The trouble started when David decided to take on the richest woman in the land of sea and sun. She owned the very air space between the south side of our barrier island and the next so that a bridge couldn’t be built without some fancy higher-up trading with the zoning officials responsible for building condominiums on the beach. This ecological disaster ultimately cost the federal government billions. Where the gambling boats begin to fade from view you can see the dredging barges replenishing the sand, their irritating thunk thunk thunk piercing the air 24 hours a day.Then they macadamed the beach egresses and put up parking meters.
David was a lanky no-good schemer presenting himself as a hard-working single father. With tattoos on his biceps, a Niagara of greasy black hair, and a prominent hook-type nose hailing back to some American Indian heritage, he was about as far from Brooks Brothers and L.L. Bean as I was in having a Dun and Bradstreet. Except for the tattoos, the boy was him in miniature, one of those all arms and legs preteens loping about our ponderosa doing things boys do in nature: fishing, rabbit-trapping, and fiddler-crabbing, by day, and star-gazing at night, for where we lived before David began making demands for central heat and air etc. was truly God’s country. Never mind that the landlady owed her wealth to a drug-running, prostitution-ring husband, some years deceased, another scion of society, a former drug czar, before we ever heard of Cartels, had his own fishing show on early-morning TV, walking about as if he owned the town to the north of the bridge because he actually did. Sadly, the former, in her dotage, was an incontinent alcoholic who left puddles under every barstool she sat on and the other, elegant as any Boston Brahmin, stoop-shouldered and silver-haired, when last I saw him, was the father of a suicided son. So, all that money and real estate, fleets of shipping vessels, all that puffed-up pride, amounted to an inordinate power that a loser like David wanted.
The first thing he did was bring in a dog, a nice enough black-tongued Chow, no problem, but a dog is the kind of thing you declare before you move in not after. To do otherwise is insulting and sure to raise suspicions about character. Then came the motorcyclists, leather and stud-wearing thugs, with greasy doo-rags, ugly unshaven faces, drinking beer on weekends. The marijuana haze near his cinder-block house was thick as swamp gas and David’s jalopy never left the driveway unless it was to the corner package store. The kid began skulking behind hibiscus bushes whenever he saw me or disappearing into the nearly impenetrable mangroves hugging the bay.
The landlady’s handyman took his time fixing David’s leaky toilet, which is the way with slum landlords everywhere: manana, manana. The next thing I knew, David’s rent was in escrow pursuant to a lengthy court battle and since I’d subleased to him, the only way to get him evicted was to evict me. I loved that life and I hated to leave it. I would never forget the most colorful geriatric on the west coast of Florida, a cause celebre what with her history and holdings…bungee jumping at 80, God bless her. Can you imagine? The more tongues wagged, the better she liked it, firing an entire restaurant staff and rehiring them the next day as people needed a place to go for their bacon and eggs.
David’s motives to take over my stilt house had a lot to do with the fact that he wasn’t used to a woman being higher up on the pecking chain than he was. He faced the highway. I had a sundeck with a view of the Intracoastal. I would go so far as stating he thought he could live rent free in lieu of settlement monies since the landlady owned dozens of run-down rentals just like ours. I’d been faithfully paying the rent, building a rapport with her, for three years, cohabiting, without complaint, I might add, with raccoons, tree rats and possums that had been sharpening their incisors on the asphalt tiles on the roof. I knew a good deal when I met one. The rent was a grand a month, a little high for me, who lived from paycheck to paycheck, but if I kept the front house rented, and the little efficiency that swamped during heavy rains, I could practically live rent free. We were hidden down a dirt road, mangrove swamps on both sides which could never be destroyed or built on since they were an essential breeding ground for animals that lived in the water, shrimp and fish. It’s a creepy, crawly place with very little sunlight filtering through its canopy, kind of like what the world would look like after a nuclear blast. I’d looked there often enough when my cats went missing, emerging with scratches and brambles caught in my hair, ankles covered in silt.
