From WTP Vol. VI #4
By Vincent Mannings
Jedediah Arkansaugh was by now an old and irascible man no longer in possession of wealth. His grandfathers had been cattle ranchers and bear-hunters, his father a superior-court judge, and his mother a silent woman who’d rarely smiled but one day mustered a smirk when at the age of twenty-four Jedediah announced, trembling, that he’d be quitting law school; he would instead seek his fortune and perhaps a touch of glory in the motion picture industry. He would in fact be following his heart.
Fifty-five years later, he awoke most mornings to the jostle of beer cans and whiskey bottles, his mobile home shaking with the crash of the day’s first big wave. This morning had been no exception. Jedediah sat on his bed, waiting for the pain in his chest to subside and for his breathing to settle down; the old man could smell the sea air and he wanted his morning coffee.
Another wave pounded the white-sand beach outside. He scratched his head, sitting there, taking his time; he’d not squinted through a viewfinder in years, yet this perpetual director was unable to resist preparing a set-up in his mind, pondering how he’d film his trailer’s interior on this specific morning and in this particular light.
The evening before, every evening, he’d folded fresh wool socks and thick blue jeans across the back of a broken wicker chair. And every day he washed a denim shirt and hung it to dry from a rail beside the shower stall. He rose from the bed now, got dressed then sat on the wicker chair to pull on his boots and to set about the laces. The morning’s bank of sea fog had dimmed the light outside. The trailer was gloomy. A mess. He’d have called for klieg lights, he was sure of it. But would a dolly-track fit in here? Perhaps a t-section, a small one. That might have done the job, or maybe they’d have removed the door instead, taken out a piece of the frame, bolted the camera and just shot the scene from there. Laces tied, Jedediah sat up straight, fussed with the buttons on his denim jacket then put on his favorite hat, a gray, wide-brimmed Stetson. He’d be going out for coffee. The fog had thinned, sunlight burst through the dusty windows. The liquor bottles sparkled and the old man stood up, stretched. That light was good. Better. He smiled, gazed at random stacks of books, the Remington typewriter, the gun racks and a black 1968 Panavision camera. A belt of bullets was draped about a shot-up, gold-plated statuette awarded to him long ago by some guild of directors for what were, he’d been assured, the achievements of his life. That would now be a previous life, it seemed to Jedediah, and it was the one he’d enjoyed before he’d gotten himself fleeced.
Old crab cages were arranged about the room, beach-finds he used for storage. Three were stacked vertically to form a makeshift file cabinet. Another find, a rusted harpoon, he’d mounted on a wall beside a pot-bellied stove; that harpoon was more than a century old and he’d set it below a stuffed mountain cougar with glazed black eyes.
About the cougar: Jedediah Arkansaugh’s hunting days were over, yet he’d kept that magnificent animal, also a stuffed prairie falcon, forever swooping, going nowhere, and a polished set of six-point antlers. Jedediah’s father, the judge: once, he killed a man. Just shot him dead. The judge did that. But Jedediah, no. Jedediah had gone into movies, and pretty much everything and everyone he’d come across had paid a price for that decision. Still, while he could be a dangerous man indeed, he’d not always been convincing. Yes, he’d played the hunter, and even now he cut an imposing figure; he was firmly-built, tall, with an innate military bearing. But he also had a symmetrical face, eyes of cobalt, a pencil-line moustache, features too perfect to play the grizzled man he’d always longed to be.
This old director: he was not deluded. The man knew that little in his life had really come together, certainly not the hunting, nor the screenwriting. There, the bravado was plain to see. And the films? Well, he’d be inclined to argue when asked about those. He’d vent for a while and he’d build a case for the defense. But honesty had always prevailed—his adult daughter made sure of that —and he would finish by admitting, yes, the films, too, they’d never truly worked.
A beach-shack coffee shop waited about a half-mile down the shore, and the old man stepped out of his trailer now. There was the option to walk along a narrow blacktop road, but Jedediah always preferred the dunes, the crunch of the sand beneath his boots. He set off, pressing his Stetson down tight and tugging at the collar of his denim jacket.
