Man Overboard

Jean McGarry

 

There came a day when, damn it, he just couldn’t take any more. He’d offered the pearl-skinned girl a home, a little gal of her own, and upkeep. She’d quit her job, got as fat as she could, and outsmarted him in every way. Entering his own clean and decorated house, he felt skinned and gnawed, burnt by judgment, hobbled in his wants, urges, and habits by the scorn, digs, cracks, jabs, and smack-downs.

            It hadn’t started that way, although there were signs. Were there signs? he asked himself, as he hauled a wheeled bag, a shopping basket, and three nautical totes, wearing the clothes he’d woken up in the night before, every hour on the hour, puzzling over his fate. Everything here was his, but trying to take even his clothes upped the ante. As he packed, she grabbed things out of his hand, ripping the pocket of his favorite jacket and stretching his two best sweaters, maroon and navy; stamping on his French beret, and spitting on his summer boater, boring her kitten heel through the crown, tossing the chapeau to the little gal, wide awake and ready for action, who jammed it on her own head. She was a tiny twin of the original.

            It hadn’t started out that way, but were there signs? The pearl gal liked to throw back the cold ones and tall ones, and roll in the hay, although there was a dryness, a prick in the back, when the back was turned. He’d married, and to his grief, into a family of oddballs: an old mother, all one color–no color–who lived to roll her cart to the A&P (never learned how to drive) and pile up things for the pantry, the icebox, the kitchen cabinets, the back of the stove, the cellar steps, and the kitchen table. Having enough in the pocket of her housedress to range the aisles for hours on end, estimating volume and weight for the ten reliable recipes in Fanny Farmer, and buy, buy, buy–this was her goal, her ideal, the reason she’d married the toad who died early, leaving the two girls, although one was never a girl, looked older than the mother from day one, or so he suspected. The giant older daughter ruled the roost until, twelve years later, the pearl came along, and the order of things upended. The father, soon to die, never amounted to anything in that Amazonia. They all liked to sit in the stifling middle room (the parlor left intact for the annual visits of the Right Reverend, the pastor, and His Excellency, the bishop). They sat in the stifling middle room talking back to the talk shows on the Bendix, and talk they could. They lived to talk, or chew the fat, as they put it.

            His entry into the stifling middle room came after the pearl had moved out and had her own digs, very different indeed, set up for one thing, and one thing only, to trap a man–everything of a softness, a richness, where all roads led to the high altar, a four-poster piled with layers of satiny puffs and furry throws, and pillows of every size and shape, a glorious (to this day, he remembered, licking his lips, and sweating a little) pen of pleasure, with nothing on the walls to distract, and a neatness and cleanliness that, for this family, was against nature.

            But return to the stifling room he must, as soon as the second month of daily dives passed, without a snag or slowdown, for that was the day and the age of virgins and ladies, and saving it for marriage, or later, or never. Two months and the visitation was on the to-do list, a daily reminder. Into the room he went, but there was no chair for him, arrayed in a semicircle around the Bendix (was that a sign?), so he sat on the floor at the feet of the pearl, a bit hidden from the two mothers, or mother and grandmother, or two grandmothers. He only straightened it out later, much later, he thought. Too late, but better than never, always better than never.

            He shook his head hard, trying to flick out the memory, but it, the stifling middle room, was there, and there for life.

            He was rolling and lugging and hauling his gear, his truck, as they called it–they had a word for everything, and everything of his was shot down–to the Caddy, all his, because he had the only key, throwing it in the back where the baby seat was still in place. Did he hate the kid, too? A question for the future, the fullness of time, and the peace and quiet to go with it. Just for him and his prize, Anna Maria, a beautiful dish of Italian extraction. But Anna Maria could not come to him, to his mind, while she was hurling such abuse at his head, where his crown was thinning. How did he know? You-know-who had pointed it out, rubbed it in. And now the gal, the brat, was hurling a stone at the Caddy, and almost hit him. “Leave me alone!” he cried. “Yellow-belly, baby,” the kid returned, “Scaredy-cat!”

