There are no true taverns on Poke Island. The taco truck sells beer and little plastic bottles of wine. The convenience store has a full off-sale license. And Aunt Crabby’s runs a small crowded cocktail bar overlooking the beach. That’s it. Everything shuts down at ten, in time for the last ferry, and to assure an evening’s peace for the island’s elite.
This stunted nightlife didn’t suit Artie, who regularly shuttled between beach and mainland, calling Taylor to share dinner, drinks, designer drugs, and tales of the jackpot he’d just missed. But this weekend, it was communications blackout from Artie.
Now that Butchie had issued his softball bat threat, Taylor knew the moment of truth had come. On Saturday afternoon, he holstered the rogue pistol in the small of his back, donned an oversize aloha shirt, and made the bus-ferry-jitney journey to Poke Island.
So the jitney driver wouldn’t remember him as lone passenger at the last stop, he got off at Scallop Beach and walked the rest of the way. A couple strolling the beach gradually resolved from tiny figures to Maggie and Paul.
Goddamn the luck! These were the only people who knew about the rogue revolver. He tried to look happy to greet them.
They didn’t seem thrilled to see him either.
“So …” he said with a shrug. “Summer weekend?”
“We rented the McManus cabin,” Maggie said.
“Highway robbery,” muttered Paul.
“Did you pass the ice cream joint?” Maggie asked. “Is the line impossible?”
“That’s all right, we need the walk.” She kissed Taylor on the cheek, maybe in affection, maybe to prove something to Paul, and they strolled happily on, unaware that they’d done catastrophic damage to Taylor’s plan.
Some kind of psychic gear kicked in that Taylor never felt before. He had the distinct impression, as he approached Artie’s cottage, that he was no longer in control, but was merely watching an actor playing himself in a movie. This illusion was accompanied by an utter lack of feeling, a gray neutrality, like he lived in a big cotton ball. He had a sense of being beyond all human care. Some robot living in his head was saying: There’s that guy Taylor. I wonder what he’ll do next?
Partiers were gathered in the sandy yard around a drum barbecue, a huge sack of oysters, and a rusty trough filled with ice and bottled beer. Taylor avoided the picnic table, anchored as it was by Billie and the Bulgarian. Penny ran up to him and started babbling. In his twilight state, her words had a hollow echo.
“Have you seen my Dad?”
“My Dad. Jesus Christ! He’s hooking up with Maggie. They’re shacking up on the island. My so-called friend Maggie. My mom’s in a wheelchair and my Dad is hooking up with Maggie.”
The news that Paul was Penny’s father barely registered with Taylor. Penny stared at him and asked: “Taylor, are you okay?”
“Oh certainly,” he heard himself say in a voice that even to him sounded mechanical.
“What are you on?” Penny asked.
“Thanks,” Taylor said.
“Jesus,” she said.
And then Taylor saw him, around the corner, Butchie Block, back turned, pissing into the dunes. As he’d pissed on Marco’s shoes. As he’d pissed on Taylor’s mother. Taylor took zombie steps toward him.
Butchie turned and beamed. “Hey man, been looking for you.”
Butchie tucked his meat into his underwear and zipped up. Taylor flashed on Stephanie’s bruised face.
Supposedly Butchie had been tossed by nightclub bouncers. If so, where were his bruises?
“Butchie,” Taylor said.
Butchie clapped Taylor on the shoulder. “You gotta try out for my softball team,” he said. “We need somebody in left field.” He laughed. “Way out in left field.”
“Final warning,” Taylor said. “I am going to kill you if you don’t leave me alone.”
It was just the two of them in the shadows, underneath the damp salty piers of Artie’s Cottage.
“What did you say, punk? I ain’t hearing so good.”
A woman stepped into the shadows. “What crimes and misdemeanors are you two scheming up?” asked Tasha Wolf.
“How ya doing babe,” said Butchie. “Me and the puh puh punk here was just talking business.”
“Well,” said Tasha, “don’t let me …”
Butchie walked away.
“What’s with him?” Tasha asked Taylor.
Taylor ignored her. He walked to the big drum barbecue where oysters, loaded with fragrant hot sauce, were being grilled in their shells. He had no appetite. People he vaguely knew started conversations, but he drifted away. Somebody brought him a bottle of beer which he held until it was warm, and then set down in the sand. He stood like a zombie, transfixed, watching the fire burn in the big drum barbecue. He understood, for the first time, his father’s fascination with fire.
Fire destroyed. Fire was good.
