Author’s note: The Florida Keys are a place unlike any other and wishful thinking, I suppose, led me to recall the wide expanses of water, the individual islands arrowing through it, and then I remembered the Big Pine Key Road prison and the marinas and roadside bars nearby, where anything could happen. A romance happened, and the short story is the account of two flawed individuals coming together in such a strange place.
THIRTY YEARS OF DRINKING HAD SHOWN ME I should stay out of bars, but Harold’s was only a half block from my motel, and that was where a sagging, heavily tattooed Conch poured adequate scotch, where neon tetras quietly drifted blue and silver, with a flash of red, in a coral aquarium, and where the air-conditioned clientele generally left me alone. That night, I was on my customary stool, farthest from the door and the tourists and nearly invisible against the fish, I hoped, when Janice Montgomery walked in and sat down two stools away.
She had black hair loosely pinned, and in profile her features were clean, economical. We were not acquainted; I did not travel in her set, but I had seen her photograph on occasion and knew she had returned to open the old family house out on the peninsula. She wore a tight white blouse and a short black dress snug above slim thighs. Her legs were slender and long, stretching to strappy black high heels hooked on the rail near the floor.
I was a quiet man on an isolated stool near the Characidae, with Johnnie Walker Red filling the blue spaces between my thoughts and good time passing sedately sip by sip. She was poised and younger than my daughter and dangerously attractive. It was obvious I should stop staring at her, and that was exactly what I had planned to do until I found myself sliding one stool over.
“I’m Truman,” I said, smiling politely.
She glanced at me but seemed cold, dispassionate, appraising. A few seconds ticked by before she nodded.
“I know,” she said.
I was surprised. This was a small island and most of the permanent residents were chummy, but that didn’t usually include the motel crowd or the ex-convicts. If she knew that much, I guessed she knew it all, and I had started to slide back to my own stool when she reached out and touched my arm.
“I’m Janice Montgomery.”
“I know.” I shook her hand. It was warm, firm, with the blood pulsing beneath pampered skin. “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Montgomery.”
“Janice.” She ordered a rum and Coke. “You work at the marina,” she said, after a minute or two. “I love boats.”
“I wash boats.”
She smiled. “I’m celebrating.”
I waited and sipped my scotch.
“This is my third place,” she said. “There aren’t that many places here, out in the toolies. You have to drive a while.”
She waved her free hand. “The sticks. The boonies. This godforsaken place.” She leaned closer and moved her lips slowly, as if speaking to a child. “There aren’t that many bars around.”
“How many do you really need?” I rather liked the Florida Keys. For three years, I’d been one of the orange-jumpsuited gang maintaining the state parks, Bahia Honda and Ft. Zachary Taylor. I’d enjoyed the sun and the sea on every side and the sense of being surrounded by vast, empty distances. After my release, I’d decided to stay.
“Hundreds,” she said. “Thousands.” Her voice grew wistful. “Miami, South Beach. That’s where I used to live. Then I got fired and my father stopped helping, and after a while I had to come back to the old homestead. Or the old vacation home. Whatever you want to call it.”
I had visited South Beach once and walked the obligatory blocks, staring at the boutiques, the exclusive outdoor tables, the topless women pressed expensively into the sand. I hadn’t cared for the crowds and the laws. Both had seemed oppressive.
“I had a condo,” she said. “Twenty-third floor. Every night was something.”
“You said you were celebrating?” I slid my stool a little closer and paid for her drink when it came.
She pushed her dark hair back. “The end of my freedom. I only have until Saturday⎯actually, tonight and tomorrow night⎯before my father, the Lord and Master, arrives. I just wanted to get out and have some fun.” She leaned forward and peered at me, as if having trouble focusing or for some reason fascinated by my nose or my eyes. “You look like someone who knows how to have fun.”
The room filled with edges, with warnings, for I guessed then she was working on something. Maybe it was just a plan, a calculation, for an evening’s fun, but it seemed strange that she would want to involve me. Few people in the past have.
“I’m probably not the guy you’re looking for,” I said. “You know I was in prison.” I needed to be sure, to be clear from the start.
