We Miss You Already
You can say it was a misunderstanding.
We'd stayed there the year before, while the rich owners, let's call them the Dupes, were in Europe. We later heard they spent most of their time in Germany, drinking their way through the Rhineland. Every year they traveled during May and June. This year they were on a cruise ship in Alaska. They were big Christians, and big drinkers. On the back of the gigantic RV parked in their driveway there were bumper stickers: Unborn Babies Have No Laws to Protect Them, But Dolphins Do. The Lord Made Us All Different; Democrats Want To Make Us All The Same. If You Want To Get High, Trust The Lord.
We theorized the Dupes must be more fun than a barrel of bible-thumping monkeys.
Paula said, “I used to trust the Lord, but he let me down.”
Their place was full of candles. Everywhere you looked. There were blue spherical candles like miniature planet earths, wide conical candles filled with artificial fruit slices, unicorn candles and polar bear candles and African gazelle and rhino candles. We realized they must collect them on their many travels on cruise ships and package tours around the world. We imagined the look of diligence on their faces as they bought the leprechaun candles in Ireland, the wooden shoe candles in Holland, the matador candles in Spain.
After it hit us, the sheer multitude of them, it gave us the creeps. They were show candles. None of them had ever been lit.
We'd been hanging at the Dupes for almost a week when a friend of theirs dropped by. A concerned neighbor. She'd seen the lights, our car in the driveway. She came by to check on the house. She found our things.
We weren't home at the time. We were at the beach, a regular Bonnie and Clyde, threatening the populace by lying slathered with lotion in the intense Florida orange juice sun, playing frisbee to cool off, diving for sand dollars in the surf, being stung by tiny jellyfish, having a wonderful time.
We loved each other like we were the only people on the planet. We took Polaroids of each other. One of Paula showed her particularly beautiful, her eyes blue like the Gulf, her wavy hair wet and long, her mouth a Mona Lisa smile, the waves behind her. We said it could be the cover for a CD she could record titled Cool Breeze. We called it her CD cover photo.
There were other photos: Paula naked in the bathtub, her beautiful russet hair floating above her like a rusty halo, her breasts breaking the surface, her nipples golden and lovely and natural. In the Polaroid you can see the wavy light wrinkles of the water, like white fractured swimming pool genie shadows, across Paula's wonderful skin. The light wrinkles play against the whiteness of the bathtub.
It's one of my favorite photos. The purity of it. What aching beauty!
It resembles a Japanese painting.
In Florida, at this luxury beach house, the Polaroids were on the kitchen counter. Beside a ceramic fruit bowl decorated with a pattern of bright red watermelon wedges and bright yellow lemons. We propped the Polaroids on the fruit bowl. We liked to look at them. We didn't think of anyone coming over.
It was our world. Temporarily, yes. For two weeks. That was how long we planned to stay. The house would be empty for a month. That was how long it would take the Dupes to drink their way through the corny cruise ship version of Alaska. For two weeks, then, we figured we had it to ourselves. For two weeks, it would be ours.
Paula was sketching. She sketched the palm trees, the birds, the oaks, the ocean. She sketched me naked. I had taken a shower after running five miles in the Devil's Island heat and humidity, had stood beneath a gush of cold water to cool off, and lay on a chaise lounge in the screened-in porch, still naked. I posed for her like that. What the hell.
When I was dry I started to feel squeamish. She said Okay, you can get dressed. In the sketch, my penis is much bigger than in reality. It was me all right, with a huge charcoal penis.
“Now, come on,” I said. “It's not that big.”
“Don't be so Mr. Literal.” She grinned. “Think metaphor.”
From the breakfast table we had a view of the Sound, the body of water between this waterfront resort suburb, filled with canals and boat docks, and the island of Gulf Breeze. We saw dolphins leaping in the Sound. I said, “Look!” and pointed. They leapt in the air like TV stars set free. We grabbed our binoculars. “What an amazing sight,” said Paula. “Thank God they're protected, not like those pesky foeteses.”
