She stood on the beach. The ocean. The blue sky. Barely a cloud. Sun dipping low. Late afternoon. Turned back, smiled.
He was awoke the next morning by Lisa as she tried stepping over him. He had passed out around the opening of the tent, wedged in a lean slot on the ground between tent and mattress.
“I’m so sorry for waking you!”
“Don’t be. Forget it. What do you expect. I’m the one blocking your way.”
“You have nowhere else to sleep?”
“There didn’t seem to be much room on the mattress and it was late and I didn’t want to wake anyone.”
“Yet it is your tent and I the one waking you.”
“Forget it. It’s nothing. How did you sleep?”
“Very good. Thanks. And you?”
“Adequate. The little I got. But I’m fine. I’ll be OK.”
“You had good time with Dan then?”
“Good time. Good time had by all. Can you do me a favour? Can you call me when coffee’s ready.”
“That I can. Yes.”
“That would be swell. Thanks.”
J. dozed a while, then got up. He stood and stretched, outside the tent. It was cool. Still early. Probably. He assumed. He didn’t have his watched handy and liked that, the not knowing the time exactly. It was liberating somehow. A similar breakfast was being cooked up and J. tried lending a hand this time. But there wasn’t much to be done, they were managing fine on there own. He wound up moving a few things from the cooler to the picnic table, then sat and waited.
The food wasn’t as good as the morning before. Runny eggs. The bacon hard and blackened. J. didn’t say anything. He thought it best. The girls were all gloomy quiet this morning and he took it as a sign to do same.
He was still waiting on the coffee when Dan appeared. He walked over tentatively, his bulky frame taking the form of a slouch. Slouched over. He asked J. if he had any aspirin. “Just to get goin’, you know.”
J. looked through his pack for the bottle of aspirin he’d bought on the way up but couldn’t find it now. Dan shrugged it off. He drank water from a bottle and went to inspect breakfast. His greeting was met with dull, wearied responses from the girls.
“What’s with you guys. Me and J. were the one’s stayed up late. You all went to bed early. Again.”
“We’re just tired, is all,” Desiree said.
“Yeah, I see that.”
Dan was less reticent than J. over the food. He picked at a few pieces but then gave up, disappointed with the quality. J. was by the coffee pot now, waiting for a sign of its readiness. Coffee. Coffee was the thing. Coffee would right everything. Whatever there was to be righted. Finally he started to pour a cup but the liquid came out a weak brown.
“Still not ready.”
“It takes awhile for it to build up,” Dan said.
“That’s what she said.”
A short while later they started to break camp. J. was over by the truck retrieving a fresh shirt when Dan approached. He was going into town for a breakfast proper and wondered if he wanted to come along.
“I should hang around and help pack up.”
“Sure. OK. Suit yourself,” Dan said and made for the door.
“You know what. Fuck it. I need a coffee. A decent cup. Bad.”
“There we go. All right. Hop in.”
They brought Jake along and drove to a small cafe. It was a cozy old building that played classic rock over the sound system. An old Neil Young song was on rotation as they entered. Long line-up, calm waiting. It smelled nice. Fresh things, enriching aromas. After they ordered they took a table outside, observing things, Jake spread out at their feet, panting happily. There was activity in all directions. Smiling, inviting flesh. Trucks crowded with people passing by on the way to somewhere, some outdoor activity. Older couples with little furry things on leashes. Their server brought out the food and coffee. She was a girl around J.’s age. A fetchingly elongated face. Long unfussed over dark hair. Jewellery of all kinds. Tattoos peeking out from clothing.
When she’d left Dan said, “You can’t throw a rock and not hit one of these attractive little honey babes. So fine. Tell me, J. How would you like to live here all summer?”
“I could live anywhere anytime. Well, almost anywhere,” J. said. “But it would be nice, I’ll give you that. I could get used to it.”
“Got that right. I had a great time last night. What a blast. The others sure missed out. They couldn’t keep up with us. Can you believe it. Can’t keep up with someone twice their age.”
“You bet it was. Say, what was up with that guy next to you?”
“Irish guy. He just got married. Couple kids. Asked to provide a fully-realized presentation and analysis of his love. Was at a loss.”
“Married. Really. I thought he was gay.”
“No. At least I don’t think so.”
