Single, childless Augustus Cyril St. Clair would have filled both vacancies with the same presumed applicant, would have married David Biffenbaugh’s daughter the moment she touched his shoulder and trailed a finger like a hot wire through the hair on the nape of his neck. Then, on her way out of the kitchen, Orrie leaned down to whisper in his ear, inaudible to her parents, “Tell Ruby another day.”
Ruby? Gus didn’t know any Rubys, but he clasped her message to his heart like a lock of her hair. Should the opportunity arise, Ruby would be told. Another day it would be.
Orrie went to school. Mother Cheryl went to work, dropping Orrie off on her way to her job at the American Bank, Port Henry branch. Gus lingered at the breakfast table with David, who nodded towards a calendar hung by the window over the sink. “Well, look at that—the middle of April. Took you long enough, didn’t it?”
Gus shrugged, sipped his coffee. “Marcus has jobs up the wazoo, man. He wasn’t happy about me coming over today.”
“Or you could have come over on your own time when the roof was caving in—how long ago? Two fricking weeks, I think. Just a thought.”
“If the roof was caving in, I would have. But it wasn’t, and I work for Marcus, David, not you.”
David smiled more to himself than Gus. “Well, when you’re not working for—what’s his name? Jerry?”
“Jeremy. Yeah, we’ve been busy.”
“That so? You’re getting new gigs?”
“Now and then. Mostly we’re working on that new CD.”
“You have a distributor for that?”
“Jeremy’s working on it.”
“I think it was Cheryl told me she heard Jerry—excuse me, Jeremy—was auditioning a new bass player.”
Gus blinked twice and gazed lengthily at David. “Well, I guess they decided to stick with me.”
“Well, I guess you don’t want to quit the day job, just in case. And what have I got to complain about?” David lifted one hand to the sunlight that glowed like sanctifying grace through panes of stained glass in that window. “It only leaks when it rains.”
This was the first day in two weeks without rain, the first good day for Gus to run estimates on replacing all the shingles on David’s back roof, or else just patching the leak around the skylights. “Lemme tell you, I am not in the mood for another big job with that fucking control freak,” Marcus had said that morning. “If what’s-his-name—Beef-’N’-Bawl?—just wants to patch it, okay—maybe. But if he wants the whole damned roof, you can blow up that estimate like a rubber doll. Fine with me.”
That put Gus in a tricky position. Once upon a time David was the drummer for the Jammerwocky, a bluesy psychedelic jam-band that Gus had started in high school. David was also the procurer of most of their hallucinogens—plastic bags of dried liberty caps in a gray-matter tangle of stems and collapsed cones, tabs of LSD on pink blotter paper marked faintly with the imprint of what was either a dragon or a winged serpent, they could never decide. “If I could get receipts for this shit, someday we could take it off our taxes,” David once said. “Business expenses—besides being the food of the gods.”
That presumed the gods had income, which mostly they didn’t. The Jammerwocky got a little too wocky, perhaps, and broke up. David quit both the drums and the acid in college and became a lawyer for Weyerhaeuser. Gus gave up lead guitar and became the bass player for a series of hard-scrabble bands. For the last seven years he had played for Wounded Heel, a band whose sound lead singer Jeremy Paltern described as neo-grunge or post-punk country, depending on his mood.
But Gus and David stayed tight. Gus envied, without admiration, David’s money and his trophy house on a hillside overlooking Puget Sound—a house on which the Seventh Day Roofers had replaced the front shingles last summer, Marcus and David wrangling all the while. Gus saved his admiration for Cheryl, who wasn’t afraid to stand up to David, and particularly for Orrie, whose beauty had grown in concert with her own willingness to rebel.
For his part David admired Gus for sticking it out, for chasing that whiff of immortality once so palpable to the Jammerwocky and their teen-aged fans. He also envied the practical skills Gus had picked up along the way with wood and plumbing and shingles. But another part despised Gus for his duplex housing on Port Henry’s east side, the long nights out with the band for next to nothing in pay, the late rent checks and deferred car payments. Lately, after Gus’s girlfriend Marcie had left, David started referring to him as Peter Pan.
“Are you all right, Mr. Pan?” David had said when Gus arrived that morning.