The world around us unfolded slowly. A great blue heron we nicknamed Herman landed each day on the small gazebo by the water. Paula sketched him. Ringed and laughing gulls floated above us. The sound of their cries bounced like skipping oyster shells on the humid sultry air tinged green by the palm fronds, the broad banana leaves, the live oaks, the oleanders. A green heron stalked the reeds and cattails near the boat dock. Enormous white flowers unfolded on the magnolia trees. In the early evening, swallows appeared and skittered over the water's surface, flicking their wings and diving for insects. At dark the sprinkler system kicked on automatically, hissing, spraying us so that we ran for the screened porch, laughing.
I was reading Richard Brautigan's novel An Unfortunate Woman. It was a haunting, heartbreaking, funny book. Not was. Is. The book continues to exist. The human being known as Richard Brautigan is no longer with us in a discrete, palpable form. This is true. But his books exist. They conjure up his spirit.
Reading Brautigan's An Unfortunate Woman, it's like I was playing cards with his ghost. Hearts or spades. A game where winning isn't terribly important.
I was loving it. It was his last novel, written at the age of forty-seven, written a year before he hanged himself in his barn. It was in some ways also about a woman who hanged herself, a friend of his. In other ways it was very much about Brautigan himself.
Between the lines you can read how he feared he'd used up his time on
Earth, how he'd used up his life, how his drinking and travelling and
giving too many women
too little love had caught up with him, had served him notice, had
delivered their subpoenas to appear in Sadness Court, told by a bald bailiff
to raise one hand, to
repeat after me: to swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing
but the truth. That's the kind of book it was.
While we were away, at the beach, sunbathing and swimming and throwing a frisbee, doing our best imitation of Public Enemy Number One and Two of the Committee Against People Having a Good Time, the Dupes neighbor and friend, Mrs. Wanda Schock, arrived to check on the house. Mrs. Schock let herself in with a spare key. She spied our things. She examined our Polaroids, Paula's sketchbook. She called the Dupes on their cruise ship off the coast of Alaska.
Years before we had also traveled to Alaska, backpacking in Denali, swarmed by mosquitoes in the Wrangell Mountains, and we had encountered the Cruise People. In boisterous crowds they descended on the small town of Skagway, where we were staying in a funky hotel. They were all pampered and pouffed, decked out in designer clothes and dangling cameras.
It was as if the entire contents of a shopping mall had been vomited on the rainy hypnotic coast of southeast Alaska, and were racing to buy as much moose and grizzly bear kitsch as they could before the bell would sound and they would all pile back on the Mother Ship.
Mrs. Schock called the Dupes on the cruise ship phone. Mrs. Dupe had been drinking all day and was rather soused. She then called Paula's mother for an explanation. Paula's mother said she thought they wouldn't mind. She was coming to join us there in a couple of days. We meant no harm. We were good people. We were artists, sort of.
Mrs. Dupe shouted over the phone that WE HAD NO PERMISSION TO BE THERE. She had invited Paula's mother to stay while they were out of town and THAT WAS OBVIOUSLY A BIG MISTAKE. She never imagined that Paula's mother would GIVE THE KEY TO RIFFRAFF AND LET THEM RUN HOG WILD!
Mrs. Schock called the deputy sheriff. He spoke to the Dupes.
When we returned from the beach that evening, after a seafood dinner in town, our things were thrown out of the house. They were dumped in a huge pile in the driveway. Our clothes and books and Polaroids and luggage.
At first we thought the house had been burgled by weirdoes.
On the kitchen counter we found a note:
Notice to: Paula and Michael CroftI called the deputy. He was kind and regretful. He told us he understood it all must have been a misunderstanding, but the Dupes were insistent that we leave the premises immediately. I thanked him and swore we understood we had permission to stay and would pack up. “We wouldn't dream of staying where we weren't welcome.”
