THE JYNX a novel
Kenneth C. Crowe
Also by Kenneth C. Crowe
THE DREAM DANCER
AMERICA FOR SALE
Rae Lord Crowe
Sweeney waited on the beach just after daybreak, tail wagging, occasionally barking, watching Billy row his dinghy through the mist of this extraordinarily warm January morning to the mooring. After tying onto his 18-foot wooden sharpie, Billy swung the heavy gas tank onto the deck and stepped aboard. Next, he turned to the task of linking the gas tank to the motor, which was in the down position in the water. He stepped into the pilot cabin on the starboard side of the boat. As he pushed in the key switch to choke the engine, he squeezed the gas-line bulb, repeating the process three times before turning the key. The motor started right up.
Leaving the dingy clinging to the mooring, Billy steered the sharpie back to the beach for his dog and gear; other clammers were arriving on Shore Road in their pickups or already were in their boats setting out for Huntington Bay. They shouted ‘hey’ or waved to Billy. He nudged the prow of the sharpie onto the sand just far enough so he could jump onto dry land.
“Let’s go Sweeney boy,” Billy said to the Yellow Lab.
The dog stepped to the edge of the water and leapt easily over the low railing into the boat. He went right to the bow stationing himself, as usual, to watch the way ahead. Billy put the water-proof bag holding his sandwiches, a thermos of coffee, and some bones for Sweeney, into the boat along with a half gallon of water and a new clam rake. Climbing back onto the sharpie, he went to the cabin, and threw the engine into reverse to back off the beach.
They set out down the length of Huntington Harbor, past a winter shoreline of barren trees and empty beaches. On the rises overlooking the harbor were houses with wide porches and stairways leading down to private docks. From late spring until early fall, the harbor and the bay were filled with pleasure craft, sailboats and cruisers, captained by weekend sailors. From the end of October to the first soft days of May, the lobstermen and clammers were left to ply their trades undisturbed by these annoying outsiders.
Billy turned north near the town beach to move past the breakwater for the short jump across the bay to Culligan’s Harbor, sheltered on the north, south and east by wooded hills. The wind this morning was from the west. Five knots at the most. Ideal for digging clams in the narrow harbor that reached eastward like a crooked finger from Huntington Bay. Wind and tide were major factors in deciding where Billy worked.
This was his first day back on the water after a week in bed with the flu or something very much like it. Another two days had been lost to solving a problem with the engine. “We need 1,100 necks today, Sweeney,” Billy yelled to the dog. Today he felt an immense pressure to make enough money to pay the rent—or else he would have to ask his landlord, Bernie Koch, to let him ride late for another day or more. Bernie had carried him for as long as a week many times over the years. His largesse came with avuncular suggestions that Billy should find himself a new career. Last month, Bernie had said, “Time’s flying Billy. When are you going to wake up? What are you going to do when you get old like me?” Billy’s face burned with embarrassment and suppressed anger as he listened in silence to these lectures while the ethereal voice, he called Harvey, invariably whispered in his ear, “Fuck him.”
Yesterday, Billy had gone to Eileen, his sister, to ask for another loan, the $1,000 for his rent. She had given him $850, all she had, with the warning that Jason, her husband who was a UPS driver, would be furious if he found out. Jason was openly puzzled by Billy’s attachment to the water where he labored so hard in the worst of winter wind and summer sun without a guaranteed paycheck or a pension or health insurance, the perks that went with being a package delivery driver working under a Teamsters’ contract. He told Billy at every family gathering or whenever he ate dinner at Eileen’s house that a college graduate like him should be doing something better with his life or at least have a steady job. “He’d love to live your life,” Harvey would whisper.
With the $850 in the kitty, 1,100 clams would give him enough for his rent plus a few bucks for gas. He planned to keep a dozen clams for himself, the makings of a passable dinner with the olive oil and pasta he had in the cupboard and the roll he had in the freezer. If he got lucky and made a little extra, he could buy some parmesan cheese and beer too. But clamming was an uncertain calling subject to the whims of nature. The clams might be there, or not. Billy had been on the water for 30 years. He had started clamming when he was 14 discovering that he enjoyed the hard physical work surrounded by the beauty of the Long Island shoreline, the ever-changing sky, the bird-filled air, seals in winter, fish leaping from the water. And, he was doing something real: harvesting food.
In the early days, the clams had been plentiful and the prices paid were fairly decent. Not any more. In the past year, like a waterspout suddenly rising from the surface toward an ominously dark cloud, a concern gripped Billy that one day the clams would be gone, destroyed by pollution, or he might hurt his back too seriously to work through the pain. Then what would he do? When he graduated from college with a BA in English, Billy decided he didn’t want to be part of corporate America or a bureaucrat or any sort of money grubber. He could never work in an office, 9 to 5, or be a salesman or run from door to door with packages like his brother-in-law. The water was in his blood.
Billy killed the motor. The diving ducks were plentiful this morning, and he could hear what sounded like a loon. He linked two 10-foot aluminum poles to a six foot section and clamped a clam rake, a metal basket with a row of two-inch teeth to the end. An orange float was tied to the basket to make it easy to recover if it came loose or the poles slipped from his hands. He dropped the rake over the portside into eight feet of green water, so clear that he could see the bottom.
The teeth of the rake sank a little more than an inch into the sand and mud raising a cloud of detritus as the drift of the boat and the pull of Billy’s work-hardened arms, back and thighs scraped up clams, crabs, rocks and debris. Subtle vibrations of clams being collected into the basket flickered through the 26 feet of pole across the tee-handle into his hands. He tried to keep his mind blank to avoid jinxing himself with visions of this first pass bringing a mountain of clams. He lifted the aluminum poling hand over hand, twisting the basket 180 degrees to keep the catch intact. As it cleared the water, he glimpsed what looked like a solid shining bracelet hooked onto a rake tooth. “Sweeney boy, pray it’s real gold,” he said to the dog who was curled on the deck by the cabin out of the wind and in the sun. Billy picked the bracelet off the tooth of the rake, slipping it into the breast pocket of his shirt. He dipped the basket back into the water twice, bouncing it on the gunnel to wash the grit and mud away. He had pulled in only a half dozen clams. He tried to shake off the feeling that this promised to be a long, sparse day.
“Heyyy saylaaah!” He looked up. Two women, one hefty with long blonde hair the other slender and brunette, in matching turtle neck sweaters were leaning on the weathered wooden railing of The Guest House. The brunette held up a camera with a telephoto lens in her left hand. The blonde shouted, “Look up here saylaaah. We want a face shottt.”
He paused, not to pose for her, but in annoyance at being interrupted by her upper-class, groaning drawl of an accent tinged with a smirk that drew out the word sailor into saylaaah and shot into shottt. Turning his back to them, Billy reached into his top pocket for the shiny bracelet. Every clammer’s dream was to pull up a diamond ring or a wallet thick with $100 bills. Over the years, Billy’s rake had come up with a useless old rifle, dozens and dozens of whiskey, wine, beer, milk and soda bottles, some from the nineteenth century, and once a New York City cop’s shield. Billy examined the metal loop he had scooped up with the clams. Brass not gold. Too small to be a bracelet. “The story of my life, Sweeney boy.” Carved distinctly into the inner rim were the words ‘Un tour libre.’ He dug into his memory, his college French, for a translation. “That means a free ride, Sweeney boy.” He laughed. “Must be a brass ring from a French merry-go-round.”
