“Good bye, Meyer, see you…”
“By the way, don’t get too attached to anything.”
“Of course you will, we all do.”
--exchange between Meyer T Meyer and
T. Reed Daley on a beach
I had an odd feeling about vacation. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was there. It reminded me of the Casio digital watch Sandy gave me for my birthday a few years ago. The watch had an hourly alarm to help me with my ‘time issues’.
That’s what Sandy said as she was showing me how to set the other alarms and engage the stop watch and turn on the dial light so I could see what time it was in the dark. “This will be great for you, Reed,” she said, “this will help you with your time issues.”
Sandy loves gadgets as much as I loathe them. There are things in our kitchen that Sandy uses all the time and I don’t know the names for. There’s a gizmo to shred salad and a blender to reduce anything without bones to mush in a push of a button and a utilitarian-looking thing that grinds coffee beans to three different consistencies and an electric can-opener/knife-sharpener that defies operation. I have finally conquered the Braun coffee maker—a black Nazi monolith of a contraption that reminds me of the movie 2001 and the ultimate destruction of life as I appreciate it. So long as Sandy has ground coffee beans to their proper configuration, I can make them into coffee with the Braun monstrosity. Yet, even it makes me nervous.
I prefer watches and clocks with hands and without alarms, stop-watches, reminder beeps or anything. Those watches and clocks are called ‘analog’ these days. For centuries, human beings simply called them watches and clocks. But when digital watches and their endlessly shifting, green and liquidy numbers came along, we needed something to call regular—may I say, ‘real’?—watches. ‘Analog’ was the best we could come up with.
“I like my old watch,” I told Sandy as she poured over the instruction booklet, creating untold havoc for me and my ‘time issue’. “No one should strap something to their wrist and tie it against their pulse that requires 14 pages of instruction.” I went on, “I like watches with hands.”
“They’re called ‘analog’ watches now,” Sandy said, making my new Casio beep as she filled it with instructions for functions I would never use.
“And I don’t have ‘time issues’,” I continued. “I’m just late sometimes.”
She laughed. “Sometimes, Reed. That’s rich.”
My odd feeling about vacation was like that watch. Finally, I tossed the Casio watch across our basement and lost it. Once an hour, it would beep, since I couldn’t figure out how to turn that feature off before I lost it. Whenever I was there and it beeped, I’d jump up and try to find it so I could take it down to the little stream behind our house and throw it there. But, since it only beeped once each hour, I could never get an accurate sounding. It took over a year before the beeping stopped and I felt secure with my Timex with three hands and Roman numerals.
Every so often, when I least expected it, something would go ‘beep’ about vacation—something I didn’t understand and didn’t have time to locate before it slipped away.
Beep. Meyer Tee, for some reason, wasn’t coming to Buckhannon from Morgantown and driving down with us, and he wasn’t, as he mostly did, bringing a friend. He was flying to Wilmington at great price and arriving the day after we got to the beach. There was some vague excuse about some research he was doing for his history professor—something like that. Just like Sandy’s gadgets, it was beyond my comprehension.
Beep. And then there were the phone calls. Sandy was on the phone a lot, talking about the beach to someone, more than one someone. But she’d grow secretive if I walked into the room. She’d give me a look that indicated I had something else to do elsewhere about that time. Beep. Once I thought I heard her say something about ‘the yataghan’ over the phone. I asked her about that one and she smiled and shook her head at me as if I were simple.
“I was talking to Mable Cox about the ‘afgan’ she’s making for the craft’s fair in the fall,” she told me. “You’re still caught up in all you’ve been writing about. Those memories, Reed, are addling your mind a bit. You’re hearing things.”
Maybe, I thought, but the odd feelings endured.
Peaches didn’t help things. The last few days before my vacation began, she kept asking me about Long Beach—what it was like, were there romantic spots, good restaurants, clubs to party in at night?
“Long Beach is distinctly unromantic,” I told her. “Nothing happens there. All the three restaurants give you too much fried fish and their décor is ‘tourist shell shop’ at best. Nothing romantic. No bars or clubs on the whole island, though I have seen people sitting in their cars, drinking beer and making out in the bait shop parking lot.”
“But it must be wonderful there,” Peaches said. “Why do you keep going back?”
“Because it’s not particularly ‘wonderful’, because nothing happens, because time slows down in a place like that.” I was growing annoyed at her. “Why do you go on about this?”
“Oh, no reason, not really,” she said, playing with her bleached hair, a sure sign she was lying. I just stared at her. “Well, if you must know,” she went on, “a friend of mine is going to be there while you are. I was just, you know, curious about what it was like.”
Then she let it drop.
On the drive down, Sandy was excited almost to giddiness. She kept pointing out animals in the fields through Virginia.
“Cow alert!” she’d cry, giggling, pointing to Holsteins and Guernseys along the road. She grew misty-eyed about horses and always asked, whenever we drove past sheep, if they were as stupid as people in Buckhannon said they were.
“More stupid than that,” I’d say, each time.
We stopped more than usual for Sandy to go to the bathroom. We stopped at every Shell station in three states, at many of the public rest stops and at several fast food places. I began to think Sandy had a bladder infection.
And she kept playing with the air-conditioner in the car—turning it up to bone-chilling, sub-artic settings only Meyer’s Air-Temp could manage and the next minute, turning it completely off. My face was chapped by temperature change before we passed Roanoke.
We spent the night in a Best Western just over the North Carolina state line. Sandy asked the desk clerk where the best restaurant in town was. I took down the directions to a new Italian place while Sandy went to the bathroom.
The desk clerk was in her 20’s, with one of those round, soft, comforting faces so many black women who work in southern motels seem to have. Her Best Western nametag said YOYONYA FAYYE YANKLY. I was quite sure I’d never seen a name with seven Y’s in it. I wondered if her parents had an affinity for the 25th letter of the alphabet.
“You’ all on your honeymoon?” she asked, waiting for her credit card gadget to assure her electronically that we could afford our stay.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
Yoyonya smiled, “You’re wife…she seems so excited.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s a special vacation.” I was just being polite, not wanting to embarrass Yoyanya Fayye. But, as it turned out, I was an unsuspecting minor prophet.