            What a team. Good riddance, he said, as he pulled the door shut and dove in. The kid was beating on the door, her tongue stuck out. He wasn’t going to cuff a child, and for all he knew, he was outpowered, out of his weight zone, if you added up the two butterballs. In fact, he’d lost weight, and was a shadow of the bridegroom he’d been on the spring day (last snow of the year, frigid and leafless), when the whole neighborhood turned out for Bernadette Alice-Ann O’Loughlin to Donald Arthur Reardon, Jr., son of Donald and Iris (McClusky) Reardon, proprietor of Downtown Parking, Inc., from which firm Don Junior had built DJR, Inc., Development, Contracting, and Demolition. The Reardon family–the clan, they were called by poor relations–set up a compound outside of the city limits, although Mrs. Reardon had been raised and schooled in the O’Loughlin’s parish, and had clearly married up and out. She pretended not to know the family of three living in the first floor of the Academy Avenue tenement, but she’d grown up only one street north, where people were starting to buy their own “dinky” little houses.

            Who do they think they are? Bernadette’s giant sister, Anne, had asked their mother, careful not to let the ferocious baby sister overhear–the tongue she had on her cut like a knife.

            Still, they were sorry to lose Bernadette, the beauty of the family, pearl-skinned, or even whiter than that, with eyes like aquamarines and jet-black hair.

            Yes, that was right, he thought, right at the time when she was twenty-four, but now? Hair dyed a rusty brown with white at the scalp, aquamarines bubbling behind thick glasses, pearl skin still pearl, but too much of it puddling and folding and lapping off the frail bones, bones ready to break if you looked at them sideways. And the giant was the real mate, the life partner, once the old lady passed on, the only one he really liked, and who called him (tears came to his eyes) Sonny Boy. He couldn’t get started until he wiped his eyes, leaving his home behind and a bottomless pit of debt, because she’d filled it with doodads and “refreshed” (her word) the furniture, appliances, colors, and carpet every two years or less because, like her mother, that’s what she lived to do.

            Now, damn it to hell, he’d waited too long, dilly-dallying with his grief, his feelings, so long bruised, massacred really, and now they’d piled into the back seat, where he’d failed to lock one side. In they were. “Where are you taking us, Daddy?” the pearl said, setting the child to roar with ear-splitting laughter.

            But out they popped, “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” slamming the door, and kicking the tires, and off he went, blubbering away to his heart’s content, but not so blind as to catch them gaping and to thumb his nose.

            Where was he going? Where did he have to go? It was too early to spring himself on the family of Anna Maria, nineteen, and secretary at his firm. Today was Sunday, so where else would she be but church, followed by the big Italian feed that lasted until uncles and aunts and roly-poly kids were stunned (or drunk on the homemade wine) in their stifling dining room, filled to the gills with Tamburinos, Del Guidices, and Tagliatellas (three generations with extensions). What was he thinking of? Was he nuts? His own Mum and Pup were deceased, and brother Raymond up in Canada with the Canuck he’d married. Uncle Joe and Aunt Katherine were his only local kin, and they had a room even more stifling, a parlor where everything was dedicated to the Pennsy, where Uncle Joe’d made his fortune, or to the dead son, Charlie–his rocking chair, boxing gloves, a million framed snapshots of every stage of his life, his chalice and diplomas, his rosary beads and scapulars–you name it–his baptismal certificate, and baby clothes, all gathering dust. No, he wasn’t setting foot in that mausoleum. Why was it that everyone he knew was out of their minds?

            He stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts to collect his thoughts with a decaf and a cruller, a triple orange juice and a glass of milk.

            He was nice looking, wasn’t he? Not a hunk exactly, but decent, comely. How would he describe himself? Fit for life, tall, a little weedy because of all that growth in one year when he was a senior in high school and worked the golf course for three solid years to buy himself an MG, turquoise blue, a honey. His dad liked to drive it, and drove it into the side of the garage coming home one winter night, stinking, as the pearl would say. Broken axle, totaled. He must have cried for a week, and never after that had a civil word for his lout of a father, until that sweet day when the business was signed over to him and Raymond, who wanted none of it. Why were his hands shaking? Why, damn it, did he have to take everything so personally? Maybe he was a baby, as the pearl liked to say. His mother had babied him, baby boy. He was the favorite, although he came second. Raymond never really belonged to the family. Something was wrong with him. Everyone knew this, but no one would say. Was he a loser? If you started with Raymond, star student, ace at every sport he took up, handsome as the day was long, where would you end up but by condemning everyone? And yet, he was a loser and Danny wasn’t, not yet anyway. Things were going well downtown, and the K of C had nominated him to officer class, he was a Knight with the full rig, and had paid for a stained-glass window in the new church. That made him feel good, so he had another cruller, but refused to dunk it, as the pearl liked to do, in his decaf. Still too hot to drink. Question was: Where was he going to now?

