Friday, November 20, 2009
A tall man, with a thick neck and blond hair tied in a ponytail, addressed the meeting. “Hi, my name is Stan and I'm a compulsive gambler.” “Hello Stan” answered the group sitting in rows in the canary yellow community room of the recreation center. The room was awash in vivid colors. The folding chairs were bright red, the event schedules were printed on sky blue paper held up by a veritable rainbow of push-pins, and the walls were covered with elementary school finger paintings of dancing green alligators and orange trees. “It's been four months since my last bet,” said Stan. Jo joined the group in applauding.
She had recently cut her hair short. Much easier to handle in the Floridian heat, even if it did reveal the worry lines on her forehead. She tried to pay attention to Stan's testimony, but her mind kept wandering back to the new restaurant and how the rear wall needed to be repainted and the cocktail glasses she'd ordered were two weeks overdue. She hated the ones she'd been making do with, and she had her doubts that her partner would remember to pick up the loaners from Desota Slims. She knew where he inevitably was and that he'd undoubtedly shorted the deposit to use at the track. Under normal circumstances grounds for certain dismissal, except normal circumstances ended eleven months before and a thousand miles away when the Nassau County Hospital doctor told her that her husband was dead. Jo's stunned expression at the time wasn't due to acting. She had been stunned from the moment she found her husband in an advanced state of hypothermia on the floor of Edgar's walk-in freezer the morning after Thanksgiving.
Jo had been prepared to find Jack shot dead and lain across the forced open safe in her trashed office. But when she entered the room not a single thing was out of place. Where were the signs of the staged robbery? Where were the bullet holes? Why was the gun back in the drawer? What had or hadn't happened?
Her shaky voice on the call to 911 sounded legitimately shocked. Jo followed the ambulance to the hospital and waited for more than an hour outside the emergency unit before a doctor spoke to her and listed all of Jack's dire conditions: hypothermia, shock, heart failure, skull fracture...
“Will he live?” Jo asked.
“We will do everything we can,” said the doctor.
But what if Jack lived? Sitting bedside watching the pale remnant of her husband, Jo didn't think there was a way in hell that Jack would survive, but what, if by some miracle, he did? What would he remember? What would he say? This wasn't part of the plan. He was suppose to be dead. Still stunned, Jo was walking the hospital halls when the detective introduced himself.
“I'm Lieutenant Dan Paduano, Rosehill Police. Can I get you anything? A cup of coffee?”
“No thank you, Lieutenant...?”
“Paduano. I'm in charge of the investigation.”
“I didn't realize it was a matter for the police.”
“It's procedure when 911 is called.”
“May I ask how he is doing?”
“Not very well, Lieutenant.”
“I'm so sorry. Are you sure I can't get you anything?”
“No, thank you.”
“When it's convenient, Mrs. Landy, I'd like to ask you some questions.”
Jo disliked Paduano from the start. She sensed that he was a natural bloodhound, with his droopy brown eyes he even looked like one. Clearly he was going to be a pain in the ass. Jo missed and resented Fisher. She knew they agreed that he needed to be far out of town, and that it would be months before they could get back together. But, God damn, she wished he was here to clean up the mess he left her with. All her life when the shit hit the fan she'd found someone to lean on. She had never felt this alone.
She sat vigil at her husband's bedside not out of any loyalty, but purely to make sure he never woke up. What would she do if he did? What tube should she pull, which lifeline needed to be cut? If it came to that could she do it?
When she returned to Edgar's from the hospital she was surprised to find Paduano scuttling around the floor of the walk-in like a crab. He apologized and waited until the next day to question her in her office.
“We found a marijuana 'roach' next to your husband's body in the freezer. Did Mr. Landy smoke marijuana, Mrs. Landy?”
“Yes. Are you going to arrest him?” Seeing Paduano raise an eyebrow, Jo apologized. “I'm sorry, Detective. Watching him laying in bed fighting for his life...”
“I understand, Mrs. Landy. I'm only trying to make sense of what happened.”
“Does it always make sense, Detective?”
The phone rang and Jo picked it up. She recognized the doctor's voice and knew it was over.
Paduano waited until a week after the funeral to continue his questioning. Diligently, he went over the lab reports with her, showing Jo how the potency tests indicated that the pot was of high grade. Jo had to stop her self from asking “Am I suppose to be proud?”.
Eventually the questioning stopped. The hospital and the Rosehill and Nassau County Police Departments ruled that Landy's death was accidental. Everyone was satisfied. Everyone but the bloodhound.