With the brass ring in his pant’s pocket, he went back to work. He slid the rake over the side into the bottom. He felt a symphony in his hands, a clattering from below, a big mound of clams. He hoisted the heavy rake, twisting it as it rose from the sand and mud, shook it out, and dumped it into the cull box. He was looking at 200 clams. He hooked the rake on the gunnel while he quickly sorted the clams into buckets for Little Necks, Top Neck, cherries and chowders. The rake went over the side again. Another haul of 100 to 125 clams. He seemed to float tirelessly through the process that went on for hours with only a quick break for coffee and the sandwiches and to give Sweeney his bones and water. Rake in the water. Another heavy load. Fifty to 200 more clams, most Little and Top Necks very few of the large and less prized chowders and cherries, in the cull box. He was torn from this phenomenon of toil turned into reverie by the realization that the sun was low, touching the tops of the tall oaks on the west side of Culligan’s Harbor. The law required clammers to be off the water before nightfall.
He whistled as he bagged and tagged the clams. Four-thousand Little Necks and Top Necks. A record for him. He usually brought in a thousand to fifteen hundred on a good day. There were another 500 chowders and cherries. No reason now to hold out a dozen Little Necks for dinner. He would be eating out tonight. “We have had one hell of a day Sweeney boy. Let’s go home.”
Turning on the motor, Billy ran the sharpie a little faster than usual out of Culligan’s Harbor into Huntington Bay past the lighthouse and breakwater into Huntington Harbor. He was anxious to get his catch unloaded in exchange for the money he needed so badly. As he approached his mooring, he could see his buyer on Shore Road chatting with clammers who had landed ahead of him.
The buyer counted $736 into Billy’s hand. A couple of other clammers, standing nearby talking, watched the transaction with their heads bowed in artificial disinterest. Their eyes peered at the money. Hauls like Billy’s were rare, especially in the winter. He could feel their hunger to ask where he had worked today. Neither man was a close enough friend to put such a question to him. Billy figured they would be down to the water early tomorrow to follow him to his treasure trove of clams.
He and Sweeney stopped by the Bay View Deli to buy a meatball hero and a half pound of potato salad. The counterwoman cut the hero into thirds. One third went to Sweeney who gobbled it down before they got back in the truck; Billy sat behind the wheel to eat the other two pieces and the potato salad. Next they went to King Kullen. Sweeney waited in the truck while Billy went inside to buy butter, a package of bacon, a pound of Boar’s Head Virginia ham, a pound of white American cheese, a dozen eggs, a quart of milk, a box of Cheerios, onions, a bag of dry dog food, a six pack of Brooklyn Beer, coffee, a box of Irish Breakfast tea bags, a package of Thomas’ English muffins, oatmeal raisin cookies, a pound cake, and a loaf of whole wheat bread.
At the house, Billy filled Sweeney’s two big aluminum bowls with fresh water and dry dog food. He emptied his pockets setting his wallet, keys, and the brass ring atop his dresser. Most of the cash went into a middle drawer under his clean underwear. He stripped off his work clothes, throwing his underpants and shirt into a hamper outside the bathroom door. Stepping into the bathtub, pulled the curtain closed and turned on the shower. The warm water flowing across his body drew him into singing ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ tears welling in his eyes as he washed away the sweat and salt of the work day and thought of Patsy, his ex-wife. They would have gone to Sugar’s for dinner to celebrate a day like this. He would have given her the brass ring with a gold chain, a reminder of him around her neck.
He dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved sport shirt; he put the wallet and keys into his pants pocket. Looping the brass ring on the first digit of his right forefinger, he twirled it round and round. This shiny piece of metal with its French inscription defined the before and after of the harvest today. After he found it, he had had a day of clamming like never before. Now he understood why baseball players didn’t shave while on a winning streak. A change could attract the attention of a malicious spirit who might interrupt the positive flow of energy out of sheer nastiness. ‘My talisman?’ he asked himself. “You are so superstitious,” Harvey said. Billy didn’t respond. He put the brass ring in his pocket.
After having a cup of tea and reading Newsday, he drove to Bernie Koch’s house to pay the rent. Mrs. Koch, a short woman with thin gray hair, a double chin and a round body, led Billy from the front door to the family room. Bernie never took his eyes off the CNN newscast while stuffing the ten $100 bills from Billy into the breast pocket of his shirt. “Sit down,” he said to Billy. “That son of a bitch,” he said to the TV set. “Three more American kids killed today. For big oil and Halliburton. Fucking Bush. The cause is so noble, why doesn’t he send his daughters over there to get blown up?” Billy sat through ten minutes of Bernie venting his rage at the TV until he was rescued by Mrs. Koch, who called him into the kitchen. “I wanted to ask you. Next time you stop by could you bring some clams.” Billy asked, “A couple of hundred or a couple of dozen?” Mrs. Koch laughed. “Say a couple of dozen. I want to make clams casino.” “Okay. I got to run, Mrs. Koch. Say goodbye to Bernie for me.” He went out the back door and down the driveway to his truck, parked in front of the house.
He left the truck in the town lot behind Sugar’s, the bar where the clammers and lobstermen had hung out for three generations. Walking through the alley he went past the bar to the jewelry store on the corner of Main Street. He showed the brass ring to the clerk, a woman in a dress that clung nicely to her slender body; a red rose that emphasized her dark eyes and hair decorated the dress that seemed more appropriate for a cocktail party or a first date at a classy restaurant. Maybe she thought she was lending style to the store. He looked at her left hand. A wedding ring. Maybe she was a housewife overdressed to bring more importance to the job.
“I found this brass ring and I wanted to wear it for good luck.”
She examined him in a glance, assessing him as a customer. “You could pierce your ear or your nose. Or some other part of your anatomy if you’re into that sort of thing.” She smiled.
Maybe she was a hungry housewife. He could use one. He hadn’t had a woman in a year and a half or so. The last one was an executive for a mail order cosmetics company in Hauppauge who had bounced into Sugar’s with three girlfriends to celebrate her divorce. Billy was sitting at the bar with Tommy Ledge; she sent a drink over to him. He sent a drink back. She sent him another. Soon they were sitting side by side. He went home with her that night. For the next three months, they got together for sex at least once a week after a movie or a restaurant dinner. She usually picked up the check when they ate out. In breaking up, she told him that she liked to be with him, he was terrific in bed, but his disinterest in making a decent living disqualified him as a candidate for marriage. She had to be practical. “Thanks for helping me through this trying time. I’ll never forget you. I’ll always love you,” she said and kissed him goodbye.
Billy looked into the saleswoman’s eyes. He smiled. “I’d like to wear it on a chain around my neck.”