At camp they helped finish packing and loaded up the truck. There was still time before the afternoon fishing, part two, and they spent it down at the beach. The girls and Ben positioned a blanket and sat. J. walked with Dan down the beach, Jake running and sniffing out things ahead of them. There were others out, walking. There was something ritualistic and defined about it, a morning stroll on the beach with strangers. Language was unnecessary. What they were taking part in was unspoken, requiring only gestures, acknowledging looks. The activity was complete in itself and marked everything else associated with it superfluous. They walked to the far end, where it broke off into forest and rock formations. Just before it was a nondescript cabin with canoes in front, nearer to the water, next to where some driftwood had collected. There were a couple large dogs engaged in scrapping play and Jake soon joined in. They growled and pawed. Barred their teeth. Lowered themselves to the ground in a front crouch and sprung at another. Good fun. When Jake came back over J. leaned down to pat him and noticed a spotting of blood around the shoulder blades. It wasn’t clear if it was Jake’s blood or one of the others. He didn’t seem to mind. He ran down to the water and splashed around and went running back over to the blanket, where J. now lay out with Desiree, Sandra and Ben. The tide was out and a group had formed in the newly exposed sand ahead of them. A few couples. Kids. Chairs set up. A surf board was present. There was some digging going on -- not clear toward what end. J. recognized a couple people from the fire. One of them was the guy Dan had been talking to, the one who had the pot. He looked older than he remembered. Nice haircut. He looked like he was in finances or possible home repair. He might have had a wife and kids even. Or J. was just imagining a history for him, like most strangers who caught his eye in public places who he had no intention of directly addressing. Imagining opened up endless possibilities to the point where the actual person couldn’t help being a let down -- all fixed in their psychology, a a well-crafted social self they had to present. Dan picked up the folding chair and went over but not before offering a parting remark, directed mostly at the girls. “I’m going over there to hang out with my friends.” They detected something off in his tone, the girls did, a slight dissonance, something possible cold or cutting, though nothing overt, and they chose to ignore it or didn’t follow through in its possible implications. At any rate they didn’t verbalize it. They hadn’t said much since the morning. At any rate not in English.
J. looked at them and then over at the group Dan was now with. A funny notion got into his head. Without much in the way of commitment or conviction in his voice, as if he still hadn’t convinced himself of what he was about to do, he said, “Watch this. I’m going to do something really dumb.” Then took off his t-shirt and started toward the water -- first in a brisk walk and then breaking out into a jog. He didn’t become aware of the cold until he was in past his knees. The wind was a contributing factor, noticeably stronger than back at the blanket. But it was exhilarating, at the same time. Being out in the open like that. Exposed. The whip of wind on bare chest. When it reached his waist he began to wade and he was gripped by a sensation of near breathlessness that had him close to convolution. He experienced a genuine split between his upper and lower half, a simulated severing of the torso. An incoming wave threw him slightly off balance, pushing him backwards and he quickly turned his momentum forward, throwing himself ahead in a decided plunge. He was momentarily disoriented when he came up and turned in time to get hit by a wave that again took him under. Submerged, his nose filled with saltwater. He broke through and shook it out, breathing hard. He watched the waves coming in. As the next one got closer he timed it so that he launched himself up just as it hit. The first time he was late by half a second and received another nose full of saltwater. The second time he caught it just right. It seemed to scoop him up and carry him it its grip. He did this a third and then a fourth time. He was brought in closer and closer to the shore and he started swimming out, hard deliberate strokes, all chest and arms, angling himself so he could swim through the waves, coming in at a sideways direction. He swam further out. His body was becoming accustomed to the water’s cool temperature. He came up and righted himself with gentle paddling, navigating the waves, his head bobbing above the surface like an errant volleyball. He saw a few boys ahead of him, back at shore, teasing each other near the water. He could barely make them out. They were skinny and shirtless. Scrawny. White torsos gleaming. Some came out to their knees and quickly retreated. He wondered how long he could stay out there. The hard part was over. He was in. But it was still cold, almost stinging. He caught a few more waves and made for the shore, swimming as far in as he could until land snuck up underneath and forced him into a walk.
Dripping and shivering he made for the blanket where he collapsed down in a soaking heap. He lay there on his stomach trying to get ahold of the cold-bite he felt. It radiated through him with each breath, consuming. The others had left. Dan came over and glancingly acknowledged his condition as he set down his chair and sat.
