Terror on the Beach

Fiction
Gina Sakalarios-Rogers


Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral/Flickr (CC-by)

When my bar’s invaded by snowbird oldsters and the local diet-soda-and-whiskey sets the atmosphere cloys. No matter how peppy the music on the juke or how festive the décor and lighting, these crowds alone are enough to make anyone swear there are no companionable evenings to be had in a bar. Mix them together and no one emerges at the end of the evening without feeling tainted by the experience.

The problem lies in the contrast. Snowbirds far from home on a warm beach in a cozy bar can feel they are momentarily outside of time, outside of the cares of the world. The essence of vacation, right? Throw in the girls in too-tight dresses with bikini strings showing around their necks and leg muscles taut from balancing on their spiky heels or tanned to their flip-flop-gripping toes and a bit of the past intrudes. The visitors from colder places sip at their diet soda and liquor of choice through little red straws with glossy wet lips and the gin-and-tonic with a lime wedge doesn’t taste so much of vacation anymore.

Confronted with these young things and the suitors that inevitably trail in their wake, the snowbirds get a bit less fun loving and little more judgmentally bitchy.

I’d refused yet again one woman’s request for “something fruity with an umbrella in it, like a Mai Tai” when I’d had enough and handed it all over to my bartender. He’s a smartass, but he keeps himself around by putting up with the shit I won’t.

“Hey,” he said to the woman, “this ain’t Hawaii. It’s Florida. Closest you’re gonna get to fruity from me is a lime in your tonic or a token strawberry in the daiquiri premix.”

Sometimes he does it better than me.

I strolled out of the bar happy to be leaving. Got in my little old brown Datsun truck and enjoyed a warm mid-June breeze blowing through the windows. It’s a good truck. Late 1960s model just a couple of years older than me. It’s been reliable since my uncle passed it on to me in the eighties. It survived the big island-wiping hurricane a few years ago because it was off-island with me.

Now it faithfully rolled me down Pickens Road to the main beach parking lot. My feet took me the rest of the way. Past the new lifeguard building and the large lights keeping the cement strip between tarmac lot and sandy white beach bright for the nighttime crowd at the restaurants and bars. On down to the spot on the beach just next to the fishing pier where the guys and I always meet.

Only one of them was there. Nick. Young one with an old demeanor. He stood with his hands in his pockets, watching the surf build.

“You all alone out here tonight?”

Yeah,” he said. “I think Lyle might be out in a little while. I called him. Think it should get interesting out here soon.”

A storm front coming in from the west had the Gulf roiling. The breakers were getting large, rough, and sloppy.

Nick pointed down the beach just outside the pool of light cast by the large chain restaurant trying to look quaintly seaside. Three young guys had stripped off their shoes and shirts and were tempting each other into the surf. Guys like these get drawn in by whatever magnetic force attracts fools with no adventure in their lives to dropping barometric pressure.

“They’ll go in you think?” Nick said.

“Oh sure, hope they’re sober,” I said.

“Doubt it,” he said. “Hope Lyle gets here first. He swims better than me.”

That’s Nick, thinking ahead.

“Man,” I said, “Let’s just stop them.”

“Good luck with that, D.”

“You’re not going to help me?”

“I’ll follow you down there, but I’m not getting involved.”

“Sure, let the woman do the work.”

What a puss. At least he followed me. It’s always easier to be a hardass with a friendly body standing behind you.

We moved slowly, taking our time since it looked like these three fellas were having a hard time convincing each other to go on in. I was thinking maybe I wouldn’t have to get loud with them when the first one went for it.

He was the shortest of the bunch, curly blond hair, bright red board shorts. Maybe he’s a surfer, I thought. He’d know how to handle the waves then. It was a brief thought, one of those that forms without your bidding. Just pops up in your mind even though you’ll dismiss it immediately as foolish wishful thinking. If he’d been a surfer there wouldn’t have been enough novelty in the roughening waves to entice him. It was all messy chop.

Nick grunted.

I said, “Morons.”

The two friends moved closer to the water’s edge, cheering their buddy on. The guy managed to stay on his feet, splash around a bit and run back out to his friends before Nick and I made it to them.

They were slapping him on the back, he was pointing out at the gulf, urging his friends to go back in with him.

It looked like they were going to follow until they saw us. The short one waved, said something about needing to cool off, and then they were moving back up to the restaurant. Maybe Nick’s park ranger button up looked official enough to be trouble for them. It certainly wasn’t my five feet and three inches or Nick’s skinny physique that worried them.

“Well, that was too easy,” I said.

“You wanted it to be difficult?”

“Just wanted to have a little fun with them.”

“You always been such a mean little bitch?”

“Nah,” I said. “I was very nice before my house got wiped off the beach and my best friend was eaten by crabs.”

Nick sighed. He has no compassion for people who hold grudges against intangible forces of nature. “You’ll let it go one day and be much more content.”

He followed me back to the pier and we waited for Lyle. Who showed up with hoagies and Corona. We had a good night.

*

You can’t sleep on the beaches anymore. Back in the early eighties we did it all the time. Perfectly natural thing to do. Nowadays it’s loitering, I guess. No way for us to have slept down by the pier anyway with all those damned lights.

Couldn’t sleep in the truck either. Cops roust the parking lot looking for drunks sleeping it off in their cars. Everyone should be in their own homes, tucked up nice in their beds. That’s the responsible citizen thing to do.

Instead I stretched out behind my house. Not much beach, just scrubby beach grass on the small strip between my back porch and the bay. I used to sleep on a hammock out on the dock Mr. Scott and I shared. That’s gone now. So’s he. I don’t eat blue crab anymore.

*

Since I woke up feeling mellow the next morning, I decided to cruise across the bay and on through the intracoastal waterway to Perdido Key. The bay was rough with the storm still edging ever closer, but the sky stayed sunny and the wind kept me from sweating too much.

A nice day until I spotted Gary banging on his outboard on the Perdido side of Pensacola Pass. It looked like he needed help, so being the kind (to friends) woman I am I idled my small Bayliner up next to him and got out to help.

His wife’s another sort.

Two steps off the beach, ankle deep in Pensacola Pass, Gary’s wife was screaming “Shark! Shark! Getoutofthewatershark!

There were only two other people on the beach. They were laid out on their blankets unmoving, either uninterested because they weren’t in the water or unconcerned because no one else was really in the water.

Gary looked back over his shoulder, away from the sputtering motor.

“There. There,” his wife yelled again. “Get out of the waterwheresthedog! Joe! Joe!”

Joe lounged on the front of the boat, unconcerned about the shark menace, since he’d already enjoyed his obligatory Labrador water romp. After which he required uninterrupted relaxation in the sun. Sharks be damned. He didn’t even bark.

“Where’s Joe?” Gary’s wife yelled once again. “Get out of the water!”

A fin arched out of the water barely 50 feet off the stern of the boat.

Dolphin. One, two, three.

