And I remember this, too, though I know it can’t have been real: Daddy standing up, stepping over the edge of the boat, and walking across the water to the shore, with me and Scotty in his arms, walking across the top of the ocean, taking me home to Momma, Rena, and Carly. I remember the way he cradled me, like I was still a baby, even with Scotty in my arms, and I remember that there was part of me that wanted to close my eyes and let it be a dream. Instead of closing my eyes, however, I looked down at Daddy’s feet leaving ripples on the surface of the ocean, and then out to the rocks and the shore of Loosewood Island, as he carried me across the water.
My own memories start on a boat. I was small enough that Daddy cut me down a rod, I think, though it might even just have been a stick with some twine tied to it. Whichever it was, it did the trick: I went to cast my line and I hooked Daddy’s lower lip with my lure. The metal was speared completely through the flesh. Blood spilled out of Daddy’s mouth, the silver dangle of the lure flashing in the sun. I remember that I cried when he yelled at me, but he says that I’ve got the story wrong, that it was the other way around, that he yelled at me because I cried, and that sounds about right for my father.
Yes, if he thought about it he was hungry, that morning he’d had only an Italian cappuccino, maybe because the evening before he’d gone overboard. He’d eaten oysters at the Paris Bar, at this point he went to the Paris Bar almost every evening, when he wasn’t alternating with other chic restaurants. Don’t you get it, knucklehead, he murmured, you acted like a Franciscan your whole life, I on the other hand have a ball at chic restaurants, I eat oysters every night, and you know why?, because we aren’t eternal, my dear, you said so yourself, and so it’s worth eating oysters.
We’re named the Kings, and we’re the closest thing to royalty on Loosewood Island. The story goes that when the first of the Kings, Brumfitt Kings, the painter, came to Loosewood Island near on three hundred years ago, the waters were so thick with lobster that Brumfitt only had to sail half of the way from Ireland: he walked the rest of the way, the lobsters making a road with their backs. He was like Jesus walking on the water, except there was no bread to be found anywhere.
The majority of the two hundred and fifty thousand cards had survived, but only because sun and water exposure had transformed those at the top of the pile into a tough papier-mâché crust that protected the others beneath. As Raúl, a former trade unionist who was among the first would-be archival rescuers, sifted through more and more records, on his hands and knees alongside fellow activists clad in face masks and rubber gloves, he routinely stumbled upon the names of friends and acquaintances now alive only in documents and memories.
The Chains That Keep
Brought to you by the Guernica/PEN Flash Series
I usually idle by Spades Check Cashing on 8th Ave. and catch folks that way. The Homestead cops, they moved stations from a little up Amity to down on 7th, which is closer to Spades, but they leave me alone. I’ve drove jitneys almost ten years. Only been cited twice, arrested once. My woman, she don’t mind my work. We never married or nothing, so it’s okay to stay out; sometimes I think she wants a child, and I wouldn’t mind that, but the extra cash is good.
Kid knocks on my window. Young dark-skinned dude, probably needs to go up West St. Couple bucks. I roll down my window. “Need a ride?”
He says, “Yes sir,” real polite. Funny ’cause he looks like a little thug. Zip-up jacket and saggy jeans. “How much to the Greyhound station, sir?”
“Downtown? Shit.” That’s farther than I like going. I think it over. It’s late—I just finished a cup of coffee, but I’m still tired. The kid seems jittery. He keeps holding at his side. Behind him’s two bags on the curb. He needs the ride; I cut him a break. “Ten bucks okay?”
The kid grins; probably the first good thing he’s heard all day. I unlock the doors. He sits in the back, puts one bag next to him and the other on his lap.
“Wanna come up front?”
“I ain’t holding, if you’re nervous.”
“I’m cool back here.”
I adjust my rearview. The kid’s sweating. I start to drive and stay quiet. Once we’re across the High Level bridge and heading towards Pittsburgh, I say, “So what’s going on?”
He’s off-guard with that. “Just need to get a bus.”
“Go to school?”
He says, “Yessir,” instantly, like he’s said it to a dozen officers.
“What’s your name?”
He messes with the bag in his lap, finally looks up at me. “Al.”
His eyes shift around. “Thanks for the ride, Jerome.”
I nod. “It’s a school night, Al, why ain’t you in bed?”
He don’t answer; he’s muttering to himself, legs shaking, and playing with the one bag. Drugs or whatever inside. Something. I don’t ask. He sees me staring through the rearview and stops. Every streetlight we pass, his face gets shinier. He unzips his jacket, I notice blood on his shirt. Stabbed, probably. This thug shit ain’t working for him.
“Seein’ Grammy for a while?”
He’s more comfortable with that. “Yes, sir…For a while.”
“When’s your bus?”
It’s about a quarter till so I take some shortcuts. Dude’s still messing with his bag. I tell him it’s okay.