A little over three years ago, I’d driven a car through a motel wall. I was with a woman, my girlfriend at the time. Sylvia and I had been on vacation and had just driven up from Key West when we stopped for the night in Big Pine Key. I didn’t remember much about that evening, other than drinking and Sylvia being her usual bitch. I was just returning from the package store, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s black label as she had ordered on the seat beside me, and I had almost pulled into the parking space in front of our room. I was never quite sure how it happened. I was furious, driven tight within myself, muttering and cursing, dark stars all around me, and then there was a flare of light, a long, mournful sound, a sudden chaos of noise as the hood of Sylvia’s car breached the wall and nosed its way in nearly to where she was lying on the bed. I’d told the judge I’d tried to step on the brake and missed, but Sylvia testified against me.
I did not come out well in the trial. Along with several additional non-criminal character flaws, I was found guilty of reckless endangerment and aggravated assault and given three consecutive terms of eleven months and fifteen days, the maximum yearly time for incarceration with the county, and then assigned to the Big Pine Key Road Prison.
Janice smiled and waved her hand as if she were brushing something away. “It sounded romantic to me. Passion flaring. A man striking back, a man who’s not going to stand it any longer.” She sipped her drink and lipped a cube of ice, staring at me over her glass.
I had no response. What she had said was absurd. I considered getting up and walking back to my room, letting her find someone else to celebrate with, but she put her hand on me again, a bird’s weight on my forearm. The mind apparently makes its own mind up.
She stared at me, leaning closer again, her perfume smelling of oranges and musk. “It’s a nice night,” she said. “Want to go for a drive?” She stood as if I’d answered already, as if there were only one possible answer. She picked up her purse and waited, then gestured with her head to the door. “It’s a beautiful night,” she said.
She had a red Volkswagen convertible, one of the new Beetles. We cruised up US-1. Janice drove, leaning forward with both hands on the wheel. The top was down, and the car filled with wind and the feel of the night and distant seas. I sat in the passenger seat and couldn’t decide if I were being kidnapped or simply out on a spree.
“Don’t you just want to keep on going?” she said, after a moment. “Just drive off across the country, find a new place, new cities, a new life?”
No, I thought. I was pretty happy where I was.
We stopped at a traffic light, but there was no traffic. I looked at her legs, the black dress ending and long limbs stretching to the floorboard.
“Can you hand me my purse?”
I reached behind and grabbed the small black clutch off the back seat. She opened it, glanced inside, then pulled out a few brown pill bottles and showed them to me, one by one, as if she had manufactured them herself.
“Ritalin,” she said. “A real kick if you’re an adult. OxyContin. Very, very nice, but you have to be careful. Darvocet, Demerol, Vicodin⎯aren’t these fun to say? And, of course, Valium.”
She offered them to me, her palm filled with small containers. I shook my head. She picked out one and struggled with its childproof cap. The light changed, and she handed back her purse.
“I used to have a lot more,” she said. “An unlimited supply, something for every occasion. Now, they’re almost gone, and my father’s coming back.” She rolled two capsules in the palm of her hand and dry-swallowed them.
I monitored her driving for a while, waiting for the pills to kick in. The lights disappeared behind us, and it grew dark. Stars hung above us. Janice held the steering wheel with one hand and leaned over and kissed my cheek. It seemed encouraging.
We drove across bridges where the water gleamed darkly to either side, as if we sailed upon a raft, then we went along narrow roads between slash pines, until finally Janice stopped and turned the car around. “See? Like I said, there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do.”
“We could always go to your place,” I said.
She looked at me and, after a few seconds, smiled. “Yes, we could do that.”
We started out in the right direction, but a few miles later we turned off and drove along a narrow side road. “You live out on the peninsula, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said. “I do.”
Minutes passed before it came back to me, riding along that same road with the morning and evening sun shining through those particular pines, and I realized where we must be going.
I knew it, I told myself, when I first saw her on her stool. I knew it. “What are you doing?” I asked.
The chain-link fence topped with razor wire appeared in the distance first, then the white gravel driveway leading into the Big Pine Key Road Prison. She pulled up in front, and beyond her profile I could see the long white barracks I’d lived in for three years, stretching silent and stark beneath the flood lights. Janice leaned on her horn.
