The nights Carey serves at The Ghost, I slip into her place through the back window. I start a load of work clothes in her machine. I shower and shave. I switch the clothes to dry. In Carey’s downy covers, I lie awake until she eases through the door and sheds her waitress blacks. Eyes closed, I listen as she drops her skirt at the foot of the bed. Cloth slides on skin as she strips her shirt. Metal clicks on glass as she takes off mood rings and hoopy bracelets, the jangly kind that women wear in two or threes — Carey wears about ten.
Tonight, I feel the bed sag with her weight and she drags cherry nails up my leg. Her hair trails over my chest. All that yellow hair, down for the night and smelling of cigarettes and Old Bay. When I met her, we were fourteen and breaking into houses like this, snowbird places left empty for the summer, their owners so high in the cotton they’d leave the AC running. Carey had this thing for trying on the clothes. I checked the couches for change and watches. Any ice cream left in the freezer, we’d finish that in the shower and leave the bowls.
Come morning, I make a big breakfast and fix my lunch before the sun’s paled the sky. Most days Carey’s asleep but today she’s up and drifting around the kitchen while I fry eggs and sausage. She’s wearing blue jeans and nothing, playing hellcat lover with the backs of my ears. I ask her what the occasion is.
“Breakfast,” she says. She flips a condom into the frying pan, and I snatch it out. Hard old crumbs stick to our skin and we don’t stop until the smoke alarm squeals.
I’m still scraping char from the skillet when she comes back into the kitchen, all done up in a dress and her wedding ring on. “Now what’s the occasion?”
“William wants to have breakfast,” she says. Her heels click on the kitchen tile and she finishes her face in the glare of a framed pastoral — cows chewing cud while a boy looks on. “He’s flying in today.”
William is a broker in the city. He lives in New York for weeks at a time. He owns a collection of farm art, a thirty-foot Grady-White, Carey’s house, Carey’s washing machine, the sausage I burnt this morning. I set the skillet down and William grins at me from a photograph above the sink, all six-foot-goofy-four of him. He sits on the crest of a sand dune with his arm around Carey’s waist, both of them in white shirts and washed out jeans. “Life’s a Beach,” the frame reads in cut-out letters. I squeeze Dawn into the skillet and leave it to soak.
Carey wipes her lips with a tissue and tosses it away. “I’ll come by later,” she says.
The house goes quiet, and I walk around switching off lights. I take a cufflink the shape of New York from the top of William’s dresser, the citrus smell of his cologne wafts from an open drawer. I take a pull of Scotch from a decanter in the study. I duck out the window, and walk to where I parked, side-arming the cufflink into the marsh that stretches out from William’s backyard. A heron takes to the wing without a sound. Beyond the grasses, the ocean is burning. Houses like William’s always have a view.
At work, I’m peeling shrimp while Martin sings Marshall Tucker to the radio. The season is on, but the trawlers don’t go out. Too many years coming up short. Used to be we could fill three coolers with fat-daddy shrimp for fifty dollars and a case of beer — and the old boatmen would leave a trash bag of flounder on top. Now I’m working twenty pounds of crawlers from their shells and dropping them in a bucket and feeling lucky to have them, the whole flaccid bunch, only one in ten are big enough to be veined and those I just leave be.
Martin and I opened this place our senior year, and the town was good to us. It was a little nothing place on church land — a shack pressed against the highway with the Methodist steeple looming behind. We’d had offers for “better” work — Martin on a charter crew and me at the marina, but this place was ours. People love shrimp. We never needed more.
“I’m gonna find me,” Martin sings behind me, eyes closed in song and slashing out trout fillets like a man possessed. Slash. Flip. Slash. “A hole in the wall.” He nudges me, but I’m lost in Carey and William over a meal. Probably at the Sunny Side. Probably over coffee, him going on about the firm and his flight and holding her hand under the table and letting his pinky stray up the inside of her thigh. Martin leans back and butts his shoulder to mine. “I’m gonna crawl inside and die.” He won’t let it go, and I join in. We’re on a southbound all the way to Georgia, and I’m feeling alright.
The daily forecast starts to drone, and the bell on the Shrimp Shack’s door comes alive. In steps Teddy Long, bamboo cane first and two grandsons after, both of them with buck teeth and hair the color of Tang.
“Mr. Long,” I say. The boys hang their faces over the open live-well of blue crabs. I wipe my hands to shake.
“You boys have Spot Tail?” Teddy’s wet eyes are stuck to Martin’s work. I bag up six filets. One of the boys reaches his hand into the live-well and comes up with a crab by the flippers, leveling it at his cousin. They get shipped off here by their parents every summer. Teddy swats at the boy with his cane. The crab smacks the floor and makes a run for it. The boys scatter and before I can get around the counter the crab has backed himself under a bookshelf of charter boat brochures and is flashing his claws to anyone that cares to see.