Gus stood dazed in the driveway after Marcus had dropped him off. Gus thought it was just the day’s burst of light that had stopped him in his tracks, the unaccustomed outline of his shadow. Then he found that it wasn’t just the light that had stunned him, but all creation, looking that morning like it had been hung and tacked into place just twenty-four hours ago—the blue firmament, the winking waters of the sound, the ripening grass in David’s lawn, the early shoots of the herbs in Cheryl’s rock gardens, the scent of blossoms in the pear tree at the side of the house.
Gus gave David the same rapturous grin he had once worn counting out tempo for the opening number of a Jammerwocky gig. David stood on his porch in pleated slacks, his tie still at loose ends. Gus lifted one arm to the sky, his index finger out straight, anticipating the jolt of a divine spark: “If you start me up….”
David waved Gus into the house and set about knotting his tie. “No thanks,” he said. “And I don’t listen to the Stones much any more.”
“Oh, man—no more sympathy for the Devil?”
David shook his head. “I think his place is drier than mine.”
“Is that Gus already?” Cheryl called from the kitchen. “Come on in, Gus. Have you had your breakfast? I’m fixing sausage and eggs and toast for Orrie. Would you like some?”
“Had breakfast. Thanks anyway.”
“Coffee, at least?”
“I could be tempted.”
In the kitchen, yellow-crested with pearly white feathers, Avens the cockatiel paced from side to side on the lower of his cage’s two perches. Willowy in a gray flannel pantsuit, Cheryl moved in frantic transits between the counter, the table, the refrigerator, the stove. “David, could you be tempted to lend a hand with the links here? Oh, no, wait —show Gus your tree first. He’s got to see that. Then come help. We’re late. And where’s Orrie?”
“Oh, yeah, the tree.”
The game room was lit by a pair of skylights. Its wide French doors opened to a cedar deck and a grove of Douglas fir out back. David hastened past the jury-rigged contraption on the pool table and put a foot on the stairs to the bedrooms. “Orrie, come on—get your ass down here!”
Orrie’s voice was smoky with sleep. “Mom said I could stay home today.”
“I think not. Cheryl?”
“I told her she could stay home if I could get the day off, which I couldn’t.” Cheryl’s voice rose above the sizzle of the sausage and a whistle from Avens. “Orrie, I told you that last night. Come on—let’s not spoil your birthday.”
“Birthday? Today?” Gus asked. “She’s what—fourteen?”
“Sixteen, but not sweet. Not even close.” David stared at Gus. “Neither are you, actually. What did you say? Fourteen?”
“Well, she was thirteen—”
“My friend, you’re going to have to start turning the pages on the calendar. You can’t look at Miss January all year long. Orrie!”
“Augustus?” The voice from the bedroom sounded like a moan, a dreamy sort of plea.
“Happy birthday, Orrie.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’ve got to check your daddy’s roof.”
“Yeah, it leaks like a bitch. You gonna fix it?”
“We’ll see. Come on down and have some coffee with me.”
“What’s that?” David said.
David and Gus had to wait a moment. Then, “Nothing. Yeah, okay—I’m coming.”
“That’s a good girl,” David said. “Just do it quick.”
“Does she drink coffee yet?” Gus whispered.
“That’s the least of her vices.”
David turned to the pool table, gesturing—with sulky pride—to the structure that linked it to the cathedral ceiling. Gus gazed up at three clear plastic trash bags staple-gunned by their spread openings to the ceiling, each enclosing one or more of the brown water-stains ranged across the ceiling. At their opposite ends the bags had been cut open to feed into the inverted upper half of a single one-gallon plastic milk jug. The jug’s bottom half had been cut away and the remainder dangled upside down from the ceiling by four lengths of yarn secured with tacks. The mouth of the bottle even yet dripped water into an aluminum funnel whose flexible tube fed into the raised end of a length of white PVC pipe. The pipe was bound with baling wire to the leg of a bar stool set in the middle of the pool table. Then the pipe sloped over the edge of the table and out the French doors to the rear deck. David tested the wire on the pipe. He picked up a pair of pliers from under the stool and set about tightening it.
“Shit—you couldn’t just put a bucket there?” Gus wondered.
“I did. I put up several those first three nights after I called Marcus, and I had to get up all night to empty them. This, you’ll notice, takes care of itself.”
“David, Marcus told you last summer you needed to have work on the back.”
“What was the point? I couldn’t afford it.”
“Maybe not after you bought that boat. But that was later.”
“I probably still can’t afford it.”
“Well, you still got the boat.”
“I also thought I had a buddy in the business. I thought my friend Peter Pan could float over here, sprinkle a little fairy dust.”