Jo looked up from her reverie and realized the G.A. meeting was ending. The Trusted Servant beckoned the members into a circle. Jo joined, taking the hand of a woman in plaid shorts and the man with the ponytail. They recited in unison: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can...”
Fisher perched his sunglasses on top of his head, lifted his binoculars, and looked over the palm ringed racetrack out to the boats sailing on the Gulf of Mexico. A soft warm breeze fluttered their creamy sails as the crafts rose and fell with the waves. In all his years in and out of the Sunshine State, Fisher had been on a boat but once, and that had been a moored schooner serving as a floating bar. He felt the reassuring bulge in his jacket pocket; an envelope stuffed with cash from the “Sloop John B.” A stupid name, but nobody had asked him. He held no affection for the restaurant, so taking from the till was no skin off his hide.
“Fisher? Is that you?” asked a freckled face shaded underneath a straw hat.
“Hey, Red! How's it going?” Fisher shook Red Phillip's hand with enough fervor to make the older man wince.
“Easy there, buddy.”
“Sorry, Red. Just glad to see you. Everyone seems to have moved or died”
“Yeah, I heard you were back in town.”
“Yeah? From who”
“Jenks? Is he here?” Fisher looked around hopefully.
“No. He's covering the Bucs.”
“Ah. Too bad. Use to be a passable handicapper.”
“Now, did he tell me you opened a saloon or something?”
“Restaurant. 'The Sloop John B'," Fisher said handing Phillips a business card. "I had a good run at the track and thought I'd invest in something for a change.”
Phillips looked at the sailboat on the card and scratched his head. “Jesus, Fish. I thought restaurants were risky business.”
“Yeah, well what isn't, besides keeling over in your sleep.”
“I guess you're right. I guess.” Phillips took of his hat and fingered around the brim as if he was looking for something hidden. “You doing any writing?”
“Uh, you know. Some freelance,” Fisher was lying, and he and Red both knew it. News of Fisher's firing from the Dispatch had followed him south, and finding work, particularly on the Gulf Coast, had been nearly impossible.
“Good, Fish. Glad to hear it. You're too good a writer to give up the ghost.”
Too good a writer, eh? But not good enough to hire. Lonely as a castaway, Fisher fought the impulse to sail the old man's hat onto the track. “Hey, Red. Let me buy you a drink.”
“I wish I could, Fish. But I got a story to get in.”
“Write it at the bar. Remember the way we used to get our copy out between races?”
But Phillips lowered his head and was back at his hat. “I can't Fish. I really can't.” They stood for an endless moment until Phillips broke the silence. “Really good to see you. Really. And good luck with the saloon.” Phillips trotted away like he had the Aztec-two-step.
“Yeah, sure,” said Fisher. It was still a beautiful afternoon, four more races yet to be run, fifteen minutes to post, plenty of time to pick a winner, and there was an open seat at the bar with his name on it. Life was good. He wasn't going to let the brush-off from an old fart like Phillips spoil it.
Fisher ordered a Cuba Libre, his drink of choice below the thirtieth parallel. As he watched the bartender garnished the cocktail with a round of lime large as an orange, he briefly flashed on one of his assignments. Desota Slims. Glasses. Right. Plenty of time. That seemed to be the mantra for the day, for any day. “No sweat, man.” Ignoring the slight ache gathering in the corner of his forehead, he studied the program. He liked three horses in this race, the six, the four, and the two. The two, Sexy Sadie, was a definite long shot, so he figured he'd box all three in a trifecta and bet only the six and four in an exacta.
Fisher counted out five hundred dollars from the envelope in his coat.
“And they're off,” called the track announcer. “Number three, Franklin's Bell, to the lead.”
Fisher slumped by his car in the parking lot watching the sun drop down into the Gulf. A long line of cars slowly moved from the lot out into the bumper to bumper traffic. He studied the small boat Jo had engraved in the upper left corner of the now empty envelope. Classy. He held the beer can to his aching head and mumbled the numerous terms for “also-ran”. “No factor.” “Tired.” “No threat.” “Gave way.” “Weakened.” “Faded.” “Out run.” “No factor.” A haiku for losing.
He took the long way back to the restaurant and parked the car in the lot the Sloop shared with the Palmetto Bay Marina. A half drunk moon tilted in the dark sky over the pleasure boats and day sailors. It was well past closing, and the two-tiered restaurant was dark except for the neon beer promos over the bar.
He let himself in, turned on a set of lights, and walked quietly through the dining room. Fisher had to admit, with its pastel blue walls, the hand painted tables, the scale model of a sloop hanging over the mahogany bar, the Sloop John B. was a sleek looking place. Classy. Without a doubt.
