Little Squirrel by Tim Hickey
This opening chapter of Tim Hickey’s Little Squirrel is the second-place winner of the 2019 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, judged by Naomi Huffman.
“But where exactly had it gone wrong this day?” Franks implores in the very first line of Little Squirrel, and with this futile reflection the stakes are set: Franks’s circumstances are already compromised and are only going to get worse. Franks possesses all of the characteristics of the classic fuck-up—he’s an alcoholic, astonishingly selfish, and ruled by his impulses, but he’s also funny, clever, and sincerely trying to prove to his fiancée that he’ll be better, next time. Although it’s clear things aren’t going to change course, it’s some sick thrill to follow along. Part of the fun is in Hickey’s artful skewering of Franks’s fiancée’s wealthy family, the DiBaptistas, who are more concerned with their runaway vanity dog and the perfect Sunday lamb than providing compassion. In fact, they’re trying to boot Franks from the family, and his resilience in the face of their efforts makes him all the more charming.
The selection ends with Franks popping a piece of Big Red gum to cover his boozy breath, stalling in the vehicle he’s sort of just crashed, checking himself in the rearview: “I’d show them,” he says, and I was clinched, wanting to see just how far down he’d go.
But where exactly had it gone wrong this day? Probably when my brother-in-law-to-be, Ward DiBaptista, shouted at me to move the Tahoe so it wouldn’t rut the yard, or maybe just after that, when my fiancée’s entire family made me understand that they preferred my absence at this, their Sunday meal, or yet earlier still, during a brief exchange with Stasia on the drive over about whether bringing a bottle of wine would be inappropriate given my current position in early, untested sobriety, and then for sure the moment when Stasia and I together decided, Yes, sure, why not, it’d be rude otherwise, and before crossing the bridge we pulled into the last possible convenience store where the only wine was cold and sugary and I could already sense the headache the high-fructose hooch would engender if downed quickly, which is for sure how I would have downed it, in two or three moves, though I wouldn’t, because I’d promised, not today and certainly not that particular bottle. Though it may have gone all wrong when I was first eyeing the six-pack of O’Doul’s there in the double-panel built-in fridge of the DiBaptista kitchen—for here was evidence that my future in-laws had held a discussion about my situation, through which they had come to a few conclusions, and someone had gone out and especially purchased a pointless little raft of non-alcoholic beer, a plan executed in deference to my condition. But no, not that, probably the real trouble should be located precisely when I’d left the Roman Oaks facility three weeks ago and hustled back to drinking full-time rather than making a bed-to-bed move, as was the after-care plan, to a halfway house and a sober job and sober life. And if we’re really doing this? The moment of my birth, howling for air, that’s when the trouble began, and it was going to take something just as enormous and transfiguring to reverse it.
Say there really had been a need for more meat and for my obliging errand to get it. The DiBaptista family lived to fix and eat lamb cooked assado-style over flames in a limestone pit at the back of their farmhouse. The DiBaptista way was to fuss and prep and cook for hours upon hours, coating the meats with homemade chimichurri from a repurposed squeeze bottle. The family farm was called Shagbark.
Crowded in the humid, odorous kitchen, everyone held greasy glasses in their hands. Mrs. DiBaptista was gliding from drink to drink with a cloudy pitcher, freshening drinks, asking if anyone would like to be freshened, who needed freshening? It meant pouring a whole other one before the last one ran dry, making any accurate tabulation of consumed drinks impossible.
“Who will go to get more lamb?” Mrs. DiBaptista asked.
They had plenty of meat. The mission was a contrivance. I believe Ward, my future brother-in-law, had suggested to his mother at some point that I should be tasked with running an errand, and everyone else on the farm readily agreed. Their directions were vague in a way that suggested they might be sending me on snipe hunt. I played along. I was glad to help. I hadn’t touched the fake beer.
Stasia’s mother was clad in a floor-length kimono. Lightly, she touched my arm.
“Franks, would you mind? Since you’re not drinking.”