            It was a bright, humid, scorching summer day, and he decided that minute, struggling with the indigestion from the two greasy tubes, to drive to the beach, which beach he still didn’t know. Let it be a surprise! Did he have his swim trunks? No, but he was wearing seersucker shorts, just as good.

            And yet who would go down to the beach on such a hideous and tragic day? Was he crazy? Maybe. No–yes, he was, they’d driven him nuts.

“They” were sitting at the kitchen table over eggs and bacon, and the pearl (as he called her and the name stuck, even to the pearl herself, who liked to pick her own words) was stunned into silence, so the gal, Judy, six years old, babbled away. She was–or could be–her mother’s mouthpiece, and was abusing Dad-Dan, as they called him, or Dan-Dad, or sometimes Dingdong. Still, the pearl felt ravaged, as if the bastard had left with a bagful of her insides: heart, lungs, stomach, and the tubing that went with them. And now she was coughing her lungs out, and the gal came over to pound her on the back. “Enough,” said the pearl to the miracle baby, named after St. Jude, patron of impossible dreams, as the child had been in those years of nonconception, trying, trying, and trying. The dingdong was low sperm count, no doubt, but the pearl was inlaid with polyps and fibroids like dozens of baby seeds, but no, they weren’t. Praying to St. Jude was one thing, but having the dozens removed was the ticket. The pearl didn’t like to visualize the “growths,” or how they were extracted, and it was painful, too, and what was there to do in the thereafter but take it out on the dingdong–Danny, he was then. Pregnancy, when the miracle happened after a set of novenas (endless and tedious), doubled and tripled by the big sister and mother–they wore their knees out, but it worked–was no joke. The pearl lost twenty pounds throwing up every morning, and surviving on weak tea and Saltines until she suddenly blew up like a balloon halfway through. Big and bigger, and she could eat anything she wanted, with a little white wine and a pint of ice cream after dinner. Danny exploded, too, and they were roly-poly together, when the fat baby came out. A thrill that day was. She’d hoped for a boy, but Judy was very boyish, so it worked out, and in a sense she got both.

            Just think of it, and they did, and slopped around the whole morning until they had to dress for church, the last and longest mass of the day in the stifling church, with fans blowing the hair onto their sticky faces. But go they did, mother and daughter, smiles on their pusses, as if all were well in the world.

            That’s how the day slowly unwound.

Dan kept a folding chair in the Caddy trunk with his clubs and gym bag, so he unfolded it to sit on the rocks at Beavertail Point in Jamestown, his favorite place on earth, to let the ocean breeze whip away his troubles, but the cure didn’t quite work, or not right away. He fell asleep in the chair, while the sky turned white, gray, then black, cloud upon cloud for the thundery zap that woke him and nearly knocked him over, Whoa, Nelly! he said, folding and racing, but not avoiding the cloudburst.

            As the day wore on toward noon, the list of particulars was harder to assemble, but try he did. Sitting in the car, watching the sea riddled with rain and its own agitation. One thing: she despised him, by her own word, but he could also tell by the faces and groans and tsks, and the way she dressed herself at home, so different from a gallivant. He’d studied it, the contrast, but when it had started, he couldn’t say. They’d celebrated their tenth anniversary with a jaunt to New York, and she ran him off his feet. Where did the energy come from? Uptown, downtown, east and west by cab, train, and on foot. She came home with some classy dresses, shoes, and a suit, but did he ever see them again? They were being saved, conserved for that special occasion that usually had a connection to the church–weddings, funerals, First Fridays, bishop’s tea, cocktail benefits for the diocese. The fancy togs would come out of their plastic, and with the help of the hairdresser, a nail job, and control panties and stockings, with a push-up bra, she was stunning, delectable, a magnet for all the slavering males from fifteen to ninety-five, with that mane all blown out, shiny and black as a seal, and the skin whiter than white. His mouth was watering, so he dabbed it with his hankie, and closed his eyes.

