Featured on ArLiJo Issue No. 69-Part I
HOSIAH AND MIKE AND SUKIE WITH HER DAMNED MELON
by Elisavietta Ritchie
Lamb chops in burgundy, oysters, my goats, rum home rum — Lamb chops in burgundy, oysters, my goats, my goats, rum home rum — damn the gunshots — damn the hospital shots — Home rum home — My goats The chant resounded in Hosiah’s head even while Nurse Annie took surgical scissors to his hair, Because, sweetie, your out-dated hippie braid and squirrels’-nest beard sponge up dribbles.
Sukie’s guy, after gashing his biceps on a barn beam he was raising, brought the girl along to Mudville Hospital’s EMERGENCY, where Doc Scoples approximated and stitched together the edges of his ripped dragon tattoos. Doc invited them follow him to the ward where he peeked under Hosiah’s bandages and checked his heart. Captain here beat me swimming to the lighthouse when we were eight, and now I’m ... What the—
Sukie, clutching her Raggedy Andy, was drinking milkshakes from every bed-tray in the ward, disconnecting and reconnecting blinking machines not always to the same tubes.
Captain Ho! Your hair was rusty like Mutt’s, now got white patches like Uncle Mike’s! Where’s your beard? Then, lifting her smock: Wanna see how my watermelon’s growing? Father’s real mad ...
Doc Scoples turned his stethoscope to Sukie belly. Tell her parents—
Can’t tell her parents anything, Doc, Hosiah said. Couldn’t say goddamned parents around Nurse Annie. They threw her out. She’s staying in my cabin, that’s also the old Marina office.
With you here in hospital? Who—
Waldo Green, my partner, or Edna in the doublewide, see she fixes her sandwich, feeds Mutt and the goats, makes the school bus, The driver knows she’s to go to the parenting classes. After school, her guy picks her up, delivers her back. Not on his Harley anymore. When they’d imprisoned me in this hospital, Mutt hid under the cabin where he’d dug a hole. Sukie lured him out with the kibbles for the goats.
I live a block away, Nurse Annie said. Got spare rooms, could board her till time.
When’s time? Hosiah wondered.
Sukie reached into her Mickey Mouse backpack, and pulled out a pear. Hospital food pureed, either tasteless or over-salted, Hosiah yearned for, among other real food, fresh fruit. Nurses ground pills into applesauce, while discussing elderly losing sense of smell. Nonsense, though not a bad thing as hospital smells nasty. He could smell, his pear was ripe, fragrant.
No fruit, Ho, from the doorway Doc interrupted. Nothing from sea, land or air.
Sukie nibbled the pear. Salty ... Then, Doc gone and Nurse Annie making the next bed in the ward, she held it out. Slightly briny as roots soaked up storm tides, but, delicious! —Hosiah finished it as a policeman entered.
Excuse me, sir, need information about the shooting accident.
No accident, officer, Hosiah said. Someone shot me on purpose ... Hey, weren’t you the Benton’s kid, Tommy, crabbing off my Marina? And borrowing my cokes?
Captain Hosiah! Years ago . . . And I fell off riding your billy goat ... Okay, just a minute, I’ll bring you another coke from the machine down the hall— He vanished, and two minutes later reappeared, snapping open the tab.
Thanks, Tommy. Hosiah sipped it, though he would have preferred a can of beer.
Now, sir, about the ... shooting?
Like this ... End of season, Waldo and I are hauling peoples’ yachts into the barn for winter. Working boats like my MARIANNE stay afloat — and I’m repairing that antique brigantine for the museum, sanding sterncastle, caulking quarterdeck. Museum folk want old-fashioned tools, so work’s slow ... I shimmy up the foremast. Next scaffold over, Waldo’s scraping Mike’s old oyster boat EDNA MAE, getting her ready to sell. Sukie, big as a spinnaker, waddles into the boatyard shouting, Womb-Doc’s machine says I’m getting a baby! A boy!
No idea where Sukie got womb-doc. Hardly knows what a womb is. I remember trying to explain about birds-and-bees, the example my pregnant goat, great-great-granddaughter of that pregnant nanny Mike and I, just home from Nam and putting away beers at the fair, we plunked down cash for. Time we sobered up, the nanny’d chewed our wallets, the farmer’d disappeared ... Sukie’s now plump as my nanny goat — isn’t that what Marianne my ex- would call meta-something, or smile? Anyway, up the foremast I’m thinking, girl’s maybe slow, but it’s true what they say about pregnant women — not myself made any pregnant — they’re downright beautiful.
The officer studied Sukie singing lullabies to her doll, And she carries a tune ... He checked his watch. Sukie’s guy checked his. Nurse Annie scribbled her address.
About the accident, sir—
No accident! Bullet from somewhere hits here. Waldo heard a vehicle zoom away. I fell on that busty-mermaid bowsprit, she rips my stomach. I’m sprawled in the sand, under caulking cans. Brig’s loose dinghy slips off, falls, crushes my right leg. Sukie’s crying my trousers are bloody— Does this happen to men too? Or have you died? Maybe I should have right then ...
Waldo yanks off the dinghy, runs in the cabin-office, dials and redials 911. Busy ... He revs up my pickup, lifts me onto the flatbed. He left out the fact that Waldo’s license was suspended, DUI. Waldo speeds us to Mudville, Sukie crying in the cab, me flat out astern, Mutt chasing after till Waldo brakes, Mutt jumps aboard. ER nurses said I shoulda waited for the ambulance— Laid out on a grubby truck, mongrel licking your—Crazy. ’Cheaper’n ambulances, I answered.
From ER to MRI, they injected something burning, must’ve been acid, between my hand bones, slid me into a lighted coffin, supposedly photographed inside me, jackhammers pounding worse than shrapnel in Nam. One deep bang to the right ear, high screeches on the left, or was it inside my skull, screech pop bang, and you weren’t allowed to twitch. Marianne once showed me a painting of sinners-in-Hades, jolly little devils, she called them, but what Hell must be. Painter’s name something like Harry or Jerry Bash.
No idea who shot you?
Waldo saw only — what’s last over a fence.
Would you remember better, sir, at home — You will be going home?
To real food, real booze!
Nurse Annie reappeared, scowled at the half-empty coke can but the officer quickly picked it up, draining what was left himself before answering his buzzing cell phone. Hosiah chuckled inwardly at the — was it subversion? collusion? collision? Marianne, or Mike in the old days, would have a word for this — anyway, unlikely as it seemed, one of Mudville’s officers-of-the-so-called-law blessedly was covering up misdemeanors? That was a word he knew.
Sorry, Captain Hosiah, headquarters will be pursuing whatever leads, but now I have to head to a crash — They will contact you, bring forms for you to fill out, the usual procedures —
Captain Hosiah, Nurse Annie scolded, Doc says only Ensure. To wash down your meds. What keeps astronauts and old folks alive.
Astronauts’ gull-shit in a can — my omnivorous goats’ll drink it. Frickin’ meds, the blood of the lamb gonna wash them away! He’d save that for Mike, later, over lamb chops. When Edna had phoned him at the hospital to ask how he was doing, his main worry was whether Waldo and Sukie were feeding his goats right, currying them daily and washing the nanny’s udders, then he admitted craving lamb chops. I’ll get chops, Ho, Edna had promised. And don’t fret about no goats.
Lay down for me, sweetie— Nurse Annie was saying.
You care, honey, whether for you, or for me? If you’d choose to lay or lie with me, damn it, I couldn’t do much anymore ... Marianne corrected people who said lay instead of lie. Which is correct when? And how long before he’d lie or lay in his own bed in the old bootlegger’s house?
Too many stairs there. Better his Marina office-turned-cabin, with its bunk, galley and head salvaged from wrecks, table made from a floated-in door laid atop sawhorses. Hosiah had connected the plumbing to the county’s pipes, Waldo built a ramp for Mike’s wheelchair, and with Mike watching from his corner, they painted walls blue, green or white from the boatyard’s leftover gallons. The door gleamed red with anti-barnacle bottom paint. Sukie finger-painted imperfect but fantastic animals on the wet surfaces, then on herself.