A delicate fact of my sobriety was this: I was in no way sober, though everyone else believed that my not-drinking was the essential fact of my current life after Roman Oaks. Rather, I’d been drinking steadily since the day I left several weeks ago, even stopping in a deserted Sam Adams Brewhouse in the Atlanta airport on the way home, and I’d been not-sober as recently as this very morning before picking up Stasia, when I’d allowed myself measured gulps from a bottle in the freezer.
It was my most private secret. I had reached a point where daily life was a set of mathematical problems involving titration and ratios and balance and my exchanges with anyone, anyone at all, involved mental tapering and lies and calculating rates and percentages. I agreed to the errand.
The tires of my Tahoe flung mud as I pulled away from Shagbark, reminding me of the confusion and conflict of our arrival earlier that morning.
When we had approached the swinging iron gate of the farm entrance, Stasia told me, “I’m fine now. It’s okay.”
I had not been paying attention. I would have liked to ask her what we were talking about, but it didn’t seem right, not really acceptable. Were we fighting? Our eyes were not quite willing to meet. Her hand did not seek my hand on the console. My pulse was on the move but otherwise I was in a good mood.
“You seem…” she said.
I swerved to straddle a box turtle, too late, and instead felt it burst directly under my left tire. Stasia made no further comment. We caught sight of her brother and his dogs near the tree line.
I smiled, but when I looked into her face it was clear she’d been crying in the car. To this day I would like to know why, but I would never get a chance to ask.
“I think I want to thank you,” I thought she said.
“For coming today? You don’t have to thank me.”
“No. What I said was, I think I want a thank you. From you. For bringing you here, when you know it’s not easy on me.”
Before I’d replied or even cut the engine, Stasia was hurrying out to see her mother, abandoning the sad, sweating wine in the backseat, and I considered how I might drink some or most of it before entering the house. It had a screw cap.
I was twisted in the seat, staring the bottle down, but Ward DiBaptista was now twenty yards away, opposite what the DiBaptistas absurdly called the “greensward,” wearing his Wellingtons and Tattersall, striding a purposeful stride. He always had the gear—brush pants, waxed-cotton jacket—though miniaturized for his slight frame. I was sure Ward hated me, with good reason, I felt, and I reflexively disliked him, though I couldn’t remember ever having had a full conversation with him or really anything at all against him. Here he came, carrying between his eyebrows the deep, fixed crease of disapproval.
“Move your vehicle!” he shouted, hand to mouth.
Ward wore an orange whistle on a lanyard around his neck. It was for his dog training, but now it might as well have been the final touch on his parking-attendant getup. I sprang from the car. We stood face to face.
“Well, you will. Of course you will. So you don’t rut the pasture.”
“J.D., come on, move that piece of shit,” he pleaded.
Two dogs, field trial champions, high strung, whining, unlovable in their monomaniacal natures, raced around the brush sniffing and twitching their tails. I should say that though my name is Franks my fiancée’s family called me J.D. because, they claimed, of my need to frequently remind people of the fact that I’d put myself through law school, earning a Juris Doctorate. Plus, I had some ungrammatical Latin phrase pertaining to the law tattooed on my left bicep, which I’ll be the first to admit was a drinking-related mistake. Yet I was accepting of the nickname.
I stepped back and studied the Tahoe.
It was true that I’d messed up the spongy field a little with the gigantic tires. The fact that Ward was right made it impossible for me to cede anything.
The other cars were parked in an orderly row. The DiBaptistas had outgrown the need to impress others with the quality of their vehicles; in fact, just the opposite: their affluence was measured by the sensibility and modesty of the cars, though the stickers on the back windows conveyed the impression that inside the house a top-tier college fair was taking place.
Ward and I argued some more about whether I was or was not going to be moving the truck, and then he said, “Oh, boy. Do you hear yourself? Let me be the one to say it, J.D. Rehab has failed you. All the anger and defiance shit, it’ll eat you up inside. They told you that, surely? Twenty-eight thousand dollars to dry out, it ought to get you the good information. Let go and let God. That’s the plan, right? Am I right?”
