Illustrations by Mike Reddy
By Eric Boehling Lewis
Danny Pocock was a prophet. He read omens and suffered what he called the burden of deep understanding. It showed in his posture. He said I was hopeless as a mystic, but there were other things he could teach me. For instance, that some things you don’t skimp on. Outboards, drill bits, rolling papers. And if you’re wreck diving: the hose. It better not kink, unless you want a mouthful of salt water. Or a lungful.
We would take the johnboat out, me and Danny, with a scuba light and forty foot of commercial PVC hose lashed to the cleat, and dive for treasure, sharing the air. For years we thought the trick was to jam your thumb in the hose between breaths. I’d rather not admit how many times we’d stuck our thumbs in each other’s mouths before Danny thought to epoxy a valve in the dive-end of the hose. This was before Hurricane Armando set the Pearl of San Lucia portside up on a newborn sandbar.
She was a two-thousand-passenger luxury liner, not big by cruise-ship standards, but bear in mind, up till the Pearl the biggest thing we’d treasure-dove was the Little Sisters of the Poor’s flat-nose bus that slid off the aft end of the Ocracoke ferry. There were nine hundred eighty-eight souls aboard—the cruise ship, not the bus—when the storm hit, and all but two survived. The two were Wendell and Tammy Mae Timberlake of Louisa, Virginia. They were on their honeymoon.
The national news ate it up—young lovers die at sea, side-by-side graves containing empty caskets, et cetera, et cetera. The bride’s father was quoted as vowing he wouldn’t rest until the remains were found. Up at the Avalon Pier bar, the game all summer was who could think up the best scenario for why they didn’t make it out and where the bodies were. Most of our theories had them bumping uglies someplace off-limits when the flooding began. Some locals reckoned they became shark turds right away; others said no, Wendell and Tammy Mae were still in there, open-eyed and waving-haired, holding hands.
The engineers and environmentalists and Alexian Cruise Line lawyers couldn’t agree on how the ship ought to be moved. I know how it goes. Sometimes I’ll want us to take the johnboat out with joints tucked behind our ears and do some night fishing, or head up to the Avalon Pier and try one-liners on the Skee-Ball babes, while Danny will want to go skulk the off-season stilt cottages, and we end up never leaving his ex-wife’s house, vetoing and drinking until it’s too late to do anything other than play king of the deck, which means we’ll spend the whole next day steak-knifing splinters out of each other’s shoulders. So the Pearl of San Lucia sat a mile out, peeking slantways at us from her awkward berth, not so much stuck as slowly sinking, granules of sandbar washing tidally into her game rooms and cabins and holds, swallowing her by cubic inches.
Armando gifted us the Pearl in July, and within a month we’d ransacked the unsubmerged rooms. She was laid over so bad you could just walk up her side. Her hull was thirty degrees off horizontal, with a dinner theater and two rows of portside first-class cabins poking above the high-tide line. We roped into the dry cabins through the balcony doors like cat burglars. We scored clawfoot chairs with studded upholstery, Sealy Posturepedics, Coke-machine quarters, enough Alexian notepads to keep our drinks coastered for a hundred years. It beat the pleated khakis off those seashell-filled lamps and captain’s wheel mirrors we got skulking the off-season stilt cottages. Danny’s plan was to sell the scavenged decor and amass a fortune impressive enough to lure his wayward Gina back from her new lover. The Pearl, he said, was a sign from God.
“Destiny is nigh,” he’d say. “My ship’s come in.”
By mid-August of the year of the Pearl, we were spending so many nights wreck diving that we hardly ever even sucked Freon out of the cottages’ window units anymore. Officer Davis—him being the entire off-season arm of the law, with me and Danny accounting for maybe two-thirds of his peptic ulcer—was happy to ignore the bunny-white Alexian bathrobes we wore on our big nights out at the Avalon Pier bar, as well as the pillowcases of quarters we’d fling like parade beads into the freckled, oily cleavages of the Skee-Ball babes.
It was Septemberween, the Avalon’s day-after-Labor Day costume party, when a stranger started beak-wetting on our turf. Me and Danny didn’t notice him come in. Danny was out on the pier, night fishing, and I was way over in the Skee-Ball area, occupied with a babe who said she was Cinderella, though all she had in the way of a costume was a cardboard Burger King crown from her son’s birthday. She swore that back in her yoga days she could tuck both ankles behind her ears. I told her to prove it, and she was trying. I suggested a couple Alabama slammers might loosen up the old hammies, and she said if I was buying we’d find out.