The wind was cold today, and strong. Another bank of fog was coming in, the horizon a thick blur, just visible above tall waves topped with whitecaps, and the sea was gray, busy with swordfish boats and crab boats heading out.
Jedediah watched it all as he strolled, and soon the coffee shack was just a hundred yards away. He shivered, staring at that shack, and decided first on a wide-angle exterior of the octagonal wood building, with sea and sky, then a medium shot, just the rain-rotted shack now, then cut to the bright interior: a filthy kitchen with biscuits frying, noise and steam, a general clamor, a close-up of Mr. Engstrom’s hairy arm as he flips an old urn’s bakelite handle, and pours; then pull back slowly for a medium shot and a semi-pan with Jedediah approaching; now reverse-pan to Engstrom placing a styrofoam cup of hot black coffee on the shack’s copper counter as Jedediah slaps that counter hard, nods good morning and offers up two neatly-folded one-dollar bills.
“Mr. Arkansaugh: are you with us?” The guy was leaning out, waving a hand in front of the old man’s face.
“Coffee smells fine, Mr. Engstrom. Been needing this.” Jedediah ignored the man’s query. He’d heard that question before. He grinned, took a sip. “Did you see any this morning?”
Engstrom looked down at him from behind the counter. He paused, wondering about his friend with the Stetson hat. “Nope,” he said. “My boy did, though.” With that, he puffed out his chest, and the pitch of his voice climbed higher. “Says he seen couple o’ humpbacks on his way in, ‘fore I got here! Quarter mile out, and breachin’ crazy. He saw them tails and the big spouts an’ all!”
“Lend me those, will you?”
Jedediah pointed to a pair of Bushnell’s. He’d often borrowed this man’s binoculars, and he felt annoyed by the daily need to explain.
“Much obliged.” He took the binoculars from the man’s hands, sighed, then downed some coffee. The drink was hot, and he blew on it. Engstrom filled the silence. “Your daughter, is she good?”
“Connie is very good, thanks. I’ll be seeing her at noon. She’ll have word of their decision.”
Engstrom considered pressing Jedediah for more. Then, thinking better of it, he changed the subject. “Art-house on Main’s showin’ your movie. Ten bucks a ticket, this time.”
“They are?” Jedediah was genuinely surprised. “I suppose those folks have nothing better to do than to hawk some creaky old film most everyone’s seen already. And those who haven’t, well, they’re not about to do so now.” He warmed his hands on his cup, feigned nonchalance for as long as he could. “Oh hell, Engstrom, which one are they showing?”
“Your best one, Mr. Arkansaugh.”
He thought about that, and he remembered the childlike enthusiasm with which Engstrom had described the humpbacks: “You know, all I ever wanted was to make a film of Moby-Dick,” he grumbled. “Did I ever tell you? They wouldn’t let me.”
“So, what did you do ‘bout it?”
“You should watch my movies; the westerns, first.” He picked up the styrofoam cup, tipped his hat and gestured at the binoculars. “Thanks again for these.” Then, boastfully, and nodding in the direction of a bench, “I’ll have ‘em back to you real soon: ‘bout the time it takes to drink my coffee.”
The gray wood bench was old and moist, a silent sentinel, anchored by a concrete block a couple of yards from the edge of a grassy bluff.
Jedediah sat down, set the coffee by his boots. Nothing would be glimpsed until he stopped with the trying, he knew that. But with the rims of his eyes pressed into the cold hard rubber, he scanned the sea a few times, squinting, adjusting the focus, cursing and generally doing everything he knew he shouldn’t do. Another sip of coffee. The breathing was too hard, too rapid. “One good breath,” he muttered, catching himself. Then he puckered, sucked the air in, quit the scanning and kept those binoculars steady. He watched the sea roll and ripple, held his breath, let it out, timed it all with the rhythm of the waves. “Gently,” the old man whispered. He uncrossed his legs, shuffled, settled in. “And relax.”
