By: Michael Caleb Tasker
The hurricanes were different back then. There was more rain, more wind during the night, more laughter coming from eager faces and the news was always a step behind what was actually happening. It was the lead-up I liked most of all, the quiet panic in the air, in the rain, the thoughtful heaviness of the oak trees and the way my mother laughed it all off, even though she always wanted to leave, run, head north to Memphis and I knew she was scared because of the way she held my hand too tight, even when she was sweating.
The night she met Raymond we only got the tail end, the good end, of a tropical storm that made landfall over in Galveston and wiped out half the town.
I heard them come home, heard her laughing, softly, nervously and I heard the delicate clatter of glass on glass as she fixed them another drink and I got out of bed and went out onto the balcony. The rain and the wind were heavy with salt from the Gulf and pulled at my clothes, at my hair and I looked down the balcony, part of it lit, making the rainfall shine bright silver in the light, until it disappeared out into the darkness, into the moss covered southern oak in the park across the street. She laughed a lot and it made me nervous. I remembered the last time she had laughed like that, a few years ago, with a charmer. She made them another drink and I wondered how many she had had at the party, with Donald and Eleanor, who could hold their liquor. I watched the living room light reflect in the rain and when, an hour later, she let him out and turned off the lamp, the rain and the sky went dark. I waited, happy, in the dark, in the smashing rain and a few minutes later her bedroom light came on, at the far end of the balcony, and she stayed up for most of the night.
It was still raining in the morning and it looked like a sad, red dawn was setting in permanently, over the park, outside my window. The wind was very loud and reminded me of the sea. I could smell the cinnamon and eggs from the French toast my mother was making and knew she was in a good mood, knew she would be for a while, in that way when her skin seemed to radiate and her dimples blossomed and men stared at her with dumb, longing smiles and thought about hiding their wedding bands.
I went into the kitchen and asked if I could have a coffee.
“You’re only eleven. It’ll stunt your growth.”
“But it smells so good.”
“Doesn’t the food?”
“It sure does.”
“Then eat up, handsome.”
“You’re in a good mood this morning.”
She looked at me over her coffee cup, her dark eyes shone so bright, so happy they almost looked electric. She smiled. “Did we wake you?”
“I was already awake. I couldn’t sleep with all the wind.”
“It’s pretty nuts out there.”
“We’re lucky we didn’t get hit hard,” I said.
“We’re always lucky.”
A wet, rusty sun came through the clouds and lit the kitchen, lit my mother and she didn’t even need to smile for me to see how happy she was.
“Must be a hell of a looker,” I said.
I watched her while I ate and she turned on the radio and found the weather report. The worst was over but Galveston was gone. In the apartment below John started to play piano, a broken, feeble rhythm and blues. He had been playing a few years, teaching himself, and I thought he should bite the bullet and get a teacher. I told him so once, when I met him on the stairs and he thought so too but never got around to it. But he had gotten better, if only just.
I didn’t expect Raymond to be so handsome and from his quiet lack of airs I don’t think he expected it either. He should have smiled more, it looked good on him but he had a face where you knew they were few and far between, with a severe jaw and worried eyes that always looked like he needed more sleep. He came over the following night and my mother left us alone in the living room while she went and got dressed and he told me right off the bat he was nervous, he had never dated anyone with a kid before, at least not that he met. My mother had gone shopping for him, picked up some good bottled beer and he played with the bottle, ran his finger along the sweat and looked up at me now and then, worried, trying to think of what to say and when my mother came out, wearing a pretty blouse and miniskirt he tried not to stare.
“Do you work?” I asked.
“He does.” My mother sat next to him. I felt like I was interviewing them. “And guess what he does, Lenny. He’s a painter. Like your father.”
“Your father is a painter?” he asked.
I pointed to a charcoal drawing of a woman that hung on our wall. Pinned up, the corners ruining.
“It’s good,” he said. He looked at me and blinked, his face marked with thin worry lines.
It was still raining when I watched them drive away, still cold like it gets after the hot, humid air gets torn apart by a storm and leaves everything fresh and quiet, but the wind was over and the rain fell straight and I leaned over the balcony and saw John, outside, right under me, watching them drive away as well. He flicked a cigarette out into the street and went back inside.