He’s silent until we’re pretty close. “Ever drive a chick named Jasmin?”
“What’s she like?”
He smiles. “Big girl, got short hair, keeps it did good.”
“That’s half my rides on rainy days.”
He frowns, presses his side again. His face is just black, outlined with sweat, two big eyes in the middle. “She rides jitneys sometimes, so, you know, if you see her.”
“Sure. I’ll say hi.”
We get to the station. I park at the cab stand.
He wipes his forehead. “Ten, right?”
He digs in his pocket and pulls out a gum-banded roll. He hands over a bill, half stained dark.
He looks at me. “Like, I wanted to be a man, wanted to provide. But I couldn’t.” He’s looking at me but he’s not talking to me. It’s like he’s staring behind me or through me or something.
Some Mexican in a Yellow Cab comes up behind me and hits the horn. The kid gets out and walks off. I shift to drive.
“Hey, hold up!”
I put my passenger window down. He comes back. “Y’know what—here.” He undoes the gum-band and drops most of his roll into the empty seat. “You see Jasmin, tell her I’m sorry.”
He hears an announcement and staggers off quickly, bag hanging from his shoulder. The Mexican behind me lays on it again. “MY cab stand!”
I take off as fast as I can to get the hell away from him.
Later, heading back, I turn my radio on and think. “If you see Jasmin…” Please. Ain’t my business. Still, I end up feeling sorry for the kid. Nobody oughta be that troubled. I take my time going home. All that money; I won’t need to jitney for a while.
The reception on my radio’s bad, I keep hearing noise. I turn the dial around but it won’t stop. Halfway across the High Level bridge I glance at the rearview and see the dude left one of his bags.
I shut off the radio. The noise don’t go away. I turn right; there’s a Walgreens just off the bridge; I pull into the parking lot, jump out the car, look around, and open the back door. The bag’s half-zipped. I open it and step back. There it is—a boy, I believe. Maybe a month old. It’s not crying, just making small sounds. It looks at me and smiles.
A cop drives by slow, stopping at the light by the bridge. He turns his head towards me. The Walgreens is closed. Nobody else is around. There is a lot of dark money in my car. I hurry and close the door, crouch down and pretend to mess with my front tire. I stand, kick it, and get back in.
I start the car and head down 7th Ave. I hit a pothole. The baby starts crying. I pass the police station. My head hurts and I got no idea what to do. None. I just begin going around the block, trying to clear my head. I avoid potholes. The baby calms down. I look back and see the baby is sleeping. That makes me feel better. I keep thinking. Lord Jesus. All that money. The things people do. The things they don’t. It’s crazy.
I drive in circles for a long time.
I don’t know if it’s patriarchy or my deeply ingrained stripper instinct to please, but seeing a 65-year-old man working his fingers to the bone for chichi hipsters moving into Venice Beach and snapping up the real estate, a 65-year-old man with three ex-wives (one used to be a ballerina) and a kid he never spoke to growing weed someplace up in Humboldt County—well, if you care about that man, you want to see that man get laid. I’m not sure why sex is sometimes a gift we want to confer on those we love, but it is.
Maryann is the only person here who does not talk to me like I am retarded, and one day I think I might talk back. She goes to the church’s private school, has been there her whole life, but has somehow turned out normal, still seems capable of forming a thought that does not contain a Bible verse. We meet on the porch and watch the crowd channel through the front doors and down the steps out into the parking lot. Really she watches the crowd and I stare at her, her face mostly, which is fair and freckled and showcasing wide green eyes like I’ve never seen anywhere else, and also her chest, which always rises dramatically right before she’s about to speak. I shift my eyes away so that she doesn’t feel me ogling.
I remember bending over, hands on my knees; I nearly retched right there in front of her, my breath accelerating to the point that I thought I might hyperventilate. We were on the back deck, and I could see the pattern of swirls in the wood beneath my feet, the spots I’d missed when I’d refinished it a few weeks before. I think I could see through the wood, through the dirt beneath it, could see straight through the earth to something molten and boiling.
Do all cuckolds start out fearless and end up foolish? Perhaps. What is certain is that we end up at the wrong end of the telescope, looking back at the life we thought we were leading and seeing a new landscape, wide and weirdly proportioned, and suddenly filled at the edges with men we always knew were there but never really noticed: the fat, the pathetic, and the stupid, all ten feet tall now and growing larger by the second. The cuckold knows betrayal as a form of revision: here is the life you thought you were living; now here is what really happened. For months, even years, he will have moments of pure recognition; he will meet a stranger’s eyes on the street, eyes that widen then quickly look away, and he’ll turn and stare, remembering the one time he met the man behind the eyes, and realizing suddenly, yes: he is another one. Or passing a bar he’ll remember her late-night phone call, her voice saying she was there, that all was well, the laughter in the background. It is like living twice. And who, really, wants to live twice? Everyone. Everyone but the cuckold.