Green Hills Literary Lantern

Fishing

 

 

 

George had planned the trip for himself and the girl he was seeing at the time, an Asian salesgirl he had met while buying ties at Barney’s, but when they broke it off suddenly, and with George it was always sudden, he found himself with a pair of uncancellable airline tickets and a reservation at a quaint little inn on Truman Avenue in Key West. So he asked his roommate to take the girl’s place. They were having beers and throwing darts at Sheehan’s Bar, around the corner from their apartment near the Jersey City waterfront, and Dan kept saying it was all right, he was happy to go in Mei Li’s place, as long as George understood that there were certain things he was not going to do. Holding hands, for instance. That was out. Blowjobs were out as well, unless they were both really drunk.

“Cut that shit out,” George said. “People can hear you.”

His face turned deeply red, and he buried his darts hard in the board. But he still won. He was always the better darts player. He was always the better everything.

But after all the jokes the matter was agreed upon, costs were fairly split, and they relaxed and talked about how they would spend their time down there. Then they didn’t talk about it again all week. They were both busy at work, and neither of them did any research or made any calls, until suddenly it was time to go. So before dawn on a cold winter Saturday they found themselves in the back of a limo headed to Newark airport, talking volubly the entire time about their girlfriends, their nonexistent girlfriends, and about boxing or whatever, as if the limo driver, a very businesslike Arab, would otherwise have hit the nail on the head, that these two ordinary-looking young men were on their way to a romantic, decadent getaway of suntan oil, umbrella drinks and God knows what else.

From the airport terminal they watched the sun rise over New York City, a gelatinous orange glow spreading across a sky the color of dirty ice, and then once they boarded the plane they waited on the taxiway for forty-five minutes as the runways were cleared. But somehow they still arrived on time for their connection in Miami, where they boarded a small prop plane carrying only about twenty passengers. Dan looked out the window and saw the strand of coral islands that made up the Keys, flat as dinner plates and dark green with a fringe of white sand around the edges, dribbling away from the swampy mainland into the haziness of the Gulf of Mexico. Little pinprick sailboats stood motionless on the lead-blue water down there. The sun was unbelievably strong after all the ghostly winter days lately in Jersey City and New York.

When they emerged into the warmth and humidity of the air at Key West airport, they stripped down to their T-shirts, collected their bags, and went in search of a cab. Their driver this time was a mumbling, shabbily dressed old black man with a vaguely Caribbean accent, who drove them along Truman Avenue in a maddening series of lurches and stops before veering abruptly onto a patch of white gravel in front of an old inn with blindingly white clapboard siding, pink trim, and a green porch floor.

“Jesus,” George said under his breath, looking up at the place.

Dan opened his door to the warm air and the sound of birds. It was ridiculously  pleasant. He felt physically caressed by the air. He was grinning. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” George had his wallet out. “Go check us in why don’t you. I’ll take care of him.”

“You acted like something was wrong. Is this the right place?”

He looked at Dan. “Did you just hear me ask you to please go check us in?”

Dan got out and shut the door hard and walked irritably up the gravel path to the front porch. He went in through the double doors, one of which was propped open with an old-fashioned iron. A breeze moved slowly through the dim front hall, stirred by the wicker paddles of a ceiling fan mounted to a white-painted beam that appeared to have been damaged by termites long ago. For some reason that seemed charming to Dan, all those smooth clean tunnels the insects had bored into the wood. He was looking around the room when a creaking of floorboards brought his attention to a middle-aged woman who came from a rear salon and stood behind a plain wooden desk facing him. “Yes sir?”

“When was it built?” he said, indicating the old wallpaper and skewed doorframes. “How old is it?”

“Eighteen-seventies. It’s had its heyday, but we still like it. Are you booked?”

He nodded. “It should be under George Neering.”

“George Neering.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Dan said. “I like it. I like old things. Old buildings.”

“Okay.” She smiled distractedly as she consulted an enormous ledger lying open on the desk. “Here were are, Mr. Neering. A double room?”

“Givens,” he corrected her. “Dan Givens. George is my friend. He’s outside.” He smiled at her, and she bent at the waist and wrote his name slowly in fountain pen on the line next to George’s name, separated by an inky slash.

“When you say double,” Dan said, “do you mean a double bed or two beds in a room?”

