The Shells by Moonlight

I

We had no trouble negotiating the road home. The smell was still there, but it was better now — partly because a good wind was getting up, blowing in off the Gulf, and partly because it was just… better now.

The courtyard lights of El Palacio were on a timer, and they looked wonderful, twinkling out of the dark. Inside the house, Wireman went methodically from room to room, turning on more lights. Turning on all the lights, until the house where Elizabeth had spent most of her life glowed like an ocean-liner coming into port at midnight.

When El Palacio was lit to the max, we took turns in the shower, passing the water-filled flashlight from hand to hand like a baton as we did so. Someone was always holding it. Wireman went first, then Jack, then me. After showering, each of us was inspected by the other two, then scrubbed with hydrogen peroxide where any skin was broken. I was the worst, and when I finally put my clothes back on, I stung all over.

I was finishing with my boots, laboriously tying them one-handed, when Wireman came into the guest bedroom looking grave. “There’s a message you need to hear on the machine downstairs. From the Tampa Police. Here, let me help you.”

He went down on one knee before me and began tightening my laces. I saw without surprise that the gray in his hair had advanced… and suddenly a bolt of alarm went through me. I reached out and grabbed his meaty shoulder. “The flashlight! Does Jack—”

“Relax. He’s sitting in Miss Eastlake’s old China Parlor, and he’s got it on his lap.”

I hurried, nevertheless. I don’t know what I expected to find — the room empty, the unscrewed flashlight lying on the rug in a puddle of dampness, maybe, or Jack sex-changed into the three-eyed, claw-handed bitch that had come falling out of the old cracked keg — but he was only sitting there with the flashlight, looking troubled. I asked if he was all right. And I took a good look at his eyes. If he was going… wrong… I thought I’d see it in his eyes.

“I’m fine. But that message from the cop…” He shook his head.

“Well, let’s hear it.”

A man identifying himself as Detective Samson said that he was trying to reach both Edgar Freemantle and Jerome Wireman, to ask some questions about Mary Ire. He particularly wanted to speak to Mr. Freemantle, if he had not left for Rhode Island or Minnesota — where, Samson understood, the body of his daughter was being transported for burial.

“I’m sure Mr. Freemantle is in a state of bereavement,” Samson said, “and I’m sure these are really Providence P.D.’s questions, but we know Mr. Freemantle did a newspaper interview with the Ire woman recently, and I volunteered to talk with him and yourself, Mr. Wireman, if possible. I can tell you over the phone what Providence is most curious about, if this message tape doesn’t run out…” It didn’t. And the last piece fell into place.



Ii

“Edgar, this is crazy,” Jack said. It was the third time he’d said it, and he was beginning to sound desperate. “Totally nuts.” He turned to Wireman. “You tell him!”

“Un poco loco,” Wireman agreed, but I knew the difference between poco and muy even if Jack didn’t.

We were standing in the courtyard, between Jack’s sedan and Elizabeth’s old Mercedes. The moon had risen higher; so had the wind. The surf was pounding the shore, and a mile away, the shells under Big Pink would be discussing all sorts of strange things: muy asustador. “But I think I could talk all night and still not change his mind.”

“Because you know I’m right,” I said.

“Tu perdón, amigo, you might be right,” he said. “I’ll tell you one thing: Wireman intends to get down on his fat and aging knees and pray you are.”

Jack looked at the flashlight in my hand. “At least don’t take that,” he said. “Excuse my French, boss, but you’re fucking crazy to take that!”

“I know what I’m doing,” I said, hoping to God it was true. “And stay here, both of you. Don’t try to follow me.” I raised the flashlight and pointed it at Wireman. “You’re on your honor.”

“All right, Edgar. My honor’s a tattered thing, but I swear on it. One practical question: are you sure two Tylenol will be enough to get you down the beach to your house on your feet, or are you going to wind up doing the Crawly-Gator?”

“I’ll get there upright.”

“And you’ll call when you do.”

“I’ll call.”

He opened his arms then, and I stepped into them. He kissed me on both cheeks. “I love you, Edgar,” he said. “You’re a hell of a man.Sano como una manzana.”

“What does that one mean?”

He shrugged. “Stay healthy. I think.”