“You shouldn’t do that.” I was trying to be reasonable, but my voice sounded choked and froggy.
“Getting their attention.” She pulsed the horn, then stuck her head out the window and shouted. “Hey! Hey! Assholes!”
“What the hell?” I said quietly and slumped down in the seat, trying to get my head below the dash. “This isn’t funny.”
She looked down at me and grinned. “Yes, it is.” Her teeth were white, and dark hair covered half her face. She seemed strange and powerful, something from a child’s cartoon. And still the horn sounded. I pictured myself back in my prison bunk, listening to the noise outside the gate and wondering just what was going on.
A door in the barracks opened.
“Oh, God,” I said softly.
A guard dressed in gray pants and a belly-tight white T-shirt followed a bloodhound into the floodlights and across the grass and gravel toward us. Janice stopped blowing the horn and leaned her head out the window. I watched as the guard drew closer, his journey endless, each step weighty and deliberate, while the dog strained forward.
“Asshole!” Janice finally shouted when the guard was close enough. “You fat fucker!” She whooped and laughed, a clear, silvery sound, then threw the transmission into drive and scattered gravel behind her. The rear of the car slipped from side to side, and we were back on the road, racing into the night.
I sat silent, listening for sirens drawing closer, for bullhorns shouting us off the asphalt, for helicopters hanging angled above us, but all I heard was the wind and the tires hissing.
“They shouldn’t have put you away,” Janice said after a few minutes. “They should have given you a medal.”
“You know,” I said, “I’ve had a really nice time, and you were absolutely right, it’s a beautiful night for a drive, but I think you should drop me back off at Harold’s now.”
There was a moment of silence, but for the wind. Her expression seemed intent, amused. “Yes, I understand,” she said, “I totally do, but I thought you wanted to go to my place.”
She lived on a point of land dark and washed by the sea. We parked in the driveway, then climbed out and stood for a moment on the coral rock gravel. Her house was built on stilts, a dim shape rising beneath the arching branches of a banyan. As we walked to the front door, I could see that storms had weathered the siding into an attractive cedar-shingled grayness, but the porch steps were frayed and slivered, and the railing flaked paint beneath my palm.
Inside, the living room was paneled in dark mahogany. Tall empty bookcases stood shadowed in the corners to either side of a broad entertainment center, also empty, but adorned with trefoil spikes and Spanish cloister latticework. Black wrought iron sconces held unlighted votive candles, and on the opposite wall, beneath a large painting of sunset in the Rockies, stood a black leather armchair and sofa combination. Smaller paintings of ducks, dead and hanging by their feet in peasant kitchens, were mounted on a diagonal on the half-wall leading to the dining room. I found it all depressing, dark, and overdone. “Nice,” I said.
Janice dropped her clutch on the black coffee table. “It’s terrible. I hate every single piece, but I think my father will like it. It’s kind of a surprise.” She smiled uncertainly. “He wanted me to fix up the place. That was my assignment. I’m pretty sure he thought it would make me feel better, give me something to do. A chance to get my life back together is how he put it.” She laughed.
“This used to be our summer place,” she said a few seconds later. “When I was a kid, every Fourth of July, we’d have a big picnic here, invite everyone we knew. Then my mother died, and it was just me and my father and things went purely to hell.” She smiled brightly. “Would you like a drink?”
I followed her into the next room, past a long, gothic table and high-backed chairs, and into a hallway hung with pictures of a British fox hunt, dogs yelping at the sky, white horses leaping wooden stiles.
“It’s in here,” she said.
The kitchen was a relief. It was old and still untouched and smelled faintly of must. A battered rectangular wooden table occupied the center of the room, and bottles crowded the counter next to the chipped porcelain sink. Janice spilled vodka into two small glasses and handed me one, then turned on a radio sitting near the stove and searched until a ballad by Tim McGraw came on.
She stood with her eyes closed a moment, then held out her hand. “Let’s dance.” She grabbed my wrist, and we were suddenly pressed against each other.