Hosiah was home. Mutt wagged non-stop, stretched across the cast on his master’s left foot, and studied the lamb chops on the filet knife. Soaked in garlic, rosemary, stashed burgundy, these would be the tastiest chops in any dog’s life, or man’s.
Hosiah’s life had been that of landing stripers and snappers, crabs, oysters, the catch sold to CRAB SHACK across the Marina, or the seafood truck for Mudville’s markets. After Marianne’s departure, Hosiah had mostly eaten tinned sardines on Wonder Bread from Mom ’n Pop’s uphill, or when people paid for his MARIANNE to be a head boat to take them fishing, they brought picnic baskets and left food or bait he could use himself, and the gourmet garbage fattened his goats.
Goat, Hosiah’d eaten only when some foolish billy, nanny or kid escaped the pen, got hit on the road like a deer or raccoon, though if he got there in time, it meant venison for dinner. He disliked putting injured critters out of their misery, but then was quick and sure. He’d cut himself enough repairing boats, cleaning fish, fighting wars, so wasn’t freaked out by blood. He’d lay a fire in the pit, rig the spit, invite Mike and Edna from their doublewide, Waldo from beyond the boatyard, even Sukie, a skinny girl who lacked all her marbles and hung around Hosiah’s Marina.
Her preacher-parents say your marina’s full of low life, Edna said.
Not low! Hosiah wheeled his decrepit chair closer to Mike’s. They should come see for themselves.
They call you .... Dirty ... old ... boozer, Mike stammered. Behind him, Edna nodded.
Marianne had chided Hosiah for not looking at his listeners when on his non-stop talking jags, but too hard to look at Mike’s half-paralyzed face, eternally glum.
They’d bottle-problems themselves, Hosiah said. Now saved, busy saving others, making money doing so, they spout virtue. Gotta protect kids, sure, but no low-lifes around my Marina.
Granted, his boatyard sat on low ground, out-of-state low-lifes poached his oyster beds and crab lines. Did one of them shoot him? And Sukie was pregnant but not from any low-life here.
Sukie’s guy lived somewhere around Mudville.
Mudville, Marianne, Hosiah’s ex, had christened the town north of his Marina. Now everyone said Mudville Cinema, Mudville Five —n— Dime, Mudville Purple Turtle — where one night he’d met Marianne, and they drank wedding champagne a month later.
Champagne was sissy stuff, compared with rum, when he could finally get at his flask ... Before tonight ... What he’d do tonight was like killing goats, or gooks. He’d let Mike tell Sukie something like, Ships sail into sunsets. No pussyfooting with Mike himself, though Edna ....
I’ll pour us pink lemonade we brought, she was saying. And protein’ll help you heal. Unaware of Hosiah’s dietary restrictions, when she wheeled Mike up the ramp to the cabin, she’d brought chops for the men’s lunch.
Only this morning installed in the Marina’s cabin-office, he was already entertaining! Lamb chops, no more canned gunk to wash down meds, and real drink soon as Edna left. His cast-iron pan sputtered on the potbellied stove beside the salvaged sink-and-fridge. So, Mike, let’s celebrate. I’m home, and bunking here till ....
Till what? Edna unbuttoned her pink raincoat.
Till I cash in my chips, honey, fold my cards.
Chips! Cards! Sinful waste of time and money, Edna snorted.
He’d not admit launching nightly poker games in the men’s ward. An orderly, who confessed his desire to visit Vegas, rolled beds and wheelchairs around a table, and couriered for those unable to reach cards and chips. Damn good rehab, might’ve kept some of the guys from popping off any sooner.
Edna started sneezing. Your cabin’s maybe clean enough for you, but —
He kept his cabin-office plenty shipshape! Nobody dusted but who cares? Good county dirt never bothered Mike either. The orphaned baby goats he’d raised in the cabin still followed him around and were almost housebroken. He expected them to welcome him, but the day being muggy, they could still be sleeping. And he was still working up energy to go outdoors the minute Edna departed and he could fortify himself for an excursion, and subsequent activities.
The day of Hosiah’s accident, Mike was in the VA hospital for more procedures which didn’t seem to have helped much. Edna had told Mike only, Hosiah’s away. Probably at boat shows and buying marine gear. But Mike would understand Hosiah’s decisions. Bleeding in the FIRST AID tent that night in Nam, Mike said, When the work you love, doing whatever some god up there or devil below set you down here for, beside a patch of water everyone grew up around, but no longer can you work or screw — You do as they do here, Viet-Cong style. And he’d drawn an invisible knife across his throat, and groped for the scalpel on a nearby towel. Hosiah, who had carried him to the tent, quickly slipped the scalpel into the medic’s olive green bag, and talked Mike into staying alive, Back stateside, except for bad eyesight, Mike functioned well enough.
Since his stroke, Mike couldn’t slice butter. Edna now chopped up his meals, bathed him, doled out his meds, on good days wheeled him to the seawall to fish, all with the same protective ardor as she’d brought raincoats today: though this dawn began rosy and an untrustworthy sun appeared for a while, the day was strangely humid, and the television’s weatherman warned storm.
Through the cabin windows he noted peculiar platinum sheen on the waves, gulls flying inland, calculated the height of the tide. You stare at that water, Marianne once observed, as if you expected Neptune himself to poke his head out of the waves, or a mermaid. Hosiah needed no meteorologists: today his knees ached, and from the Marina’s flagpoles, two limp red pennants flapped, and Waldo was raising red squares with black centers: Small craft warning.
I oughtta be out checking those hawsers.
Mike’s milky eyes focused on Hosiah’s wheelchair, bandages, leg cast. Something ... wrong?
You can’t see much of the sea, nor me, but I’m now in the same boat as you: half stove-in, leaky hull, unseaworthy. Happened while I was up a mast and Sukie walked into the Marina with her belly like a sail bag.
Before he could talk about the various follow-ups by detectives who had gone down to the Marina to check out the crime scene, Mike interrupted with the same questions as months before: How ... did you ... and Sukie ...?
Did Mike really not remember? ... Might meds erode Hosiah’s own memory next?
Before Sukie appeared, five years ago, Hosiah related for the fifth time, but he never minded retelling stories, I dreamt being in a field, looking up, and m’God, this bundle drops from the sky. Like frogs you read about raining from clouds. Like shrapnel ... I searched my dream for a plane. Could someone fall from the jet trails crisscrossing the sky, those giant tic-tac-toe games gods play? Shouldn’t I duck? The bundle tumbled onto me. Wasn’t heavy, but limbs jutted out at angles like that Raggedy Andy. I’d fallen, Mutt, a puppy then, was licking my face, and I was clutching a blanket ... Happened night before Sukie appeared.
Pro-phe-tic, Mike stammered. Om-en of S-s-sukie and you.
Nothing ominous about her and me, Hosiah assured him again. The day after that — maybe, yeah, prophetic — dream, five years ago, Sukie, wearing a sequined peach tee-shirt and tattered shorts, showed up at the Marina with a spaniel dirty-blond as herself. Can’t go home, she bawled, They’ll punish me for blood in my pants! Will I die?
She was ten or eleven, not quite sure. Her preacher-parents had just bought the farmhouse uphill, Hosiah escorted her back up the road: nobody home. Yachters and fish boats out all afternoon, Marianne working in her real estate office in Mudville, Edna replenishing craft supplies at Mudville Five-n-Dime, only goats and gulls around, Hosiah, a graybeard who’d never had children, sure-as-hell didn’t want any, had delivered the birds-and-bees lecture.
More interested in his horny goats than in lascivious birds, or bees to which she thought herself allergic, Sukie ran onto the sickle of beach and into the inlet with her spaniel, Mutt, and a kid who wasn’t sure swimming was for him. All emerged cleaner until they rolled in the muddy sand. They ran in again. Blood washed away, tears forgotten, Sukie led his most docile nanny on a rope up the hill, with Hosiah, Mutt and spaniel trotting in her wake.
Late! Late again! Grim as gargoyles her parents yelled, Git indoors! Wash!