Teddy shoos the boys out and goads the crab with his cane until it latches on. He drags it out and I snatch it from the floor. The old man is smiling. Sweat beading up on his brow. “Them boys,” he says and I flip the crab back in the well. He squeezes my arm hard, as if to show he still can. “Carey’s looking well,” he says, but it’s to Martin behind the counter, who mumbles a yessir.
“Don’t know why she hangs around that Ghost. With all that New York boy’s got.”
“Can’t say,” Martin says. “Since we were kids, she’s gone her own way.”
Long grunts, but there’s no story on Martin’s face. I hold the door and follow Teddy with the bag of trout until one of the boys takes it from me through the window of the truck. The Longs lurch away and the boy stares me down in the side-view through the rising dust. I just stare back thinking: that’s a damn unfortunate looking child.
A black Mercedes passes the Shack and makes a U. It pops and rumbles over the gravel lot and comes to rest at my feet like an advertisement. Carey and William climb out into the light of day. William beams and socks me in the arm. Carey’s smile falters. Hugs all around and I lead them back to the Shack where Martin comes out to kiss his sister on the cheek. That’s when I notice Carey’s liquid stride is off, just a hair. She’s favoring her right.
“When’d you get in?” Martin asks, and “how long you think you’ll stay?”
William goes off talking to Martin about airplanes and big deals. The two of them lean over the counter like old pals, but I see William’s not wearing any of his hand jewelry and Carey wanders off to look in the crab well. I ask if she’ll help me pick out the oysters they’ll want. “Clam’s a clam,” William says.
Carey just says that “any will do.”
Something’s been taken out of her. I know it. She’s holding her purse with two hands.
William had only hit her once in five years. Things had gotten heated over something, her body withheld or else her job at The Ghost that she’d never give up, not since she was sixteen. Not even when she came home crying after a snowbird put his hand up her skirt and I did four-months in county for cracking his leg with a pipe. Not then, not ever. William had hit her in the stomach before. He’d bruised her ribs. Carey begged me not to do anything. What’s he done now?
We all walk out into the sun to see William’s Hollywood Mercedes off. I hoist a burlap sack of oysters to my shoulder and take pleasure in dropping it roughly into the open trunk, making sure to miss and scratch through the paint. Right down to the plastic. I hear William curse in the cab. He raises his hand to me behind the windshield and I try not to stare at Carey through the tint of the glass.
Martin is singing Joplin when I get back inside, his well-sunned arms air-drumming my bucket of shrimp and his Carey-yellow hair rocking all about. I let him be. We close the Shack at four and I drive the two of us home. “Full moon tonight,” Martin says. Over the horizon, the whole white round of it is rising through the still-blue sky. I grunt.
“Could drag a net,” Martin says. “Way the shrimp are coming in, we could use it. Score a flounder or two.” Martin taps his feet to the radio. I turn it down. “Hell,” he says. “S’eating you?” I switch the radio all the way off.
“What did you think of William? The way he didn’t have his rings on? And Carey like that?”
“What do you mean? He just got back.” When I don’t answer he says, “His fingers probably swole up on the plane.” That’s Martin: good-enough answer and a half decent song and he’s set. “The hell do you mean?” he asks.
“She had a limp.”
“I didn’t think so,” he says.
I turn the radio back on and before long Martin’s humming Al Greene and staring out the window. I pull up to Martin’s house, a one story brick place under a hundred-year oak, big around as a tractor tire; it had been his parents’.
Martin gets out of the truck and slams the door. “Ride with us tonight. I know Billy and J-Hook will go. J-Hook’ll bring his boy. We need a tall man on the end.” He’s got his arms through the window and he’s talking to me like we’re kids again and he needs a ride. I tell him I’ll go and putt off through the neighborhood, wishing it were easy as that.
At The Ghost, I find Carey in the kitchen rolling silverware in napkins. BA, the washer, is smoking a cigarette in the freezer.
“Check out, BA,” I say, and he sulks out the back door.
“What’s up?’ Carey asks, her eyes a blur between tubs of forks, spoons, and knives, swaddling them in the heavy black napkins with clean, martial sweeps of the hand.
“You tell me.”
“Don’t play that,” she says. “He’s home. You know how this works.”
“Why were you limping at the Shack?”
“He squeezed my leg. Not a thing you need to worry about.”
“When has someone squeezed a leg into a limp?” I ask. “Christ!”
“He wants me to come back with him this time,” she says.
The muscles of Carey’s jaw do a little throb and stand up under her skin as she sets her teeth grinding into one another. “I can’t do this forever, right? I love it, but not forever.”
The first time we made love, we were in this kitchen. Pressed into a pile of wash rags or some other unsavory place that youth allows. Winters, we would climb to the roof and roll our beer bottles to shatter below. But those old things, even the sweetest of them, lose their shine sooner or later. Even ice cream in the shower isn’t enough. I can’t say why she’s stayed this long.