As he pulled the binoculars away from his face, the sea before him lurched and buckled. Seagulls scattered. A geyser burst, and white froth tore across a monumental dome of thick, wet leather; that skin was scarred and barnacled. The whale’s head emerged, and Jedediah watched as the big eyes opened. They were black, bottomless, like windows to another world. The birds screeched, hovering, but there’d be no time to land on the animal’s enormous back. The beast was arching, another geyser exploded and the head plunged as the tail soared then slapped the waves, scattering those hapless gulls a second time. A final fuss of foam and leather, and the whale was gone for good. Jedediah smiled: “I’ll finish my coffee, now.”
“That man! That damned, despicable man! He all but cleaned me out, Connie, and I will flay his thieving hide!”
Jedediah hissed the words from behind clenched teeth; he’d been about to shout, too, but his daughter had raised a firm hand, denying the storm a chance to gather and lash the land.
She’d brought with her a stack of documents and a baby son. The child was swaddled snugly, asleep inside a tiny cot upon a busted crab cage below his grandfather’s gun racks and the hunting knives, and between the boxes of spent cartridge shells, the empty beer cans and the crates of whiskey bottles. Jedediah’s trailer was cold from the night before but it was beginning to warm-up now in the mid-day sun. The old man sat erect on a small wood stool, and Connie opposite him, in the broken wicker chair, her arms folded atop the papers heaped upon her lap.
“No charges will be filed against Lochlan Byrne, Papa.” Her voice was clear and resolute, as if she were attempting, involuntarily, to channel the pipsqueak receptionist she’d encountered just that morning at the district-attorney’s office. “Lack of evidence,” she added, and with those three words she did the best she could to convey some sense of finality.
“Lack of evidence?” Jedediah whispered, trying not to waken his grandson. But he couldn’t stifle a wounded laugh, looking about the room, waving a hand toward his mobile home’s tin roof. “Are you serious?”
Connie went quiet. There was little more to say. She was exhausted. This day and always she radiated weariness, even if it was counterbalanced by a rather stubborn love, resistant to the rigors of the time she’d spent with this very difficult man and enduring of the torments he visited upon all those nearest to him.
Inwardly, at least, she acknowledged her father’s devastation. Two years ago, a newly sober Jedediah had hurried down the mountain from a rehabilitative retreat, ready to begin again; he’d fled the doctors’ nest after six months of painful restoration; he’d been fresh and shining, wings still damp, had returned home and discovered his bank accounts empty and his manager gone.
“Papa: Lochlan left no trail.”
A horse whinnied.
“D’you hear that?” the old man asked. The sound of the horse was soon accompanied by the clang of dolly-tracks being laid in the sand by the crew outside.
She knew to ignore the question, pointed a finger at the lunch she’d brought, homemade sandwiches and a thermos of good hot tea. “Eat,” she said. “I can’t stay long today.”
He did eat, but he was distracted, kept looking out the window, mesmerized first by the canvas doors to the wardrobe tent, flapping in the sea breeze, then by the sight of his sullen mother. The woman appeared aloof, as always, and this time she was no more than thirty years old. She whispered into a white stallion’s ear; she finished whatever it was she had to say to the animal, said something to the wrangler waiting nearby, then turned around slowly with a smirk across her face.
“Drink this.” Connie got out of her chair, placed a cup of tea into her father’s hands. She’d glanced out the window as she’d stood up, saw only the beach outside, the breaking waves and the whitecaps further out. Softly, she lay the palm of her hand against the old man’s face. “You still adaptin’ Moby-Dick, Papa?” She stared into his eyes. “Lochlan may be gone but your grandson’s definitely here.”
“I know.” He looked down at the little cot then took hold of his daughter’s hand. “I’m still here, too.”
Jedediah put his hat back on soon after Connie left and, oblivious to the burgeoning heat, sat alone that afternoon, sat there quietly for many hours inside the sunbaked trailer, wearing the boots, the jeans and the denim jacket.
