Sharkey, Chapter 4


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“Hi, Johnny.”

I felt more than heard the voice. Oh, I know it well. That voice haunts many a dream, many a lonely seaward night, many a land bound tossing and turning and sweating in my tangled, empty bunk at the house.

Oh yeah. That voice cuts through everything and gets down to my core, right into my soul. My head vanishes into a foggy haze the instant that melodic set of pipes tickles my eardrums. I feel my eyes glaze over. I feel my body start floating.

Holy crap, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, where I am, or how deep in thought I am. Once that voice chimes, my brain does an all-hands-on-deck … right before my mental faculties sink like a stone into a sea of delirious shyness and stupidity.

Maris.

I turned, dumbness seizing my tongue and turning it fat and sticky in my mouth, like I’d pushed a jarful of peanut butter into it all at once. I reddened – damn it, I blushed like a little frickin’ girl! – and felt all the tiny hairs on my body standing at attention, like they were reaching for her across the distance between us.

And I freaked, my heart crashing into my sternum as hard as a runaway steamer into a dock, when I saw how short that distance was. She stood right off my left shoulder, just a hair behind me, out of my line of sight. I didn’t see her coming.

Mom pretended the food on her plate was more fascinating than the seven wonders.

I tried to stand up quick, proper, but I smashed my thighs onto the table, which is bolted to the floor so drunk-ass sailors don’t topple it trying to get up or hurl it across the room at someone in an alcoholic rage, and I winced and cried out and my ass slammed back onto the bench with a mighty whooshing fart as the cushion expelled air under me. I blushed again, and she came around toward my mom, and put her hand on her shoulder. Mom looked up and gave her the warmest smile, and stood up to embrace and kiss her. Maris held on and they cooed at each other.

I writhed in unbridled agony, feeling the bruises rise on both legs under my jeans, cursing soft and careful under my breath so Maris wouldn’t hear me. In a second I recovered enough wits and coordination to slide out of the booth first before standing.

She folded her hands and let them fall into her lap, her pastel green skirt and frilly white blouse overlaid with a drab navy blue apron that slipped around her neck and tied at her tiny waist. And even with the industrial look of the protective sheath, I could see the curves of her body, the lean and lithe form beneath revealed by the clothing drapes and folds, just enough for my imagination to burn with fiery images of what must lie beneath. I realized my heart pounded in my chest, my ears and my throat – just like it always does when Maris comes around – and I swallowed hard, trying to down the huge knot forming in it. I blinked and tried to make eye contact, but her blue, crystal clear eyes hypnotized me. I hoped my jaw wasn’t working, useless and dumb, but I can’t tell you for sure whether it did or didn’t.

“Hi, Johnny,” she repeated, and offered me a tiny smile that wasn’t happy.

“H-hi, Maris,” I stammered, and had to force the air through my lungs. I tried to think of something else to say, but you know what? Nothing doing.

“How’re you doing?” Her lips, so pink and soft and beautiful, let the smile fall away like leaves in autumn, gentle and wafting.

I wondered what to say. Truth is, I’m not doing too good. But seeing her is both heaven and hell. Heaven, because she’s so … so … oh man. And hell for the same reason, and it hurls me into a stupor every time she stands within arm’s reach.

“I’m doing okay,” I managed after what must’ve been a pregnant, stupid pause. I wish I knew what happened to my brain whenever Maris comes into the room. I really do.

“You sure? I mean, this is … this is pretty tough. For all of us. And it must be especially hard for you.” The sympathy in her eyes, in her voice, ripped me in half. I swear I saw my heart tumble out of the chasm she tore through me.

“Well, I mean … I’m … you know, it’s just … but I can …”

She nodded, like somehow that made sense to her and she understood, could relate. That’s impossible, of course, I’m blathering like a drunken moron. But she waited until I stopped before she spoke again.

“He meant so much … to all of us. Were you with him?”

A cannon went off in my head, in my heart. A flood of memories, feelings and unnamed, unknown things spilled out of my mind and heart, pumped as if from a bilge into the open.

Oh, the first time I ever laid eyes on Maris!