            How did it happen? How does anything happen? One of two becomes the boss and the other the butt, but how and when?

            Too hard. She despised him in other ways. Stopped helping him by taking his shirts to the cleaners; she rolled his boxers after years of folding them neatly in four; stopped ironing his polos, just threw them in the dryer. She refused to match his socks. They were in a bundle, and sometimes he couldn’t even wedge open his sock drawer. She bad-mouthed him to the gal, when she was barely old enough to get it. She kicked his shoes so far under the bed he had to rescue them on his belly. His bathroom was cleaned once a month, and theirs every week. He was turned into an island, but she didn’t–thank God–manage the money. He closed his eyes tighter to face the facts. Yes, she did. She managed everything. She invested their savings, and paid all the bills. She decided how much of a salary he should pay himself. She was the banker. His pocket money was tied to performance, conduct, attitude, and who knew what else.

            He’d managed, though, to re-insert himself in the flow of cash. There was a moment not more than a year ago, when it became possible. She was in the hospital with a strange bug and signed a few essential papers. It humbled her to be dependent on him for a change, during a long convalescence. Things could have changed then, but didn’t. Why?

            It wasn’t because, as she said, he had no guts. He had everything he needed, and then some. The idea of lacking something made his stomach growl, and it was time to go.

They crept around the house that morning, and hot as hell it was, so they crept around with the AC cranked up to require gloves and a hat, and made them dress all wrong for church–summer suit for the pearl, yellow taffeta over a stick-out slip for the gal, and church with nothing but a few stand-up fans, and the doors open to the flies and gnats floating in on the humid waves. They stuck to the varnished pews, and the gal lost her way returning from the communion rail, making the pearl step over a million feet to rescue her on the church steps, panting and ready to bawl. Instead of returning, they went home–their sins would be forgiven by the priest, who always recognized the pearl’s voice, husky and so superior, and the child to follow, and let them off with a trio of Hail Marys, and a Glory Be for good measure. Most of the pearl’s offenses were attributed to “him,: and Father McGovern’s ear was tuned to pick up the name of that poor sucker. Never in his wildest dreams would he guess it to be that sport, Dan Reardon, pillar of the church and an easy touch. And yet the thought had crossed his mind.

            What did he know about marriage except for what he heard on a Saturday afternoon in the box? What did he know? Plenty, and the fathers had a laugh at supper over a six-pack or two, when the monsignor was visiting his old mother. With what he saw, laying the communion wafers on those sometimes stomach-turning tongues, he felt his vocation to be the life-saving measure his old man assured him it was.

            And Mrs. Reardon, whose crackling voice he knew so well, was a looker, too, or could be if she lost a few pounds. There was a crack in the velvet curtains he sat behind, and look he did, every time–how could you not? Nice ass, which he eyed but didn’t name for fear of having to itemize in his own monthly confession to the bull dog of a monsignor.

            And what were they going to do on this fiery Fourth of July? Well, at least they had a car, and the better of the two, the Volvo wagon, an import, and something not everyone had. In their neighborhood, Slater Hill, it was mostly cheap American cars, vans, wagons, and compacts, but she knew the value of the Volvo in the eyes of the fluty dames of the garden club, the gents of the hospital board, and the headmistress at Sacred Heart Academy. The car even raised an eyebrow in the old neighborhood. They knew–don’t think they didn’t–what a Volvo was, and where it came from, and just exactly how far out of reach it was to the schoolteachers, firemen, and crossing guards.

            “Shall we go for a spin?” she said to the gal, lying on the couch to recover from the heat, peeling the layers of starched slip and taffeta ruffles from her overheated and chunky little body. The sky darkened to pitch, and then the storm broke. They watched it, sitting on the couch eating chips and onion drip, a Sunday favorite, while they talked back to Meet the Press.