Something was happening. Or wasn’t rather. He wasn’t warming up. A girl came over and started talking to Dan. She was wearing a two-piece bikini with an old band T-shirt overtop and a long silk fabric tied around her waist, like a skirt. She had on flip-flops. A tattoo of what looked like a tiger or some other jungle creature, or maybe even reptilian in nature or else something more abstract, wrapped around her ankle. It was hard to tell exactly. She stood near J. and he looked up at her.
“I’ve been here with my group almost a week. I love it. I’m having a great time. Nothing like waking up with a little Bailey’s in your coffee. But I got to get back soon. Back into a routine. Work the Yoga. Tone up.”
He wondered how Dan knew her. Had she been at the fire? A lot of people had passed through. He missed most, busy with songs, lost in the electric buzz of the music. The noodling. He was smiling at her and looking for a chance to cut in, engage her. He wanted to get in on the exchange. Be a part of it. Make himself known to this cute surfer chick who stood so close, homebred and lithe. But words wouldn’t come out. He couldn’t stop shaking. His jaw was moving spastically now, uncontrollably. Eventually she left. He continued to shake. If anything it was getting worse. Approaching a faint seizure.
Then he remembered the hot tub. He had seen it through the large floor level window of the rec building. He put his shirt back on, got up and started off, teeth chattering all the way. Outside the building a work van was parked. Hadn’t been there before. He ignored it and went straight in. Down a hallway was a change room that led into the pool area. He moved quickly, tossing off his T-shirt and walking the length of the pool, headed straight for the hot tub. He lowered himself in, anticipating the snuggling warmth that would envelop him. But it was lukewarm at best. Hardly a relieve. It wasn’t hot at all. No steam rising off the surface. He sat there a moment, submerged and shaking. Then he noticed the workers moving back-and-forth from the van to the building with tools and other things. He put it together at once. It was broken. Clearly. A problem with the water heating system. Something.
Outside, he was dripping wet again. He sun-dried himself a moment, then got his pack and changed into dry clothes behind the truck. It was his best shot, his only shot. Then he went over to a sitting area that cut into the trees to one side of the parking lot. It consisted of large stones. There was shade but it was also in the sun. It would do. Across from it was a payphone that he saw Lisa at. He sat and watched her. She was talking in German to whoever it was on the other end. Probably someone German. A relative perhaps. Perhaps her mother. Most likely it was her mother. Seemed like. Must be. Therefore.
The conversation ended and she hung up and came over.
“Are you all right? You’re shaking.”
“I’m fine. I went for a swim. Water a little on the cool side. I’ll be alright. Who were you talking to just now, if you mind my asking?”
“No. It was my mom. Back home. I miss her.”
“How’s mom doing?”
“She’s doing good.”
“So what is the plan? Do you know what’s going on?”
“Not sure exactly. Back to the Marina. More fishing. Then back home, I guess. How have you liked it here?”
“It’s been wonderful. I hate to leave it. But I am looking forward to getting back as well. So much to do!”
They walked back to the beach together. Everyone had amassed around Dan and the blanket, awaiting further instruction. Dan told them of the fishing. After some huddled conversing they agreed to hang around the beach until they returned. Ben declined to come along this time. He was staying on the beach with the girls. It was decided. He was firm. It was left to Dan and J.
They still had some time when they got to the Marina so they went into the restaurant and ordered lunch. They sat out on the patio and looked over at the boats and the forested islands beyond. So much green and blue and white. Beers were brought out. Dan lit a cigar. He smoked it and offered some to J. Then they saw Chet’s boat come in to dock and Dan went down. J. fingered the cigar and took a couple puffs, then abandoned it. The shaking had subsided, his core gradually warmed, achieving a preliminary equilibrium. Still, there was some kind of nervous fragility, some kind of post-shock fatigue, that continued to linger, his nervous system weakened and recovering. The food arrived and he ate.
“Looks like we’re not going out again after all,” Dan said when he returned.
“I just talked with Chet. He was just out with this guy and they made a big score. Real big. I made a deal with him for the two biggest ones. Plus I’m going to bring back the rest for him. He lives on the mainland and I’m going to delivery it all to him at the end of the week when I go in to visit my brother. So it all works out. Now we’ll have something to show the others. Say we caught them right off and that’s why we’re back so soon.”