I could see that maybe Ward felt genuinely bad for me, was even perhaps concerned. That I could be the object of his pity didn’t work for me. I said, “I didn’t pay. The insurance paid. Family medical leave.”
“Company insurance. Whose company? My family’s company!”
The argument escalated, Ward claiming I was ruining his sister’s life, and I said that if he was really interested in the roots of his sister’s eating disorder which she’d dealt with for years before I came along, he might want to go inside and take a look around at the people in the kitchen, and he said “Oh, sure, we’re the screwed-up ones in this picture. Sure. My family. Tell you what. Why don’t we both go inside and have a quiet drink and we can talk it out? I’ll pour. Ice-cold fishbowl martinis. How’s that sound? Oh wait, is that not a good idea for you? No? Like if you have one, are you gonna start crying and then tear off somewhere and wind up smoking crack? Let me save you the time. Just go the eff home.”
There was little I could say here. I felt he had me absolutely.
“Ward,” I said, and thought of something to say.
“You may be real small but you’re grown-up enough to say the word fuck. If you say it you’ll sound less like the fat child you resemble.”
“You suck it.” This was the best I could do.
It was really a hot day! Something about the graceful clouds against the sharpness of the sky just pissed me off. And what exactly could I do about that?
The GPS was taking me several miles east, the summer kudzu swallowing up the roadside landscape, rolling it all with a velvety green cover. As I cruised another two-lane farm road, my thoughts were disrupted by a call. It was her.
“Ward wants to talk to you.”
“I don’t want—”
Ward came on.
“Where are you?”
“Ward! I moved the truck after all!”
“Where are you?”
“On the lamb. Ha, ha.”
“I just left, as you know.”
“Goddammit, how far?”
I squinted at the screen. “Phone says I’m just about one point four miles from the turn-in. How’s that for helpful?”
“Bro got loose. We can’t find her.”
“Bro! My dog! The Chesapeake! She doesn’t have her GPS collar on her so she could be anywhere! Plus, she’s in heat.”
I stopped myself from making a comment.
“Got any idea what that dog’s worth?”
“Well, yes. Probably about right.”
In one version of reality, Ward was not a clownish officious blowhard but instead just some small-statured guy with a successful family business for which I worked. He had a nice piece of property he respected. He loved his big sister and was concerned about her involvement with a gestalt fuckup soon to be enjoined to his family by the force of law, and now he was panicking with reason about his beloved and valuable dog. I can see that now.
“Listen,” I said, “take it easy. I’ll find her.”
At this Ward suddenly changed gears. “Oh, dude, please. You have no idea.” He sounded like he was welling up.
Roman Oaks had been a paradisiacal twenty-eight-day in-patient facility in the mountain highlands of West Virginia, and the reason my stay there had been particularly sensitive with the DiBaptistas was because, first of all, Stasia and I had been with each other only a few months before I matriculated to the treatment program in the sorriest shape of my life. White film had collected around my mouth compliments of a Librium detox. My gown was, as all tend to be, inadequately tied up the back. My left arm was pale and patchily shaved from the intravenous insertion. Someone told me I’d been suffering from malnutrition. I’d eaten nothing but Oreo–flavored Kit Kats for a couple of weeks, which I didn’t think would kill me and still, this was America, and I was an attorney. I was somewhere short of surrender. This meant nothing to my new roommate, an oxy-loving elevator mechanic named Kyle, who shouted, upon seeing me shuffle into the room in my slippers and tissue: “Tore up from the floor up!”
Second, I worked for Stasia’s father and his sons, and one of my first actions as an employee of DiBaptista Property Development was to immediately request family medical leave for alcohol and drug treatment. But! Only after first putting a ring on Stasia’s finger and pledging love because in my alcoholic fugue state I would rather have died than lose her.