“There isn’t much room,” I said.
She laid her head on my chest. Strands of her hair blew in my face. It’s been quite a while, I thought.
“We don’t need much room,” she said.
“I wasn’t complaining.”
I really couldn’t dance, but most of the women I’ve been with seemed to have wanted me to try, and so I do. I thought of Marie, my ex-wife, who loved to ballroom dance, mostly with other partners, and had finally danced away with one, and my grown daughter Alicia, out west somewhere, who had perched her tiny shoes on my feet as I stepped her around the living room floor, and Sylvia, whose dancing was more an exhibition, a tease, something to get the party started. Now, I held Janice in my arms, dancing in a house on the edge of the sea, and it all seemed somehow sad, and I thought how strange life was, how everyone kept bumping into one another, changing each other’s lives, and how one thing almost always led to something totally different and unexpected. I thought of the passage of time, the irrecoverable consequences of events, the helplessness of it all.
“You want sex, don’t you?” she asked.
I was startled for more than a moment. “No, that’s okay,” I said.
Her lips climbed up my neck. “All cooped up, like you were. A bird struggling to be free. A wild spirit kept in a cage.”
It didn’t sound much like my life, which seemed to me more a long series of bad decisions, but I knew when to keep silent.
“We’re a lot alike, you know.” She raised her head and looked at me. Her eyes were clear and lovely.
I bent down, and then we were kissing. I remembered how it was. It’s like this, I thought. Exactly like this. I told myself I was only a convenience for her, someone in a bar she’d picked up for the night, but the years fell away and I grabbed her tighter and moved her around the room, lifting her from her feet and swinging her in close circles. I was smiling and looking over her shoulder, and I seriously didn’t notice at first that she was beating her hands against my chest.
I released her immediately, dropping her an inch or two. When she stepped back, her hair fell wild, and her face swam in water, nearly unrecognizable, as if some other woman had taken her place. I hadn’t hurt her. Nothing I did was wrong. It was all tender, all sweet.
“Jesus. I’m sorry,” I said.
She stood there for a moment, her lips twisting, her eyes wet and red. “You bastard!” she whispered. “You son of a bitch!” Sobs shook her, as if she were coughing them out one by one.
“What did I do?” I tried to move closer, to comfort her, but she backed away, her arms held up between us, until the sink stopped her.
She moaned and then laughed. “I don’t like you. I don’t.”
“I didn’t do one damned thing!” I shouted. I couldn’t think through the tightness in my brain, and I felt darkness moving inside me.
She pressed herself against the cabinets and slid down them, her dress riding up, her legs bent at awkward angles. She covered her face with her hands and drew herself into a ball on the floor.
I started for the door, storming out of the house, then remembered the pills she’d taken. Sylvia, too, had been an ugly drunk, so I stood there watching her until the fury faded.
“Come on, baby.” I approached her as warily as I would a strange, nervous dog. “Don’t be this way.”
After a few minutes, she let me touch her shoulder, then her hair and face. I sat down next to her and pulled her to my chest and let her cry against my shirt. What the hell? I thought. “There, there,” I said.
She was a mess, I thought, someone much too difficult for me, but she was crying. I remembered my baby daughter, the sweetness of it, and I held Janice for a while.
Sometime during the night, I awoke and for a moment was back in prison, the air thick with the smell of heated flesh and friable concrete. The darkness above me was the canvas bottom of Johnson’s bunk, and my heart pounded. Then, I saw the moon between the branches of the banyan just outside the window and the black posts rising at the corners of the bed and the large Spanish chest of drawers spreading against the far wall, and I knew where I was.
We’d slept in the house’s only furnished bedroom, and yes, we’d had sex. She lay there, willing and spread. She’d invited me, but in the middle started to cry and I stopped. Then she switched to passionate and demanding, and I started again, then she finally finished up with gentle and sad, rocking me in her arms as if I were a baby. Afterwards, as Janice lay stretched along my length and drowsy in my arms, I thought how truly difficult it was to be a guy, and I wondered what the hell was with this woman, and where she planned on sleeping once her father arrived. On all accounts, I knew silence was best.