“I think gold would be nice.”
“I’d like one that fits over my head.”
“We’re almost home.” Her voice was suggestive. “Gold. I’d say 30 inches to get over that head. All we need now is a price range.”
“What have you got?”
“I have a beautiful Italian diamond rope on sale for $1,400. Or what they call a lobster design for $250.”
“Whoa,” he said.
She laughed and turned to a cabinet behind her, bending down, offering Billy a view of a voluptuous backside curving to a narrow waist. “I think I have just the thing for you,” she said turning back to him. She held out a sturdy, spiral rope gold chain. “Thirty-eight dollars.”
He slipped the chain through the ring and over his head. He let it hang outside his shirt high on his chest. “Thanks, that’s more my speed, I’ll take it. No need to wrap it. I’ll wear it.” He took two twenties from his wallet.
She took the bills, touching the tips of his fingers sending a charge of excitement through him. “Oops. You’re a little short. We’ve got to pay the taxman. It’s $41.23 with the sales tax.”
He gave her two dollars more. As she rang up the sale, he asked, “What time do you get off?”
“We close at 9.”
“Are you doing anything tonight?”
“Yes. My husband and I are having dinner together.” She dropped the change in his hand. “Wear it with grace,” she said.
He pulled his shirt forward to drop the brass ring and chain onto his chest out of sight. ‘No free ride here,’ Billy thought. He waved goodbye.
Billy walked into Sugar’s about 7:30. Ledge was at the bar with three other clammers. Billy Joel’s “She’s Always A Woman To Me.’ was coming out of the jukebox. Two women in jeans laughing too loud, one tall and skinny, the other about five-four and fleshy, occupied the shuffleboard table. Monnie Dwyer, granddaughter of the original Sugar, was behind the bar staring from her angry face at the two giddy women. The regulars had called Monnie’s mother Sugar Too when she ran the bar, but Monnie was too sour ordinarily and too frightening when she was in a rage to be called anything with Sugar attached to it. She was a widow but her disposition couldn’t be attributed to horniness; Ledge had been boffing her for years.
The original Sugar, Monnie’s grandmother, was the widow of a clammer, whose sharpie was rammed at the entrance to Huntington Harbor by a drunken millionaire at the wheel of a sea-going yacht. The settlement from the court case enabled the original Sugar to open her bar and decorate it with the accoutrements of Huntington’s baymen, both clammers and lobstermen. The walls were lined with photos of the original Sugar, her late husband Howie, their little girl, Roslyn, and baymen renowned for their achievements of bringing in huge lobsters or surviving fierce winter storms or grinning over pitchers of beer at the annual clamfest or on their boats with rakes in hand. Clam rakes and lobster pots were suspended from the pressed tin ceiling.
High on the wall to the left of the wide entranceway to the dining room was a huge television screen running a silent game show. In Sugar’s, Monnie had the power and volume controls behind the bar. If there were a big baseball, football or basketball game on, Monnie killed the sound from the jukebox. Or vice versa. She loved Billy Joel so naturally the TV was on mute. To the right of the dining room entrance was Sugar’s Field of Darts, the space dedicated to the sport at which Billy and Ledge excelled. Theirs was an ongoing contest, played only between the two of them, for the honor of being the Darts Champion of Sugar’s.
“Hey. The heavy hitter has arrived,” Ledge shouted. The other clammers grinned. Billy nodded his head toward the dining room. Ledge slid off his stool. “I am the chosen one selected to share the sea’s bounty,” Ledge announced.
“Hit ‘em again,” Billy said to Monnie pointing to the drinks in front the other clammers.
“Hey. It burns a hole in his pocket,” Ledge said putting his arm around Billy.
They seated themselves at one of the empty tables. Junie, the waitress, came over with menus. “You need these, fellas?” she asked. They didn’t. Both ordered Sugar’s House Steak with oven-fried potatoes, salad, and Jameson’s on the rocks. Ledge said that when he heard about Billy’s big score, he called the wife and told her he would be home late. He knew Billy would appear at Sugar’s to treat him to dinner. What good was a joyful event without a celebration? They touched glasses when the whiskey arrived. “A million clams,” they said in unison.
“How much would that be?” Ledge asked.
“At today’s prices, $160,000. But if you landed with a million clams, they would probably cut the price to a penny a clam.”
Hey. That’s why St. Sisyphus is the patron saint of clammers,” Ledge said, raising his empty glass and two fingers indicating another round to Junie.
Tommy Ledge and Billy moved back to the barroom after they finished eating. The place was alive with laughter and the jukebox and the two boisterous women in jeans playing shuffleboard for beers with a couple of regulars. Monnie served them another round of Jameson’s. Her lips were clamped tight, the fury lines of her forehead and around her mouth seemed deeper. She looked down at the whiskey she poured onto the ice in their glasses and turned away without meeting their eyes, putting the bottle on the shelf and stepping along the bar towards another customer.
“Monnie having her period?” Billy asked sotto voce.
“Hey, she can be a bitch but that’s her problem.” Ledge spun around on the red ersatz leather bar stool. “Hey, ask for the darts. I don’t think she’d give ‘em to me tonight.”
“Ms. Dwyer!” Billy shouted.
Monnie paused in tapping a pint. She pushed the lever closed to turn her attention to Billy. She was wearing a loose Irish cardigan over a green t-shirt emblazoned with a reproduction of a painting of the first Sugar with a laughing face and long red hair. Monnie had inherited neither from her grandmother. She was a hairdresser blonde, square-bodied in her mid-50s with big boobs and a thick belly. She stared at Billy waiting for him to continue.
“Monnie could we get the championship set.”
She finished filling the pint of Harp’s. Seeming to move in slow motion, she placed the two pints before an elderly couple. The man used to be a sports writer at the Daily News. Monnie turned to face Billy again. He didn’t dare speak. As much as Monnie liked him, primarily because he was Ledge’s sidekick, he wouldn’t risk provoking the volcano seething in her. She went to the cabinet near the end of the bar, bending over to show off a wide rear end.
‘Big enough to block the sun,’ Billy thought contrasting it with the lovely haunches the clerk in the jewelry store had displayed. Ledge called Monnie his ladylove. He enjoyed saying ‘I have a wonderful wife and a fantastic ladylove.’ She came back with the mahogany case containing two sets of darts that she had given Ledge on Christmas Eve in 1996. That day stood out in Ledge’s memory and her memory and even in Billy’s, because that was the day she declared that Ledge would have to choose between her and his wife, Robin. While Ledge was squirming over her ultimatum his gall bladder flared and he ended up in the hospital for a major operation underwritten by the generous health insurance policy that went with Robin’s job as a public school teacher. After months at home recuperating, Ledge returned to Sugar’s and his weekly trysts with Monnie. Nothing more was said.
“One game of 301,” Ledge said. He was the current Darts Champion of Sugar’s so he got to choose the game, which invariably was 301. He started off with a bulls-eye, a triple 20 and a 25.