“Yeah, well, Peter Pan’s got a day job, and then he goes out nights to Never-Never Land.”
“Uh-huh. And that’s just what I started telling myself—never-never.” By then David had climbed on top of the pool table, and was squeezing moisture out of the bags and into the milk jug. Beneath the stool, billiard balls lay scattered like fallen fruit on water-stained green felt.
David’s loafer found the seven-ball, and he nearly fell: “Shit.” Then, “Whatever you do today, just don’t touch this, all right? The way things go in Never Land, I might need it next week—or next winter.”
“David, it’s not Gus’s fault,” Cheryl said from the kitchen. Then louder, “Orrie, I’m leaving in ten minutes. I’m warning you, you’d better not make me late.”
David wondered if Orrie wanted to go to the yacht club tonight. Orrie picked at her eggs. “For what?”
“For dinner. For your birthday.”
“The yacht club?” Cheryl asked. “I thought we were going to Tío Pedro’s. She likes Mexican.”
Orrie sat next to Gus at the kitchen table. Gus couldn’t help viewing Orrie differently on learning she so suddenly had gotten older, on feeling the stirring in his groin as she pronounced his complete first name from her bedroom, on gazing on her in his mind’s eye as Miss January under the sheets. She arrived in the kitchen dressed like the girls of Cheryl and Marcie’s generation, of the decade of the Jammerwocky—a flower-embroidered tank top, a full-length peasant skirt slung low on her hips, her lean brown belly a slice of almond above its top. Gus couldn’t tell if it was her perfume or the air through the window over the sink that smelled of pear blossoms.
“The problem at Tío Pedro’s is no liquor license,” David said.
“She’s only sixteen.”
“Yeah, but I’m not.”
“You know, here’s the thing,” Orrie said. “I’m old enough to get married now, legally, you know, as of today in the State of Washington. But I’m not old enough to vote, and I’m not old enough to have a beer or even a glass of wine. So, like, what’s the deal with that? Is that lame, or what?”
“I don’t know,” Cheryl said. “David, it isn’t your birthday. It’s Orrie’s.”
“The point being—?”
“Shouldn’t we go where she wants to eat?”
“She likes the yacht club. Orrie, where do you want to eat tonight?”
“I don’t care. Wherever. But what’s the deal with that?”
“That marriage thing? I’m sixteen now, and I can get married and have, like, six kids, but I can’t buy a beer. So, like, you’re a lawyer. Can you explain that to me?”
“We’ll get you some wine at the club tonight.”
“David, that’s not what she’s asking.”
“You know, I don’t even know if I’ll feel like going out tonight. I don’t feel so good now.”
“What do you mean?” Cheryl said.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s these eggs, or what. But my stomach feels like shit.”
“Young lady, you watch your language,” Cheryl said. “You’re not old enough to curse like that—especially at the table in front of guests.”
Orrie glanced sideways, smiling. Her eye was a hazel gem in the midst of its liner and shadow. “Do I offend you, Augustus?”
Gus blushed and raised his coffee mug to his lips, hiding behind it. “Well, you know we never use harsh language in the building trade.”
David laughed, leaning back in his chair and jabbing at his mouth with his napkin. “Okay, I think I know what this marriage stuff is about.”
Orrie’s head snapped towards her father. “What are you talking about?”
Cheryl laughed too. “Oh, Lordy, I’d forgotten.”
“What? What are you guys talking about?”
“You don’t remember?” Cheryl said. “You always used to say—well, you said it for years when you were little—that the very minute you were old enough you were going to marry Gus. You don’t remember that? It didn’t bother you at all that he already had Marcie.”
“Is this the day?” asked David. “He’s available.”
“If she’s old enough by now,” Gus offered, “she’s old enough to know better.”
“I don’t know,” Orrie said. She leaned suddenly to her left and buried her face in Gus’s neck, inhaling deeply. Gus, startled, hunched his shoulders, then slackened them, welcoming her. “He still smells good,” she said.
“Fine with me,” David said. “I don’t know about his prospects, but I like Peter Pan a lot better than that Rory character.”
“Dad, Rory was, like, months ago. I think you can quit it with Rory.”
“Todd wasn’t so bad, at least by comparison.”
“Ditto with Todd.” Orrie nibbled at a sausage and returned it to her plate. “So you wouldn’t mind, for example, that Augustus is poor?”
“Orrie!” Cheryl said.
