THE LONG PIER
THE SUN bore down on the colorless planks of the pier and produced a muddled glare that made everything, even those things that were right in front of your face, appear as if behind a wall of some cheap magician’s smoke.
Tommy was out there with his bucket of bleach and yellow sea sponge — as he was every day — scrubbing the decks. Lots of bugs on the boardwalk today — smashed dragonflies and killer cicada wasps and even some lizard carcasses. All of it sealed into the wood by a newly baked layer of birdshit.
Were there always this many bugs, Tommy thought, this many dead snakes? He couldn’t say.
But if he kept scrubbing the decks, then maybe some of it would return to him. Maybe through the pure, routine action of soaking and rinsing and scrubbing and scraping, he could piece together a few bits of history, discover how he’d ended up here.
A young woman in a bikini with a fully tattooed leg walked by, holding a bottle of beer by her hip. The back of her head was blown out. Tommy found himself deeply repulsed by the smell, in an intensely personal way, as if the woman were bleeding and drinking in public to deliberately antagonize him.
He shook off the thought. Kept scrubbing the decks.
When the hot sun bulged and bowed closer to the ocean line, when the crowds of souls pushing strollers and dragging shopping bags began to thin out, when it became clear to Tommy that he would never know whether there were more squashed bugs on the boardwalk on this day than there were on any other days, Tommy walked out into the surf and rinsed out his sponge. He took his plain tin bucket, now brimming with bugs’ guts and lizards’ bones, to a secluded place underneath the boardwalk, and emptied out the bucket and buried it deep in the damp, dirty sand.
Then he went into the little room in the back of the pawn shop, to talk to the man he called his boss.
Carver sat behind his desk doing something on a typewriter. The room was lit only by a single heat lamp, throwing a reddish glow on the silkscreen machines and rock posters that lined the walls, the whole place reeking of dye and dirty paper and mechanical grease.
“Help you with something?” Carver said, without looking up from his machine.
Tommy dragged a red handkerchief across his glistening forehead. “Was out there scrubbing the decks,” he said. “It’s what I do, right? It’s my job?”
Now Carver looked up. He was an attractive man, in a haggard sort of way — a man who had once been able to maneuver others into and out of his life, through sheer force of his looks and personality, but was now making the natural transition to moving those same people around with money. Tommy wasn’t sure if he could trust him. It was instinct, coming here, to this dingy, stuffy room — the same kind of nesting instinct that had prompted him to bury his bucket under the pier.
“There’s no one else I can ask.”
“I’m having some trouble,” Tommy said, stuffing the handkerchief into his back pocket. “Remembering.”
Carver leaned back in his office chair, laced his hands behind his head. “Yeah, I was afraid this would happen. Saw you out there with your bucket and sponge. You seemed really focused — like you were trying to work through something. That’s how I knew.”
Then why didn’t you say something? Tommy thought. Why’d you let me sweat it out?
But somehow Tommy knew that asking this question — as opposed to all the other questions he might ask his boss — would be a bad idea. A deadly one, even.
After a long pause, Carver sighed and said: “Lets start with the obvious, then. You know your name?”
“Tommy. Tommy Something.”
“That’s right. Good.” Carver raised his eyebrows, rocked back in his chair. He was enjoying this experiment, this fun little diversion from his work. “Do you know my name?”
“Carl, I think. Or … Carson?” In truth, Tommy had spent the better part of the day trying to drum his boss’s name out of his worthless brain; and yet, for all his hard work, he wasn’t sure that what he’d come up with was any more than a wild guess.
“Close. It’s Carver.” He gave Tommy a kind of impressed look — Tommy was surprised to find a bit of genuine warmth behind it — and then said: “Excellent. That’s really good, Tommy.”
Carver leaned forward and went into the bottom drawer of his desk; and for a brief, insane moment, Tommy thought he might be reaching for a gun. That he’d given the wrong answer, flubbed the quiz, and would now be exterminated on the spot.
But what Carver produced from his desk was nothing more than a plain manila envelope.
“You’ve been doing well with it,” Carver said, handling the envelope gently, as if it were a thing of magick, an item of the occult he didn’t wish to upset. “You were able to string twelve days together — now here we are again.”
He reached into the envelope and pulled out a packet of loose pages. Not like the scroll of pages that issued from Carver’s typewriter, advancing with a deliberate chunk-chunk sound —no, these were more like something you would find in a dead person’s couch. Weathered and brown-tinted. Tommy caught a glimpse of the handwriting on the pages — blue ink, arrow-straight lines, cursive — both sides of the pages covered in it.
Tommy was astounded by the sight of those pages. He felt like he’d seen them, had read them, many times before.
Then something else, something truly amazing, occurred to Tommy: Was that his handwriting? Had he written all that? Was that even possible?
Tommy reached greedily for the papers — but before he could get his hands on them, Carver had slipped them back inside the envelope.