Our clothes and photos and sketches and books and luggage lay in a messy pile in the sandy driveway of bug-infested Florida like a stack of books scheduled for a burning by the local chapter of Christians for the Perversion of Christ.
By then it was late. We were tired and sluggish with bellies full of fried shrimp and oysters and margaritas and key lime pie. We were sunburned and woozy. We loaded our things in our car and drove down the beach fifteen miles to the first hotel advertising Vacancy, a Best Western. It had a pool and everything. Though it was on the Sound, not actually the Gulf of Mexico, it was near the causeway that crossed over to the island and the beach.
We were embarrassed. We felt like criminals and beggars. At first we spoke quietly and in confusion of why this was happening. After a while our voices grew louder. We became pissed. So these Dupes are some kind of Christians, aren't they? We suspected all along there was something rotten about them, with those bumper stickers, those smarmy framed photos in the hallway.
The worst people often pretend to goodness.
The next day we drove to the beach again. By then we were laughing it off. What did they think we were going to do, rob them? We read the note again: As of yet the owners are not pressing charges of burglary . Burglary! We told ourselves there was nothing in that crummy house we would want to steal. We laughed and squirmed at the thought of Mrs. Schock going through our things: Fingering our naked Polaroids. Gasping at Paula' s charcoal nudes of me. Skimming the back cover of the Joy Williams' novel Paula was reading, Breaking and Entering, about a couple who break into rich people's luxury beachfront homes in Florida and live while there surreptitiously while the families are away.
For all our kidding, we were hurt. And confused. The outside world had barged into our own little universe and peed on the floor. Maybe we should have seen it coming. Maybe we should have insisted that Paula's mother get direct specific assurance from the Dupes that the invitation to housesit their home in Florida extended to her daughter and son-in-law as well.
The way we saw it, though, was this:
We'd been kicked out on the street by a pair of drunken Christians.
So? So what? Thank the Lord, yadda yadda yadda.
This was in Florida. That seems important. The sunburn of America.
Sometimes you stumble against a bit of ugliness in the world and you don't know where to put it. You don't know where it fits.
I like to believe in the rightness of the natural world. Humans are a lovely and vicious mystery. There's no telling the wretchedness of which they're capable. That's nothing new. But the natural world . . . you like to think it possesses its own integrity and harmony. Yes, big fish eat little fish, but they don't mean anything by it. For all the chomping, I like to believe in its innocence. The essential goodness.
So the day after we'd been kicked out by the Dupes we went for a walk. We strolled down a boardwalk that stretched from our hotel along the waterfront of the Sound. The evening was lovely. The sky was full of gulls. At the marshy shoreline we searched for shells. The narrow beach was reeked of seaweed and beached fish. It was littered with trash. Brown shards of broken beer bottles. Dead dolls with missing limbs. Plastic Pepsi bottles and six-pack rings. Two-by-fours with nails. Sargasso clumps.
After a time we reached a small park. A duck park. There was a pond, surrounded by a narrow sward of lush grass. At the waterline were reeds and cattails. Surrounding the pond and narrow bank was a low picket fence, and surrounding the fence was a sidewalk so tourists like ourselves could stroll and marvel at the pretty ducks.
It was like a little zoo.
The little duck zoo was crowded. We saw mallards and coots and scaups and teal and pin tails and what have you. There were elaborate beautiful black-and-white ducks, Hooded mergansers, maybe, which we particularly liked. And so many! It seemed that ducks were constantly in flight, squabbling, chasing other ducks, flapping their wings, squawking. On the other side of the pond we noticed a hubbub, and went to see what was up.
A crowd of people had gathered. Watching. No one was speaking, though. Some people shook their heads and moved off.
Along the shoreline a female duck was being gang-raped. It was a horrible, violent scene. A crowd of twenty or so male ducks were gathered around her, and as one mounted her, the others flapped and squawked and shuffled beside, biting her neck, attacking the duck on top, pushing him off, then another mounting her, the whole crowd of ducks surging and shifting through the reeds, up and down the bank, the ugliness and violence of it like a prison riot in Birdland.