“I just upgraded you’ all to a suite, no extra charge,” she told me, smiling as brightly as all the Y’s in the universe. I thanked her profusely and, much against my normal (cheap!) behavior, handed her a $20 bill.
“No, no,” she said, flustered….
“Oh, yes,” I said, “Oh yes.” I probably did it just to see that smile once more.
The house on Long Beach was enormous and exotic. It was called “The Nautilus”. There was a wonderful, professionally painted Nautilus shell sign on the road beside the house. It had five bedrooms and as many baths, two huge living areas—one off the kitchen with TV and stereo and one on the second floor with a card table, bar and Bally pinball machine that, like a Coke machine I once knew, needed no coins. The kitchen had gadgets even Sandy didn’t immediately comprehend and a little refrigerator only for wines. On the ocean side, there were decks everywhere—multi-layered decks, acres of them, connected by stairways and stretching down to the surf at high tide.
The Nautilus was the kind of beach house Sandy and I had always gawked at as we walked up and down the beach from the humble two bedroom cottages we always rented. I knew Meyer was coming for two weeks and my mother, Caroline and Monica for the second week, so we needed some room. But what would Sandy and I do with this house the third week we were there alone?
When Sandy and I would walk the beach in years past, I would often wonder out loud about what kind of people stayed in houses like the Nautilus. I always assumed we weren’t ‘those kind’ of people so I couldn’t understand why Sandy had rented a house like the Nautilus.
I couldn’t ask her since she was rushing around from room to room, moving much faster than usual, laughing and clapping her hands from time to time.
“Oh, yes, Reed,” she said whenever we passed each other in the endless hallways or on the stairs, “This is perfect, just right.”
“Isn’t it too big?” I asked, mostly to myself since she had already whisked by me.
“Oh, no,” she called back. “You’ll see. It’s a surprise.”
That was it! The source of my vacation unease and angst! There was a surprise involved!
I hate surprises. I am—I have learned and come to expect—a person possessing few surprises. Even when I have made what seemed like a considerable effort—for Sandy’s birthday party or Meyer Tee’s Christmas present—there was apparently no mystery in what I had contrived to do.
I’ve even stopped asking, “Were you surprised?” That question was always answered with a laugh or words like: “Oh, Reed, it’s just like you,” or “Dad, you never cease not to surprise me!”
So, I’ve quit trying to surprise. I’d simply like the favor returned.
The next morning, Sandy left early to pick up Meyer Tee at the Wilmington Airport. She insisted on going alone.
“You stay and relax. Enjoy yourself,” she said.
How could I relax imagining Sandy driving 37 miles at 28 miles an hour? I made her promise to let Meyer drive back. That made me feel a little better.
I wandered around the Nautilus for a while, discovering a Jacuzzi in the downstairs bathroom, a complex intercom system between all the rooms and a range in the kitchen that didn’t have eyes—only smooth, black cooking areas. Surrounded by gadgets and surprises, I decided the only way to relax was to get out of that house. I walked half-a-mile down the beach to the Long Beach Pier and bought two six packs of icy beer—one Bud Light and the other one Corona. If I was going to have to be surprised, I was going to be suitably high for it.
By noon, I’d finished half the beer—three of each. I had a little blue and white cooler I’d bought at the Pier that kept them tolerably cold. My Midwestern frugality wouldn’t allow me to drink two expensive Mexican beers in a row. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become less self-indulgent. It isn’t intentional and I don’t mind it.
I dozed in my beach chair with the sun directly overhead. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but suddenly, even dozing, I realized I was in shadow. I opened my sticky eyes and found myself surrounded by people—at least five of them. Sandy and Meyer Tee I recognized. Even half-asleep and half-drunk and half blind from sun, I’d know them anywhere.
The other three confused me. One was a tall, Black man in his early 30’s, with a manicured beard and a big smile. He looked a little like Ed Bradley. Then there was a tiny woman, under five feet tall, with hair that fell around her shoulders and seemed, in that light, to be almost the color of Corona beer, just a tad less golden and a little more tan. The last stranger looked terribly familiar except his face was too deeply etched with smile lines and his hair was an unnatural, metallic gray—the very gray of his eyes.
The sun was as high as the sun gets. The day was pleasantly hot—with a strong breeze off the ocean to cool my first-morning-at-the-beach sunburn. The Gulf Stream waters, getting near high tide, were lapping around my feet like warm puppies. I knew I was in North Carolina. I knew it was near the last day of August 1989. I knew all that.
But in that high-sun, fresh breeze, puppy ocean moment, I felt myself—six beers before lunch—falling backward into a black hole of Time….And there was Jerry and John Henry and Sugar. It was like sitting on the sidewalk outside the Igloo Factory in the city of Cambridge of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on this fragile earth, our island home. Flung back two decades, sitting there with my friends, I started making noises, just like I often had to entertain them back then—making people’s favorite noises to pass the time of day.
The problem—the only interruption in what could have been a faithful reliving of our past—was that the noises I started making were involuntary. They were gasps and gurgles and wheezes and choking sounds.
I thought I’d swallowed the Past.
They thought I’d had a stroke.
Next thing I knew, I was on the cream white sectional sofa in the downstairs living area of the Nautilus. A huge, concerned, black face hovered over me. “He’s coming around, I think,” John Henry said. “I think he’s going to be alright.”
“Jesus, Reed,” Jerry called from somewhere in the room, “don’t ever do that again!”
I could hear Sandy, talking fast, probably on a phone. “No, cancel it. He’s going to be okay. Just a scare. Yes…. Thank you so much….” She hung up the phone and was kneeling beside me, holding my face in her hands, kissing my forehead, my cheeks, my eyes.
“Well, Dad,” I heard my son say from somewhere near, “were you surprised?”
And they all laughed.
Like swallows to Capistrano…like bats to the caves of New Mexico…like the caribou to the rim of the Artic Ocean…like a lost puppy whimpering on the front porch—Jerry and Sugar and John Henry had come to Long Beach, bearing gifts.
We were all sitting on the largest of the many decks of the Nautilus after a supper of fresh grouper, cold slaw and green beans, with cookies Jerry had brought on the plane from Boston. Darkness was falling. The sun had plunged into the Atlantic a half-hour before. There was good red wine that Sugar had brought with her from Chicago. We were all full and mellow, more than ready for night.