Roman Oaks had cost twenty-eight thousand dollars—“A K a day keeps the demons at bay” was a popular saying in the dining hall—and though the insurance covered one-hundred percent of treatment, I sensed the DiBaptista family regarded the shifting of funds as though I’d picked up a length of rubber hose and siphoned money directly from their coffers, from each of them personally, just opened up some non-existent private family account and sucked it right out. This was my career, my trouble, my fiancée. Why would I bother framing it from their point of view? I was the boss of me. And yet really, no, they were boss of me, because they signed my checks. When I first came back to work, the DiBaptistas put me outside the offices, in the developments doing construction cleanup, power washing the new driveways, laying poly sheeting underneath spec houses—dirty, unskilled labor—ostensibly to teach me the business from the bottom up, but it felt like ritual humiliation. The best I could offer myself, by way of getting my point across about my sovereignty, was to do things like not move the Tahoe.
The GPS on the phone failed in this backcountry. Getting lost was a matter of luck, and today luck felt monolithic, good and bad carved from the same stone.
I couldn’t tell which variety of luck it was that around here the stores sold liquor not only on Sundays, but Sunday in the a.m., which it was, 11:53, according to my phone, and all seven days of the week until late into the night, those perfectly solicitous little numbers handwritten upon a STORE HOURS sign. For what kind of local need for liquor, for ABC on/off, Keno, and discount smokes must there be here to necessitate such demanding store hours? Significant, clearly.
Certainly there were other places where I could have stopped for directions, but Red Porch Liquors was on this side of the road and had gas pumps.
Around me on all sides were similar establishments as well as a few seedy, comfortable-looking motels. One was called Mason-Dixon, one Bel Alton, another Fountaine Bleue. It had an old-fashioned blue neon sign in the shape of a cresting wave. The Fountaine Bleue also involved an aquamarine pool behind its protective chain-link, and there were families using it this Sunday, several of them with little kids wearing floaties. The parking spaces were filled with trucks and panel vans, no doubt owned by guys with weekly rates for the duration of their job.
Keep the Fountaine Bleue in mind, I told myself. You never know.
I had voice-recorded the clerk’s directions to the lamb farm on my phone. I bumped along some back roads on the soft suspension of the car listening to the directions and thoroughly enjoying a sudden and expanding feeling of total freedom.
At this point on the recording the directions ended but the conversation continued. The clerk asks me if I need anything else and I say, “I think I’m good.” Then, I had to admit, it was my own strong, unambiguous voice saying, “Well, why don’t I go ahead and get a pint of Velicoff,” and further hear myself direct the man’s hand—“Farther right. No, next one over”—to the place beneath the counter where this cut-rate garbage was hidden from view, and then the beeping of the register, the young man’s voice declaring a total (unbelievably) under six dollars, my brass money clip clicking open. Six single bills being peeled.
I shouted, in the car, “Red Porch!”
I scanned the interior for a bottle, but there was nothing, nothing at all on the floorboards, the passenger seat, and my hand bumped into nothing under my seat, or behind, and the side pocket was empty. I spoke the brand as though incanting it, conjuring domestic vodka from another realm: “Oh, Velicoff. Oh Velicoff.”
And here it was, not imaginary, and not hidden at all, but right between my beslacked thighs where it had waited all along, a distinctly pint-shaped pint bottle. It was hard to deny when I lifted it to the sunlight pouring in through the windshield, and saw it was partly gone, that I needed another to deal with the fact that I already had this one. Great almighty God, was it ever baking inside the car.
Had they known? Had the DiBaptistas foredoomed me with this errand, knowing about the Sunday liquor sales, the multitude of stores and motels? No person concerned about my welfare would send me out. The fact that I’d never stopped drinking to begin with was beside the point. I, everyone knew—especially me—was not to be trusted.