She consulted the book, planting her finger on the line with their names. “Your room has two beds,” she said. “It’s on the top floor, up the stairs. The back staircase is easiest.” She pointed out the staircase. “Breakfast is from seven-thirty to ten in the dining room, right through here. And I’ll need a credit card.”

“It’s paid for,” George said loudly, coming in with the bags.

“The first night only, as a nonrefundable deposit,” the woman said gravely, removing a handwritten credit slip attached to the top of the page. “I’ll just need the card to slide it, and we’ll total the charges at the end.”

 

They carried their own bags up the creaking stairs and set them down on the freshly-painted, pale gray floorboards of their room, got out of their winter clothes and into shorts and sandals, and went right back out so as not to waste the weather. They walked along Duval Street for a few blocks and then stopped for a beer on the patio of a restaurant. They sat in cool iron chairs, and Dan felt a stupefied sense of pleasure at the various lulling sounds of the street and restaurant, the rustling leaves, the clatter of dishes, voices and laughter, music playing somewhere. The beer revived him. He grinned at a man bicycling slowly past on the sidewalk with a live parrot perched on a piece of driftwood lashed to his handlebars.

“Look at you, George said sourly. “You look like your grandma just died and left you money.”

Dan’s grin faded as he looked at him. “Look, it’s not my fault you broke up with her. You might as well get over it. You’re stuck with me for the next three days.”

George sipped from his beer and set it down. “I don’t care about that. I’m not sitting here thinking about her, if that’s what you think.”

“Good. Then you’re over it.”

“I was never under it. I just told you I didn’t care.”

Just then the waiter reappeared, standing over their table with his pad and pencil and bleached-out hair. “What can I get you boys?”

“Do you want to eat here or look around some more?” George said.

“This is fine with me,” Dan said. “As long as this guy brings me another one of these,” he said, holding up his half-empty beer.

“You go ahead,” George said, leaning over his menu. “I’m still thinking.”

 

After lunch they went to charter a fishing boat for the next morning. They had decided that night in Jersey City that they would go deep-sea fishing for marlin or tuna or dolphin, or whatever the game fish was down here. That was how they would spend their days. Their nights they would spend drinking and getting pussy. “Well, I’ll be getting pussy and you’ll probably just watch,” George had said. In any case, after lunch they stopped at the various tourist agencies and kiosks along Duval Street that arranged these things, but they encountered the same thing at each one. It seemed that the entire seaworthy charter fleet of Key West had been booked up in advance for the holiday. It was the middle of winter and a three-day weekend, and that was how it usually went if you hadn’t made arrangements ahead of time, they were told. Even the flyfishing guides who worked the flats for tarpon or bonefish (whatever those were) were booked solid.

Dan quickly got tired of walking around in the heat facing one disappointment after another. He saw a brochure about snorkeling on the coral reef, or going on a catamaran cruise at sunset to see something called the green flash. He didn’t really care that much about fishing in the first place. Growing up outside of Mobile, Alabama, his outdoor activities had tended more toward picking magic mushrooms with his friends in the cow pastures outside of town. But George was from a comfortable family on Long Island, and boats were important to him, and he was serious about the fishing. He was also an excellent salesman, much better than Dan would ever be, and the sense of rejection only made his instincts and training kick in. When they left the last agency on the strip, he simply turned around, his teeth gritted, his face flushed and pink, and walked across the street and ordered a beer at a bar that came right up to the sidewalk. He drank it down quickly as he stood there, tapping his sandal on the ground and thinking, and then he turned to Dan and said, “Come on,” and they went back up the street and started the whole process over again.

They stopped in at every tourist office and kiosk a second time, but with a difference. This time George had a hundred-dollar bill in his hand and he would hold it up, pinching the corners, or spread it out lovingly on the desk or countertop, ironing it with his hand, and he would tell the agents and clerks that whoever found them a place on a boat for tomorrow morning was going to get that beautiful hundred-dollar bill, that sweet C-note, plus not a penny less than a dollar a pound in gratuities for every fish they caught. “That’s tips to you,” he said, jabbing a finger into an agent’s shoulder.

“Speak for yourself,” Dan said under his breath the first time he made the offer.

“A dollar a pound,” George repeated. “Every fish. I’m dead fucking serious. I make a lot of money and I want to go fishing.” Which was a lie, the money part, but at this rate Dan figured it had better come true for him before too long.