“Hold tight,” I told her. “I’ll be back before you can say downward dog.”
And there, nursing a pink drink in a stretch of empty barstools, was the stranger. He was dressed like an L.L. Bean dork and slouched like he’d just been socked in the gut. The Outer Banks being a skosh north for snowbirds, an off-season touron bellying up to my bar was something to investigate. I sidled up and said, “What’s your costume tonight? Bill Gates? Church deacon?”
“Check please?” he called to Wayne, who was dressed as Tarzan and flirting with a couple Skee-Ballinas. Wayne came down the bar to him and opened me up a beer bottle on the way.
“Six bucks,” he told the stranger.
“Not yet,” I said. “Tarzan, let me buy my friend here another Shirley Temple.”
“It was a greyhound,” said the stranger, inspecting the insides of his wallet. “And no. Two’s my limit.”
“My bad, Mister Gates.” I swung my pillowcase of quarters onto the bar and told Wayne, “Another greyhound, sir, for my sensitive friend.”
This stranger was Orville Chambers, mind you, the man who was fixing to cause me and Danny Pocock no small amount of misery. But I didn’t know that.
“And, Tarzan,” I added, “if you got any of them itty-bitty umbrellas, throw a couple in that girl drink for Microsoft man here.”
Looking at me for the first time, the stranger eased back onto his stool.
“Nice robe,” he said.
“This old thing?”
He allowed himself a little rodent smile and flicked the umbrella out of his new drink and pushed it in my direction.
“Name’s Orville and I’m not costumed as anybody. You?”
“Dressed as?” He waggled his pointer finger up and down my length.
Apart from the robe, I was sporting red swim trunks and a purple eye from a few nights back. “Jack Dempsey.”
“Well, Cliff Pouncy—” He reached over, took hold of my left lapel, and rubbed a thumb over the Alexian logo stitching. “Like I said, that’s a real nice robe.”
He slid gingerly off his barstool, tossed some money on the bar, and left me trying to figure out whether I’d just been threatened or hit on or what. I sipped the orphaned greyhound, and when Wayne came over to collect the cash, I asked, “Who was that fruitcake?”
“You know that dead bride? The dad. He came in asking if anybody knows who’s been looting the ship.”
“I told him it’s probably mermaids.”
If not for Danny, I’d have looted the ship only two, maybe three times. Just enough to stockpile a year’s free liquor and refurnish Danny’s ex-wife’s house. But Danny’s always been the enthusiastic type.
For a while it was gas siphoning. That was how we would get rich. But try running a black market for stolen gasoline in a community of eight hundred people and see how far you get.
“I’m a man of ideas,” he’d insisted from the backseat of Officer Davis’s squad car. “Can I help it if the law of the land is stuck in the Dark Ages?”
To which Davis said, “Could I interest you boys in a breath mint?”
“Every revolution in history was illegal at the time.”
Next it was some Eastern flavor of enlightenment, which meant Danny giving away our furniture and sitting on the floor chanting “um” all the time. But that phase didn’t last any longer than his little gas cartel, and I’ll bet we haven’t used the rice cooker three times since he quit raking sand patterns in the yard.
The one mania he never did kick was Gina. He loved her in a way that he described as attentive but she called smothering. Gina told me once, as she shooed me off her deck with a skimboard, “You’re his pet, I’m his goddamn religion. It ain’t fair to either of us. Now, scoot.”
But it was Gina who scooted. She won everything in the divorce and left anyway, moved across the sound to a city that doesn’t spend eight months of the year skeleton-crewed. I helped Danny to forget—or if not forget, at least ignore. It didn’t matter if he got canned from Calico Jack’s for spitting on someone’s grouper; all the nicest distractions are free.
We fine-tuned our Freon-to-weed-to-booze ratio and concocted the perfect high. We sharpened the steak knives and played five-finger fillet on each other, not minding the nicks. We borrowed hang gliders out of the Jockey’s Ridge State Park garage and went soaring off the tallest sand dune east of the Rockies. We plowed through the Skee-Ball babes and caught dinner off the pier—him all the time coming up with new schemes to build his empire, leave his mark on the world, win back his woman.
Me, I’m not interested in immortality. I’d decided long before hitching over to the Outer Banks that I wasn’t cut out to win the big game. I’m more of a sidekick. I’m rhythm guitar, tater salad. I want to leave this life as nameless as I arrived. If not for Danny, I’d probably still be scouring skillets at Calico Jack’s and sleeping under the Avalon Pier.