“We have letters and cables here,” Jerry said, “from almost everybody.”
“Actually, there’s only one cable,” John Henry said.
“But it’s from Tibet,” Sugar said, “from Yodel.”
A cable from Yodel in Katmandu. A long letter from Krista and a precious, pencil sized, golden candle.
“Krista and Aaron have five kids,” Jerry said. “All girls, all mystics.”
“Pity poor Aaron,” John Henry laughed.
There was a letter and video tape from Easter Island.
“Marvin Gardens’ latest movie,” Sugar said.
“Is it about those statues?” I asked.
“Are you kidding,” John Henry answered, “it’s about some endangered slug that clings to the coral reef.”
“Terrific camera work,” Jerry added.
“If you like salt water and slugs,” John Henry replied.
“We found a lot of people,” Jerry said, ignoring John Henry. “Lane and Trotter run a yogurt store in Iowa City. That ass-hole Calvin is in a Hindu monastery in Florida. He traded dope smoking for micro-biotics. Calls himself Gurukahr Lakha.”
“Everyone to his own addiction,” John Henry said, smiling to beat the band and lighting a Marlboro which illuminated his face in the gathering darkness.
“I found little Melanie. Remember little Melanie, Reed?” Jerry said.
“Sure, her daddy built slums.”
“Get this,” Jerry said, Reed knew his eyes were wide open and bright, penetrating as he spoke, but the evening has closed around them. They sat in darkness, illuminated from behind by lights of the Nautilus. “Get this, Reed, Melanie is a lawyer for HUD in Washington. Her daddy died on a sailing accident in Long Island Sound and she’s got millions of dollars to contribute to low income housing projects. Don’t tell me there’s no such thing as irony.”
“Franklin,” John Henry said, “sent a letter, remember, Franklin, that basketball dude after Meyer got busted?”
Of course I remembered. I remembered everything.
“He’s a professor at the School of Education at Howard University. He coaches basketball for kids who have good grades in D.C.’s junior high schools.” John Henry cackled. “Grades are going up everywhere—just to be coached by Franklin.”
Jerry kept handing me letters from former Wanderers on the Earth who had—somehow—settled to the ground and taken root.
“What was amazing,” Jerry said, was how easy it was to find everybody. Meyer always thought when people wanderer on they just disappeared. They didn’t disappear at all. They were easy to find, even after all these years.”
“So Meyer was wrong about one thing,” I said.
“Human to the core,” Jerry replied.
We watched the stars swing around the sky and listened to the ocean wheeze and stared out at the black horizon. Somewhere on the other side of the ocean was Europe. We stained to see.
“Know who else I found?” Jerry said, “who Krista found for me?”
I shook my head in the darkness.
“That guy from West Virginia who was at Harvard Divinity School. I only met him once. He came by looking for Calvin.” Jerry paused. “What was his name? Raymond?”
“Richard,” I said, “Richard Lucas, the Bananaman guy.”
“Right,” Jerry said, “now it comes flooding back. Krista wears people out in Kentucky about the Bananaman. She’s found 14 people who remember and put them in touch with Richard. They’re like a Bananaman Club.”
“So where is he?”
“He’s an Episcopal priest in Waterbury, Connecticut. Can you imagine his accent in Connecticut?”
“Waterbury,” I said, “I knew a man from Waterbury.”
We sat there long into the night, bathed in darkness, in the sounds the ocean and night made, in memory.
I haven’t read those letters yet. I’m saving them. I’m going to indulge myself. On the coldest night on next February, I’m going to build a big fire, open a bottle of red wine, snuggle with Sandy and read those letters. It will be—I don’t know—“angelic” and “magical”. Holy messengers from across the realms of time. I’m not ready for that much memory right now. I’m too misty eyed all the time as it is.
Memory, it seems to me, might just be the most precious gift we’ve been given. Without memory, we would be little rowboats on a stormy sea, drifting aimlessly, always in danger, never safe. Memory ties us to Life. If I were Meyer, I’d make up a Philosophy of Life out of that. But I’m not Meyer. I just remember him.
(ii. Fort Fisher Ferry)
Jerry, John Henry and Sugar spent a week with us. Meyer Tee stayed a few more days to be with my mother and Caroline and Monica for a while. That first week, it was strange to get up in the morning and see them at the table—strange and a little disconcerting. But beneath that it was good, wondrous, like being born.
Even getting the Yataghan was good.
John Henry brought it down before dinner the third night. Sugar, Sandy and Meyer were cooking. John Henry found Jerry and me on one deck or another. The green leather box was wrapped in brown paper and tied with that tick white twine I don’t see much these days.
“This is yours,” he said, “I’m tired of having it.”
I felt the package. “It’s the knife. I thought I threw it in the Charles.”
“You didn’t look at what was in that Cape?” Jerry asked.
“No,” I said.
John Henry started laughing. He laughed a great deal. For people who spent most of their days around people dying from AIDS, John Henry and Jerry both seemed irrepressively happy. “Pay up, Jerry,” John Henry almost whooped.
Jerry pulled $20 from his pocket and handed it to John Henry. “He always said you didn’t look. It was our bet.”
“I was there, outside the door, when it all happened,” John Henry told me. “When I went in Pierce was still bleeding. He was dead but still bleeding.”
“Tell him about the knife,” Jerry said.
“I’m getting to it,” John Henry said, “this is my story.” They both laughed. I wasn’t laughing yet.
“Meyer was so very calm,” John Henry said, “He was all bloody and smelled to high heaven, yet he was calm…almost serene. He said we had to get rid of the Yataghan. He said you were the only person to trust to do that, but I had to keep it for a while. He put it in the box and tied it up with some bloody string from Sandy’s mobile above his bed. I left it that way for years, then Jerry and I wrapped it in the brown paper and tied it again.
“ ‘That damn Reed can’t keep a secret,” is the way he said it. ‘His face gives him away, we’ve got to make him think the knife is gone’.”
“I asked him if this would keep him out of jail. ‘Hell no,’ he told me. ‘But if this Yataghan got into a courtroom there wouldn’t be a safe throat there!’ That’s when we came up with the plan of wrapping one of Krista’s candles in the Cape and having you throw it away. I asked Meyer if you would look in the cape?”
Sugar came out to tell us dinner was almost ready, but Jerry shooed her away. “She can’t handle this discussion,” he told me and John Henry.