The man in question came over to join them. He was an older fellow, lean and wrinkled. He had wiry grey hair and a big thick moustache that concealed his upper lip. He smoked and talked over logistics with Dan. He spoke with an aggressive mumble, the movement of his lips barely detectable. Ventriloquist-like. They wrote things down on napkins. Addresses and numbers. Dates. Then they all got up, paid, and went down to the dock. At the weigh station the old guy stood with his two prime catches, one in each hand, arms slightly bend, just above waist level, sleek tails reaching almost to the dock. His taut, veiny arms strained from the weight and a cigarette dangled from his lips as someone digitalized the image on a camera.
The fish were packed in ice, put in the cooler and loaded onto the truck. Dan said goodbye to the old guy and they got in.
“We’ll want to round up the others and get back quick,” he said. “What with all this fish we got.”
Ben and Lisa were on the blanket with Jake when they returned. Desiree and Sandra had gone for a walk and hadn’t returned. Dan thought to call them on a cell but they had yet to get usable, local numbers since flying in. They were forced to wait.
Lisa had got up and left her book. J. picked it up, curious. It had a colourful cover. It was a German best-seller, Ben told him dismissively. Something only girls were interested in. “Chick lit,” J. said absently. He flipped through it and observed the strange markings on the page. He thought of all the philosophers and writers and political thinkers the country had produced in relatively recent history, going back a couple centuries; those he had read and studied and thought through expansively. It was while holding this piece of German pop-lit that it dawned on him that disposable culture wasn’t entirely a Western phenomenon. It was an obvious observation but required a trigger, like most obvious things awaiting conscious appraisal. Then again, maybe it had its merits. Beyond the trite cliches. Boy meets girl. Girl in the big city. Challenges. Hardships. Complications. The endless search for human connection.
Later he unwound his earbuds and put them on. He had brought his iPod along but this was the first time he’d brought it out. He toggled through the lists of bands, then albums, then songs. He selected Radiohead, their latest, first track. He listened to the music and looked out at the beach and the ocean. He liked how the forlorn, nearly suffocating atmosphere produced by the music contrasted with the sun-baked basking sheen of everything else. Like existing in two places at once. Lisa was back sitting across from him and he he took off the earbuds and handed them to her.
“Tell me what you think.”
She brought them to her ears and listened. After a moment she took them out.
“I like it but it is too dark.”
“Too dark,” he said.
“Too dark. Too -- depressing.”
He took them back and continued to listen, laying back on the blanket and looking up at the dizzying blueness.
Shortly after that he fell asleep. When he woke he knew instantly from the pinched feeling of his ears and the heat of his cheeks that the sun had worked him over. He took off his shirt and put it over his head and stared ahead, slumped and cross-legged. He felt like a desert mystic conjuring the tides. He thought of this and other variations to amuse himself while he waited. And waited.
Finally they returned. They had been gone a long time. They walked over from somewhere, Desiree and Sandra, a relaxed stride to their movements. Unassuming. Here they were. They were here. Dan was adamant about an explanation for where they were, where they’d been -- an insistence that seemed to greatly outweigh the explanation they offered, since they all already knew.
Dan wanted to hurry back because of the fish but he had one last spot he wanted to take them. His final act as island tour guide. This time, before setting off, he put Jake in the hatch. He thought it might be more comfortable for him, more spacious. He cleared a spot for him to settle into without threat of falling debris. At Long Beach, a few minutes away, in the parking lot, they let him out and he seemed exceedingly grateful for this. They brought cameras and started for the beach. There were piles of old driftwood they had to step cautiously over to get to it. A sudden change in the weather had occurred. It was cooler here. The sky slightly overcast, a two-tone grey. Tide low. J. noticed a lone person a ways off walking on a drying sandbar. He could barely be seen. He had a wetsuit on, stripped to the waist, and walked with his hands behind his back, gaze directed downward. He was like an apparition. A character from a French novel come to life. There was something resigned in his posture. The whole of his existence distilled to this one basic activity. Sad discovery. Towering surfaces. The day pulled back.
Beyond him great raging waves swelled and crashed. A group of surfers in wetsuits stood with their boards, contemplating another run.