Shipwrecks are nothing new in these parts. We’ve got German U-boats, Civil War frigates, even Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. You can’t drive a quarter mile without passing a signboard telling you to DIVE THE GRAVEYARD OF THE ATLANTIC! Wind and tide have teamed up to booby-trap these waters with roving shoals. This place is a beautiful tomb.
Orville Chambers had tried all the licensed scuba shops, and they’d all told him no, they couldn’t take him to wreck dive the Pearl of San Lucia. Red tape out the ass. For one thing, she wasn’t officially sunk yet. Her official status was still “in distress.” Plus, Orville wanted to go inside the ship, deep inside, which commercial dive outfits just don’t allow. Something to do with insurance premiums.
But he was stubborn. Or desperate. So he’d gone sniffing around a rumor of two salty dogs who snuck out after dark and brought back boatfuls of sun hats and suitcase liquor, who bragged to anyone with ears about their beachfront house filled with cruise-ship booty.
The next morning, hungover and sleep-eyed, I shuffled out to the deck and began watering the sea oats off the edge. I was still pissing when I heard a voice behind me.
“Nice place you got here, Cliff Pouncy.”
I spun around, dribbling.
It was Orville, sitting at the picnic table and holding a newspaper, folded to frame the crossword.
“Not sold on the skull, though.” He nodded toward the horse skull Danny’s ex-father-in-law had screwed into the vinyl above the sliding glass door. “It’s a touch . . . Texan.”
I stammered something about private property, but he held up a silencing hand.
“Five-letter word for transition,” he said. He still hadn’t looked up from his paper. “Clifford? Little help?”
I asked him what he was doing here. He studied the paper, wrote something.
“Ends with E. Any ideas?” Orville slid the reading glasses off the bulb-end of his nose and let them hang on their cord. Finally looking at me, he said, “Me neither.”
Here was a man who paid for his cable and went to buffets with a game plan. The way he sat on somebody else’s deck made me regret a thing or two I’d said the night before.
“We didn’t mean any disrespect,” I told him. “We just took things that would’ve gone to waste—”
“Easy, son,” he broke in, gesturing open-palmed for me to sit. “Don’t assume to know why I’m here.”
As I straddled the bench opposite Orville, Danny came outside to do a little watering of his own.
“Who’s your friend?” Danny asked me.
“Gentlemen,” said Orville, “it seems we got a quorum. Mr. Pouncy, if you’ll introduce me to your associate here, we can get started.”
The word he kept using was closure. It’s one of those words that can mean any damn thing you want it to. People talk about needing closure after something shitty happens. I’ve probably used the word myself. But it’s a slippery one. Orville seemed to think that, one, his daughter’s and son-in-law’s bodies were still down there, and, two, seeing them would give him some kind of closure.
“Something about putting empty coffins in the dirt,” he said, staring into the murmuring sea oats. “You boys ever see a dead body? Not at a funeral, all drained and dressed and teeth glued shut. I mean dead and waiting to be found, frozen in surprise or agony. Or relief. That glimpse of how they departed.”
Danny whispered yes.
“I did two and a half tours in Vietnam,” Orville said. “The bodies I came across, it’s like they were waiting to be found.” All three of us watched the swishing dune. The wind throttled, and the chest-high weeds went quiet again. “Her mother’s long since passed, and Tammy Mae was my only. You boys understand.”
Danny asked, “How are you so sure they’re still in the ship?”
“Cows will head for shelter before the barometer drops. I can’t give you a reason, son. I just know. And I’ll pay. Name your price.”
I turned him down. Danny sat quiet as I told Orville we’d only dove the handful of rooms within hose-reach of air. I told him the scuba pros were right about it being a death trap.
“And frankly,” I said, “it gives me the willies, going in there at night.”
Orville knew you weren’t really haggling till you walked away. He stood and told us, “I got time and money to spare, and I don’t intend on leaving you be. I’m staying at the Scuppernong Inn, room 208. Let me know, boys.”
That would have been a good time to quit the Pearl. There was nothing easy left. The rest needed serious diving, and the waters were about to turn cold. But as soon as the sound of Orville’s minivan had faded, Danny drove off toward Kill Devil Hills and came back two days later with three wetsuits and new cells for the scuba light.