“ ‘Reed,’ Meyer said, real incredulous,” John Henry took up the story again. “ ‘Are we talking about the same Reed here? He’ll never look, not in a million years.’”
“Meyer was right about one thing at least,” Jerry said.
The story went on and on. Sandy, Sugar and Meyer started eating without us. The point was, John Henry never opened the case, not once. He had kept the knife for over 20 years, waiting for the time to pass it on to me.
“What am I supposed to do with it?” I asked.
“Don’t ask me,” John Henry said, “I’m rid of my Curse now. Ask Meyer.”
I put the package, still unopened, under the bed in our room in the Nautilus.
The next morning we went to Fort Fisher on the Ferry, to read the will and scatter Meyer’s ashes. Because Brigham and then Charity Brigham had been handling his finances for 20 years, Meyer died with a Ferry full of money. He left a million dollars to Jerry’s group—Blood Ties—and another million to Holy Ghost Hospital for Hospice services. The rest, stunningly, he left evenly divided between Sandy, Meyer Tee and me—about $3 million each.
“You’ll each be lucky to end up with two million, even though Brigham’s lawyers found more loopholes and lawyerly tricks than you can imagine,” Jerry announced. We were on the boat crossing from Southport to Fort Fisher. Meyer’s instructions were that his will were to be read while in a boat.
“This is weird as shit,” Meyer Tee said. He was as white as the puffy clouds that drifted in the endless Carolina blue sky. I thought he might faint or throw up and I didn’t know which part he meant—the part about having to hear about our inheritances on a boat or that he was now a millionaire.
“Which part do you mean?” I asked.
“All of it. Fucking all of it!” he said.
“Don’t say ‘fuck’,” Jerry said sternly. The he reached for a green backpack he had carried that day. “Well, that’s the will,” he said, “now for the ashes.”
I thought my son would jump off the Ferry when Jerry pulled out a three liter Almaden Chablis bottle full of Meyer’s earthly remains. “It was hard getting the ashes into this bottle,” Jerry said, “but it seemed so much more appropriate than the little black box they gave me.”
“Oh shit, Jerry,” Meyer Tee said, “this is getting weirder and weirder.”
“This is nothing,” Sandy said, “You should have been around for the real thing.”
She and Sugar hugged each other and laughed. They had known what was going to happen—Jerry had filled them in—and they had been enjoying Meyer Tee and me fall apart.
We took turns scattering Meyer’s ashes into the wake of the Fort Fisher Ferry. We got serious enough to wonder if Jerry should say something, pray, talk to Jesus.
He thought it over. “I don’t think so,” Jerry said. “Why don’t we just talk to Meyer?”
That’s what we did. We poured him little by little into the Gulf Stream and talked to him as he swirled in the eddies and dispersed in the warm water.
“Thank you for all the money,” Meyer Tee said, “and for your name. You must have been wonderfully weird to have these people love you so….” Meyer Tee is a ‘guy’ kind of guy and I felt a catch in my throat when I saw the tears on his face.
Sandy poured out a little Meyer and said, softly, “thank you for my life, for not giving up on me….” Her jaw tightened and tears ran down her face too. Her chin looked anything but weak like that.
John Henry poured and cried. “If I hadn’t met you, you old fucker….You know the rest….”
“Don’t fucking say ‘fucker’,” Jerry said, perfectly mimicking Meyer’s voice. Then they both laughed.
By the time it was my turn to pour, we were all crying and laughing at the same time. The other people on the Ferry, few as they were, had moved to the front of the boat. They weren’t sure about us. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just listened as I poured—to the sound of the Ferry’s engine, the ubiquitous call of gulls, the splashes of the sea, the sob cat sobs of Sugar behind me, waiting her turn.
Sugar emptied the bottle. “Goodbye, Meyer, see you,” she said, her words sailing off into the endless blue like this:
We all laughed, hoping so.
I was the only one to notice that one of the great brown pelicans of the Carolina’s shore was bobbing in the Ferry’s wake when Sugar poured out the last of Meyer. As unthinkable as it was, he seemed to be watching only her.
(iii. On The Beach)
Reed is sitting in a sand chair he bought at Rose’s for $8.79. Beside him, half buried in the wet sand, is a can of Miller Light wrapped in a cooler sleeve of sky blue that says on it, “UNC—I’d rather be in Chapel Hill”.
But Reed would not rather be in Chapel Hill, or anywhere on the planet, on this staggeringly perfect early September afternoon. The air temperature is 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The water is 83 degrees. There is an eleven m.p.h. breeze off the Atlantic that is blowing coolly over his body.
Reed realizes, for the first time in his life, that he could always live like this. He could buy the house he and Sandy are renting for cash. The only time Reed ever took any money from his Trust Fund, managed faithfully and prosperously by his father’s old partner George Josephs back in Cleveland, was to buy the house in Buckhannon for $29,000. He had called and asked “if maybe” he could afford that. Since that was about a tenth of the income the fund would make that year, George Josephs laughed and told Reed that was a real possibility. Meyer’s legacy made Reed a millionaire in the two digit range. $1000 a week rentals were pocket change to him, he suddenly realized. In fact, he thought, half-dozing in the warmth of the beach, he and Sandy could live anywhere they decided to live, especially since she was rich now too, because of Meyer. Then another sleepy thought hit—he and Sandy were quite happy on the combined $37,187.54 they earned in 1988. They were upper-middle class in Buckhannon.
Back when Reed had called Mr. Josephs and asked sheepishly for $29,000, George told him that was fine.
“Thank you, Mr. Josephs,” Reed told him, long distance.
“You’re welcome, Thomas,” Mr. Josephs replied, “and why don’t you call me ‘George’?”
“Alright,” Reed said, worrying about the cost of the call since it was still morning and the rates hadn’t dropped. “Thank you, George.”
Sitting there in the wondrous heat of North Carolina, Reed thinks about all these things. But most of all he is thinking that his beer is empty and he simply doesn’t have the energy to walk up to the house and get another can of Miller Light.
Just then, someone comes up on his right—out of the West since Long Beach faces South—and holds out a can of beer.
