Author / Speaker
Two Sides to the Human Coin
Justin didn’t return for the summer. There wasn’t time. First there were the two weeks in Tallahassee, a national student government convention. His teachers had nominated him. There would be high school kids from across the country. He couldn’t wait to meet them.
Politics. Cedar actually shook her head. It was the farthest cry from backwater dive boat operator, but it wasn’t a complete surprise. Justin had a way with people. She and Wyatt had raised him to see the world beyond his own.
Wyatt had introduced Justin to the mayor of Chicago at an election fundraiser. She guessed his father’s intention was simply to impress the son, but apparently it had been Justin who made the impression. Two days after the meeting, Justin received a call from the mayor’s office. He signed on to help with the re-election campaign; a gopher, e-mailing announcements, cold calling on-the-fence voters, delivering cases of water to fundraising events, although Justin himself convinced the mayor to do away with plastic bottles. Election night, Justin wrote, was like nothing he had ever experienced. He had felt like a part of something bigger. He felt like he had made a small difference. It felt good.
Politics had also earned him a girlfriend. Amber loved politics too. Dad had taken them both out to dinner to celebrate the mayor’s re-election. Amber had six brothers. On election night she had tied his tie.
This news arrived in a hand-written letter. Her son’s happiness fairly leapt off the scrawled pages. Cedar was happy for him. But part of her heart struggled to beat, and when she finished reading the letter for the third time the empty galley blurred.
She leaned back into the couch. She was glad Marty was away.
That night, in answer to her e-mail, revised again and again, Justin told her she had been right to send him back to Chicago. There were so many possibilities. He mentioned Issy in two sentences. She had a boyfriend in Ocala. He was happy for her. It was time, her son said, to move on.
She turned off the computer.
She sat in the dark, mildly stunned. It was a strange feeling. As if her life’s work was suddenly behind her.
Oh no. By no means are you finished. There is so much work yet to do. After loss, we must pick ourselves up. To borrow the words of a wise young man, we must move on.
It is imperative that we do so. Hesitate and you will not outrun the onrushing tide.
On her birthday, Marty invited her to Shirley’s for a drink.
“I’ll meet you there,” he said on the phone.
That he didn’t come by the boat to get her stung a little, but she supposed this was one of the prices paid by today’s independent woman.
Independently she decided to dress to the nines. Marty would wear his standard Hawaiian shirt. He might upgrade to dress slacks given it was her birthday. Everyone else at Shirley’s would be dressed in standard tropical garb. She didn’t care if she looked out of place. It was her birthday; she could celebrate in whatever fashion she chose. She took a morning charter only. By two she was alone. She spent four hours getting ready. She hadn’t dedicated that kind of time to her appearance since the senior prom. Making her final adjustments in front of the mirror, she thought she didn’t look like anyone’s mother.
Walking down the dock she passed a sailboat she didn’t recognize. From below decks came a whistle, not a cat call, but soft and polite. She made no acknowledgement, but it felt good. She wore sneakers for the walk up the hill. Outside Shirley’s she put the sneakers behind a bush and slipped on heels.
Marty was wearing a tuxedo. So was Henry.
The bar was lined with Red Rooster bottles, each bottle sprouting a white rose, ten in all.
“For every year I’ve loved you,” said Marty.
He took her hand and led her out to the empty patio.
He did not let go of her hand. He dropped to one knee.
“I am not waiting anymore,” he said.
She knew now she had made her decision when he had cleaned the cockpit windows for her the first time, the long graceful fingers making meticulous circles, the impossible white smile growing clearer and clearer on the other side of the tempered glass.
When they came back inside, a carafe of champagne rested on the bar, foam running from the top.
“I took a chance,” he said.
They danced to What A Wonderful World on the jukebox, his ring on her finger, her heels following his showroom spats as they made their neat circle on the floor.
She touched her lips to his ear.
“You bought them for a special occasion.”
“I did. I bought them for my nephew’s christening.”
She leaned back to look at him.
“Your nephew is eleven.”
“This is only the second time I’ve worn them. I was going to give them away after the christening, but then I met you and I decided to save them for our wedding.”
“That was risky.”
“For the mind, but not the heart.”
When the song ended, Marty smiled.
“You let me lead,” he said.
Only then did she notice.
“Where is everyone?”
“They are finding entertainment elsewhere.”
Behind the bar, Henry bowed.
“Your fiancé rented the entire establishment, from jukebox to bartender. Tonight closing time is your decision.”
“It’s June, Marty. There must be at least a dozen new boats in.”