Danny was done with scavenging. He was going out every night, alone, coming back empty-boated. It was obvious what he was doing. I asked him what good could come from seeing a couple of waterlogged corpses. I told him we should stick to the plan, start selling off the houseful of loot. I asked how, as it was now, would he answer for all this junk if Gina ever got tired of Ron Tannerly, Elizabeth City’s Nissan King, and came home to the sands and sea oats and husband of her youth.
Danny stonewalled me. He went about his dive preps like a superstitious ballplayer, every movement a ritual. Each night I’d suggest we head up to the Avalon and get our dicks wet; each night he’d shoulder past me. I’d grill us lunch and set the picnic table; he’d take the food barehanded into his room and shut the door. For ten days I watched him drift further and further from the life we’d made.
If I had to speculate, I’d say Danny’s sudden fixation on the newlydeads wasn’t really so sudden. I’d say it went back to when he was sixteen, how he’d found his mother in the garage with the car windows down and the engine idling. How maybe he was chasing a vision of death, or trying to replace the one he was stuck with. I don’t know, Danny never explained.
What he’d become, I still can’t fathom. Nocturnal, possessed. He Sharpied guesstimate blueprints of the Pearl all over the walls of his bedroom. Each night, he came home just before sunrise and X’ed out rooms. He shuffled crabwise through our Tetris of loot, breathing through a five-inch cut of hose like a snorkel cigar. One afternoon I found a three-hundred-foot spool of commercial PVC hose on the deck. Next morning it was hand-coiled in the johnboat with a valve epoxied to the end of it.
Wakeful nights bled into yawning days, and time passed in a brackish trance. In the predawn gray I’d go and sit on our dune with a breakfast beer, watching for his broken wake to come rolling across the swells. At last he’d come joggling toward me, the sky orange-gray, the tide low and hushed. Just before the breaks, where the water’s armpit-deep, he’d kill the motor. I’d watch him hop out of the johnboat and pull its dog-leash towline down through the breaks and up the gentle rise of beach, the way we’d done a thousand and one times together. I’d seen him through a dozen wild spells, and I knew this one would pass, too.
On the eleventh day of his mission, Danny high-kneed through the surf with such giddyup that something had to have happened. He jogged up the dune, muttering to himself.
“Find anything?” I called.
He looked up as if I’d popped out of hiding. “Mermaids!” he said.
“Sea sluts. Liquid ladies. Good omen for Wendell and Tammy Mae.” He looked laughing-gas happy.
“Mermaids, Cliff. Open your ears!” Danny shook his head as if he’d just had to explain the punch line of a knock-knock joke. He went on inside, passing beneath the horse skull and its bloodless mocking grin.
I had to go see Orville Chambers.
The Scuppernong Inn was a zero-star operation, all snot-green carpet and cigarette burns and the smell of mold. It’s the place you go if you’re two-timing your spouse—they don’t insist on a credit card. Orville could have afforded the Hyatt or the Ramada, but those were way up past milepost four, whereas the Scuppernong sat plumb across from the Pearl.
Front-desk Nadia and I went back a few years, back to the winter when Danny’s wife’s cheating was an unverified hunch of mine. The sleuthing hours were long, with nothing but looped SportsCenter on the lobby TV, so I chatted up Nadia to fill time. She was good to me in the way of hotel breakfast tickets and supply-room quickies. She was good in the expired-visa way of never drawing attention to herself. And despite my best begging and pouting, she was too moral a woman to let me see the guest register. Nadia prayed to Russian Jesus and took it quite serious.
When I went there to confront Orville, I hadn’t visited in months. The way she never guilted me made me feel even guiltier. She greeted me with a nunnish kiss and asked what I’d been up to.
“Billion-dollar mergers, reprogramming my VCR, the usual. Wanna get hitched?”
“Are you and Danny now divorce?”
“Low blow. I’m warning you, woman, I’ll stop putting out.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “How will I ever find new lover who can last two, sometimes three whole minutes?”
“Ah, quit pissing in my borscht. Do me a solid and call up to 208. I gotta see Chambers.”
Before I went up, I asked her, “Tell me something. You ever see him cry? Mope around, anything like that?”
“No. He just stands on beach in his shoes, looking at ship.”
Orville’s door was propped ajar. I found him out on the balcony, slack-mouthed behind a pair of fancy binoculars.
“Look at them,” he said. “Flies on a carcass.”
“Hello to you, too.”
I looked out at the Pearl and saw a few boats surrounding her. Orville lowered his binoculars and leaned his forearms on the railing.