Can Nanny sleep in my closet, Ma? She’s real sweet!
You cannot keep that filthy creature!
I keep my goats clean, Ma’am, Hosiah protested. He washed the nanny goats’ udders so no dirt ever dropped in the pail.
Sukie later told Hosiah her father whacked her ears till they bled, then hosed them out with ice water to cleanse my soul.
Like a stray kitten begging protection, feed it once, yours forever, Sukie kept returning to Hosiah’s Marina with her spaniel, and after God took him, alone. Hosiah would hardly have tied up the MARIANNE, sold his catch, scribbled in the ledger, stashed whatever cash in a pocket to take to the bank on the morrow, than she’d appear on his cabin-office porch begging to paint boats or groom goats. He didn’t invite her inside: with his wide bunk and double-wide reputation, though he couldn’t do much anymore, her Born-Again parents would summon the sheriff. Hosiah stuck to coffee in her presence, handing her a jelly glass of goat milk on the cabin-office steps. She’d rummage in the outside bin for kibbles to feed goats, cats, dogs, sometimes herself. After she headed home, he’d uncork, unscrew or snap open some yachtsman’s leftover bottle, or what he’d had to buy himself. Winter nights he might splash rum into a mug of goat milk and warm it so he’d sleep better.
Over several years Hosiah began to notice an increasing number of purple bruises on Sukie’s fair skin, as on his mother’s before she died in Mudville’s Golden Years Home. The Special Ed teachers suspected child abuse, but no preacher would harm anyone. The principal finally called Social Services. An official knocked at the farmhouse.
Dumb girl keeps bumping into things, falling downstairs, the preacher said. Never looks where she’ going. Breaks things, makes a mess. Satan punishes her naughtiness. Not right in the head either. Forms signed, the official gone, her father beat Sukie for causing them trouble.
This spring Sukie told Hosiah, though he only half-believed her, that whenever her mother was out, her father wrestled her down. Father keeps saying God, oh God and maybe he is, but he’s real big and hurts.
The beatings sure-as-hell what made her nutty, Hosiah said.
So baby mightn’t ... inherit .... Mike said.
Might pop out bright like kids on TV, born reading. Hosiah sympathized with Sukie’s learning problems more than anyone knew. Thanks to what his teachers had labeled an exceptional memory, despite what he’d heard was now called disslecksia or some such fancy term, he’d faked it through elementary school. Finally in time he could read who had boats or gear to sell, calculate who owed what.
So he would come up with just another story to tell Sukie ... With her, stories were always new. She needed help with the same homework daily. Hosiah surprised himself recalling arithmetic. Mike, schooled longer, remembered better, until he began forgetting.
Look at Mutt, Mike, Hosiah said. Broad chest, solid stance of his Chesapeake Bay retriever sire, rusty coat and friendliness from his Irish setter dam — Real dog, unlike Marianne’s toy pouzer what yipped, nipped, shed, shat, ate fancy food ... Unlike us, he still runs good ... Our lamb chops’ll need ketchup.
Groping in the cabinet, he touched not ketchup but a better flat bottle, one scraped alabaster by decades of tossing on beach pebbles. In hospital, he’d missed goat milk, which he knew was healthier than Ensure or those pureed green beans, but he downright craved that sea-glass flask. And rum was healthier yet. Waldo had brought the flask to the hospital but caught trying to sneak it past the nurses, drank it himself, refilled and returned it in Hosiah’s cabinet as a welcome home present.
This morning, Hosiah now recounted to Mike and Edna, the ambulance crew, Daisy and Oscar, wheeled the gurney up the ramp and into the cabin. Last July Fourth, Daisy’s uncle had chartered the MARIANNE: six passengers plus Daisy and himself, six hours’ good fishing even with the fireworks, $600. And they’d left him a six-pack aboard. You remember good deeds, Hosiah said.
Where’s the hospital bed, Captain Hosiah? Daisy nudged the Marina’s tiger cats out of the way. I thought you’d a wife or something who’d’a ordered one? Wheelchair? Rentals’ number’s on this brochure.
My bunk’ll do fine. M’daddy’s wheelchair’s in the shed. I’ll fetch—
Wait, Cap’n Ho, we’ll fetch everything.
Strange, stuff you inherited, shoulda ditched, from sentiment stowed under tarps, one day yourself needed. Oscar wiped away the spider webs. From the ambulance they brought — Nothing he’d ever touch: vials of pills and bottles of clear liquid, bedpan (could become Mutt’s new water bowl), orange slipper-socks nobody could slip over casts, one week’s supply of Ensures — Was he expected to live only a week? He’d take care of things first, let the devil and his goats drink the Ensures. Or Sukie.
As if on cue, Sukie’d appeared, having skipped school again. While the ambulance crew was filling out paperwork, she drank two Ensures. The cats lapped at what she poured in a dish.
Aren’t you staying at Nurse Annie’s in Mudville? Hosiah asked her.
Could drive you there— Daisy volunteered. Thrilled to ride in an ambulance, Sukie gathered her other smock and other wide jeans, Hairbrush? Toothbrush? Daisy reminded her as she was scrubbing seven jelly glasses, and measured morphine.
That’s enough to tranquilize Neptune.
Tomorrow’s visiting nurse’ll fix the next batch, Captain Hosiah ... Storms due, surprised they dismissed you.
I’ve weathered hurricanes, m’dear.
More important, the sea-glass trophy held rum good as the Jamaican rum in that buried crate. During Prohibition, as the story went, the late Marina owner ran liquor from the Islands to Baltimore for the politicians, maybe stashed some underground for his own use. In 1929 the Mafia rubbed him out in Miami. Generations later, the bootlegger’s descendents bought Mudville’s warehouse for The Purple Turtle, and sold Hosiah the ramshackle Marina and, beneath the oak, the clapboard house. Marianne wanted Swedish modern, so Edna furnished the doublewide with the walnut armoires, four-poster, and two red plush Lazy-Boys she covered with her crocheted antimacassars.
Hosiah, Waldo, and Mike then in better days, had righted collapsed piers, repaired the fish-cleaning shed still glistening with scales, and shored up the disintegrating boat barn, leaving owls in residence and swallows’ nests mud-glued underneath eaves. As if reward for their work, they harvested the mussels clinging to algaed pilings, and netted the blue crabs, big jimmies. Hosiah posted ads and boaters flocked for berths and buoys. Since childhood he had considered motor boats stink-pots and honey-barges still true, their fumes still stank up the air, but their owners paid on time. Hosiah’s Marina prospered.
Digging holes for new fencing to better corral his growing gaggle of goats — he refused to nicker the newborn kids, let the billies grow up and enjoy siring more generations — as an even greater reward their labors, Hosiah’s post-hole digger had struck that crumbling crate whose glass bottles of rum remained in fine condition.
Hosiah would in a moment gather his energy to visit the pen up the slope. First, wheeling that unwieldy chair down the ramp, he passed by his end-of-season garden: rampant rosemary, rapacious ragweed, enormous orange cucumbers. At least the goats would eat them.
Next, he inspected the boatyard, strewn with tatters of yellow cop-tape from the detective’s investigations, plus the too common beer bottles, cans, papers, plastic bags. Down the pier, despite Waldo’ s occasional attentions, he could almost see the guano splattering the MARIANNE’s decks, the barnacles glommed onto her red hull ... Storm coming, he must get his Marina shipshape, then try to navigate the slope to feed his goats, check their supply of kibbles, before doing what he had to do.
Suddenly he stopped: who would look after his goats? Three Monarch butterflies clustered on the milkweed grown tall and blossoming pale pink around the goat pen.
But what the hell — Empty! Dirt raked clean except for scattered dead leaves. Not a trace of goat ... Damn damn damn ... Did he not dig the fence posts deep enough — Did they escape because nobody fed them? Sickened and ... passed away? Or somebody stole — Slumping down in his wheelchair, he held his face in his hands and all but wept.
