Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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One of Quick’s students is fishing at the foot of the beach beneath the shack he rents on Plum Island. The dog wants walking. There is no escape. The girl’s name is Harley and she is barely passing Spanish.
Quick lives in a kind of ghetto by the sea, with the entire population crammed into trailer-sized stucco and cinder-block cottages on a quarter of the island. The rest, the real Plum Island, seven miles of Atlantic beach front, is fenced off, left untouched, patrolled by the park service, set aside for the sanctuary of birds.
The dog’s untrimmed nails are an urgent Morse code on the kitchen linoleum. Quick is at the bedroom window, peering through the Venetian blinds. Harley stands with her back to him and the waves washing over her feet. She’s wearing what must be her father’s rain jacket. There’s more yellow vinyl visible than there is her. But Quick recognizes the hair, even from behind, all lightened, heightened, and moussed. Lots of hair. In the summer, the beach would be swarming with girls like her, with their big hair and their teeny bathing suits, their boombox radios and their tans. Come summer, he would run down to the bird beach, miles out of range of the nearest teenager. In fact, he would run down there today.
Harley is bored with the fishing act. The pole is heavy, she keeps turning, letting her peripheral vision sweep his way, ready to catch Quick.
Quick has begun to think that privacy exists only in a city. Or maybe in the mountains. Is there a one-room schoolhouse in the woods somewhere, in need of a teacher? He’d move in a minute to Maine, or Vermont, or New Hampshire. On Plum Island he lives on Fifty-Fifth Street. He has to walk his dog. There is a view of the ocean from his bedroom, of salt marshes from the living room, and a pizza stand from the kitchen. In summer, the beach goes public and the air smells like pepperoni. Strangers ask to use his bathroom.
Less than two years ago he had been in Ecuador, in the “Body of Peace,” as they translate it there. The children climbed through his windows, the women came to clean his house at dawn, the men showed up at siesta time with bottles of homemade whiskey, wanting to play betting games with his money. One day a man brought a black velvet painting he had won on a visit to the coast. Quick figured a game and a wager would be proposed shortly. He frowned at the man. But the man didn’t want to gamble. He wanted to give the painting to Quick; he was insistent. The man smiled an embarrassed smile. His wife would not allow him to keep it. The painting showed two nude lovers on their knees in the black velvet sand. Quick put it over his bed.
In New England it’s different. The villagers wait outside, they stand in the rain, they pretend to fish. They watch him drive by in his rusty Karmann Ghia. He nods at them when buying cheeseburgers or milk, they know him at the gas station and package store. The islanders rarely talk to him, except for the girls. Teenage girls, five or six or twenty at a time, maybe a boy or two, hang out by the stop sign — the one stop sign. They’re like sirens, waiting at the foot of the bridge. They bother Quick. Lately, he’s begun to run the stop sign, driving on through before the girls have a chance to smile.
The dog can’t wait. Harley is wearing mascara and lipstick; he can see that even at a distance. They say her father is a Hell’s Angel. She’s named after a motorcycle. He goes out the kitchen door, lets the dog race ahead of him, then calls to her.
She pretends to be startled. She smiles. She jams the butt of the fishing pole into the muddy sand. Oh hi, señor Quick, buenas tardes. The dog runs to her and she bends to pet him. Cómo se llama su perro?
My dog? Se llama Roy. He’s black Lab and husky.
Quick keeps walking. I’ll bring you out a cup of tea later, he says, or a beer, if you’re still here. I’m going running.
Running? Oh. A beer sounds good. Adiós.
She’s wearing a wet T-shirt and no bra under her rain jacket — is there a contest somewhere? Her nipples are calling; they refuse to be ignored. She smiles. Her jeans are skintight, rolled above the ankles. Her hips keep shifting right, left, right again. She reminds him of Ecuador. Is the señorita trying to tell him something? Sell him something? Is she old enough to know? It feels dangerous to be standing here. He needs to run.
Adiós. Rápido rápido, señor Quick. How do you say hurry back?