Jack offered his hand — the left one, the boy was a learner — and then decided a hug was in order, after all. In my ear he whispered, “Give me the flashlight, boss.”



In his I whispered back: “Can’t. Sorry.”

I started along the path to the back of the house, the one that would take me to the boardwalk. At the end of that boardwalk, a thousand or so years ago, I’d met the big man I was now leaving behind. He had been sitting under a striped umbrella. He had offered me iced green tea, very cooling. And he had said, So — the limping stranger arriveth at last.

And now he goeth, I thought.

I turned back. They were watching me.

“Muchacho!” Wireman called.

I thought he was going to ask me to come back so we could think about this a little more, talk it over a little more. But I had underestimated him.

“Vaya con Dios, mi hombre.”

I gave him a final wave and walked around the corner of the house.

Iii

So then I took my last Great Beach Walk, as limping and painful as my first ones along that shell-littered shore. Only those had been by the rosy light of early morning, when the world was at its most still, the only things moving the mild lap of the waves and the brown clouds of peeps that fled before me. This was different. Tonight the wind roared and the waves raged, not alighting on the shore but committing suicide on it. The rollers farther out were painted chrome, and several times I thought I saw the Perse from the corner of my eye, but each time I turned to look, there was nothing. Tonight there was nothing on my part of the Gulf but moonlight.

I lurched along, flashlight gripped in my hand, thinking of the day I had walked here with Ilse. She had asked me if this was the most beautiful place on earth and I had assured her that no, there were at least three others that were more beautiful… but I couldn’t remember what I’d told her those others were, only that they were hard to spell. What I remembered most clearly was her saying I deserved a beautiful place, and time to rest. Time to heal.

Tears started to come then, and I let them. I had the flashlight in the hand I could have used to wipe them away, so I just let them come.

Iv

I heard Big Pink before I actually saw it. The shells under the house had never been so loud. I walked a little farther, then stopped. It was just ahead of me now, a black shape where the stars were blotted out. Another forty or fifty slow, limping paces, and moonlight began to fill in the details. All the lights were out, even the ones I almost always left on in the kitchen and Florida room. That could have been a power outage caused by the wind, but I didn’t think that was it.

I realized the shells were talking in a voice I recognized. I should have; it was my own. Had I always known that? I suppose I had. On some level, unless we’re mad, I think most of us know the various voices of our own imaginations.

And of our memories, of course. They have voices, too. Ask anyone who has ever lost a limb or a child or a long-cherished dream. Ask anyone who blames himself for a bad decision, usually made in a raw instant (an instant that is most commonly red). Our memories have voices, too. Often sad ones that clamor like raised arms in the dark.

I walked on, leaving tracks behind me that featured one dragging foot. The blacked-out hulk of Big Pink grew closer. It wasn’t ruined like Heron’s Roost, but tonight it was haunted. Tonight there was a ghost waiting. Or maybe something a little more solid.

The wind gusted and I looked left, into its pushing force. The ship was out there now, all right, lightless and silent, its sails so many flapping rags in the wind, waiting.

Might as well go, the shells said as I stood in the moonlight, now less than twenty yards from my house. Wipe the blackboard clean —it can be done, no one knows it better than you — and just sail away. Leave this sadness behind. If you want to play you gotta pay. And the best part?

“The best part is I don’t have to go alone,” I said.

The wind gusted. The shells murmured. And from the blackness under the house, where that bony bed lay six feet deep, a darker shadow slipped free and stepped into the moonlight. It stood bent over for a moment, as if considering, and then began to come toward me.

She began to come toward me. But not Perse; Perse had been drowned to sleep.

Ilse.

V

She didn’t walk; I didn’t expect her to walk. She shambled. It was a miracle — a black one — that she could move at all.

After that last phone call with Pam (you couldn’t call it a conversation, exactly), I’d gone out Big Pink’s back door and snapped the handle off the broom I used to sweep sand from the walk leading to the mailbox. Then I’d gone around to the beach, down to where the sand was wet and shining. I hadn’t remembered what came after that, because I didn’t want to. Obviously. Only now I did, now I had to, because now my handiwork was standing in front of me. It was Ilse, yet not Ilse. Her face was there, then it blurred and it wasn’t. Her form was there, then it slipped toward shapelessness before firming up again. Little pieces of dead sea oats and bits of shell dropped from her cheeks and chest and hips and legs as she moved. The moonlight picked out an eye that was heartbreakingly clear, heartbreakingly hers, and then it was gone, only to reappear again, shining in the moonlight.