I ran my tongue around my gums, tasted my flesh. Bad news for big bad Franks: it seemed I had in fact drunk the vodka already, and diminished the ghastly plastic bottle by half, the total effects not yet emergent, not yet intensifying the days-long stretch of drinking I’d just constructed as a foundation. I had maybe one hundred and eighty seconds before detonation. I began to spontaneously sweat from my forehead and scalp. I mopped my face with a handkerchief. The sensation was like a glorious vertigo.
I used to enjoy thinking of a phrase I was going to say that would bridge my life before and after ingestion of a substance, a continuation of a single thought, though I myself would be of a different mind and a different person in five, four, three, two, one: “Actually, I did very well…”—and then came the flint of the lighter, the crackle and sip off the pipe, and the knowledge that the next words would be spoken by a different man, in a lower register—“when I took the LSAT.”
I have a law degree. I would sometimes tell myself this fact in moments when it hardly seemed likely. If my college years had taught me to drink like a gentlemen at the university famous for that style of education, then the years in law school at the same university taught me to smoke crack like a gentleman. My roommate in rehab, the elevator tech, identified my particular pattern as one called “Yale to jail,” or “Park Avenue to park bench.” I took a certain amount of pride in this, though technically I had never set foot in the state of Connecticut or a Park Avenue apartment. Yale had been a reach school that remained ungraspable. Maybe predictably, the rest of my recovering colleagues at Roman Oaks named me Counselor, even though I’d suggested they call me Atticus, which didn’t take.
Air conditioning cooled my sweat into a comfortable sheet. I plugged my phone into the USB outlet, checked that it was charging, settled into the country drive, and looked for the next turn I was supposed to take called Whitehaven. I was responsibly searching the countryside. I wiped my face more, checked the fuel gauge, looked at my watch, then the phone again. I had the busyness of a man performing himself, the role of himself. Nothing really had happened, from this standpoint.
I’d been freeze-dried, a desiccated form now reconstituted to soaking fulsomeness with merely a slight liquid application. I’d been wrapped tight, but was now split open and spilling myself around everywhere.
What did Stasia’s family care about? This was my drive-time thought. Yes, they had their concerns. And yes, they knew I was a bad actor who, rehab or no rehab, would go on making bad decisions. But I felt righteous in this knowledge. I would show the family by short-circuiting their expectations that I needed, revered, or envied any one of them in the slightest. Couldn’t I force the DiBaptistas to reconsider whether there might be anything more to life than humanely raised lamb, BPA-free water bottles, bitter Scotch, Carolina golfing destinations, shorthaired pointers, kickass espresso makers, and the near-certainty that just about everything would work out to their advantage?
The bottle was getting close to empty. I felt I could eat it. When the phone rang, I cleared my throat: Stasia.
“Well, I got a little turned around.”
“Listen,” she said.
“Hold on. I see the dog. I’ll call you back.”
If only the day were less glaringly, brutally clear. The intensity of the variously colored leaves on the maples, the filaments of unspooling cloud, everything felt simulated and conspiring. While it should have humbled me with its natural beauty, it did not. I felt instead rebuked for selfishly not acknowledging its beauty, and therefore I rebuked it back—nature!—by ignoring its beauty out of spite. I, the world said, am obviously lovely, and a gift, while you, you moron, can’t even appreciate it. Well then, I won’t, I said. I hooted on my plastic rectangle, having finished my passive-aggressive exchange with nature, which I remembered at Roman Oaks they called self-talk.
I happened upon an amazing fact that stupefies me still and which I searched for the meaning in then: when I’d told Stasia that I’d seen Ward’s dog, I’d been lying in order to get off the phone. Now that I had ended the call, here was the overheated baby, lapping from a mosquito ditch across the road and dangerously close to passing traffic.
This slight, pointy-snouted retriever finished, sighed, and loped down the road with an idiotic look of pure happiness on her face.
I veered off-road in the U-turn, overcorrected, and nearly put the Tahoe in the opposing ditch before bringing it to a stop. I hit a button on the fob that automatically opened the tailgate.
“Bro!” I shouted, stepping out of the car. “Bro, come!”
