(c) Joe Clark, 1992
Beneath an overcast night sky the color of a redneck microwave, Bobby Porter's pickup truck chases the beams of its headlamps west on the two-lane blacktop of the coast road, past abandoned motels and dazzling convenience stores and long stretches of pitch- dark pine forest. The upglow from occasional stilt houses illuminates low clouds rolling inshore from the gulf. Below an embankment at the road's edge, languid wavelets suck indifferently at mudflats exposed by low tide.
Bobby's truck nibbles at the trailing edge of a pool of white light moving through a great, muggy darkness. Where Bobby has been, and where he is going, don't exist. There is only the fleeting present, brought to life by the headlamps of his truck and settling back into oblivion once he has passed.
"Damn," says Bobby, swerving to avoid a softshell turtle that skitters across the road like a greasy plate with claws. Empty beer bottles clink on the truck's floorboards in syncopation with tinny music from the dash radio.
Bobby flicks his cigarette coal out the window. The wind shatters it into a thousand orange sparks that twirl and disappear, and the pool of light with its pursuing truck vanishes around the next bend, trailed by the receding sound of Bobby harmonizing with the Who. When silence returns a lone deer bounds across the road like an antlered ghost. A silhouette from Morgan Le Fay's enchanted forest. A furry Baryshnikov with four legs and a funny hat.
In the offshore darkness a mullet leaps from the water and falls back with a hollow splash. The surface is otherwise flat and calm, smooth as spilled motor oil or drawn butter. A great liquid plain extends out across the grass flats, beyond the low finger of Alligator Point, into deeper water where shrimpboats spread their netted wings. Even the distant freighters leave no wake, as if the gulf's salt water has become something heavier and thicker.
A few hundred yards off the point—and due south of Bobby Porter's pickup truck—a trio of shark-fishermen in a Boston Whaler ladle chum and drain beers in the lazy swing of a Coleman lamp. Their low voices are audible for hundreds of yards.
Suddenly, out of the darkness, two flying fish sail like surrealistic owls. They cross the boat a yard above its deck and vanish. A second later the boat rises and falls as a swell passes beneath it.
The fishermen remain frozen in position for several minutes.
Already a quarter mile away, the flying fish continue leapfrogging west, parallel to the coast. Each time they emerge from the surface a faint phosphorescence trails from their silver sides, falls back in glowing droplets, and rides over the top of a solitary wave following them as a shark tails a pilot fish.
The swell and its hang-gliding heralds keep pace with Bobby Porter's light-chasing pickup truck on the coast highway. The truck churns along with the occasional rattlesnake sound of connecting rods at their wear limits. Bobby is bouncing in the cab, atonally singing along with the B-52s now, and wishing for the seventh time that night that the damned tape player wasn't broke, that he had either more beer or more money, and that he had some love in his life instead of sporadic, drunken sex as ultimately fulfilling as a televised church service. His pale blue eyes are deep-set beneath a broad forehead. His mouth is an errant pencil-mark.
Earlier tonight, as they lay sweating in the hammock behind her duplex in Crawfordville, Bobby told Rita Hanley that after three beers she looked a hell of a lot like Michelle Pfeiffer.
Rita had rolled her head back and forth slowly, cracking her neck with the sound of .22 long-rifles. In the distance a dog barked in reply.
Bobby's calves had still been in the process of un-knotting when he spoke. He felt like something had let the air out of his abdomen. Their exertions had produced in the bedroom an atmospheric low rivaling that of Hurricane Gilbert in 1989, but it was not enough for Bobby. Not this. Surely not this.
Rita's voice was bourbon and boiled peanuts. "Well, hell, Bobby darling," she said, then took a long pull on her beer, "you look just like Nick Nolte." She kissed him. "But it takes a whole six-pack."
On the coast road now, Bobby airplanes his left hand in the sticky air streaming past the open windows of the truck. "My life is a damn' porno flick!" he says. Insects splatter against the windshield in a steady, visceral rain.