The Ilse shambling toward me was made of sand.

“Daddy,” she said. Her voice was dry, with a grating undertone — as if there were shells caught in there somewhere. I supposed there were.

You will want to, but you mustn’t, Elizabeth had said… but sometimes we can’t help ourselves.

The sand-girl held out her arm. The wind gusted and the fingers at the end of the hand blurred as fine grains blew off them and thinned them to bones. More sand skirled up from around her and the hand fattened again. Her features shifted like a landscape under rapidly passing summer clouds. It was fascinating… hypnotic.

“Give me the flashlight,” she said. “Then we’ll go on board together. On the ship I can be the way you remember me. Or… you don’t have to remember anything.”

The waves were on the march. Under the stars they roared in, one after the other. Under the moon. Under Big Pink, the shells spoke loudly: my voice, arguing with itself. Bring the buddy. I win. Sit in the chum. You win. Here in front of me stood Ilse made of sand, a shifting houri by the light of a three-quarter moon, her features never the same from one second to the next. Now she was Illy at nine; now she was Illy at fifteen, headed out on her first real date; now she was Illy as she’d looked getting off the plane in December, Illy the college girl with an engagement ring on her finger. Here stood the one I’d always loved the best — wasn’t that why Perse had killed her? — with her hand held out for the flashlight. The flashlight was my boarding pass for a long cruise on forgetful seas. Of course that part might be a lie… but sometimes we have to take a chance. And usually we do. As Wireman says, we fool ourselves so much we could do it for a living.

“Mary brought salt with her,” I said. “Bags and bags of salt. She put it in the tub. The police want to know why. But they’d never believe the truth, would they?”

She stood before me with the thundering, incoming waves behind her. She stood there blowing away and re-forming from the sand beneath her, around her. She stood there and said nothing, only holding her arm outstretched to take what she had come for.

“Drawing you in the sand wasn’t enough. Even Mary drowning you wasn’t enough. She had to drown you in salt water.” I glanced down at the flashlight. “Perse told her just what to do. From my picture.”

“Give it to me, Daddy,” the shifting sand-girl said. Her hand was still held out. Only with the wind blowing, sometimes it was a claw. Even with sand feeding up from the beach to keep it plump, sometimes it was a claw. “Give it to me and we can go.”

I sighed. Some things were inevitable, after all. “All right.” I took a step toward her. Another of Wireman’s sayings occurred to me: In the end we wear out our worries. “All right, Miss Cookie. But it’ll cost you.”

“Cost me what?” Her voice was the sound of sand against a window. The grating sound of the shells. But it was also Ilse’s voice. My If-So-Girl.

“Just a kiss,” I said, “while I’m still alive to feel it.” I smiled. I couldn’t feel my lips — they were numb — but I could feel the muscles around them stretching. Just a little. “I suppose it will be a sandy one, but I’ll pretend you’ve been playing on the beach. Making castles.”

“All right, Daddy.”

She came closer, moving in a queer shamble-drift that wasn’t walking, and up close the illusion collapsed entirely. It was like bringing a painting close to your eyes and watching as the scene — portrait, landscape, still life — collapses into nothing but strokes of color, most with the marks of the brush still embedded in them. Ilse’s features disappeared. What I saw where they had been was nothing but a furious cyclone of sand and tiny bits of shell. What I smelled wasn’t skin and hair but only salt water.

Pallid arms reached for me. Membranes of sand smoked off them in the wind. The moon shone through them. I held up the flashlight. It was short. And its barrel was plastic rather than stainless steel.

“You might want a look at this before you go giving away kisses, though,” I said. “It came from the glove compartment of Jack Cantori’s car. The one with Perse inside is locked in Elizabeth’s safe.”