The sun forced its light through a resistant cloud. Nothing would stop its radiance.
A blackout is actually more translucent than it is black. You bob above and beneath the surface. The notion that I could be in the world going about worldly business with no recollection of it, and no agency whatsoever, having handed over my will entirely to the force, I could think of nothing more exciting than this direct challenge to the integrity and coherence of life.
I was narrating my achievements. I have a law degree and a Tahoe. The truth was, it helped.
Bro’s tongue was the shape and color of a thermometer’s mercury, with a red bulbous terminating end. God love her. She’d come back to me. I had summoned and yielded a rescue. The door ajar bell was politely chiming. Bro had marvelous green eyes. I put my face down to the dog’s face, breathed in her hot cereal breath.
In the car, Bro sprawled, comfortable in the cool streams of air conditioning. I called her name and she lifted her delicate head. The parable of the wolf printed in a Roman Oaks first-step workbook was often quoted and talked about. In it, a grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us that are always in conflict with each other. One of them is the good wolf of kindness, health, serenity, peace, bravery and love. The other wolf is bad with greed, hatred and fear. The grandson asks, “Grandfather, which one wins?” The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”
It’s possible to read this as the kind of garbage rehab shit that makes the whole recovery enterprise seem as predatory and futile as any dumb human effort. And yet in my version, the parable is all the more powerful for being one-hundred percent true and as close a metaphor for human struggle as we’re likely to get. What I mean is, I fed the bad wolf just a little more here and I knew it. Like a nursing wolf pup, I darted my tongue inside the plastic pint rim. A sore spot on my mouth organ got touched with the astringent and stung in a salubrious way. A little private game with myself, plugging the mouth, letting the drops dribble, hurting the hurt, a harmless bit of fun.
I looked back at the Bro safely loaded up. There were tears suddenly, nothing but pure overblown alcoholic sentimentality, knowledge of which doesn’t stop it from being real. I stared at the dog and when she looked me in the eye I seized the moment to howl at her, “I want to be be upstanding!” I was so happy I wanted to smoke crack.
Part of my mind, I presume the healthy part, had forgotten how glorious such a moment was.
At the very thought that this day, of all days, could possibly be my bottom, the authentic last, the rock-bottom, the tale of trapdoors notwithstanding, I developed a completely gratuitous erection. I maintained it all the way through the directions to the farm where I had been originally sent to buy lamb. But then I was crashing at the memory of the words of a Russian woman whom I never really knew that well back at Roman Oaks, who taught all of us that withdrawal was “the little squirrel,” belotchka, this name being a tremendous comfort to me. A whole country with a history as forsaken as Russia was so unified in their understanding of booze withdrawal that they invented a name for it, a cute little rodent term for an occurrence so privately awful, as solitary as one’s own death. Little squirrel, the sight of the thing that wasn’t there, picking at your flesh and draining off your soul, turning you into a filthy, shuddering, red, excreting bundle of sparking, electrified meat cloaked in a clump of wet fur. The Russian had said, “Tell me you would not do what it takes to kill this squirrel.”
I hopped out of the truck at my destination. I put my hands in my pockets and wandered into a converted barn that smelled of silage. There was a chalkboard sign that listed prices. The salesgirl made sense of what I asked for and assured me that the creature itself had been walking around at dawn this morning. The lamb was that fresh. It cost eighty-nine dollars.
I weighed the vacuum-sealed mass of maroon and white flesh in my hands and guessed no more than three pounds. There were chrome racks of freshly baked breads and I thought I should eat something, me with my history of malnourishment. I’d had a few crudités or canapés or whatever they called them at the DiBaptisas’, but nothing beyond that, no breakfast, even, no dinner the night before. I appraised the girl more carefully at the counter. Everything about her suggested I would not be out of line asking for drugs. Her piercing-to-tattoo ratio was right. She appeared artificially enthusiastic about her job.
