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When I came back downstairs, Mom was still there, in the living room. She walked around the mantle, giving the photos there a soft smile. Me and her at a beach picnic back when I was about eight or so; Dad and me on the boardwalk during a Fourth of July festival of some sort. That kinda stuff. Just my pictures, ones that I took with me when I moved out of their house, and I could see her remember each event, each frozen moment, captive for eternity in that split second, as it replayed in real time in her mind’s eye.
She turned when she heard the stairs creak, and gave me a wistful smile full of nostalgia and the echoes of ghosts past.
“I thought it might be nice to go to lunch,” she said, and folded her hands in front of her. “It’s been a while since we went.”
“You took me to lunch three times last week, Mom,” I said, and grinned. I know she wants to be sure I’m okay. I’m not, but I don’t want her to worry any more.
“Pff, that’s a while,” she said. I came and stood next to her, and she turned one last time to the pictures. “Life’s so fleeting, so precious. It gets away from us if we’re not careful. We look up and the ones we love are … gone.”
I nodded, and saline stung my eyes again. I blinked it back, though. I don’t want today to be ruined anymore with grief. I can’t stop the empty, aching pang in my heart, and I’m not sure I want to, but I can’t wallow in it either. I have to move on. Sharkey would want me to — no, he’d tell me to, bark at me in that gravelly, harsh voice, raw as the rocks along a ragged coast.
“I guess you’ll want to go to Oliver’s … again,” she teased, and nudged me with her elbow. “I wonder if anyone special’s working there today.”
I blushed. “Mom. Don’t embarrass me.”
“I wouldn’t dream.”
“Yes you would.”
“Not at all. Why would I?”
“Please, not the ‘grandchildren before I die’ thing again.”
She put up her hands in a gesture of honor. “I promise. Just lunch, no lectures, no hidden agenda.”
I gave a sidelong, suspicious mock glare. “Yeah? Promise?”
She reiterated the hand motion. “You have my word.”
“You were never in scouts, Mom.”
She giggled. “But I know how to keep my word.”
I blinked a slow nod. “I guess I should eat. I can’t remember when I did last.”
She pursed her lips. “Shall we?”
I nodded, and turned to the door, holding it open for her. She went past me and stood on the porch of my tiny house, and breathed deep of the salty air. The overcast condensed to pregnant storm clouds, and the air had a wet feel of impending rain. It smelled good. The way she stood there, eyes closed and that pleased grin on her face, her long auburn hair wafting on the zephyr, reminded me of days like this on the boat. Sharkey would stand in the pulpit, out over the water, with the wind in his face, and he’d get that same grin and breathe the air the same way.
“Can’tcha just feel it, Johnny-boy? The life of the sea. It gets in your blood, m’boy, in your very blood. It’s why sailors give up hearth and home and make a life traversin’ the oceans. Better t’be unloved and alone than have to live away from that feelin’. Can ya feel it?”
And I’d laugh a little at him, shake my head, and tell him the only thing I felt was the mist soaking me through. And he’d shake his big, meaty head and cough out a hacking laugh at me. “You’re a heathen, boy, a heathen. You’re not worth the salt on your dungarees!”
My mother hugged herself and turned to me. The day is cooling off even more, and it won’t be long before the seasons change again. Sharkey will miss it for the first time in my life, and there is a strange emptiness with that knowledge I can’t explain. It is … I don’t know, it’s wrong somehow. Like it shouldn’t happen as it always does. Something should mark the passage as different this time, announce to the universe somehow that it’s different now, emptier now, duller and less vibrant, less alive.
“I need my jacket. I’ll just be a minute.”
Oliver’s isn’t far from my house, which isn’t far from the boardwalk, which isn’t far from port. Nothing’s too far from anything in our little burg, so most times I just walk. That way, if I end up tying one on, it’s not a problem to get home safe and alive.
Mom came back a minute later with a lightweight, elegant little jacket. The pastels of her dress were accented by its light gray as she slipped it on, and ran a hand under her hair to free it from the collar.
She looped her arm through my elbow and I stuffed my hands in my pockets. For me, the basic sweater is enough until the full-on of winter, but for some weird reason I can’t explain, today the warmth of my mother’s embrace penetrated through a chill. I found myself staring at my shoes as we walked.
“You okay, sweetie?” My mom’s lilting, musical voice made everything sound like she was singing the sweetest song. I looked up and gave her a wan smile.
“Yeah. I just … can’t stop thinking, I guess.”
She nodded, and sighed. “It’s going to take time, baby. Everything will be okay eventually, and until it is, you need to let it be all right for you to grieve.”
Something touched me in her words, let me know she knew grief. I don’t know what it is, even now, but her words carried a message of understanding. I know she meant it.