The thing froze, and when it did, the wind off the Gulf tore away the last semblance of humanity. In that moment I was confronting nothing but a whirling sand-devil. I took no chances, however; it had been a long day, and I had no intention of taking chances, especially if my daughter were somewhere… well, somewhere else… and waiting for her final rest. I swung my arm as hard as I could, the flashlight clamped in my fist and Nan Melda’s silver bracelets sliding down my arm to my wrist. I had cleaned them carefully in the kitchen sink atEl Palacio, and they jingled.

I had one of the silver-tipped harpoons stuck in my belt, behind my left hip, for good measure, but I didn’t need it. The sand-devil exploded outward and upward. A scream of rage and pain went through my head. Thank God it was brief, or I think it would have torn me apart. Then there was nothing but the sound of the shells under Big Pink and a brief dimming of the stars over the dunes to my right as the last of the sand blew away in a disorganized flurry. The Gulf was once more empty except for the moon-gilded rollers, marching in toward shore. The Perse had gone, if it had ever been there.

The strength ran out of my legs and I sat down with a thump. Maybe I’d end up doing the Crawly-Gator the rest of the way, after all. If so, Big Pink wasn’t far. Right now I thought I’d just sit here and listen to the shells. Rest a little. Then maybe I’d be able to get up and walk those last twenty yards or so, go in, and call Wireman. Tell him I was all right. Tell him it was done, that Jack could come and pick me up.

But for now I would just sit here and listen to the shells, which no longer seemed to be talking in my voice, or anyone else’s. Now I would just sit here by myself on the sand, and look out at the Gulf, and think about my daughter, Ilse Marie Freemantle, who had weighed six pounds and four ounces at birth, whose first word had been dog, who had once brought home a large brown balloon crayoned on a piece of construction paper, shouting exultantly, “I drawed a pitcher of you, Daddy!”

Ilse Marie Freemantle.

I remember her well.

June

I

I piloted the skiff out to the middle of Lake Phalen and killed the motor. We drifted toward the little orange marker I’d left there. A few pleasure boats buzzed back and forth on the glass-smooth surface, but no sailboats; the day was perfectly still. There were a few kids in the playground area, a few people in the picnic area, and a few on the nearest hiking trail skirting the water. On the whole, though, for a lake that’s actually within the city limits, the area was almost empty.

Wireman — looking strangely un-Florida in a fisherman’s hat and a Vikings pullover — commented on this.

“School’s still in,” I said. “Give it another couple of weeks and there’ll be boats buzzing everywhere.”

He looked uneasy. “Does that make this the right place for her, muchacho? I mean, if a fisherman should net her up—”

“No nets allowed on Lake Phalen,” I said, “and there are few rods and reels. This lake is pretty much for pleasure-boaters. And swimmers, in close to shore.” I bent and picked up the cylinder the Sarasota silversmith had made. It was three feet long, with a screw-down top at one end. It was filled with fresh water, and the water-filled flashlight was inside that. Perse was sealed in double darkness, and sleeping in a double blanket of fresh water. Soon she would be sleeping even deeper.

“This is a beautiful thing,” I said.

“That it is,” Wireman agreed, watching the afternoon sun flash from the cylinder as I turned it over in my hand. “And nothing on it to catch a hook. Although I’d still feel easier about dumping it in a lake up around the Canadian border.”

“Where someone really might come along dragging a net,” I said. “Hide in plain sight — it’s not a bad policy.”

Three young women in a sportabout went buzzing by. They waved. We waved back. One of them yelled, “We love cute guys!” and all three of them laughed.

Wireman tipped them a smiling salute, then turned back to me. “How deep is it out here? Do you know? That little orange flag suggests you do.”

“Well, I’ll tell you. I did a little research on Lake Phalen — probably overdue, since Pam and I have owned the place on Aster Lane going on twenty-five years. The average depth is ninety-one feet… except out here, where there’s a fissure.”

Wireman relaxed and pushed his cap back a little from his brow. “Ah, Edgar. Wireman thinks you’re still el zorro — still the fox.”

“Maybe sí, maybe no, but there’s three hundred and eighty feet of water under that little orange flag. Three hundred and eighty at least. A hell of a lot better than a twelve-foot cistern thumbed into a coral splinter on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.”

“Amen.”

“You look well, Wireman. Rested.”