Now, the space beside me was empty. I got up and put on my pants and shoes. The hall was dark, and I walked with extended arms, my fingertips brushing the walls to each side. “Janice?” I said quietly and checked the bathroom and the kitchen and finally the living room, transformed by the moonlight into an aquarium blue filled with wavering shadows.
I stepped outside, easing the screen door closed behind me. The breeze whipped fresh from the ocean, carrying the scent of salt and death and great distances, and I stopped a moment to breathe it in.
Something white moved at the property’s edge. I crossed the driveway and walked along the grass and weeds. It was someone, a woman in a white dress, standing on the riprap. As I drew closer, I could see the white hat and the white sensible shoes of a nurse’s uniform.
The figure turned.
“What are you doing?” I tried to sound casual but was half-certain she meant to jump. It was only five or six feet to the water, and the jump itself wouldn’t hurt her, but I didn’t know how deep the water might be. I pictured her, arms extended, dress billowing, as she drifted sedately down and down into the darkness.
“Isn’t it terrible?” she asked.
Large blocks ripped from freeways and old buildings formed the sea wall, and I climbed up to her, trying to avoid the rebar hooks, the sharp edges slick with moss and mussels and tattered shoal grass. “What?” I said, finally, standing beside her, looking at her uniform and thinking how strange the night had been already. “What’s so terrible?”
“All of this.” She pointed in the direction of the moon and the sea.
The moon silvered the waves slipping in at our feet, but in the distance only the termination of the stars marked where the ocean began. I imagined owning such a property, waking each morning and having the horizon simply out there, drinking a cup of coffee and watching pelicans skim the water’s surface.
“It’s wonderful,” I said.
“It’s the most desolate thing I’ve ever seen. It’s as if the world had ended.”
There was something to that, I thought. “It looks better in the sun, I guess. Friendlier.”
“It’s frightening. It’s too big, and you’re so exposed. Anything could come in at you, while you were sleeping, when you weren’t expecting. Anything at all.”
I remembered Hurricane Charley, the absolute purple calm of the day as the Road Prison inmates were jammed into the buses, the party feel as we rocked and bounced our way along the evacuation route to Miami. When the storm finally arrived, the wind threw rain against the glass, the view clear one moment, blurred the next, and the guards had been wonderfully nervous.
I put my arm around her waist and leaned against her starched blouse. “You should probably lay off the pills for a while.”
She looked up at me. “You can go to hell.” My hand rested on her belly, and after a moment she covered it with hers. “You’re just like my father. He’s always after me to quit.”
There wasn’t much I could say, so I just stared out at the night and sea.
That morning, I was late to work. Janice was back asleep, and I’d had to walk to US-1 and then stand at the side of the road and watch the cars flash by. They didn’t stop, apparently didn’t even notice my hand, my thumb, my officially pleasant smile. Maybe they didn’t like the looks of me, scruffy and aging, disreputable, but the people in the Keys had always been good for a ride before, and I wondered if something had changed.
When I reached the marina, I punched in at the office and then lost myself for hours in the pressing sun, the glare from purling water, the cry of the birds as fishing boats came in. I scrubbed decks with long-handled brushes, refilled fuel tanks, sponged salt rime from the Plexiglas windows. I thought of Janice, the feel of her, the smell of her, how strange a woman she was. In the distance, past scattered mangrove islands, steamers moved slowly across a faint horizon.
When I finished, I went home and showered and changed, then walked on pine-shaded roads to the peninsula. It was growing dark when I reached Janice’s place. The once-white picket fence, now scabrous, with palings askew and gapped, stood angled beside me. The conch shells on the fence posts, an island decoration, usually an explosion of swirled pink, had faded into sad white dusty cones.
Two cars sat in the graveled drive, Janice’s Volkswagen and beside it a silver Lexus. I walked slowly to the house, climbed the weathered steps to the porch, and knocked. A few seconds later, Janice opened the door and edged out. She was barefoot and dressed in navy blue shorts and a white T-shirt with a marlin jumping across her breasts. Her dark hair fell jumbled, awry. She closed the door behind her. I leaned forward for a kiss, but her face pulled back into a tight smile, and her hands gripped her forearms and pressed into her stomach.