Gary turned back to his motor.

“They’re dolphins,” Gary said.

“How do you know? There it is again.”

“Dolphin, smaller dorsal, arcing, more than one. Sharks don’t swim in pods, Cheryl.”

His wife, still frantic, but daring to step into the water, said, “I’m not getting in this boat if the motor isn’t working right. Call the tow.”

Gary waved me over. Wanted to know if I had any idea why his motor wasn’t getting any gas.

We puttered over it a while longer. Cheryl kept her eye on the dolphins, still convinced they could be sharks. Joe kept sleeping.

“Gary.” I wanted to know. “Why don’t you have any tools in this boat?”

He gave me a sideways look. “You don’t either.”

“I have a rope. Give you a tow?”

He hated the idea, but didn’t turn it down.

We got to maneuvering the boats into position, not noticing the other two beach-goers had wandered over to Cheryl until they all three started hollering at me.

I’m waist deep in the water, trying to keep the small chop in the pass from shoving my stern too close to Gary’s bow.

They were pointing at me, waving, the old fellow jumping up and down. His companion, a young blonde woman in a red striped bikini charged into the water. She headed towards me, determinedly.

Gary’s yelling at Cheryl.

Cheryl’s waving back.

Joe’s paddling towards the young bikini woman, barking. He was ready to protect me, I suppose.

It all distracted me so much I didn’t feel the rope wrap around the foot of my motor, so when the chop nudged the boat away from me, I naturally tugged the rope to keep it close and, not having as much slack as I expected, I pulled the boat right into myself. I went down. Under the boat.

The sandy bottom was all stirred up from the activity, so I couldn’t see a thing. I stayed calm, pulled myself along the rope, untangled it from the motor, and swam clear of the boats.

I’m ready to yell at someone, give them full on scathing fury. I couldn’t.

The scene already too ridiculous.

Gary dove into the water to find me. Joe swam splashy circles around the bikini woman, not letting her retreat to the beach or dive into the waist deep water to help Gary search. Cheryl was still yelling incoherently from the beach and the old guy moved slowly towards his companion and Joe.

I’m fully on the beach, squeezing the salt water from my shirt when they finally notice me. I don’t know who saw me first, but it was Cheryl that came running my way.

I held my hand up in a halt gesture, stopping her before she cleared Gary’s boat.

“You just stay over there, Cheryl,” I said. “You and those damned dolphins caused all this. Dolphins, woman.”

“I can’t help it. I can’t see they are—“

“Dolphins!” I yelled.

Gary started some yelling of his own. The boats had drifted too close.

The husband-being-crushed threat trumped the husband-being-attacked-by-dolphin-possibly-shark threat. She charged into the water. “Help! Help!” Yelling yet again. “He’s going to be crushed!”

Joe continued circling the bikini woman. Her companion tried to coax Joe away when I waded past them to my boat. I could have called Joe off, but he looked happy.

Once Gary and I had the boats safely hooked up and I’d fired up my motor and pulled the line between us taut, Gary hauled Joe into the boat.

Cheryl sat in her seat, not looking at anyone, lips pressed firmly together, arms across her chest. She wouldn’t even pet poor innocent Joe when he nudged her with his nose.

The old guy and his companion moved back onto the beach without a word.

We made it back to Little Sabine before the sun set and without any more terrifying dolphin encounters. Gary pressed some bills into my hand for the extra gas I used towing him, and I told him to come by my bar for a few free ones later. Once he got his wife calmed down.

“Bring the dog along,” I said.

“Sure thing.” He snapped his fingers, the universal gesture for having a surprising thought. “Hey, dolphins heading into the Gulf means the storm’s not coming in here.”

“They were headed the other way, Gary.”

The bar opened slowly for a Saturday night and it stayed that way. A few snowbirds in and out, but none stayed for long. They were, no doubt, back in their comfy condo rooms watching the Weather Channel closely.

The televisions in the bar weren’t on. Gary came in with faithful old Joe around seven o’clock and sat at the end of the bar with me.

“Storm weakened. Coming this way. Just gonna be a tropical though. No big deal.”

My bartender gave him a Jack and Coke and a small bowl of water for Joe.

“Lyle’s bringing some oysters over from Peg Leg’s,” Gary said. “Fried for you.”

The raw oyster is a disgusting thing. I’ve tried it at different points in my life. No one has ever found a way to persuade me that there is any pleasurable value in slimy, salty, goo sliding across my tongue and down my throat. No intensity of hot sauce makes the oyster go down any easier. My gag reflex cannot be so easily fooled.

We hang out, talking of this and that. Nick shows up. Then Lyle comes with the food. Things stay quiet like I said until right before closing.

Lyle wanted to mine us for our opinions, once again, on the new condo towers going up on the edge of the National Seashore.

“Bumped as close as they can get it to the protected part of the island,” Gary shook his head. His most extreme bodily reflection of disgust. “Let ‘em that close they’ll find a way to push in more.”

“That’s what I said,” Lyle added.

Nick, the young one, didn’t agree. “The condos are an economic thing as much as the protected beaches. Without something protected and left undeveloped no one’s going to want to live here or visit. They’d kill the economy.”

“Developers don’t give a shit,” I said. “They get their money and run.”

“You know that’s not true,” Gary said.

I did, but I wasn’t going to admit it. The vitriol had been my solace for too long to give it up now.

“All these tourists and beach residents keep you in business,” my bartender said.

“That’s right!” Nick raised his glass and bonked it against the bartender’s raised fist.

“I get the tourist hate, D. Know where that comes from,” Gary said, “but what’s your problem with the locals?”

“Half of them aren’t locals,” I said. More forcefully than I intended, sure. “They moved out here just to say they live on the beach.”

“Oversimplification and generalization,” Nick countered, feeling smart.

“I know that.” Forceful on purpose now. “Who’s the former professor here?” I pointed at myself. “So here’s my analysis. They like the beach, have the money to live out here, so they do. It’s a status thing now. You can’t live out here now on a middle class salary anymore, can’t even rent that way. Used to before Ivan came through, but that was a stellar opportunity for certain factions to wipe out the old bungalows and build fancy, expensive. Upscale.” I hoped the ooze I saw dripping off that last word could be heard.

“It’s just the money thing you hate?” Nick said.

“No. It’s part of it. They move out here, like I said, because they like the beach, want to say they live here because that reflects their status. They like the view, but they aren’t beach people. They are neighborhood people.”

“Now what the hell does that mean?” This from my bartender who must have decided he doesn’t need a job anymore.

“They aren’t sleeping on the beach, so no one else can. They don’t want loiterers, but what the hell else are you supposed to do on a beach? They want it generic. The only changeable, unpredictable thing they want out here is the environment.”

“And you like that, right? The unpredictability?  The adventure?”

“Sure.” I said it too tentatively. I knew it wasn’t true.

“Hurricanes washing everything out. People sucked out and brought back to feed the sea life?”

