Authors: Charlie Smith
Tags: #Retail, #Suspense, #Fiction
“But keep watch
that you may hear
your brothers beyond the border . . .”
“Jakub Bart in Ralbitz”
Translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead
The years in Cuba are behind me now.
Little spotted dogs, like tiny archangels
followed me around. I smelled of salt
and palm oil. Given the nature
of belief, the effectiveness of the divine will,
unforgettable and strictly
for the birds, I could be said
to be out of touch. I read Aeschylus—
the diaries—Othello on the Beach,
and Peter Gunn. I gave my change
to private charities, something personal
I devised. Her lipstick
smelled like a clown’s face. We practiced
tricks the Ringling brothers taught her.
I supported small retainers,
converts and muralists struggling with
the dialect. We waked,
often at dawn, and lay
in the sheets cursing quietly.
particularize and dissuade
, she said,
but it made no difference. I wore hats
of coconut frond and drove a Russian car.
My retreat from life
fit like a glove. Some nights
strange memories, passing for dreams,
of mud-caked shoes, cats
on the table eating scraps, and young men
caressing the faces of their superannuated lovers.
I shivered sometimes. I was on a long run
of quirky asides.
Take the monkey
, she said,
ot Sims got off the early morning bus in the Key West airport parking lot and took a cab over to his mother’s place. The morning was coming up fair and blue. The winter down here had been the coldest on record. Up and down the Keys fish washed up dead in the mangroves and onto the beaches. Big trees keeled over and yellowed palm fronds rattled like skeletons dancing on the roof. Salt spray dried white as snow on the sea grapes out at the beach. And upstream, up-ocean in mainland river mouths manatees floated like bloated fat men, belly up. But this day was sweet, rampant, and cordial, soft around the edges. His mother lived on Regent Street in the house Cot was raised in. Marcella’s secretary had called to say his mother had taken up residence under her own house. Something about hurricane damage; the house had shifted on its pilings and the town had declared it unsafe for habitation. It didn’t surprise Cot that his mother would be living under the house, but he decided he ought to go down anyway and see what he could do. It would give him a chance to go by Marcella’s and check if she was still not talking to him. Give him a chance on other things too, get the sense of decay out of his soul—
, that was the way he put it to Sonny Goldberg, his old partner, the two of them at Snooky’s sitting with their feet propped on the porch rail out back.
—he put it that way too. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Sonny said.
is mother’s not home. But Jackie Bivins, a local itinerant who’s sitting on the front steps and says he’s guarding her stuff, tells him she’ll probably be back in an hour.
“She took a cab over to the clinic.”
“Said she wanted some pills for her arthritis.”
Jackie’s a big wall-eyed man with an unsettling look on his face but no harm in him. He sails around the neighborhood doing odd jobs and arguing with the Bangladeshi clerks over at the Blue Sun market. He’s somebody else Cot has known all his life. “I ain’t seen Marcella,” Jackie offers.
“She’s not on the island?”
“I didn’t say that.”
The house, a solid-looking structure with a wide front porch and a squashed second story peeping out of little square dormers, seems as solid as ever, but when you look close you can see it’s slightly askew on its cypress-wood pilings. The house itself is cypress-wood too, unpainted because there’s no need (cypress won’t rot). It looks habitable enough to Cot. He takes another cab over to the Authority and asks what the problem is and they tell him it’s the law that houses knocked off their pins can’t be lived in until they are set back straight and inspected.
“Who was the one inspected it in the first place?” says Cot.
“That was Pollack.”
“He spent half a day over there arguing with your mother.”
“And then he put her out on the street.”
“Yeah. That’s too bad.”
Cot goes around to see Pollack, but he’s out in the backcountry fishing. Pollack likes to motor out to the remains of the old Hemingway fishing hut, way out in the sparkling wilderness of the flats, and fish there among the leftover pilings. He likes to imagine himself a famous man like Hemingway and a great fisherman. Cot goes around to see Marcella in her law office, but her secretary says she’s in court so he goes back looking for her at the courthouse. In the hall he sees people he knows, it’s like old times come alive. They nod, some stop to talk, everybody has something to recollect. The place smells boiled and suntanny. Mrs. Coldwell invites him over for a slice of her butterfly cake and he thanks her but says he won’t be in town long. It’s what he always says. Time passes, and he’s still standing in the hall when Marcella comes out. She’s talking to Ordell Bakewell, her husband—the county prosecutor—and when she sees Cot she breaks off from him like he was a squashed sandwich and comes right up to Cot. This pleases Cot immensely but the look on her face wipes that away.