By the time they had stopped in a few places this second time around, people started to know they were coming. They acted differently, made special calls, told them to wait, there might be something they could do, they just had to be patient. But nothing came of it.

“What do we do now?” Dan said.

“That was it,” George said. “We just did it. Now we wait.”

They went back to the sidewalk bar and ordered another beer, then another, and they waited. But it wasn’t more than a half hour before one of the booking agents came hurrying up to them, out of breath, his face and neck as flushed as George’s had been earlier. “Day was a cancellation,” the agent said confusingly, interrupting them with one finger raised. “Me-un. Guy hat to go to the yar after eatin shellfish?”

“The what?” George said, shaking his head.

“The E.R.,” Dan said. “Can’t you hear?”

“Oh, that’s great,” George said. “That’s fantastic.” He took out the hundred-dollar bill, and with a shrug slid it into the man’s shirt pocket, and the man’s grin loosened. He had tanned skin and silky, tonsured blonde hair that hung down to his shoulders. “Good man,” George said. “What’s your name?”

“Reynolds,” the agent said. “Come own.” He waved for them to follow. “Me just get your information.”

“Isn’t this great?” George said, and he slapped Dan hard on the back.

“Oh—”  Dan felt the sting of the slap through his sweaty shirt. “It’s really great.”

 

They could relax now. George could relax. Dan was already relaxed. They spent the rest of the day walking around town admiring the gingerbread woodwork on the old houses, listening to street musicians and going into the famous bars. The sunlight turned golden behind the leaves along the streets. It was very lulling and pretty, like a summer day in the Village. They walked to the City Marina as the last charter boats of the day came in over the calm water and the mates hoisted the catch onto the docks. There were startling specimens among the dead fish that they saw, iridescent skins with blue and green and pale gold scales, or silver with black or gold stripes, and bellies the color of an overcast sky. One particularly tall fishing boat with outriggers nodding away in every direction motored up heavily into a slip with a huge hammerhead sprawled in its stern and the fishermen, the paying customers, slumped staring at the dead hulk of it looking seasick or shell-shocked, sunburned, exhausted. The captain, a large blunt man with a flowing yellow mustache, slid down from the wheelhouse with the agility of a teenager, his bare feet on the ladder rails, and he and his two young mates heaved the great fish alongside the gunwale with their gaffs, then looped a chain around its tail and powered on a motorized winch that was mounted to an apparatus on the dock, and hoisted it clear. The boat’s hull rode up against the dock bumpers as the shark’s weight came off, blood streaming from the primitive gash of its mouth. Its nose was shaped like a two-headed axe, with a dull, dead eye planted on each end. It was a hell of a shark. Dan had never seen anything like it.

“You know what that is right there?” he said as the chain buckled and the shark swung over the dock boards. “That’s about eight hundred dollars worth of tips to your man back there.”

“Dude,” George said. “I catch a monster like that, I’ll give the sonofabitch a grand.”

“No you won’t,” Dan said, and George just looked at him irritably.

They walked back to Mallory Square just in time for the sunset, and Dan flagged down a waitress and ordered drinks, which came a few minutes later in plastic cups with pineapple slices, cherries and little rice-paper umbrellas in them. “Did you have to?” George said.

“What? It’s how they come.”

George twirled his umbrella over the railing and they watched it helicopter down to blue water. “What’s wrong with a simple beer?”

“Change of pace,” Dan said, sipping his drink through the tiny straw.

The sun, streaming bright colors, sank between two islets of clumped mangrove trees as the crowd oohed and ahed and finally broke into spontaneous applause. Dan laughed. George faked a distraught look. “Get me the fuck out of here,” he said.

The waitress came by to check on them. “Nothing else,” George said, stacking the empty cups on her tray. “And these?” He took Dan’s umbrella and slid the little ring so that it fluttered open and shut. “Never, ever bring us these again,” he said gravely, and she laughed and walked away.

 

They drank a bottle of wine and ate crab cakes and key lime pie on Whitehead Street, and then walked around some more, going into bar after bar. It was long past midnight when they finally wandered up a staircase into a strip club where two girls were onstage sucking each other’s tits or pretending to, their teeth and lips pulling dryly at each other’s flesh. They weren’t especially pretty girls, but they weren’t hard to look at either.

“We’ll have two of those,” Dan said when a barmaid came up to them. “I just put in an order for a couple lesbians,” he said to George.