Harley watches them run off. The man runs lightly, cutting a straight path along the shore, while the dog, a mass of wind-tussled hair, runs circles, kicks up sand, splashes in the shallow water, jumping, barking at sea gulls. She’d stood there, facing the waves, letting the tide pull at her through the fishing line. She’d been staring for the longest time at the waves, the steel blue water, almost forgetting about Quick.
She pulls the pole out of the sand, swings it like a baseball bat, and watches the sinker fly, finally landing with a plop and pulling the hook and line into the whitewash between waves. Life is either being alone or it’s not. She watches the glint of the monofilament on her reel, traces it along the rod and off the end of the pole, out into the air where it goes invisible against the sky. She looks, and looks, and then finds it farther out, glinting against the darker water before entering the sea.
The Ecuador moon was orange and bright, like a refrigerator magnet hanging in the sky. But it cast little light. The town was all darkness and shadows. There were no street lights or neon, but Quick knew his way. He passed the closed-up storefronts on the main street, then the crowded blocks of houses. Everything was quiet. It was late.
He loved being here. Knowing he was alone, thirty-one, in the Peace Corps, awake. The farmers and shopkeepers and mothers and children, hundreds of children, huddled every night around lamps, in doorways, or crowded around one of the few televisions in town, until about 8 p.m. Then sleep. For a few hours, teenage boys would still prowl, smoking cigarettes, imagining teenage girls naked under their nightclothes, imagining grown-up vaginas and breasts. They would smoke all their cigarettes, give up hope, be asleep by 10. Quick went out after that.
He passed the church, whitewashed and luminous in the orange light, the one monument, the looming presence, the twenty-foot wrought-iron dying Jesus and the mud-caked tile floors. It was the only impressive building to speak of — the mayor ran things from his barbershop, the post office sold dried beans and cigarettes, the milk arrived on horseback. The church stood in its place, and the town formed around it, with a square opposite, the circle of storefronts with tin signs, and a hundred cinder-block shacks. He had his own place on the outskirts of town, courtesy of the U.S.A.: a front door, a bed, and a place to shit. It was as hard to believe he lived here as it was to realize he would have to go home.
He began to run. The dirt was padded flat by many feet and hoofs; the last rain had been a week ago. Still, the dust smelled warm and wet, as did the air; he was running beyond town now. His eyes adjusted, seeing just enough to trust the next step. The road followed a river, passed through fields. He could hear the slow water, see the mist. He was faster than his own fear, and he ran, heart pounding, blood rushing, traveling through the mysterious black, past remaining patches of jungle where trees still towered and animals shrieked and rushed through the undergrowth. Peasants live here, he thought whenever panic began to rise. These mysteries are their home, they walk barefoot with tarantulas and snakes, sleep with open windows, raise cows, eat beans. He ran.
How old are you, anyway? he asks, as the bottle of beer gasps open. He’s still breathing hard from his run. He’d gone a couple of miles farther down the bird beach, hoping she’d be gone, but as he made his way back, he could see, miles off, the small yellow shape waiting for him in the distance. She sits on his floor now, petting the dog, not minding the smell of his wet fur, petting him slowly and gently as he pants, a heap of happiness at her feet.
If I was twenty-one, I wouldn’t be in high school.
So how old are you?
I could lie.
I could get in trouble.
No, I could get in trouble. She shrugs and smiles. Suddenly, he likes her a little.
I don’t mean to be rude, he says, but I’m going to take a shower. If you just want to take the beer, take off, go ahead, you don’t have to drink it here. But remember, you got it from somebody else.
He looks at her, and Roy looks at him, happy dog. She keeps petting him and he loves it. She hasn’t touched the beer. Most kids would guzzle a beer, he thinks, but not her. Quick’s right hand has absent-mindedly moved beneath his T-shirt, is rubbing his stomach; the wiry hairs there resist. And then he feels himself lurching, below, like a teenager; his penis belongs to someone else, to trouble. This is ridiculous, he thinks. But he stays, he stands there, he watches as she pets Roy.