“What are you doing here?” she says, pushing her thick black hair up off her forehead, just that little gesture making her look like she’s ready for a fight.
“Looking for you.”
“Here I am. Just back in town.”
From where? he wonders, but he says, “D’jou hear about Mama?”
“You know I did. These fools down here.”
“I was speculating.”
“I’m already working on it.”
“You mean you’re sweet-talking Ordell.”
“Something like that—among other things.”
She smiles at him, a smile that throws windows open on sunlight.
“D’you know where she is?”
“Over at the garden I expect.”
“I should have thought of that.”
“How’s the gangster business?”
She always asks this, as if they haven’t spoken in years.
“I get more surly every day.”
The mayor, a short, fleshy-faced man, trots up and after a perfunctory hello to Cot begins to talk to her about the new waterfront. The city these days is always coming up with new ideas about how to squeeze more money out of its properties. “Don’t think that’ll work, Smushy,” Marcella says. She has a risive look in her eye. The mayor looks disappointed. He’s wearing a blue safari jacket and Mexican sandals. Just then a man Cot doesn’t know runs up and before Cot can stop him he swings at Marcella. His blow is loose and sweeping, fat arm fully extended, and it catches her along the side of the head. She staggers, makes a tight little circle and drops to her knees. The man comes up on her and raises his fist again but before he can hit her Cot steps around the side and catches him under the chin with a quick short uppercut.
, he thinks as he swings, thinking of himself—
missed the moment
. It’s funny. The man goes down to his knees and Cot kicks him in the ribs, sending him sprawling on the star-speckled, sand-colored marble floor. “Jesus Christ,” Cot says. All this in barely three seconds. Time enough for the mayor to’ve skipped out of range.
“Who the hell is that?” Cot says.
“That’s Jimmy Perkins,” somebody says. A lobster poacher from Big Pine.
A small fleet of cops rushes out of some hidy-hole, scoops the man up, and begins to drag him away. A couple of the cops have their pistols in their hands. A detective, Arthur Smalls, comes over to Cot. “You’d better come with us, Cot,” he says.
Cot is leaning over Marcella who’s had the sense knocked out of her. “In a minute, Art. Just breathe slowly, honey,” he says.
The look on her face is priceless, the look of a child surprised by some trick she’s unable to understand. He loves to see her when she’s out of her depth, knows she loves the same for him. He wants to take her home and coddle her, panic her with kindness. Her husband’s yelling at somebody, as usual rummaging for links in a chain of circumstance.
hen he was little he used to call it his little monkey,” his mother was saying an hour later to some passing stranger as Cot settled into a seat in one of the blue banquettes at the Torella Lodge Restaurant over near Dog Beach, “I used to say stop playing with your little monkey, but he’d go right on—oh, hi, dear.”
“Spreading my secrets out to dry, Mama?” Cot said trying not to grimace but failing. She was cutting up celery stalks as she spoke, something she was liable to do—cut things up—when she was piqued, a giveaway, one of many. If he had time and the inclination he could make a catalog, an encyclopedia.
His mother looked pseudofondly at him. The look—given her present situation—made him squirm, the falseness, the displacement, the smile like a line of seaweed left at low tide. It was low tide, he expected, for all of them assembled. Marcella tapped nimbly into her phone. Her husband, pressed into a corner of the booth, talked rapidly and steadily into his device, whisper-shouting into it in his eviscerated and barely audible way, his voice grainy and carrying an accent he never used in everyday life. Our bodies are always a size too small for what’s going on inside, somebody had said once. At
, he’d thrown in.
“This ought to be a simple matter,” he said.
“Things are never simple,” Ordell, who had been listening despite his continuous verbiage, put in and dived back into his phone.
“Of course they are,” Cot’s mother, Ella her name was, said. “We just get uneasy with how simple they really are. Religion and the government have done that to us,” she said and went on jabbering, converting mind to roughage. It was like listening to an elephant describe squatting. Why’d I come here? Cot thought. He never could stand it. “What about the birds, Mama?” he said just to throw a plank into the whirling paddles of her mind.
“What’s that? Birds? Yesterday I saw a Cuban warbler pecking at a Milky Way wrapper—come all this way to do it—and a kingbird, lounging, I think. And Jackie says he saw a black-whiskered vireo, courting his sweetie in a guava tree.”
He turned back to Marcella as if his mother hadn’t spoken.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Marcella was saying into her phone—“oh, wait. You’ve made me—oh.” There was a thin streak of yellow and purple bruise along her cheekbone like a child’s war paint, but she was smiling. “How you doing?” Cot said.