“What?” George said. He couldn’t hear over the music.

“Nothing. I got you a beer.”

When the girls finished their set George went over and helped one of them down from the stage. She took his hand and hopped down in her high heels and he spoke into her ear and she nodded and led him away, through a beaded curtain and into a little alcove off to one side. He came out ten minutes later grinning and adjusting his pants. The girl was smiling too, as she followed George across the room to the bar. She came right up to Dan and her hand went to his thigh, her fingernails digging into the flesh just under his shorts, and Dan instantly went rock-hard. It was amazing. “Is this the one?” she said. “The hot guy you were telling me about?”

George laughed. “That’s Danny. Go on,” he said to Dan. “Go with her. She’s got a nice soft body. Feel her ass.”

“Go ahead,” the girl said. She turned a little, looking down the side of her own body, and Dan squeezed one cheek of her butt. “Nice,” he said. “Very nice. That’s definitely the best ass I’ve felt all day.”

“Shut up,” George said. “Fucking moron. Go on in with her. I already paid for you.”

Dan followed the girl across the room and through the beaded curtain into the alcove, where she turned suddenly and pushed him back onto a velvet sofa. “He told me to be a little rough,” she said, and Dan laughed. The bouncer sitting on his stool at the door ignored them. He had a biker’s vest and boots and a chain drooping down from his waist, and a long, delicately combed beard that filtered the colored stage lights, and now and then he stroked the wiry hair as the beaded strands of the curtain clicked open and shut beside him.

There were other men in the room and other naked girls straddling them in the near darkness, doing things for them. “Don’t touch the monkey,” Dan’s girl said. “And don’t suck anything or stick anything inside anything. We got a deal?”

“Deal,” Dan said, laughing and raising his hand.

 

It was after three in the morning when they left the strip club and walked back along Duval Street toward the inn. It had rained while they were inside, and a fine mist still fell softly out of the black sky. Puddles stood here and there in the pavement, reflecting the streetlights. It was peaceful and calm. Dan’s ears were still ringing from the music at the strip club, making him feel as if he were walking inside a glass bell.

A tall, skinny girl in a red dress was suddenly following them. At first they didn’t notice her, but she kept getting closer. She must have come from behind the velvet ropes of a club near the corner of Truman and Duval. Dan had noticed her standing there under the lights in her bright dress, and now she was following them for some reason and harassing them, or George in particular. But he was just laughing. “Punk-ass bitch,” he said. “Go on home to your daddy.” The girl said something about chicks with dicks, and that he would like it if he tried it, and then she clattered up in her satin heels and grabbed him, one set of painted fingernails digging into each cheek of George’s buttocks, and he swung around and shoved her back violently, yanking down a strap of her dress in the process, exposing a young man’s flat hairless chest. Dan looked away. To him it was just sad. It sobered him up.

“You might like it,” the person called after George, the voice deeper and more natural now. Then the person tossed his head, shaking the raven-colored hair, or wig, and strutted away, the scarlet dress shimmering under the streetlights.

“Have a good night,” George called after him.

“What was that all about?” Dan said.

“I don’t know, but it looked pretty good at a distance.” He was watching the person walk away. “Look at that. You can’t tell. That just looks like a piece of ass to me.”

“Till you get up close and see that Adam’s apple the size of an egg,” Dan said.

“Thanks for putting that image in my head, dick.”

“That’s not an image, Georgie. That’s the real thing. That’s a boy.”

“Why don’t you shut up? I didn’t mean anything by it. Asshole.”

They walked on, and George calmed down. “How’d you like Sasha?” he said.

“That was her name?”

“That’s what she said it was. Her stage name anyway. Wasn’t she great? Did you come? I came right in my pants. I have to jerk off before I go to bed.”

“You just said you came.”

“So? That was a while ago. It’s building up again.”

Dan shook his head. George stopped and faced him. They were in front of the inn already. All the windows were dark. “I’m serious,” he said. “Stay down here for ten minutes before you come up. Otherwise I won’t be able to sleep.”

“Are you kidding me? It’s raining.”

George took out the room key on its plastic fob. “Just give me ten minutes. Then I’ll open it for you.”