“Tell you what, old friend,” Carver said. “I’m just finishing up here. Got a little extra time…” He returned the envelope to its drawer — and locked the drawer with a key. “Why don’t I save us both some grief, and give it to you straight?”
“It all started with a house — of all things. An old house in Pittsburgh. Old house on the edge of a used-up forest, with a brook that ran through the backyard.
“You’d bought the house back in the early Two Thousands. First-time homeowner — you got a special rate on your mortgage, some kind of stimulus package. You were mighty proud of that house, man. It wasn’t much — two bedrooms, two baths, and a crumbling chimney — but it was yours.”
Carver gave a little arrogant snort, and continued: “You said your name is Tommy — and that’s true — but back then we called you Tomato. When you got drunk, your whole face turned red like a beet, red like a tomato. We go back a long time, Tommy. We were in a band together after college. Our band was called War Machine. Can you guess what kind of music we played?”
At this, Tommy could not even hazard a guess. He was still trying to wrap his mind around the idea that he had once owned a house. The only kind of music he was aware of — to his mind, the only kind of music in the world — was the carnival-type music played by the rickshaw driver who peddled cured meats up and down the boardwalk.
“Heavy metal,” Carver said, ending Tommy’s misery, “but that doesn’t matter. We weren’t any good. Actually, you were a pretty damn good guitarist — I just banged away at the drums.”
Carver lit a cigarette, let out a little gasping laugh and went on: “It was a real loser time for me, man. Real loser time. You, on the other hand …” He pointed the cherry of his cigarette at Tommy in a way that seemed almost angry, almost like a remonstration. “You were doing quite well. You had a job — a good job downtown. You worked at a law firm — but you weren’t a lawyer, or even a paralegal. You worked with computers. Litigation Support Technology — whatever the hell that is.”
Litigation. Technology. Support. These words made sense on their own, but putting them together in a way that made any kind of linear, coherent sense was like trying to juggle fruit while riding a bicycle drunk.
“In an act of charity, which I guess I’m still paying off,” Carver said, “you allowed me to live in the basement of your new house — providing I kicked down some money for bills. I was basically paying off your mortgage, but that didn’t matter. We were mates.”
He blew a cloud of cigarette smoke across the room. Tipped the ash from the end of his cigarette right onto his desk. “Oh, you had your own legal issues. Nothing major — nothing that got in the way of you finding a job.” Again, he stabbed the air with his cigarette, making Tommy feel like he was being accused of something. “Pair of DUI’s you picked up in college. A mail fraud thing you were involved in. Disorderly conduct you got after your divorce. Dumb stuff, from the drinking … ”
The smell of tobacco confused and energized Tommy. It reminded him of something — of what, he could not quite say. But it was a nice smell — cloying and pleasantly synthetic — like the smell of gasoline, or skunk.
“Yeah, you were married. For precisely six months. Sweet, crazy Southern girl named Leslie. She left you for a mutual friend of ours. Left you all alone in that sad, swaying house. It’s not worth getting into.”
Leslie. The name elicited no warmth, no familiarity. Tommy felt suddenly, shamefully sad at the absence of emotion the name produced. He wanted to know this Leslie person. He wondered if she was pretty, what her hair smelled like. What color her hair was. Whether she had any scars; what the space between her shoulder blades looked like, felt like. Whether she had any tattoos. Or if —
“We drank every night, and sometimes in the morning,” Carver was saying. “Whole stretches of days when we were drunk all the time. First it was just two struggling musicians, loosening up before gigs, before recording, but then it became … something else. Something darker. People coming around at all times of night, helping themselves to our booze, our cocaine. You bought a gun, started getting paranoid. It could have gone the other way, but it didn’t, and I’m sorry that it didn’t. I’m real sorry, Tommy.”
But he didn’t sound sorry. He sounded weirdly victorious. Gloating, in a quasi-humble sort of way. Rubbing it in. “I’d come home and find you with your head in the toilet. Or busting up the old siding of your house with a rotting two-by-four. You were so full of fear and rage, so lost and confused. One time you passed out with a cigarette in your mouth, set your chest hair on fire. Check under your shirt — you’ll find the scar.”
Tommy’s hand brushed up against the varnished surface of his cheap airbrushed T-shirt, but he didn’t dare reach underneath it, not wanting to ratify the horrible truth of what Carver was saying. Besides, he was much more concerned with the area of calcified tissue just behind his right ear. The part where the hair didn’t grow.
“The house started going to shit,” Carver said cooly. “The chimney caved in, fell through the attic. A bad storm. Water damage. The retaining wall we’d built together — drunk, of course — collapsed in the front of your house, ruining a neighbor’s car. A lawsuit. Your lawyer friends may have helped with that, but by then you’d stopped going to work, and were committed to drinking full-time. If it weren’t for me making your mortgage payments, you would have lost the house outright.”