Offshore the flying fish continue their leapfrog flight, leading, auguring—who knows? Dolphins follow but soon lose interest and depart. The swell lifts drowsy pelicans and sets them down like someone vacuuming under an occupied chair. It crests into a wide, whispering breaker as it crosses a sandbar. It is a solitary feature on a smooth sheet of water, one small arc of a ripple moving away from some distant event, never growing or diminishing, slowing or accelerating. It is twenty feet across and three feet high. You could surf it, dude.
And it is the answer to Bobby's prayer, although he doesn't know it yet.
A few miles west of St. Theresa, Bobby brakes the truck and swings off the road, plowing through the forked tongues of bahia grass in the front yard of his house on stilts. The grass abruptly gives way into oyster shells that clink and scrape as the truck squeaks to a halt. The engine diesels into silence. The driver's door groans open. Bobby steps out and with one unconscious movement reaches into the bed, grabs a fragment of cinderblock, and tosses it under the left front wheel just as the truck begins to sneak forward.
He pauses to tinkle in the grass and the noseeums press close, sensing victory, but Bobby waves them away and lunges for the stairs leading up to the yellow bug light at his front door. Reaching the top, he fumbles for the key. A mosquito whines in his ear and Bobby slaps himself. The ringing in his head dissolves into the sound of a telephone as he steps inside.
He stops in the entryway. That would be Rita.
She will be calling for the same reason he might, another time: because it is bad form not to after you have conducted an exhaustive investigation of someone's epidermis. Even if you don't really give a damn.
The phone rings again. "Hello, Bobby darling," she will say, all pralines and turnip greens. They have gotten beyond the need to mouth platitudinous erotic compliments. They both know it is only a buffalo-wings kind of sex: intense and simple, accomplished with a lot of gasping and licking of fingers, but lacking important food groups. She will be trying to line up another "date" before the fuzz wears off, saying something like, "Don't forget tomorrow's two-for-one night at Posey's, Bobby darling." Their foreplay comes in brown, long-necked bottles, and they have each developed a keen ability for detecting the first flat yellow-eyed glimmer of lust in the other, and have learned how to slam a few down quick to catch up.
In the dry darkness Bobby listens to the telephone ring and his house begins to spin like a ship in a whirlpool. She never comes to his place. She hates the water. "I seen Jaws, Bobby darling," she always says. She prefers camping. "Least out in the woods, nothing can eat you up in one gulp."
He has told her that over her lifetime the chiggers and deer flies will probably consume her three times over—in little, insignificant bites—but she doesn't listen. She won't even eat fish sticks.
He lets it ring. She'll just think he hasn't made it home yet, and will try again later. In a little while he'll take it off the hook and leave it there. Tomorrow. He'll call tomorrow. "I'm sorry, Rita baby. Momma called just when I got home and I guess I must've hung it up wrong. I was mighty trashed last night, as you well know."
And she'll hesitate before laughing—hesitate just long enough for him to know she's done the same thing to him a hundred times.
But that'll be tomorrow, and right now what Bobby needs is water. The house stops spinning and he stumbles into the kitchen to the bulbous GE fridge with the long chromium handle on the door. He pulls out a milk jug full of tap water and unscrews the top. Ripples dance across the water's surface as Bobby leans back and opens his mouth.
Just east of Dog Island the flying fish slow, signal, and make a left-hand turn toward the south. Ten minutes later they are inhaled by a door-sized manta ray. The swell, meanwhile, curves north.
Moving more slowly now, picking its way past the flocks of fiddler-crabs playing air- Beethoven on exposed sandbars, it heads across the shallow sound toward the light at the end of Bobby's weatherbeaten dock. Heat lightning flickers from off toward Carrabelle.
Bobby steps from the shower now. His head has begun to clear. He pulls shorts from an open drawer and yanks a tee shirt from the closet. Coat hangers jangle like miniature church-bells.
He goes into the kitchen and takes a can of Deep-Woods Off from under the sink. The dead-lemon spray gets in his mouth and Bobby spits, twice. His skin glistens under the harsh white light. He feels like an insecticide suppository.