He went up the porch steps and let himself in the main door, leaving it ajar for Dan. Dan went across the porch and sat in one of the wicker rocking chairs. He looked for a cigarette in the crumpled pack in his pocket. There was only one left, and it was bent. He straightened it out and sat watching the rain and smoking while trying without success to avoid running a mental tape of George masturbating up in the room.

When the cigarette was done he flicked it into the jasmine shrubs in the yard and stood up and went inside.

 

It was still before dawn when the jangle of the ancient telephone beside the bed woke Dan up. He fumbled for the receiver on the marble-topped table. “Hello?” he rasped against the pillowcase.

“It’s Reynolds,” said the voice on the other end.

“Who?”

“Travel agent? Fishing charter? Sally Mar?”

That would be the name of the boat they had chartered. Dan heard rain thundering on the tin gables overhead. “Reynolds,” he said. “Hey, Reynolds. What can I do for you?”

“No fishing today, my friend, I’m sorry to tell you. They hat to go head and call it on off, it’s really blowing in out there, say they hat to go head on stay in out to rain. You know.”

The man’s manner of speaking was hurting Dan’s brain. “All right, Reynolds,” he said. “I get it. I can hear it.”

“You’ll want fitty dollar back I reckon.”

“Fitty—fifty? No, don’t worry about it, you done your part. You did your part.”

“Thank you sir.”

“Goodnight, Reynolds,” he said, and hung it up with a clatter. Thirty seconds around that guy and your grammar starts falling to pieces, he thought.

“Who was it?” George said into his pillow.

“No one. It’s raining. Go back to sleep.”

 

So that was it for fishing. All day the awnings and trees around town flickered and dripped as the rain swirled along the glazed streets and low clouds blew steadily northward across the sky. George and Dan had brought their umbrellas from home, and they went walking all over town like a pair of Englishmen. They went back to the marina and saw the boats jostling, masts and outriggers crisscrossing against the sky, and sharp yellowish peaks of water slapping at the white hulls, hissing down the barnacled pilings. George stared at the boats looking pale and half-asleep, distraught, hung-over, or something.

They went to the Hemingway house and George took the tour while Dan sat on a green chair under the veranda petting the nose of a black mutt with an enormous tumor growing on her belly. The dog looked up at him the whole time with her small, sad black eyes. It was pitiful. But the study where Hemingway was supposed to have written some of his best stuff was really nice. George made him come see it. There was an iron walkway that went to it from the main house. It looked writerly and calm. And of course the swimming pool for after the day’s writing was done. It seemed like a nice life. In the part of the world Dan came from they idolized writers, though on the whole they didn’t read many books, whereas in George’s part of the world, where Dan lived now, they despised writers but loved books and read a great deal of them. Or so it seemed to him.

Next they walked to the Southernmost Point and bought coconuts from a man with black hair sprouting everywhere but on his head. He cut the tops from the green nuts with a machete, and they stood by his cart and drank the water and talked to him. George said he thought it was supposed to be sweet, the milk, and the man said no and it was water. “Milk is something they make when it gets hard,” he said emphatically. “When it dries. When it hardens. You grate it and squeeze it out with a little water, and what you get is fat to cook the rice with when you’re making a thing they call pelau,” he said, sounding like an amateur anthropologist. “Ah,” they said. “Okay, pelau. So that’s what the milk is.” They walked away to finish their coconuts and stared out to sea, at the empty horizon. The island of Cuba was just ninety miles away according to the marker. Dan said he thought they ought to be able to hear the ominous bleat of workers’ radio or something, standing so close to a communist country. George just looked at him irritably.

They walked some more, and came to a waterfront hotel. The beach was deserted, the hotel’s lounge chairs stacked up, the umbrellas furled. They walked back and forth on the muck as the sea lapped toward them in low, viscous waves. “You know,” George said. “You think Key West, you think of beaches, at least I do. This is just mud, though.”

Dan walked back to the street and shook it off of his sandals. “Let’s go to the cemetery, then. It’s supposed to be historical.”

“I’m not walking through some damn graveyard with you,” George said across the beach, walking toward him. “I’m depressed enough as it is.”

“Okay, we don’t have to.”

So they walked slowly, and read the inscriptions of the dead of all faiths while the rain clattered on the tops of the stones and wormed down the black cloth of their umbrellas. They ate lunch and drank a pitcher of beer on Duval Street and walked around some more. By late afternoon it was really coming down. They napped for a while at the inn with the windows of their room cracked, but by nightfall they were out again, at another famous bar. “Let’s just run up a goddamn tab,” George said. “It’s our last night.”

