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"Ken, hey. You don't look so much like an insurance guy no more," observes George, the Greek Orthodox half of George and Iris, owners of one of the two dilapidated shacks on this, the last sparsely populated and nearly unknown sliver of outer, outer Cape Cod.
You hear George clear as a bell, even though he has hooked you, gaffed you and split you in half. As if that wasn't enough, he then toted you over to his neighbor Ken's shack and slapped half of you inches above a white-hot coalbed. Since George is providing dinner, he feels the right to make personal comments to his host. So does Iris, who spun and dressed the salad. "Mousse in your hair, Ken? And a gold chain? Oh my..."
But Kenneth is way past the mousse and the chain. He's fixated on the orthodontist appointment next month. Made after two boinks and six Bellinis. It's one reason he's bingeing on the honeysuckle iced tea.
When you had the misfortune to run into George you were a nine-pound striper. Now you've been cut into a four and a half pound side. But that means you still have one eye and half a brain. Which tells you some awesome sin you committed down in the deep has landed you in fish Hell. Fire and brimstone torment your flesh, and the creatures you see all around you are clearly gigantic demons; ugly-ass monsters. Your last oceanic memory was the silvery storm whirling around you, a cyclone of flashing shapes, the wildest, vastest, striper stampede you've ever been in. And then the huge roll of the sea, the explosion of foaming current, the hunger, the smell of raw flesh. Even as the flames leap, you still salivate over it, the overwhelming urge to just open your jaws and...
But now, now that you're in Hell, the infernal noise you suffer rivals the hot coals for agony:
It's the thunderous blather of the demons - as they sit in their beach chairs and proclaim their selfish woes, revving themselves up with hooch to devour whatever char will be left of you.
Even with half a brain and a broiling eye you can see what gnaws at them. The sense these demons have that their fates are way, way out of their hands. That some other being, inevitably, some demon other than themselves, pushes them to do what they do and suffer what they suffer.
For instance, here goes Kenneth, erupting the instant Martha swishes by and climbs the squeaking steps. "She's on me to get braces," he moans to the old neighbors.
"Braces, at my age. She says my teeth make me look like a moonshiner's mule."
"She wants to turn you into Rhett Butler," Iris says, swatting a mosquito in the dark. "A Rhett Butler you're not."
"My closet is bursting," he adds. "I never knew there was such a thing as summer shoes for men."
In his moussaka-thick accent, George chimes in. "She smells like that little tree I hang on my mirror rearview..."
Normally, when the first of August rolls around, Kenneth Crenshaw, Jr. is alone in the old, weathered shack at the Cape. But this time he has a drawling girlfriend with him and everything is different. For sanity's sake, Kenneth needs his annual hermit's respite from the soot-caked towers of old, graybeard Hartford, insurance purveyor to the world. Year in and year out, he occupies a musty cube nineteen stories up in The Meckler Casualty Building. This is where he sits and prognosticates. He does so wedged in his J. Press of New Haven flannels, staring at screens and calculating the ways acts of God might fiscally affect the cranberry growers of the Cape, plus a zillion other reapers and sowers worldwide.
The Meckler Building casts a dark shadow over the downtown area. The shadow falls right across the ancient green with the original stocks and pillories, and is darkest when the sun shines bright.
A dust-up right in the next cube over is what's thrown the whole Crenshaw routine out of whack. The Cratchett who sat there was summarily forced into early retirement. Two days later, into the cube marches a reverse carpet-bagger, a post-post-deb named Martha; a Deep South Martha who has never heard that, north of Philly, yawl isn't a salutation but a sailing ship.
Before long, Kenneth has a few too many Georgia Peach Bellinis on the balcony of Martha's high rise, and now, shazam, here she is in the belly of the Yankee man-cave, filling the salt air with mint julep subjects such as Big Brown the horse and the upcoming Belmont Stakes. Also in the air is the haunting reek of her Magnolia perfume, mingling weirdly with the smoke and crackle of you and your omega-3 body parts.
"What's up with the press?" Martha complains. She speaks the word press in two syllables: PRE-YESS. "The first time in thirty years we have a potential Triple Crown winner and nobody, I mean nobody, talks about it." This actually is her exit line, en route to the john, after a ten-minute rant on the injuries and heroics of Big Brown. She crosses her heart and promises to say more when she returns.
Kenneth, well into his seventh tumbler of what Martha calls her secret honeysuckle iced tea, could have sworn he heard the rustle of a hoop skirt in the lull right after a breaking wave.