Did he love these creatures? He could picture what they were doing, lazing around after mass, eating coffeecake or blueberry muffins, feeling free and easy, without the “heavy” ordering them around. Did he order them around?

            If he could get a word in edgewise, and they had ears to hear. He hid behind his three Sunday papers (Boston, New York, and Providence), which he read cover to cover. You had to, to do business, but he’d always liked to read, to soak for an entire day in the pain and trouble and mischief of the world, and who was doing what to whom, and why. It was a relief to see how bad things were everywhere else, a comfort and a distraction, and they begrudged him that, vacuuming under his feet (servile work! he said), turning the TV up. If he got up for a beer or a leak, one of them was on the chair, tearing apart the neatly stacked and sorted sections of Times, Journal, and Globe, looking for the funnies, the women’s page, or Yankee Trader. It killed him, it took him precious quiet time (he had about an hour three times a day, when a feed slowed them down), and felt something, seeing the jumble there on the carpet, close to despair.

            But he was free now, wasn’t he? And did he appreciate it? A dry laugh reminded him that he knew them so well, he could turn on himself with their loud voices and cutting tone.

            Could he sit there all day, twiddling his thumbs? The ocean was sparkling under the cleaned-up sky and diamond-pure sun. It was a perfect day, now that the coolness and dryness had returned, as it often did, just at the moment when you couldn’t take it anymore. He sighed, and decided to take a nap on the back seat. Once there, with all the doors locked, he started to cry. Was it for joy or sorrow? Who could tell.

Meanwhile, bored with each other’s company because they were two peas in a pod, the pearl suggested again a Sunday drive to the country, but the gal shook her head no. It wasn’t apple season and she was too stuffed with chips to want an ice cream just yet, so why not drive down to the beach? Too far, too much traffic, the gal said herself, chiming with the mother, and they both laughed. If not to the beach, why not to Jamestown, and stay for the fireworks? Imagine doing it, just the two of them, with wall-to-wall families, but people didn’t know them there, so no scandal, and why not? It was a free country. The pearl had hardly completed her thought when the gal tore upstairs to strip off the glad rags and squeeze herself into her two-piece suit, new but already a little tight. She had a muumuu to throw over it, flip-flops and a towel, and meeting on the stairway, to get pail and shovel, heard, “We’re not going to the beach!,” but too late. The gal folded up her little beach chair and her ma’s beach chair, and threw it all in the “way back” of the wagon, settling herself in the front, but jumping out again for the hats, the cooler and ice packs and a raid on the fridge for soda, beer, cherries, chips, and the dip. Back she went, installing her panting self in the front to cool her heels, waiting for the pearl, who was on the phone.

            It was Anne, which meant she’d be there until her ears started to ring. “Not now,” the pearl said.

            “Is this a bad time? Is he there?”

            The pearl didn’t know what to say, but yes seemed to cover it for now.

            The elder sister was having a new set of pains and constrictions, and it helped, she said, just to talk about it, because she couldn’t call the doctor on a Sunday. She could, but sometimes he didn’t answer, and his wife’s acid tone and gift for gossip had more than once forced the big sister to hang up. Did Bernadette think she should walk over to the emergency room, or just wait and see if it got worse? The pearl barely heard this, as she really took in the mess he’d made in their bedroom. Drawers spilling out their socks and underwear was the least of it, and did he expect her to clean up after him? In a pig’s neck, she said to Anne.

            “What?”

            She was sorry to say that she had no advice. Yes, the big sister could toddle over, as she usually did, to sit all day in the ER of St. Vincent’s, two blocks away from the old house, and then be sent home, as she was 90 percent of the time, or admitted 1 percent, or referred out. Or she could stay home and see what happened next.

            “You don’t believe me.”

            “Oh, I believe you, but Judy’s waiting for me in the car. She’s going to a friend’s to see the parade.”

            “Really?”

            “Yes.”

            “Would you mind if I came along? It’s a long day for me, here without Mumma, and I’ll treat you both to a sundae bye and bye.”

            The pearl had to think and think fast. “I’m not going to the parade. I’m just dropping her off. Dan is flying out to some convention, and I’ve got to take him to the airport.”