I’ve known Maris since grade school. She’s Joan’s daughter, so she’s been in town and part of the scenery for as long as I have. As a kid, Maris was a willowy girl with big, blue eyes. She’s still got the big baby blues, but she’s so beautiful it makes the moonlit sea jealous. The only rival for looks she has in town is Alyssa, her aunt, and it’s a close one. Alyssa’s beauty is like, supermodel beauty, and Maris … well, she’s … I can’t even explain. She’s amazing. She’s amazing. She’s witty, fun, and her smile lights the room. She has Alyssa’s hair, but her mom’s fine features and is tempered by her dad’s handsome classic looks. I can’t breathe very well when she’s around, because she’s breathtaking.

I’m not suave or smooth with the ladies, and I never have been. I started to take real notice of Maris in about fifth grade. We had a few classes together in middle school. By the time high school came around I realized I’d been in love with the girl since before I liked girls. She always has a smile for me, even today, though it couldn’t find her eyes under the circumstances. She always stops and comes to speak to me, and I always flounder and flop around like a fish out of water when she does. She’s too much for me. Always was, too.

By the time prom time came, I gave up on the idea of being with anyone else. I knew Maris was gorgeous. I figured she’d been asked about a thousand times, even in our tiny school, to go. I figured she’d be on the arm of some jock or rich kid, arrive in a big limousine, wear a dress that made everyone drool over her incredible curves, and never even notice I wasn’t there.

I never asked her to go.

About a month before the dance, she smiled at me across the parking lot after school one day. I managed to grin and put my hand up in a stupid, gawky wave, and she tipped her head, bit her lip and made me almost wet my pants.

She started toward me.

I froze, but every instinct in me wanted to run, get away. I didn’t know what to do because I knew the first thing out of her mouth after “Hi, Johnny” was going to be “Who’re you taking to the prom?” And I’d have no frickin’ answer, because the fact is I didn’t ask anyone. And I didn’t want to go with anyone if I didn’t go with Maris. But like I said, she’s out of my league.

She stood right in front of me and locked those crystalline eyes on mine, and I melted right there. Every bone in my body went soft, gooey and I thought I was going to collapse.

“Hi, Johnny,” she said, and tipped her head in that sexy way she has, never taking her eyes from mine.

“H-hi, Maris,” I said, and feel like a damn dweeb right away. I know I blushed, too. But I couldn’t feel anything in her gaze.

“Do you have a date for the prom yet?”

I knew it. My heart sank. Then she looked away, and I thought her cheeks flushed, just the tiniest bit.

She seemed … almost shy when she said it.

“Uh … I-I … n-no. No, I don’t.”

“Really? I figured you’d have lots of offers by now.”

Something snapped in my brain. She thought … what?

“Well … are you … interested in going? To the dance, I mean?”

My heart was beating its way out of my chest by now. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, and I think I stammered, but nothing coherent came out. In a moment, she giggled, and looked up at me, and now I could see her cheeks were flushed, a rosy, pink color rising up from her swan-like, sexy neck, and I think my mouth was hanging open. So I nodded, and tried to say something but I had no air to speak with.

“Me too,” she said, and giggled. “Would you … would you go with … with me?”

My ears started ringing. I couldn’t draw a breath. I couldn’t move, and I think my legs started buckling. She giggled again, and hooked a lock of hair behind her ear with a finger, still clutching her books to her chest. I wheezed, and coughed, and nodded so fast I got dizzy and sank back against someone’s car, my palms sliding away from the fender on their slick coating of sweat. I windmilled my arms to keep from falling down, but my legs were too weak to support me and I ended up right on my ass, right in the middle of the school parking lot, and sat there, stunned.

She laughed, laughed so hard, and it tinkled like silver bells in one of those Christmas chorals you see on TV. And I swam in it, drowning like a rat in a sinking ship.

And I didn’t care that others were giggling and pointing. All I heard was Maris’ musical voice.

“Okay, it’s a date. Let’s talk about what we’ll wear over the weekend, okay? We’ll coordinate and it’ll make a nicer picture. Bye.” She gave me another smile and I think – man, I hope – I smiled back. I watched her walk away, drifting and skipping back to her friends, and they huddled and giggled and whispered conspiratorial things as they moved away like a herd.

I don’t know how long I sat there before Mike Tilford grabbed the back of my shirt and lifted me up.