He crossed and uncrossed his legs, drummed his fingers on his thigh, tipped the hat down occasionally. Twilight came. The trailer was cooling. The old man got up, lunged for the gun rack, grabbed hold of a double-barreled shotgun and cracked it open, bent the firing pin beyond all hope of repair, shook both cartridges out, blew inside the chambers, held the gun to the fading light and made absolutely sure those chambers were empty. He then snapped the gun shut and slammed it onto what passed in that place for a dining table. Connie had stacked the attorney’s files on that table before she’d gone back home.
“Put all these papers in the trash, Papa, then forget about that man.” Jedediah could still hear his daughter, could see her nudge her nose into her baby boy’s chest. “We have everything we need,” she’d added. And into the trash he’d dutifully tossed those files, everything except the very first page, the page with a photograph of Lochlan Byrne; he’d kept that fat bastard’s picture. He’d waited for Connie to leave then took a serrated gutting knife down from the rack beside the mounted harpoon, took that ugly knife and nailed the page hard into the dining table. It had made a very satisfying sound, but then he wrenched the knife out and returned it to the rack. He tipped back his hat, scratched his forehead and, sneering, took up an old red pen and scrawled WANTED! beneath Lochlan’s bloated face. This made Jedediah chuckle, granted, but six hours of focused contemplation had been needed before he could persuade himself to cripple that shotgun prior to setting it down.
With the sun gone, he put on some pajamas and sat barefoot at the dining table. Not without fragility, he’d eschewed his nightly three fingers of Scotch. He drank hot tea instead, from an old tin mug, and by the light of a paraffin lamp. The shotgun remained beside Byrne’s photograph, right there on the table in front of him. The old man had retrieved a used envelope from his crab-cage file cabinet and he discarded its contents now, laid the big envelope flat, then wrote his daughter’s name in upper case letters.
The horse whinnied again. Jedediah blew-out the lamp, gazed through the window, saw the gray mare flick her tail. She was tied for the night outside Luisa Santiaga Barbosa’s mobile home and he watched that saintly old woman as she put half a bale of hay into the feed bin. She then patted the mare and talked to her.
Early dawn found Jedediah dressed once more in fresh wool socks, a pair of laundered thick blue jeans and a clean denim shirt from the rail beside the shower stall. He dabbed on some cologne, then sat in the wicker chair. He’d see the stars fade and the sky begin to brighten. The old man knew ten minutes would be sufficient for the traditional pain in his chest to subside and for his breathing to settle down.
The envelope with Connie’s name was now in the pocket of his denim jacket, while Lochlan Byrne’s picture was tucked inside the rear pocket of a black leather saddle. Jedediah’s sturdy saddle was more than fifty years old. He’d placed it on the floor, next to his boots, and the stock of the neutered shotgun poked out of a scabbard he’d buckled in back of that saddle. Lochlan might have left no monetary trail but Jedediah had a pretty good idea where the man himself would be.
He stood, pulled on his jacket. He then approached a mirror and put on his Stetson. He leaned in, used the edge of a thumb to tamp his pencil-line moustache. “Good enough,” the old man said, recalling with a smile the booming declaration his father, the judge, had often made when Jedediah was just a little boy: “let’s go.”
“For how long?” asked Luisa Santiaga Barbosa. She’d been seated on her porch-swing and had seen her neighbor draw near. A book was in her hands. Jedediah had stopped and waited just beyond the edge of Luisa’s property. The woman was tall, slender; she wore a thick black shawl and an old black dress. Gray hair reached all the way down to her waist. She stepped toward him, held onto the book, staring at him from above a pair of reading-glasses perched on the end of her nose.
The old man had draped his saddle across one shoulder. Luisa saw the shotgun. “Lochlan?” she asked, but Jedediah seemed disinclined to answer that particular question. He just hoisted the saddle up some more then tapped his hat, took her hand and kissed it. “Doña Barbosa, good morning. A couple o’ hours today? I’ll have your sweet filly back here, safe and sound, you know I will. Before breakfast if I can.”
Jedediah felt the response more than he heard it. She’d squeezed his hand when he took it, held onto that hand. She threw her book in the sand, then led him toward the gray mare.