He hopped over the bar and pulled a bottle from the beer cooler. “Pacifico.” He was an adventurer now. He heard Jo enter from the back.
"Hey, you want a beer?" he asked reaching into the cooler.
“Where were you?”
Uh oh. Now he was remembering; something about a wall? “A truck broke down on Tamiami. Traffic was backed way the hell up to...”
“You were suppose to paint the back wall.”
“I could do it now.”
“I already did it.”
“Yeah, but if you didn't do it, I could do it now.”
“You pick up the glasses?”
“Oh, shit.” The glasses. The fucking glasses at Desota Slims. Shit storm for sure coming dead ahead.
“Fish! I told you. I told you five times, if you did nothing else today, pick up the glasses.”
“You know? If you know then why didn't you pick them up”
“I'm sorry. I forgot. I ran into somebody. Red Phillips. I used to work for him. I'll do it tomorrow, I promise ”
“We were busy tonight.”
“No, Fish. We ran out of glasses. That's the whole point. We couldn't get them out fast enough. The busboys were washing them by hand. If the board of health found out...”
“I said I was sorry, Jo. What do you want me to do?”
“We're trying to run a place here. There are responsibilities. If you say you're going to do something you can't just...” Fish picked up a bar nap and waved it like a flag asking for surrender. Jo shook her head and said something Fisher couldn't hear.
“What was that?”
“I said you just gotta tell me.”
“When you take the deposit to the track.”
“The bank called. Three checks bounced.”
“I'll get it back. I was up. I was up all day, and then the fucking five horse in the seventh, you wouldn't believe this Jo, the horse is leading halfway down the stretch and I don't know if the jockey pulled him up or what, we all thought there was gonna be an inquiry but the stewards let it stand. Thing stunk to high heaven. If that horse comes in....”
“Would you stop with the 'Jesus, Fish'? For crying out loud. Yeah, I took some money, and I lost it. It happens. You gonna go all schoolgirl on me? Make me stand in the fucking corner suck my thumb? I'll get it back.”
“Just tell me,” she said, and left him at the bar.
Fisher finished the beer mumbling to himself. “Can't talk to me like that. God damn right.” He took the car keys out of his pocket and slammed them on the bar. “Not gonna wait around here all night.” He'd walk back to the condo. That would show her.
Truth was he liked to walk. It cleared his head. The fall Floridian nights were mild and dry. Once he hit his pace he could cover the four miles to their condo in under an hour. They lived in a development along the Manatee River. A resident from the next unit told Fisher that a twelve foot alligator had been caught on the banks two weeks ago, so to watch where he walked. But all Fisher ever saw was palmetto lizards scooting under the palms. He'd been trying to come up with an idea, something to write about, but his mind was as barren as the drunken moon following over his shoulder.
Fisher had expected the rust, he had written his way out of slumps before. It should be easy, there was no pressure, he owed money to nobody except for the cash he helped himself to from the Sloop. So what? He couldn't be fired, he co-owed the damn place. The deal of deals. Free beer and all the stone crab he could eat. He and Jo were partners. Only one little problem. They had killed a man. A face glared at him through the windshield of a passing black Jeep. What's the matter, fuck face, Fisher thought, never saw someone walking before? Off in the distance, he heard the wailing cry of a police siren. He held his breath until the cry faded away.
From the moment he woke alone in Claire's guest room the morning after Thanksgiving, Fisher was sure he was going to be caught. He smelled the bacon frying, and had to fight hard to keep from throwing up. He washed his face, went downstairs and forced himself to eat everything Claire put in front of him. He tried not to jump out of the seat each time the phone rang, and when Claire left the room, he slipped a shot of brandy into his coffee to calm himself down. His plane didn't leave until the evening, but he told Claire he needed to get home and pack. He promised to send her his new address and never noticed the look of disappointment on her face when he half-heartedly returned her kiss good-bye.
Wanting to hear Jo's voice, Fisher called the county hospital from the airport. He needed to tell her, tell her how it happened, how Landy swung at him with a bat, how now if it came to it, he could say it was self defense, how he went to Edgar's to be straight with the guy and... But when the hospital operator answered, he hung up.
They had agreed that there had to be zero contact. Zero. He looked at his hand and it was trembling like a leaf. He stumbled boarding his plane. Jesus Christ, keep it together, he thought, and then proceeded to hyperventilate into a paper bag the whole flight to Ft. Lauderdale.