They came home late and she put on a record, and I heard her fix herself a drink and I heard his beer bottle gasp when he opened it. She talked a lot, quietly, just a mumbling murmur over the sad, singing voice of the record, and she laughed a lot and I strained to hear when Raymond talked but he was just too quiet. I heard her open the door from the living room to the balcony and I went outside, just out of the rain and I sat on the rough wood and watched the trees in the park and listened to them, listened to her, until she mentioned seeing his paintings and he stopped her.
“Look. I meant to say something. I led you on. I’m not that kind of painter. I don’t know about art. I paint houses.”
She laughed and told him that was okay, she had never been a cheerleader at LSU, they didn’t take pregnant girls.
They went quiet and I knew they were kissing. I went back into my bedroom and tried to sleep and late that night I woke again and heard John, playing softly, downstairs, and I thought, yeah, he sure was getting better.
In the morning, when the park was still dark with dew and mist, before the street sweepers came by, singing and calling to each other, telling dirty jokes that I never understood, I stood on the balcony and looked into my mother’s room and watched the two of them sleeping. She faced the window, her back to him, her legs kicked out from under the smooth sheet, her face lined at the forehead, thinking thoughts she avoided in waking hours. Raymond was out of sight, behind her, awake, his cigarette smoke showing as it caught the light.
Donald looked like he already had a few when we got to his house. His thick, silver hair was damp with the humidity, already out of place, and his laugh was loud and frequent and he kept eying my mother, telling her how great she looked, taunting his wife, smiling at my mother’s legs as he took another drink of his gin, the sweat dripping from the glass to his shirt, making it look like he was lactating. Eleanor made a small fuss over me, straightening my tie, acting as though she liked children though my mother had told me some time before that Eleanor only liked the morphine she dosed herself with. But she smelled good, like soft skin cream and I was just old enough to notice how, when she bent over, her blouse fell open, showing her lingerie and delicate, pink breasts. I told her I liked her hair and she smiled, touched my cheek and I felt myself blush.
We followed them through the house, out to the garden and I fell behind my mother and Raymond and saw she was holding his hand, tight, squeezing, talking a mile a minute, her eyes lit up and her voice husky and breathless, needing a drink. The pink vapor trails of sunset lit the garden softly in melted candy cane colors and made the guests look beautiful and charming as they laughed softly and drank quickly, the thin smell of alcohol fueling their talk. Donald turned on a record and the jazz he played was a little too loud, his eyes a little too flat as he watched his friends and he looked blankly toward my mother as she told a joke that wasn’t very good and everyone laughed but Raymond, standing handsomely, quietly lost, behind her. He saw me watching him and he winked and went to get the two of them a drink.
“What do you think of your mother’s new fellow?” Donald asked me. He handed me a soda and sat down on the back steps, next to me.
“He’s better than the last one.”
“So’s a monkey. Want a cigarette?”
“I was eleven when I started.”
“Mom says I can’t smoke until I’m thirteen.”
“Get a note from your doctor.”
“Your garden smells good.”
“It smells like too many different perfumes getting tangled up. You should have been here yesterday. I had the place to myself. Grilled a steak, had a strong gin. It smelled good yesterday.”
“Like steak and gin?”
“Like the best kind of quiet.”
“Quiet has no smell.”
“Says you. You aren’t even old enough to smoke.” He took a deep drag and blew the smoke up, away from me. “Handsome as anything, this Raymond. I don’t trust people who are too good looking, especially men. There is little solid in such a handsome man.”
“What do you mean solid?”
“They don’t have to work as hard, try as hard, think as hard. So they don’t end up hard.”
I looked at Raymond, drinking a beer from the bottle, standing by my mother as she talked. He watched her and when her friends laughed at something she said, the corner of his mouth twisted slightly up, but it wasn’t a smile.
“I don’t know,” I said. “He looks hard enough to me.”
“He does, doesn’t he? Makes me trust him less.”
Raymond saw us watching him. He looked back for a minute, his face weary, his eyes tired and darkly ringed and there was another burst of laughter from the people next to him, their faces falling into the darkness as the sun disappeared and what little light there was faded out behind the tall sugar pines that lined the garden. He came over and stood beside us and looked at my mother and no one said anything though I felt Donald thinking.
“She’s the life of the party, isn’t she?” Raymond said.
“She doesn’t know how not to be.” Donald finished his drink in one swallow and excused himself for another.