Downstairs, in the stilt cathedral under the house, Bobby moves barefoot across the oyster shells like a man walking on razor blades. Yellow bulbs dangle between the exposed floor-joists overhead, illuminating a faded Thunderbird tri-hull perching on a rusty trailer with flat tires. The boat is filled with crab traps, trolling rods, splintered water skis, and mildewed life vests. An outboard motor's cowlless, naked head peers over the transom. Bobby believes it had a non-speaking role in Aliens. He thinks outboard motors might go through a larval stage.
Bobby looks at the motor. He takes long, silver wrenches from a tool box and holds them like drumsticks, thinking of things he should not think of. Not now. In his mind's eye he sees the boat skipping across the chop toward St. Vincent's Island on a warm summer day. He sees a shoreline covered with trees. His ex-wife smiles at him from the passenger seat, her eyes hidden by Jackie-Onassis sunglasses. Mary Alice, seven years old, bounces on the bow cushions, her little behind skinny as a frog's.
He doesn't know why this was not enough for him, either.
Bobby jumps when a part of the motor moves. A palmetto bug falls to the ground and scuttles away. Bobby imagines the whole engine falling apart piece by grimy piece, turning into palmetto bugs that drop off and head for the underbrush. He sees the faded boat dissolve into moths that flutter around the yellow bulbs and evaporate into chalky dust. He runs a hand across his face and returns the wrenches to the tool box.
A sound makes him whirl. A ghost crab is sidling across the oyster-shells, watching him with stalked eyes. Bobby has seen them two hundred yards inland, taking core samples and planting flags.
The outboard palmetto bug bumbles across the shells, then stops short, sensing the crab. The crab freezes. Bobby smiles, wondering if they will doff hats in recognition, one scavenger to another. Or do they stand horrorstruck, each contemplating the conditions that have made the other possible? Bobby's smile breaks into a grin. He has been the ghost crab or the palmetto bug more times in the past five years than a Whataburger changes managers. "OK," he whispers, "what's your next move? A comment on the weather? A half-hearted come-on?"
Bobby's voice breaks the spell and in a single lightning movement the crab snatches up the palmetto bug and begins to eat it. Noisily. The dry sound is clearly audible from where Bobby stands. He looks for something to throw at the retreating, finger-licking crab, then hesitates, not certain which of the two is himself. Bobby knows ascribing significance to the behavior of animals is the fast track to a nuclear migraine. He heads toward the dock.
Offshore the swell slows to a sine-wave crawl as it approaches the shallows. Its passage rolls sand from the bottom, disturbing scallops that flick away like possessed castanets. On a moonlit night it would now be visible from where Bobby is weaving past the loose planks and protruding nail heads of his dock. Reaching the end, he sits on the rough boards and gazes down at the sea life gathered in the shallow water below the dock-light.
Foot-long squid drift in the clear shallows, drumming their tentacles in boredom, above hermit crabs that wander like hooded pilgrims across a submerged desert. A stingray ripples by. Sea robins finger-walk across the sandy bottom. All of this brings about a profound calm in Bobby, as the sea always does for him—except when its inhabitants are stinging him or trying to eat all or part of him. Maybe Rita is right, he thinks. Mommy Ocean has a definite Joan Crawford streak.
A few yards away in the darkness the swell of water comes to an abrupt halt and subsides as a school of baitfish bursts from the surface with the sound of shuffled playing cards. Bobby hears the sound. He has heard limpkins wail from the cypress swamp across the road under a full moon. He has heard pistol shrimp crackle in their unseen thousands with the roar of an aggravated sinus infection. He has heard the human gasp of dolphins inhaling in the night.
His attention remains on the drifting squid.
Out beyond the circle of light, where the lone swell of water has settled into flatness, the surface bulges upward, as if it were a solid skin and someone was trying to poke his or her head up from beneath.
Bobby climbs to his feet and heads back to the house. The bulge moves closer but stays outside the light. Not yet. Not yet.
Later Bobby sighs as he pulls the bedsheet up to his chin. He kicks his legs out from under the covering, the better to feel the wash of air from the ceiling fan. The air conditioner rattles and hums in the window. Outside, under the mercury-vapor streetlamp at the edge of Bobby's lot, moths slam-dance to the call and response of a katydid tent revival under the pines.