“I think the term is lower-income,” David replied, “and I don’t mind lower-income. I was lower-income myself once. Gus just chose to make a lifestyle of it.”
Gus nodded. “Money’s great, but it can’t buy poverty.”
“What about dinner tonight?” Cheryl said.
“Mom, I don’t even care about dinner tonight. And I really don’t feel good. I don’t think I should be going to school today.”
“Do you have a fever?” She stretched across the table, spilling the salt, as she slapped a hand on Orrie’s forehead.
“No, I told you, it’s my stomach. Maybe I’ve got—I don’t know—stomach flu.”
“Have you thrown up?”
“Well, like, any minute now.”
“It’s just as well I couldn’t get the day off,” Cheryl said. “You’ve missed too much school as it is.”
“Jesus, what’s one more fricking day?”
“Orrie,” David warned.
“Oh, Jesus—’fricking?’ That’s not even cursing. Give me a fricking break.”
Cheryl rose hastily from the table. “David, can you clear the dishes? We’ve got to go this minute. Gus, help yourself to more coffee. Orrie, come on, honey, get your coat.”
“Fine. What the hell. My life is ruined.”
That was when Orrie had touched Gus’s hair, and had leaned down to whisper into his ear, though it had looked to her parents as though she were absorbing more of his after-shave.
“Orrie, leave Gus alone,” David said, “or you’ll ruin his life too.” He sponged salt from the table and emptied Orrie’s sausage into the wastebasket beneath the sink.
“Happy birthday, Orrie,” Gus said again as Cheryl’s legs whisked down the hallway, flannel whirring, followed by Orrie’s taut almond stems moving silently beneath her skirt. A blue tattoo on the border between her back and her rump was only partly visible above the skirt’s waistband: the once-familiar image of a dragon, or else a winged serpent.
Gus thought Orrie must have been around ten the night she climbed the pear tree and claimed she couldn’t get down. Gus and Marcie were there for steaks barbecued on the rear deck. Cheryl was ready for people to sit down to eat, but Orrie was holding everything up. Finally David dispatched Gus to climb up and get her.
He didn’t need to. Orrie had descended to one of the tree’s lower branches and was squatting there among the thorns and fruit like a monkey in her summer shift. She threw herself at Gus with a shriek as soon as he was close enough, wrapping her arms around his neck, her legs around his waist, clamping her trunk so hard against his that he could feel the arch of her pubic bone against his stomach. “Whoa, little lady,” Gus laughed.
Orrie’s cry bubbled to the brink of a laugh, but then it died in her throat. She buried her face in his neck and shoulder, much like she would at breakfast years later. She breathed deeply. Still inhaling, she drew her head back to stare into Gus’s face. He could almost hear the thought running through her mind—So this is what it is, so this is what people do—while he tried, ashamed, to deny the same thought in his own. Then Orrie bit her lip, looked away, and relaxed the pressure of her hips. The girl slid down his torso like a wet towel, snagging herself for just an instant on the knob of his crotch. She landed with a shiver on the ground and flew across the yard to the deck. “That wasn’t so hard,” said David.
By then it had been several years since Orrie had vowed marriage to Gus. But she mentioned it one more time a month later. David still had the sloop he called the Wet Dream, the boat that preceded the big ketch he kept now at the Port Henry Yacht Club. Gus and Marcie were supposed to go with the Biffenbaughs on a day trip to Orcas Island, but Marcie had stayed home in a snit, mad that a vacation she had planned with Gus had been pre-empted by a series of gigs Jeremy had put together in Portland and San Francisco. Orrie took Marcie’s usual seat in the cockpit at Gus’s side as the sloop motored out of the harbor, and then she burrowed into his flank once the wind caught the sails and the spray began to spit. On the island Orrie took hold of his hand as the four walked up from the landing to the stores and houses nestled in the firs above them. Orrie let her fingertips dance on the calluses of Gus’s hand as she told her mother that someday she wanted to live in a house like one of those, on an island like Orcas, with a man like Gus. “Well, who wouldn’t?” Cheryl laughed.
“I think this place would be a little too quiet for someone like Gus,” David said.
“He’d be happy with me,” Orrie said.
“Happy enough to give up being a rock star?” asked David.
“Happy enough to give up his right arm,” she pronounced.