The two women turned away from the shuffleboard to watch the darts game. They were sipping beer from pint glasses with the Sugar’s logo on them.
Billy stepped to the line scoring a bulls-eye on his first throw.
“Not a bad shot at all Saylaaah,” said the blonde with the loud laugh.
Billy looked at her. She had narrow shoulders and nice tits, but was a little too wide and chunky for his taste. Saylaaah. Her pronunciation of Sailor rang in his ears. “Did I see you when I was clamming in Culligan’s Harbor this morning?”
She extended her hand. “That was me, Erin Prendergast. And this is Linda Gold. She got a great shot of you.”
Her accent grated on him. She sounded like William Buckley or the New York Times columnist he heard interviewed on NPR, Maureen Dowd. Billy shook her hand. Warmth flowed through him. “I’m Billy Plunkett and this is Tommy Ledge. You’re watching a championship game here,” he said.
“I can see you’re both very good. What championship is it?”
Ledge jumped in. “The royal champion of Sugar’s. One of those unending contests that will go on for as long as we live.”
“Can I play the winner?”
“Not for the championship. That honor is limited to the exclusive field of Billy and me.”
Billy glanced at the bar. Monnie was staring at them, her face fierce with anger. “We’ve got a game to play,” he said to Ledge, rolling his eyes to indicate that Monnie was watching. He turned his attention to the dartboard, concentrated, and threw a triple 20 with his right hand and whipped the third dart from his left hand into the double lane of the 20.
The two women squealed and applauded. “Can we play a doubles match?” Erin asked.
“Ask the barmaid,” Tommy Ledge said. He grinned mischievously.
Erin picked up on the unspoken message on his face. “Does she own the place?” the blonde asked.
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Ledge said.
“Does she own you too?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Ledge said.
“So obviously she is going to say no, she’s going to say the dart board is reserved for the exclusive use of the select few.”
“You’ve got Monnie down tight,” Ledge said laughing. Still shaking from amusement, he tossed a dart into the 13 pie. “Goddammit,” he shouted. He concentrated on his next two throws scoring a triple 9 and a bulls-eye.
The women quieted. They drank their beer and watched.
On Billy’s third round with 11 points to go, Ledge stood behind him, a grim expression on his weathered face; he hated losing. “What wins?” Erin asked. “He needs to take down 11,” Ledge said.
“That should be easy,” she said.
“Exactly 11. Can’t go over, can’t go under. Not as easy as eating…” Ledge said with a pause before saying. “pie.” He winked at her.
“You dirty old man,” she said, punching him on the shoulder.
“Don’t get too familiar with him or at the very least Monnie will throw you out on your ass,” Billy said softly.
“Do you belong to someone too?” Erin asked.
He paused. He looked at Linda, a willowy brunette with a narrow waist and inviting hips. She fitted the profile of the women he preferred. “I’ve been known to be available,” he said in Linda’s direction. Erin’s face reddened a bit. Embarrassment gripped him. He hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings. He turned his eyes to Erin and repeated: “I’ve been known to be available.”
Erin smiled. “Does that mean you’re available to whoever’s available to you?” She looked at Linda, and both laughed.
Billy turned his attention back to the dart board. He stood with his eyes locked on the target, the dart in his hand at his side. Waiting until their laughter subsided, he snapped his right hand level with his ear and threw: a six. Then a four and a one.
“Goddamit,” Ledge said.
“Ladies, you are looking at the new darts champion of Sugar’s,” Billy said.
“Bullshit,” Ledge said. He went to the bar to buy two more Irish whiskeys and two beers for the women. Monnie was slow in filling the order.
Erin told Billy that she was staying at the little house above Culligan’s Harbor for a couple of weeks. He told her that the official name was The Guest Cottage. When Ledge finally returned with the whiskeys and the schooners of beer, Billy wondered to himself whether Monnie spit in the beers. The four of them touched glasses in a toast to the new champion. Erin and Linda were called back to the shuffleboard for their next game. Ledge, his voice grown fuzzier from his seventh Irish whiskey of the night, looked after the two women’s swinging behinds and murmured, “Hey I wish I was free like you. I could take the skinny one and you could have the fat blonde.” He looked over at Monnie, who was watching from behind the bar. “I got a nice thing going with my ladylove, but I’m a prisoner of her love. She’d hit me over the head with a bottle if I walked out the door with one of them.”
Tommy Ledge was so staggering drunk that Billy enticed him into coming home with him on the promise he would show him a piece of wood sculpture that would startle him. Throughout the eight block walk to the house, Ledge chuckled in anticipation of some wild pornographic feast for the eyes. Despite the midnight hour, Billy had called Robin Ledge to assure her that her husband was spending the night with him. She didn’t thank him for the call, for keeping her husband from crashing into a tree or a lamp pole, which he had done several times over the years always escaping serious injury, and drunk driving charges because he knew all the cops and they liked him. Robin didn’t trust Ledge. Billy figured she either knew or suspected that Monnie and Ledge were having an affair. She probably didn’t trust him either because of his friendship with Ledge.
Opening the front door, Billy heard the thump of Sweeney jumping off the living room couch where he usually slept. The old Lab came to the front door, mouth open, tail wagging.
“Stick with the dog. He takes you as you are,” Ledge said. He roughed Sweeney’s head with his two hands. “Hey, this is one great animal.” He flopped down on the couch. “Life’s a bitch,” he said. Billy thought Ledge was going to cry.
Ledge asked Billy if he had noticed how big Monnie’s belly had gotten a few months ago. He did. He had wondered if she were experiencing one of those late-in-life pregnancies that the newspapers wrote about periodically. That would have caused an earthquake in the Ledge household. He shrugged his shoulders, indicating he hadn’t been aware of Monnie’s belly. Not too swift a notion to have studied another man’s ladylove too closely. Ledge petted and roughed Sweeney while he continued speaking, looking straight ahead, detached from the dog and man in the room with him. He said that Monnie was terrified. She thought she had uterine cancer; her mother had died of breast cancer. In the hospital just before they wheeled her into the operating room, she squeezed his hand, hard, and told him that this was a time when she really needed him, not for fucking, but for support, to be there when she left and when she came back with whatever the news was, good or bad, and to be at the house with her while she recovered, to hold her close whenever she needed to be squeezed or maybe whenever he wanted to hold her in his arms to prove he loved her. But no, he had to go home to that woman. That’s what she always called Robin, that woman.
Monnie had a tumor, that’s what made her belly bloat, but it turned out to be benign. Instead of celebrating the good news, she got angry. She told him it was now or never. He had to choose between her and Robin. No more being his ladylove. She wanted to be the wife or nothing. She had been threatening to call Robin, to have it out with her if Ledge didn’t have the guts to tell her.
“Where’s the big surprise?” Ledge said, his mind coming back into the room, looking at Billy.
“Come on into the bedroom.”
“Hey that sounds very interesting, but I’m not that way, even when I’m drunk.” He chuckled.
“Come on,” Billy said pulling him to his feet.