She’d begun hostessing three nights a week at a new Italian restaurant across the bridge in Newburyport. It was great to be a grown-up, finally. A working girl. She wore high heels and the makeup she’d been perfecting since seventh grade, skipping the Seventeen magazine look and moving directly on to Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Eyes, lips, cheeks, and hair; she had it down. And at the Italian restaurant, where the married couples would go on Saturday nights without their kids — groups of couples and liters of house wine — it was always the husbands who smiled. She knew she wouldn’t marry right off, go to college, or do anything like these wives, who looked tired, who drank their iced pink wine like water until they began giggling. Her own parents never went out. They called for pizza. The refrigerator was for beer.
Harley worked hard: she cleared tables, stuck her red fingernails into eight glasses of water and carried them, swaying on spike heels, trailing perfume, out of the dining room. Then the husbands would get up, come to her, ask about the coats, or the restrooms. They would be staring, needy, filled with red wine, aroused after two hours of watching Harley’s panty line, Harley’s cleavage, Harley’s smile.
Haven’t I seen you at the Thirsty Whale? she might say if she liked him.
Harley would finish work around 10, punch out, light a cigarette, and steal a beer from the refrigerator by the time clock. If it was good weather, she would drink it standing near the trash cans, beneath the stars and the moon. Harley didn’t like kids her own age. She steered away from the teen hangouts: the kiddy playground, where the acid trips went on night after night; the ice-cream parlor, where the girls went in groups; the convenience store, where the toughies bought their cigarettes and used the pay phone; the waterfront, where the couples parked.
She wore high heels, she never had homework. She would walk down the street after work and slip into the Thirsty Whale with her fake ID. She knew the bartender knew. He always carded her in front of everybody, holding the flashlight to the ID, then poured her drink, Canadian Club and 7-Up with a twist of lime. Then she moved to her place by the cigarette machine, toward the back, near the bathrooms.
There the husbands found her. After leaving the wives and tucking in the children, turning down the heat and dropping off the baby sitter. Thinking up some story. Remembering the panty line and smell of her perfume. Changing into jeans or khakis or sweat pants, leaving the boxer shorts in the hamper. Harley waited for them. She knew where they could go. She sat in the wife’s place in the idling car as the husband ran into the convenience store. The old lady would turn and look at her through the plate-glass window. Harley had looked back from Chevys and vans, Mercedes and Mazdas. Harley would light a cigarette and feel a twitch, a warm sense of anticipation, as the woman reached again with her liver-spotted hand to the rack of condoms behind the counter.
She takes her first swig of beer. The sound of the rain is a low drumming on the roof.
Do you mind if I just hang out here for a while? She sees the bulge in his shorts. She turns back to Roy.
Like I said, I have to take a shower.
He goes into the bathroom and shuts the door. There, he strips off his shirt and shorts and jockstrap. In the shower, he stands under the hot water and watches the door where his bathrobe hangs from a hook. He peers through the mildewed shower curtain, expecting the bathrobe to move, expecting her to come into the steam, waiting for her, erect. But she doesn’t. The blood redistributes itself. Quick turns up the hot water, lets the shower pound on his neck and shoulders, soaks his head. He can’t hear his own sigh as he reaches for the tile wall, leans forward, stretches out his Achilles tendons, one then the other.
Some nights in Ecuador, very late, he sat in the dark and thought about his future, about being alone. It was something he had begun to understand about life — some people were alone. In his teens and twenties he had listened to song lyrics and memorized them; they were always about love. But after a while he lost the hang of it. It tired him to figure out what they were singing, where he used to enjoy the challenge. And when the tape deck was stolen from his Karmann Ghia, he decided not to buy another.
Usually, it had been the woman to call things off, to discourage him after the first date or kiss or fuck. But then he realized it was a game; endings could be more enjoyable than beginnings. He had a few drinking buddies who saw it pretty much the same way. He never went to weddings. He was a teacher, there were papers to correct, lesson plans to make; there wasn’t time or money or a compelling reason to figure all his problems out. He turned thirty, then thirty-one. He signed up for the Peace Corps.
In Ecuador, there were always kids hanging around, like mosquitoes, asking to look at the black velvet painting, then staying. Some were his students and others were their younger brothers and the younger brothers’ cousins. They would never go away on their own, so he would round them up and make rules, or just ignore them, or pretend he was praying. Eventually they would leave. Then he would draw the curtains and wait.