They were out late again and I stayed up, waiting. I heard my mother, her laughter caught in the wind, coming from down the dark street, and wondered how Raymond made her laugh so much. I had never heard him even try a joke. She wore heels and I listened to the softly demanding clack and knew they were crossing the street, going into the park.
The wind was strong that night. It wind rattled the balcony doors and moved hard through the trees down in the park, sounding cold and frustrated, and I turned off the lamp in the living room and stood at the balcony door, and looked across the street, at the park, tried to see the my mother and Raymond, but it was too dark. I looked below me, at John’s balcony, and saw him sitting in a chair, in the dark, in a corner, looking out at the park. His peculiar odor of sour, sleepless nights and the rank smell of the depressed got to me, made me feel trapped, made me panicked.
My mother shook me awake, smiling. The sunlight came through my window making her bright and beautiful and her eyes looked thrilled, like they did when married men flirted with her, and she told me to wake up, pack a bag, we were going on vacation, to the Gulf.
“How long?” I asked.
“In ten minutes.”
“No, I mean how long we going for?”
“At least a week.”
Raymond made us all scrambled eggs while my mother and I packed and after I watched him, hoping for a smile, but he was focused on the frying pan and on drinking his coffee. He looked at me and nodded from behind his mug and turned back to the eggs. He moved them in a pile to the side of the pan and added bacon.
As we drove toward the Gulf, across the state line and into Mississippi, the sun got hotter and I felt the salt in the air so much that my tongue seemed to dry out in my mouth. Raymond held my mother’s hand and told her quietly that she could have her pick of the towns, that we would keep driving along the coast, going from town to town, from beach to beach, all the way to Florida if need be, until she found a place she was happy with. She smiled at him but he watched the road, his face tight against the white-hot sun, and kept looking up into the rearview mirror.
I slept on the sofa with the window open, the Gulf loud, laughing and full of the beckoning smells of the bottom of the seafloor, and late, when my mother and Raymond were asleep in the bedroom, their door shut but the hotel walls thin enough that in the quiet of the night I could hear their breathing, I went out, across the highway, and sat in the sand. There was no moon but the few bulking clouds seemed to feed off the light from the sea and I lay back, alone, on the beach and listened to the late night sounds of the water and the lonesome cross-country trucks, hightailing it along the highway.
In the morning we ate fried crab at a breakfast shack on a pier that hung suicidally over the water and, later, while my mother lay out, trying to get a good sunburn, and I swam, Raymond watched the both of us from behind dark sunglasses, under a tree, up the beach, near the highway, chain-smoking and taking two hours to drink one warm bottle of beer, saying he didn’t burn but just turned the meanest looking brown you ever saw. I came out to dry off and my mother kept oiling her pink legs.
“That’s gonna hurt,” I said.
“But it looks good.”
I lay down in the sun next to her. I could still smell the deep fried seafood from the breakfast shack and the sun seemed to be burning the sea down to humid, salt-crusted air. My mother’s hair was long and blew over to me, tickled the side of my face and reminded me of when I was a boy, about five or six, after my father had gone, and she used to sing to me every night, smiling, her big eyes hiding something and her beautiful, long hair that drove men so crazy touched my cheek and the softness put me to sleep.
I stood up and looked around. Palm trees lined the top of the beach, mile after mile, blowing mutely, almost ghost-like in the hot, lazy wind and I looked at the other people on the beach, young families and college kids, the heat getting to most of them, making them sweat and squint so they were worried-looking in their play.
“Where’s Ray gone?” I asked.
“Back to the room. He’s afraid of the sun.” She closed her eyes and turned away from me, smiling, and she fell asleep, quickly and quietly and I wondered if I should cover her with something, stop the sunburn from getting out of control but she looked too happy and I went back into the water.
I fell asleep early, before dark, and dreamed I was still out in the water, watching the palms move in the wind, sure and steady, quiet in that way before hurricanes make landfall and I woke freezing cold, my own sunburn throwing my body out of whack. I lay on the sofa, trying to sleep, listening to the hushed, loving mumble of my mother and Raymond, talking, kissing and when they went quiet and I was sure they were asleep I took twenty cents from my mother’s purse and went out, down to the hotel’s soda machine. There was a purple mist glowing in the sky, lighting the hotel and the highway.
I sat outside our room, on the ground and drank the soda. Across the street the Gulf was inky and black but I knew it was moving, rolling. I heard my mother sigh inside the room.