The bed was unmade, but Ledge who normally would have made some stinging, witty remark didn’t notice. He gasped. His portrait in wood stood on the dresser with an expression as forlorn as he felt. He stepped closer. The wooden sculpture was wearing a Yankees baseball cap, like the one he had on his head at this moment. His cap was blue, a sweat line ridging the rim. The wood sculpture’s cap was reddish like the wood, but the rim was worked to give the impression of sweat staining. The lower half of Y and the left stem of N on the sculpture were gone just as they were from the worn blue cap on his head. But the face was what got him. Billy had carved into a piece of wood the anguish that was burning his soul.
“It’s me. And that’s how you see me. You caught me. That’s just how I feel; that this life is worthless. I can’t sleep. My wife tortures me. My ladylove tortures me. She can’t let things ride. She wants it all. I can’t do that to Robin. She’s the mother of my children. She’s a wonderful woman. She was a wonderful mother. I don’t know how I got involved with Monnie, but I did. I almost hoped that I could tell Robin and she would understand, then I could go out with Monnie and come home to Robin. The family on one side, Monnie on the other. Why can’t we do things like that? But I’m caught between the two of them. My life isn’t worth living. Monnie says it’s her turn. I’ve got to go with her, that I haven’t any choice.”
A rush of pleasure filled Billy. Ledge was the first person to see his sculpture. He had done dozens of birds and fish. Good pieces, but his portrait of Ledge and the full figure of Patsy, his ex-wife, standing on the table in the corner of the bedroom, were works of art. Ledge’s stunned reaction told him how good the sculpture was. The work was as alive to him as to Billy. He wanted Ledge to examine the statue of Patsy without him urging him on. He wanted his friend to turn to her figure to say, Billy I never imagined you were so good. Maybe so great an artist.
Ledge lurched to the dresser. He wrapped his arms around the sculpture, bowed his head over it, and wept.
Billy felt uncomfortable and awkward. Men like Ledge didn’t cry; in the worst of circumstances they swallowed their tears. He hesitantly put his hand on Ledge’s shoulder. “You’ll be alright. You had a little too much to drink.”
Ledge looked at him. He moaned, “Billy,” but couldn’t speak further.
Sweeney who had been watching the drama with as much interest as a Yellow Lab could muster suddenly snapped into action. He rushed the front door barking. Billy took the sculpture from Ledge. He put it back on the dresser and went out to see what excited Sweeney. He opened the door to Robin Ledge. “Okay Sweeney boy. You know Robin.” He pushed the dog back away from the door.
“Is he here?”
“Come on in Robin.”
“Is he here?” she said again, her voice betraying the fury she felt.
“I’ll get him.” She stepped into the living room as he went the short distance to the bedroom. She could see Ledge through the open bedroom door sitting on the bed, holding his head in his hands.
Billy put a comforting hand on Ledge’s shoulder.
“Don’t let her see it,” Ledge said to him.
They went into the living room, where Robin looked with hatred at her husband. She hadn’t found him out this time, but she had no doubt there would be a next time and the floozy from Sugar’s would be with him.
* * *
Billy’s mind was churning much too much to sleep. Ledge was the first person to whom he had shown Introspection. That’s what Billy entitled the piece. The name was on the bottom, but Ledge was so bowled over by his portrait whose expression showed his dissatisfaction with his life that he hadn’t turned the sculpture over where he would seen the word Introspection carved in the base. Until he did the sculpture, Billy had considered Ledge a happy-go-lucky fellow, quick to spout amusing quips. It was as though his hands knew more than he did. He found Ledge’s unhappiness in the wood. He had had the same experience with the nude figure of Patsy, his ex-wife. He called her sculpture Distance. He had set out to create Patsy as he remembered her early in their marriage when she said she loved him and acted as though she really did. He worked from photos and sketches and recall. Once again his hands uncovered the truth in the wood. His hands cut a distant expression into her eyes as though she were looking past him. He realized that this was her face on the day she left him. He didn’t understand how deeply he loved her until she was gone and he experienced a hole in his being as though a tunnel had been drilled through his body.
He filled the kettle, put it on the stove to boil, and lit the kindling in the small fireplace in the living room. He turned on the CD player listening to Joshua Bell’s haunting violin on the sound track of “Ladies in Lavender.” His sister, Eileen, had given the CD for Christmas. When the water boiled, he brewed a four-minute cup of Irish Breakfast tea in a mug embossed with a colorful picture of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that he acquired when he traveled there to see the Rodin collection. He sliced two slabs from the pound cake. He had a passion for pound cake; usually he made his own.
Billy sat in his worn easy chair, a remnant of his marriage, listening to the music, watching the flames, feeling the warmth of the fire, sipping his tea, and eating the cake.
After the CD played out, he went to bed. While waiting for sleep, he mulled the subject of what would be his third human sculpture. The final piece of his trio cut from three logs of the same giant cherry tree. He had seriously considered a full figure of himself in the nude. The naked body represented natural beauty and the stripping away of the camouflages that hid the essence of the person. He had been hesitant about doing a self portrait for fear of what his hands might uncover in the wood. His reluctance to begin the work was reinforced by the hiatus in his life created by his bout with the flu; he had been unable to clam or sculpt. Perhaps that was a sign he should search further for the appropriate subject.
After a morning of hesitation, lying in the warmth of his covers listening to National Public Radio longer than usual, having coffee at home and again at the Bay View Deli, fiddling with his motor and his aluminum poles, Billy and Sweeney motored slowly away from his mooring in Huntington Harbor, picking up speed as he moved into the bay. It was 10 o’clock, the breeze soft and the sun sending down a pleasant warmth, as he crossed into Culligan’s Harbor.
Yesterday’s vast haul and a whiskey headache made clamming seem like a mountain too high to climb. He decided to vary his routine by digging oysters. And, by going ashore, just below The Guest Cottage, he would increase the chance of running into Erin and Linda again. He had been unaware of when they slipped out of Sugar’s last night. He preferred the brunette, but the blonde would do in this time of need.
Billy knew from past forays there were concentrations of cocktail oysters along the beach. They would bring 50 cents apiece. With luck, he could make a good day’s pay without too much effort. He steered the sharpie onto the sand just below the Culligan Estate’s Guest Cottage. He hauled the boat onto land, tying a long line around a boulder as an extra precaution. Sweeney sniffed the sand, the bushes with their red winter berries, and several tree trunks before running off along the shoreline. Billy took one of his sorting buckets out of the sharpie to collect the oysters.
He had been bending and picking for about an hour when her voice startled him: “Is that your dog, Sailor? He’s a beauty.”
He turned. He smiled. “We meet again, Erin.” She was alone.
“You just let him take off like that?”
“He loves to run after he’s been cooped up in the boat,” he said, thinking, ‘You should try it.’ (‘Don’t be nasty,’ Harvey said.)
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Hey those are my oysters. This is private property. I’ll call the police if you don’t leave right now.” She sounded so dumb to herself. Logically, there was no reason for her to climb down from the cottage. She couldn’t explain why, but she wanted to connect with him.