Henceforth Hosiah, like Mike, must dig what Marianne called
No help for it: Marianne was gone. And now The MARIANNE gone. Goats gone. Fish going or moratoriumed. Crabs and oysters scarcer. Summer gone. Whoever fired that bullet, gone. Health gone as Mike’s. Rum soon gone. Damn damn damn. Better that any clutter of possessions also be gone
In Mudville, Edna honey, Hosiah said, if you drive near the hospital and that nurse Annie’s, or happen upon Sukie’s guy somewhere, remind them to drive down tonight. For this TV and some other stuff I won’t be needing. On the way, if you see Waldo, ask has he tonged more— He paused.
Mike rounded his wrinkled lips. Oysters.
Yep. This morning when they drove me home to be deep-sixed in a week, Waldo swung by with the season’s first. First real breakfast I’ve had in weeks. Mutt licked the shells. Hearing his name, Mutt licked Hosiah’s hand. You’ve seen Mutt’s smart, Mike. Sukie sometimes feeds him, sometimes forgets. Waldo’s allergic. I’d like you to have him. Easy maintenance: fresh water in his bowl and he’ll eat leftovers so won’t cost you. When he asks, kick open the door. He’ll fetch your newspaper and look after you like those companion dogs for disabled veterans. Which you and I are, though from an old war nobody wants to remember. No VA gave us dogs.
Mike neck couldn’t nod right, but he bobbed it.
Edna shook her head. No dogs. She skirted Mutt as if garbage or worse, inspected Hosiah’s bandages, realigned jelly glasses. How d’you manage opening oysters, Ho, you so hurt? Allowed them slimy things?
Waldo opened them. Slid down our gullets like — oysters.
Hovering over both wheelchairs, twisting her gray curls, Edna unbuttoned, rebuttoned her raincoat against the storm, whose status the TV kept interrupting football to upgrade. To fill time until she left, Hosiah kept talking. Remember that New Year’s we opened six dozen oysters, but goats escaped, burst inside, slurped our oysters, drank our eggnog, went prancing across the ice?
Can’t keep goats in no pen that won’t hold water, Edna sniffed. Remember the Fourth when fireworks spooked your goats, they escaped, invaded everyone’s gardens? Piebald Billy ate the preacher’s peas, bleated and bloated so bad you slaughtered him, and summer folks phoned 911 about blood in the port.
But the Animal Control inspector certified Hosiah’s goats well-tended, even rented a slip for his speedboat. Then with Hosiah in hospital, someone stole —.
Bullet — brain? Mike’s good hand tapped his skull.
No, here. Not the kind cut out easy. More like buckshot, or shrapnel. Doc thought me asleep when he told Nurse Annie, Our captain here faces worse than a smashed pelvis. Please fill these prescriptions, give him the usual meds and injections, make him comfortable. Social services is locating his sisters or ex-wife to decide whether hospice, or home if caregivers ... Fat chance my ex- or my sisters would care-give me!
Hosiah’s much older sisters had told him even when he was small that they’d read that late babies often have learning problems. Mom was old when you, Hosie, were born, that’s why you’re slow. His sisters attended business school, found proper jobs, married properly, raised families in proper suburbs, timed babies properly, visited his Marina once. Awful primitive ... Marianne’s pretentious, but who’d blame her for leaving?
We heard Marianne visited while you were laid up, Edna said.
She flew in. Nurses reported me asleep, but I overheard her ask them, Won’t Medicare cover hospice for what little time? ... No costly lead-lined coffin, pine’s fine. Untreated wood disintegrates, like bones. She’s damned ecological! But do bones dissolve fast? Next she said, Cremation’s earth-friendliest, cheapest. Could you take his bloodied clothes home to wash? the nurses asked. She hesitated but with thumb and forefinger picked up the plastic bag ... She must’ve dumped it at Mudville Laundromat, she saw our old lawyer, picked up the clothes and returned them, then flew home.
Burning’s out, ladies. No deep-digging me in, either—clausto-whatever cooped up ... Meantime, no family’s gonna care-give me or clean up afterward. I sure as hell won’t hang on in hospices half-crocked on pills. But as I’ve taught Waldo, leave everything shipshape....
Hosiah seared the chops in the skillet. I’m managing fine on my own—Look! From this wheelchair, I reach coal for the potbelly, strike Lucifers through the dust, grease the skillet .... Give this to Sukie too.
Give that dumb girl this good skillet? Edna grasped it with a frayed gray towel. She’d burn holes through cast iron. No wonder the school put her in Special Ed, can’t even spell her name. She comes to me crying, can’t understand why her mother screamed whore! and locked her out. You’da thought they’da taught her certain facts-of-life.
Her folks are ornery, Hosiah agreed. But Susannah Kellingwood Underton is a gulletful. What songs Mike in good years taught her, she remembers, and commercials. Like Marianne memorizing poems — she’d recite one, in our so-called courting days, about going down to the sea in ships. Overland? ...
You can’t never forget the sea. In hospital I wondered would I see oceans again ....
Mike hummed, mumbled something about mare and dayboosi.
You kin thank us church ladies and the angels for praying you home, Ho, Edna was saying We’ll shop for you, like you’d give us by-catch ... Should you be eating real food?
Realer the better! What pretty prayer’s gonna protect against real bullets? As for angels! Those old days, grown men saw winged things in clouds, read omens in guts, heaped sins on a goat — whimsy gods explained everything. Thunderclouds above my Marina today, no angels in sight, goats stolen, my entrails in knots no sailor could break, gods dealt me a Queen of Spades, and the vestal virgin ain’t virgin anymore.
Watch you don’t burn them chops, Ho!
Don’t Ho him, Sugar. Mike’s half-white eyes darted from Hosiah to Edna. Remember, Nam ... freaked him out.
S’okay,- Hosiah said. Nothing matters, no more. Always were, will be, wars driving men nuts, though in our war, few mentioned what Marianne called discombobulation of the brain.
Marianne loved big words, Edna said.
Hosiah sensed she was glad Marianne was ex, though the two had agreed on Ho’s dirty goats and those men should curb their words when ladies present. But he’d kept his goats clean, and damn, like other useful four-letter words, was everyday man-talk.
He handed Edna his knife.When you cut up Mike’s chop small, I’d appreciate you cutting mine too. Not like the hospital’s purees, though — Lost 20 pounds. You’re lucky, Mike, Edna feeds you good. Edna Mae: good woman, good boat.
Before Mike’s stroke, he and Hosiah had repaired the SHIT SHAPE, a third-hand Doral runabout left for repairs and never reclaimed. They scraped barnacles, fixed the engine, Sukie painted the hull blue. Mike was happy with it. Edna remained too mortified to step aboard until, ignoring superstitions against renaming boats, they rechristened her EDNA MAE. Hosiah in his MARIANNE led their flotilla between channel markers, while in his wake Mike steered the EDNA MAE and sang what Edna called his bare toney aires, Edna and Sukie trolled for stripers.
Last Hosiah’d seen the EDNA MAE, guano covered her decks, barnacles her hull, crabs and fish nuzzled the seaweed. Shame the new owners neglect her, don’t know shipshape from— Sheep shit almost slipped out.
Here’s your chops, fine as hamburger.
Thanks, Edna ... You can leave us alone, honey, we can’t run off anywhere.
Good you’re running no more boats to drink on ... You’d run bad as Mike, Ho.
Ummmm. Mike and I are now like those geezers at Mom -n- Pop’s. They remember the Korean War ... .Locals or striped-shirt summer geezers, they play cards, talk sports, stocks-on-the-dock, don’t entertain new ideas. Forever arguing there ain’t been anyone good since Ted Williams or Connie Mack or di Maggio.
I gotta run before it rains. Edna buttoned her raincoat. Bought a cell phone, you’ve your land line, we’ll touch base. She straightened Mike in his wheelchair, smoothed sleeves over his wrinkled arms, and, moving jelly glasses aside, for the third time wiped the galley sink and counter. They’d been plenty clean enough for Hosiah, but even at home, Edna washed everything thrice over, including Mike whether he needed it or not. Edna arranged yet another plaid shirt over him, then his raincoat. Bye-bye baby, don’t talk too much ... Ho, you’d be lucky to get two words outta my old codger today.