Smartassery is one thing, cruelty is too far. Gary said something that sounded vaguely mediative, trying to defuse. It must have gotten through because I didn’t fire the bartender.

“Shouldn’t you working. Wiping something down. Closing the place up?”

I always shut the place down at midnight. No later. I have no interest in serving that later night crowd. They’re up to no good or headed that way, no need for me to contribute.

The guys retreated to the pool tables to give me some space. The final rituals of the night were performed in silence and I used it to calm down, think about why I have to be so angry. The guys clacking pool balls around in an attempt to get one in a pocket over Joe’s head so he’d bark was the only sound, so the noise of a couple loud vehicles sliding into the small lot out front carried right on into the bar.

“Hey,” I said to my bartender. Quiet. “Go lock that door before any stragglers get in here.”

“Sure thing. We wouldn’t want stragglers,” he had to keep up the sarcasm. I held my tongue somehow. He vaulted over the bar. He knows I hate this.

His sprint the few feet from bar to door woke up Joe, who jumped up and started barking.

The guys let out a cheer.

My bartender put a hand on the door and reached out for the lock. Not soon enough.

The door hit him in the face. He hit the floor. Three young guys came in ahead of their fourth, the troublemaker king, Nevin.

“No, no,” I yelled at him. “You get the hell out of here. I’m not serving you one single drink.”

“Shit.” My bartender pulled himself from the floor with help from Lyle, his nose bleeding.

“You broke his nose, man,” one of Nevin’s companions said. He’s new. Looks much younger than Nevin’s usual crew.

Nevin came my way, looking determined. That look he always gets when he’s working himself up to some ridiculous new frenzied act of vandalism. Nevin considered himself an eco-terrorist. Most of his victims and the police considered him a nuisance.

“This is gonna be the big one,” he said to me. Leaning on my bar. Like I’m a confidante.

“I don’t care,” I said. “Get the hell out and get on with it.”

“You got a room in the back. Let us use it tonight. No one will look for me here. Everybody knows you can’t stand me.”

“Hate wouldn’t be too strong.”

His new young friend was holding my bartender in a chair so Nick could pop his nose back into place. I recognized him. He was still wearing the bright red board shorts.

“Good to have an old corpsman in your crew, huh?”  Nevin was trying to be chummy.

“Get the hell out of my bar,” I said to him, knowing with the intuition briefly granted to us all when a bad situation happens that my bold words weren’t going to have any effect.

Nevin’s other two buddies, the ones I knew, flanked my friends. Arms crossed in stereotypical bad guy posture.

Red Boardshorts let go of my bartender. “Let’s just go,” he said to Nevin. “We can hole up in my hotel room over in Navarre. No one’s gonna come that far to find you.”

“No,” Nevin said, “I want to stay close, so I can hear it go off. Feel the island shake.”

Explosives now? No more petty vandalism for him.

“What are you blowing up?” I asked.

“Those ugly towers going up near the National Seashore,” one of Nevin’s buddies said.

Red Boardshorts chimed in all peppy proud, “A blight on the beach!”

Nevin’s always been a charmer, and he has a good eye for the naïve. Red Boardshorts, whose name was Peter, had obviously showed some sort of minor concern for the environment or made some comment about how beautiful the beaches are here, and Nevin had jumped on the opportunity to fire up the poor fellow to a frenzy of environmental righteousness. He’d tried that with me the first time he came dragging in here.

A phone rang. Gary pulled it out of his pocket and told his wife he’d call her back. “Got a situation here,” he said. Then he shoved the phone back into his pocket.

“There’s no situation,” I said, rounding the bar and striding right up to Nevin. Too short to get in his face, tall bastard, but my palms made firm enough contact with his chest to knock him into a table. “Get out now, Nevin. Take your idiot crew with you.”

“We are staying here for the boom,” he said, shoving me hard enough to topple me into a bar stool. I sprawled on the floor, so my view of the gun as he pulled it from his waistband was much more dramatic than anyone else’s. I had that perspective you always get in the movies, slow motion from the gun wielder’s hip. Close up shot of the slow reveal, grip to sight.

He saw me see it, so didn’t take time to address its presence with me. Instead he tried the common ground approach. “I know you don’t want them going up either, so just do your part to save the beach.” He turned so my buddies and bartender could see it. “Put your phones on the pool table and sit on the floor.”

Joe barked.

No one else protested. We did what he said.

Nevin’s buddies got worried after an hour passed with no explosion. They had a quiet conference in a booth on the other side of the bar. I sat against the front of the pool table with my bartender. He had a few suggestions about how to take them out. Like he was in some damned action movie. Big dumb hero. I’m sure he had planned some sort of catchy one-liner to deliver as well.

I twice talked him out of tripping one of Nevin’s buddies, and laughed when he attempted to talk Peter of the Red Boardshorts down. Maybe I should have been more helpful since the guy had a gun. Hindsight often makes me feel like a blind asshole.

This bartender of mine always did a good job behind the bar. He kept the place clean, made decent drinks, and held me in check when I wanted to berate a tourist or a dumb chick too drunk to make good decisions. I’d never been quite nice to him. Always gave him the impression that I tolerated him. I think he knew I respected him because I didn’t fire him when he pushed me too far.

He pushed Peter too far, and the dumb kid started yelling at him. Kicking at his legs. We all laughed at his tantrum.

He shot my bartender.

He may have said something like, “Now who’s laughing.”  Or one of Nevin’s other stooges said this and Peter was the one who said, “No. No. Oh, no.”

The voices were vague. I knelt over my bartender. Gary scooted up to his other side.

Peter reached for Gary.

Joe jumped over Gary’s head in full growl. He clamped his jaws onto Peter’s gun arm and shook. Peter’s hand reflexed open and the gun fell into my bartender’s lap.

I grabbed and sighted on Peter. I could pull the trigger and maybe get lucky like Peter had and hit a vital organ, deflating it like he deflated my bartender’s heart. Nick said something to me though, and I did not squeeze the trigger.

Peter went down, Joe holding on now, no longer shaking, but silently maintaining enough pressure to keep Peter crying out in pain.

“Shit, man,” one of Nevin’s other two stooges said. “We gotta go now. Just leave him here.”

Nevin nodded, his gun already put away. “Sorry, D. I didn’t mean for it to go down like this. Alec was a—”

“Shut the fuck up,” I yelled, sighting the gun on him now. My hands shook, and I knew I couldn’t have hit him if I worked up the guts to pull the trigger. All my bravado was trapped in my head. I couldn’t get it out through my fingers or through my mouth. All I could funnel from my brain were obscenities strung together in nonsensical patterns.

Lyle took the gun from my hand and laid it on the ground behind him. He pointed his finger at Nevin. “You gave him the gun and the ideas.”

“Come on man,” the second of the remaining stooges said. “Let’s go.”

Peter whimpered, quietly not to arouse Joe to greater bite force. “Don’t leave me.”