“All those flies—consultants, environmentalists—they’ll be gone tomorrow and they don’t even know it yet. Bigwigs told me. The Alexian guys.” He squinted at the wreck. “Too much sand.”
He didn’t answer. I’d have to wait for it to come out in the next morning’s Sentinel that all efforts at recovering the ship were being halted. Government engineers had calculated in tons and cubic yards how much sand had flooded the Pearl, and they’d determined it was the shipwreck equivalent of a house fire that’s become fully involved.
In the meantime, I told Orville he’d planted an idea in Danny’s head that was going to get him killed.
“I thought you two were divers.”
“All he does is pace around mumbling about this mission of yours. And when he dives, he sees shit that ain’t there.”
“And you? What do you see?”
Orville studied my face.
“I get it,” he said. “Danny’s going alone. You’re afraid.”
I admitted I was.
“The dead are dead, Cliff. It’s the living you should fear.”
We both watched the Pearl awhile. I tried to see it as it wasn’t—not sinking into the ocean but cresting out of it. I couldn’t.
Orville asked me, “What do you mean he’s hallucinating?”
“Come see for yourself,” I said.
On our way out, Nadia handed me a trash bag filled with mini soaps and ninety-grit toilet paper.
He saw Danny and had a sort of moral constipation. Orville gnawed his cheek and stood at a distance, watching. Here was this ring-eyed man pouring orange juice into a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, whistling “Yellow Submarine.” Here was also the only man willing to search for Orville’s daughter.
“Orville,” I said, “this is your mess.”
There may have been something Orville could’ve said to bait Danny out of his quest. Instead, he set his hands on Danny’s shoulders and asked, “Can you really find them?”
“What the fuck?” I shouted.
“Look,” Orville told me, “you don’t understand what’s at stake here.”
Of course, Danny took it as encouragement.
“You’re goddamn right! The newlyweds have got these guardian spirits—the mermaids?—and they’re standing guard until I rescue them.”
They left me there in the kitchen. Danny showed Orville his bedroom, gabbling about the blueprint mural like a kid explaining his toys to a visiting uncle. I went outside and yanked up sea oats until my hands were cut and bleeding.
Orville came out and called up from the deck, “Funny landscaping technique you got there.”
He eased himself onto the picnic bench like a pregnant grandma.
“Come join me,” he said, patting the bench. “Let’s be pals.”
I trudged down to the deck, rubbing sand out of my cuts.
Orville told me, “You’ll get him back, Cliff. Good as new.”
“My friend isn’t a bike, you touron prick.”
“Son, I’m not a callous man, but you’re not getting it. You’re not a father. I’ve got a history of hurt that would break your goddamn spine. What I’ve lost I can’t ever get back. I’m worse than dead. So don’t whine to me about your friend.”
Orville wasn’t loud, or even upset. He just looked achingly tired.
There was a three-foot chop the night Danny took Orville out to the Pearl. Worried for Danny, I rode along, trailing my hand in the splash. I liked how the salt water stung my cuts. It was that late-summer week when the wind nips but the Gulf Stream is still bathwater warm. Orville wore a life vest and white-knuckled the gunwales the whole time. He barfed plenty, and once his stomach was empty, he dry-heaved plenty more. By the time we dropped anchor, he’d quit demanding to dive with us.
Danny and I suited up and crammed swimmer’s wax in our ears. We breast-stroked until our feet found the hull, me with the scuba light and him with the hose. He bungeed the hose’s end to a span of railing and we swished seawater in our masks so they wouldn’t fog. It was a routine we’d performed a hundred times diving marlin boats and banner planes, even the Pearl herself, but this felt different, this half-hope of finding dead bodies. None of those other dives counted now.
Danny was saying something I couldn’t make out through the globs of swimmer’s wax. He mimed “follow me.” We patter-stepped down a shuffleboard deck and swam into a dinner theater we’d visited back when it didn’t take an air hose to scavenge. There was only a corner of air left, and the chandelier dangled sideways. I felt a hand on my elbow: Danny telling me to stop swimming. He gave me the hose and took the scuba light, arcing its beam clear across to the stage. After a few seconds, a body drifted through the spotlight. I spazzed and swallowed a cough’s-worth of brine. Danny gave my arm a squeeze that said, calm down. Another body floated past, and I shuddered again. Danny twisted the lens of the scuba light, and the tight white circle diffused into a staticky illumination of half the room.