            “Oh, too bad.”

            “Sorry.”

            “Can’t be helped.”

            “Do you feel a bit better?”

            “Yes, I do.”

            “Well, put your feet up and watch something good on TV. Is there anything good on this afternoon?”

            “I don’t know. Can you hold while I check?”

            “If you’re quick about it.”

            “I don’t know where I left the TV Guide, but I have the Sunday paper somewhere.”

            “Good.”

            “Do you really have to go?”

            “I’m already late.”

            “Okay. Toodle-oo. Call me later, to make sure I’m still alive.”

            “Ha ha,”

            “Say a prayer to St. Jude.”

            “Will do. Good-bye now.”

            “Good-bye, baby girl.”

            “I told you never to call me that.”

            “Sorry.”

            “Okay, last one: Good-bye, Annie Fanny!”

            And the pearl hung up, grinning at her own image in the mirror. She was a stitch, yes, but not everyone appreciated that.

            And that was the gal pounding up the stairs, fit to be tied.

            The pearl slammed the door with her foot, but the child barged right in. “Let’s go!”

            “Hold your horses. I have to change.”

            The gal slumped herself down on the unmade bed and did her own scan. Then she remembered that her daddy was gone, and no one knew where, and in her heart–or stomach–she felt crushed but, thank goodness, not enough to cry. She had her own lovey-dovey life with Daddy Dan, her boyfriend, best friend, pony boy, and husband. Did she love him? And how! She and she alone could get him back, but better not to say just now to Mommy Mom. They fought like cats and dogs, and not all of it was fun to watch. Sometimes the gal threw herself into the fray, picking up whatever was around her (an old doll, a sockball, an apple, the TV remote), hurling it at him, and she had a good arm because he’d trained her to pitch the softball and the hardball, the basketball, volleyball, beach ball, but not the golf ball, not yet. You had to be at least four feet to roam the course, and she was just a little under, but was that a real rule, or just a way to shut her out?

            And here was Mother with a sunhat on and her best shorts and top, with the new sandals the gal had yet to see, but before she could get a word out, the pearl said, “Shake a leg, and get yourself up off that bed, if you want to come with me.”

            And they pounded down the stairs to where the keys and pocketbook were by the phone, which was ringing, but so what! They kept going.

He was in a phone booth, but had no change. Stooge! he said, but not loud enough to rouse the Sunday noon drinkers at the patio bar, hunched over their beers and Bloody Marys. He got a quarter at the bar, dialed his number and let it ring.

            And ring. Okay, he said, and sat at one of the stools.

            And then a coffee with a shot, and a beer to cool his throat. Someone left the paper on the bar and he was halfway through the main sections, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. “Mind if I join you?” the old coot said, hoisting himself onto a barstool, but Dan didn’t want to chat, so he shared his paper, and a beautiful silence set in on a lazy day, although it would heat up later on, when the rocket dogs set off this years’s batch of stars and comets on Prudence.

            He ordered a clam roll and fries, but didn’t feel like eating. His head hurt, and his stomach, he felt feverish and almost about to faint, so he stepped down and made for the Men’s, staggering a little and blinking in the dark. No one was in the restaurant, not even a waiter. No, there was the owner (he knew her slightly) by the window, looking out.

            “Hey,” she said, hearing footsteps, “restaurant’s closed.”

            “Is it? I’m just going to the Men’s.”

            She turned back to the window. Should he talk her up, he wondered, taking a whizz, and cooling his sweaty face with a wet towel. He had to talk to someone, but when he went out, she was gone. An old maid (did they still call them that?) with the savvy to buy a dump and turn it into a nice eatery, with tables under the trees and an awning over the bar. And she was a good cook, too, and ran a tight ship. She’d gone to school, a snooty place on the bay, with his cousin, all girls. Would she remember him?