Dan bought cigarettes and smacked the pack against the heel of his hand and lit the first one, but the tobacco tasted stale, and it made him dizzy. He drank a beer and another one appeared before him, the bottle sweating on the table. George was talking to two girls from Kalamazoo, Michigan. “Kalamazoo?” Dan heard him say.

“Kalamazoo,” the girls repeated together.

George laughed. He leaned across the table. “Ask them where they’re from.”

“Shut up, I can hear.”

“Kalamazoo—” George laughed again.

“Kalamazoo, it’s true,” one of the girls said, and George laughed even harder.

They were both blondes, one natural, the other not. There was a thick furrow of dark roots where the second girl parted her dyed hair. They both had sunburns. They weren’t pretty. They weren’t ugly either. They were just girls.

More people came in out of the rain, packing the place, sweating and dripping and breathing as the rain roared outside. It was crazy how hard it came down. Dan watched it through the steamed windows.

The girl with the dark roots was suddenly smiling at him. He glanced over and her eyes were fixed on his. It surprised him, the sudden frank stare of a stranger, but he smiled back and tilted his head politely toward her and then looked away. They all three laughed. “What?” He looked across the table at them.

George’s face was red. He was grinning. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all. We’re just over here talking.”

“All right, good.”

“Ha're you doing over there?” the other girl asked.

It was a simple question, but Dan didn’t know what to say to it. He was all out of sorts somehow. He thought it must be the weather. He stood up from his chair. His legs were asleep, at least one of them was. “I’m going to the john,” he said. “Save my place.”

“What for—?”

“The john? Did he say the john?”

“Don’t worry about him,” George said. “He’s a dick.”

Now why did he go and say that? Dan wondered as he plowed through the crowd on his numb legs. He stood at the urinal on pins and needles, and then coming back toward the bar he took out his wallet and counted the money he had left, forgot what he had just counted and took it back out and counted it again, then promptly forgot again. He wedged his way through the crowd to the bar and ordered four beers and a shot. “Four and four?” the bartender asked, holding up four fingers sideways on each hand. “No,” Dan yelled over the noise, “four and one,” and he held up an indeterminate number of fingers. The drinks came, he left a ten-dollar tip and folded the rest away in his pocket, and stood there sipping the tequila. His beers stood dripping on the bar as he was slowly pushed away from it by the crowd. The band was playing. It was a jangle of noise. He had hoped the tequila would somehow smooth away whatever was nagging at him, thin out the fog that was condensing in his head, but he only felt worse, poisoned, after drinking it. He glanced over and saw George shaking his head and grinning at him. The girl beside him had her hand around his arm. He was keeping it flexed for her. Dan could see the tendon standing out at the crook of his elbow. Her other hand was between his legs, while George’s own hands were folded before him on the table as if in prayer. Dan tilted the tequila up and finished off the last drops and pushed his way back toward the bar through all the bodies. He set the shot glass down on the wood and was reaching for his beers when someone shoved him back. He pushed barward again, leaning hard into it, but there was no budging this particular body that blocked his way, and when he looked up he saw that it was the captain of the boat that had hauled in the big shark yesterday. At least it looked like the man. He had pale blue eyes and the same sunbleached walrus mustache drooping down to his jawline. He was grinning.

“How you?” he said, his breath garlicky and boozy. His mouth was strangely pursed under the yellow whiskers, and Dan realized why he grew a mustache like that. He leaned his weight against Dan.

“I’d appreciate it if you’d get off of me,” Dan said.

The captain just laid a hand on Dan’s shoulder and grinned with a mouth full of child-size teeth. “Say he get him a couple permit while it hailed off and take the hundred for hisself,” he said and laughed a wheezing, voiceless laugh.

Another hot, boozy gust of laughter washed over Dan’s neck and ear, and when he looked around for the source of it, he saw a skinny man with a scraggly gray beard and a tiny leather hat like a crushed policeman’s cap cocked to one side on his pin-shaped head.

“Come on, out the way,” the captain said, his fingers on Dan’s chest. “I’m trying to be nice.”

“Don’t put your hands on me.”

The captain removed his hand and stepped down on Dan’s foot. “You seeing this?”

“I see it,” the man in the little cap said. “It ain’t you.”