The pitter-patter of furry feet on the roof, little beady eyes peering in through the chewed-up fascia… all part of a painfully funny time when I needed to reinvent myself in the.image of what I was expected to be in a world gone mad. But if a good wind arose, or if someone of weight came up the stairs, you could feel my house tremble. The pilings holding my deck up were not set in concrete as required by code, but flush with the carport’s gravel. I suspected it had been added without pulling a permit. Or the building commissioner had been bought. As I remember, when confronting him with these inequities as part of my last-ditch effort for justice in the quagmire of legal chicanery I was caught in, he pointed out some strangled wiring and marveled how it was a wonder the whole place hadn’t burned down.
Both houses, in the end, were condemned as uninhabitable and Paradise was lost. No more nude moonlight walking, feeling the balmy breezes on my skin, breathing deep the frangipani and honeysuckle, no more blaring Willie Nelson and Caruso albums to nurture my soul, drown out the quiet. On the plus side, no more sleeping with an axe under my pillow in case one of David’s cronies made good his threat to have me chopped into cuttle and fed to the fish. Instead of paying exorbitant filing fees to the court, I could return to selling real estate, theoretically making money instead of waiting in line for free advice from volunteer lawyers, preparing briefs from barely decipherable notes, and sporadic appearances before a stern-faced soon-to-be retired judge who at one point threatened to make it a Federal case if we couldn’t resolve among the parties.
I was out of my league, a leaky dinghy between a formidable Scylla and a possibly dangerous drug-dealing Charibdis (with a haircut and a new suit) both with competent legal counsels who probably knew pro se arbiters before the bench were perceived as frivolous pests tying up the court’s valuable time. Never again would I be able to watch dawn rise through my lacy bedroom curtains or rent out the illegal efficiency where I first met Captain Hook. He’d stopped by the perpetual Apartment for Rent sign, stuck in the ground under the sun-bleached Bow Wow Beach Club sign, designed by former tenants with a dog-grooming business in the screened-in underneath of the house. I had thought of pulling up the rotted wood and taking out the doggy bathtubs for an aviary. I could just see myself training little budgies to speak, breeding cute little eggs, fattening my coffers. Canaries, especially, were in big demand. I would treasure a job that didn’t require a lot of lying like real estate. Cold calling was scary even though it was mostly little old ladies so anxious for visitors they wouldn’t let me leave before they’d told me their life’s stories. I just wasn’t cut out for sales, that killer instinct required, running the gamut from water purifiers to Amway to Avon before I discovered that brutal fact.
The efficiency with its mildewed walls, a shared electric meter, and a Coleman stove/refrigerator combo had not been up to Captain Hook’s standards. Only the most financially distressed would even consider it. The last tenant sold mail order copper bracelets for arthritis and had Tourette’s which is why I let him bring in a Vietnamese potbelly pig. When he moved on because David shut off the electric in a dispute over the shared air-conditioning bills, I had to bomb for fleas and forward his mail. Instead of orders from suffering arthritis victims, he’d been corresponding with prisoners who sent pictures of themselves, requests for money, and filthy promises of what he would get if he sent it.
Captain Hook looked like quality despite nostrils you could see into if you happened to be so disposed. He was wearing cut off dungarees with a rolled-up hem. Around his neck, just about where his skinny collarbones jutted, hung a heavy gold anchor. A gold fishhook gleamed in the visor of his cap. He had an admirable gift for words and a self-confidence that should be bottled and sold in the drug store. Once he got started talking, you quite forgot everything else. The government had taught him, as a Green Beret, he said, not only how to stealth-kill but how to do mind control. His right leg had earned him a Purple Heart when it had been shattered by enemy fire at Da Nang and he’d dragged it behind him in the underbrush for 6 excruciating miles until reuniting with his company. Luckily, the knee, instead of being expeditiously lopped off at the nearest VA, was pieced together at a civilian hospital. His first wife had arrived in the nick of time with some clothing to help him escape and he was never charged with being AWOL which could have happened since GI’s are named government issue for reason. One had to admire a man with that kind of chutzpah
The leg seemed to be held sturdy by a blue elastic knee band though he walked with a cane and used a wheelchair because it was less painful. His second wife had recently thrown him out in favor of a former high school sweetheart. Toothless, so skinny he seemed all bones and tight skin, he admitted to suffering from a broken spirit. He said he was in need of a personal attendant, someone to be his legs, cook a little, maybe help him in and out of the shower. All I had to do to move in was to pack my bags. Maybe it was a sense of noblesse oblige, maybe the pheromones. Maybe in the far reaches of my mind, I thought he’d be perfect to wreak havoc on David, do my dirty work…slash tires, stick a potato up the muffler, sugar in the gas, old reliable methods of retribution that I never mustered the nerve for. I don’t always make good decisions, but looking at him in the sun that day with the sky perfectly blue and still, both of us beginning to perspire, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him to whittle away and die, never thinking his war-time experiences had made him a savage.