“Man, John,” he said, his voice full of awe, “you’re goin’ to the prom with Maris. And sonuvabitch, she asked you!”

I looked at him and grinned a stupid grin. “I know. I … I can’t believe it.”

“I guess there is a God.”

I nodded. Oh yeah, for certain. There is a God, and that day, he gave me a miracle.

That was the first time I ever went out with Maris. It wasn’t the last time though. And you know Sharkey couldn’t leave well enough alone.

But now, she was just looking at me, and I remembered she’d asked me a question. I had to pull myself out of her eyes to answer, though.

“I … yeah, I was … there.” I looked away. She probably thinks it’s because I’m in grief – and I am – but the real reason is because I can’t concentrate when she looks at me like that. Or at all.

She reached out and took my hand, and my heart stopped. So did the rest of the world. The touch of her soft, gentle fingers on mine, the way they curled around and held, so firm and delicate and caring … my stupid eyes welled again, for the umpteenth time that day. I wanted so much to turn away, to hide from her gaze, but a tear slid out and down my cheek.

She reached up with another finger and caught it, and whisked it away.

“It’s okay, Johnny. We know you loved him. Everyone does. It’s okay to hurt, to be sad, to miss him.”

I tipped back my head, a choked sob ripping through my clenched throat. I looked at her, and it was a horrible mistake, a terrible, terrible mistake, because the floodgates broke then, and the tears came. They came fast and hard, and I collapsed into a sobbing heap right there, in front of Maris, and the geeks in khakis, and Joan and Alyssa and Bev. And they all watched me, but I couldn’t stop it from happening, and I sank down, small and childlike, into a crumpled heap, the mess that I am exposed and raw.

And she was right there, to catch me, enfold me in her arms, and whisper in my ear while she held me tight.

“Shh – it’s okay, Johnny, it’s okay – shh, I’m here, hon. I’m here for you.”

I don’t know how long I cried into her hair, letting her embrace me, in torment and ecstasy all at once. And she never stopped whispering the whole time, rubbing my back, telling me it would be okay, and to cry, to let it out, don’t hold it back anymore.

I didn’t.

“Hi, Johnny.”

I felt more than heard the voice. Oh, I know it well. That voice haunts many a dream, many a lonely seaward night, many a land bound tossing and turning and sweating in my tangled, empty bunk at the house.

Oh yeah. That voice cuts through everything and gets down to my core, right into my soul. My head vanishes into a foggy haze the instant that melodic set of pipes tickles my eardrums. I feel my eyes glaze over. I feel my body start floating.

Holy crap, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, where I am, or how deep in thought I am. Once that voice chimes, my brain does an all-hands-on-deck … right before my mental faculties sink like a stone into a sea of delirious shyness and stupidity.

Maris.

I turned, dumbness seizing my tongue and turning it fat and sticky in my mouth, like I’d pushed a jarful of peanut butter into it all at once. I reddened — damn it, I blushed like a little frickin’ girl! — and felt all the tiny hairs on my body standing at attention, like they were reaching for her across the distance between us.

And I freaked, my heart crashing into my sternum as hard as a runaway steamer into a dock, when I saw how short that distance was. She stood right off my left shoulder, just a hair behind me, out of my line of sight. I didn’t see her coming.

Mom pretended the food on her plate was more fascinating than the seven wonders.

I tried to stand up quick, proper, but I smashed my thighs onto the table, which is bolted to the floor so drunk-ass sailors don’t topple it trying to get up or hurl it across the room at someone in an alcoholic rage, and I winced and cried out and my ass slammed back onto the bench with a mighty whooshing fart as the cushion expelled air under me. I blushed again, and she came around toward my mom, and put her hand on her shoulder. Mom looked up and gave her the warmest smile, and stood up to embrace and kiss her. Maris held on and they cooed at each other.

I writhed in unbridled agony, feeling the bruises rise on both legs under my jeans, cursing soft and careful under my breath so Maris wouldn’t hear me. In a second I recovered enough wits and coordination to slide out of the booth first before standing.