George had made his way over to them. “Come sit down,” he said. “What the hell are you doing?”

The captain let Dan’s foot go. “Gone with your friend,” he said. “Fore you get yourself in trouble.”

“I was here first.”

“And he’s bigger,” George said.

“He’s right,” the captain said, shrugging and grinning behind the yellow mustache.

“E’body all right?” the bartender said as he went by behind the bar, a towel on his shoulder.

George was pulling Dan by the hand. “Those dudes are cocksuckers,” Dan said loudly, and he took one more step and the floor swung up and hit him on the knee. People stepped away and made a little clearing for him. He got back up, his eyes sliding across the crowd.

“I didn’t do nothing—”  It was the captain, his back to Dan, his arms raised. The bartender glowered at him, wiping his hands on the towel without removing it from his shoulder.

George helped Dan back to their table. Someone’s beer had fallen and rolled, leaving a trail of foam that dissipated as the crowd closed up around it. Before long a tiny bottle of beer was placed on the table before Dan.  He held onto the bottle with both hands. “It’s him,” he said, his voice slurred.

“Him who?” George said impatiently.

“The hammerhead,” he said, and George and the girls couldn’t help laughing.

He was disoriented and sick. An egg-shaped bump had formed on the back of his head. “Feel it,” he said to George.

“I don’t want to feel it.”

The girls laughed again, rolling their eyes.

Another shot, another miniature beer. Eventually the room became a wall of noise, the muggy air pulsating and the press of people closing tighter and tighter around them. The table slanted so badly under Dan’s hands he couldn’t keep it level anymore. He rose and careened through the crowd, lurching wildly, flung the saloon doors open and sat on the curb in the rain and threw up into the rush of water at his feet. George followed him outside and dragged him up from the curb, and they argued. They yelled and shoved each other as they went up Duval Street and the cars slowed down and swerved around them, horns blaring. Then George was gone and Dan walked on alone, plodding heavily in the rain, faces staring as they passed him.

 

He woke up curled in the bushes below the doors of a church. The rain had stopped, crickets sang loudly in the stillness, and yard lamps burned with a bleary light along the street. He stood up and straightened his filthy clothes and began walking. He had no idea where he was or where he was going or even who he was for a few minutes, but after wandering aimlessly for a while, sweating out the alcohol, he gained his bearings and soon emerged onto Duval Street and turned onto Truman Avenue and came to the little white gravel patch in front of the inn. The sun was just rising, rinsing the sky in shades of pink and violet. The air was bathwater warm. “Ooh,” he said in a voice that sounded like something scraped from the bottom of a garbage barrel. He hacked and spat off the porch into the jasmine and looked out at the sky. “Now that shit’s fucking pretty,” he said.

The main door to the inn was unlocked and he went inside and up the back staircase and knocked on their room door. After a minute, his hesitant first knocks giving way to a pounding roar, he heard a stirring inside and then George opened up. “The fucking thing was unlocked,” he said, going back to his bed. “Asshole.”

The girls from Kalamazoo were there. One was in George’s bed and the other was in his own. He turned the light on and drew back the covers on his bed to have a better look at her. She was in her underwear, with legs that looked like she hadn’t done a day’s exercise in her life, and a mottled purple bruise under the hipbone. She wore a ratty camisole with Daffy Duck on it, and one of her boobs had fallen out, the nipple pink and prominent, the aureole a soft brown. But it looked like something agricultural rather than sexual.

“Turn the fucking light off,” George said, flopping back on his bed and pulling the pillow over him. “What’re you looking at her like that for?” he said in a muffled voice.

Dan pulled the spread back over the girl and she shifted in her sleep, or in her pretend sleep. He turned off the light and went into the bathroom.

When he came out an hour later he was clean, his teeth brushed and his hair combed, a towel around his waist, and he sat on his bed looking at George. The girls had left. The room was filled with sunlight pouring in over the unmade beds and painted floorboards.

“What’s the matter?” George said, looking up at him from under his pillow. Then he moved the pillow aside and sat up. “What happened, Danny? Talk to me.”

 

They looked all over the room for it. They looked down the back staircase and out on the porch, behind the jasmine and along the gravel patch by the road. The lady at the front desk said she was sorry, but there had been no sign of a wallet turning up. Her natural expression, under the circumstances, seemed to indicate an infinite weariness and regret. Then she changed the subject but not the expression. “Breakfast is ready,” she sighed. “You can leave your bags in the vestibule. Until it’s time to leave for the airport. If you like.”