“Thought you might need this,” the newcomer says. Reed looks up at him, but since he is standing in front of the setting sun, he can’t see him well. But he thanks the stranger and pops open the can and takes a long drink. It is only then that he realizes the beer is a Schlitz.
Beside him, in the sand, on a matching sand chair—the one Sandy uses and Reed thought was up at the house—is a tall, extremely pale man with thinning blonde hair, even at his age, a moustache from the 60’s, cut off-shorts and a tee-shirt with Chinese characters on it and an eye patch over one eye.
“Nothing like a beer in this heat,” the man says, turning to face him, “though I could do with a bottle of homemade wine.”
“Meyer?” Reed says, frightened, but not much.
“Didn’t think I’d leave without saying goodbye, did you?” Meyer T Meyer said, opening a Schlitz. “This may be my last chance at these,” he says drinking deeply, “I can’t figure it out.”
Surprisingly, given the circumstances, they sat in silence for a while, feeling the breeze, watching a pelican who was flying high above them, playing with the wind and air, soaring and floating and sliding from side to side.
“He’s with me,” Meyer said.
“Who?” Reed asks. After all this time, Meyer still confuses him.
“The bird,” Meyer answers before draining a can of Schlitz, “You’ll see what I mean.”
The pelican sweeps across the sky, passing in front of the setting sun, playing with the air, moving above them and dipping low. His shadow on the sand is elongated, huge.
“He’s with you?” Reed asks.
“Just you watch,” Meyer tells him.
They sit in the sun for what may have been an hour or maybe a few minutes, neither speaking. Meyer somehow produces Schlitz whenever one of them is out of beer. They look up and down the beach. It is almost deserted because it is nearly five o’clock, what they call in North Carolina, supper time. Most everyone is inside their houses, out of the vicious late-afternoon heat, broiling shrimp, steaming corn, frying hamburgers and okra, grilling fish, baking meatloaves, renewing age-old family rituals—bonding or struggling—hungry from the heat of the day.
Besides Reed and Meyer’s ghost there are only eight people in sight of them on the beach. There is a family from Athens, Ohio—a gaunt, sunburned young third grade teacher, his worried, tentative wife, their twelve year old daughter in her first two piece bathing suit and her six year old retarded brother. The family has discovered a little tidal pool where twelve fish are held captive. There are eleven minnows and one young spot. The parents are trying to get the children to examine the fish. The boy and girl are frantically trying to catch the creatures in green and yellow sand buckets because they know that unless they can get the fish back to the receding ocean, they will die.
Walking toward them from east to west, is a 78 year old white man with emphysema and heart disease. He is wearing, unaccountably, black wing-tip shoes, thin black socks, long black trousers and a ridiculous Hawaiian style shirt his daughter in law bought him in Charlotte to brighten him up. His name is Fred and he has never traveled outside of North Carolina and he has been waiting to die for a decade, ever since his wife, Dolly, passed away. When Meyer takes off, Fred will get his wish.
There are two teenagers from Gatlinburg, Tennessee floating on matching blue and yellow floats just a few feet beyond the gentle, low-tide breakers. They are being carried by the current ever eastward, slowly but inexorably. If they remained in the water long enough, the receding tide’s complicated currents would carry them to the mouth of the Cape Fear River, seven miles away. But they will come to their senses long before that happens and arrive back at her parents’ rented house in time for a cold dinner and a stern lecture. She is 15 and he is 16 and her parents knew this was a bad, bad idea all along, to bring a boyfriend to the beach. If they imagined the tangled passion Bonny and Carl have known on the midnight beach, Mr. and Mrs. Sloan would faint dead away.
The only other person on the beach as Meyer and Reed drink mystical Schlitz and watch the pelican circle, is a surf fisher from Grafton, West Virginia. Grafton is less than 20 miles from Buckhannon and though Harold Lee Sparks and Reed will never meet, they already know some of the same people. In fact, Harold Lee has been unfaithful to his wife of 17 years by sleeping with Peaches Calhoun, Reed’s chief assistant at the Buckhannon Public Library. A Harold wades into the surf and casts his line out beyond Bonny and Carl’s floats, he is thinking of Peaches, of how she arches her hips to receive him inside her. After Meyer takes off, Harold will become an evangelist for the Assembly of God Church and break off his affair with Peaches. She will mope and snap and be even more incompetent for several weeks and Reed will never know why.
“So, did you come to tell me a Profound Truth?” Reed asks Meyer’s ghost, who is rapidly turning deep tan in the afternoon sun.
“No,” Meyer answers. “I just dropped by to soak up some rays, drink some beer and say good-bye.”
“That’s all?” Reed asks, perplexed since he’s never talked to a ghost on the beach, or anywhere.
“That’s the whole deal,” Meyer’s ghost replies.
Sandpipers and gulls are gorging themselves on sand fleas and small shell fish they dig from the receding surf. Jerry and Sandy are over a mile west, walking on the beach, talking about Jerry’s ministry and Sandy’s art. John Henry is at Long Beach Pier, playing 8-ball for $5 a game with a long-haired, deeply tanned young man from Gastonia in an Atlanta Braves tee shirt. The boy’s girlfriend is, for the first time in her life, finding a Black man attractive, alluring. John Henry is charming her as he loses every other rack on purpose so he doesn’t take all the boy’s money. The girl’s name is Bridgett and John Henry is calling her ‘Miss Bridgett’ in as much of a southern accent as a kid from Boston can manage and complimenting her on her hair, which is long, sun-blonde and quite fetching.
Meyer Tee and Sugar are almost back from Wilmington, where they toured two historic houses, looked at lots of antiques and walked around the city. Meyer Tee is totally taken by Sugar since she is wearing a sundress and even at 37, her vertebrae are like the tracks of some exquisite creature in wet sand. Besides, even after three horribly failed marriages, she is an innocent as a September day in North Carolina is warm and long.
“What does your tee shirt say?” Reed asks. He noticed that Meyer’s suntan had faded and he was about to somehow disappear.
“It says, ‘Remember Tiannmen Square’,” he says. “Aren’t you up on current events?”
“You know about Tiannmen Square,” Reed asks, innocently enough.
“I was there,” Meyer responds. “Stood in front of a tank myself.”
“You were in China?”
“I was at the 200th Anniversary of the French Revolution too,” Meyer answers, passing yet another non-existent Schlitz to Reed. “It’s amazing what you can do when you’re dead. I could go to Alaska and back and you’d never miss me.”
