Artie waited on the deck, beer in hand, watching Taylor walk up from the ferry. Aunt Crabby’s, its plywood hurricane defenses deployed, offered only a narrow view of the churning ocean. Another storm was growing out there. Red flags flapped up and down the beach.
Artie swallowed, at the same time, beer and guilt. Taylor would never know that Artie had lied to the police about the day his mother disappeared. Only two people knew that secret now, Artie and Butchie. To disclose it, in a burst of shame, would destroy the friendship Artie had cherished since high school.
Taylor had taught him the magic of gambling math. Artie had reciprocated by introducing a straight-laced Taylor to the joys of careless dissolution.
Taylor stepped off the sandy boardwalk to stare at his mom’s vacant lot. Then he disappeared into Aunt Crabby’s barroom, and reappeared two minutes later, beside Artie, frosty beer in hand.
“What’s that?” Artie asked.
“3 Floyds Zombie Dust.” Taylor held his glass forward for examination.
Artie wrinkled his nose. “Wheaty finish,” he said.
“And too hoppy,” Taylor said.
“What’s happening with that?” Artie asked, and with a nod of his head indicated Taylor’s mom’s property.
“Unwrapping the red tape,” Taylor said. He sipped beer. “Hoping to start building in the spring.”
“Really? How you going to pull that off?”
“Sell the condo, maybe. Move in with Steff.”
“Oho, romance and economics converge.”
“One good thing’s going to come out of this, Artie. My cousins will grow up by the sea. It was my mom’s dream, and I’m going to make it happen.”
“How are they doing, the kids?”
“They’re hiding it. Hiding their grief. Jamie won’t look up from his video games. Annie won’t eat.”
“Yeah, sad,” Artie said. “Those kids have lost a lot. You know I ain’t seen you in a while. Randall died.”
Taylor whirled and stared at him. “Oh Artie, I’m really sorry.”
“Last week. I had him cremated and buried under the cottage.” He chugged beer. “That was his favorite place, down in the sandy shade. I’m never getting another dog. Too heartbreaking when they go.”
“You had him for so many years. What, fourteen?”
“Here’s to Randall,” Taylor said, and they toasted.
“Old hound took a piece of my heart with him,” Artie said, and in the long silence that followed, looked over the rough September sea. It was wilder now, churned by another distant hurricane.
“Amazing ain’t it, after Labor Day,” Artie said. “The other face of Poke Island.” He drained his beer, set his glass on the salty damp wooden rail. “I’m going to get serious, man. I’m going to grow up. Enough of this Artie the Party. Before you know it I’ll be 30, and what? I mean, what am I good at? Tell me. What do I do with my sorry self?”
“See?” Artie said. “Even you admit it, I’m good for nothing. I might as well be the bum that I am. Maybe I just sit back and watch the world go by. Cammie. You know, that girl’s got me thinking. How can she respect me? Too bad Tom Petty’s dead, I could be like his manager. But you didn’t want to meet to talk about my troubles. So, what’s up?”
“I’ve heard the cops were at your place again.”
“They keep grilling me like I know something, just because I hosted the almost-fatal Butchie party. Maybe they’re hoping to drug bust me again, I don’t know. I’ve told ‘em three times, I don’t know who shot Butchie Block.”
Taylor stared into his beer. “I did, Artie.”
Artie grasped Taylor’s shirt by the lapels. “Shhh, you goddamn idiot. I know that. Shut up.”
He let go of Taylor with a shove. “Jesus Mountain Climbing Christ, what is wrong with you?”
“You knew all along?”
“Not right away. Like a day later. I thought back and realized you were stalking him. You had a look on your face like you were King Tut’s mummy.”
“Who else knows?”
“Nobody,” Artie said. “Unless they figured it out on their own. It’s a secret I take to my grave.”
Taylor lowered his head like he was studying the boardwalk.
“I’m dying Artie, it’s killing me.”
“Take a pill you’ll feel better. I can get you …”
“I’m full up on Xanax. Yours plus the doctor’s”
“Okay, take your medicine and shut the fuck up. You did not do it, you hear me? It’s all a fantasy dream. You know Butchie’s theory, it was some ex-cons he pissed off when he was locked up in Stateville. Let it be, man. No harm, no foul, nothing be served by … you know … your doing ten years in the joint.”
“The minute I lay off the pills, it comes back on me, nightmares, the trembles, I can’t live like this.”
“Shut the fuck up Taylor. I’m going to talk to Steffie about this. You have to get straight, brother. Think straight. You drinking? Go talk to Lisa man, look how she sobered up, she’ll help you.”
“I asked Stephanie to marry me.”
“Maybe that’s smart.”
“She said no. She said, maybe …”
“She told me. She said you’re scaring her man. Calm down. Live your life. Get a job. Turn your back on it. You know what Butchie says? He says getting shot was the best thing that ever happened to him. Turned his life around. Showed him what pain and suffering was. Woke him up to the human being in himself. I tell you Taylor there’s no justice in the justice system, nothing good ever comes out of it. Take your guilt, put it on a garbage scow and send it out to sea.”
“I’ve got to confess to someone, Artie.”
“You’re confessing. Pretend I’m a priest. Go in peace my son. Say ten Hail Marys and an Our Father. What do you want? Do you like, want to be punished, is that it? You know, that’s what I suspect about you. Tell you the truth. I mean, hooking up with Karen Slater, that was self punishment. How she treated you. How she treated everybody around her. Like somebody promoted her to Queen Bee. And now she’s back, with the Creep, looking to shake you down? Definitely, you got a thing for punishment man.”
He put his arm around Taylor.
“Don’t give in to it. Prison ain’t going to make you feel better.”
Taylor bit his lip, hard enough to release a fleck of blood.
“Okay?” Artie said. “We got a sacred pact, or what?”
“I’m going back to college,” Artie said. “Trinity, you know. That place is on Buchanan life support. They gotta take me. Ultimately, I’m going for professor of literature. How’s that sound? Reading books for a living, it’s not like that would be really working. Professor Arthur Buchanan, Ph.D. specialty in Mumbo Jumbo. Can you see me wearing a sweater in an office crammed with books?”