Gradually the party moved over the boulders and into the little cove that was more or less Artie’s private beach. Billie McGinn slid out of all her clothes and sat on the rocks as if posing for a porn shoot. Other women, not quite naked, lay out on blankets in the disappearing sun. Lisa, dressed in a modest one-piece bathing suit, was conducting an earnest talk with Artie. Tasha sat on a rock, alone, pouting and smoking weed. Adora Vang, dressed in shorts and pink blouse, wandered the ocean’s edge, shell picking. Nick Katanjiev hovered over Penny, who was lying on a towel and enduring his gawking. Just at sundown, Rhonda Douglas appeared, having apparently spent the day at the beach, and now looking for an evening party.
She veered into the crowd the moment she saw him.
At Console, hard-working, uptight Rhonda had often stopped by his cubicle, eager to hear tales about the wastrel lives of Artie and his cronies. She seemed to envy these careless people. Taylor had intended to invite her to one of Artie’s blow-outs, but that was before she fired him. He should have hated her for that, but right now, she was in his neutral zone like everyone else, everyone except Butchie Block.
Butchie called for firewood so he could start the bonfire. A few people embarked on driftwood patrols. Butchie headed through the dunes to the property of the Shepherds, Artie’s closest neighbors.
Taylor followed at a distance. He watched from behind a grassy dune as Butchie knelt in front of the Shepherd’s woodshed, picking the lock. Butchie commandeered a red wheelbarrow, and loaded it.
Stealing a neighbor’s firewood will be, Taylor thought, this bastard’s last criminal act.
He reached back to draw his weapon.
A soft voice broke the spell. Taylor whirled to see a flash of yellow blouse and dark hair.
“Adora,” he murmured.
Adora stood with her back to a pink sunset.“I wanted to talk to you alone,” she said. “I have news of Cammie.”
She leaned in to whisper. “She is here. She is on the island. She is hiding. Nick doesn’t know.”
Taylor, in a trance, stared blankly at her.
“She wants to see you. She is so stupid she thinks she is in love with Artie.”
That might have made Taylor glad for Artie, except that he wasn’t feeling anything at all. He linked arms with Adora and walked her back to the party, like they were good friends. But he was really hanging on to her to fight off a dizzy spell. He became suddenly hyper-aware of the revolver jamming the small of his back. He let go of Adora and joined the crowd as Butchie dumped his stolen load of firewood and lit a fantastic blaze.
Taylor stood where dark beach met dark ocean, fascinated by fire.
Tasha usually embraced of a wild trip, but these pills Artie was passing around, they were scary. She was overwhelmed by the hallucination that she was a dirty, filthy, savage warrior, armed with a spear. She was like an ape-woman just emerged from the cave, a filthy mud-caked beast, even her teeth the color of dirt.
Between her and the bonfire stood Modern Man, designer casual version, with the new macho haircut and his dentist-perfect teeth. Her phantom spear shafted Taylor Burns right through the heart.
Outraged, Primitive Tasha stepped up and slapped his face.
He grabbed her wrist. She woke to it.
“What was that for?” he asked.
“You’re horrible,” she hissed. “Look at you.”
“What have I done to you?”
“Nothing, that’s just it. You’re a horrible disappointment, Taylor Burns.”
Tasha stomped away from the bonfire, headed toward the darkness of the ocean. She sat on a rock, taking in the salt spray, the stars, the clouds, the ocean, the crash of the waves, somewhere over that sea was Europe, a whole ocean separating her from Prague, and her with an expired passport.
Visions of a thousand Euro-sluts danced before her imagination. Joey would never return, they hadn’t charted a hit in two years and now their lead guitar player had smashed his hand in a car crash. She saw the future, Joey overdosed in some cold German town. She would read about it in The Wire or Rolling Stone.
Why had she chosen isolation? Even her job walled her off, she alone behind the mic broadcasting to an uncaring and anonymous world, only the faintest of echoes coming back to her in worthless social media feeds. How had she gotten here?
Looking up at a billion stars, she muttered, addressing her father’s ghost. “I understand Dad. I know what it feels like to be all alone, I can’t hate you anymore.”
She arose from the rocks and wandered the beach. A dark figure approached and resolved into Maggie Hughes.
“Tasha! What are you doing out here alone?”
“People are looking for you.”
“Artie. He’s worried. He said you were you, know, maybe zonked out.”
“I’m okay,” Tasha muttered.
“Come back with me. We rented a cabin and we’ve got plenty of room. Paul’s whipping up old Fashioneds. Don’t be out here alone.”