David and Cheryl laughed, and Gus joined in, squeezing the hand that nestled like a sparrow in his. Inside he nearly wept to consider how readily he would have sacrificed that arm, or nearly that much, to start over, to return to the beginning, to be almost that young himself, to need nothing more out of life than a little log house on an offshore island with a girl like Orrie, or the woman he thought she’d become.
This is what Gus wondered, once David had cleared the table and left for work, once he was alone in the house—if in fact the statutes of the State of Washington had made Orrie into such a woman today. And more—was there anything left of that little-girl crush she had on him? And what about that new tattoo? What was the deal with that? Finally, after Gus had locked the front door, and then the French doors, feeding the wet end of the PVC pipe into a salad bowl from the kitchen, all to slow things down in case David or Cheryl came home unexpectedly, he wondered if it was all that or something else that tempted him through the game room, past David’s hydraulic tree, and up the stairs to Orrie’s bedroom.
Was it just something as creepy as her underwear? A more factual image of what lay now beneath Miss January’s tops and skirts? Was he really going to paw through her drawers? Maybe he didn’t have to. A pair of boxer shorts, checked in rows of apples and oranges, lay crumpled on the carpet in a beam of rose-colored light. The light came from one of the panes of stained glass David had installed in each window of the house last summer. Gus poked at the shorts with the toe of his boot. He hoped she had more fetching options than this in her wardrobe.
The bed was unmade. There was a Port Henry High School sweatshirt hanging halfway out a dresser drawer, a pair of gym shorts draped over her bed stand lampshade, a lone sock looking to wriggle its way into the closet. A Limp Bizkit poster—a histrionic, hip-hop-flavored band that Gus didn’t care for—was thumb-tacked above the dresser. A piggy bank in the shape of a toad stared from the dresser’s top, and behind it pranced a row of plastic horses in various hues and sizes. Taped around the mirror of her dressing table, and tacked to an adjacent bulletin board, were prize ribbons from her girlhood equestrienne days, also a gallery of photographs—snapshots and digitals and even a couple of Polaroids.
Most were of girls, a few of whom Gus recognized as keeping company with Orrie. In one shot a pair of boys, dim in the dusk, mooned the photographer, their pants and underwear corded about their knees, the cheeks of their butts as hard and white as cue balls in the harsh light of the flash. In another Orrie was pulling up her halter top in broad daylight, the shutter clicking an instant before the image became indecent. A silver stud winked from her navel. Three photos, two of boys and one of a girl, contained faces crossed out by angry strokes of a pen. One had been slashed through its paper by the pen.
He searched with an unadmitted longing for photos of himself, and found one. It was a fading, dog-eared shot from that very trip to Orcas Island, taken by David. Gus and Cheryl and Orrie stood arm in arm and smiling at the head of the Cascade Creek Trail to the top of Mount Constitution. Gus stared at the photo, his throat tightening. It occurred to him that if he were to show that photo to a stranger and say that this was his own wholesome wife and lovely young daughter, the stranger would surely believe him. In one person’s mind, at least, the statement would be true. If the stranger repeated it to someone else, it would be true in two minds. He wondered how long that would have to go on before the rumor was granted the substance of fact, and it was David who had to live in Never Land.
Gus straightened, turning away from the bulletin board, preparing to go outside to look at the skylights, finding himself still unwilling to do so. He went to the dresser to give the piggy bank a shake. It was empty. She was as broke as he was. But what if he had money? What if Jeremy quit auditioning bass players—as if Gus were to blame for all the band’s problems—and this new CD they were doing struck a spark somewhere? Or what if the right well-connected person came to listen at one of their gigs? What if the dreary nights at bars and afternoons at county fairs turned into Nirvana-scale stadium shows?
Then, Gus considered, he’d have his pick of hot women. No doubt Marcie would ring him up again. He’d send Marcie some money, no hard feelings, but he’d remember Orrie, who loved him when he was nobody even before Marcie did, and he’d buy Orrie not just a house on an island, but the whole damned island. It would have to be somewhere way the hell out in the Pacific for them to have any privacy, not too far from Brando’s probably. He’d buy Orrie a horse to ride, and he’d also bring in horses to run wild. He’d have a horse as well, and he’d learn to ride it. Together in the morning mist they’d gallop through the island’s meadows and pick their way along its rivers. Herds of—what? antelopes?—would blanket the meadows, moving peacefully out of the way of their horses, hardly disturbed. The antelopes had no predators except—what?—the Komodo dragons that lurked near the watering holes.