He looked at the woman in her expensive cashmere sweater and tight jeans that emphasized the soft fat larding her belly and backside. He wondered if she were purposely putting on the drawl or whether it was rooted in her family or acquired from an Ivy League education. The tone of her voice was a light-hearted tease. She was trying to be funny, but she irritated him. Billy said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Below the high water mark, this is town land open to anybody with a shellfish license.” (Harvey, with a sneer in his voice, said: ‘Don’t be such a hardass boob.’)
“Maybe I should call my lawyer. Ask his opinion. Maybe get a restraining order.”
(‘Be nice; she’s trying to be amusing,’ Harvey said.)
“Where’s your girlfriend?” Billy asked.
“My twin? Linda? She had a ton of work to do this morning. That’s why we left early last night. She’s banging away at her computer up in the cottage right now.” She could see he was mulling the memory of two women with mismatched hair and radically different bodies. Twins? She was short, broad-shouldered, fatter than she should be, and haughty. Linda was tall and slender, not beautiful, her teeth were a bit too big, but she had bright eyes and a contagious grin that was compelling as though she really was enjoying to whomever she was speaking.
“Which one of you is married?”
His response amused her. She held up her left hand. The only bare finger was the ring finger. She wore rings of different-colored gems on her pinky, middle and index fingers. “I’m one of those free and restless career women.”
So the desirable one was married. “I’ve got work to do,” he said going back to picking the oysters from the sand and dropping them into the bucket.
“Are they good?”
“Very,” he said.
“Could I try a couple?”
He stood up, holding an oyster in his hand. “Picking oysters for me is the same as picking up half dollars. If you want me to pick up two for you, the price is a dollar. If you want to pick up your own, they’re free.”
“Don’t I need a license?
“I won’t tell anyone. I’m not a squealer.”
“Now that I know who you’re not, tell me who you are.”
“I’m a bayman. This is what I do for a living. Mostly, I dig clams, but once in a while I come ashore for oysters. Not very often.” He went back to picking the oysters.
She stepped in front of him. “I wasn’t asking for a monologue on your occupation. I know you’re a clammer and an oysterer, if that’s the right word, I’ve seen you in action. I wanted to know your name. You told me last night, but I forgot it.” She knew his name, but she was gaming him.
He stood straight. “Billy Plunkett” And bent over to continue oystering.
“Billy, not Bill, not William.” He nodded. She held out her hand. “I’m Erin Prendergast, Billy. Let me say it again so I don’t forget. Billy. Billy. Billy. That’s a well-worn technique for burning a name into the brain.”
He smirked, but he took her hand in his. There was a warmth that flowed from her soft skin through his calloused fingers and palm spreading up his arm and through his body like a rolling fog bank that immersed his being in a soothing pleasure. They stood there linked for a time too long to be socially acceptable. He said, “Nice to meet you again, Erin. As I said, I’m Billy Plunkett.”
“Wow. You have a nice handshake Billy.” She felt his touch to the core of her body, just like last night in Sugar’s.
He nodded again. He wanted to tell her how surprisingly good her flesh felt, but that would have been inappropriate. “Cup your hands,” he said. He reached into the bucket to fetch a dozen oysters. He piled them onto her two hands. “Compliments of the house. Be careful opening them.”
“Thank you Billy Plunkett. I love oysters. I’m a very experienced woman. You might say I’m a master shucker. But I’ve never had them as fresh as this. I’ll bet they’re wonderful.”
“Right.” He turned back to the chore of picking oysters from the sand. He felt a strange ache across the front of his chest, from shoulder to shoulder, a longing to experience the touch of her hand again.
“I would invite you up to the cottage for a cup of coffee, but Linda made me swear that I would be gone for an hour. That was 10 minutes ago. She’s in one of those creative funks where she’s up against a wall and facing a deadline. She would tear our heads off if we disturbed her. That’s the nice thing about a simple job like yours. You spend your time in the fresh air picking up the fruits of nature.”
“Or digging them out of the water.”
“Or digging them out of the water. No one disturbs you. You work alone. You’re a free spirit. Are there many regulations restricting what you do?”
“Tons. As you might say. We got bay constables watching us, cops, the Coast Guard, State Conservation.”
“I hate regulations and regulators. There’s always some hack passing laws to restrict our freedoms.”
“How did we get on this subject?”
“Because I’m trying to impress you Billy. I wanted you to be aware of my
significance. I’m a woman with a mission out to shake the world.”
He grinned. “And all I’m trying to do is make a living.”
“That’s fine. I have a passion for expanding freedom, Billy, on the micro level to make sure that in the United States people like you can make your living without the ridiculous restrictions some people are always trying to impose. And more broadly to spread democracy across the globe. So everyone in the whole world can be as free and prosperous as we are.” Why did she make that pompous speech? Why was she trying to impress this guy? she asked herself.
“Nice talking to you Erin. Nice seeing you again. Now I’m going to get back to the nitty gritty of my mission in life.”
She sat on a rock, wrapping her arms around herself to watch him raking the sand and picking up oysters. ‘What an absolutely tedious, boring life,’ she thought.
The oysters, opened and succulent, were arranged in semi-circles, six on each of the two green floral plates Erin placed on the coffee table in front of the fireplace.
Linda was lying back on the couch, her long legs extending onto the coffee table. “Mmmmh. Sooo that’s the surprise.”
“More to come Twinnie.” She went back into the kitchen, returning with a bottle of iced Dom Perignon, two fluted glasses, and a red kitchen towel. Pointing the bottle, draped under the towel, at the ceiling , she twisted off the cork with a loud pop. The foaming wine was poured into the glasses. “Is 1990 a good year?”
“Jiminy Crickets, I haven’t got a clue, but I do know this will be a total waste of an aphrodisiactic feast. One of us should be a man.”
She opened her mouth wide cackling happily before she managed to say: “I hope this combination isn’t potent enough to knock down our inhibitions. How would I ever tell my mother I licked my best friend’s pussy?”
“They say it’s like kissing a man with a beard.”
“To men with beards,” she said raising her glass to Linda.
Linda drank some champagne, then slurped an oyster from the half shell, chewed with enthusiasm and drank the juice remaining in the shell. “Mmmmh. I’m glad you didn’t waste these on some sorry man. Where did you get them? They’re heavenly.”
“Right off the beach. From a man with a beard.”
They slurped, chewed and drank until the oysters and the Dom Perignon were gone. Erin lay back with her legs spread wide. “Always works. Always makes me feel so wonderfully horny.”
“You don’t needs oysters and champagne to get turned on,” Linda said.
“True. True. The right man would do it with the emphasis on right.” She held up her hand to stop Linda from responding. “Aha. Maybe that’s the trouble Twinnie. Maybe I’ve fallen into a right wing rut. Every man I go to bed with seems to be shaped from the same mold. College Republican National Committee, soft on the outside, steel on the inside ala Karl Rove, wanting to be Karl Rove. Soft of belly, wire-rim glasses, prematurely balding. Talking politics and money. Acceptable, but not wildly memorable in bed or in conversation. And eventually boring.”