There was a finality to things now settling in. Everyone spent. They took pictures, then got back in the truck and made the road. Jake was in the back again, the guitar stored safely in the hatch. There wasn’t much talking. The truck sighed with a collective exhaustion, feelings turned inward. J. stared out the window. Long stretches of deepening forest rolled by. Dan had satellite radio playing -- a small succession of modern sounds. Every other song was by the Rolling Stones. Something recent. The same song over and over. The chorus cued with dependable certainty. Rise, fall. Rise, fall. They stopped at a town along the way. A bistro for food and drinks. Then more road.
The city announced itself in stages. Diners. Scrap yards. RV rentals. The outskirts of civilization. Once inside the city limits Dan stopped at an All-Mart to pick up a few things. Ben went in with him and J. joined Lisa in the front, Jake at their feet. He wanted to say something to her but couldn’t. Or didn’t know what. Then he didn’t care either way and gave his attention to Jake.
The silence had built up obvious if ambiguous tension as they neared Dan’s street, at which point he spoke up.
“So you guys are still moving in?”
There was a swelling pause and then Sandra in an even, subdued voice said, “We’re not sure.”
“What do you mean you’re not sure?”
“We don’t know yet. We have to look around first.”
Dan stomped the brakes, the truck jolting to a stop. Everybody pitched forward slightly, simultaneously, before being snapped back by the elastic tug of their seatbelts.
“What is this? Look around. We had an agreement before we left. A verbal contract. You dropped all your stuff off. You were all but moved in.”
“We have to weigh different options before we decide,” Desiree said.
They were stopped in the middle of the road, across the street from a church.
“Sure, fine, of course. But you don’t agree to move in and then, all this time later, say you’re still looking around. Something seems fishy to me.”
This last remark was directed more to himself than those in the vehicle. No response. It went quiet again. An unsettling quiet now. Tense eyes directed forward. Calm broken. He had started the truck moving and they were coming up on the garage. Parked inside the truck continued to idle. No one made a move to get out.
“I don’t know, I can’t helping feel like there was something I did and you’re not telling me.”
“We have to find a place we’re completely comfortable with,” Desiree said. “It’s a lot of money for us. We need to make an careful, informed decision. That’s all.”
“But so when did you decide this, all of a sudden. We’ve been out camping together and everything was fine. It seemed like everything was fine. Then as soon as we get back you’re singing a different tune. Obviously something happened to change things. Either I did something or I don’t know. I want to know what changed your mind. What aren’t you telling me?”
“We told you. We want to be completely happy with whatever place we decide on,” Sandra said. “That’s it. Nothing more.”
Lisa turned to J., looking a little like a frightened woodland creature, he thought, something small and retreating. J. turned around in his seat, addressing the others in the back. He told them of his time living at the apartment. That in the two years he’d lived there he’d had minimal problems and been more or less completely happy with the situation. In Dan he had that all-too-rare thing: a competent, dependable, nonintrusive landlord. If there was anything about him as their landlord they worried about, they need not. All would work out, he assured them. It wasn’t all true, of course. He was skipping things over, leaving things out, painting an ideal picture. He wasn’t sure why he was doing this, saying what he was saying. It came out well, had good flow, a strong emotional force -- if only slipping slightly towards the sentimental in tone towards the end. Yes, a good speech. A good performance, all considered. He wished he’d kept his mouth shut.
They got out and started unloading. There was an edge to Dan’s movements, he unloaded things with a violent assertion, gripping and chucking, that verged on collapsing into a spectacle of brute, dumb expression. He made a comment to Desiree, brimming with sarcastic intent, that threw her.
“What does he mean? I don’t understand why he’s saying this.”
“He didn’t mean it personally,” J. said, stepping in. “He’s just expressing anger and frustration because he feels you aren’t being completely honest with him.”
“Well tell him we are being honest.”
“He feels that -- well, you guys, as I am to understand it, had an agreement with him which you’re now backing out of without providing him with what he feels is a suitable explanation for why. And so he can only take this as something personal against him.”
“There is nothing more to explain,” Sandra said. “We have told him our reason.”
Desiree, “You wouldn’t want to make a decision, as important a decision as where you’re going to be living, without being sure about it in the fullest?”
He was translating a different language. Interpreting now for the benefit of both parties. Withholding judgement in the service of unimpeded discourse. But where did he stand? He didn’t have a judgement to make, he didn’t think. He had only just met them. But he was in it now, conversing with both camps, making sure both expressed themselves clearly to the other, remaining evenhanded in the heated emotion of the moment.