“My father came early,” she said. “Isn’t that nice? He wasn’t due until tomorrow, and yet here he is, taking us all by surprise.”
I stepped back, but she reached out a hand and grabbed my arm. “You have to join us,” she said. Her eyes were large, intense. “We’re having drinks. It’ll be fun.”
I resisted the pull of her fingers and had started back down the steps.
“You can’t leave me alone like this,” she whispered.
Her father stood in the living room holding a tall glass in his hand. He was a thin man with a long face, dressed in black pants and a white shirt and a narrow red tie. I thought of farmers in the wheat belt, evangelists in sweaty tents.
“What the hell is this?” her father said and pointed his glass at me.
“Honey,” Janice said and plucked at my sleeve.
Honey? I thought.
“This is my father, Bryce Montgomery. Daddy, this is my boyfriend, Truman…” Her voice trailed off.
“Stanger,” I said and stepped forward to shake hands. “But I’m not really her boyfriend.” My hand hung unnoticed in the air.
“Obviously,” Montgomery said. He waited a second, then sipped his drink. “Nothing personal, boyfriend, but I just arrived. I’ve had a long day, and a long drive, and my daughter and I were having a conversation. I’d appreciate it if you’d leave.”
“Fair enough,” I said. I’d met his type before.
“And I want him to stay.”
“Nice to have met you,” I said. In my mind, I was already miles down the road, and I was walking out when Janice blocked my way to the door.
“You’re my guest, and it’s my house, too.”
“You never stop, do you?” Montgomery asked her. He turned to me. “Look at this place, boyfriend, what she’s done to it.” He waved his hand in a large circle. “You know how much this crap cost me? Twenty-five thousand dollars! Twenty-five thousand dollars!”
“Plus change,” Janice said. “I thought you’d like it.”
“You have any kids?” Montgomery asked.
I nodded. “One. A daughter.”
“Aren’t they a pain in the ass?”
I hadn’t talked to Alicia in years. There wasn’t much old pain remaining, but quite a bit of newer regret.
“You love them, and you love them, and they seem to want to spite you, to belittle you, to punish you for bringing them into existence.”
I kept silent, wondering how much of this I had to put up with.
“Why don’t you make yourself useful?” he said, looking at Janice. “Why don’t you get us all some drinks?”
She stood for a minute, then grabbed her father’s glass and strode down the hall to the kitchen.
Montgomery pointed me to a chair. “Have a seat,” he said, “as long as you’re staying. People our age get tired easy.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that.
“I suppose I should ask you what you do for a living.”
I sat and put my hands on the arms of the chair, ready to stand quickly.
“I am not her boyfriend and you don’t need to do the fatherly interrogation. We can just sit here quietly. That’s fine with me.” I was getting upset. I tried to think of the things I loved, the sun and the beaches I had worked along, pink hibiscus blooms half-buried in dark green leaves, dry sea grape gripping down into the dunes. I thought of my stool at Harold’s, the aquarium glowing blue in the dark, the quiet hum of distant conversations not involving me. My heart slowed. My muscles slowly relaxed.
We were silent as the minutes passed. Outside, the breeze was gusting, and a loose window rattled. The branches of the banyan rustled.
“What the hell is keeping her?” Montgomery asked, then looked up as Janice brought the drinks triangled in her hands. “Gin and tonic,” he said. “Nothing better on this earth.” He grabbed one, then patted the cushions beside him.
Janice perched instead on the arm of my chair and put her hand on the back of my neck. She bent down and kissed my nose, implicating me completely. I pushed her upright. I didn’t want to play these games.
“I’m a scotch man, myself,” I said.
“When it’s hot, I drink beer,” Montgomery said. “There’s a microbrewery in Miami, Cuban, just off of South Beach, makes three or four fabulous beers. Worth stopping at, if you’re ever up that way.”
It didn’t seem to me very usable information. I would never be up that way.
Montgomery and Janice talked stiffly for a few minutes about places I’d never been and people I’d never met, so I sat and worked on my drink. At first, it tasted rather sour and medicinal, but after a few minutes the warmth arrived.