“It doesn’t feel that way.” The words tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop them, and surprised me.
We walked on for a little while in silence, listening to the pounding surf at the cove, the gulls calling from the cloudy sky, the breeze whistling in our ear lobes. The overcast hunkered down over us, settling in for a spell, and coalesced into a haze that obscured the coast and the sea, making ghosts and wraiths of the gabled buildings and lamp posts until we got close enough to make them out in the heavy air. Not a car passed us, though it was the middle of the day, and the sidewalk storefront shops were quiet.
We got to Oliver’s and went up the ancient plank stairs to the groaning porch. I opened the door for my mom with my mind still working on the things I need to do today. I can’t think of any of them, but I know I should stop by the boat and see that things are all right there. Maybe I’ll swing by after lunch.
Mom went in and the usual clamor of Oliver’s greeted us. It’s a one-room kind of place, the single hall ringed with booths, the center of it dotted with tables. The ancient wood of the building, both inside and out, is aged to a nautical grayish tone. The chill of the wet air evaporates quick in the warmth of the fire roaring in the huge fireplace opposite the door. There are a fair number of patrons, nothing extraordinary. The long bar running the length of the starboard wall, set before a gargantuan mirror older than the United States, clinked and tinkled with glassware and decanters as the barkeep, Joan, mixed drinks. She gave me a sad little smile, and I saw Alyssa in the far portside corner, sitting in the booth with a couple a little younger than my mother, nodding and writing their food order on her ratty little white pad.
The only thing different about it was, Sharkey’s pirate laugh didn’t crash against the woodwork and rattle the roofbeams.
Bev is a stout, New England woman with wiry hair and jowls that have weathered a lot of winters, storms and sailors. She’s hardy, with harsh, masculine hands and eyes the color of a tempest. She banged through the swinging door to the kitchen, in the wall just at the near end of the bar, arms loaded with a tray full of steaming, hot, aromatic food. My mouth watered and my stomach rumbled. I don’t know what my last meal was, let alone when, and Bev’s good cooking brought me aware of that fact in a heartbeat.
She rounded the tables in the middle of the room with deft, light steps and swished her body around the heads of patrons. She doled out the plates to a hungry set of guys in khakis and oxford shirts and wingtips, and they lauded her for a minute. She stood over the table with a hand on the back of two adjacent chairs, rocking one foot on the toe of her orthopedic shoe and laughed, tipping her head back so a few wisps of hair freed from the confines of the bobby pins and elastic band holding it in a bunched little knot at the back of her head. She delivered a mighty clap to the back of the man sitting on her right and he lurched forward under the blow, hacking and spewing his iced tea down his shirt front. His buddies thought that was funny as hell and Bev left them cackling over it to weave her way through the furniture to us, the round tray tucked under one arm.
“Oh, Nessa, baby,” she said, and her face reddened and her eyes slicked with tears, “oh, Lordy, Lordy — how are you baby girl?” Bev set the tray down and threw her arms around my mother’s neck and the two of them embraced hard for a long, tender moment.
When they separated, Mom looked deep into Bev’s eyes and held both her rough, calloused hands. “I’m okay, Bev. How are you, hon?”
Bev swiped at her wet cheeks with savage, rough motions. “I’m okay, dammit, all things considered. But … oh, Nessa, love, what’re we gonna do now? Huh? What?”
Mom gave her another long, loving look. “We’re going to do the only thing we can do, Bev … we’re going to do the best we can.” Mom smiled then, but her eyes shined with moisture, too.
Bev returned the smile and looked my way for the first time. “Oh, Johnny … Good God, boy, lookitcha!” She cupped my face in her leathery hands and kissed my forehead, then stared into my eyes. “Oh, that man loved ya, Johnny, sure as he’d love a son. And I’m bettin’ you’re in charge now, huh? Dontcha think?”
I blushed. I didn’t want to think about this right now. I just wanted to eat.
“We’ll see, Bev. We have to wait for the will to be read.” I hoped she’d get the hint.
She didn’t. “Aw, who else could take over? He’d wantcha doin’ it, Johnny, why woudn’t he?”
“Can we have a booth, Bev? You’re not too full, are you?” My mother rescued me with a gentle query and I gave her a look that spilled and gushed my gratitude when Bev looked her way.
“Oh! You come on with me, now. I’ve got just the one for ya!” Bev kissed me again on the cheek and released me to lead Mom by the hand across the floor, winding through the tables to a semi-private booth near the fireplace.
“This was Sharkey’s favorite spot … you remember, don’tcha, Johnny?”
I can’t escape the ghost of the man. Not today. I nodded, and felt the hot sting of my nose and cheeks. I can’t cry, though. Not now, not here, in front of the wussies in khakis and oxfords and wingtips who spew their drinks when an old lady swats them on the back. I bit it back and the lump in my throat hurt.
