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Laurence Shames

Scavenger reef

Part One

1

'Funerals work best in the rain,' said Robert Natchez.

'It isn't a funeral,' said Ray Yates. 'It's a memorial service.' Yates licked another swath of salt from the rim of his glass and sucked on his tequila. He was slightly drunk, and increasingly fascinated by the wet circles his iced glass left on the varnished table at Raul's. Natchez ignored him.

'The gray sky, the black umbrellas-humble separate shelters against the damp-'

'You're a pompous pain in the ass,' said Yates.

'Separate shelters,' Natchez murmured. 'I like that.'

'It stinks,' Yates told him. He wiped his moist hand on the front of his shirt. The shirt had a pattern of washed-out palm fronds and small flamingoes with the pink faded from their plumage.

'Then too,' Natchez went on, 'there's the way the rain softens the ground, the way the earth yields, squishes underfoot. Gentle or horrifying? Embracing the dead body, or pulling it down like-'

'There is no body.' Yates slurped the last of his drink and gestured for another round. 'And it isn't gonna rain. And people don't get buried here. They get filed, like in drawers. And you're a morbid sonofabitch.'

They waited for their cocktails. It was mid-April in Key West, the night air was thick and smelled of old seaweed and dry shells. On the open roof of the old cafe, the trellised bougainvillea had darkened to a lewd and tired brownish pink, the petals were thin and brittle as crepe paper. Robert Natchez was tall, lean, and totally dressed in black. It was not a token of mourning, it was just the way he dressed.

'I'm sad,' he suddenly announced. He sounded confused by an emotion that could be simply told.

'Augie shouldn't have died,' said Ray Yates. 'He was better than any of us, less full of shit, and he shouldn't have died.'

The drinks arrived, the waiter wiped away the last round's rings of dampness. Overhead, a landing plane clattered past, bringing more of Augie Silver's many friends to say goodbye.

*

'He should never have stopped painting,' said Claire Steiger, towel-drying her curly hair. 'I pleaded with him not to stop.'

Her husband nestled deeper into the hotel bathrobe and sipped champagne. 'Because some mysterious intuition told you something terrible would happen three years after?' He fingered the fruit plate provided with the suite at the Flagler House, and briefly wondered why hotel mangoes were never ripe, hotel strawberries never red. 'Or because his work was keeping the gallery afloat?'

Claire Steiger had soft brown eyes that kept their tender look no matter what she said. 'The gallery's doing just fine, Kip. You're the one who's bankrupt, remember?'

It had been a lousy trip down from New York. A chilly yellow mist kept them on the La Guardia runway for forty minutes, which made them miss their connection in Miami, and they'd sat in the cramped and porous commuter terminal for two hours, eating jet exhaust and nursing grievances. Claire had spent a long time in the bath, and her skin still felt like an airport.

'Of course,' said Kip Cunningham, 'the canvases are worth a great deal more now that-'

'Kip, shut up. Don't be hateful.'

'Hateful?' he echoed. It was a word that seemed to crop up often in the months since his overextended real estate company had collapsed under the weight of its debts, its velvety stationery, and its pretensions to empire. Lawyers were hateful. Judges were hateful. It was hateful that he could no longer pay his University Club dues out of company funds, hateful that creditors held liens against his horses. 'Since when is it hateful to be candid?' he said. 'You're in a business like any other, laddo. Supply and demand. Artist dies, no more supply. Ever. Prices-'

'You're gonna lecture me about capitalism, Kip? Lecture me about Chapter Eleven.'

He poured more champagne and went to the window. Below, the coconut palms were dead still and threw heavy moon-shadows across the sand. The calm water of the Florida Straits gleamed with just a hint of goldish green. 'Of course,' the husband went on, his back to his wife, 'how can you be rational about art if you're in love with the artist?'

'Everyone was in love with Augie. That was Augie.'

Kip turned. He was a blandly handsome man, smooth-skinned and even-featured, and he now pulled back his thin lips to show a set of perfect teeth. 'Strange, though, that he could have had the gallery owner-all it would have taken was a wink, the raise of an eyebrow-and he ran off instead with the assistant… Of course, she was younger. Slimmer. Better bred, some might say.'

Claire Steiger kept right on toweling her hair. 'Darling,' she said, 'you're pathetic enough to be jealous of a dead man. Am I supposed to be jealous of a live widow?'

'Lemme tell ya somethin' about Augie Silver,' said Jimmy Gibbs.

He was sitting at the Clove Hitch bar, dockside at City Marina, and tucked between his spread-out elbows was a shot of Jack Daniel's and a bottle of Bud. He was speaking in the general direction of Hogfish Mike Curran, the proprietor, but he wanted to talk and he didn't much care who if anyone was listening.

'Augie Silver was the best damn sailor I ever saw. Always calm. A natural. The wind talked to him. The seas like made a road to let him through. Currents, he always managed it so they helped him. That boat a his — thirty- seven feet, single-handed he sailed it nimble as a dinghy… What happened t'Augie, it coulda happened t'anyone. It was a freak. Fuckin' world is all fucked up. Fuckin' weather, ya can't count on it no more. Waterspout in January. Who ever heard of a fuckin' waterspout in January?'

'Happens,' said Hogfish Mike. 'Not often, but it happens.'

Gibbs snorted disapproval, then nipped into his shot and his beer. He wore his salt-and-pepper hair pulled tightly back in a little ponytail, and after several boilermakers his scalp felt pinched. He reached up and loosened the elastic band. A pelican jumped clumsily from a nearby piling and splashed into the shallow water of Garrison Bight.

'Vicious, those waterspouts,' Hogfish Mike went on. He crossed his ropy forearms and almost smiled. The ready violence of the natural world was for him a kind of confirmation. 'Funnel comes down. Black as sin, you can almost see it spinning. Holy shit-do ya zig or zag? If it catches ya, you're fucked. Spout digs a hole innee ocean, makes a whirlpool that churns like a goddamn Maytag. Sucks fish right outta the water, twirls boats around till they rip apart or crash up onna reef. Breaks off masts like fuckin' breadsticks. I hate to think what would happen to a man in one of those. He'd get yanked to pieces, busted up like the dummy without the seat belt on.'

Hogfish paused and finally noticed that his description was causing pain. He leaned across the bar toward Jimmy Gibbs and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. 'Jimmy, hey, it's not like the guy was your bubba. He was a Yankee. Nice house. Big boat. O.K., he paid you fair to do the grunt work. Maybe he bought you a drink now and then. But come on-'

'Augie wasn't like the others,' said Jimmy Gibbs, and there was something in his tone that made Hogfish Mike back off. 'He treated a person like a person. Lemme get another round.'

'Got cash, Jimmy? No tabs here, you know the rules.'

Gibbs looked sadly down at his shot glass with nothing at the bottom but an amber stain. Then he considered his beer and sloshed around the last lukewarm pull. A seagull screamed nearby. 'Come on, Hogfish, we known each other a lotta years.'

'That's the problem, Jimmy,' said Hogfish Mike. 'That's the problem.'

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