We all heard tires sliding into the parking lot. Sirens approaching. Pounding on the door and female voices demanding the doors open.

“It’s your wife, Gary,” I said. “You know she doesn’t like you out this late.”

*

While the medics packed my bartender into a body bag and treated Peter’s dog bites, I had the selfish thought that now I would have to deal with the snowbirds and drunk chicks all alone.

I sat on the floor against the bar, stroking brave Joe’s warm fur, thinking about Alec. Good bartender. Good guy who put up with me, made my life in here easy enough that I could just get up and leave whenever the crowd got on my nerves. I’d never thought about how much I trusted him. I relied on him, took advantage even. He laughed at me and I took it. Hell, we were friends; I’d never taken notice.

What a bitch.

No one had spoken to me. The cop knew me well enough to save me for last.

When he finally got to me, I told him what happened, every detail sharp.

“You think you guys have Nevin this time?”

“He didn’t pull the trigger, D.”

“No, he worked the guy up though. Brought them all here, held us at gunpoint. He’s got explosives rigged up on that new condo. What the hell else do you need to get rid of him!”

I’d let go. And he let me. I ranted. I jumped up off the floor and smacked my palms flat on the bar a few times. Kicked over a couple of bar stools. Pointed at the body bag. Pointed at Nevin and his buddies piled up against the far wall, cuffed and complacent.

But Nevin had the nerve to smile.

“Can’t you just find a reason to shoot him? Aren’t you cops good at that kind of thing?”

I went too far. He escorted me, not too gently, out of the bar, put me in my truck, took the bar keys, and sent me home. “Gary can lock it up for you.”

“Let Joe loose on him. He’s got the chops for it.”

“Go home, D.”

*

The guys took over the bar for a few days so I could wallow in the grassy shallows behind my house and grumble at the emptiness of the lot next door. Mr. Scott and I could have sat out at the end of the dock and talked this out without actually talking about it. I’d mourned his gruesome death, weathered it alone, but it’s easier to mourn someone you cared for, you don’t have to feel that you aren’t allowed, that your grief is melodramatic self-indulgence.

My bartender, Alec, and I never socialized outside of the bar, never really inside either. He was one of those people that are part of your life outside of established or courted friendship, who you don’t think too much about until they are gone. Not gone like moved away, but dead gone. Didn’t know shit about him.

Just took advantage. Like I do when someone amuses me. Or deals with the shit I won’t. Or takes responsibility when I can’t. Or is generally a better person than me.

I sat on the small strip of beach behind my house and thought about what I didn’t want to think about. Thought about myself. Shifted over to the broader stretch of beach on Mr. Scott’s abandoned property and tried to do some communing with him spiritually.

Such bullshit.

All of it.

So I picked myself up off the sand, out of the hollow I’d dug with my ass, took Mr. Scott’s bike out of my garage and rode it off island.

pencilGina Sakalarios-Rogers lives in Pensacola, Florida. She has published fiction in The Bare Root Review, Toasted Cheese, Flash Fiction Online and Foxing Quarterly. She was nominated for a 2006 Pushcart Prize and was voted a notable story of 2006 in StorySouth Million Writers Award. Email: ginaasr[at]gmail.com

Natural Disaster

Fiction
Gina Sakalarios-Rogers


Wow. Pineapple Mojito
Photo Credit: John Dunsmore

Hurricanes aren’t tragedies. Maybe if someone dies in an unexpected or unpreventable way, then it is tragic. A tree falls on a house and kills everyone inside is a tragedy. The hurricane itself is just nature.

I’m not a cold bitch. I lost my home, my boat, a close friend, and a lifetime of memories during the storm last year.

Hell, I may be among the few who don’t think it was such a bad thing. I lived, so who gives a shit about insurance woes and recouping financially for all the stuff that we lost. Most of it wasn’t important anyway. As George Carlin said, smart man that he was, it’s just stuff anyway.

I got a new life, so I’m not complaining at all.

The worst thing now is those people who get all excited at hurricane season, but can’t admit that the excitement comes from wanting the storms to come our way, wanting the shake up of the usual routine that storms bring. All the rush to stock up is to keep them out of the last minute panic lines, so they can look responsible. They can then sit back and enjoy the anticipation of tracking the storm, giving their learned assessments of where it will make landfall.

These people annoy me, like the guy in my bar earlier tonight.

I’m trying to enjoy a drink without hearing the inane noise the bartender has tuned in on one of those constant news networks. There’s some tropical disturbance out in the Caribbean, which is, of course, being “closely monitored” for its “potential to intensify” overnight into the next killer storm. I don’t need to see the news anchor to know he’s salivating at the opportunity. I can hear in his reporting of the speculation about the effect of any sized storm on the oil spill in the Gulf that he’s hit weather reporter gold.

I should fire my new bartender for his obsession with the news.

I don’t want a conversation, but there’s some yahoo at the bar drinking a Mai Tai who does.

“It’s just a tropical depression,” he says. “Gulf’s too cold for a big storm right now with all this rain. Storms out in the gulf all the time, so that’s not gonna change the oil situation anymore than shifting currents.”

Since it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself, I keep my nature at bay. No need to talk to him at all really.

Until he says, “If a storm comes in I’m ready. I stocked up the day hurricane season opened and all the stores did that tax-free thing on supplies.”

So he asked for it, I figure.

“You got gas stored in your garage, generator at the ready? Ice in the freezer and canned goods in the pantry. I bet there’s fresh batteries in the flashlight and Coleman lanterns in the hall closet. You have a pyramid of bottled water in the dining room and precut and numbered plywood for the windows out in the new workshop you got the insurance to pay for when the neighbor’s tree took your old one out last year. No matter what you say about that oil you got ideas in your head about how BP could maybe pay you a little bit for some way it’s messed up your way of life.”

He was unwilling to accept this as his due for being a jackass; most jackasses are. His reaction though was not one that I expected.

I’ve seen very few men break down in tears. This guy was the first to burst into tears like a child whose sucker just fell in the dirt. Hell, his sucker was immediately covered with ants who wanted a bite at him as well.

I didn’t know what to do. So I got up and let the bartender handle it.

He called me a cold bitch. I’ll fire him when I get back from the chaos at the hardware store.

 

Standing in lines at banks and grocery stores makes my nerves tingle. It’s dead time. Lines full of antsy, hurricane-rattled, last-minute preparers singes my entire nervous system. I become one of those obnoxious people who everyone else in line sees as self-important when I say things like “Hope this place is well-built ’cause it looks like this is where we’ll all be when the storm gets here.”

I was in the store for two hours, fighting for the few remaining sheets of three-quarter-inch OSB and standing in line. When I got back to the bar, I wanted a cold drink before hauling all that wood into the storage room.

What I walked into was Jim Cantore on both televisions over the bar, telling all of my patrons and anyone else watching that the potential for the Category Two hurricane to strengthen to a Four and hit the Panhandle was looking more and more likely.