She folded her hands and let them fall into her lap, her pastel green skirt and frilly white blouse overlaid with a drab navy blue apron that slipped around her neck and tied at her tiny waist. And even with the industrial look of the protective sheath, I could see the curves of her body, the lean and lithe form beneath revealed by the clothing drapes and folds, just enough for my imagination to burn with fiery images of what must lie beneath. I realized my heart pounded in my chest, my ears and my throat — just like it always does when Maris comes around — and I swallowed hard, trying to down the huge knot forming in it. I blinked and tried to make eye contact, but her blue, crystal clear eyes hypnotized me. I hoped my jaw wasn’t working, useless and dumb, but I can’t tell you for sure whether it did or didn’t.

“Hi, Johnny,” she repeated, and offered me a tiny smile that wasn’t happy.

“H-hi, Maris,” I stammered, and had to force the air through my lungs. I tried to think of something else to say, but you know what? Nothing doing.

“How’re you doing?” Her lips, so pink and soft and beautiful, let the smile fall away like leaves in autumn, gentle and wafting.

I wondered what to say. Truth is, I’m not doing too good. But seeing her is both heaven and hell. Heaven, because she’s so … so … oh man. And hell for the same reason, and it hurls me into a stupor every time she stands within arm’s reach.

“I’m doing okay,” I managed after what must’ve been a pregnant, stupid pause. I wish I knew what happened to my brain whenever Maris comes into the room. I really do.

“You sure? I mean, this is … this is pretty tough. For all of us. And it must be especially hard for you.” The sympathy in her eyes, in her voice, ripped me in half. I swear I saw my heart tumble out of the chasm she tore through me.

“Well, I mean … I’m … you know, it’s just … but I can …”

She nodded, like somehow that made sense to her and she understood, could relate. That’s impossible, of course, I’m blathering like a drunken moron. But she waited until I stopped before she spoke again.

“He meant so much … to all of us. Were you with him?”

A cannon went off in my head, in my heart. A flood of memories, feelings and unnamed, unknown things spilled out of my mind and heart, pumped as if from a bilge into the open.

Oh, the first time I ever laid eyes on Maris!

I’ve known Maris since grade school. She’s Joan’s daughter, so she’s been in town and part of the scenery for as long as I have. As a kid, Maris was a willowy girl with big, blue eyes. She’s still got the big baby blues, but she’s so beautiful it makes the moonlit sea jealous. The only rival for looks she has in town is Alyssa, her aunt, and it’s a close one. Alyssa’s beauty is like, supermodel beauty, and Maris … well, she’s … I can’t even explain. She’s amazing. She’s amazing. She’s witty, fun, and her smile lights the room. She has Alyssa’s hair, but her mom’s fine features and is tempered by her dad’s handsome classic looks. I can’t breathe very well when she’s around, because she’s breathtaking.

I’m not suave or smooth with the ladies, and I never have been. I started to take real notice of Maris in about fifth grade. We had a few classes together in middle school. By the time high school came around I realized I’d been in love with the girl since before I liked girls. She always has a smile for me, even today, though it couldn’t find her eyes under the circumstances. She always stops and comes to speak to me, and I always flounder and flop around like a fish out of water when she does. She’s too much for me. Always was, too.

By the time prom time came, I gave up on the idea of being with anyone else. I knew Maris was gorgeous. I figured she’d been asked about a thousand times, even in our tiny school, to go. I figured she’d be on the arm of some jock or rich kid, arrive in a big limousine, wear a dress that made everyone drool over her incredible curves, and never even notice I wasn’t there.

I never asked her to go.

About a month before the dance, she smiled at me across the parking lot after school one day. I managed to grin and put my hand up in a stupid, gawky wave, and she tipped her head, bit her lip and made me almost wet my pants.

She started toward me.

I froze, but every instinct in me wanted to run, get away. I didn’t know what to do because I knew the first thing out of her mouth after “Hi, Johnny” was going to be “Who’re you taking to the prom?” And I’d have no frickin’ answer, because the fact is I didn’t ask anyone. And I didn’t want to go with anyone if I didn’t go with Maris. But like I said, she’s out of my league.

She stood right in front of me and locked those crystalline eyes on mine, and I melted right there. Every bone in my body went soft, gooey and I thought I was going to collapse.

“Hi, Johnny,” she said, and tipped her head in that sexy way she has, never taking her eyes from mine.