They drank coffee standing up at the tin-covered sideboard in the dining room and then went out in search of the wallet. It felt in vain, though. The streets were already thronged with people, early as it was. “Don’t these people drink?” George said.

They found the church where Dan had slept, but the doors were flung open now and the place was full, or partly full, of people attending a service. Organ music resonated from inside the cavernous hall. There was a signboard about a special performance and sermon in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“One of those sons of bitches has your wallet,” George said, standing in the doors and looking at the upright backs of the parishioners. “I guarantee you.” A few people turned to look, but Dan was already walking away.

They kept searching. They went up and down streets, looked under hedges, skimmed leaves from gutters and dragged branches through rain puddles. They went into the bars they had gone to in their wanderings yesterday, and as soon as the doors opened to the famous one where they had spent the evening, they returned to it. Surprisingly they found the same bartender from last night, energetically moving chairs and tables around, and without even waiting for them to ask, he walked behind the bar, reached under the register and slid the wallet across the wood to Dan.

“You left it right there,” he said matter-of-factly, knocking on the bartop. “With your drinks. That captain you tussled with found it and give it to me.”

Dan clutched the wallet in his hand. “Thank you,” he said in a hoarse, grateful voice. Then he opened it and thumbed through the credit cards and checked for his driver’s license. The money was gone, but he had expected that. “Thanks again,” he said.

“I hope nothing’s missing out of it. I can’t vouch for it a hundred percent.”

“Don’t worry, I don’t think I’d know if it was. I was slightly drunk at the time.”

The bartender wiped the wood with his towel. “Well I got to get back to work.”

“Give him something,” Dan said to George. “Come on, I’ll give it back to you later.”

George looked at him with irritation, but he reached for his wallet.

“That’s all right,” the bartender said. “I didn’t do it for no reward. Yall have a nice day,” he said and walked away with the towel over his shoulder.

Dan snatched George’s wallet from him and took out two twenties and laid them on the wood and handed the wallet back to George. “It’s on the bar,” he called out. “Twenty for you and twenty for the captain when you see him. Tell him I said thank you and that he’s still a cocksucker.” The bartender laughed across the bar as they turned and left.

“I’m through with this shit,” Dan said when they were back out in the sun.

“What shit?” George said. “Drinking yourself sick like a fucking idiot? Whose fault is that?”

Dan punched him. He hit him on the arm, and then George hit him back even harder on the shoulder. “Goddamn, that hurt,” George said, shaking his hand.

Dan rubbed his shoulder and grinned in spite of himself. “You’re such a dick.”

“Yeah? Well—.  Fuck, I honestly don’t know what you are. Are you ready to eat? I’m starving. You might have to feed me. I think I just sprained my hand.”

“Well you’re just going to have to starve, then.”

They walked back along Duval Street in the bright sun and stopped for coffee and croissants on the damp wooden deck of a café. The waitress brought them sections of yesterday’s Miami Herald and kept returning with the coffee pot and refilling their cups for them. “Yall look like you could use it,” she said.

It was a hot, bright morning, a faint sharp scent of ginger or peppers in the air, and steam hovered in the road as the pavement dried.

“I really wanted to fish,” George said, looking up from his section of the paper. “You know that.”

“I know you did. Maybe another time.”

“What did you want? Coming here. Or did you just come because I asked you to?”

Dan looked at him. “What difference does it make?”

George shook his head and shrugged. He was looking down the street and he seemed to have forgotten the question already. Dan saw dark leaves shifting in his eyes as a breeze stirred around them. “Remember the shark on that boat?” he said. “That thing must have weighed a ton.”

“Yeah,” Dan said, and he folded his paper and laid it aside on the table. “At least.”

They still had about three hours before it would be time to head over to the airport. But that could feel like forever on such a morning. They heard a bell on the sidewalk, and suddenly the man from the other day rode by on his bicycle with the parrot on his handlebars.

 

 

Randal Gentry lives with his family in New Jersey. His stories and poems have appeared recently, or will soon appear, in the following publications: The New Orleans Review, Crab Creek Review, Number One, Illuminations: a Journal of International Writing, Perigee, Barnwood, Mangrove Review, and Adirondack Review.