“Like you I was born for life,” she said.
She looked out the front window at Dover Sole who was kicking a large Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The bike began to fall, and Dover tried to right it but couldn’t. They all paused to watch the machine, size of a buffalo, topple slowly onto its side. “I guess it’s lucky he doesn’t have a car.” This last from Connie Jackson, Cot’s oldest friend, called CJ, a cross-dressing singer/dancer who was still wearing the costume he worked in nights over at the Velvet Pussycat. His wig, like an orange egret nest, sat puffed and glistening on the table beside his plate. “I’m going out of my mind,” he said. CJ and Dover had been keeping company for years but, so Marcella told Cot, had recently fallen out. “I didn’t see much of a domestic arrangement there under the house,” Cot said.
His mother smiled at him, antically, mockingly, in the sideways way she had. Behind the antic he caught a smidge, or no, the faint hyperkeratosis, of desperation. But he always caught that these days. Everybody was slipping, the masks were, revealing sores and blemishes of dread. People drifted by the table, locals in ordinary clothing, students from his mother’s teaching days at the college, lifelong friends, enemies on recon pretending to be friends, stooges, penitents, the raddled and uncomfortable, the shame-faced—a few who wanted mostly to bask in the glow of her latest trouble—nomads, the congenitally misguided, old men with enlarged hernias, ladies in clothes that’d gone out of style before the last war, stragglers, and those who rode tiny bicycles, others carrying their humiliation before them like a scrofula.
How come you got into this?
somebody was always asking him—meaning this outlaw business—and Cot said,
I never wanted to be the one laying down the law
, but this was just what he couldn’t stop doing. That was clear to him.
“I still have to talk to somebody directly about this living arrangement,” Cot said.
His phone buzzed. It was Spane checking on him. “Comp wants you to drop by to take a look at those beach properties,” Spane said.
“I’ll have to rent a truck.”
“Maybe you can get Eustace to carry you. Tell him to put it on the tab.”
“Comp’s got a tab with Eustace?”
“Come on, B-boy.”
You couldn’t tell but they were dead in earnest, playful maybe but also hard and careful, all the names changed and everything in code even though they were talking on unregistered phones. Most names.
Spane always choked up on everything so he could get a better grip, swing faster. His voice like something with most of the juice squeezed out of it. Albertson’s second, he was the one went around checking to make sure instructions were carried out, went around figuring as he moved, catching the details on the fly. He had flat hairy wrists and wore a mustache that he regularly shaved off. The first day without the stache his creased face looked an extra size larger, not a reassuring thing.
“I got you,” he said, and Cot wondered what he meant but didn’t say anything. “You there?” Spane said.
Spane was sorry for Cot, but he didn’t say this. There were developments Cot hadn’t foreseen—Spane hadn’t foreseen some of the developments himself, but most of those were in another area—catches and loopholes and asides and unduplicable scenarios that would bust him up if he knew, but he didn’t know. But Spane was aware, as Cot was, that no info was safe from detection. This knowledge made his voice come through a little rougher than necessary. “You got it? he said.
“How’s your mother?”
“Miz Ella? Bewildered but doesn’t know it—or won’t admit it.”
“Like you and me.”
“Don’t talk about me as if I wasn’t there—here,” his mother said looking up from her mango snapper ceviche. This embarrassed Cot, and he said so. Said after hanging up the phone. Spane had told him to go ahead to the island tomorrow. He wanted him to do a count, some idea of Albertson’s. Cot didn’t know if he would go or not—or no, he knew, he was going; the impulse had clicked over into a plan on the way down. But he had never liked being out on the water, or above it. Odd for a man born and raised on a two-by-four gob of limestone in the middle of the sea. The grit in Spane’s voice disturbed him, and he wondered if Spane knew, and if he did, what it was he knew. Across the table Marcella smiled at him. There was a drag in her smile, just a tiny bit left out or trying to break through, and he wondered what it was.
hey drove by to look at the house. Ordell carried them in his Range Rover. A high black vehicle square like an old fashioned hearse. “It’s not a hearse,” Ordell said when Cot pointed this out to him. The coconut palms were still yellowed from the winter’s cold. Hung on a board fence outside Connally’s Rest House: old wet suits and a towel with a picture of the President stamped on it, among other cracked and dried pieces of paraphernalia. Jell Miller’s blind tomcat stared from his front porch into the blank world:
his expression said. Mrs. Jamison, an old lady who lived in a house shaped like a fort, raised a gold-painted albatross feather fan as they passed. “She was doing that when I was a boy,” Cot said. He was happy to be home, in an offhand, jumpy way.