It was a scene out of some Italian ceiling: these not-quite-human creatures gliding, serene, their kingdom not of this world. Finally I understood—the moving bodies were manatees, a whole blissful family.
How long we watched them I couldn’t say. The sight of them—unbothered, brushing past one another in slow-motion corkscrews—gave me the sense that nothing mattered and everything was okay. If I filled my lungs with water, that would be fine. If Gina reclaimed her house and her husband and kicked me out, that would be fine. If Nadia got pregnant, if I got shot skulking a cottage, if a solar flare zapped us out of existence—comfortingly, none of it mattered.
Mermaids are manatees and porpoises. Leviathans are giant squids. Even St. Elmo’s fire is nothing but nitrogen and oxygen and electricity. The shrinking magic of the ocean. But if it’s the eighteenth century and you’re a cabin-fevered sailor, you see what you see. And when you tell your shipmates you saw a mermaid, she waved, blew a kiss—you’re not lying.
When Orville asked me whether I’d seen Danny’s mermaids, I said yes.
“Manatees. You say don’t worry? You’ll reel him back in? Bullshit, Orville. You can’t un-fuck.”
He drooped his head and didn’t speak.
I told him, “Tomorrow night, I’ll try and run off the sea cows. I bet I can spook them with a couple marine flares.”
To which he said, “Cliff, maybe you best hang back, hold the fort.”
“Danny needs me down there. His head’s all muddled to shit.”
“He sees what he needs to.”
“Fine, they’re fucking mermaids. Either way, he can’t go in there alone.”
“You’re not hearing me, son. You ain’t invited to the dance.”
Orville bought Dramamine and ginger pills. He never dove, but he rode along each night, insisting that the minute his daughter was found, he’d go in without a flinch. Each dawn he fed Danny vitamins and sleeping pills and tucked him into bed.
I watched Orville constantly, trying to conjure up a plea or a threat that might drive him away. When they set out at night, I went up to the Avalon and shot tequila with the Skee-Ball babes and hounded them out to their cars and slobbered all over them in their backseats until they knew for sure they weren’t going to come, and they drove home to their unbabysat children.
One strike-out night at the Avalon I gave up on the Skee-Ball babes. I was out of quarters and one-liners, and the old Pouncy charm wasn’t hitting. Sometimes you fish for bluefin and all you catch is sea mullet. Sometimes even the sea mullet won’t bite.
I slumped over to the bar and Wayne brought me a boilermaker. Then another. I found a joint in my shirt pocket and we passed it back and forth across the bar.
“I couldn’t fuck a warm donut tonight,” I said.
“Ebbs and flows,” said Wayne.
I was mid-toke when Officer Davis walked in off the pier with his cooler in one hand and pole in the other. He made like he’d spotted something interesting in the rafters while I stubbed out the joint and slipped it back into my shirt pocket. Then he came over and said, “Beer me, Wayner.” Apart from the sidearm and the two-way on his belt, he looked just like any other horseshoe-haired fat man you’d see at the pier, with his orange Brew Thru t-shirt tucked into ironed jorts.
Wayne asked, “How’s the night fishing?”
“Four croaker and a coupla flounder. You been skeezing the arcade again, Cliffy?”
Davis laughed and told Wayne, “This sumbitch likes them broke-in, don’t he? Likes them ugly as homemade soap.”
“Speaking of,” I said, “how’s your wife?”
We kept ribbing awhile, and Wayne left us to tend to some fishers who wanted a bucket of brews to take out on the pier.
“Shoot me straight,” said Davis. “How much longer’s Danny going to keep poking around that cruise ship? We both know how he gets.”
“What do you want me to do, drill holes in his boat? He’ll just steal another.”
“Something. I saw him walking around the hardware store today, mismatched flip-flops, whispering to himself. Boy’s about as lost as last year’s Easter eggs.”
“It’ll run its course.”
“Maybe.” He took a long swill. “You know the expression ‘silly as a goose’? When I was little, up near Rocky Mount, our neighbor come by once with a warm goose egg. He’d shot the mother. So my daddy puts it in with our best hen, and when the little goose hatched, he took that hen for his mother. Now the hen didn’t want a thing to do with that goose. But the goose was love-struck. He followed that hen everywhere, even after he grew up. She’d whirl around and peck him bloody, but he’d go right on following her. At night she’d roost on the dowel with the other hens, and a goose with those webbed toes can’t grab hold of a dowel. So he’d lay right under her, and that hen would just shit on him all night. Next day, there he’d go, following his mama across the yard, twice her size, chicken shit all down his back.”