“What’s that sigh for?” Raymond asked.
“What’s it like?”
“Quiet. Empty. Nobody there but me.”
“Nobody at all?”
“Nobody at all.”
I heard them moving, heard the thin sounds of the sheets against their clean skin, heard the thinking silence from Raymond and I knew he was smiling at my mother, still mostly confused by her.
“That’s some kind of heaven,” he said. The flint of his lighter scratched as he lit a cigarette.
“Your hair feels good.”
I heard them kiss again and my mother moaned and I went back across the street to the beach. I sat close to the water and thought it was quiet, empty and nobody was there but me.
Raymond told us we hadn’t gone far enough, we needed to get back in the car, back on the highway, and find another town, another beach, somewhere smaller, somewhere farther, where there weren’t so many goddamned people. I voted for Florida.
His quiet, severe face looked nervous, thoughtful, in a way I had never seen, his eyes hung, dark and stained with exhaustion, but the muscle in his arms were tense and hard under the thin cotton of his shirt and I thought about what Donald had said, about handsome men not being hard. Raymond winked at me. It was as close to a smile as he could pull off. He looked back and forth from my mother’s legs as she bent over packing the trunk of the car, to a gleaming, pale blue sedan that had come to the hotel overnight. He saw me watching him.
“Always wanted a car like that.” He put on his sunglasses and hat. “Couldn’t afford one though.”
He drove slowly down the highway, cruising, taking his time, the Gulf a steamy green, parched in the afternoon, and my mother fell asleep in the front seat, her skirt high up on her leg, Raymond’s hand resting above her knee. I fell asleep to the rolling hum of the car and woke later, sweating and thirsty, sure I was being watched, but I couldn’t see Raymond’s eyes behind his dark glasses.
“I’m hungry,” I told him.
“You’re mother’s still asleep. If we stop we’ll wake her.”
“She looks tired. She needs to rest.”
When she woke, later, smiling and in a silly mood, saying she didn’t want to sleep anymore, it was just death on an installment plan, Raymond pulled over at a motel and restaurant that looked dark and cool inside and promised the best air conditioning on the coast and two-for-one cocktails. There wasn’t much of a town around it but the beach across the street was long and white and Raymond said the sand was the right color, it meant we were almost to Florida. The each had a Gibson, my mother eating both the onions, and they drank them fast and ordered another and my mother stirred hers with her finger, watching Raymond, a small hungry smile on her lips. He had taken off his hat but left the glasses on, and that, with the rough, blue shadow from not shaving that morning made him look somewhat menacing even though he opened his mouth, bared his teeth and tried to smile as my mother ran her foot along his ankle and thought I didn’t notice.
We finished our steaks and they had coffee and my mother took one of Raymond’s cigarettes from the package and lit it.
“Decide to take it up?”
“You make it look so good.”
“Light one for me.”
My mother and I waited in the restaurant while Raymond went to check us into the hotel but he came back, his forehead creased, a fresh cigarette going, and said there was no vacancy.
“But there’s only a couple of cars in the lot,” my mother said.
“Maybe the guests are out driving.”
“The sign says vacancy.”
“Fellow says its been busted for years. This town’s the pits anyway. Let’s find somewhere a little nicer.”
I said we should just go to Florida, we were almost there anyway.
When we drove out of the lot, back onto the highway, I saw one of the cars Raymond liked, one of the pale blue sedans he had been eyeing earlier and I pointed it out.
“Well, how about that,” he said.
“This one was a Ford,” I said. “Was the one this morning a Ford too?”
“Yeah. It was. Nothing beats a Ford.”
He drove fast this time, saying he wanted to find somewhere pretty, somewhere with a good hotel and a pink sunset, before dinner. My mother leaned over and gave him a kiss and I told her to keep that stuff away from me.
It was called the Pink Sunset Hotel and Raymond told us it would do and though the sunset was blue and silver and setting behind us, over the western cleft of land the town sat on, rather than out in the water, the town around was small, clean and busy with sunburned families, dressed up, out for the evening, happy in their beach-bred beauty.
“Are we in Florida?” I asked.
“We drove through Pensacola while you slept.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means, yeah, we’re in Florida.”
Before dark I went for a swim in the empty silver sea and it was cool enough, the sun was low enough, that Raymond sat on the beach with my mother. There were a few other swimmers in the water, older teenagers, the boys loud, moving fast and wild, impressing the girls who weren’t much older than me and I watched the girls and liked how their wet skin looked so hard but so smooth.