Another woman waited with the horse. He shivered. For sure, Luisa had said something in his ear as they’d walked; he’d felt her lovely hair brush against his cheek, but he could not hear the words, nor could he hear the sound of the waves breaking nearby. Her face had brightened in the soft light of a matte reflector and he’d turned, saw the grip’s assistant hold the screen, saw dolly tracks appear in the sand, then vanish, and when his mother and Luisa took the saddle from him and fastened it on the mare, the two women exchanged some words; they laughed in silence with heads thrown back as Jedediah mounted the little horse.
And all the while, Luisa had been watching the man from her lonely porch, the book still in her hand. The morning’s fog was coming in. “Two hours, Jedediah,” she called as he rode toward the mist. He was headed for the wet sand. “I promise,” he yelled, and that was the last he ever said to her.
Neptune’s Den was one disgusting clapboard hovel. Call it a poker house, whorehouse, road house, grill or bar room, call it what you will, but Jedediah had always figured it was devised long ago by the devil himself, then built by mortals during the time of whalers. Surely, it’d been frequented nightly ever since, by the local flotsam and the womanizers, the gamblers and the drunkards, losers all, and each of them regarded with two parts professional interest and one part concern by the county sheriff and by women of notoriety.
But in the gray morning light, this godless place looked exactly as it was: a storm-battered wood building situated about a mile along the shore from Mr. Engstrom’s coffee shack. Jedediah tied Luisa’s horse to a post outside a back door he’d used once or twice across the years. He stroked her mane, muttered to her and secured her, looping the reins three times to make a good strong knot. The animal was quite content to nibble at the grass beside her hooves.
A bouncer the size of a pickup truck, young and dumb, a kid really, sat slouched half-drunk and half-asleep in a chair at the top of the steps leading to the building’s main entrance. With the chair tipped back, the young man opened his eyes that morning to Jedediah holding two barrels of a shotgun a couple of inches from his nose. He was about to remark on this state of affairs when the old man raised a finger to his lips. “Hush,” whispered Jedediah, and kicked the chair from under him.
The kid crashed on the deck. The back of his head hit the wood while a cowboy boot pressed hard upon his chest. The man bent down and poked both barrels in his ear.
“I said hush,” Jedediah rasped. He reached inside his jacket pocket, pulled out the photo of Lochlan Byrne. “Have you seen this gentleman?”
The kid stared at the picture, eyes bulging, then pointed a finger at his own mouth to request permission to speak. Jedediah laughed. “Go ahead.”
“Mister, I ain’t seen that dude, I promise, but I know someone who might have.”
The bar was dark and quiet. Three drunks were passed out at a table near the back. A bartender rinsing glasses behind the counter stopped now, his attention locked on the spectacle of his bouncer thrust into the bar; the dolt was right in front of him with a gun stuck in his back, and some old guy was waving a picture.
“Have you seen this man?”
The bartender nodded.
“Good.” Jedediah withdrew the shotgun, held it vertically across the barrels. “Now, suppose you show us where.”
He shoved the sorry pair through the door to the poker room. Some men guffawed, others groaned, none had noticed what just happened; there was a stench of beer and smoke and sweat, and all the men were fixated on a stack of chips, a Rolex and a mountain of hundred-dollar bills at the far end of a card table.
Jedediah peered through a cloud of cigar smoke, and he glimpsed enormous pale hands, their palms wet with sweat. The winning cards were tiny in those hands, and he watched while the floorboards rumbled and the table shook; the victor was standing up. The man was five-hundred pounds of greed and self-absorption. With arms like blimps, he leaned in and scooped-up his gains. His shaven head glistened, and he bellowed. And still no one had noticed what just happened.
“Gentlemen!” said Jedediah.
Everyone turned around; the laughter stopped. He brandished the shotgun then pointed it at the fat man’s face. “If Mr. Byrne and I could now please have the room?”
The big man affected delight; he chuckled. He sat down again, slapped his huge hands on the table and laughed a second time. It was a deep and throaty gurgle, like water down a plug-hole. “Mr. Arkansaugh,” he said. “How may I help you today?”