“Do you love me,” I ask, feeling boyish having to say it out loud.
“Yes.” The silverware folds itself while her mind rockets around.
“More than him?”
“I don’t know.”
I sit down on the kitchen floor and wet my ass in the foam that’s run over the lip of BA’s sink. There’s a run in Carey’s tights and I see the patch of hair that she likes to miss under the ball of her ankle. A little stand of dirty blonde a quarter inch long, hiding in the shadow of her bone and begging me not to tell.
“That’s just it,” she says. “That’s all of it.”
Out on the floor of the restaurant, someone is shouting that a pod of dolphins has breached in the river. Above our heads, chairs scrape on the floor and the sandals and wedges of the snowbirds crowd to The Ghost’s tall, picture windows, pressing their noses to the glass and taking a dozen pictures of the glare.
“You don’t have to work here forever,” I say. “But you don’t have to leave.”
“I’d come back sometimes. I’d see you then. And Martin.”
Days like this: dolphin days, Carey might make $300 in tips. Something about the dolphins’ grey backs slipping through the brown water. Something about the wild chance that the snowbirds think they’re experiencing, like winning the lottery. Like they won, so Carey and her crooked smile and her long curly hair and her little drawl might as well win too. “You win a little too, honey,” they say with their tips. “Because I win, you win. Life is rich. And we’re on vacation.”
When I worked at The Ghost, BA and I loathed making the long haul to the river each night, hefting trash bags of fish scrap to throw to the tide, but everyone likes the little blow-hole spouts and the drive-by dinner show the pod makes. Everyone likes the dolphins around here.
I rent a room from Carey’s aunt, a two story dock that they converted into a mother-in-law suite years ago. I’m sitting on my bed and staring at the .38 snub-nose I keep under the mattress. I hold it up and sight the marsh. The last time I pulled its trigger, I had the barrel pressed against a big tiger shark that Martin had pulled up to William’s boat. The shot had gone straight through. Now I imagine it pressed up under William’s head, in the hollow of his jaw. My hands soak the handle. Plans spin circles in blood. We’ll have to leave, of course. I have a sister in Charlotte. I can find work. Carey can find work. Martin might come. But the killing. What of that?
I lay back on the bed, gun on my chest, and watch the ceiling fan whirl until it begins to look like the blades are still and the room is spinning. I close my eyes and when I open them again, the room’s gone dark. Martin is shaking my shoulder.
“The hell you doing with that gun out? Get your boots and let’s go.” I stand on wobbly knees. My head feels swollen. I grope for my shoes. Martin takes the pistol from the bed, swings open the cylinder, and swears. “Got the hammer resting on a round. Damn fool.” He up-ends the cylinder over the bed and the bullets hop around like Mexican beans.
“Goddamn, Martin. You could have just knocked,” I say.
“We’re all family here,” William says, ducking into the room. My stomach twists up and I glance at Martin. He just shrugs. “Boat’s in the water.”
Through the window I see that William’s boat is pulled up to the dock. My skiff is crowded up in the corner next to the Grady’s bulk. J-Hook and his boy are sitting on a long cooler seat in the bow. Billy Trench is talking to them from the dock. The moon looms above and below, the reflection waving in the water like a flag.
The ride to St. Catherines is a short one, but William insists on driving the boat and has to pick his way around the river before we get to the open water of the sound. Martin stands over his shoulder and directs us around sand bars that lay just out of sight. Ten years ago, Martin, Carey, and I ran aground one at low tide, all of us blasted. It was New Year’s Eve. Carey cut her head on the edge of my skiff’s windshield. A little silver crescent still hangs above her brow. It was damn cold and we covered up with whatever we could find: a fire blanket that smelled of rot and oil, life jackets, the boat’s plastic cover. All three of us shivered and cussed and told what stories we could think of until the tide rose enough that Martin and I could shove the boat off the sand. When we got back from the hospital the next morning, I proposed to Carey in her parent’s driveway. She cried buckets and said no.
We arrive at the island and Martin passes out smokes to everyone, J-Hook’s boy included. We begin untangling the seine net by lantern and moon. William stands in the water up to his knees and pisses, going on about the easy beauty of the sea and how he favors this quiet little life. Billy Trench gets a fire going and produces a bottle of rum.
Each man takes ahold of the net, and stretches it out, the weights at the bottom drag crazy circles in the sand. Most seines have just two wooden poles on the ends, like an over-large tennis net, but this is a creation of Martin’s and my design. Twice as long as a normal seine and with an extra pole in the middle, made with the long, shallow beach of St. Catherines in mind. Martin, J-Hook, and I walk the big net out to where the water wets our heels. Martin digs his feet into the sand and J-Hook and I wade our poles out into the surf. By the time we get the thing taut, I’m up to my neck in the black water and Martin is seventy-five feet away. I can see the shapes of William, Billy, and the boy passing the rum in the firelight. The current pulls at my legs.