“You’re divorced, I assume,” Montgomery said. “Seeing as you’re dating my daughter.” His voice was edged, unpleasant.
“A long time ago.” Marie, my ex-wife, had told me one day as she was packing that she couldn’t live any longer with my temper, but it had always seemed to me she’d been the angry one, and then she had gracefully ballroom danced away, fading twirl by twirl into the distance as the spotlight grew fainter, until nothing was left but the polished floor.
“Janice has had a rough time lately. I suppose she’s told you all about it.”
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” Janice waved her glass in the air.
“Actually, she hasn’t,” I said. “And I’m not sure I really want to know. It’s none of my business.”
“You’re just here for the sex?”
Janice laughed. Something needed to be done. I stared at Montgomery. I couldn’t look away.
“You’re not going to get to me,” I said, but my hands were clenched and again the room was filled with edges.
“Please,” Janice said.
“What do you mean?” Montgomery asked and stared at me. “Us old guys are just getting acquainted.”
Janice edged herself off the arm of the chair, wobbled a second, then took a seat on the couch beside her father, their thighs touching.
“How long have you two been together?” Montgomery asked me.
I didn’t answer. The truth would sound shoddy.
“We’ve only just met,” Janice said. “Last night was our very first fuck.”
Montgomery smiled. His lips stretched thin.
“Not something you did for my benefit, I hope.” He turned to me and shook his head ruefully. “She’s so self-sacrificing, this girl.”
Now, I thought, it was time to leave.
“She’s always willing to go the extra mile for her dear old dad.”
“You know very well,” Janice said, “that I never do anything for your benefit.”
“And yet you insist on flaunting it in front of me, playing the little slut.”
Janice appeared stunned for a moment. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened slightly. Then she giggled. She spilled her drink on her legs and shrieked gaily and wiped it away with her free hand.
This is terrible, I thought. I knew I should leave, and yet I couldn’t get up.
Montgomery straightened and grabbed his daughter’s head, turned it, and stared into her eyes. She waved her free arm and tried to push him away.
“Where are they?” he asked quietly.
Janice smiled sweetly. “Where are what, Daddy dearest?”
“Where are you hiding them?”
“Finders, keepers; losers, weepers.” Janice sang the words and kept time with a moving finger.
Montgomery jumped to his feet and walked down the hall into the kitchen. Janice rose and wobbled after him.
“You just leave me alone,” she shouted. “You just stay the hell out of my life. You hear me?”
I stood for a moment, undecided in the suddenly empty living room. It wasn’t my business. It was a family matter. I can find my own way out, I thought. Don’t worry about me.
Then something crashed, and Janice screamed. When I got there, Montgomery was at the cupboards. Cups and dishes lay shattered on the floor.
“You stupid bitch,” he shouted. His hands swept to the ground a plastic bottle of cooking oil, small glass containers of paprika and cumin, basil and thyme. “You couldn’t go one day. Not even one fucking day.”
“Quit it!” Janice shrieked.
He stopped for a moment, then bent and opened the cabinet beneath the sink, and Janice went very still.
“Daddy,” she said quietly. “I’ll do anything. You know I will. I always have.”
He pulled out a blue plastic garbage can and threw its contents⎯coffee grounds, wadded paper towels, the skins of limes⎯across the yellowed linoleum. He bent down again, and she grabbed his arm.
He stood and held her shoulder, then slapped her face. The report was loud, startling in the sudden silence.
“Don’t do that,” I said. I stepped forward, but Montgomery ignored me, had already bent down and come up with the clutch Janice had carried last night.
“Please, Daddy,” Janice cried.
Montgomery opened the purse and poured the brown prescription bottles out onto the counter. He twisted off a cap and spilled the capsules into the sink.
“Please!” Janice threw herself on his back, kissing his back, his neck, his shoulders.
He shoved her away. “You’ll never learn.” He threw the bottle into the sink and walked over to her. She put her arms up across her face, but he pulled them to her sides and slapped her again. And then again.