We couldn't watch. We recoiled as if we'd entered a petting zoo and had reached out to touch a lamb, only to realize it was a rabid coyote in disguise. We wanted to stop it, and help the poor duck at the center of the rape, but how could we. It was the ugliness of the duck world. We were simply strolling by, and weren't meant to intrude into that world.
We walked away, sick to our stomachs. We returned to our hotel room.
There wasn't much to say. The pool was still open. Children splashed in
it, calling out,
Paula turned on the television. I bought a root beer from the vending machine.
We couldn't sleep. We tossed and turned. The bottom sheet was not a fitted but flat sheet, and became loose from the corners. Soon we were both touching the skin of the mattress. The pillowcases felt as if they were crammed full of wadded-up newspaper.
In the middle of the tortuous night, Paula turned to me and asked if I was awake. She could see my eyes open, the brightness of the parking lot lights shining through the gap in the curtains, illuminating the room. I told her I was.
She said, “What the Dupes did to us, I feel just like that duck.”
I said, “Don't, Honey.”
“No. I mean it.”
“I know. I do too.”
At dawn, we turned on the television and watched the Weather Channel. It was going to be another sunny day in Florida. South of us there were thunderstorms. We would have preferred that. Our blue mood, our licking of wounds. We stared at the screen and felt horrible. At one point the handsome black weatherman stood before a map of Alaska and mentioned the overnight lows in Anchorage, the daytime highs in Fairbanks, the drizzle in Juneau.
Paula said, “Those people should pay.”
It was bright daylight before we fell asleep.
We got up too late to check out.
We drove to the beach again but it wasn't the same. We couldn't find any sanddollars. I asked Paula if she wanted to play frisbee and she said she didn't feel like it. Lying in the sun felt as if we were beneath a heat lamp on a steam table at a crummy buffet in Las Vegas where desperate losers with cigarette breath and sweaty hands pile prime rib on their plates.
“I still have the key to the Dupes,” I said.
Paula turned on her side and looked at me, shading her eyes from the Death Valley sun. Her elbow was coated with sand. “So what are you saying?”
“I suppose I should put it in the mailbox.”
“I bet those people don't know shit about Alaska. I bet they're in some
cheesy gift shop right now, asking the cashier if there's a discount on
the walrus candles.”
At the Dupe's, we didn't park in the driveway. We left the car around the corner, on a sandy road we'd noticed where they were doing more construction, more development, hacking down more of the oak trees and filling in more of the wetlands to make more luxury homes for rich Christian drinkers. We cut through the oak and palm trees of their back yard, stepping gingerly, wearing only our bathing suits and sandals from the beach.
From the side yard, near the screened-in porch, we spied the driveway. The coast was clear. Everything looked the same but everything was different. We let ourselves in with the key and crossed the threshold into FelonyLand.
Inside it was oddly quiet. The air smelled of pine-scented air fresheners and shag carpeting. We opened the refrigerator door and it was dark. The only thing there was the same box of Franzia wine we'd seen before. We picked up the TV remote and pressed Power, but nothing happened. Someone had turned off the electricity.
Paula poured us each a glass from the box of Chablis. It was still cool and tasted okay. She looked fantastic in her black two-piece bathing suit with a frilly skirt, with her wavy wet auburn hair.
I proposed a toast to all the outlaws of the world. “May their horses always be saddled, and their hideouts always be hidden.”
We clinked glasses. Paula said, “Outlaws is right. And like, remind me never to become a person like this.”
“Never in a million years.”
She wandered to the Dupe's living room, which we'd earlier done our best to avoid. We walked around the room, drinking their box wine, and shaking our heads. We couldn't believe all this bullshit.