He shrugged. “That Gulfstream’s the way to fly. No standing in line at security, no one pawing through your carry-on to make sure you didn’t turn your little shitass can of Foamy into a bomb. And for once in my life I managed to fly north without a stop at fucking Atlanta. Thanks… although I could have afforded it myself, it looks like.”

“You settled with Elizabeth’s relatives, I take it?”

“Yep. Took your suggestion. Offered them the house and the north end of the Key in exchange for the cash and securities. They thought that was a hell of a deal, and I could see their lawyers thinking, ‘Wireman is a lawyer, and today he has a fool for a client.’”

“Guess I ain’t the only zorro in this boat.”

“I’ll end up with over eighty million bucks in liquid assets. Plus various keepsakes from the house. Including Miss Eastlake’s Sweet Owen cookie-tin. Think she was trying to tell me something with that, ’chacho?”

I thought of Elizabeth popping various china figures into the tin and then insisting Wireman throw it in the goldfish pond. Of course she had been trying to tell him something.

“The rels got the north end of Duma Key, development value… well, sky’s the limit. Ninety million?”

“Or so they think.”

“Yes,” he agreed, turning somber. “So they think.” We sat in silence for a little while. He took the cylinder from me. I could see my face in its side, but distorted by the curve. I didn’t mind looking at it that way, but I very rarely look at myself in a mirror anymore. It’s not that I’ve aged; I don’t care for the Freemantle fellow’s eyes these days. They have seen too much.

“How’s your wife and daughter?”

“Pam’s out in California with her mother. Melinda’s back in France. She stayed with Pam for awhile after Illy’s funeral, but then she went back. I think it was the right call. She’s getting on with it.”

“What about you, Edgar? Are you getting on with it?”

“I don’t know. Didn’t Scott Fitzgerald say there are no second acts in American life?”

“Yep, but he was a washed-up drunk when he said it.” Wireman put the cylinder at his feet and leaned forward. “Listen to me, Edgar, and listen good. There are actually five acts, and not just in American lives — in every life that’s fully lived. Same as in every Shakespearian play, tragedy and comedy alike. Because that’s what our lives are made up of — comedy and tragedy.”

“For me, the yuks have been in short supply just lately,” I said.

“Yeah,” he agreed, “but Act Three has potential. I’m in Mexico now. Told you, right? Beautiful little mountain town called Tamazunchale.”

I gave it a try.

“You like the way it rolls off your tongue. Wireman can see that you do.”

I smiled. “It do have a certain ring to it.”

“There’s this rundown hotel for sale there, and I’m thinking about buying it. It’d take three years of losses to put that kind of operation on a paying basis, but I’ve got a fat money-belt these days. I could use a partner who knows something about building and maintenance, though. Of course, if you’re still concentrating on matters artistic…”

“I think you know better.”

“Then what do you say? Let us marry our fortunes together.”

“Simon and Garfunkel, 1969,” I said. “Or thereabouts. I don’t know, Wireman. I can’t decide now. I do have one more picture to paint.”

“Indeed you do. Just how big is this storm going to be?”

“Dunno. But Channel 6 is gonna love it.”

“Plenty of warning, though, right? Property damage is fine, but no one gets killed.”

“No one gets killed,” I agreed, hoping this would be true, but once that phantom limb was given free rein, all bets were off. That’s why my second career had to end. But there would be this one final picture, because I meant to be fully avenged. And not just for Illy; for Perse’s other victims, as well.

“Do you hear from Jack?” Wireman asked.

“Just about every week. He’s going to FSU in Tallahassee in the fall. My treat. In the meantime, he and his Mom are moving down the coast to Port Charlotte.”

“Was that also your treat?”

“Actually… yes.” Since Jack’s father died of Crohn’s Disease, he and his mother had had a bit of a tough skate.

“And your idea?”

“Right again.”

“So you think Port Charlotte’s going to be far enough south to be safe.”

“I think so.”

“And north? What about Tampa?”

“Rain-showers at most. It’s going to be a small storm. Small but powerful.”

“A tight little Alice. Like the one in 1927.”

“Yes.”

We sat looking at each other, and the girls cruised by again in their sportabout, laughing louder and waving more enthusiastically than before. Sweet bird of youth, flying on afternoon wine coolers. We saluted them.