“Turn that off,” I said. Not yelling yet, trying not to project the store frustration onto this situation, which required an entirely different level of anger.

My bartender raised his eyebrows at me like he couldn’t believe I’d made this request. “They’re going to have this expert on next who’s going to try to convince us that the hurricane won’t pick up oil and sling all the hell over our homes and everything else.”

“The news is one thing, but no Weather Channel in here.”

“But this storm—”

“Fear mongering is all it is. Ratings nirvana. Turn it off.”

I climbed the bar. No one expected this. I kicked a margarita into an outraged snowbird’s lap.

“Hey,” someone said from the far end of the bar by the toilets.

“What?” Yelling now.

“I’d like to know how soon it will be here,” the newly-sticky snowbird said.

“What?” still yelling.

“The hurricane,” my unemployed-but-unaware-yet bartender said.

“Category Two,” said the snowbird’s husband/boyfriend/son/whatever. “Is that serious?”

“No,” from me.

“Yes,” from the bartender.

“Please turn it back on,” the lady said.

I turned it on, not wanting to be irrational. They had a right to know, but not from storm mania central. If it was headed our way, it would be on the local station. Henry, the weatherman and frequent patron, who is hopelessly obsessed with his scandalous co-anchor, stood in front of a map of the Gulf of Mexico pointing, with a smile, at the loathed red hurricane symbol twirling like a kid’s pinwheel back and forth on a muddy yellow dotted line meant to represent its projected path. Along this path lay the now too familiar outline of the oil slick, red for definite area of oil and impact, yellow for the possible.

The snowbirds began making plans to leave, wanted to know how soon they should get out.

The bartender said, “There’ll be a few more years of this kind of storm activity they say. They also said that no matter how quick this oil is cleaned up we’ll still be dealing with it for years. We’re screwed no matter what, dude.”

I let him finish pulling a couple beers and serving them up so I’d have enough time to really work myself into a righteous lather before launching into the argument I now wanted us to have.

“So how do they know what they say is true?” I asked my fired-as-soon-as-we-boarded-the-place-up bartender.

“Scientific studies. I saw this guy on TV, this researcher, who studies mud or something at the bottom of swamps and can read the hurricane history from it somehow. He said that these intense hurricanes are part of a naturally recurring cycle that’s happened many times in planetary history and will last about twenty years.”

I snorted. Snorting is always a good sign of derision. It’s as classic as the middle finger and as eloquent as any Shakespearean barb.

“Global warming,” was my verbal response.

The idiot bartender laughed.

None of us listened to what Henry the weatherman was saying about the storm. We just assumed, as most do now, that it would come for us and it would intensify, be maybe a Three by the time it got here in two days.

As I informed my bartender of the link between storm intensity and global warming, while denouncing his mud scientist as a swamp-brained distractionist, I worried about how full of shit I might actually be myself.

This storm damaging my bar too seriously was a long shot since its concrete slab foundation and block wall construction had weathered every hurricane thrown at it since it was built in the fifties. Unlike my former house, whose nineteen-eighties slab-and-stick frame, up to a then-inadequate building code, was non-existent after Ivan swept across the island last year.

I wanted to be brash, like a Two was no worries. “We’ve got the remainders of a wedding party coming in here soon. This hurricane crap won’t be on when they show up.”

My reliable cynicism, sharp tongue, and quick temper were wimping out on me. I couldn’t summon them. Even my normally impassioned “we’re heating up the planet with toxic crap and killing ourselves” global warming speech was lukewarm, rote speechifying at best. My much-wanted argument with my smug bartender offered me no relief because it hadn’t even been an argument. He didn’t jump in and I couldn’t summon up enough invective to goad him. I avoided the oil argument entirely. I hadn’t yet figured it out.

“You think they’re still coming?”

“Life doesn’t stop because there might be a hurricane on the way.”

“But we should be—”

“Get the champagne out of the cooler, get the glasses. Dammit, just get to work or I’m firing you now.”

“Instead of later?”

The lady snowbird at the bar said, “Oh, he’s been so pleasant to us. Don’t fire him. ”

I glared at her. I couldn’t really give her hell because, unlike so many other tourists who’d planned vacations to our beaches, she hadn’t cancelled her vacation because there might be some oil on the beach. She knew, I assumed, that there was more here than just a nice view.

 

Betty grew up on the island, and even though she couldn’t bring herself to live on it anymore, she was drawn back to it frequently.

I didn’t feel festive, no reason to. But Betty is Mr. Scott’s daughter and he was my friend and neighbor before the storm, and the crabs, got him. If he was still around, I’d be at the wedding having a good time. I’d just have to do some pretending for his daughter.

It doesn’t help, though, when you have to be polite to acquaintances that you aren’t particularly interested in seeing or knowing anymore. Meeting acquaintances you didn’t care to see in a small bathroom where the close quarters make polite chatter a necessity multiplies the unpleasantness. Especially when you are made to feel uncomfortable in your own territory.

She smiled as she dried her hands and said, “Hello.”

Abby Sanford has a habit of looking at you head to toe when she greets you. It’s like she’s reading a sentence, taking in the meaning of your appearance. Subject and verb. Hair too slick, clothes a bit too big. The meaning of your sentence only diagrammable by Abby.

She was out the door before I even got out my reluctant, “Hello.” There is the possibility that my sentence wasn’t hard for her to read: “This is a secondhand outfit I’m uncomfortable in, but I need to keep up appearances after my arrest.”

Abby Sanford lost nothing of any significance in the storm—a couple of trees, some shingles, her mailbox. You bet she collected though, got a new roof for those few shingles.

I, however, lost my home, my best friend, and, after sneaking onto the island and getting arrested, my job teaching American Lit at the community college in town.

I would like to have asked Abby if she was a friend of Betty’s or Marvin’s. I couldn’t picture her being friendly or even acquainted with either one of them. They are outdoors, outgoing, friendly. Abby is at best unremarkable, dull most often. She’s one of those people that’s just there, whose life outside the context in which you know them is hard to imagine. They leave work or school or the bar or wherever and then they cease to exist until they come back. They go gray.

I thought it would be entertaining to observe how she functions in a festive atmosphere. I’d lay down a hefty bet that she dances by the book.

Her husband would read what he wanted into the book and, therefore, be a sloppy dancer convinced he’s Fred Astaire. When Abby’s husband, Oliver, ordered a mojito, he mocked my bartender for not knowing how to make it and not knowing that it was the favorite drink of Ernest Hemingway.

It’s a shitty drink, and Hemingway never touched one.

I made it. Oliver, what a dumbshit name, thanked me and asked me if I knew much about Hemingway.

I said yes.

“Just read a good one myself,” he said. “Hemingway’s Hurricane. It’s been out for awhile, but I just got around to reading it.”