“Sounds like you could use a change of pace Erin.”
She lay half-slumped on the couch, shoulder touching Linda, warm and comfortable. The flames of the fire licking the air, a log bursting into sparks. She thought of the bearded clammer and the touch of his hand. She dozed into a delicious sleep.
* * *
On Sunday morning after Linda left for the city, she found a Suffolk telephone book. He was listed. She dialed the number. Ten rings. No answer or answering machine. That was irritating. Maybe he was out clamming. She went out onto the terrace to scan Culligan’s Harbor. Only rolling water and birds. Back in the house, she dressed, then drove to the bakery in the village where she bought four Danish, two cheese and two blueberry. Returning to The Guest Cottage, she made fresh coffee, changed into silk pajamas and a wool robe for warmth. She took the Danish, the pot of coffee and the New York Times to bed. After she finished the crossword puzzle, she called him. No answer.
In late afternoon, not long before sunset, she drove to the address in the telephone book. She was dismayed. An ancient pickup was parked in the driveway of a shabby little house, a relic of another age. On one side was a truck yard enclosed by a 12-foot high chain link fence topped by razor wire. On other side was a big flat-roofed shack, the exterior walls covered by pseudo-brick siding, inside a plate glass window was a red neon sign flashing ‘computer service.’ Atop the shack was a weathered, painted sign, Satellite dishes installed. She checked the address and the map again to be certain. She was looking at poverty. Clamming and oystering gave him fresh air and his own business, but not money. His big dog appeared at the gate of the chain link fence blocking the cracked concrete walkway leading into the backyard. The beast stared for a moment at her sitting in her Jaguar, then bared his teeth and barked ferociously. Erin decided against provoking the animal by getting out of the car. She dialed Billy’s number again on her cell phone. After 10 rings, she hung up. The dog had quieted, sitting, watching her. She honked the Jaguar’s horn provoking another round of fierce barking.
As she started the car, the dog turned away from the fence. Billy appeared at the gate.
“You looking for me?” he asked. He smiled. He had thought about her all night Friday, all day yesterday, and had her on his mind as he worked at chiseling a thick, wide piece of oak in the very beginning of a wood sculpture of two Double-crested cormorants sweeping across Huntington Bay. He had been thinking about this piece for a long time. The tree man who rented space in the truck yard next store, had become a source of great hunks of wood in exchange for a few dozen clams every once in a while. He brought the oak to him just before Christmas, and Billy had given him a sculpture of a red tailed hawk for his wife, who was fascinated by Central Park’s Pale Male. Billy’s model was a hawk he had often seen while clamming in the bay near the mouth of Long Island Sound.
“You’re hard to forget.”
“Should I take that as a compliment?”
“Good. Now down to business. I had an aha! You gave me, a flash of inspiration. I’m putting together the menu for a fund raiser at the estate, and I said to myself, ‘Wow Long Island clams and oysters right out of the water in the backyard would be phenomenal.’ I had this vision of a bayman standing behind a little bar, you get me, a clam and oyster bar, in his work regalia opening clams and oysters on the spot for the guests. I thought you could help me out with it?”
He sighed. “I don’t usually sell retail. I have a buyer. A middleman. He sells to stores and people and restaurants.”
“Do you ever open clams and oysters at parties?”
“Not really.” He felt uncomfortable with that answer. Technically, he was telling the truth. Sounded like a Jesuit giving a cute answer. He and Tommy Ledge were the clam-opening team at the annual Huntington Clammers’ Festival on the town green. Their knives pried apart the
shells to expose the succulent flesh of a couple of thousand hard-shell clams during the weekend festival. He decided to be honest. “I’ve opened a lot of clams in my life. And for crowds of people.”
“Good. Then maybe we can do business. I’m asking you to get me clams, a bunch of clams right out of the water, and oysters too. And then play the picturesque role of the bayman feeding the masses. Of course I’m going to pay you for your time and the clams and oysters.”
Billy felt attracted to her. He couldn’t understand why? She was fat and pushy, something of a con artist; the only thing appealing about her was between her legs.
She put her hand on his arm. “Please.”
He felt that same surge of delightful warmth that came when they shook hands the other day. That nudged him into saying, “I’ll do clams, not oysters. How many clams do you want and when is this fund raiser?”
Billy carried the two bags of clams, 250 Little Necks in each bag, a bag in each hand, into the Culligan Mansion’s huge kitchen, where a chef and half a dozen assistants were chopping, sorting, cooking, tasting, and arranging intricate displays of hors d’oeurves on serving dishes. The chef handed him over to the sous-chef, who opened and dumped one bag, on a stainless steel counter. He examined the pile of clams. “Beautiful,” he said. He spread the gray hard-shell bivalves across the surface of the counter. He picked up a clam, examined it turning it in his hands, sniffed it. “Ahhh. The scent of the sea.” He looked at Billy. “You dug them? You are the clammer?” Billy nodded. The sous chef smiled, “We’re going to transform these into clams casino. The rest goes to your clam bar.” He turned for a moment, looking around the kitchen. “Gerri,” he called to an assistant dressed in a white cotton kitchen uniform. “This is our clammer. Take him to his station upstairs.”
“Did you bring any tools?” she asked.
Billy held up a well-worn clam knife.
“Is that your uniform of the night?”
“I’m supposed to look like a clammer. This is what clammers wear.” He was dressed in jeans and a heavy blue work shirt opened at the collar to expose the top of a green t-shirt.
“Follow me,” she said, twisting her hand in the air above her and motioning him with her thumb to tag along behind her. She walked in a hurry, just short of a run. “So much to do,” she said over her shoulder as they passed through another set of swinging doors into the Culligan Mansion’s great hall. She led him to a narrow raw wooden table beneath a striped green and blue awning with a sign saying: “Fresh Clams from Culligan Bay” “I think everything you need is right here. Anything missing let me know right now.”
The clam bar was set in a corner at the edge of seven multi-paned, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a lawn that swept down to Long Island Sound. The bar had a thick wooden cutting board for a work station set between two banks of crushed ice where the clams could be kept chilled on display.
“Looks good to me,” he said going behind the table. He slid his clam knife from the holster on his waist, rolled up his sleeves and realized there was no stool or chair or even a wall to lean against.
“I figure you have about 50 servings if you give each customer five opened clams. That’s not too much and not too little.” She left with a wave goodbye.
Erin and Linda came through the big doors on the far side of the room. They walked directly to the clam bar. Linda took Billy’s hand, a sparkling smile on her face. She held on while she turned to Erin: “Just like you said, a strong, manly hand. Real calluses. I’m afraid I didn’t get the magical charge you did.” She winked at Billy.
“Puhlease. You weren’t supposed to say that,” Erin said.
Linda laughed, releasing his hand. She said, “On to more practical matters. I saw you in your boat this morning, and the Muse of Advertising spoke to me. A consumer of one, she said to me. I have a small advertising shop in the city and I’ve been looking for the perfect model for a campaign that combines Scottish tea and Scottish shortbread. Have you ever modeled?” Her words snapped his mind away from the thought that Erin Prendergast had experienced an unusual sensation just as he did when they touched. Linda handed him her business card. “I would really love to talk to you. I’m staying with Erin tonight so maybe you can stop by after this event and have a glass of wine and talk out my idea.”