They walked through the moonlit dunes and Maggie said: “I did something stupid. We shouldn’t have come out here. We … you know my friend Paul, I’m sure you know, he’s Penny’s father, and I’m also sure you know Penny’s mom has been in a wheelchair for years. Paul and I, we’re a couple and we can’t really hide it forever, I thought this weekend we’d rent a cabin, and bring Penny over and break it to her, but now… best laid plans. She’s seen us. She knows. And she’s weeping, she’s so upset.”
“Penny?” Tasha stuttered. “I … I saw her back at the…” she turned and looked into the night.
“Where are you sleeping tonight?” Maggie asked, and put a hand on Tasha’s arm. “We’ve got room, honey, you can have your own bed.”
She walked Tasha toward the dunes. “Paul loves Penny’s mom but you know, needs to live a full life too. Penny was going to find out but I wish she… oh God, I love that girl, she’s like the daughter I never had and now she’s going to hate me.”
They arrived at the cottage and climbed its creaky steps.
“If you see her tomorrow,” Maggie said. “Penny I mean, could you try to you know, get a feeling for …”
Paul opened the door and bellowed for them to come in and start drinking. Behind him stood Taylor Burns.Tasha walked in, and having left Primitive Tasha back on the beach, felt sheepish for the things she’d said to him. She accepted an icy Old Fashioned from Paul and sat on a couch, her feet shedding sand to the polished wooden floor.
She sat mesmerized by the lazy whirling of the ceiling fan. That drug, whatever it was, had shaken her down to her primitive soul, frightened her, and now faded into the glow of revelation. She realized she had isolated herself by fending off everyone but Joey, who these days was hardly more than a fantasy figure. She had become a walled fortress against the rampaging barbarians of fear and pain. And it was lonely in there.
It was a woozy night for her, fading in and out, a druggy haze that took a long time to recede. With Paul and Maggie in the master bedroom she had a choice: bed alone or couch with Taylor. She chose the bed but sometime in the night she awoke and told herself: enough isolation. She tiptoed into the living room, and there was sat Taylor, in a lounge chair, awake and staring out the window toward the dark bay.
She lay on the sofa and he crouched behind her and caressed her face.
“I just need to touch somebody,” he said.
“Mmmm, I know what you mean. Sometimes …”
“I’m going to be leaving town.”
“Did you find a job somewhere?”
“No, no job, it’s just, it’s been a hard year. I mean Karen, you know, I never really got over her. I might just have to, I don’t know, leave.”
She now felt she understood him, as well as herself. His success and prosperity only masked a wounded soul. The bitchy Karen Slater, a woman from a low-down family, had broken his heart, shattered his ego, rejecting him to run away with an unworthy punk. Somebody murdered his mother a year ago and the caveman in him must be screaming for revenge, but those screams were stifled by Good Taylor, the civilized technocrat, the mama’s boy, the teacher’s pet.
“Something’s burning out there,” he muttered.
A vague red glow reflected in the salty windows.
“The bonfire,” Tasha said after a glance into the night. She walked into the bedroom, crawled into bed and under the covers. “Taylor,” she called, “Don’t sit up all night.”
He stumbled into the room dropped heavy into the bed beside her. She wrapped an arm around his waist and fell into a blissful sleep.
Taylor, awaking alone in the bed, stumbled toward the morning light. Maggie and Tasha were talking over coffee, sitting at the sunny louver windows in the breakfast nook.
“You know who’s cute and single?” Maggie said. “Elroy.”
“He’s not gay?” Tasha asked.
“Definitely not. I don’t know if he dates white women but … you know what his other job is? Buys and sells cars. Buys ‘em cheap, cleans ‘em up, yep, he’s a car flipper. It’s all about appearances, he says. Nobody cares what’s under the hood.”
“Who you talking about?” Taylor asked.
“Elroy, my bartender. We’re trying to find a man for Tasha.”
Taylor poured himself coffee.
“I swear to God I have a black ancestor somewhere,” Tasha said. “Don’t you think? Look at me.”
Coffee in hand, Taylor turned back toward the dark bedroom. He had awoken in a calm mood but anxiety quickly overtook him. He had hidden the rogue gun and holster under the mattress and now retrieved it, showered, and donned yesterday’s smelly clothes with only slight revulsion.
The sun was well up and shining over the blue ocean when, without speaking to his cabin mates, he padded out to the jitney stop groggy with a hangover. When the jitney pulled up there was only one other passenger: Rhonda Douglas. She wore a denim jumper and turquoise blouse, looking much sexier in casual clothes than in Office Climber Neutral. He sat beside her.