We’ve gotten each other’s words out for fifty years, honey. We enlisted together, raised hell together, shipped out, met up, fought and bitched together. When that mine exploded in Nam, I lugged him to FIRST AID. He’s picked me up when I’ve — Both now — yeah, codgers — we retell codger tales, bore you.
’Course not, Edna protested, though Hosiah knew her a godly woman who’d swallow sea serpents rather than speak evil.
Sorry you can’t stay, honey, Hosiah said. Caretakers need time-out. Hospital nurses take breaks whenever everyone’s buzzing to wake the dead.
You need nurses here, Ho. You think you can cook. How you gonna bathe, shave?
My beard’ll return. Can bathe myself, just haven’t tried yet. Bathing a simple matter: if sweaty and fishy, he’d dive overboard, run the Marina’s outdoor shower. For winters, the big house of course had bathrooms, but of course he couldn’t get there. Now in the cabin, sponge baths in the galley sink would suffice. If he stank of hospital, he’d soon take care of unsightly looks and smells for good. Only a matter of navigating the damn wheelchair.
Meanwhile, he’d locate that rum. A man needs liquid to wash down supper, right, Mike? Our daddies set the example.
Both born near Mudville, Mike’s family moved inland for him to attend a better high school and a nearby music academy. By chance meeting again before signing up for Vietnam, they encountered each other during the war, once more becoming buddies. When after Mike’s injury and Hosiah rescuing him, when Mike was fit again but for his eyes, weekdays he’d worked at his father’s MUDVILLE MARINE, supplying Hosiah at cost, and on good weekends took the bus down to crew on the MARIANNE. He joined the local chorus and since barely able to decipher the scores, quickly memorized the music. When doctors couldn’t repair his eyes further, he and Edna, the firm’s office lady, bought the doublewide, rooting it uphill from the Marina. She’d convinced Mike of a church wedding, encouraged him to join the choir, and didn’t mind his fishing all day, first in Hosiah’s MARIANNE, then his own EDNA MAE, until his stroke hit.
Edna doubled shawls over them. Will you be warm enough Sugar? Weather’s changing. I’ll check in .. Bye-bye, Sugar Pie. And she took off.
At last! They could relax. Good to be with old friends, Hosiah said. I didn’t feel old before ... the shooting.
Me neither, before my stroke. Mike spoke almost clearly.
Two years ago, Mike was struck down. Dumbly, in Hosiah’s opinion. Edna hadn’t cut up his steak. Mike often talked with his mouth full, bursting into song to illustrate a point. One chunk didn’t go down his throat. Edna screamed from the doublewide. Hosiah sprinted up the slope. While she was frantically redialing 911, he squeezed Mike’s ribs as waiters supposedly did with greedy eaters. The chunk stuck. The ambulance crew arrived, cleared Mike’s throat, sirened him to Mudville hospital, Hosiah and Edna following in his pickup. Doc Scoples’ diagnosis: Brain damage. Weeks in VA rehab barely helped. Hosiah almost prayed then.
In fair weather, before Edna set off to sell her jam and antimacassars at CROSSROADS PRODUCE, she’d wheel Mike to the bulkhead. Clutching a rod fastened to his wheelchair, his right hand fixed slippery clams on hooks, reeled in the line. The Marina’s regulars removed any catch, or if it rained, wheeled him indoors Even Sukie watched him; if she drifted off, Mutt herded her back. Mike always thirsty, Edna bungeed jugs of ice-water to the wheelchair. Regulars refilled them at the Marina’s pump. As soon as Hosiah’d returned from fishing, sold his catch and put the MARIANNE to bed, he’d fetch beers from CRABSHACK. The men would cool down or warm up according to season.
Was he now reduced to the same damn half-life? Hosiah imagined Sukie, baby carriage nearby, supposedly watching both wheelchairs, Waldo checking from the boat yard, Edna returning to fuss over them.
Hosiah spat in the stove, listened to the brief sizzle. How many hours left today?
Take ... boats out again ...? Mike asked, apparently recalling their last expedition, last May, before the Marina got busy. Gulls diving for bluefish running beyond the lighthouse, Hosiah took an old cottage-cheese container of bait from the galley fridge and he, Edna and Sukie lifted Mike, wheelchair and all, for a final ride aboard his EDNA MAE. Edna brought tuna sandwiches and lemonade. Everyone landed two stripers before they again interrupted poachers working Hosiah’s trot lines, netting his crabs. He cranked up the ship-to-shore for Marine Police. After the poachers chugged away, shouting they’d be back so better watch out, a patrol boat appeared.
The other problem that day was Sukie, never seasick, vomiting overboard.
Much slips my mind, Mike admitted. Not just where yesterday I misplaced the pickup keys. How did Sukie ... meet ... her guy?
Hosiah knew Mike hadn’t driven in years, and for years he’d told Mike about Sukie’s guy. But hell, he’d repeat the story. The guy’s a bricklayer. Building the school’s courtyard, humming as he worked, must’ve lured Sukie over at recess. She started singing with him, carrying bricks. Had to help, lotta bricks, not heavy if you take one in each hand. I counted every one. He’s promised me jobs doing his A-counts.
Sukie ... with ... accounts?
She cut Special Ed because numbers made no more sense than letters. Her teachers decided she was learning something counting bricks, measuring flowerbeds, writing with a carpenter’s pencil. They gave up fussing, and afternoons checked her out with other children lined up for the school busses. Sukie waited for her guy’s motorcycle.
Gotta help him build our house, she explained. He can’t afford pipes yet, can’t swipe more boards from other jobs, so we can’t move in yet. He pulls the mattress onto the cement, and we sorta nap. By six p.m., he got her home and zoomed back to Mudville. Building other houses, he was always finishing theirs on a piece of empty land behind woods near the town Dump.
Let trashmen handle spoiled goods, Sukie’s father said. May she burn in Hell for her sins.
Hosiah wondered if the house were ever going to be ready, despite the details Sukie provided. She still hung around the Marina, and even while getting rounder, curried goats, scaled and gutted catch, tossing entrails to the cats. With Eco-detergent, brushes and rags, she detailed people’s trucks and boats, and repainted Mike’s EDNA MAE so Hosiah could sell her. A streaky paint job but the new owner only wanted a party boat.
In the hospital, Hosiah told Mike, I finalized selling my MARIANNE to Waldo. He’ll take on Sukie’s guy. My blessed oyster boat for twenty-five years since my Daddy passed. What money Waldo left for me, we’ll set aside for Sukie. Who else would I be saving the money for?
Mike squinted at Hosiah, then toward the Marina, where her new owner had moored the EDNA MAE to the wrong buoy. Bad ... bad... bad. Mike could have meant his eyesight, the new skipper’s seamanship, either man’s condition, or the whole lot.
Burrowing as far back in his fridge as he could reach from the damn wheelchair, Hosiah found moldy goat cheese flecked with green. He’d supplied everyone who’d drink goat milk. When the milk tasted of rosemary and garlic grass, Edna made herbed goat cheeses for her CROSSROADS PRODUCE. Little market for gourmet delicacies except among summer folk. When October turned stormy, Edna stashed the rest in his fridge. This must be the last of it.
Hosiah mourned his goats. What in hell had happened to them? He’d sue someone to get them back. A job for the cops, though they hadn’t caught whoever had shot him.
As with Sukie, with the goats he could talk all he wanted, though either might meander off before he finished a paragraph. Goat udders became the only tits left to hang onto.
The air was increasingly heavy, as if gathering strength for later. At least Sukie was safe at the nurse’s till her time ... Time .... Every minute counted when only so many left. Mike still automatically checked his bare wrists. Hosiah’s watch ruined in the fall from the brig, he could only guess how much remained of this day, how many pills, how many inches in the jelly glasses he sipped only enough to dull the pain. He reached for the sea-glass flask, uncorked it and splashed rum in their mugs. Won’t bother with tea ... He wasn’t sure he could lift a full kettle anyway.
Mike sipped the rum. Thank you ...