            But no one, it seemed, would give him the time of day, not on this day, when he looked like such a sad sack, to judge from what the mirror threw back–unshaven, greasy hair, bloodshot eyes. Someone needed to give him a good kick in the ass, but where was she, and would she care enough to do it? He knew in his heart that the pearl didn’t give a damn whether he lived or died. She was a self-perpetuating machine–no batteries needed. Too much personality, his mother had said, and she should know. His own father was shut down, except at work and with his cronies, which is where he spent his time when not tuned in to a baseball game, or playing eighteen holes. “Separate but equal,” where had he picked up that phrase?–it was his father’s solution to any home issue. That one’ll eat you alive, he never said to his second son, but he must have known it.

            He walked across the street to the oyster bar, open all day, and ordered a coffee. What was left for him, he wondered, staring into it, sipping, careful not to burn his tongue. He was a family man, wasn’t he? They said that about all the men in their dumbass state, and really, none of them were. That made him laugh, and the cute barmaid looked up–but just to dismiss him as a mental case. What did it mean, family man? No one said family woman. Was it so hard that you’d get a prize if you did it at all? It was hard, and now–when she looked up again, polishing glasses–he wondered if he were talking out loud. Well, so what if he was. It was a tragedy. She refilled his cup and presented him (unasked) with a glass of ice water with a lemon slice floating in it. Gave him something to do with his hands, trying to submerge it, or fish it out with the straw. He couldn’t even get that right!

            “Feeling okay, buddy?” the cook, or owner, said, appearing at his table.

            “You sell cigarettes here?” he said.

            The cook pointed to the back, where there was a machine under the pay phone; and, no, he wasn’t calling home again, just to hear it ring off the hook.

            “Can’t smoke in here, sir,” said the barmaid.

            He hadn’t even opened the pack. Everyone was on his case, but he was molting, changing his life in one day, and with allergies, asthma, pleurisy, and a gamey heart. And was he going to start smoking? Why not?

The day wore on and the afternoon sun drove the pearl and her gal into the water to ride the waves and dunk each other. He saw them–an unbelievable sight. He’d driven from the main street to the dinky little beach; and, even though, on this scorcher, every inch of sand was covered with a blanket, towel, or the shade of an umbrella, he picked them out–the pearl with her wet mop, and the tyke in her pink bathing cap. He sat on the big chair, when he found their spot, sighting the gaudy blanket brought back from Mexico. He cracked open a beer from their cooler, and took off his shoes and socks. Then he stripped off his shirt, and sat to let the hot sun fry his white and freckled skin.

            “Ma!” the child roared at the sight of him, with one of the sun hats on, but the pearl was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s your mother?”

            The gal pointed to where, yes, she was gassing with the lifeguard. What business did she have with him? Hey, that was no lifeguard, it was Charlie Farrelly, a classmate from Bishop Hendricken. A little old for a guard, but, hey, who’s criticizing.

            “Ma!” the gal tore across the checkerboard of blankets and towels, and a whole row of sunbathers and lunch eaters rose up in wrath at the wet feet and sand flying. Arriving at the high chair, where the pearl gave the gal a good shaking, and he could hear the kid roar over the crashing surf. She slapped her mother–a first–and grabbing his shoes and shirt, Dan slipped away, raced to his car. But the pearl had spotted him. This was it! This was it! The rage–this is what drove him away, he was sure now, when he’d seen it directed at someone other than him, and a minor, to boot.

            Inside the locked car was an inferno, and he got right out. Why did he get out?

            Who can say? To face the music, because the music wasn’t going away, number one; and number two–with the eyes of the beachgoers glued to the scene as it moved to the parking lot–what else did he have but them? They might be, as the Christian Brothers liked to say to the 7th-grade miscreants, the “bottom of the barrel,” but they were all his, weren’t they?

            And here they were with their flushed, rageful faces. Then, seeing them, and they seeing him, they all began to laugh. Was this the end of it? Hell, no, but it’d last till supper and the fireworks, when fatigue, sunburn, itchiness, and the aggravation of a crowd, traffic jam, and the long tedious ride home (leaving the Caddy to pick up tomorrow) would rekindle the fire, move him to wonder why he was there at all.

JEAN McGARRY is author of many novels and fiction collections, including Ocean State (Johns Hopkins University Press) and No Harm Done (Dalkey Archive Press). She is Elliott Coleman Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.


image: Rembrandt, Danaë, 1636, modified by Svetlana Petrova & Zarathustra the Cat  FatCatArt.com