I thanked him for the enlightenment and went off to see if Nadia was feeling generous.
Some nights, I crave the ache of being lonesome. I like to sit on the dune with a joint and a beer and watch the ocean. It’s reassuring to think how, past a skirt of maybe thirty yards, the ocean floor is continents’ worth of land no human has ever set foot on. I hear about overpopulation—exurbs and crop failure and shit-caked fans. Yet, on an off-season night I can look down the beach in both directions, seeing nobody, and imagine myself cross-legged at the bottom of the giant, empty bowl of the Atlantic, like one of those whiskered wise men who sit atop mountains, figuring out the universe.
There are times I have to remind myself it’s okay to be sad. Once, when I was about twelve, my mom dragged me to confession, and the priest told me suicide was a mortal sin. It didn’t seem fair. For a long time after that I would think up ways to cheat the rule—dangerous situations where I might die by just enough accident to squeak into heaven. But the catch was always that God knew what you’d set out to do.
Even still, could you half-intend something? What about Russian roulette, drunk motorcycling, joining the infantry? There had to be some escape hatch that wasn’t rigged, some death so heroic your motive didn’t matter. It seemed to me Jesus had sure acted like a man who wanted to get himself killed.
After Hurricane Armando, on nights when the moon was big, I’d stare at the Pearl of San Lucia and try to perceive her sinking. Surely getting on a two-thousand-passenger ocean liner was above suspicion. Wendell and Tammy Mae Timberlake were shoo-ins.
Seldom do I walk around knowing what day it is. It could have been the twentieth of September or the twelfth of October when the manatees disappeared. What I remember is waking up to something sounding like a rutting buck in the living room.
Danny was barefoot and red-faced, his wetsuit peeled down to the hips. Orville stood watching him carry armloads of cruise-ship loot out to the deck and dump it onto an Alexian bedspread. Danny pulled down a ceiling-high stack of sun chairs and dragged them outside in clacking pairs. He kicked suitcases ahead of him through the slid-open door.
I asked Orville what had happened.
“Goddamn mermaids!” Danny shouted as he flipped a credenza end over end.
“The manatees have gone away,” said Orville. “Danny takes it as a sign.”
“So? It got cold. Hey Dan, they just went back to Florida.”
Danny surveyed the heap of perfectly good stuff. He came back inside, shoved past me, and opened kitchen drawers until he found a lighter. Orville and I followed him out. Danny grabbed two corners of the blanket and pulled. When he reached the steps leading up the dune, I helped him taco the blanket between the handrails. By the time we got it over the dune, half the cargo littered our wake.
There was enough moonlight to see by. Danny tore pages from an Alexian notepad and twisted them into stalks of kindling. As he stuffed the paper fuses into the jumble, I tugged our johnboat up the beach a good twenty yards.
I saw Orville come down the dune steps, arthritic and wincing. He approached with his voice low and his hands out, as if Danny was a skittish colt. Danny stood still a minute, and Orville, whispering, tried to hug him. Danny flung himself away, but Orville kept at it, trying to wrap him up. I heard something like, “Let’s go, son. Leave it be.” He got his hands on Danny’s arms again, and Danny slugged him in the gut. Orville dropped to his knees, still reaching. Danny charged, tackled the old man, straddled him like a sandlot bully. He was shrieking and jamming fistfuls of sand into Orville’s mouth. Orville flailed and sputtered, and I stayed put.
After maybe ten seconds, Danny slid off Orville’s chest and got back to work. Slowly, Orville turned over and crawled coughing and spitting back over the dune.
Once the bonfire got going, Danny couldn’t help feeding it. He made staggering coffee-mule laps that wouldn’t end.
I jogged ahead of him and pleaded, “Forget the manatees, Danny.”
“Fuck the mermaids. They’re halfway to Florida.”
“It’s an omen.”
“They’re gone. All is lost.”
“They’ll be back.”
“The bodies, Cliff. The newlyweds. All is lost.”
The fire flashed blues and greens as it gobbled up the plastics and wickers and varnishes of our would-be fortune. He was burning our work and our plans, and a kind of giddiness seared my gullet. It was the sweet pain of giving in.
I grabbed a joint from my nightstand and a few beers from the deck cooler and went up the dune to watch Danny wrestle his mattress onto the fire. The sun had just begun breaking out of the ocean. A minute later I heard Orville grunting his way up from the deck. He sat beside me, a beer in each hand, and we watched my nightstand join the crematory.