Good dining with you. You can’t see but dimly, mostly croak like a sea robin, but you’re talking today. Smell the garlic Edna won’t use? Can you see out?
Sea-glass bottles blocked any clear view. Hosiah had retrieved the century-old flasks one low tide, and, like a bowerbird gathering shiny objects to impress a mate, thought to please Marianne.
The barnacles make them — artistic. But dirty old bottles indoors? She’d aligned them on his office windowsills. Sunlight through the glass, moonlight or the Marina’s security light, turned the dusty blue, green and brown glass iridescent.
Hosiah kicked open the cabin door, turned their wheelchairs so he and Mike could watch the storm billowing in. Thunderheads loaded down the sun, pushing it under waves of clouds. No angels up there. Beyond the splintery windowsill, boats were bobbing in their slips, tugging at their buoys. Had Waldo double-checked their hawsers before he took off to deliver a bushel of oysters to Mudville Market? The wind slammed the door shut. Lightning flashed. Mutt scrambled under the table. The goats never liked storms either.
Our daddies knew weather, when to head to port, where to find bars. And ladies. After Ma passed, I’d wake before school, find one auntie after another at our kitchen table, crushing her cigarette butts into Ma’s favorite blue-and-white saucer. Didn’t the thrift-shop owner call it willow ware? Ma’d never allowed smoking.
Like Edna ... House ... goddess ....
You and I were gods of the sea once, Mike ... All this storm build-up will only end in one de-ci-sive clap and flash. How much of a gale or war or death is the wait?
For the more. Or no-more ... Waiting hard, hanging onto walker, wheelchair, bed. Mike had become loquacious with the rum. Your bootlegger’s four-poster fills half our doublewide ... Edna calls it marriage bed. How ... Marianne and you ... now?
Guess we’re on friendly terms, continent between us ... She took off ...
Intuitive as an animal, before the last tropical storm three years ago, Marianne packed up her family silver, clothes, suitcases, laptop, and picked up her silly dog who at the first thunderbolt scrambled under the bed. She kissed Hosiah’s forehead. You’re a stubborn old waterman, and it’s too complicated to live in intimate proximity. Still, I’m fond of you. But enough of picturesque seaside living for me. Hurricanes jinx real estate sales. Soon as I sell out, I’m moving way inland to some decent suburban house with space for six children and my books. And she drove her laden red convertible, for a start, as far inland as Mudville Motel. For weeks after she’d moved to town, she’d drive to the Marina for striped bass or whatever he’d cleaned, gave her free, and she could cook in the motel kitchenette.
As close to alimony as I could get — dead fish.
As for children, Hosiah couldn’t imagine even one child. Preoccupied closing shutters, pulling boats to the barn and goats to the shed, he had no time to mull over distractions like potential progeny.
The television kept warning citizens to stock up, this would be a serious tropical storm. Edna phoned that Sukie’s parents were already in Mudville’s emergency shelter, along with most everyone from near the shore. Sukie was safe with Nurse Annie. Edna again called about near-empty shelves in Mudville’s markets, lucky she kept the doublewide stocked, she’d return in time to fix dinner. She had driven past Waldo, who was already standing by at the volunteer fire department.
Hosiah could see men at CRAB SHACK boarding up the big windows, and, Hank the owner and the help preparing to leave. En route Hank stopped by the cabin with the day’s bread they wouldn’t be using, and also solved the mystery of the goats. I’d seen that foreigner stop before, wanting goats to sell for Greek Easter. Must have given County Animal Control his card. Wop or wog or mic, anyway from elsewhere. I have nothing against them folks, mind you, but while you were in hospital, that foreigner lassoed them while Animal Control’s van waited, rear doors open. Apparently with Edna also watching, Animal Control officers and the foreigner herded Hosiah’s goats into the van. Impounded because, read the document left at CRABSHACK and Hank brought to Hosiah, Unlawful to keep livestock in a gentrified seaside village.
Me and you and the goats, Hosiah fumed, we were here when this was only a seaside village and gentry meant the GENTS at your CRAB SHACK and nobody asked for— his voice rose to falsetto— Pomegranate margarita, please. Damn glad my goats shat up their shiny white van.
Yeah, seems when the van sat in the County yard, doors not tight and the hood up, the goats butted their way out and chewed through the electric system. One billy electrocuted himself but the rest escaped and scattered, chomping their way through the County’s landscaping and people’s petunias.
Good ... But boats or goats, Hosiah sighed, I can’t herd neither now. Damn, the power ... No, on again.
You take care now, Captain Ho. Hank said. We gotta get the help and us to Mudville.
Likely headed for Mudville’s Purple Turtle, open as late as customers bought drinks.
Lightning flashed, thunder crashed, the cats flashed their orange-striped behinds and disappeared, but Mutt remained across Hosiah’s feet. This time Edna phoned that their pickup’s rusted muffler fell off when she went over a curb, but she’d locate Sukie’s guy who’d once mentioned he had extra auto parts, and though she was frantic to get back to Hosiah and Mike, her hairdresser insisted that she stay overnight on her couch at her house in Mudville. By chance Officer Tom Brenton, married to the hairdresser’s sister, stopped by to check on them, also insisted Edna stay in Mudville. He himself was off to set up barricades on the shore road. When Animal Control’s van was free, he’d drive down retrieve the men in their wheelchairs.
Mike’s fine here, honey, Hosiah insisted on the phone. I’ve checked flashlights, Coleman lanterns, Strike Anywheres, canned beans and sardines, can opener, and Mike’s jugs are still full of fresh water. Other bottles contained what Edna called fire water. How better to kill pain and survive weather?
Again Edna phoned. Mike began to sing Good Night Ladies, and with his good hand, clicked the receiver down.
Eat up, Mike, drink up. Power’ll go again, so no TV. Let’s check Weather again, though it’s not like I told Sukie, gods bowling up there. He’d make their acquaintance soon enough.
Mike looked around, reached awkwardly for the old juice bottle in the wheelchair’s saddlebags. Hosiah had ditched his father’s plastic piss bottles, but wished he had them now, not the uncomfortable bedpan.
Like that fat-assed brig we’re fixing for the museum folks, you and I are — Hey, let’s take a leak out the door the way we did as kids and our mothers yelled we were worse ’n trailer trash. Edna and Marianne got pissed off too.... My feet’ll steer you to the door, then it’s a clear shot ... C’mon, Mutt, you too .. Starting to rain light, but soon it’ll pour like hell out there ... Back to safe harbor soon’s we’re done. Hard against the wind, Hosiah opened the cabin door. Afterwards exhausted, he needed another pick-me-up. Another little drink won’t do us any harm— You used to sing something like this ... Wait, that’s my glass you’re drinking from, your mug’s by your other hand ... We’ll get smashed tonight, if not as smashed as before shipping out, again when we’d hit port. Smashed but alive then, with more to fork than lamb chops. We’d walk ...
Tonight he’d walk out from the Marina Beach, keep going. Then he realized he couldn’t leave Mike alone till Edna returned.
Power died. Wind came up and rain increased. The storm struck full force.
The power and the glory of it! Hosiah imagined the big clapboard house up the hill shaking and cracking, while real branches and maybe trees crashed, and in the Marina. He hoped the few boats still in the water, above all his MARIANNE, wouldn’t break their hawsers and crash against the pier or the jetty which delineated the port. The cabin shuddered, plates fell and broke, shingles and window glass shattered... But these jerrybuilt walls held, this roof did not even leak the way the roof always did in the big house. Surely leaking buckets now.
Mike was more-or-less humming some tune.
Me, I wouldn’t know one note from another, Hosiah said. Wish I — Sukie turns up singing hymns or Country, shows me a score she sings from. So she’s not a hundred percent retard. Music easier than schoolwork. After one hearing, she sings commercials from TV all too well. Most of what they touted, insurance and silky shampoos and machine-made freezer dinners, he didn’t need. Only the storm was selling itself tonight.
Officer Brenton wasn’t making it to the Marina, nor would any visiting nurse. We’re fine on our own, aren’t we, Mike ... Another sip?