Reed looks at Meyer. He can almost see through him. Meyer is translucent, like frosted glass.
“I have the yataghan,” Reed says. “John Henry gave it to me.”
Meyer laughs and becomes solid again. “I know,” he says, “took him a while.”
“He’s here—John Henry—and Jerry and Sugar too.”
“I know,” Meyer answers. He looks straight at Reed. “I know most everything. Being dead is like that.” He takes a long drink of beer and burps. “Being dead isn’t anything like I imagined.”
“Nothing ever is,” Reed says.
They sit for a while, feeling the sea breeze play over their skin, before Reed says, “Why are you still ‘here’? Do you have to…you know…?”
Meyer smiles broadly. His eye is slightly glazed from beer. “You mean ‘works of mercy’, something like that, to atone for my sins?”
“Something like that,” Reed says, embarrassed. “That’s what I mean….”
“Beats me, Big Reed. I’ve mostly traveled around, wherever I wanted, seeing things. That’s something I don’t know—why I’m still here. Maybe the computer is down. Maybe it’s like Motor Vehicles, backed up with paperwork and bad help.” He pauses to glance up at the pelican. “But I know we’ll be going soon.”
“You said ‘we’—you mean you and the Pelican?”
Meyer howls. “Oh, that fucker’s been atoning alright. Big time.” When he stops laughing, he adds, almost gently, “but it’s almost over for him too….”
Reed is at a loss about what to say. He is the verbal equivalent of illiterate at that moment. He realizes, even then, that he’ll spend the rest of his life thinking of questions he should have asked Meyer when he had the chance.
“About that crooked knife,” Meyer says, “promise me this—you’ll take it out to the end of that pier up there and feed it to the sharks. Otherwise, more throats will be cut.”
“I promise,” Reed says. He has, after all, become a Promise Keeper.
“I’d do it myself,” Meyer muses, “but I’m not able to carry anything heavier than a six-pack and I can’t walk on wood. Imagine that.”
Reed imagines not being able to walk on wood, but not successfully. “No kidding,” he says.
“The Dead don’t ‘kid’,” Meyer snaps. “That’s another thing I’m going to want to find out about. Someone has some explaining to do.”
Reed stares at the pier in the distance. “Did you know…,” he begins.
“That’s the longest pier in North Carolina?” Meyer interrupts, growing annoyed. “I know shit like that, Reed. I just don’t know why I can’t walk on wood and I’m a little discombobulated about what’s about to happen.”
A moment or two later, Meyer gets up and says, “Well, got to go….”
“Already?” Reed asks. “Everyone will be back soon. Can’t you wait? Stay for dinner? Have a swim?”
“Can’t let them see me. Can’t wait. Never hungry when you’re dead. The water here is too damn warm,” Meyer answers, walking toward the Atlantic.
Reed struggles from his sand chair. He is a little high on the phantom Schlitz and has reached an age when he is not graceful rising from a sand chair, even though he’s in fine health. He follows Meyer’s foot prints in the sand down to the water.
“Watch this,” Meyer says, turning to face him. Meyer turns an electric blue and then a flame orange and then seems to disappear for a moment altogether. When he rematerializes, there is the smell of lemons and fried bacon in the air.
“Death is the ultimate trip,” Meyer says, laughing. “By the way, you and Sandy will live into your early nineties and die three days apart. I won’t tell you who goes first, but his name is Thomas. I’ll see you then.”
“What about Meyer Tee?” Reed asks, anxious and desperate to keep Meyer longer.
“My namesake,” Meyer says, fully present, smiling like a sun-tanned walrus and searching the sky for the pelican. “He’ll be fine. He’ll live in Portugal for a while and marry there. Then he’ll come back and either be a history professor at Williams or a short order cook at an International House of Pancakes in Wisconsin.”
“Either?” Reed says, almost yelling, “you don’t know which?”
“I’m new at being dead,” Meyer says, flickering into blue and orange and nothingness again. His voice continues when he’s gone like the Cheshire Cat. “Check with me in a millennium or so.”
Then he is back and they are standing in the gentle low-tide surf. The water is very warm. The pelican is skimming the water ten yards or so beyond them. He dives for a fish and floats on the waves, eating.
“By the way, don’t get too attached to anything,” Meyer says.
“I won’t,” Reed promises, already lying.
Meyer lifts his eye patch. His bad eye isn’t milky white anymore. It is clear and whole, the color of the sky above North Carolina and focused on Reed. “Of course you will,” he says, smiling,” we all do.”
Meyer turns and holds out his arms. He rises twelve feet, maybe more, off the sand. Then he floats back down. He is laughing as hard as he can. “Did I tell you that damned bird is Pierce?” he says. “Remember how he hated sea-food and feared heights?”
Reed nods, remembering some of that.
“So he’s had to hang around waiting for me in a series of seabird bodies. He’s really pissed about it.” Meyer shakes his head, “Whoever is in charge of this mess has a really nasty sense of irony.”
“Oh, we’re both going ‘home’ now,” Meyer says, grinning maniacally, “whatever that means….”
Sugar and Meyer Tee are passing the Red and White, turning down to Beach Road. They both feel a shiver they don’t mention. John Henry unintentionally scratches on the 8-ball. He’s down $10. Jerry and Sandy turn back toward the Nautilus. They both find it suddenly hard to breathe. But none of those see Meyer’s ghost take off.
Bonny and Carl, on their floats, don’t see it either, though they are very close to the event. They are staring into each other’s eyes, remembering stolen touches. Had they only looked up, they would have known that their relationship would end in an ugly marriage and bitter divorce and would have broken up when they got back to Tennessee.
The two school teachers from Ohio don’t see Meyer ascend because he is distracted by his sunburn and she is worried about what to do about dinner. But their children turn and watch it all. Dianna, their 12 year old, begins to write poetry that night. Years later, critics will compare her to Denise Levertov and call her the “Ann Sexton of the Midwest”. Sugar will buy all Dianne’s thin books and admire her as she grows old.
The school teachers’ son, Ralph, who has been categorized as mildly retarded his whole life, will test well above average on an IQ test in October. He will go on to graduate third in his class at Columbia Law School and be appointed to the Federal Bench before his 45th birthday.