Tommy felt sick to his stomach. He wished he could get the hell out of here. He wished he could go back outside, resume his work, scrubbing the bugs off the decks. He would have given anything, in that moment, to spend just one night sleeping in a house he could call his own. But of course he had nothing worthwhile to trade. Only his bucket, and sponge.
“You picked up a third DUI, and then a fourth, and they threw you in the can. The judge had zero sympathy. He said, ‘I am going to incarcerate you, sir, and I’m going to do it in a way that is very unpleasant for you.’ Are you following this, Tommy?”
But Tommy was still stuck on the beer — the bottle of beer that the woman with the tattooed leg had been holding. He’d been nauseated by the smell — offended, even. Incredible, that he’d once been the sort of person who drank that stuff like water. He would have sooner chugged his whole bucket of bleach, than taken a single sip of that woman’s beer.
“I told you I was moving out,” Carver said, “I gave you notice. That night, everything changed … ”
Carver’s hand scrabbled for his pack of Camels. He lit another. This time, there was no coefficient of nostalgia or remorse attached to the smell. It was merely an unpleasant odor — no worse or better than picking up a waft of slime emanating from a sewer.
“We were sitting in your kitchen, shooting the shit. You were drinking Yuengling lager. Green ponynecks. You’d only had a few — I want you to know that. You weren’t drunk — and neither was I. I was drinking ginger ale. And I told you we were done here. The band, the house, everything. Our friendship. It was over. You couldn’t take it. Things got physical. You went upstairs to get your gun — you kept it in a little lockbox in the attic — and I pulled you back down the stairs. You struck your head against the baseboard. Bleeding everywhere.”
Tommy stared at Carver gape-mouthed. It was returning to him now — the house; the drugs and the booze; the endless stream of stoners and whores that filtered through the house, cleansing it, destroying it; the recording equipment they kept in the attic, along with the gun; even the mushrooms growing wild in the backyard — it came to him in great waves crashing down on some rootless platform of his brain, only to peel back, just as fast, into the sterile, oblivious sea …
“You were taken to the hospital, where I’m told you had a period of lucidity, and then started vomiting profusely. You were in a coma — or something like a coma — breathing on a ventilator. It was a poor diagnosis — they didn’t think you’d ever wake up. Your wife — ex-wife —Leslie — she didn’t want to be bothered with it, so I had to make the decision. I signed the papers, had them pull the plug. A priest even read you your last rites …”
Carver laughed at that, and then waved his cigarette and said: “But you did wake up, Tommy — and after a few days you were even talking and eating. For your sake, though, it might have been better if you hadn’t … ”
Tommy went to say something, but Carver cut him off. “Doesn’t matter, old friend. Best not to think too much about it. Might as well have never happened. Different time. Different world. You know how that is? But I’m sorry, Tomato. I’m real, real sorry … ”
After Carver locked up the shop and headed home for the night, Tommy went for a long walk along the decks. He went looking for the girl with the tattooed leg, knowing in his heart that he would not find her, wondering what he would say, or do, if he did. He passed by an old movie theater, and peered inside, and thought about going in; but the smell of buttered popcorn confused and sickened him; and he didn’t know what he would say to the man in the tuxedo, or how to order a ticket, or what movie he would see, even if he had any money.
He thought about Carver, with his sagging, once-handsome face; how he’d recited the story of their falling-out in a clinical sort of way, in a way that had sounded almost rehearsed, scripted, preordained. The way he’d shown Tommy the unbound pages from the envelope, with the blue writing on them, but didn’t let Tommy touch them. The crunch-crunch of his rotting Underwood typewriter.
He briefly considered going back to the pawn shop, busting in through the window with a conch shell or a found piece of wood. Breaking into the office — it was sure to be dark, but Tommy knew he could find his way around; he knew what he would be looking for, and how to find it. He had a pretty good idea why that drawer was locked. What else was in there.
But mostly, he thought about Leslie. Her hair — which he now remembered was strawberry blonde — and the roundish, Celtic inscription between her shoulder blades, a fading tattoo, green like the bottles of beer he’d been drinking when Carver attacked him. Her green eyes and gin-soaked breath. Her panic attacks. Her fainting spells. The soggy tissues she’d left by the bed; the pyramids of books she’d built, in the few short months they’d had together, in the house they’d shared, at the other end of the earth. In a place called Pittsburgh, wherever that was.
Tommy walked for a while along the beach, waiting for the moon to inflate overhead, for the full range of stars to appear. He found a crab underneath a piece of driftwood and played with the crab until the crab got bored and burrowed itself for good in the sand. He made a little bed out of dunegrass and sticks, and lie down under the boardwalk, in the general area where he’d buried his bucket, watching the people walk past through the slits in the deck; until the footsteps trailed off and then were no more; until there was nothing between him and the stars but warped planks of wood, and the sounds of the cicadas; until he fell back asleep.