Continuation of HOSIAH AND MIKE AND SUKIE WITH HER DAMNED MELON
The next mid-morning wind and rain stopped. Mutt ran out barking, a wan sun appeared, electricity worked again, and Edna phoned: Soon as someone clears the trees across the street I’ll be back, restore order.
Don’t worry, honey, we’re doing fine.
Since Mike was still asleep in his chair, Hosiah wheeled his own to the porch, down the slippery ramp, over the soggy grass and around the cabin to see his pear tree uprooted. Worse, the big pin-oak fallen across the clapboard house! He wheeled through the rubble. The few items intact included another cast-iron skillet, a bucket, a chamberpot, and pieces of a smashed television set. Damned pity Marianne hadn’t managed to sell the house to someone. Whatever buyer would be cursing the destruction mightily today, but we’d have had the income in time to bank it as well as pay hospital bills. What all repairs to the Marina will cost a fortune. How’ll I get by anyway? Boat sold, can’t fish but at the bulkhead like Mike who doesn’t catch much but barely legal-size spot and perch. So, livelihood and health gone. Gotta attend to whatever gotta attend to first.
Hosiah wheeled around the Marina. The pier had lost fish-cleaning shed and gas pump overboard, but Waldo and Sukie’s guy together could raise them. The boat barn was flooded a foot deep, but walls stood. Up the slope, the goat shed built of cement blocks, and the flimsy doublewide held: the heavy furniture from the bootlegger’s house must have anchored it. The cats reappeared. Hosiah poured a can of Ensure into a pie tin, and they proved hungry enough to lap it up. Mutt scorned it. Mike didn’t wake up even when Hosiah brewed coffee. Yep, they’d put away a lotta rum.
By noon, several boat owners came to survey the storm-torn Marina. One promised his outmoded laptop for the cabin-office, another brought Hosiah and Mike a six-pack, which since the rum was gone, Hosiah flipped a couple of cans.
Tomorrow the cabin would become Waldo’s Marina office. TV could wait for Sukie’s guy to fetch it. Gotta remind him, remember the remote. Aren’t you glad, Mike, for the oversized screen I bought for the cabin? Better than the old set left in the big house, though that works good too. Guess even so you can’t see any picture but halfways, though you hear good— The wind still roaring out there, banging the shutters.
Hosiah couldn’t figure how to say goodbye to Sukie or Edna; shreds of manners intimated he should. He fumbled for his tobacco pouch in the drawer. No pipes allowed in the hospital, but reaming now, scraping, dumping, refilling, tamping, striking matches, gave a man time to think. I know you too hurt like hell, Mike. We both do. Before Edna returns, we could help that. Remember last Christmas when Waldo’s nephew brought that grass? The stuff made my head twist into crazy shapes, doubling, ballooning like pink bubble gum, but helped you. The rest is stashed in this drawer. When they were hauling me out of the hospital, Doc, as if he knew I’d try, warned, —None of that kid stuff with your meds.’ Soon as I’ve ditched meds, I’ll retry. What will happen with Sukie?
Hosiah poured coffee in the mugs, inhaled deeply. Time’s come to lower my sails, Mike, pitch anchor, stow gear for good. Maybe, stuck as you are too, you’ll be envious how I manage. That lawyer, whose yacht we winched into the boat barn last month, he phoned to say Marianne asked him had I kept my old will she’d made me write, left her everything, was it still valid! After the bills, won’t have much to leave anyone except what’s in trust for Sukie and the lawyer and Mudville bank will dole it out to her. Hosiah rinsed the skillet to keep flies off the grease, always some slipped in, late September. I showed Sukie you can’t use those industrial-strength scourers on cast iron, you take a paper towel with cooking oil so pans don’t rust.
Mutt nosed around. Okay, last bits of lamb in my chair, gristle. For a while. Sukie’d keep him in their new place. But she’ll be busy, might forget the dog. Instinct’ll make her nurse when the baby cries, or her breasts will leak, and remind her. Breasts like that figurehead’s. C’mon, Mike, pat Mutt’s head. You need a watchdog, Edna complains things disappear from your doublewide. I know you suspected Sukie after she painted your kitchen, till I convinced you that girl hadn’t the sense to swipe anything except candy if it sat out. Not with all Ten Commandments beaten into her by that Born-Again daddy though he forgot any Thou-Shalt-Nots against fornicating. Or d’you remember any Commandment about that? Gotta multiply! Sukie’s daddy wouldn’t like us drinking neither, would he! Hosiah was glad he could still entertain Mike with talk, just as with Sukie. But God, he hurt. Rum gone, he turned to the row of jelly glasses, from which he’d caught Mike sipping yesterday.
When Sukie saw me last week, all twisted, bandaged, my hair gone patchy white, she told me her Father said God was punishing me for my sins. She asked were my sins like what her father said hers were, fornikitting? Was I crocheting pink-and-blue blankets? Yeah, I used to fornickittate till my prostate unraveled. As Great Uncle Bert from Texas used to say, not original with him—wasn’t an original thinker, guess I inherited that gene. I like my coffee strong, my whiskey straight, horses fast, women wild. Now that damn bullet’s tied my parts in sheep’s-head knots, Doc can’t knit me back. Oxycontin and morphine barely help. Mike still didn’t answer but Hosiah kept on. Didn’t Edna tell you any details about my accident? Hell—we got beers, let’s drink to Sukie’s unborn.
What if her guy brings her to visit and things start happening here? What do people do in such crises, boil water? Whatinhell would I doing helping to birth anything more than a goat? No offspring I know of, none to will the Marina to. My sisters hate it here so I sure won’t will anything to them. No goats to will anyone.
Power on and off while up the road, the electric co-op’s cherry-picker was fixing the wires. You don’t have to see to drink. Let it get dark, so I can’t see Mike clearly, with his screwed-up face and limbs. Easier that way to remember him when he was okay.
Hosiah knew Sukie would eventually forget his existence, or non-existence. At least he’d not to have to say goo-goo to any baby or recite any more dumb fairy tales. But was Sukie able to teach her kid anything? She still begged for his stories about sailing the high seas, a phrase she must have picked up somewhere, though she picked up little else. As for sailing the high seas, kiddo, I’m sailing off tonight, high as I can get. He sipped at a glass in passing, again noted that overnight, though he didn’t remember drinking any, rum had been enough to put him to sleep, the levels had all dropped pretty far. Like the tide in the Marina now the storm was over, so half the harbor was muddy sand. Could he manage the fat wheelchair on the narrow pier?
The television came on again full blast. The screen flickered, two minutes later died again. The landline phone would be on and off too.
Navigate over, Mike, you still turn faucets good enough. If you’re real thirsty, reach your good arm, must be another bottle somewhere. I’m hurting midships. He gave Mike’s wheelchair a kick toward the sink. Imagine, five years ago I inherited a child, now she’s popping a child. Imminent. Doc warned, had to explain imminent. I double-checked it in Marianne’s old dictionary. Sukie’s guy better finish that house quickly. Hey, Mike, tell Waldo when you see him, keep my pickup too, okay? And Mike, you can be damn sure I’m not going to any hospice with those sick old people popping off right and left. Starboard and port. Everyone clusters around to escort you to death like some big Italian wedding on TV. Me, I’ll get to death on my own. Damn, my guts again. The hospital doles pain pills like Lifesavers. They’d wake me to give me another. The way they did when you had your stroke. Doc warned pills addictive: Oxycontin, and I get wild dreams. Didn’t take any today with you coming, but saved a bunch. Yeah, Mike, we’ve had good lives, right? Women come and go but good watermen stick together like oysters’ bivalves. Rum really got to you! But sleeping it off’s good. My nights in the hospital, I didn’t sleep till three a.m. then stayed groggy all day till naptime. If I’d had rum—
But in those seconds before sleep came, his mind’s wandering eye might start off seeing friends, the fisherman down the wharf whom he only knew as Joe, the itinerant carpenter who gave his name as Tank, any number of girls whose names he forgot. People morphed into blobs, blurred, dissolved. That was maybe how he’d morph into death, slipping neatly from visions into blobs into nothing. Might be instants of splitness, as when the moon got caught in the pear tree, hooked on a branch. But it could be a good hooking, a good hooker-sort of hooking.