Raymond stood, his long pants and shoes out of place on the beach, and waved for me to come in.
Later, while Raymond was in the shower getting ready for dinner I smelled his cigarettes and found my mother outside, standing in the dark, away from the tropical neon lights of the hotel sign, smoking one of his cigarettes.
“Since when do you smoke?” I stood next to her and had a good view of the bare, dark water, swollen and sad-looking. People passed by out on the street, lit and loud but out of focus.
“Doctors say it’s good for the nerves.”
“What’s wrong with your nerves?”
She put her arm around my shoulders and hugged me, kissed my hair and told me she loved me. I could smell the sun on her skin. She dropped the cigarette, put it out with her heel and we went to get Raymond and the three of us walked down the main drag, across from the beach, the lights bright, the drunken tourists’ smiles brighter and we had southern fired fish for dinner at a small place, one of the few without come hither lighting and the loud rumble of too many voices.
When I woke up my mother was gone. The bedroom door was open and I stood in the doorway and looked at Raymond while he slept, his face calm and handsome with the living, dusty copper sunlight that shone through the open window, and the crying sound of the sea echoed across the highway. The sheets had been pulled tight where my mother had slept. Raymond turned and reached his arm out, trying for my mother, but took a pillow instead and he pulled it close to his chest. He needed to shave. I could hear his beard scratching against the pillowcase. The ashtray sat on my mother’s bedside table and it looked like she had been up most of the night, alone, smoking, stubbing them out before they were finished. I shut the door to let Raymond sleep in. This time he looked like he needed it.
Outside the wind blew, still cool with dawn, still heavy with the burned salt smell of the Gulf. A man in a tuxedo walked by the hotel, by our room, his face lost in the earliness of the hour, an empty green champagne bottle in his hand, hanging, like he wanted no part of it.
I crossed over to the beach, squinting in the sunrise, looking for my mother, a brisk chill cutting the air, running down my neck. The beach was empty of people and the thoughtful sea looked tired, salted and smoked by the long summer.
It rained that night and I slept well enough, listening to it come and go, hitting the window, and to the muted, watery sounds of the tourists outside, running to their drinks. I woke when I heard my mother laughing excitedly, late, after the bars had closed and the revelers gone to sleep, and I went to open the bedroom door but Raymond was alone. He sat by the open window, his back to me, tapping an unlit cigarette on the armrest. The wind moved the curtains softly and I heard the wet sound of a long haul truck’s wheels out in the highway. Raymond lit the cigarette, blew the smoke toward the window and turned to look at me, his face thoughtful.
“Go back to bed, Lenny. Try to get some sleep.”
“I heard her laughing.”
He shook his head at me.
“Go to sleep. I’ll ask around at sun up. Someone will have seen her.”
I spent the day in the hotel’s lobby, watching the storm clouds over the gulf and reading in the newspaper about a hurricane that was expecting to make landfall sometime in the evening, over toward home. The woman behind the counter gave me quick, sad looks most of the day and Raymond came and went, talking to anyone who would listen and I got the feeling that if we stayed in town too long he would become known as the village idiot.
When, two days later, the sun came out hot and high and I went to the beach in the morning, I thought I saw her again but it was a young girl, little older than me, running after her parents. Her laugh was the same too; excited, teasing, full of a shyness I didn’t buy, but many men would. Raymond watched me from behind his glasses and when he spoke his voice was hoarse from smoking too many cigarettes.
That night we went out for dinner and ate in the beachfront patio of one of the string of brightly lit restaurants. Sunburned women walked by, on the sidewalk, smiling at Raymond, slowing down when they saw him and the air was thick with salt, fried food and cold beer. Raymond had finally shaved and he had made me bathe, and he ordered two sirloins for us, smiling at the waitress, but there was nothing in it. He looked at me and took a sip of iced tea.
“She’s not coming back, is she?”
“No.” He shook his head. “I don’t think she is.”
Raymond’s handsome face tightened. The waitress came back and refilled our water glasses, looking down at me, smiling at me and it made me think of the way Donald smiled at my mother after he had had a few and had become deaf to Eleanor and I thought about how, later, when we walked home from their parties, my mother would grab my hand tight, nervous about something and I knew she wanted to leave, run, go somewhere quiet and empty.