“Ben, what are your thoughts on this?” Dan said. “Where do you stand?”
“I am with the girls. Whatever they want to do. We all must be in agreement, happy and satisfied with things.”
“And what about her?” Dan said, a gesture flung at Lisa.
“I know nothing about it.”
“So you’re still moving in downstairs then? Nothing has changed for you?”
“I want to move in. Yes. I would like to.”
“Yeah. ‘Cuz I’m not sure if I want that to happen now. If they’ve changed their minds who’s to say you won’t all of a sudden decide on something different yourself.”
Dan took some bags inside. Reverberations of the previous exchange continued to be felt. But when he came back out he had on a different demeanour. Diplomatic.
“OK, listen. If you guys want to look at other places, fine. Do what you want. We had a good time. Let’s not spoil it all now. Friends. Everyone, friends.”
They brightened at this. Further discussion ensued, the air cleared somewhat. Continuing with the same thread but with a renewed amicability. At a couple points Dan appeared to become worked up again but checked himself. They had reached an accord. A tentative, fragile accord but an accord nonetheless. The girls and Ben went upstairs and got their suitcases and brought them out to the truck.
“So where to now?” Dan said after they’d all piled back in.
Said Desiree, “The hostel, I guess.”
The hostel was downtown, around the corner and across the street from where Neal and J. had had coffee. Night had fallen and the streets were lit up. It lent a dash of dramatic intrigue to the proceedings. They unloaded a final time. The handles on their luggage extended and gripped, ready to be rolled in, their new friends stood on the sidewalk uneasily, unsure of the next move. They said they’d be in contact over the coming days, let them know of a decision. Then a few curt goodbyes. J. handed Lisa a small pillow she’d left on the seat.
“So call me. Tomorrow. We’ll get lunch. Talk. You have my number.”
“OK. I will do that.”
J. got back in and Dan nosed the truck into a sharp U-turn.
“Now what was all that about?” Dan said.
“I don’t know.”
“People are weird.”
“They never make sense. They never do things that make sense. No consistency. Always changing their minds. Say one thing, do another. How was I supposed to react? That wasn’t cool. Not after the opportunity I gave them. That pissed me off. Might as well have spit in my face. But you’re good with all that psychology stuff. All those classes you take.”
“I dropped psychology after my first year. Too dry. To much handholding, I felt.”
“Even still. You had a good handle on it. Talking to them. Not getting worked up. This is what I get for mixing the personal with the professional. Trying to be their friend and their landlord. I should learn.”
“Technically you’re not their landlord yet.”
“What you think they’ll do? Think they’ll still move in?”
“Beats the hell out of me,” J. said. “Me and Lisa are supposed to meet for lunch tomorrow. Guess we’ll discuss it then.”
“Well you two have your own separate thing going on. Whatever you decide on is fine with me. She’s not with the others. I don’t think she knew what they had going on. You know what I think. I think that’s what Desiree and Sandra were scheming about on that long walk of theirs. That’s when the decision would have been made. Had the whole thing figured out. And Ben just went along with it.”
“You might very well be right.”
At his apartment J. brought his bags in and dropped down on the couch. He sat there a moment, then picked up the phone and called Neal. On the second ring there was an answer.
“Hey J. What’s up?”
“Nothing. Just got back.”
“Back. From where?”
“So you went?”
“Dave wants to know if you got any German tail.”
“Tell him, yes. Loads. Swimming in it.”
“Dave wants to know about the hair. What’s up with the hair?”
“You get used to it, tell him. Where are you?”
“We’re down at the harbour, drinking. Specifically, we’re at the gazebo. Dave and Quinn are with me. There’s a show in a little while we’re going to check out. Our friend Shawn is performing. You should come.”
He parked in the Liquor Store parking lot across the street and walked down. There was a light fog coming off the water, dimming the lights. He followed the cement path as it coiled through the harbour, passing an ice cream shop and a restaurant, both closed now. He had taken the long way around but enjoyed the walk, the air, the deserted night. Walking toward something. For something. Towards people. It was a cool night. He felt his chest tighten. The gazebo was across from the park, at the end of a path, overlooking the water. As he approached the park he saw someone coming toward him, a shadowy figure, and he veered off. He looked back and saw it was only a security guard patrolling the grounds. The guard cut across the park, walking with an authoritative gait, paying him no mind, on to other things. He heard voices and when he turned around and started back he saw the three of them walking away from him on a nearby path. He ran to catch up.