Mike, remember how Doc used to prescribe us cold pills. Take two Coricidin, have a good lay, sleep well, morning you’ll feel fine. Lotsa hungry city divorcees tanning their legs and boobs on the dock in the old days, happy to engage us in conversation. Anxious husbands kept their shotguns clean for more than the unlucky deer. Or, anxious to do their own thing again off in Mudville, Hubbie maybe didn’t care what Wifee did. Those were the days, weren’t they! Edna watched you didn’t ogle them too close, with what eyesight you had left. Marianne kept a sharp watch too. Now she’s gone—too late for me.
Mike seemed to be snoring, though it was hard to be sure, given the wind rattling everything.
Lotsa time in hospital to figure things out, Hosiah continued. Bad enough, those flowered gowns that split up the stern. Television and lights came on again, then the phone rang.
Damn, Edna can’t leave us alone! No, Sukie’s guy. Hosiah clicked on the Speakerphone so Mike could hear too.
Can’t make it down today but I’ll send a buddy. How much the set worth? Gonna need money fast. No, Sukie’s at that nurse’s. Storm tore a section off my roof, still raining like crazy here. But I’m outta the weather. Somewhere more or less else. Gotta talk fast, sorry for background noise. I need a bunch of money.
The phone went dead. Lights flickered out. Hosiah shook the receiver, then the bottle. He definitely now was convinced Sukie’s guy had a wife and kids in the next town, Sukie merely his afternoon diversion. Hosiah was in no mind to give money to him, nor directly to Sukie who would. He’d talk with that lawyer when the phone worked again.
So let’s have another drink, Mike. Edna won’t be here anytime soon.Toothpaste by the sink before she comes. Make sure it’s Sukie, not her guy, or Marianne, what gets Waldo’s money from the MARIANNE, the pickup and the Marina. Put it away just for Sukie’s kid. When Waldo brought us oysters, he left cash in that sail bag in the starboard cabinet. He’ll drive me to the bank later to deposit. Can’t have it sitting around.
The television and lights in the cabin were off again, electricity couldn’t make up its mind. Now he could see clouds blowing back, a lightness in the sky.
Look outside, Mike, only big wind now. Mike’s head was lolling more on his chest. Yep, we must’ve stayed up all night talking while the rain and wind argued out there. Hosiah wheeled to the door, kicked it open. Rain gone, light flooded in with a few mosquitoes. Boats jerked at their hawsers, but seemed less agitated. He sat looking out, pissed, dozed, finally opened his eyes to see a figure coming through the scruffy grass. Waldo?
Edna. He straightened, dumped his glass onto the pile of discarded oyster shells to the left of the ramp, wheeled back to the sink for toothpaste. Hi, honey, we’re fine. Mike’s ready to go home—asleep already.
Ho, Edna began, before I give you some news, given that storm, I’m gonna need another day in Mudville to get my hair done. Wednesday? You free to sit Mike then?
Sure. We’ll ask Waldo if he’d tong more oysters and, as the striped-shirters would say, the three of us’ll batch it in style. Hey, Mike, say hello to Edna. Power’s on, you can watch the shows.
Still sleeping it off, Mike remained slumped in his wheelchair, his usually stiff neck forward, quiescent expression on what was visible of his face.
Here’s the news, Edna said. Sukie’s guy got caught swiping copper wire and stacks of shingles from a job. He’s behind bars now. Sukie went into false labor but’s back at the nurse’s, who asked if the police tracked down who fired that bullet at you.
Haven’t been out investigating. Cops have been doing the usual follow-ups, but far as I know, no clues. They’ve probably lost interest, the case’ll go cold by itself.
And Sukie’s parents, Edna continued, told the hospital what told Nurse Annie, they’ve arranged for the baby’s adoption.
God, no, Edna! Sukie loves that baby already! She’s come up with twenty names, keeps saying how they’ll take it to the new house. As if — I’ll give her what’s left of the clapboard house. Her guy can repair it — if they let him out in time.
What’s left of the clapboard house probably in better shape than what Sukie’s guy was supposedly building for them. I just drove past his site. Mostly scaffolding. Sugar, wake up!
Yeah, Mike, gotta hear about Sukie’s guy.
You boys were drinking! Can smell it on you!
Those lamb chops we marinated in summer folks’ leftover burgundy kept dripping down our chests.
Mike’s shirt — all wet.
Plaid won’t stain. Hosiah’s mind remained on Sukie’s goddamned guy. Mike’ll wake up while you’re bouncing him home over the ruts, though it’s muddy out there.
Edna sniffed her fingers in the dusk. Not wine, hard stuff! Shame on you, Ho! I don’t dare leave him with you again! Sit up, Sugar, gotta hit the road.
Hosiah looked around the cabin. He hurt. Whereinhell was what Daisy poured in the jelly glasses?
Edna began screaming. His throat’s cut! Lord have mercy! His throat — Call 911 — Fast — Help! Hellllllp!
God! Goddamn it, Edna! Stop shrieking! Hush! Hand me your phone!
The operator was taking forever: downed trees, downed wires, highway accidents.
Edna kept screaming, How am I going to —
Didn’t matter if Edna meant, how was she going to save Mike, or how she’d survive without a husband to tend, or how would she explain his accident. Any way but suicide.
Mike, Mike, what’ve you gone and done, what’ve you done to all of us. Edna, the ambulance will come. Forgive us, Edna. And forget me. I’m heading out to sea.
Hosiah knew he’d never live down the anguish. Edna would manage to find someone to look after. He still held her cell phone to his ear, trying to hush her so he could hear the 911 operator. His free hand wiped at Mike’s chin and neck, his bloodied fingers checked for pulse on Mike’s good hand still clutching the filet knife.
Still screaming, Edna began pushing Mike’s wheelchair as fast as she could down the cabin ramp, up and over the muddy lane to the road, where the now-useless ambulance should meet them.
Mike’s blood still reddening his hands, Hosiah let his own wheelchair roll down the ramp from the cabin over the soggy ground to the Marina’s edge. The water gleamed, gray but calm as if the storm had never churned it into surf. Underneath, the tide swirled muddy onto the muddy sickle of beach. The wheels slowed and threatened to suck themselves into the mud. Mustn’t get mired in the mud meeting my Maker! Illiteration, Marianne might call it. A stupid thing to happen, she’d say. He propelled himself along, his good foot pushing.
Shadows overhead flicked across the Marina. Gulls returned now the storm had passed? Vultures. Two, sweeping, swooping, the gray on black shoulders and wings gleaming. Damn it, be gone! Don’t land here yet! Give me a few more hours!
He must stick around until Sukie’s parents, finally admitting they were grandparents, took her back with the baby. He guessed that meanwhile, till the big clapboard house was repaired, he’d have to let her move back to the cabin with it. Not that he liked baby noises, but who else could teach the kid to cut and shape and hammer together a skiff, bait a hook with slippery squid, remove a fish without skewering his hands on the dorsal fins?
Mutt stretched up and put his head on Hosiah’s lap. Who could tend Mutt right?
Wotthehell, isn’t Edna now free to look after them?
Copyright © 2014 by Elisavietta Ritchie.
Elisavietta Ritchie’s poems, fiction, and articles have been widely published, anthologized, translated. She has written sixteen poetry collections, most recently Tiger Upstairs on Connecticut Avenue (Cherry Grove Collections, WordTech Communications, 2013); and Feathers, Or, Love on the Wing (Shelden Studios, 2013). She is a winner of the Great Lakes Colleges Association's New Writer's Award. Her fiction collections include: Flying Time (Signal Books, 1992, reprinted 1996) and In Haste I Write You This Note (Washington Writers; Publishing House, premiere fiction award, 2000). She mentors writers, edits, and translates French and Russian. She is a former president of Washington Writers’ Publishing House.
Visit her: http://www.elisaviettaandclyde.com/
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