“If you steal from me, I will kill you,” he said, once I’d moved in as if I were some bimbo he’d picked up in a bar. “If you lie to me, I will kill you.” Leg propped up on a pillow, he was deathly serious, with a severity to his drawn features quite unsettling to a do-gooder like me. Unless I’m riled, I’m a peaceable, doormatty type. I like to nurture and felt honored to be of service. But his next caveat, emphasized by a drawing out of vowels and a death-like grip on my wrist that left a bloodless imprint, gave me pause. “And…if you mess with my head…I… wiiill… kiiill you!” He wagged an index finger and slitted his eyes. “I know every pressure point on your body and can paralyze you with one finger.”
To further elucidate his posttraumatic stress, he whipped out from under his mattress a huge Bowie knife, sharpening the blade on a piece of black soapstone. I did not really react to what he’d said so I suppose I was still in some kind of Twilight Zone from whatever he’d done to get me to move in with him in the first place. Out of the corner of one eye I could see a case of bourbon on the floor of his closet, and a total of 2 other cowboy shirts hanging, one with fringes, the other red, embroidered with tiny cacti and cowboy hats.
“Don’t ever come into my room without making noise. Especially at night. I could be in the middle of a flashback. I’m one of America’s finest trained killers with 28 notches on my bedpost. With or without a weapon, I can disable anyone. Garrotes, blowguns, or hand to hand combat, I have been trained to total annihilation. My security clearance is a 5. Do you know what that means?”
I admitted I didn’t. Never had I met a more talkative man.
“Top secret,” said he. “There’s not a handful of us with this kind of clearance. A 4 is secret. A 3 is confidential. Say I get a call in the middle of the night, to go on an assassination mission or to extract someone, I have to be on a plane within the hour.”
Now, mind you, he was lying back on a pile of pillows, with a yellow cockatiel perched on his shoulder. He had piercing blue eyes, a chest so wasted it seemed convex, spindly arms on a 6 foot frame, with a silly terry cloth skirt Velcroed around his waist. Green and white guano decorated the top of the bedpost and the shoulder of the pearl-buttoned cowboy shirt he had on. He seemed to be so weak he could barely lift the bird to his lips for an affectionate peck. I felt duty-bound to stay and listen to him for the next few hours even though it was nearly lunch-time and when I did finally fix him a sandwich, he was evidently so exhausted, he flung the plate like a Frisbee so that ham and cheese triangles scattered every which way and like a petulant child in need of a nap screamed: “You didn’t cut the crusts off!”
This was distinctly neurotic behavior and as I was making up my mind whether to stay or leave, he launched into another story about how he’d broken his first wife’s jaw, accidentally, of course, with the very same reflex action I had just witnessed. The wife happened to be the daughter of a Mafioso who did not take this type of domestic violence lightly, what with all the orthodonture bills involved, the way some parents put their kids on a pedestal. Hook was forced to liquidate all his New York holdings (bars, restaurants, real estate) in exchange for his life and he started the lowly but honest job of driving taxi to supplement his disability pension. Then, later, he acquired a captain’s license which led to the shit getting very deep, indeed… if you can believe the trawler he was captaining caught a Russian sub in its nets, all Top Secret, of course, which is why we never read about it in the newspapers. I had a rich inner life myself, but I must have been taking gullible pills to believe that everything he’d told me up until then was the gospel truth and not some movie in his mind he was making up just to make himself a hero. I grilled him pretty good, but I didn’t know enough about submarines or trawlers to poke holes in his story so I let the matter rest, my jaw dropping a millimeter just for effect.
“You can sleep on the couch,” he said, later, after we’d played a game of chess and I ransacked the kitchen with energy and purpose, finding a sliver of garlic and what else all I needed to make some pasta. “I’ll never do anything you don’t want. Sheets and extra pillows in the hall closet.”