When they were gone, Wireman said: “Miss Eastlake’s surviving relatives are never going to have to worry about getting building permits for their new property, are they?”

“I don’t think so, no.”

He thought it over, then nodded. “Good. Send the whole island to Davy Jones’s locker. Works for me.” He picked up the silver cylinder, turned his attention to the little orange flag over the fissure that splits the middle of Lake Phalen, then looked back at me. “Want to say any final words, muchacho?”

“Yes,” I said, “but not many.”

“Get em ready, then.” Wireman turned on his knees and held the silver cylinder out. The sun sparkled on it for what I hoped would be the final time in at least a thousand years… but I had an idea Perse was good at finding her way to the surface. That she had done it before, and would again. Even from Minnesota, she would somehow find the caldo.

I said the words I’d been holding in my mind. “Sleep forever.”

Wireman’s fingers opened. There was a small splash. We leaned over the side of the boat and watched the silver cylinder slide smoothly out of sight with one final glimmer of sunlight to mark its descent.

Ii

Wireman stayed that night, and the next. We ate rare steaks, drank green tea in the afternoon, and talked about anything but old times. Then I took him to the airport, where he’d fly to Houston. There he planned to rent a car and drive south. See some of the country, he said.

I offered to go with him as far as security, and he shook his head. “You shouldn’t have to watch as Wireman removes his shoes for a business school graduate,” he said. “This is where we say adiós, Edgar.”

“Wireman—” I said, and could say no more. My throat was filled with tears.

He pulled me into his arms and kissed me firmly on both cheeks. “Listen, Edgar. It’s time for Act Three. Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Come down to Mexico when you’re ready. And if you want to.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“You do that. Con Dios, mi amigo; siempre con Dios.”

“And you, Wireman. And you.”

I watched him walk away with his tote-bag slung over one shoulder. I had a sudden brilliant memory of his voice the night Emery had attacked me in Big Pink, of Wireman shouting cojudo de puta madre just before driving the candlestick into the dead thing’s face. He had been magnificent. I willed him to turn back one final time… and he did. Must have caught a thought, my mother would have said. Or had an intuition. That’s what Nan Melda would have said.

He saw me still standing there and his face lit in a grin. “Do the day, Edgar!” he cried. People turned to look, startled.

“And let the day do you!” I called back.

He saluted me, laughing, then walked into the jetway. And of course I did eventually come south to his little town, but although he’s always alive for me in his sayings — I never think of them in anything but the present tense — I never saw the man himself again. He died of a heart attack two months later, in Tamazunchale’s open-air market, while dickering for fresh tomatoes. I thought there would be time, but we always think stuff like that, don’t we? We fool ourselves so much we could do it for a living.

Iii

Back at the place on Aster Lane, my easel stood in the living room, where the light was good. The canvas on it was covered with a piece of toweling. Beside it, on the table with my oil paints, were several aerial photos of Duma Key, but I’d hardly glanced at them; I saw Duma in my dreams, and still do.

I tossed the towel on the couch. In the foreground of my painting — my last painting — stood Big Pink, rendered so realistically I could almost hear the shells grating beneath it with each incoming wave.

Propped against one of the pilings, the perfect surreal touch, were two red-headed dolls, sitting side by side. On the left was Reba. On the right was Fancy, the one Kamen had fetched from Minnesota. The one that had been Illy’s idea. The Gulf, usually so blue during my time on Duma Key, I had painted a dull and ominous green. Overhead, the sky was filled with black clouds; they massed to the top of the canvas and out of sight.

My right arm began to itch, and that remembered sensation of power began to flow first into me and then through me. I could see my picture almost with the eye of a god… or a goddess. I could give this up, but it would not be easy.

When I made pictures, I fell in love with the world.

When I made pictures, I felt whole.

I painted awhile, then put the brush aside. I mixed brown and yellow together with the ball of my thumb, then skimmed it over the painted beach… oh so lightly… and a haze of sand lifted, as if on the first hesitant puff of air.

On Duma Key, beneath the black sky of an inriding June storm, a wind began to rise.

How to Draw a Picture (XII)

Know when you’re finished, and when you are, put your pencil or your paintbrush down. All the rest is only life.

February 2006–June 2007


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