Frank Carter, the retired baker from Raleigh, wearing the hideous Hawaiian shirt, watches Meyer go. He walks back to the house where his son and daughter-in-law are, sits on a rickety lawn chair, removes his wingtips and dies of natural causes. Meyer and Pierce will circle for a while near the sun, waiting for Frank to catch up.
Harold Sparks sees Meyer and mistakes him for a beatific vision of Jesus. He will declare himself an Evangelist and bring hundreds of people to know the Lord through his testimony and preaching. He will remain loyal to his wife and Peaches will find a new lover, after a time, Dan from the Exxon Station.
All Reed will do is follow Meyer’s rapidly fading footprints back to the sand chairs, collect the empty Schlitz cans and put them in the garbage before anyone gets back to the Nautilus. By the time the trash is put out the next morning, the Schlitz cans will be gone, as if they never existed.
Then Reed will go to his room and take the Yataghan from beneath his bed, walk down to the longest pier in North Carolina and throw it to the sharks, breaking over seven centuries of Curse. Even after all that, he’ll be back before anyone else gets home.
When Reed goes into the house, the red light on the phone message machine is blinking. He rewinds the tape and pushes ‘play’. It’s Meyer: “By the way, Big Reed, Sandy is pregnant. Don’t tell her I told you. Congratulations! It’s a girl and you’ll either name her Caroline and call her ‘Carrie’ or Brumhilda and call her ‘Broom’, not sure which. Have a good life. By the way, the tape is already erased, Mr. Phelps.”
But before all that, Reed watches Meyer rise effortlessly into the warm afternoon air. He glides and swoops and follows the pelican in a looping pattern far out over the sea. Another figure joins them and they all fly west and disappear into the sun.
The sun seems so bright it is white to Reed. So very, very white. And Forever.
We were all sitting around the big table, having supper, like nothing much had happened, like Meyer hadn’t ascended and Pierce hadn’t been freed from his pelican body.
There was lots of steamed shrimp that Jerry bought at Bertha’s Seafood earlier in the day. And there were two dozen crabs that Meyer Tee and John Henry and I had harvested just passed dawn, as the tide turned around, using rotten chicken on twine and crab nets. We ruined our sneakers in the muck and Meyer Tee and I sun burned our shoulders and noses. John Henry wore a long sleeved shirt and a wide-brimmed hat crabbing. He said African-Americans revered and respected the sun more than white boys. He was right, but we all had shrimp bites on our ankles and calves.
There was fresh field corn Sandy found at one of the roadside stands. All that was piled on the table, steaming and luscious, on top of pages from The Charlotte Observer, the best newspaper in the south. Sugar had put little bowls of melted butter around the table. We shelled shrimp and crab and dipped them in the butter. From time to time, someone broke an ear of white corn in two and rolled it in the butter. We were all drinking beer. None of it was Schlitz. Some was Miller Light and some was Corona, with limes Meyer Tee had rushed to the Red and White to buy. That was our supper. It was more than enough.
Tossing a shrimp in my mouth, I glanced around the table. Besides my mother, my sister and her girlfriend and Miss Carrie Justice, I decided I couldn’t imagine a table with more people that I loved, within reaching distance, eating intently.
Then I thought of Meyer.
“Shit,” I said to myself, but I accidentally said it out loud, “I forgot to ask him what he thought about the book.”
“Forgot what?” Sugar said.
“Who do you mean?” Jerry asked.
“What book?” John Henry queried, breaking an ear of corn in two.
“What are you talking about?” Meyer Tee said, struggling with a crab claw.
Sandy never looked up, much less said something.
“Forget it,” I said, “just thinking out loud.”
And they all, except Sandy, forgot it.
“You know,” I said a while later, “I realized today that I have lots of money.”
No one reacted. They had all realized that long ago.
“So,” I said, disappointed in their lack of reaction, “I think I’ll give some of it away.”
“We’ll take $100,000,” John Henry said, biting into corn.
“Make that a quarter of a million,” Jerry said, sucking the sweet meat out of a crab leg. “Lots of folks with AIDS.”
“How about $250,000 a year for four years?” I asked, feeling generous. Jerry and John Henry whooped.
“I’m going to give what Meyer gave me to Newman and other people who work with heroin addicts,” Sandy said.
“All of it?” I heard myself asking, Midwestern to the core.
Sandy and everyone else laughed. “Reed, you’ll still be rich. I don’t even like money.”
Meyer Tee washed down whatever he was eating with Corona beer and said, “I just need enough money to not have to depend on Mom and Dad, so I’ll probably give lots of it away. But I think I’ll take a little of the money Meyer gave me and live in Portugal for a while. I don’t know why, but I want to go there.”
Sugar looked at me. A kernel of corn was stuck on her front teeth. Sandy reached over and picked it off with a fingernail. “Two of my divorces have been very financially advantageous,” she said. I didn’t even know Sugar knew the word financially, much less advantageous, like most things in my life, I had underestimated her. “So I’m going to give some money to people who deal with runaway girls. But, before that, I might go to Portugal with Meyer Tee. I speak the language and there is something about the sky in Portugal you can never forget.”
We ate for a while. It all tasted like the food of the gods, like manna—the shrimp and the crab and the corn. Even the beer was like golden mead.
Deep in the night, about half-passed sleep, Sandy nudged me awake. I was at least five beers beyond sober. The room was swimming a bit, against the tide of how our bed was swimming.
“You saw him, didn’t you?” Sandy whispered. She didn’t need to whisper. Our room in the enormous Nautilus was far away from any other room. It was cool from soundless central air. It was dark and you could hear the sea.
“Saw who? Don’t be crazy, you saw Meyer.”
“No, moron, Meyer T Meyer. You forgot to ask him about the book. I remember what you said. Did you see him?”
“I guess so, after a fashion,” I said, mouth full of cotton.
“I knew it!” she said, sitting up in bed, the sheet slipping and revealing her breasts and her almost concave stomach. She was as beautiful to me as the first time I ever saw her, on a rock wall, so long ago.
“Don’t you understand?” she asked, urgently.
“Your breasts are so lovely,” I said.
She sighed and dropped her shoulders. Her breasts dropped with them. “Are you too drunk to listen?”
I really didn’t think so, though I probably was, so I told her I could listen.