“They can celebrate your birthday with you tomorrow.”
She kissed him.
“Is the wedding date a surprise too?”
“I was thinking August,” Marty said.
Cedar gave a triumphant smile.
“At last you are wrong,” she said.
“Haven’t you learned from your mistake?”
She touched the ten bottles one by one.
“Not August,” she said. “August is too long.”
The three men were barely more than bones, but as they approached the boat they ferried an oppressive weight she actually felt.
They had watched Cedar and Marty come down the hill. They had barely noted the slight, tuxedoed man, but the long-legged woman had set their loins on fire. The crystal meth only heightened their anxiety.
Cedar watched them walk down the dock. They were pale, with high cheekbones and scruffy blond beards. Slavic maybe. Marty was below, waiting in bed. She had come up, over his good-natured protests, to give the Wendell Holmes a final once over and thank her stars.
Doubt and champagne slowed her. She thought about shouting out, but there were other boats further down the dock. Perhaps they were just passing by. It would be embarrassing.
“Evening, pretty woman.”
They moved like wolves, quick and soundless. The first man was over the railing. A rough hand clamped over her mouth before she could react.
“No one else is invited,” he hissed, a smell like sour milk in her face. “We’re keeping it intimate.” He turned to the shortest man. “Take care of him.”
The man pulled a butcher knife from under his shirt and disappeared down the stairs. She wrenched hard, tried to stomp down on her captor’s bare foot with her heel, but he anticipated her move, deftly shifting his position and jamming his free fist into her throat. For a moment she thought she was going to pass out.
“Save yourself,” the man whispered. “You’ll need the energy.”
The third man had already thrown off the lines. He went up the ladder without a sound. She had the keys in her pocket, but the engine started.
“Setting sail for a little privacy,” her captor said, grinding his hardness up against her.
She strained for sounds below.
“Don’t worry,” the man said. “If he behaved, he’s still with us. He can watch.” The muted laugh was queer and high-pitched. “Go out with several bangs.”
It was her birthday. They were engaged. They were going to die. She still tasted champagne. The disconnect made everything dream-like.
The man pulled her into the shadows as the Wendell Holmes idled through the harbor. Cabin lights glowed in several of the boats they passed, but Cedar knew anyone who knew her would give her nighttime departure no thought. All those sentimental trips to the reef beneath the stars.
They cleared the breakwater, idling toward black horizon. Five hundred yards out and they were still idling.
Her assailant jerked her to the starboard side and shouted up to the bridge.
“Open it up, you stupid fuck.”
The voice from the bridge was puzzled.
“She’s wide open.”
In retrospect it was the quiet that shocked her.
The tentacle, pale in the night, was simply there. The man who had been on the bridge swung through the night like a child on a swing, his face bulging impossibly. He stared at Cedar as if pleading for an answer and then he spat blood and whirled off into the darkness. The man pinning her arms departed as if he had never existed. When she turned he was gripping the railing, something like innocence on his face, and then he was gone.
The man below was wrenched through the porthole. It was not a tidy fit.
Cedar met Marty at the foot of the galley steps. They held each other as the Wendell Holmes rocked, slowly settling.
Below the porthole fish fed.
Ugliness, cowardice, greed, lust. My optimism is undermined yet again. Your armies of evil and stupidity, they sweep forward as resolutely as the tide. The taste in my mouth is still rancid.
I have always known I cannot do this alone. But at moments like this I wonder if this may be a task beyond even a collective reach.
Sinking into the deeps I try to think of the boy, the impossible airiness of his pale form as I raised him to the surface like a rising sun.
Here in the velvet blackness it is difficult to hold this vision. But I do. It is my talisman. My lucky charm. My holdfast to belief.
For without belief, we are lost.
Marty spent the night. Neither of them slept. Laying side by side up on the deck they stared up at the uncaring stars, and in the morning they went below and cleaned the cabin. They worked without speaking and when they finished they stood awkwardly.
“I have to fly to Peleliu to drop off supplies. I’ll be back by evening. Do you want me to come back tonight?”
She knew he had another flight early the following morning. It provided a good excuse to say no.
“I’m okay,” she said.
He didn’t believe her. She didn’t believe her. But they both knew she wanted to be alone.
Marty said, “Tuesday when I get back I’d like to take you to dinner.”
“I would like you to take me to dinner.”
They were actors in a play, now both smiling badly.
After Marty left she felt sick and restless, but she waited until darkness fell.
Throwing off the lines she headed out of the harbor.