It was like a model showroom living room, like a real estate agent's hokey idea of a dream home. Everything about it was uncomfortable. The striped sofa was hard, its elaborately carved wood legs too delicate and frigid. In the corner was a baby grand. On the wall were framed Impressionist museum posters. The fireplace mantel was cluttered with Jesus candles and artificial flowers. On the glass-topped coffee table was a fan-shaped arrangement of Coastal Living and Southern Life magazines. Next to it was a floral vase.
“What's the deal with this vase?” I picked it up and turned it over in my hands. “I hate this frou-frou crap.”
Paula said, “Here,” and took it from me. With a blank expression on her face, she rared back and threw the vase against the fireplace. It smashed against the bricks, knocking off two of the Jesus candles. They fell heavily to the floor but didn't break.
When it hit I winced, but for the first time since we'd been kicked out, since we'd seen the raping ducks, I smiled. “How did that feel?”
Paula grinned. “You give it a try.”
I flipped over the coffee table, which sent the magazines flying across the floor and smashed against an end table holding a fat ugly purple lamp and white crinkly lampshade, knocking them over, the lampshade twisted into the air.
Paula flinched. “O my god.” She took my arm. “For that I think you deserve some attention.”
She led me back to the master bedroom, which we'd kept away from when staying there before. We stripped off the ugly striped bedspread and made love on the cool white cotton sheets, watching ourselves in the mirror. When we were finished we lay there stunned and sore. Our skin was hot and red from sunburn, bringing on a delicious cooked feeling, a sleepiness that slithered and lapped over our hot pink skin and pulled us under, down down down, into an ocean of deep sleep.
When we woke the house was dark. Completely silent. The strangeness of it created the eeriest feeling. We lay there naked in the dark, kissing each other, watching the ripples of water shadows on the ceiling from where the neighbor's porch lights reflected off the Sound and through the windows. Paula got up to pee. The door to the bathroom was right there. When she came back, she said, “I can't see a thing.”
I told her I could fix that. Creeping and feeling our way through the kitchen, we found a box of matches we'd seen near the stove. Paula laughed when I lit the first candle, her face radiant in the light. She said, “Oh, right. Now I remember what these things are for.”
We lit them all. Or at least the ones we could find, there were so many.
I'm not sure who came up with what happened next. To put them under the curtains. Sometimes I think it was Paula's idea. Other times I think it was mine. It doesn't matter. We both did it. We placed them on the windowsills, beneath the curtains, and watched. The heat crept up slowly at first, the curtains turning black for a moment, smoking, then blooming into golden flames.
We didn't know what to do. When the kitchen filled with flames and the walls began to glow, we thought maybe we should try to put it out. But we were in our bathing suits, and with the smoke alarms going off, with that ear-splitting high-pitched whine, we had to leave.
Outside, we placed the key in the mailbox. All around us the luxury beachfront neighborhood was quiet and sleepy. Waves lapped gently against the concrete seawall lining the canal. Pier lights and red buoy beacons shimmered and reflected off the water's surface. The Dupe's living room and kitchen filled with the snake tongues of flashing flames. The orange glow from them illuminated the palm trees in the backyard.
It was beautiful.
That's all behind us now. Milk under the bridge. Funny, but it doesn't seem a matter of right or wrong. I know what other people would think. I know they wouldn't look at it the same way we do. But they weren't there.
It wasn't planned. It wasn't premeditated. It was just a thing that happened. One thing led to another. That's how things go.
We moved on. We didn't linger. Expelled and disgusted by the Sunshine State, we drove West. In Wyoming we hiked in the Wind River mountains, ate trout we'd caught for dinner, dodged moose and grizzly bears, watched bald eagles dive into the Green River and flap heavily up, fish flapping in their talons. We put the Christians and the duck rapists behind us. We loved each other and were good to each other.
At the border of California, heading toward Mono Lake and Yosemite, we passed a water tank along the deserted stretch of Highway 6. Emblazoned on its side, the side facing Nevada, where we were coming from, was the legend We Miss You Already. We smiled at that. We took a picture. What a nice thought. You're not even gone yet, and already we're missing you.