Waiting, he read sitting in his one chair next to his one lamp at his one table, and the flies made shadows. If it was hot he sat in his jockey shorts and slapped himself as the flies grew bored enough to light, to taste his sweat, to look for a nest, filled and urgent with eggs, or to bite. He waited until just after 10, when the town was asleep. Then, if he had drawn the curtains, a girl would appear.
The first one had arrived late one night. She stood in his doorway, mute. She looked to be fifteen. Dark eyes, bare feet. He spoke Spanish, she spoke Spanish, but there was little talking involved. He smiled a little. She said, señor, and walked to him.
They called him señor. His Peace Corps stipend was used up in this way. Some of them were very good at what they did.
Quick soaps, he shampoos and conditions his hair. He stays in the shower until the water turns cold. He towels himself dry, opens the curtain, lathers his face, and lets the lather sit before shaving. He decides to dry his hair. He has to hunt for the blow-drier, but finally finds it beneath the sink, alongside the iron he never uses, behind the Drano and an extra roll of toilet paper. He flosses his teeth and watches the gums bleed in the mirror. He sits on the john and looks through a National Geographic. He reads about the endangered wildlife in Cuba, studies a fold-out map of underwater topography. He goes into his room and puts on some sweat pants and a shirt. He lies on his bed and studies the ceiling. There are a few cobwebs in one corner, and peeling white paint that reveals a patch of blue. He imagines the room painted blue. Finally he gets hungry and goes out into the living room. Harley is still there.
Are you hungry? I’m going to make some nachos.
No, not really. She is looking through his records. Roy is asleep.
You really shouldn’t be here, he says.
Can I play a record? she asks.
He laughs. Sure, sure, sure. Why not? He goes into the kitchen and rummages through the refrigerator. His records are old, she won’t like them, they’re left over from the days when he listened to lyrics. And then the music comes suddenly, trumpets and marimbas and violins and Spanish. Ecuador. He sticks his head around the corner. Harley’s back is to him. She’s standing, moving her hips to the beat. The dog lifts his head and yawns. She begins to take small cha-cha steps, as if she knows how to dance to this kind of music.
Quick wakes up after midnight, picks through the clothing on the floor to find his sweat pants and T-shirt, steps over the snoring shape of the dog, then walks through the living room and out the door. He walks barefoot onto the sand. The sound of the ocean is deafening, the wind a shrill whistle. A rain must have passed through; the sand feels damp under his feet. As he approaches the water, the wet sand gives way to wetter sand, then mud, and then to water oozing around his feet. When the tide rushes over his feet, it is freezing, shocking. He stands next to Harley’s fishing pole, surprised that it hasn’t washed away after so many hours. He pulls it out of the mud and moves a dozen paces higher, where he plants it into the drier sand. When he’s done he stands there, looking back toward the shack, a white shape in the dim moonlight, the place where he lives. He wishes Harley were gone. He wishes she would stay forever.
He thinks of running. She could be a runner. She is perfect, her body strong and beautiful. They could run together down the beach, and Roy would bound along and bark at sea gulls. They could run along the edge of the low tide on the black, hard mud at dusk. Maybe they would notice the sunset behind them, and maybe not. They would be running.
On the hottest nights, they could leave the dog and their clothes and swim, jumping into the icy Atlantic, letting the fish nip at their ankles. They could kiss and scream in shock, then run out, jumping through waves, beating the undertow. Once he’d seen the tide full of tiny phosphorescent creatures. Every wave that washed in was neon, glowing, a ghostly green. They could swim in that, he would wait for that. He and she, Quick and Harley, stripped to the skin, emerging from the waves with bodies coated in light, watching the glow dripping off them. They could be two lovers from a black velvet painting, embracing in the sand.
Everyone has gone to sleep on Plum Island. Quick begins to feel cold and decides to head back inside. He looks at the house, then he turns away. The edge of each wave marks a pathway into the night, a curving deposit of foam that appears out of the darkness, then, just as quickly, is erased. It is all he has to follow as he begins to run.
Michael Wade Simpson