“Are you going for breakfast or the ferry?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Taylor said.
Rhonda laughed. “You don’t know? Breakfast for me. I’m too hungry to wait in line. I’m thinking bagel window.”
They settled in for the ride. The ocean was as calm as a lake. Neither of them said a thing even as they alighted at the Isle B Seaing U. She bought a bagel with walnut cream cheese. He ordered only coffee. They sat at a crude picnic table, on the boardwalk, under the shade of a faded umbrella, the tide washing under their sandy feet.
“We’re losing Majestic Arts,” Rhonda said, splitting her bagel in half. The wax paper underneath flew like a bird into the breeze.
Rhonda nodded. “The Philippines. Maybe I’ll be seeing you in the unemployment line.” She laughed. “Or in Cebu City.”
“Unemployment, no lines. They just deposit digits in your account.”
“I know, Taylor, it was a metaphor.”
“My job will be next. Can you imagine being fired by your best friend?”
“You mean Gita?”
“But maybe I can fake it. Maybe I can put on a happy face and show up at all the meetings and smile nice at all the goofy jackass managers and flirt and bat my eyes and ask flattering questions and maybe, maybe ride this one out.”
She sighed. “You can easily avoid the black world, Taylor. But I cannot avoid the white world. It’s your peoples’ orchestra, and I’m just another fiddler. I loathe it. I despise it. But I waited tables in college. I know what that’s like. Do you know what I mean?”
He shook his head.
“That figures.” She broke off a chunk of bagel. “I have to live with your rules and strictures, and all those unwritten codes. Guys like you were born to it, I had to learn them. I know you think, black woman, she can write her own ticket, but actually, I can’t. Job hopping’s going to be a lot easier for you than for me. I’m keeping my head down and praying. I don’t want to move to The City, it’s so noisy and dirty. I like it here. The ocean breeze is nice and its so quiet.”
She looked him square in the eyes. “I didn’t decide to fire you Taylor.”
“I’m afraid, Taylor. I’m just as afraid as you are.”
He sipped coffee and stared at the ocean.
“I’m pouring my heart out to you Taylor, I feel so guilty. You were a good employee.”
Taylor’s response came out like a sigh. “Yeah.”
“How come you never became a cop like your dad?” she asked. “You’d figure with somebody so well known…”
That question broke through Taylor’s personal fog. He stood up, leaned against the sea-ravaged pilings.
“He’s not the father I wanted,” he said, not looking at Rhonda but at the ocean. “I’m not the son he wanted. Every father wants to be admired by his son, but I … Deer hunting? Military? Uniforms? And now flying airplanes? The minute I got my first computer game, I knew what I was destined to do. At five years old!”
He sipped coffee. “It was a Majestic Arts computer game, too.”
It seemed as if, for the first time in days, he sense of taste returned. Unpleasantly. The coffee tasted oily, bitter and old.
“He, my dad, he hasn’t always done the most admirable thing. I mean as a younger man, he could be abusive, to me, to my mom, wild angry rages over the tiniest things, and then the next day, Mr. Sentimental Apology, sending flowers, taking her out to special dinners, and all that.”
Rhonda nodded. “I asked,” she said. “Because I can pick them out.”
“People like us. Raised in a domestic war zone. There are so, so many of us.”
Rhonda’s insight made Taylor feel like he’d been invaded. He left her on the boardwalk, retreated into the cafe with the excuse that he needed a fresh cup of coffee. He sipped it at the counter, trying to sync himself with the calm rhythms of the sea. He roused himself for a visit to the restroom, and just outside it, encountered Butchie Block.
“Come on man,” Butchie said. “We had a deal. What you owe me is fair.” He leaned against a post. “A lawyer wuh wuh woulda charged you just as much. Now, look-y here, some guys would charge you a vig, for all this delay. I’m gonna forgive that. I hear you were pulling down a hundred grand a year.”
Taylor didn’t bother to correct him.
Butchie bullrushed Taylor into the wall, held him with one strong arm. “Don’t give me excuses, you little shit. I’ll be at your door noon tomorrow. And you will have that money.”
The restroom door opened, and Billie McGinn looked at them, stunned.
Butchie backed off, unpinned Taylor from the wall. He nodded and Billie scampered away, toward the beach and bright morning.
