A righteous, empowering, solidarity service. Jessie had figured it would mainly entail taking old ladies to and from doctor and beauty-shop appointments. But this ride was different. Marina had hired her for several days at an hourly rate, a trip out of town. They would spend the night here. Jessie found a blanket and slept on a sofa.
She awoke to the sound of splintering wood. Her first thought was of the fireplace. But she was sleeping in the parlor with the fireplace, and Marina was not there making kindling. There was no fire in the fireplace. The half-hearted pink light from the windows said dawn. The house had warmed up in the night. The sound again—smashed and cracking wood. It came from above her. Jessie went to the foot of the stairs in the hallway and called out Marina’s name as a question. The only answer was the sound of more ripping wood.
Marina was seated on the floor in an alcove off what Jessie took to be the master bedroom. In front of her was a massive old rolltop desk. She was tearing at it with a screwdriver, hammer, and chisel.
“What in the world…?” Jessie said.
“None of your business. Get lost. You’re a driver. Go drive some place.”
Jessie did. They had passed through a small village a ways back. She went there and found a café serving breakfast. Coming back, she got slightly lost and drove up several wrong driveways before finding the right one. She had decided this gig was over. If Marina wasn’t ready to go back, she could just pay for her time up till then—Jessie figured twenty-one hours—and find her own way back or wherever. Jessie was just “a driver,” after all. She had no obligations. The car still smelled of pot. When she pulled up to the house, another car was parked there, a Mercedes. On instinct, Jessie turned around and parked headed out.
Well, good. Jessie wouldn’t have to feel like she was stranding Marina here. Sisterly solidarity and all. She would just check out, collect her pay, and wish Marina the best. There was someone sitting in the Mercedes, a woman in the driver’s seat. She was slumped over, motionless, her chin on her chest.
It wasn’t until Jessie approached the car that she saw the glow of the iPhone screen in the woman’s hands and realized the woman wasn’t dead but texting. She kept walking.
The driver side window buzzed down. “Hold on. Who are you? What are you doing here? Be warned, I am armed.”
Jessie turned but didn’t come closer. “I’m here with Marina. I gave her a ride.”
“Is she here?”
“I guess so. I left her here.”
“Let’s go in, shall we?” There was a silver gun in her hand.
“Sure. Why not? Is that necessary?”
The woman didn’t answer, just gestured with her gun hand for Jessie to precede her. Marina met them at the door. “Sarah?” she said.
“I figured it was you when I got the message that the alarm had been turned off,” the woman said. “You know you’re not supposed to be here.”
Marina was looking not at the woman but at her gun. “We were just leaving. I had to come back for a few of my things.” She had a cloth bag over her shoulder.
“There was nothing of yours here,” the woman said.
“Do you have a permit for that?” Jessie asked. The woman ignored her. She had one of those hundred-dollar haircuts, gold earrings.
“Your father’s court order barring you from being here is still in force, even if he’s no longer with us.”
“Fuck you, Sarah,” Marina said. “What are you going to do? Shoot me? In front of a witness? Like I said, we’re leaving. You’re lucky I didn’t burn the place down.” Marina walked around the woman and said “Let’s go” to Jessie.
Jessie wasn’t sure she wanted to give Marina a ride, but then she hadn’t been paid. Marina tossed her cloth bag into the car.
“I’ve already informed the troopers of a burglary in progress. Now I can give them a description of the getaway car—the silver Camry with a bullet hole in the rear window.” The woman turned and fired a round into Jessie’s rear window.
“What!” Jessie said. “Why, you bitch.” It took her only a few steps to reach the woman and knock her to the ground. The gun bounced away. Jessie picked it up. “You’re going to pay for that.” The woman rolled over to push herself up. “No, I think you better sit there until your troopers arrive.” Jessie pointed the gun at the woman, and she sat down.
“Let’s go,” Marina said. “She’s bluffing about the troopers. Even if she isn’t, I don’t want to meet them. We’ll take her car keys and her phone, get off the island.”
“Who’s going to pay for my window? You?”
“Fuck your window. Let’s go.”
“I know your license plate. I’ll find you,” the woman said.
“And what? Bring me the cash for my window? Or come to retrieve your gun, which you used when you tried to kill me?”
“I never …”
“I’d swear you took a shot at me and missed. My witness here will agree to that. That’s our story when the troopers get here.”
“And I will say I interrupted a burglary.”
“How can it be a burglary when it’s her home and she has a key? Maybe she did break a court order by coming here, but that’s a minor misdemeanor compared to attempted murder. You probably don’t even have a permit for this attempted-murder weapon. You could be the first member of your garden society with a felony arrest record. I’m sure you can afford some good lawyers. And who are you, anyway? We were never introduced.”
“Meet my evil stepmom Sarah,” Marina said.
“She’s right,” the woman said, “I hadn’t called the troopers yet.”
“Well, why don’t you do that, then?”
“Maybe there’s another way to resolve this.”
“Yeah, pay for my window and we can agree to forget about it.” Jesse sort of liked holding a gun. She had never held one before. She liked the weight, the grip. It was comfortable. She wondered what it felt like to fire it.
“I can give you a check for your window,” the woman said.
“I don’t take checks from criminals.” Holding the gun gave Jessie a sense of power she had never felt before. “Marina, is this the stepmom you mentioned who got you busted?”
“Yes, the same.”
The woman had a half dozen gold bracelets on one forearm. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll take those as payment,” Jessie said, pointing with the gun to the woman’s wrist. “You can keep the earrings.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Marina, get her phone. I think she left it on the seat. We’ll call the troopers, then. Bring her car keys, too.”
The woman went to get up. Instead of using the gun, Jessie pushed her back onto the ground. Marina brought the cellphone and the keys. Jessie put the keys in her pocket, and took the phone. “Will you call the troopers, or should I?” she asked.
“No, don’t call them,” Marina said, sounding panicky. “Sarah, please!” Then, tugging on Jessie’s sleeve, “Come on, let’s just go.”
“I need to get paid, for the damage and the trip. I have nothing to hide from the cops. I’m just an innocent bystander to your craziness.”
“This is all your fault, Marina,” the woman said. “As always. Here, take the damned bracelets and leave. This is robbery.” Marina brought the bracelets to Jessie.
“No, it’s payment,” Jessie said. She put the cellphone into her back pocket and had Marina slip the bracelets one by one onto the wrist of her non-gun hand. She liked having a gun hand. “Let’s call us even.” She went to her car.
Jessie wasn’t sure how it started, but Marina and her stepmom were suddenly going at it, not throwing punches but locked in a hair-pulling wrestling match. They fell to the ground. Marina was screaming something. As Jessie started up and pulled away, Marina broke free long enough to yell at her to stop. By the time she got to the woods along the road at the end of the driveway, Marina was up and running after the car. “My bag!” she called. Jessie slowed down enough to toss the Mercedes’s keys as far as she could into the underbrush. On the road she threw the cellphone into a drainage ditch.
She kept the gun. She would have to stop for gas. She didn’t know what times the ferry ran. Her bracelets jingled.