“Ho!” Martin calls and J-Hook and I start walking, swinging the seine like a closing door towards land. The trick is keeping the pole pushed down to the bottom. J-Hook stumbles and goes under. He comes up spitting. Someone laughs on the beach and the net lurches as something big tears under or through it. We’ve pulled in full grown bass before. Plenty of sharks. Whole coolers of shrimp. All manner of trashfish. Sometimes nothing at all.
We drag the net up on the beach, shake it out, and the pull looks alright. The men on the beach run around picking up the flipping shrimp and tossing them into coolers while J-Hook’s boy shines the lantern wherever he’s called.
“Damn!” Martin shouts, and the haul’s better than I thought. Three-finger shrimp, fat as lords.
We pick up all the shrimp we can see and kick most of the fish back. The next pull is better and the one after better still. We’re all a little drunk on the luck of it. Martin overhands a whiting at my head that would have left a bruise. I throw some kind of fish back, laughing until William heaves a saltwater cat at J-Hook and I remember Carey’s limp and the gun. Billy Trench is proper rum-drunk and slips in a scramble for a big flounder in the surf. Martin sings “Fire on the Mountain” and it’s good enough to spread, even William comes in on the chorus. The coolers are full and we talk about packing it in before the tide turns.
“One more go at it,” William says.
“We’re full up, son,” Martin says.
“One more go. I want to work the deep end.” William jogs to my pole and begins marching it out.
“Hell,” Martin says, and picks up the beach pole. The other men are too drunk or tired. J-Hook’s boy goes for the middle pole and Martin waves him off. “Joseph,” he says, and I pick it up.
William’s bobbing in the deep end and the net’s tight but he’s drunk and waving the pole all over.
“Plant it and drag back!” I yell. The wind is picking up, moaning in from the sound. William keeps trudging out deeper. “Too far, damnit!” He goes on, dragging us all out with him. I look back to the beach and Martin is up to his thighs and shaking his head, waving with his off hand. Up ahead, I can’t see William. The net goes slack as he drops the pole somewhere ahead in the dark. “Shit.”
I start swimming, one hand running along the line of the net. The tide’s pulling out so I make way with ease. I find the pole and William’s nowhere in sight. Then, out in the sound, I hear him sputter. In the moonlight, I see him flail. Gone and gone. That’s what he’d be. A tragedy to some. Carey gets the house. I get Carey.
Martin’s voice comes in on the wind with half of my name, and William sputters again. I drop the net and swim to where I hear the struggle. William latches on and the mass of him pushes me under the surface. He’s panicked, climbing and scratching and gasping. I punch him in the nose and he quiets. I punch him again and he goes slack.
I get him halfway back, shouting, and Martin helps me drag him to the beach. The men circle. William’s still and bleeding from the nose. J-Hook pushes on his chest a few times. Drunk Billy pushes him aside and performs CPR until William comes around, coughing and pushing Billy’s face away. The men hug and shout. J-Hook’s boy vomits up a belly of rum. William starts to say something, but the tide’s running quick so we drag him by the fire and load the boat in a rush, the men pulling on thick briny sweaters as they go.
The drowned man sleeps in the bow and, sullen and alone, I watch him from the center console where Martin rubs my back. “Damn fine, brother,” he says after he eases the motor down from a roar. Above the roofs and trees on dry land, I see the fat-shrimp-moon is almost set. Martin kisses my head and says it again. “Damn fine.”
At the dock, we let William sleep. The men say their piece. Everyone hoots and shakes their heads and helps carry the heavy coolers up the ramp. Martin and I walk William to my truck and drive him to Carey’s. I watch him through my rearview, slumped over in my backseat and snoring. He’ll live to be a hundred, I know, and we’ll just keep at it the way we do. Me and Carey and William. We’ll keep on till one of us is dead.
“He told me Carey’s pregnant,” Martin says.
I can’t think of what to do but drive.
“He said he damn near broke her leg he was so excited to hear it.”
“Leave it be, Joe. There won’t be nothing left of you.” Martin says, and I think how he’s always been the smarter of us. The seine was his baby, to be true. “You’re a young man.”
Ahead, Carey’s big house rises from the marsh and the oaks, new trees just come up in the past thirty years. Babies for oaks. They were thin as my wrist when we were children and some other snowbirds owned the place. They paid me good money to cut around those oaks special. I spread mulch around them twice a year. The cab of the truck gets washed in the mottled light that makes it through the full canopies of the young oaks and Carey steps out the front door to wave us in and even this morning, I know beauty when I see it. I guess I earned that dollar. I guess I made good.
“Life is long,” Martin says, and hums out some damn song I don’t know.
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