Those were subtle, dangerous bastards. One of them might spook Orrie’s horse when she took it to water. The animal would buck and send her flying. Orrie would twist her ankle when she hit the ground. Then the lizard would come lumbering out of the brush with its great red tongue flicking the air. That would be the one day he’d left his .30-06 back at the house. He’d have to stop the beast with only his sheath knife. He’d take off his shirt and do the matador thing, dancing away from its first lunge behind the cover of the shirt. Then he’d vault to its back, holding on like Velcro while the creature twisted and rolled over on him. He’d stab repeatedly until he found its heart. Finally, at sunset, they’d ride along the beach, where the coconut palms swayed in the breeze. They’d take off their clothes and swim, and then make love as the waves broke around them.
By then Gus was going through Orrie’s drawers after all. He had decided that if Orrie still had that crush on him, the evidence—photos, memorabilia, maybe diary entries?—would more likely be hidden away than advertised on her bulletin board. Then there was that tattoo. Why that design? Was she dropping acid now from the same vendor her old man had once used? Could the Arroyo brothers somehow still be in business, going on for generations like Sears or Coca-Cola? Or was David tripping again, and was Orrie getting into his stash? Or did David just have some of those old blotter papers hanging around? Some people collected those. There was money in them now. But if Orrie was dropping acid, what else was she doing? There was some bad shit out there, most of which Gus could tell her about. She’d listen to him more than she would David. He’d have to talk to her if he found needles or spoons or OxyContin or shit like that. He wouldn’t tell her why, exactly, he was talking to her. He’d just say that she’d reached a dangerous age, and this was precautionary. Let me tell you what I went through, or my buddy Mitch, your dad’s too, a good bass player who’s dead now, a guy who thought it was all part of the business expenses of being young and stupid. If she listened, cool. If she didn’t, he wouldn’t buy her that island. He didn’t want to get stuck out there with a junkie.
By then he was into the bottom drawer of her dresser. So far he had found socks wrapped into little balls, a few empty CD covers, some wadded clumps of underwear (bra size—32B, another pair of boxers, but also some scanty thongs—nice), a pack of Tarot cards, another pair of running shorts, three candles, a rosary-length necklace of small bells and tiny dice, a rainbow coalition of tank tops, a Slim-Jim still in its wrapper, the skull of something like a mouse or a gerbil, a box of sanitary napkins, a couple loose stacks of jeans and t-shirts, an electronic remote with its battery case open and empty, a tube of lip gloss, an empty tin of Altoid mints with a simple gold ring inside, and a cardboard jewelry box. A number of gaps suggested that some of her clothes were missing.
Gus nearly shoved the jewelry box aside. But because it and the ring were in the bottom drawer, rather than the top, where he would expect jewelry to be kept, he elected to pluck at its lid, and then fell still, staring.
Nestled primly between sheets of cotton, the three-inch length of flesh lay bent in a crescent-shape, curled like a silkworm, inside its box. Its color was a sort of blonde mahogany, like smoked meat, its surface smooth and vaguely striated, not so different from the Slim-Jim in the other drawer. He would have considered it just that, an unusual piece of smoked meat, if not a preserved worm or caterpillar, had it not been for features not clarified until he had lifted the box from the drawer and held it up to the light—a fleshy pair of joints, a nail with dirt or grease still visible beneath its cuticle, a stump end with a nick of bone nestled like a wee pearl amid dry and coral-tinted tissue. It was a pinky, from its length and width, or else a child’s finger, and it gleamed in the light from Orrie’s window. He sniffed at it. Varnish. Someone had varnished it.
The electric buzz of the front doorbell seemed to lift the finger out of its box all by itself. Gus snatched at it in vain as the box and its contents flew from his hands and fell scattered across the carpet. He stepped by accident on the bottom half of the box, crushing a corner and two sides. He jammed a layer of cotton back into it just the same, but he couldn’t find the damned finger. The buzz came again, in three quick jabs, as he went on his hands and knees and looked under the dresser, the bed, behind the ladder-back chair in the corner. Was it just blending in with the beige carpet? He felt his stomach begin to strain at its moorings as he trailed his hands across the carpet. The buzz came again, this time one long, sustained summons.
He thought about waiting it out in Orrie’s room. It might be a UPS delivery man who’d go away in a minute. No, this was someone more determined than that. It might be David or Cheryl without a house key, or even Marcus. Gus sprinted down the stairs and past the tree as the buzz was replaced by a rhythmic pounding on the door.