In the right condition, you almost don’t need words or frontal-lobe functioning to navigate this world. It just comes, there for you to slip into like a river and be carried away. I had once seen a woman crossing an ordinary street in the middle of the ordinary day. “Whatchu doing?” I’d said to her through my window when she was caught in the crosswalk. She got whatever message I’d transmitted, stopped and stared. “Nothin,” she said, imitating my accent. “Whatchu doing?”
Like lost geese, we found one another.
I asked the salesgirl if she had anything else for sale that wasn’t out for display. Like for instance? she said. Like drugs. Seriously? I assured her I was serious. She said that if I wasn’t a cop then she was calling the cops. I told her I was only joking, ostentatiously pushed a twenty into a decorated tip jar, and told her to have an awesome day. Locating my truck took longer than you’d expect in a tiny parking lot that I’d left only minutes earlier. Pinkish, scented, cold water dripped onto my hand from the nesting bags containing ice and lamb. Apparently I’d nosed the Tahoe into a bordering fencepost with just enough pressure to crack the right front headlamp and crinkle the fender around it. News to me.
I turned in guilt to see if this minor one-car accident had been observed. There stood the lamb clerk at the shop’s plate-glass window holding her phone horizontally aloft and clearly taking a picture of the Tahoe’s license tag and of me in front of it. I waved.
Before hitting the main road, I shouldered the car on the edge of a pasture so I could hop out and take a leak, which I did, somewhat incompletely, inadvertently leaving the last few spurts for my pant leg after I’d already zipped up. I sat back down. Definitely more than a few drops. There was a stain. The filth of the day had really caught up with me.
I obsessively repeated the phrase, “Leave the windows down,” thinking that if I lost the thread of it, if the gap in my mind yawned, I would forget and thereby sizzle Bro’s brain in the kiln of the Tahoe’s interior while I swam. I was here at the Fountaine Bleue.
I didn’t trust the heat even with the open windows and so resolved to tether Bro under the canopy of a pecan tree within sight of the pool. I pulled a polystyrene fast-food clamshell from a wire mesh trashcan, tore it in half, and poured water into it. I let myself onto the pool deck like I owned the place.
“Honey, you’re swimmin’ in your underpants,” a large woman on the chaise next to mine observed without judgment when I heaved myself out of the pool. I’d changed in the bathroom and had folded my day’s ensemble on a plastic table next to where she’d then set up.
“I didn’t bring a suit,” I said.
“They kind of look like trunks, though.”
“The truth is, I’m not staying here. I just needed a dip.”
“I won’t tell management.”
I was cool and clean and already beginning to bake dry. Before I swigged straight from the bottle I had folded in among my clothes, I thought to ask my new friend if she wanted some of the wine.
“It’s not cold anymore, I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s been sitting in the car.”
“Reach it over here.” She extended a plastic cup toward me, and I tipped the bottle. They were her children splashing on the steps leading into the deep blue. I felt I knew her, her life, poolside at the Fountaine Bleue, accepting the offer of car-baked Moscato from a midday stranger wearing soaked boxer shorts with little palm trees on them. It was my life, too, because I was here living it.
“Oooh, that’s nice,” she said, sipping and shuddering. “All he ever brings is beer and about three wine coolers for me.” She motioned toward two shirtless guys in wraparound shades by a gas grill in the corner just off the concrete. One man carefully arranged burgers with fingers, moving them around the grate like it was a board game.
The two guys were talking.
“Thank you for including me,” one said.
“No, man, thank you,” said the cook.
“I barely did anything.”
“Whatever you did, the truck wouldn’t move and now it goes. I’d have been screwed without it tomorrow. Job’s all the way in Webster.”
“Glad,” he said. “Damn that’s a good hamburger.” They had a little plastic table set up with bottles of ketchup and mustard, mayonnaise packets, and some sliced tomatoes.
I was listening so intently because I wanted to be part of an exchange exactly like this one, reciprocated expressions of gratitude. It was so obvious I was eavesdropping that they were forced to acknowledge me. One guy pivoted to open up the angle to include me in the conversation. “What’s going on, man? You want a burger?”