I nodded, watched him sip at his mojito like a woman. Men like Oliver don’t want to be surprised into making an unflattering face if they gulp a drink that is too sour or too strong. He finished half of his mojito in the next swallow, leading me to believe that he found its potential to make him look less than manly non-existent. It was a safe drink. It didn’t mess up his manicured-to-look-weathered style.

“Hemingway didn’t drink mojitos,” I told him.

He laughed. “He made them popular.” He raised his glass as he said this like we were toasting the old man.

“No,” I insisted, “he did not drink them. It’s a marketing myth swallowed wholesale by men hoping to project a larger than life, grab-life-by-the-balls machismo that they can’t possibly possess unless they consume the affectations of the lives of their heroes.”

This was intended to shut him up. Unfortunately, my bullshit doesn’t fly with people equally as full of it.

“What the hell do you know about me or Papa?”

“Papa,” I said, “Like you know the man.”

“I do know the man. I’ve read his books.”

“Oh, well then you know him well,” I raised my glass. “Cheers.”

“Well enough to know what he’d say to you.”

“Which is?” He didn’t expect this I’m sure. His line was meant to shut me up, but I don’t shut up easily. So he said what he was thinking, and, unfortunately, most likely what the old man would have said himself.

“Bitch.”

I laughed. “It’s my new profession,” I told him. “What’s yours?”

“Retirement.”

Impossibly, I didn’t have a line for this. I kept my mouth shut. Surely this jackass wasn’t forced into his retirement though. No one told him he was too stressed, stretched thin, storm-worn to continue. He didn’t need a break, some time to rest, to straighten out the debris of his life.

Hemingway’s Hurricane,” I said, “was not written by Ernest Hemingway, so it is not a Hemingway book.”

He lifted his glass to the bartender and pointed at it, thinking he’s smooth because he can do this and talk to me without looking at me all at once. “He’s all over the story though, so he may as well have written it.”

“I don’t like jackasses like you in my bar,” I told him, like he gave a shit, but I was mad and had to keep my mouth running.

“Jackasses like me don’t willingly go to bars owned by bitches like you.”

Abby crept up at this point in our conversation, so I lashed out at her. “So you have to be forced by nosy, gossipy bitches like her?”

Astonishment from Abby. Indignation from the jackass.

There was yelling, bad words I won’t share because you surely know them. Name calling, threats to punch me. My requests to see if he had a lot of hair on his chest.

They left. Abby red-faced. My name to be smeared all over the community college English department on Monday.

I apologized silently to Mr. Scott via the large photo mounted on an easel behind the cake.

That damn photo made me uneasy. I could see it from every position behind the bar. Betty’s uncle, on her mother’s side, put a barstool with Mr. Scott’s favorite drink, Jack Daniels over ice, in front of it.

A bar full of jackasses. But I smiled and laughed at the sentiment, somehow, for Mr. Scott via Betty, I guess. Mr. Scott, like Hemingway, would agree that “an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.”

Fortunately, the cake was cut, the bride and groom pummeled out of the bar and into their taxi by birdseed-wielding friends, before I was no longer able to smile.

The leftovers, those people who just won’t leave once the party is over, hovered around the pool tables, drinking, talking, rolling the balls around the tables, but not playing.

The TVs were back on, some snowbirds drifted in from the overcrowded restaurant next door. They ordered the inevitable fruity drinks.

My bartender put the hurricane’s-gonna-drown-us-in-oil news back on.

“So how much longer do we have before we should get out of town?” one of the snowbirds asked my no-longer-fired-because-I’d-lost-the-mood bartender.

“You should’ve left already if you’re gonna leave,” he said. “I had a friend last year, got stuck on the interstate trying to get out of town too late. Traffic even now is going to suck.”

“We should stay,” his companion said. “When it passes we might be able to help out with the oil and things, you know.”

These guys were young, college kids maybe. Well-intentioned, I guess. I really shouldn’t have thrown them out when they started seriously making plans to stay and help clean up the oil that the hurricane was going to toss all over the beaches and homes and animals. They meant well. They tried to tell me so. They suggested that they could try to make my bar some sort of home base for the friends they planned to call in with clean water, since surely all of our available water resources would be contaminated by flying oil.

My bartender tried to restrain me. I punched him. He told me he was going to quit.

pencil

Gina Sakalarios-Rogers lives in Pensacola, Florida where she is an instructor of composition and creative writing at the University of West Florida. She received her M.A. at UWF and her Ph.D. from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. She has published fiction in Toasted Cheese, The Bare Root Review, and Flash Fiction Online. She was nominated for a 2006 Pushcart Prize and was voted a notable story of 2006 by StorySouth Million Writers Award. Email: rsakalariosrogers[at]uwf.edu

Pillaged

Fiction
Gina Sakalarios-Rogers


Mrs. Fisk is a collector. Cup and saucer sets, linens, and anything at all related to monkeys. Those are the things she looks for, but she’ll buy anything she thinks is “a steal.”

We arrived at the house at 25 Meadowlark Lane at 8:30 on a damp, windy Florida February morning. We needed to get there early so no one would beat us to the treasures. Whenever Mrs. Fisk used this word, I saw old ladies dragging chests of Sinatra records, flowery dresses, and strings of pearls from attics and basements. Pirates with etiquette.

There was a small cluster of nine or ten people gathered on the front porch. They all knew one another and greeted Mrs. Fisk as she claimed the bottom step. She introduced me by saying, “She’s a first-timer.”

While I was trying to decide between an excited or somber “hello,” a young man in well-worn khakis with many pockets and a faded yellow linen shirt thrust his hand at me. “Good luck in there. If you see something you want pick it up, don’t leave and think it over while you look around. If you do, it won’t be there when you go back for it.” He was obviously going with excited, potential treasure outweighing the presence of death.

“What are you hunting?” asked a tall man in a red flannel shirt.

“I like books,” I said. I’d chosen somber, with a politely excited smile.

“Ah. There’s always books. You can have them. I’m after the tools. You aren’t looking for tools too are you?”

“No. Just books.”

“Good enough.”

As 9:00 approached, the mood on the porch became tense and the loose crowd of people began to form a clear line. People shifted one foot to another, waiting for the door to open. No more fellow felling on the porch steps, now. Position was important. Everyone decided which room to head for first.

“They won’t let us in until exactly 9:00. The guy that’s running this sale never does,” Mrs. Fisk told me. “You have to really bargain with him, too. He’ll tell you that prices are firm the first day of the sale, but if you bother him enough he’ll break down just to get rid of you. If he doesn’t, hide what you want and come back for it tomorrow.”

He opened the door one minute early.

“He must be in a good mood,” I said.

The door opened and a tall young man in glasses waved everyone in. He had a table set up by the door and he greeted the first few people rushing through the door by name, including Mrs. Fisk. She just nodded. I smiled, head down, and said, “Hello.”