At some point you have to set men straight or they’ll think you’re easy, just dying to get in the sack. Just as I put the cockatiel in his cage, covering it with a red bandana, Hooky reached into one of the plastic cases on his bookcase which held almost every episode of Star Trek known to man, and with a mischievous look, a crinkle about his eyes, handed me a Polaroid picture. “Take a look at this,” he said. “This girl I knew took it.”
This time my jaw dropped for real. There I was trying to hold his life together, with all good intentions, and there he was in the picture holding the biggest most beautiful wide and pink penis I ever saw. I actually gasped. “Disgusting,” I said. What else would you expect me to say? I fluttered my hands like I was terrified. “Put that away and don’t ever show it to me again. I hate it,” I lied. In truth, I was appalled. I wasn’t about to let things get off the track. I was so disturbed I couldn’t sleep that night, trying not to think about it, but thinking about it anyway. His deeds of derring-do kept flashing through my mind: how his father had given him a hammer and a 2 by 4 when he’d been 6 and for 8 hours a day had him hammer until he could drive nails with one blow, how he’d delayed getting dispatched overseas for 15 months by taking advanced Green Beret courses, how he’d missed out on a Congressional Medal of Honor, lying all night in the steamy jungle with 2 dead men, protecting the 5 living ones, giving a commanding officer guff because he wouldn’t send in a helicopter. It was overwhelming.
By morning, I was so revved up it was all I could do to control myself from pouring the whole case of bourbon down the drain. Bad enough I had to watch him shoot up. Hooky became my mission. I filled the refrigerator with health food, cooked and cleaned like a regular hausfrau, met all of his doctors, pushed his wheelchair down long VA hospital corridors past double-amputees of all ages, picked up his meds at the little bullet-proof window when his number was called. He was bucking for 100 per cent disability, retroactive, making me a co-conspirator, grimacing theatrically when the doctors would examine his leg. His medical file was as thick as my waist. He was losing feeling in his feet, peripheral neuropathy. Before long, he said, he wouldn’t be able to feel the floor under his feet. Diarrhea and constipation, both. “It won’t be long before I’m dead. It’s cheaper for the government to kill me.” If I stayed, he promised to make me his beneficiary.
I kept pumping that food into him, the best I could, but I couldn’t cure him of his addictions. The worst addiction of all for someone in his condition was Star Trek. When he wasn’t watching the tapes, he was taping the show. He could recite the dialogue by heart. His legs kept getting weaker and weaker. Until Hooky, I didn’t even know what a black hole was let alone a parallel universe. Though I tried to take an interest, just to keep him company, it seemed too much of a sacrifice. He couldn’t get me to play darts either. With the beach just steps outside our cottage door, I was getting cabin fever. The weeks passed into months. The VA fitted him with false teeth and a hydraulic lift for the wheelchair on the back of his pickup. His moods remained volatile. Once he nearly set his mattress on fire, nodding out. His blankets and the rug by his bed were riddled with pot seed holes. He started to talk about astral projecting, leaving his bed at night, flying all over the world. The MIA’s were really alive on a secret island, so disfigured by a rare sexually transmitted disease it was better their families thought them dead than alive and suffering. I threatened to leave if he didn’t quit boozing so he switched to ice tea.
When my 40th birthday came, he bought me a sweet ring with tiny stones of emerald and diamonds and a red lace Victoria Secret nightie. Amazing how sentimental one can get after being given a gift. He was starting to look a little more handsome, even. He took me and a couple of my girlfriends to an expensive restaurant to celebrate. I thought they would throw us out, with the bird on his shoulder, but they loved it, diners and solicitous waiters alike. I was mortified. Tourists even insisted on taking pictures. Hook managed to hold himself upright against me for a dance.
A little too much Dom Perignon later as I was enjoying a hot shower, hair plastered down so that I could hardly see, I heard the screech of the rusted shower curtain rods, felt Hook’s hand upon my hip bone steadying himself as long legs clambered over the sides of the tub. “I never, absolutely never share a shower with anyone,” I protested, my voice coming out a bit gravelly.
“Quit being a baby.”