Before I answered, Bro’s wailing pierced the pool noise, a long, high whimper that snapped silent.
“Is that your dog?” said the cook.
I looked over to the shade tree where I’d tethered Bro. She was caught in what I’d heard Ward call a “copulatory tie,” butt-to-butt with an orange hound-mix about Bro’s size. They were conjoined, ears pinned back and panting. No doubt the hound had caught wind of the ripe scent of Bro’s heat cycle and come running. They no longer wanted to do what they were doing, but now they were stuck in the aftermath of their desire. It was horrible, really.
The woman craned over to where she could see. “Leave those poor creatures alone.”
“Cock lock,” the mechanic added. “That really your dog?”
“Nature knows no indecencies,” the cook said serenely. “They’re not even aware of what they’re doing.”
“Nothing to do but wait for the old boy to deflate,” said the mechanic.
“Well, dad.” The cook was laughing as he simultaneously pumped my hand and offered me a beer. “Congratulations.”
The trip back to the DiBaptistas’ seemed to take very little time at all when compared with the odyssey of the first half of the errand. Everything had happened within a five-mile radius.
I was respectful now of Ward’s parking rules, humbled, chastened, cooperative, no longer defiant or mysteriously angry. I pulled the car up at an angle that I felt would conceal the front-end damage if we could delay leaving until after dark.
In the Tahoe I was the lone soul in a universe, no one to tell me I was drunk or deluded. No control to the experiment. No one to bounce my ideas off of. Therefore: I drank the last of the final, the necessary, the emergency half-pint purchased on the return trip, drank it all at once and looked with something like curiosity in the sun-visor mirror to see what would happen next.
Here I sat.
Perhaps it was less that my eyes had receded into my skull than that the chemically bloated flesh quickly piled forward, creating little caves sheltering my eyeballs, turning me blunt and somewhat Cro-Magnon. It was like in the last couple of hours I’d put on a lot of weight, but only in my face, which was shining with sweat and sunburn. My saliva ran thin and clear. My eyes felt well-lubricated. My ears stopped ringing. In a moment of unverbalized self-talk, I said, Boy. I said, This is great. I have a law degree and a Tahoe. I am in terrific health.
The DiBaptistas were assembled on the front porch. I realized I was taking an inordinately long time to exit the car. I hit the tailgate release and Bro leaped out and into the pasture. If only Bro could talk! Ward began a stride toward his dog. Stasia’s mother rested her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. I think they had been in the process of taking a family photo.
Anyone in his right mind could guess that I would soon be winding up the mile-long cedar-flanked drive of Roman Oaks in an Uber for another round of certified rehabilitation, and that this time I would arrive without a job or a fiancée or the prospect of either. But I would have the encouragement, even insistence of the DiBaptista family. They would pay the premiums on the COBRA continuation of my group health coverage in the upcoming months. That’s how grossly I’d misjudged them.
I don’t think anyone could have predicted, though, the car chase later that afternoon—Ward and his brother were on foot; they pulled and chained the gate closed—during which I badly turfed the greensward while attempting a getaway, before I bogged the Tahoe in the floodplain, got out, and fell on my knees.
No, in my un-right mind I was simply returning from my considerate errand, believing I was plausibly sober. I possessed a feeling of optimism and satisfaction, a vision of my future life with Stasia and her family. Maybe I would get Stasia pregnant, maybe even tonight, like Bro had gotten pregnant, and through blood I would claim an inalienable right to this life.
My clothes were somewhat rumpled and the whole top half of my slacks was dark from my damp shorts. How long had I been gone? Less than three hours, which seemed impossible. I was packing a lot into my life!
I popped in a piece of Big Red chewing gum and checked myself a last time in the mirror. I wasn’t fooled, but hellbent. I’d show them.
TIM HICKEY is a founder and manager of Tangier Island Oyster Company and lives in Washington, D.C.