“Yeah. Well, Alyssa’ll be along in a jiff. I gotta get crackin’ — you know, keep crankin’ ’em out.” She gave us a smile before embracing my mother again. “Love you, Nessa. Let us know, willya, sweetie?”
“Of course, Bev, don’t worry.” Of course she meant about the funeral. Dates and times, things like that. I made a mental note to gather the information from my dad. I don’t know why though.
I settled into the booth, sliding in until I was almost laying down on the cushy, padded bench. Mom watched me as I ran a tired hand through my hair. I don’t know what’s next. I understand Bev’s grief and the confusion, the disarray, in its wake. I don’t have a clue about my mother’s calm, sure demeanor through it.
She smiled at me. “Just lunch.”
“That’s what’s next. I can see it on your face — you don’t know what’s next. Lunch is next. After that, we’ll see. But for now, just lunch.”
I felt the eyes on me — all the people know me, they’ve seen me in here plenty of times with Sharkey. They all seemed to expect something. I tried not to look around, to see them staring, to see them asking with unspoken words what would happen now. I’m not even sure why any of them care. Most of them didn’t even like Sharkey, were afraid of him, gave him a wide berth. I’m probably just imagining it, but it sure feels like I’m in the spotlight and everyone’s waiting for the next thing to come out of my mouth. What it’s supposed to be, I haven’t a clue.
Alyssa broke my contemplation when she slid into the booth next to Mom and sighed heavy.
“It’s a dark day.” Her eyes were rich brown, and glistened like a lush meadow in a late spring shower. I nodded.
“How’re you holding up, Johnny?” Her face softened, and she reminded me a little of my mom. I sat up some and noticed they were holding hands. Alyssa’s a dark haired beauty, with porcelain skin and silken hair, eyes the color of Belgian chocolate and a graceful, feline body, lean and long. She’s stolen so many hearts from the sailors who came her way, and never wanted any of them for her own. Her features were classical, her face longish and fine chiseled. Her sleek, elegant hands held a silver pen one of her suitors brought her, and she tapped it on the tiny, battered pad.
“I’m doing … aw, hell, I keep trying to figure that out, too, Lyssa. I don’t know.”
“It’s a damned hard thing.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it is.”
She sighed again and looked over at my mom. “How ’bout you, hon? He ’bout raised us. I don’t know what I’m gonna do without Sharkey in here makin’ things interesting for us.”
Mom nodded and gave a heavy sigh of her own. “I know. It’s weird. It feels so … so …”
Alyssa nodded. “Yeah. So off, somehow.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s it — everything’s surreal.” I stared into the middle distance before Alyssa put her hand over the one I had resting on the table.
“Hey,” she said, and I looked up. “He loved you, Johnny. Like a son. Don’t ever forget how he loved you.”
“And we all know how much you loved him. That’s why we’re all so worried ’bout you. This is not something small. It’s a big deal. It’s okay to feel it. You know, to hurt about it.”
“I do,” I muttered, and that painful lump resurfaced in my neck. I jerked my head toward the wall. “God, do I ever,” I croaked.
Alyssa sighed again. “You want the usual?” I nodded, and she scribbled it down. I only had to place an order at Oliver’s when I wanted something besides Bev’s amazing fried blue crab sandwich. Right now, I just wanted the familiar, the normal, the stable things.
“How ’bout you, Nessa? Salad?”
Mom drew a heavy sigh. “No … no, not today. Today I’ll have a bowl of Bev’s chowder and a couple of slices of that amazing crusty bread.”
Alyssa smiled. “Drinks?”
“I’ll have a Coke,” Mom said. Alyssa turned to me.
“Rye,” I said. Alyssa burst out laughing. My mom scowled. “Okay, a beer.”
Alyssa giggled and in a moment, she scooted her backside across the seat and out toward the kitchen. She and Sharkey would go around and around on what he ordered for his drink with lunch. He always asked for Rye whiskey, and Alyssa would always nag him about it being too early for whiskey, he should have a beer. Or a soda pop. Or iced tea. Or any damned thing except hard liquor so early in the day. And Sharkey would roar at her, and they’d argue, and he’d laugh some more, demand his whiskey again, and Alyssa walked away telling him he was getting a beer, and he damned well better pay for it. And Sharkey would howl with laughter, laughter that turned his face red and hid his eyes in his webbed face.
And he always had a beer at lunch.
Sharkey. Sharkey, you’re everywhere, and I can’t get away from you long enough to get my head around the fact that you’re not really here anymore. You’re everywhere I look, in every pair of eyes, in every building, in every berth along the dock.
This time I couldn’t stop a tear from sliding down my face.