“Like Marco already told ya,” Butchie said. “The Bulgarian’s your man. The Bulgarian was at the party last night, but you didn’t have the balls to take him down. The Bulgarian stranded Liz on this island, what more do you want to know? That’s five grand worth of information, easy. Pay up.”
Taylor could feel that holstered gun, like it was imprinted on his back. Butchie, too, knew it was there. “You pull that peashooter on me, punk, and I’ll take it away from you.”
Taylor limped out to the deck. He didn’t want anyone to see he’d mixed it up with Butchie, although Billie, damn it, was yet another witness. He climbed down and sat in the shady sand underneath the deck. Had Butchie done a billion pushups in prison? He was solid and strong and had been able to pin Taylor with only one hand.
Taylor rode the ferry to the mainland. Watching its wake and the squawking seagulls, suicide occurred to him, but there was no use jumping in when all he’d do is swim or maybe even wade to shore.
He took the ferry back and forth to create confusion, hoping witnesses would contradict each other. He made sure to be seen at Peace, Love for coffee and for a burger at the Wonder Bar. As the day went on, he felt profoundly alone, especially since the town seemed deserted on summer weekends, so many people day-tripping to the three beach islands. He wandered in a daze. He went shopping along the hipster Roosevelt Road, but bought nothing. He felt less and less himself as the day went by. Again he entered that strange state where he was watching himself as from above, a confused young man, wandering, wandering.
As the sun sank, he took the ferry back to the island. He no longer had any hope of covering his crime. Although he had an illegal weapon holstered at his back, he felt no fear when the Beach Patrol rolled by. He rode the jitney through the bird sanctuary and spotted an osprey, atop a tree, scouting for prey in the bay. He alighted at the last stop and sat on the dunes, watching Artie’s Cottage. He had no feelings at all.
After a while he joined the party, but like a ghost. It was so obvious he was in an altered state that people became solicitous, as if they’d just learned he had contracted a dread disease.
“You see the fire last night?” Artie asked.
Taylor couldn’t force out a response.
“Burned to the waterline,” Artie said.
“Some inlander’s boat. Shipwreck Bay claims another one.”
“Rich guy’s cabin cruiser. Hey, are you high or what? You seem like, you’re all glazed over.”
“I’m okay,” Taylor said.
“Only an inlander would try to navigate the bay at night. They waded to shore. That’s how shallow it is there.” He shook his head in wonder. “Thank God for inlanders, they make the rest of us look like geniuses. You want a beer?”
Taylor, instead of answering, wandered the periphery of the party. He avoided Butchie until bonfire time. When Butchie walked off to steal firewood, Taylor followed and watched from behind a dune. Not here, he told himself. Too close to the party. Witnesses would swarm through the dunes in mere seconds.
Taylor climbed the boulders above Babe Beach, and entered the rocky maze of Surfer’s Rockpile. When he emerged to a view of twilight ocean, he tried to summon the ghost of Liz Burns … not Mom, but Liz Burns, human being. When she was out there surfing, she shed her roles of daughter, wife, sister, aunt and mother, and became something close to pure spirit. Sometimes out here at her favorite place in the world, he could feel that spirit, but not now. He heard someone stumbling in the rocky maze behind. Butchie emerged.
Carrying a black aluminum baseball bat.
Taylor, trapped, backed over slippery rocks.
Butchie stood between him and the only way out. He maneuvered Taylor closer to the ocean. He hefted the bat.
Taylor backed up. Hands quaking, lips quivering, Taylor felt he was going to shake apart with all the vibrations. He managed to say through a dry mouth: “Tell me what you did to my mother.”
Cold waves washed up over his bare ankles. He watched himself back into a tide pool.
“What about her?”
Through quivering lips Taylor said, “What you did to her in the alley behind Fink’s Deli?”
“Kid,” he said, “we had an argument. We were teenagers. She humiliated me in public. I tried to grab her arm, she fell down. What do you care, it’s ancient history, your pink ass hadn’t even been born.” He tapped the bat on the rocks. “I’ll tell you what …”
Bells, loud like church bells, rang in Taylor’s ears and everything smelled like sulphur, like hellfire, like acid.
Butchie clawed at a bloody spot in his gut. He twisted, fell back against the rocks and then sat down, clutching his wound as the tide rolled in.
“You fah fah fucking little shit,” he said.
Taylor, surprised to find a gun in his hand, zombie walked across wet rocks and through tide pools to the wild edge of the sea. He flung that pistol sidearm and kerplunk, it landed in the ocean. He screamed, horrible and long at the rising moon, a scream lost in the howling wind.