“That one didn’t even come off the ship,” I said.
“Guess he got his inventory mixed up.”
We slurped our cans and stared down into the fire.
“Orville, don’t bullshit me. Why’d you let it get to this?”
He worked his heels in the sand, swigged his beer.
“I reckon I thought I could manage him. Rein him in. You get so used to calling the shots, you forget there’s folks you can’t control.”
“And that’s how you honor your kid?” I gestured toward Danny flinging sofa cushions onto the fire. “Is this supposed to do her proud?”
He nodded, looking at a spot in the sand between his feet.
“Better yet,” I said, “answer me this. You never cry. You come slinging into town, the fucking John Wayne of mourning, and yet you never cry. What the fuck’s your problem?”
“I don’t know how to explain it, son. Maybe there’s a lifetime limit. When my wife died, I had Tammy Mae to cry with. Hell, I had Wendell, too. They’d been sweethearts since before Tammy Mae’s mama would let her shave her legs above the knee. And when she went—cancer—Wendell was there, and between the three of us we were a family and we cried together.” He paused long enough to open his second beer. “That same year, winter came early. My wife and I had planted nine cherry trees. Slow growers. And one serious frost will kill a sapling. I don’t expect you to understand, but I never wept so hard as when I saw Wendell pull up the drive with a bale of hog wire in his truckbed. See, you circle each sapling in hog fence and you pack it with dead leaves, and the leaves insulate the tree. Took us all day. And sure as shit, a frost hit that night. He and my daughter weren’t even engaged yet, and when he’d seen the forecast, his first thought was to save my trees.”
I didn’t know what to say. So I said, “Nice fella.”
“I guess I just don’t know how to mourn alone. Ever since that double funeral, I’ve been more dead than alive. And as soon as Danny found my daughter and my son-in-law, I was planning to go down there and make three a crowd.”
“Yep. Wait, what?”
“Cliff, I sit in my empty house, drinking Alka-Seltzer and staring at the late-night standby screen on public access. I’ve outlived my life.”
“And now that your plan fell through?”
He looked at the Pearl a long while. At last he said, “I’m wondering the same thing myself. Feels like surrender.”
We settled back into drinking.
“Did you see that?” I said, pointing out to sea. “It just sank a little.”
He studied the Pearl’s outline against the infection-colored sky. “No,” he said. “It’s the light changing.”
Orville sat quiet, watching the ship. Then he let out a laugh, a tiny one, like he’d read a comic in the Sunday paper and laughed without meaning to. It reminded me of this couple I’d seen a few years back, sitting on some steps after a hurricane. They’d owned a hundred-year-old cottage, one of the Outer Banks’ original thirteen, unpainted wood shingles and wraparound porches and those top-hinge shutters you prop open with a stick. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hurricane had left it nothing but a few pylons and a half dozen porch stairs. This old couple had waded out in the water and debris to have one last sit on their steps and watch the sky turn orange and purple on its way to dusk. I’d seen the woman laugh, a single hiccup of a laugh.
I don’t know who decided it. All of us, maybe none of us. Me and Orville’d sat there long past sunrise, watching Danny tire himself out. Finally, when it seemed he’d burned three housefuls of stuff, he joined us on the dune. I fetched us fresh beers, and we drank them in a slow silence.
Nobody said anything as we tossed our cans into the sea oats and went inside. Nobody said anything as we pulled down the last bits of the Pearl—pictures off the wall, a wicker bookshelf, towels high in the linen closet—and carried them down to the johnboat. Danny grabbed the lighter fluid from under the grill, and I pushed the picnic table beneath the hollow smile of the horse skull. I fed the screwdriver into its eye sockets and found the rust-eaten screw heads.
Getting the loaded boat out past the breakers took some doing, but it was low tide. Orville and Danny held the port side steady as I lurched over the starboard gunwale. I pulled them in and for a while we sat there in our wetsuits, rocking amid the timid swells, out in the forehead-deep water where the boogie-boarders float, waiting for the Big One.
Danny squirted the mound with lighter fluid and I draped a wet towel over the gas can. With the prop tilted out of the water, I started the motor in first gear, trawling speed. Orville set the skull atop the heap and slid into the water. Danny lit the pyre and cannonballed. As soon as Danny hit the water, I dropped the motor into place and joined them. It was oddly soothing treading water together, watching our little boat putter away, flaming toward the horizon.
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