“There you guys are.”
“I told you the gazebo.”
“Yeah, well, there’s like a million of them.”
“Nope. Just the one.”
“Be that as it may.”
“How it go with the Germans?” Quinn said, getting to the point.
“It was a time. Till the end. Sort of all fell apart then. At the end.”
“What do you mean?” Neal said.
“Hard to explain. Confusion, misdirection, surprise reversals. Suffice it to say, there won’t be a sequel.”
“It’s finished. Done. The dream is over. What can I say?”
“I hate John Lennon,” Neil said.
They continued walking back in the direction he’d just come from. Neal was carrying a backpack and J. unzipped it while they walked and took out a bottle of whiskey. He had a slug, then another.
Dave was running up ahead, bounding, almost skipping. He jumped up on a cement ledge and proceeded forward with tightrope-like balancing, arms extended. J. liked that. He wanted to get in on that, get to that point, let himself go a little. He took another drink from the bottle. Dave was a slight wiry fellow with ironic good looks and a shifty sort of personality, an unpredictability to his attitudes and reactions. They climbed a flight of stairs. Once at the top, Dave flung himself onto the metal railing and from there propelled himself over to a slanting patch of grass. They continued on like that, committing semi-careless acts approximating drunken behaviour. They made noises and sounds, hollers, boisterous laughter.
They eventually came up to street level and made their way downtown.
A group had gathered outside the lounge where the show was taking place. It was next door to the hostel, on the corner, and he secretly wondered if they’d come down out of curiosity once the music started. It was a small, classy place with a bar and big windows, a fresh sheen about it. He recognized a few people from the campus. There was a girl he’d taken a philosophy class with. Next to her a guy, her boyfriend perhaps. Neal talked to her, overwhelming her with the force of his outsized and currently alcohol enhanced personality that she took with cool nonchalance. The guy next to her was tall and slender. He wore a shirt and loosened tie and had on black-rimmed glasses. He looked at J. with an uncommitted facial expression, a tier above blankness.
“I know you from somewhere,” J. said, saying something to say something. “You look familiar. You go to the university, right? I think I might have seen you around campus.”
“Yeah,” he said, the word a slight hack, as if he were bringing something up.
J. backed away. He went over to the entrance with Neal, paying the cover charge and receiving a stamp on the back of his hand.
A good crowd had turned out. The place was almost full as he stepped in. People milling about, drinks in hand, social smiles on display. Otis was there. He was sitting at the bar and J. went over and sat next to him. He ordered a drink and the two talked. He liked Otis but never saw enough of him. Everyone did. There wasn’t enough Otis to go around.
The show started shortly. Their friend performed a short solo set with an electric guitar. Then a girl from the audience came up and sung with him, impressing all with her tone and range. Neal and the others were positioned near the door, slipping outside between songs to smoke cigarettes.
J. looked over and noticed a couple sitting in a booth. They were across from another couple out of view. The man had on a suit and a fixed nervous smile. His arm was around the woman. Her blonde hair was cut to shoulder level and she wore a low-cut sequinned red dress. She had strong, almost masculine features that seemed to contribute to rather than diminish from her attractiveness. The man was intensely balding, everything gone save for a sandy horseshoe around the sides and a bit of last stand fuzz on top. This along with his soft features gave him the distinctly undeveloped, babylike appearance unique to those men who’ve otherwise yet to exhibit the defined lines and slackening flesh of age.