He stopped in front of the door to catch his breath, compose an excuse, before he unlocked it. He threw the door open just as his opposite stood poised to deliver another blow. For a moment he and Gus stared at each other in mutual surprise. “Sorry,” Gus breathed. “Can I help you?”
Gus couldn’t tell if he was white or black or Hispanic or some combo thereof. He was in his mid-twenties, tall and broad-shouldered, with skin like creamed coffee, a spare, hyphenated moustache, and hair that hung to his shoulders in Rasta braids. His shirt was an immaculate white linen pullover with flowers embroidered into its yoke. This hung loose over baggy cargo pants that trailed down to sharp-toed snakeskin boots. Gus saw behind him, parked in the driveway, an old Chevy Impala with a cracked windshield. The visitor glanced about as if he wasn’t sure now that this was the right house. Then he checked his watch. Finally: “I’m looking for Orrie Biffenbaugh.”
“You’re looking for Orrie? She’s not here.”
“Not here? What do you mean?”
“I mean this is Thursday. She’s in school.”
The visitor peered narrowly at Gus. “You’re not her old man. Who the hell are you?”
Gus stared back at him before answering. “I’m a friend of the family. That’s who the hell I am.”
“So what are you doing here? What are you doing here now?”
“Well, excuse me, but I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”
“Okay, whatever—I don’t give a shit. Listen, can you just tell Orrie, if you don’t mind, that Ruby’s here?”
“You’re Ruby?” Gus hadn’t imagined a Ruby like this.
“Yeah, I’m Ruby.”
“Okay—Orrie left a message for you. She told me to tell you, ‘Another day.’”
He saw Ruby stare blankly at him. “Tell me what another day?”
“‘Another day.’ I don’t know what. She just said, ‘Another day.’”
“You mean not today?”
“I don’t know, man. I don’t know what she means. I’m just telling you what she said, all right?”
“Another day? What the fuck’s up with that?” He put both hands on his hips and turned away. He checked his watch again. Gus saw that on his watch hand he wore a gold ring, and that only a nubbin of flesh stood where his pinky had been. “This is bullshit,” Ruby said, turning back to Gus. “She knows it’s got to be today. Damn, I got everything set up today.”
“Yeah? What’s got to be today?”
Ruby put on a bitter smile. “Well, excuse me, but I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”
“Would be if Orrie’s involved.”
“Friend of the family? Not good enough.”
“Well, whatever—another day.”
“Hey, Mr. uh—.”
“Right, Mr. Pan—did her old man put you up to this?”
“Put me up to what?”
Ruby smiled again and shook his head. “Fuck it. Just tell Orrie I’m here, okay?”
“Maybe I’m not speaking loud enough? She’s not here, man. She’s gone.”
“You’re bullshitting me, right? And what the fuck are you doing here if she’s not here? You cleaning house? You her old lady’s handyman?”
Gus smiled, swinging the door back and forth in a narrow arc like a cat switching its tail. “So what happened to your finger?”
Ruby made first to shove his hand into the hip pocket of his pants, then changed his mind. He smiled again, lifting the hand to Gus’s face. He clenched the remaining fingers into a fist, thrust them out straight, wrapped them together again, then straightened them once more, making waggling motions in the air, like he was plucking harp strings. Gus wondered if it was the absence of the pinky that made the remaining digits so long and serpentine. The stump of the pinky twitched eerily in accompaniment. “Maybe you can tell Orrie I’m looking for this.”
“Maybe you’re one sick bastard,” Gus said as he began to shut the door.
Ruby stopped it with that left hand. “Listen, please, just tell her everything’s cool, but it’s got to be today, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “Tell her she’ll understand once we get going. But we gotta get going. Please. And no offense, but I know she’s in there.”
“None taken.” Gus took hold of Ruby’s forearm and removed his hand from the door. “This is goodbye, Ruby,” he said as he shut and locked the door.
The rest went down like a dream. Gus watched from the living room as Ruby stood with his head bowed on the porch step, as he stalked back to his car. Ruby sat motionless behind the wheel of the Chevy until Gus lost patience and went upstairs to look some more for the missing finger. The damned thing seemed to have vanished like it never existed, as if the guy were born with that stump and Gus had only imagined the contents of Orrie’s jewelry box. Eventually it occurred to Gus that he hadn’t heard the Chevy’s engine start.