The hall opened into a dining room that once may have been very elegant. A massive Eastlake mahogany dining set was the centerpiece of the room. Large, white price stickers marred the deep glow of the dining table, china cabinet, and sideboard. Beyond this room was a living room with a long yellow embroidered couch, a slender ebony inlaid coffee table, and a delicate Victorian wicker rocker, all spoiled by the round white price stickers. The living room and dining room were separated by an archway and there was a lady standing in the arch.

“She works here. Makes sure no one steals anything,” Mrs. Fisk said, as she rummaged through a box of linens next to the sideboard.

“What do you mean works here? Isn’t this someone’s home?”

“Oh, no. Well, yes, it was, or is. I don’t know the story on this house. Amanda,” she called to the lady in the doorway, “is this person dead or in a home? What’s the story?”

“She passed away.”

“Thanks,” Mrs. Fisk said and went back to rifling through the linens, scattering them onto the floor at her feet. “Go find your books. You don’t have to stick with me.”

“The books are in the study,” Amanda said. “Go through the kitchen and around the corner past the back door.”

“Thanks. This is my first time,” I explained.

In the kitchen a woman and her husband had dumped a drawer of flatware on the counter and were pulling out all the forks, separating them into small piles according to pattern. I stepped over the drawer that lay discarded in the middle of the floor into another hallway.

There were delicate, hand colored etchings of Paris and Rome lining the walls of the hall, sloppy red prices scrawled onto the price stickers. The hardwood floor framed a blue, gold, and green rug. Persian or Oriental, I didn’t know, but I got the feel from it that I wasn’t going to be able to afford anything I might find in this house.

The young guy in the khakis whom I had met out front was in the study. I hadn’t gotten his name, so I tagged him Zippo guy when I saw his fanaticism for the lighters he was inspecting.

“You’re a special one,” he said to a lighter he held close to his nose. “Ah, flinty. Don’t you love that smell.”

There was a sign on the wall that said, “Hard covers $2 Paperbacks 50 cents unless otherwise marked.” The large room was filled with books.

I could see myself sitting in an overstuffed lounge chair in the middle of the room, a lamp on a small table next to me, and books lining every wall. Paperbacks mixed in with hard covers. Books arranged not according to what they looked like, what they were worth, and especially not alphabetically, but according to subject. History with history, adventure with adventure, classics with classics, plays with plays, mysteries with mysteries, reference books with reference books, and on and on.

Now there were crooked piles of books on the floor, on tables, under tables where they had fallen off, some crammed into bookcases wherever they would fit, and those few that still stood, somehow managing to transcend the chaos to stand dignified and upright.

The books were piled up in the room like a pirate’s booty waiting to be discovered, so I dug in. The chaos enticed me, made me less reverent and cautious in my handling of the books than I was in the rare and used bookstores I frequented.

*

I was almost finished going through the books an hour later. I couldn’t linger over the books the way I wanted because of a man who had come in wearing a bright blue T-shirt with “Book Cellar” and a phone number printed in bright gold letters across the back. He crowded next to me and started grabbing books before I was able to get into a comfortable mood with them.

I had worked my way around the room where the Zippo guy was still fondling lighters. “You need a box to protect your things,” he said.

I looked down at the books in my stack. There were some I’d been hunting for a few months—the last two original James Bond paperbacks I needed to finish my set and a 1920s hard cover edition of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. I didn’t want to lose these. “A box. Sure. Where can I find one?”

He pointed under the table. When I pulled out the box a stack of small red leather books with gold-lettered spines fell over. They were only about half the size of a paperback. I reached for them, but the book guy, who’d lurked closer to me when I bent under the table, got them first. He thumbed through them, then looked around the room, scanning the shelves and the piles on the floor.

“Have you seen any more of these?” he asked.

I shook my head at the ass.

“Well then,” he said holding the books out to me, “you can have them. They aren’t worth anything without the rest of the set.”

I held small late Victorian editions of Shakespeare’s plays Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Titus Andronicus in my hands. They each had fine etchings before the title page. The pages were thin, but heavy, paper and there was a red ribbon to be used as a page marker sewn into the binding. The page edges were gilt.

“These are more valuable than you think,” I said to him.

He came up from under the table with two Dickens volumes in his hand. “No they aren’t,” he said. “Not unless you have the rest of the set. Even then, they are common.”

I turned my back on him and pretended to be interested in the Zippo guy’s lighters.

He pulled a book and its cargo of lighters closer.

“I already have one of those,” I said. “Mine is from 1932. Is that a Webster’s New International? It looks just like mine. I weighed it on my bathroom scale right after I bought it. 15 pounds. I’ve never had mine appraised.”

The Zippo guy shrugged. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I’m only paying two bucks for it though, no more.”

“Why do you want it?” I asked the Zippo guy.

He just shrugged.

“There she is. Are you having any luck? Find any good deals?” Mrs. Fisk came rushing into the room. She peeked into my box. “Well, I guess you have. I’ve got some more looking to do, but I want to go ahead and pay for these things so I don’t have to lug them around.” She held up a small box full of linens, topped off by a small porcelain monkey holding a violin. “I found another little guy for my monkey band. I need your keys so I can lock this stuff in your car. Want me to take those books out for you so you can look around some more?”

“Yes. Thanks.” I gave her the keys and some money for the books.

“I’ll bargain him down on these for you,” she said. “No use paying full price if you are going to take so many off their hands.”

*

When I passed through the kitchen again it was wrecked. A woman was stuffing cans and boxes of food into a garbage bag. “It’s free,” she said. “They can’t charge for it.” She pulled a bottle of vodka out of the cabinet over the oven. “The booze is free too.”

In the hall to the bedrooms, people were shuffling past each other with armloads of stuff.

In the first bedroom a lady not much older than Mrs. Fisk was dumping some cheap costume jewelry into her purse and into the pocket of her purple jacket.

In the next bedroom there were clothes piled on a large metal canopy bed. The blue brocade bedspread was in a heap on the floor. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the room, so I went in. I picked up a pink chenille sweater from the floor. A sign on the wall read, “Dresses, purses, shoes, other clothing $4.” Cheaper than the thrift store I went to sometimes.

I had one arm into the sweater when a lady in a white dress suit with a Chanel scarf around her neck came out of the closet. “Hey, that’s mine. I threw it on the bed there. That’s my pile.”

She bumped into the dresser, sending a picture frame sliding across the floor. A skinny gray-haired lady in too bright pink lipstick smiled up at me from the photo at my feet.

“That sweater was on my pile, miss.” The lady in the Chanel shook a hanger at me. “Give me the sweater.” She tugged on the empty sleeve so hard I spun half around and tripped over my own feet. When I hit the floor, the woman pulled the sweater free. She picked up the pile of clothes on the bed and looked down at me, and said, “Pink is my color.” Then she left.

I lifted the dust ruffle of the bed to find the picture that had slid under when I fell to the floor. I grabbed the photo and slid around the bed on my butt towards a book shaped dark object at the head of the bed.

It was Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. An appointment card for a doctor’s visit, dated only three weeks ago, for Anna Marchette marked the page where Robert Jordan and Maria feel the earth move.