“H-hi, Maris,” I said, and feel like a damn dweeb right away. I know I blushed, too. But I couldn’t feel anything in her gaze.

“Do you have a date for the prom yet?”

I knew it. My heart sank. Then she looked away, and I thought her cheeks flushed, just the tiniest bit.

She seemed … almost shy when she said it.

“Uh … I-I … n-no. No, I don’t.”

“Really? I figured you’d have lots of offers by now.”

Something snapped in my brain. She thought … what?

“Well … are you … interested in going? To the dance, I mean?”

My heart was beating its way out of my chest by now. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, and I think I stammered, but nothing coherent came out. In a moment, she giggled, and looked up at me, and now I could see her cheeks were flushed, a rosy, pink color rising up from her swan-like, sexy neck, and I think my mouth was hanging open. So I nodded, and tried to say something but I had no air to speak with.

“Me too,” she said, and giggled. “Would you … would you go with … with me?”

My ears started ringing. I couldn’t draw a breath. I couldn’t move, and I think my legs started buckling. She giggled again, and hooked a lock of hair behind her ear with a finger, still clutching her books to her chest. I wheezed, and coughed, and nodded so fast I got dizzy and sank back against someone’s car, my palms sliding away from the fender on their slick coating of sweat. I windmilled my arms to keep from falling down, but my legs were too weak to support me and I ended up right on my ass, right in the middle of the school parking lot, and sat there, stunned.

She laughed, laughed so hard, and it tinkled like silver bells in one of those Christmas chorals you see on TV. And I swam in it, drowning like a rat in a sinking ship.

And I didn’t care that others were giggling and pointing. All I heard was Maris’ musical voice.

“Okay, it’s a date. Let’s talk about what we’ll wear over the weekend, okay? We’ll coordinate and it’ll make a nicer picture. Bye.” She gave me another smile and I think — man, I hope — I smiled back. I watched her walk away, drifting and skipping back to her friends, and they huddled and giggled and whispered conspiratorial things as they moved away like a herd.

I don’t know how long I sat there before Mike Tilford grabbed the back of my shirt and lifted me up.

“Man, John,” he said, his voice full of awe, “you’re goin’ to the prom with Maris. And sonuvabitch, she asked you!

I looked at him and grinned a stupid grin. “I know. I … I can’t believe it.”

“I guess there is a God.”

I nodded. Oh yeah, for certain. There is a God, and that day, he gave me a miracle.

That was the first time I ever went out with Maris. It wasn’t the last time though. And you know Sharkey couldn’t leave well enough alone.

But now, she was just looking at me, and I remembered she’d asked me a question. I had to pull myself out of her eyes to answer, though.

“I … yeah, I was … there.” I looked away. She probably thinks it’s because I’m in grief – and I am – but the real reason is because I can’t concentrate when she looks at me like that. Or at all.

She reached out and took my hand, and my heart stopped. So did the rest of the world. The touch of her soft, gentle fingers on mine, the way they curled around and held, so firm and delicate and caring … my stupid eyes welled again, for the umpteenth time that day. I wanted so much to turn away, to hide from her gaze, but a tear slid out and down my cheek.

She reached up with another finger and caught it, and whisked it away.

“It’s okay, Johnny. We know you loved him. Everyone does. It’s okay to hurt, to be sad, to miss him.”

I tipped back my head, a choked sob ripping through my clenched throat. I looked at her, and it was a horrible mistake, a terrible, terrible mistake, because the floodgates broke then, and the tears came. They came fast and hard, and I collapsed into a sobbing heap right there, in front of Maris, and the geeks in khakis, and Joan and Alyssa and Bev. And they all watched me, but I couldn’t stop it from happening, and I sank down, small and childlike, into a crumpled heap, the mess that I am exposed and raw.

And she was right there, to catch me, enfold me in her arms, and whisper in my ear while she held me tight.

“Shh – it’s okay, Johnny, it’s okay – shh, I’m here, hon. I’m here for you.”

I don’t know how long I cried into her hair, letting her embrace me, in torment and ecstasy all at once. And she never stopped whispering the whole time, rubbing my back, telling me it would be okay, and to cry, to let it out, don’t hold it back anymore.

I didn’t.

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