“Sure,” he said. He was conscious of the brass ring under his shirt. Part of the ride?
* * *
Erin waited until they walked well beyond Billy’s listening range. She took Linda by the arm and bent over in laughter.
“You nasty bitch. Come into my web said the spider. So this Neanderthal turns you on?”
“Some like ‘em big and strong. I like his voice. I like the touch of his hand. I can imagine the touch of his beard,” Erin said widening her eyes for emphasis.
“My muse tells me that the Scottish tea and shortbread pitch would be a grand way to ease your Billy Boy into a kilt. And you know what Highlanders wear under kilts.”
* * *
The guests, men in dark suits, women in cocktail dresses and tasteful jewelry, began arriving just after seven. They flowed in a predictable current from the bars with wines, beers, whiskeys and sparkling waters in hand to the buffet anchored at the opening end by two well-larded women in white with puffy chef toques carving ham and beef onto freshly-baked rolls, followed by piles of breads, salads, shrimp, chop suey, cheeses, pastry-wrapped hot dogs, miniature egg rolls, Swedish meatballs and chicken wings, the array ending with trays of clams casino. The raw clam bar with little plates, small silver forks, oyster crackers, and a variety of mixed sauces and ingredients for those with a preference for creating their own concoctions, was the final treat. Billy cut and scooped, as instructed, five clams to a plate. He discovered from snatches of conversation, the guests were from the city and Washington as well as Long Island and that this was a $5,000 a head fund raiser. That was five weeks income for him during a good season with the right winds and no storms. When things went wrong, he might put eight weeks on the water to make that much money.
A five-piece band with a guitar in the lead and a female singer played from the top 100 pop songs competing with the din of conversation, shouts of laughter and greetings.
As 8:30 approached, the noise subsided, people turned, and applause broke out to welcome a frail, stooped man with thinning white hair, walking slowly into the room with his right hand on the arm of a Chinese man with a shaved head and a serene expression. A step behind him was a slender, elderly woman in a simple flowered dress, her thick white hair in a bun; she had a small, sharp nose and wore wire glasses. Billy suspected the new arrival was Ralph Xavier Culligan III, his assumption confirmed when the guitarist strummed the opening bars and many in the crowd joined the singer in words that were well-known to hard-line conservatives: “Hey Bill Clinton the Root Beer King says no way, keep your hands off America’s sweethearts or you’ll rue the day. Hey Bill Clinton the end is near, when you’re gone we’re gonna cheer and order another round of Culligan’s Root Beer.” They lifted their hands over their heads to clap, laugh, shout and cheer.
A couple of weeks ago, Billy had listened to a radio program observing Culligan’s 92nd birthday describing how much he enjoyed being called the Root Beer King, a title endowed on his great-grandfather by a press agent and assumed in each succeeding generation by the eldest son baptized Ralph Xavier. Culligan was a fervent patriot, who was too young to serve in World War I and too involved with his family’s business ventures in steel, oil, and coal to risk himself in World War II. He had a particular hatred for Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his socialist tendencies and for plunging the United States into the war by squeezing the flow of oil to Japan and flagrantly arming Britain through the Lend Lease program. His patient feeding of money into conservative causes began to payoff in the 1980s and had reached fruition shortly after the dawn of the 21st Century with the arrival of the Conservative Trinity: a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and a Republican president. For the first time since Ralph Landon’s run for the presidency against FDR in 1936, there was an opportunity to shatter FDR’s crown jewel, Social Security. “That would the best gift anyone could give me on my 93rd birthday. It would be so good for all Americans to end the incredibly costly payroll taxes and to allow individuals to use that money to fund their own, personally-owned retirement accounts,” Culligan told the NPR interviewer. Asked for his reaction, Bill Clinton said, “Now I like a good root beer, but I have to be honest with you all, I don’t like the taste of Culligan’s root beer and I don’t like Ralph Culligan’s politics. Maybe if he wasn’t born with a dozen gold spoons in his pocket just in case he ever lost the one in his mouth, he might have a different understanding of the benefits of Social Security to a man or woman who had to work hard all of their lives.”
The NPR feature was spiced with the tidbit that security had become Culligan’s overriding concern upon turning 90. A Chinese man, identified by his nom de plume, Ho Ho, said to be one of the foremost Tai Chi Chuan masters, doubled as Culligan’s human cane and bodyguard. Deborah Arod, a clairvoyant with a dedicated world-wide following, accompanied Culligan wherever he went, even into the Oval Office, to use her peculiar talents to discern the character and intentions of those with whom he met. Clinton said, “I’d love to hear Ms. Arod’s reading of Dick Cheney.”
Culligan was helped by Ho Ho onto the raised platform that held the band. He thanked everyone for singing his second favorite song, ‘Culligan versus Clinton.’ He said to peals of laughter and applause, “My favorite, of course, is Happy Birthday Ralph. Just can’t get enough of that one.” He called Erin Prendergast to the stage, kissed her on both cheeks, told her to turn around and using her back as a desk wrote out a check for $250,000, telling his audience that this sum was to match the money raised that night for TRUE, Ten Republicans United for the Environment. “Subject to an audit, of course,” he said to more appreciative laughter. “This young woman has done a helluva job for America.”
Erin signaled Linda, who came onto the stage carrying a red box. “I know you have this thing about not taking anything from anybody, but TRUE wants you to remember this night, Ralph. I am presenting you with the first and maybe the last Golden Green Elephant Award for everything you’ve done to develop crucial supplies of oil and natural gas so crucial to keeping America running and prosperous.” She took a small elephant strung from a red, white and blue ribbon which she placed over Culligan’s head. “That’s real gold with a green patina,” she said to applause.
Several times as Culligan and Erin spoke, Billy sensed that someone was staring at him. Across the width of the room, at the foot of the stairs leading onto the stage was the elderly woman who had followed Culligan into the room. She looked intently at Billy. Their eyes locked, andBilly, not she, turned away. Several times, he looked back at her and found she was gazing at him.
Billy had very few clams left when Erin led Culligan and his small entourage across the room.
“This is the young man who fascinates you,” Culligan said to the clairvoyant. His voice was soft, but the eyes in his wrinkled face, seemed like agates of steel, appraising Billy. “Step out here young man where Madam Arod can get a better look at you.”
He walked the few steps around the clam bar. “Are you going to try some Huntington Little Necks sir? They came out of Culligan Harbor this morning.” His face flushed as he heard himself sounding like a toady.
“I used to dig them myself when I was a boy like you. I understand from Erin you take oysters from my beach too. How come you didn’t bring any this evening?”
Billy considered recovering from the self-inflicted wound to his ego by telling Culligan, as he did Erin, that everything under the high water mark belonged to the people of the Town of Huntington. (‘Why unnecessarily confront the old man?’ Harvey said