“Meyer didn’t care about the book,” she said, extremely excited, her shoulders and breasts rising. “He only cared about ‘the Promise’. And you have almost kept the Promise. That’s why he showed up to you today.”
“Almost?” I asked, confused.
“There is still The Parade,” Sandy said. She said it like a prayer, a mantra, something Holy.
I mumbled something about the parade and she told me, “Go to sleep. When you’re better we’ll talk again.”
I did. And we did.
I woke up at 6 a.m. Light was beginning to fill the room. Sandy was sitting on the edge of the bed, a sheet wrapped around her. I knew she’s kept vigil through the night.
“Good morning, Reed,” she said. “Do you remember now about the promise?”
“And about the parade? Do you understand there has to be a parade?”
“Yes,” I said, and I meant it.
Alright,” she said, taking my hand, “you may touch me here…and here…and here….”
It was just past 8 when I woke up again. Sandy was in the bathroom, being sick. I rushed to the door. On the way I heard the toilet flush.
She was nude, sitting on the floor, rubbing her face with a towel.
“Don’t be worried, Reed,” she said, beginning to laugh. “It’s not the seafood. I’m just pregnant.”
It is an unassuming parade—nine people with instruments they don’t play well; two clowns—both girls—in gypsy skirts with red dots on their cheeks, smiles painted on their mouths and fake red noses; a drum major wearing a Union Army Cape, an eye patch and a Boston Red Sox cap—and, instead of a baton, he is carrying a hockey stick; two majorettes—both skinny and old—in short skirts, support stockings and pushing IV carts along with them, but they are graceful and gay; and a juggler—a distinguished man of seventy with gray hair and a stark, Old World face.
The juggler leads the parade. He is wearing purple tights and juggling four red balls and he never drops one. Not ever. And he always smiles at children. There is a pregnant woman right behind him. She wears delicate, gold wire rim glasses, but she still squints. She moves with great care, as if she thinks she is larger than she is. She is lovely, except for her chin, which someone who did not know her might call weak.
Eight of the band members—a trombone, two flutes, a snare drum, an accordion, a trumpet, a glockenspiel and a bongo drummer who doubles on kazoo—are all Freaks. They wear sneakers and head-bands and one wears a Harpo Marx top-hat. They have many rings and bracelets and most have medallions around their necks, swinging as they march. They all—the whole troop of them—march with quick, jerky, little-kid’s feet steps, moving their shoulders, enjoying themselves immensely.
The ninth band member is extremely old. He has only four teeth in his whole mouth and two of them are so yellow they could pass for gold. He is completely hairless. Not even his beard grows anymore because he is so old. He is playing a strange instrument that seems to be a car part but sounds like a banjo.
They march toward you, and already there are dogs and cats and old, hunchbacked ladies and policemen and nurses and a fish butcher and a basketball player reading a book as he dribbles. There is a little French girl and a little mountain girl, holding hands and skipping and laughing. There is a priest in shorts talking with a man who, in spite of his John’s Hopkins University sweatshirt, looks a lot like Yogi Berra. There is a remarkably beautiful green-eyed woman, looking much younger than her age, holding hands with a younger man who is grinning to beat the band. There is a mother with her five mystical daughters, all carrying candles that won’t blow out even in the strongest wind. There is a man, smiling broadly, carrying mountain climbing gear and giving out slices of bread to everyone along the route. There are people in strange clothes and people with no clothes and a man with half-a-face and a Freak pushing a cart with a bucket of water on it to water the flowers along the way.
There are people speaking strange languages that are all hisses and languages with no consonants and languages like bird songs. There is a little Black boy, smoking a cigarette, carrying a green leather case. There are people wearing turbans and people whose skin is the color of cocoa and coconuts and wheat growing and the midnight sky. There is a tall man who looks Native American holding hands with another man who looks in the prime of life. There are two college professors—both women—holding hands and waiting for an older woman to light a Kent. The three of them are with a lawyer, carrying his briefcase, waving at the crowd. There is a mute, pulling a small train with train cars full of bananas. There is a Black man with a huge German Shepherd walking next to a teenager in a letter man's sweater holding hands with a cheerleader. Inexplicably, the letter man is leading a buffalo who snorts and waddles and almost grins at you. There is even a bare-footed old man in a ridiculous Hawaiian shirt pointing to a pelican circling above him in the sky. People are tossing softballs around, never missing them, making astonishing catches, laughing at their luck, their skill, their magic. A cowboy is in the midst of them and everyone feels good. And there is a man, thin and pale, with a hand-held camera, making a movie of the parade.
All of them are part of the parade.
The drum major has fallen behind and is moving through the crowd toward you. He is tall and thin and has a white mustache that somehow makes him look like an albino walrus. He winks at you with his good eye and hands you something cold and heavy. Then he hurries away, back to the front of the parade with a nurse with remarkable red hair.
And there, there in the back of the parade, just after the enormous, sleepy looking dog and a cat and her three kittens—not keeping up because they keep finding remarkable things to investigate, as kittens do—just there, where you are, behind all the noise and gaiety, surrounded by a pure circle of light…surrounded by a perfectly round circle of Silence and Truth and Light…there is a young girl, no more than eleven.
She is wearing a light blue ballerina’s dress and matching ballet slippers and she is beautiful—dark and frail and grave. And in her impeccable sphere of Harmony, surrounded by all the cacophony and all the mad celebration and ritual and bells and masks and marching and laughing, she dances.
She dances and dances, slowly turning, winning your heart, making you love her although she is so terribly grave. She is as graceful as falling snow, as a swan in brown water, as the rhythms of the sea, as the smile of a joyful friend, as that touch you and I cannot understand or explain—that touch which heals and soothes and makes whole with grace alone.
And you love her. In that perfect sphere, she is the most perfect thing in the universe. And you watch her, bringing up the end of the parade, unaffected by the chaos up ahead. And you love her.
Then you realize what you are carrying, what that madman of a saint of a walrus of a drum major has given you. You are carrying the brace the young dancer must wear on her back, the brace for her spine, crooked since birth, since the womb, since conception, the brace she wears every moment she is not dancing….Dancing….Dancing….
The parade turns a corner, circles a church, and emerges into a green and open vale.
People are laughing, singing, cheering….