Thinking as quickly as I could, under the circumstances, I began to sing a drunken version of the Viet Nam veteran’s anthem: Doo Wah Diddy, reaching for a bar of soap on the windowsill, stomping a little on the part of the song where it’s customary. “She looked good. She looked fine. Then I nearly lost my mind.” There was very little wiggle room. If either of us moved too quickly- if I pissed him off, he could paralyze me. They’d never find me in those mangroves.
“Hey, I’ll scrub your back,” I said, finally conceding. He was wilier than I’d ever learn to be. “Just let me get out.” The water from the shower was nearly drowning me. I could feel his penis, sans Viagra, bouncing off the cheeks of my butt, keeping time. A miracle! He’d already admitted that his wife had thrown him out for impotency…the drugs, the drinking had taken his raison d’etre. He reached over my shoulder and grabbed the soap from my hands, working up a lather, whapping away at my butt, until I felt my retreating nipples mashed against the cold bathroom wall tiles. “Look, ma, no hands!” He laughed like a kid with a new toy, he was so happy. It was contagious and I lost it, totally, hysterical laughter coming from my deepest inner part. As he slid the Palmolive between my legs, all my resistance faded into obscurity. I was a goner. I am human. He was only a shadow of his former glory, but locked in the rhythyms of the past, we both became who we used to be, shining in memory. I can still feel the edges of his teeth on the tips of my labia.
What had started as a partial act of mercy was the breaking point and the beginning of the end of Hook and me. No sooner than I began looking at him through eyes of the heart, this hero started to figuratively run away, but not before I went out and found a better place to live. The kitchen counters were of white marble. It had a dishwasher, a garbage disposal, and a butcher block island where you could chop vegetables to your heart’s delight. Instead of dark wood like the old cottage, the walls were sparkling white, with a 27-foot living room, sliding glass doors leading onto a patio and a private beach. Elvis Presley had once lived there, according to the realtor. Hook couldn’t wait for his wife to see it. He started treating me mean. I didn’t need to be an astrophysicist to figure it out. He’d told me often enough that she would watch Star Wars with him. That she would put newspapers under the plastic garbage bags in the kitchen in case of leaks. And now that he could get it up, thanks to me, she was willing to take him back. “I would have married you,” Hooky mumbled, not looking me in the eyes, as if my slavish devotion meant I had wanted to be tied to him for life, “but I’ve got her trained!”
If that wasn’t a kick in the pants! I had nursed him back to a chance for living like a Mother Teresa, got him out picking up shark’s teeth on the beach, swimming, eating broccoli, tofu, and drinking bee pollen smoothies with papaya to aid his digestion and build up his strength and he was kicking me to the curb. But I wasn’t giving up that house without a fight, risking life and limb, incurring Hooky’s wrath, throwing a wrench into his matrimonial plans, by ratting him out to the landlord. Elvis would have been proud. I was probably the only woman on earth so devastated that when Elvis died, I went out and had black bumper stickers made that said: ELVIS LIVES. With a black armband on my shoulder, I was on the sidewalks of my home town, pitching these bumper stickers for a quarter apiece, embarrassing my friends, until one of them told me I’d be sued by his estate.
Here’s what I told the middle-aged landlady, on her way out to play tennis, who had already made the deal to evict us both, so that he could move back in with his wife. I took a big chance, looking like a fool, sitting on a huge leather couch in air-conditioning, with mirrors all around on the walls to make the condo look bigger, blinding me with the reflection of the ocean and sun. My hopes were riding on this foo-fooed up cockapoo that people in Florida think passes for a dog. “Bird #1 was beheaded by a ceiling fan. #2 flew into a palm tree and was eaten by seagulls. The man didn’t even shed a tear. He thought it was funny!” And here, I took a breath, searching for the most horrendous demise of a feathered pet I could think of. Did he sit on it? Stick it in the microwave?
I was thinking so hard, my clothes under my armpits got damp even in the icy air. The landlady was all business, manicured nails, not a hair out of place. She grabbed up that cockapoo from where he was licking my toes, clutched his perfumed body to her chest, raised one hand, palm side to my face as if to say “enough.” I could tell by the look on her face that I had won.
Rachel Cann was awarded an MFA from Emerson College in 1991. Her stories have been published in literary magazines like Hawaii Review, University of Maine’s Aroostook Review, Florida English, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Spare Change News and others like Women’s Erotica.