The stone that burst like a bomb through Orrie’s window sent him sprawling back into the dressing table, bruising his ribs. He felt a sliver of glass glance off his cheek, saw pastel shards rain on the rug about Orrie’s shorts as the stone banged to a stop against the opposite wall. He heard Ruby yell to Orrie from beneath the window that he knew she was in there. If he had to, he’d come in to get her. It had to be today.
Gus didn’t want to be seen at Orrie’s window. He stayed low and abandoned the room as a second stone glanced off the frame of its other window, and then a third broke through. He sprinted downstairs in time to see Ruby striding back to his car. Gus threw open the front door. “So what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Ruby granted him scarcely a glance as he removed his shirt, folded it carefully, laid it on the Chevy’s back seat. Then he went to open the car’s trunk. “Those windows cost a lot of money, man!” Gus continued. “Your ass better be good for them!”
Ruby stood up with a pump-action sawed-off shotgun in his hands. Gus slammed the door when Ruby leveled the weapon in his direction.
The dispatcher who answered Gus’s call to 911 warned him to stay inside. Ruby was shouting at Orrie to stay in her room and not to worry, sounding like Hell’s version of that dispatcher. Gus, a wide-eyed Kilroy, peered from the kitchen window as Avens squawked and leaped from perch to perch, as Ruby circled to the back of the house and climbed the stairs to the rear deck. Tattoos ran in blue and scrambled profusion up and down his arms and across his back and chest. Splayed across the breadth of his chest was the same sort of winged serpent Gus remembered from David’s blotter papers, now also from the crest of Orrie’s rump. Gus wondered if David was just having a flashback today and if he had somehow gotten drafted into the middle of it. That had always seemed to the Jammerwocky like something that could happen, and this was more like David’s nightmare, he thought, not his.
Gus saw Ruby come to a halt before the French doors and pull at their handles. Then he saw him position the gun on his hip and fire a slug through the glass. That was followed by the sound—he guessed—of the aluminum funnel and the PVC pipe and the bar stool clattering in collapse across the pool table. By then Gus had backed himself under the kitchen table with Cheryl’s bread knife in his hands. A second blast blew the French doors open. Gus heard Ruby’s footsteps climbing the stairs to Orrie’s bedroom. Then he heard Ruby calling for her above the cockatiel’s shrieks.
One part of Gus wanted to get out, to escape through the front door into the light, into that sense of time being born that he had bathed in earlier. But the dispatcher had told him to stay inside. He stayed, wondering if that was just an excuse for the lassitude that gripped him, for the slack despair that drained all spark from his muscle fibers, amplified the ache in his ribs, that had drenched his own pants with piss. Mystifyingly, another Rolling Stones tune had come into his head, one that the Jammerwocky used to cover:
There’s no time to lose, I heard her say
Catch your dreams before they slip away…
He heard Ruby come down the stairs at the same time that he heard a pair of heavy vehicles pull rapidly into the driveway. Ruby walked past the shattered French doors and into the kitchen, halting when he saw Gus under the table. Ruby’s forehead was beaded with sweat. He cradled the shotgun in his right arm and carried in the palm of his left hand, with its ring and three fingers, the lost pinky. He gazed without blinking at Gus, who squinted in near blindness from the sting of his own sweat.
The racket from Avens and the loudspeaker outside seemed eclipsed by Ruby’s silence and immobility. Gus drew his knees against his chest to comfort a bone-deep chill, to relieve his feeling of nakedness. He heard the ticking of the clock on the wall. He saw Ruby’s red tongue come out and circle his lips. He watched Ruby look down at the finger in his hand. Gus said, “Where—where’d you find that?”
“In her drawer,” Ruby said without looking up. “Just lying there in her shit like it was a piece of lunch meat.” He stared at it a moment longer and then raised his head. “You know where the trash is?”
“Under the sink.”
Ruby moved ponderously to the sink, opened the door beneath it, dropped the finger into the wastebasket. Then, ignoring Gus, he took the shotgun in both hands and walked out of the kitchen and down the hallway towards the front door.
But Gus didn’t see that because by then he was in the middle of a flashback himself, or a dream. The years had been washed away, and he was only a boy again, sixteen himself, and he was at the helm of a little sloop with a girl just like Orrie burrowing into his side. They were on their way to Orcas Island, its bulk raised against a rainy sky like the contours of Never Land, while behind them Port Henry burned, throwing black and oily smoke into the clouds.
Richard Adams Carey