Through the winter, he rented a hole-in-the-wall apartment in a town twenty miles north of Miami He found a job writing for a small weekly, edited by an alcoholic who could've cared less what the hell Fisher had done with his life as long as the copy got in on time. One of the Miami daily papers carried Landy's obit. Apparently he'd been a golf champ there in his youth. The obit mentioned that his death had been accidental, but Fisher still shuddered every time he heard a siren.
The plan was that he and Jo were to wait on opposite sides of the state until Jo was sure all of the authorities' questions had been answered. Only then would Jo contact him by postcard at a P.O. box Fisher opened in North Miami under the name of “F. Chambers”.
Winter was endless. He borrowed his editor's car and drove to North Miami twice a week, praying for the postcard, even though he knew it was too soon, way too soon. In the small hours of the night as he sat sleepless on his cot, doubts bubbled in his mind like bitches brew; what if she didn't... what if she wasn't...what if... But invariably other thoughts pushed their way in; thoughts of Jo's smell, of the softness of her hair, of the moan she made and the way her head fell back when he was inside her. His cock rose from under the sheets demanding attention. Fisher masturbated like a teenage boy, two, sometimes three times a day until his member was red raw. By spring he was climbing the walls, looking for trouble. He came up on the losing end of a brawl with two drunks outside a bar in Hialeah. He left before the police arrived, waking up with two black eyes and a fat lip.
By the third day the swelling had gone down and he rewarded himself by driving to the mail drop. There was a single postcard waiting for him.
He held onto her so tightly she couldn't breathe. He had her stand naked on the bed so he could touch every inch of her body starting with her toes, following up her legs, caressing her thighs, rubbing his face against the cheeks of her bare ass, palming her stomach, cupping the undersides of her breasts, kissing the lids of her eyes, luxuriating in her hair. “You're beautiful,” he said.
“I'm getting old.”
“No, you are not.” He stood on the bed naked with her, letting their bodies meld. “I missed you. I was going crazy.”
“Not being able to see you, touch you...” his slid the back of his hand across her pubic hair causing Jo to shiver.
“I was so scared. The police. All the questions.”
“What did they think?”
“An accident. He banged his head.”
“He came at me with a bat. He tried to kill me!”
“With a bat, tried to choke me, he had it against my neck...”
“Fish. I don't want to think about it.”
“But we did it. Jo, we fucking did it!”
“And nobody knows.”
They made love for a week, fucking in every room, on every surface in the condominium, until famished and dehydrated they staggered into the kitchen where they ate stuffed crab and drank Cuban beer Jo had brought home from the restaurant.
“Did you get a chance to see it?” Jo asked.
“The Sloop. The Sloop John B.”
“No. I came here on the fly.”
“It's great. It's open, clean, not cluttered with all the chochka shit we had clogging up Edgar's. You walk in, you swear you're out on the sea.”
“Great,” said Fisher. “How much do you think we can get for it?”
“What... what do you mean?”
“When we sell it. How much do you think... I mean that's the idea, right? Sell the place, take the money and, you know, do whatever we want. Go to the track everyday.”
“Yeah. Opening day is in two weeks. I guess no way we can sell it that fast.”
Jo's face tightened and Fisher could feel the air being sucked out of the room. “What?”
“Nothing,” she said.
“Why are you... I don't know, you're all... like you're angry.”
“I'm not. I'm not. Just wasn't thinking of selling so fast. I mean...We've hardly opened.”
“Sure. O.K. Get it on it's feet. I understand.”
“What? Fish, what?”
“What... I mean what am I suppose to do? How do we explain why I'm around?”
“You're my partner.”
“In the restaurant? Me?”
“Yeah. Sign the papers and everything.”
“Me in the restaurant business?” Fisher laughed.
“Fish. We're partners in everything.”
The final half-mile of the walk home cut through the Gulf Winds Country Club. As he crossed the cart-bridge over a water hazard, Fisher couldn't shake the feeling that someone was following him. When he heard a splash, he stopped and peered into the black lagoon. He took a penlight out of his pocket and followed the ripple line in the pond. For a moment the light reflected in a pair of yellow eyes just above the surface.
A rustling emanating from the palms behind him caused Fisher to turn, and by the time he pointed the light back on the water, the eyes had disappeared. A chill went up his spine and he ran the rest of the way home.
When he reached the condo, the car was back. He saw the light go on in the bedroom. He waited outside, watching her like a stranger as she took off her clothes and readied for bed. Why the hell had she cut her hair? Where did she go in the mornings? How long had it been since they stood naked on that bed exploring each other's bodies like Adam and Eve? It seemed like forever-and-a-half.