That hoop-skirt sound rakes Kenneth's ears again, even though Martha's definitely in Lily Pulitzer shorts. Before she even reaches her chair, she makes good on her promise and launches a new discourse on Big Brown. "Thank God, he showed no blood today in that left front hoof. Do you all know what he has? Do you even know?"
Without waiting for an answer, Martha informs the group Big Brown has a quarter crack being held together by steel sutures. The pain, when he steps on it, is considerable. Like a shattered big toenail on a human. "And still he races," she says, "and still he wins. All because of human greed. The tyrants who own him caused this. They should be tarred and feathered."
"Just one fucking minute," you say, but way out of their sonic range. "One is bitching about possible wire on his teeth and the big four-footed bastard has a toenail boo-boo. Get real! Do you demons even have a concept of pain?"
A tongue of flame makes the point, licking your lone gill.
George wrests the cork from a bottle of young retsina and Kenneth winces. It's the wine that tastes like turpentine, he frets, and resolves to stick with the honeysuckle tea.
"Did I ever tell driving story?" George begins."Who of you knows..."
"I know," Iris says. "Of course I know. I was there from ..."
The story George tells is about how, as a foreign man approaching fifty, he never would have learned to drive in New York - subways and buses would have sufficed - except there was someone who drove him to it.
She nagged and nagged, he says, until at last he capitulated and found a driving school. "Just cause I fish and drive boat with closed eyes don't mean I know car. Car is no boat..."
What became clear the moment he had his pink slip was that George had a gifted hand for driving, but in one place: indoors in tight spaces. "In garage under building I was king. I could have worked Manhattan parking cars pre-theater."
Where they lived at the time was up around the Cloisters, where everything is ledges and slopes. One dead-of-winter night Iris sent George outside the building on an errand to White Plains. He successfully exited the garage, but then shot down a right-angled ledge like he was squeezing a finned Cadillac into a Smart Car space. He skidded, swerved and finally jumped the ledge and crashed to smithereens, three stories below.
For all intents and purposes he was a dead man, alone in a crumpled steel trap on an urban glacier. But in two or three ticks of his unstoppable Timex, purchased duty free in the Athens airport, someone was hovering over him. An official expert on death and dying.
"Not a cop, not a fireman," Iris says, "but a Catholic priest. He's holding George up by the collar and giving the last rites."
"And what you think I do?" George exclaims. "I wake up and tell him go to hell."
Martha, in a mellifluous kudzu whisper, informs Kenneth that the Greek Orthodox and the Catholics are said to be a little like Lee's and Sherman's armies.
Pronto to the ER, where George's face, as he describes it, was in shreds. Next came the miracle no priest could ever perform. On hand in the hospital there just happened to be two Asian staffers who, in a previous life, stitched the finest, most delicate silk garments. "Little, little women," George says. "Tiny hands. They sew me like kimono."
He produces a pocket flashlight, shines it on his face and proclaims they made him good as new and smooth as marble, smooth as the statues on the Parthenon. And that if not for them, Iris, the instigator of all the trouble, would have been doomed to live life in a New York apartment with a scarred monster.
But from where you're lying and frying, how bad is that - really? A dribble of fish-fat from your eye hits a white-hot coal and a new flame-burst scorches you like a napalm strike. What are a few face scratches compared to incineration?
Soon the demon George stands over you with a spatula and prods, adding insult to torture. Then he begins to partition you in four pieces, sending screeching bolts of separation anxiety through every cell and nerve ending. "To you, our host I give head and eye," he tells Kenneth. "Delicacy in Mediterranean, an honor..."
As he's jamming the spatula under your snout, George makes an astounding announcement: that the main dish wasn't even supposed to be you. "Went out for tuna," he says. "Had big rods up, heavy-duty lines..."
George located the tuna all right, but what he found is they were tearing up the water chasing a giant school of stripers. "Stripers run like hell, come running right at me. That's how I catch this guy. Couldn't help it."
George shakes his head mournfully and deposits one fourth of you on a paper plate. "Is shame. You should be eating tuna, not striper..."
So, it wasn't a sin that landed you in fish Hell, nothing of the kind. You got here by accident, because a bigger fish pushed you, plain and simple. As a squirt of lemon blinds your eye and a plastic fork pierces what's left of your epidermis, you ponder the horror of a world where nothing you do yourself ever matters, where the only rule is shit happens. The last sound you hear is Martha, back on her Big Brown pulpit, proclaiming it was a whip-raging jockey who wrecked the horse.
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