I hugged the book to my chest, set the photo of Anna face down on the night table, and left the bedroom.

The book didn’t look new, but it was in very good condition. There were a few minor bumps to the corners and a little tear in the dust jacket at the top of the spine, but these were minor flaws. I opened to the publication page. First edition. In good condition. Original dust jacket. There was no shiny white price tag in or on the book. Someone could buy it for the two dollar hard cover price announced on the signs in the study.

I hurried down the hall, holding the book tight. Mrs. Fisk and a friend were waiting for me.

A tall elderly woman was sitting on the embroidered yellow couch clutching a photo album to her chest and watching people pillaging Anna’s home for bargains and treasures.

“This is her sister’s house,” Mrs. Fisk whispered.

“It is,” said her friend. She was a small woman, who barely came up to my chin. “She shouldn’t be here. I never understand why family comes to these things.”

“I would think it would be unpleasant for them,” said Mrs. Fisk. “I wouldn’t want people rummaging through my family things, or my own at that. Buying my things. That’s awful to think of.”

Mrs. Fisk turned her back to the sister and stepped in close to her friend. She pulled a small brooch out of her dress pocket. “Look what I found stashed under the bathroom sink. Someone must have hid it there for tomorrow when Bill will half price and negotiate.”

“Oh, that’s pretty,” said her friend. “How much is it?”

“I don’t know. There’s no tag on it.”

“Well, just slip it in your pocket. They don’t know it’s here.”

“That’s stealing,” I said.

“They’ll never miss it. Besides the lady’s dead, she doesn’t need it. If it was important to the sister she would have found it,” Mrs. Fisk said, slipping the brooch back into her pocket. “Are you ready?”

I held the Hemingway at my side, tapping the bulk of it against my thigh.

“Yes.”

*

The line at the front door was long and slow, so I was trapped listening to Mrs. Fisk prattle on about her monkey band.

“Do you need that book for your collection?” Mrs. Fisk asked me.

“I’m not a collector.”

“But you have all those books,” said Mrs. Fisk. “All neat and dusted. You take good care of them like I do my linens and my monkeys. I’d call that a collection, which makes you a collector.”

“I don’t buy them to collect. I buy them to enjoy,” I said.

“So do I,” Mrs. Fisk said. She was smiling at me like she knew something I didn’t. This old woman who was going to steal a junky old brooch she could very well afford to pay for. I could never afford a first edition Hemingway. She was just smiling and smiling as if even when she did pay for something she wasn’t stealing. That’s what she did; she looked for “steals.” She’d said it to me a hundred times. “Oh look at this monkey, it was a steal. What a treasure.”

“What is that book?” she asked now. “It looks old.”

“It’s a Hemingway, and it is old.”

“That makes it valuable doesn’t it?” she asked.

“Old doesn’t necessarily mean valuable. It’s two bucks and that’s what I’m paying.”

“See. A steal.”

“The brooch you’re stealing,” I said. “What’s it worth? Are you really going to enjoy it, stealing it from a dead lady like a grave robber.”

“Oh, my god,” yelled Mrs. Fisk. “Oh, how can you? Did you hear what she said? Stealing? Me? Never. No.”

Her friend hugged her as people in line started to look our way. I think I must have been the only one who saw Mrs. Fisk slip the brooch down the front of her friend’s dress.

I fled to the living room.

There was the sister, Anna’s sister, sitting on the couch looking through photo albums.

“Excuse me,” I said, sliding the Hemingway onto the couch between myself and the sister. “I think you might want this.”

The sister looked at the Hemingway. “I’m not much of a reader,” she said. “Anna was. She loved her books.”

The Zippo guy came up to us holding out a stack of letters. “I found these in an old dictionary. I looked at a couple. They’ve never been sent, but they were written by the lady that used to live here.” He smiled and winked at me as if we had some secret to share.

“My sister,” the woman said, taking the letters. She ran her fingers across the faint blue print on the first letter. “This one’s to her daughter, Isabella. She died when she was only fourteen. Anna told me she wrote letters to her and to our brother Horace who was killed in World War II. I looked all over the house for these.”

The Zippo guy handed her a handkerchief from one of his many pants pockets.

“Thank you,” she said.

“There’s only one with a stamp. I think that’s a good stamp, too. Worth a little bit of money,” he told her.

“Thank you for returning them to me.” She peeked into the Zippo guy’s boxes. “Oh, Henry’s lighters. I wish one of the kids had wanted these. Henry took such care of them.”

“I can tell.”

The sister reached into the Zippo box and pulled out a lighter. “Why don’t you just slip out the back door with me,” she said, stroking the surface of the lighter in her hand. “I’d much rather give them away than have them sold. It won’t seem so impersonal.”

The Zippo guy smiled, but shook his head. “Oh, no. You don’t need to do that.”

But of course Anna’s sister insisted. The Zippo guy’s resistance disappeared.

I grabbed the Hemingway and got up from the couch unnoticed by the sister and the crooked Zippo guy. I slipped into the hall, pressing my back to the wall and peeking around the corner to keep the Zippo guy and the sister in my sight.

I had tried to give the Hemingway to the sister. I was being honest. More honest than the guy she was leading through the kitchen and out the back door.

I hurried behind them hoping to get to the back door before the sister came back in and locked it.

“What are you doing?”

My hand was on the doorknob; I could have run.

Amanda was behind me. I stared at the “Adams’ Auctions and Estates” on her shirt, thinking fast, fast. What could I say?

“I was just looking outside for my friend. She’s not in here anywhere. I thought maybe she went outside.”

“Have you paid for that book you’re walking out with?” she asked.

“I’m not walking out with it. Mrs. Fisk told me she paid for it when she paid for my other books earlier.”

“Where are the other books?” Amanda asked.

“In my car,” I mumbled.

“Why do you still have that one then?” She held her hand out for the book.

“Do you know Mrs. Fisk?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Too well.”

“She put a brooch she found in the bathroom down the front of her friend’s dress so that she wouldn’t have to pay for it. It looked expensive.”

She reached past me and locked the door.

“Anna’s sister won’t be able to get back in now. She helped the guy who buys lighters carry his things outside. She wanted him to have them for free.” I said this as if I thought it was the sweetest thing I had ever heard.

“Jesus, you people. Out this door?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. Go, go, go.

She went, leaving the door open.

I waited a beat and locked the door.

About five minutes later it was easy to slip past the chaos of people in the hallway held up by the argument between Bill, the Zippo guy, and Anna’s sister.

pencil

“I am currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi and an adjunct instructor of Composition, Literature, and Creative Writing at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. I have only 3 publication credits, however: a short story in Product, a short story in Emerald Coast Review X, and a poem in Nightmares. I write constantly, but am woefully undisciplined when it comes to submitting my work. I enjoy the writing much more than the marketing, I guess.” E-mail: ras[at]uwf.edu.