She looked at me, her eyes wet and distant, unfocused. She seemed to have aged. I reached out and grabbed Montgomery’s wrist. I didn’t want to get anyone angry, but I felt it all inside me, needing to be done, imperative. I just wanted to tell Montgomery simply, quietly, to calm down, that the situation was getting out of control, that Janice was a lovely woman, the long sweet length of her, and he couldn’t keep hitting her like that.
But then he swung at me.
I saw the punch coming and knew it landed somewhere on my face, but felt instead of pain a joy rising, as if doors inside were finally springing open. I hit Montgomery back and watched the man’s surprise, the blood beginning below the nose. It’s like this, I thought. Just like this, and the room filled with the sound of the sea. I hit him again and again, dropping with him to the ground, the two of us pressed together and bumping into the legs of the table, the chairs, blood spouting and pumping. How much would I pay for this? I thought, and it went on and on like music, until the lumped, sacked weight of Montgomery no longer moved, refused to stir.
I sat on the man’s stomach, breathing heavily, the ache beginning in my hands and face. I was in the kitchen. That’s where I was. I heard a keening, growing into something louder, more unpleasant.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s okay.”
But the noise continued. I turned and saw Janice arched back against the counter, her mouth open and ugly. “Stop it,” I said, but still the noise went on. Then I said it again, louder.
She put her hands over her lips. “Is he dead?” she asked finally. “Did you kill him?”
I hadn’t thought to check, but then felt the breathing beneath me, the movement of his diaphragm. “He’s all right,” I said, but wasn’t sure that was the truth. Montgomery’s face was flat and covered with blood. His body went into tiny spasms against my thighs.
I crawled off and used the counter to stand, but my legs would barely hold me.
“Why did you do it?” Janice asked. Her tone was severe, but her expression smug, nearly satisfied. “Why did I do it?”
It was something anyone would have done; it had been the proper thing to do. I looked down at the body at my feet. It was only a matter of knowing when to stop.
“You hurt my daddy.” She drew herself up straight. “My father. My poor darling father.” She grabbed her purse and placed the pill bottles inside, one by one. “And now I have to call an ambulance. I have to nurse him back to health, after what you’ve done.”
I watched her saunter out of the kitchen and heard her in a distant room talking quietly on the telephone. I wasn’t sure what would happen next. It all depended on her. The idea suddenly terrified me. If I went to jail again, this time they’d send me north to the concrete and asphalt hell of Everglades Correctional; my life wouldn’t include any time with the county, no work in the parks at all.
For some reason, I remembered the long white barracks of the Big Pine Key Road Prison. At night, in my bunk behind the locked chain-link door, with the guard at his desk on the other side, I would wrap myself in the issued dark wool blanket and listen to the sound of the wind through the pines and smell the clean, nearby sea.
Janice returned and stood by my side, her hip touching mine companionably. “They’re coming,” she said. “They’ll be here right away.”
I’d met her in a bar, I thought, had slid one stool over. She’d taken me into her bed, and then had invited me back. She’d simply asked me in to meet her father. “Oh, God,” I said quietly.
I waited with her as the minutes passed and finally heard sirens in the distance. An ocean breeze blew in from the window, then died.
“I guess you did it again,” Janice said. “That was very bad of you.” She took my hand and held it.
Patrick J. Murphy’s Pushcart Prize-nominated story is one of ten published in the new issue of Delmarva Review. Several of his short stories have been nominated for awards and inclusion in anthologies. He’s been an intern pastor for the Presbyterian Church, an adjunct professor of English at University of Texas and Florida State, electronics engineer for NASA at the Ames Research Center, and a forensic toxicologist at Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Website: http://members.authorsguild.net/pjmurphy/.
Delmarva Review is an independent literary journal publishing the best of new prose and poetry selected from thousands of submissions. It’s thirteenth annual edition, released in November, features sixty-four authors. The journal receives partial financial support from a Talbot County Arts Council grant with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Copies are available from Amazon.com and other major online booksellers. It is also sold by specialty booksellers like Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford. For information about the authors and submissions, see the website: www.DelmarvaReview.org.
Photography by Wilson Wyatt