A black man with long dreadlocks approached their booth. J. imagined him a musician of some kind, currently on tour making a run through the coast. At their last stop a middle-aged businessman, well-to-do, was in attendance with his much younger girlfriend and afterwards invited them out for an afternoon on his yacht to impress the girlfriend who was apparently a big fan. Now he was back on land, glowing from this unexpected bit of luxurious fun, this flirtation with decadence, before moving on. He held a drink in his hand and smiled generously while conversing with the whole table. It was when he turned to address the out-of-view couple that the blonde women reached out an arm and took one of his dreadlocks in her hand. Her open-mouthed face lit up, full of wondering mischievousness as she stroked the long thick coil of hair. The man nervously leaned over and brought her arm down, continuing to smile at the couple across from him. He held her in a side hug, stared straight ahead, smiling. When J. next looked over a few minutes later, the woman was leaning far over the table, animately addressing the person across from her. It wasn’t clear what brought this on or led up to it. He couldn’t make out what she was saying over the murmur of the room and so couldn’t determine if it was being done for shared comical effect or was a genuine attack being levelled at the person. She had a serious look on her face, almost possessed. She thrust a nail-polished finger in the person’s face and the man again took action. He reeled her into her seat, a pained expression on her face as he did this. Fun spoiled. A few people standing nearby glanced over -- glancing over marking the extent of their judgement. A moment later the woman got up from the table, spilling a drink in the process, and charged past J. in a winking gust. She disappeared down a hallway, beyond which the washrooms were found. A few minutes passed and she failed to return. The bald man got up and went back to find out more. They emerged moments later, the man tailing behind her, trying to get an arm around her. But she seemed to want no part of it. A rebuff. She strode ahead of him, hands up, half-concealing her face as she moved towards the door, ignoring their booth partners.
J. followed them with his eyes until they passed Neal. He was still over by the door and didn’t seem to notice the couple leaving, or anything that had transpired leading up to their leaving. Dave and Quinn had apparently left sometime earlier and he was carousing with a few others, including the friend who had just performed. J. parted with Otis and went over.
“I’m going,” he said.
“Can I catch a ride with you?”
“Sure you can. I’m this way.”
They walked in the direction of the harbour and then turned right at the street before it.
“So really, how was the trip? I’m surprised you actually went.”
“It was good. I had a good time.”
“What about the girls? Were they as attractive as your landlord made them out?”
“Yeah, sure. Thin, blonde. If that’s your thing.”
“And the one moving in with you?”
“Her, yes. There’s definitely something about her. I can’t quite pin it down. She grows on you. She’s a grower.”
“Shut up. A knock out. Say it.”
“Lucky fuck. How ‘bout that for pulling you out of your slump.”
“How ‘bout that.”
“Well, I’m feeling mighty good myself. The semester starts in a few days. Got some money saved up. Oz Mutantes in a few weeks. I’m feeling really good. Ready to get at it.”
“Glad to hear.”
“This is the start of a beautiful year, my friend. I can feel it.”
The next day before lunch J. helped Dan fillet the fish. They set them out on top of the cooler, over newspapers, in the backyard and went to work. They filled freezer bags with thick cut sections of the pink, white-lined meat. When they were done Dan gave him two bags and stored the rest in his deep freeze. J. didn’t hear from Lisa and in the afternoon went up to campus to buy books for his classes, using his credit card to make the purchases.
Another two days passed and J. didn’t hear anything. Dan was down doing laundry in the next room and he knocked on J.’s door.
“So did you hear?”
“They looked at a place and decided to take it. Had room for all of them. Big place. So that’s that.”
“Yeah. I thought you would’ve heard. I thought you and Lisa were in touch?”
“No. She hasn’t called,” J. said. “I don’t have a number to reach her. I don’t know anything.”
“Well, listen. If you sit want to go ahead and find a roommate, someone from school or whatever, that’s fine with me.”
“Unbelievable! You try and help people out and this is the thanks you get. They go and walk all over you. Shit. I guess this is what I get for mixing the personal and the professional. At least we had a good time. The night at the fire was great. I think that was the best time I had all summer.”
“Oh, and so get this. Right after they got the place, Ben came to see me. He told me, ‘Yeah the girls found this place but I’ll still move in with you. I’m a man of my word. I don’t care what the girls are doing, I’m my own man, I’ll do what I want.’ So it was all set for him to move in but then today he comes over to pick up a pair of shoes he left and tells me no, actually I am going to move in with the girls after all. Isn’t that unbelievable. Two times. Two times he goes back on his word. He’s even worse than the others. So I said to him, I said: ‘Now I know how you led all those Jews into Auschwitz.’”
“And then I threw his shoes over the balcony and slammed the door on him. That’s the last we’ll be seeing of dear Ben.”
“Jesus,” J. said.
The washing machine had finished filling and at that moment kicked into its cycle, sounding a loud rattling wail that gave way to a churning metallic rumble.
“Anyway, good luck with your roommate search. I’ll see you around. Take it easy.”
Dan turned to leave and J. closed the door. He turned on music to drown out the noise and lay on the couch. Classes started the next day and he wanted to be rested.
She. On the beach. Turned. Smiled.