The gulf's thin edge respires through the spartina grass at the shoreline like hair through a comb. In and out, back and forth, brushing past the stems a thousand thousand times a day, feeding the infant barnacles and the multilegged isopods and the tiny, big-eyed larvae that will become great pelagic tuna one day.
In and out, up and back the water moves. In and out, up and back and up, and then it doesn't move back. It brims onto a low spot on the lawn and puddles there. Its surface shimmers in the glow of the streetlight as it bulges upward and thickens, like a film of a melting candle played backward. Arms separate themselves from its sides and their tips branch into fingers. The upper end resolves itself into a neck that swivels and a head that peers about. The last drops of water flow up into a pair of now-distinct legs that begin walking toward the house, saluted as they pass by a ghost crab with palmetto-bug stains on its lips.
Bobby snores loudly in the bedroom. He dreams he is in an R-rated version of The Little Mermaid, and that King Triton is after his heinie for stealing Ariel's scallops. Then, suddenly, he is Ariel's long-lost mother, who is really Ursula, the Sea Witch, and. . . .
He awakens with a start. The air conditioner is off. Something is in the room with him.
"Sorry," says a voice from the darkness. An odd voice. He sees an arm gesture toward the AC unit. "It—it dries my skin."
Bobby is now fully awake.
The quality of the voice is vaguely familiar. It is a woman's voice, but sibilant, gurgly—almost emphysemic. It seems to come from every direction at once.
Bobby wonders where he has put his gun. "Who the hell are you?" he says.
The shadow—she—it (Bobby realizes he is going to have to decide on a pronoun, and soon) the shadow stirs. "Don't you know? You called, didn't you?" The voice sounds almost impatient. "Don't I have the right address?"
Bobby squints into the darkness. She, he decides. If the ocean could speak, it would have that voice. "The right address?" he asks. The right address? The right address? Perhaps his gun is in the dishwasher. It may have been there last week.
The shadow among shadows moves closer to the window, where the freon is hissing to sleep inside the AC unit. "How can you stand this?" A hand reaches out to touch the woodgrained plastic. The damned thing cost me five hundred bucks, that's how, Bobby is about to say, but the words die in his throat.
At first Bobby thinks she is wearing a tackily inordinate amount of jewelry—rings, bracelets, the like. It is the only way he can explain the flashes of reflected light that come from everywhere along her forearm and hand, twinkling in the pale white glow from the streetlamp.
Bobby leaps out of the bed and heads for the door, hoping that his keys are still on the kitchen table, abandoning all confidence in gunplay. He looks back—and stops, his mouth falling open like a grouper's, as the shadowy figure steps full into the pool of light and the room explodes with winking, prismatic bands of color, as if an enormous crystal has suddenly and soundlessly shattered.
In an instant of perfect lucidity, Bobby Porter realizes that he is standing in his bedroom with an aspect of that which calls ships onto rocks and spawns hurricanes. He knows what every sea-lover since Jonah has known, and we're not talking about why mullet won't take bait. He knows what really led the Atocha treasure fleet astray. What sank a U-boat with all hands off Fort Myers in April, 1943. What put six of Jacques Cousteau's best divers into long-term Jungian therapy after a location shot near Palm Beach Inlet.
And it is in his house with him. The mother of undertow. Breaker of rudders. Nor any drop to drink.
Bobby reflects on this at some length. He takes his hand from the doorknob and uses it to smooth back his hair. He steps further into the room, smiles, tucks the hem of his t-shirt into his underpants, and clears his throat.
A little while later it is raining, and Bobby dashes downstairs to roll up the windows in his truck. Back inside he sees a trail of wet footprints leading from his bedroom to the kitchen, from which shattered rainbows emerge. He begins to wonder how much those clear plastic furniture slipcovers cost. And what will this do to his hardwood floor? Already his eyes sting from trying not to watch the jeweled damselfish moving back and forth behind what may or may not be a belly-button. Will she need aeration? A power-filter? Should he keep her away from icemakers and sink drains?
And will this, finally, be enough?