“Out,” said Jedediah, glaring at the others. There’d be no need to say it again; chairs toppled backward on the floor as the men bumped into each other. These men cursed, too, some still with cigars in their mouths. They were barely sober. They tugged at their pants, stashed lighters in their pockets, grabbed at bottles and tried to put on their jackets and hats, and generally jostled and tripped over each other’s feet. Jedediah motioned them out the door and into the darkened bar-room. Anybody within reach of him got a smack of his shotgun’s fine mahogany stock.
“And you,” he growled to the bouncer and the bar-tender. The last he saw of them was their puzzled faces as he slammed the door and locked it. “Mr. Byrne,” he said. He pivoted now to look back along the card table. “It would appear we have the room.”
Lochlan Byrne hadn’t so much as budged. He sat there in the smoke cloud, impassive. His hands had remained on the table, just where he’d slapped them down. But he’d stopped laughing. His bald head was big as a watermelon and it shone with sweat; that head was motionless, confident, set upon a short thick neck atop the massive body. Jedediah noticed an unopened bottle of beer beside the chubby hands. There was a glass of single malt, too, untouched: “Still hustlin’, I see.”
Now there came just a trace of a smile on Lochlan’s lips.
Jedediah studied this man while he kept his left hand free. He hitched the shotgun’s stock up onto his bicep, trained the gun along his right arm, and curled two fingers around the trigger. The old man saw no sign of guilt or shame, no hint of concern.
“Here,” he said. Loud voices came from the bar-room, a commotion; he figured those drunken knuckleheads had begun to piece things together. “It seems we don’t have long, and you’re going to be filling this,” he said, pulling the envelope for Connie out his jacket pocket. He pitched it down the table. It spun and flapped before landing beside Lochlan’s pile of winnings. “Cash, only,” he said.
Lochlan didn’t move, just glanced at that large envelope.
The men outside were yelling. Fists and boots banged the door.
Jedediah was growing agitated. “Fill it,” he snarled, both hands now on the shotgun.
The table shook and the floorboards rumbled again as Lochlan heaved himself out of his chair. Sweat poured from his head and down along his neck. He rammed stacks of hundred-dollar bills deep inside the envelope, stuffed them, his gaze switching between Jedediah and a door that was about to bust its hinges.
The old man barked at Lochlan: “Enough! Just toss it here.”
The envelope soared. Jedediah gazed at it, as if hypnotized, then snatched it out of the air, just as he hurled the shotgun at Lochlan.
“Buy yourself some cartridges,” called Jedediah, grinning and tipping his hat politely.
Then he saw the pistol.
Lochlan had raised it with one hand as he’d batted the shotgun with the other before it could strike his chest.
“Watch out!” yelled Jedediah, pointing as if to someone behind Lochlan, and the fat man took the bait; he looked behind just as the envelope was thrown back in his direction.
Lochlan watched as the envelope headed toward him. It was aimed straight for his face and, in one great quivering panic, he raised both hands to protect himself, losing grip of his gun and sending it high into the air.
The old man laughed; he’d never seen Lochlan so confused. He leapt up and caught the pistol, just as Lochlan drew a second gun. And fired.
The report was deafening. The little bullet tore through Jedediah’s gut; the old man stepped back then watched in startled silence as the flash of his new gun’s muzzle lit the room.
Jedediah’s ears rang so loudly, he felt certain his drums had burst, and he shook his head.
The fat man was staring at Jedediah, looking through him, really, and he settled on his chair, shifting, getting comfortable, sinking, like the air had been let out. The eyes were blank—they registered nothing as Jedediah retrieved the envelope; Lochlan simply opened and closed his mouth and pawed at a wound beneath his throat that no-one in this present world could begin to set aright.
“I’ll see you soon,” the old man whispered.
Neither man heard the words. Jedediah still could not hear a thing. He’d no idea if the drunks had continued shouting and knocking, nor did he give a damn. Instead, his focus now was on a fire door to the rear of the room.
The fog had thinned. The breeze had strengthened and the waves crashed as the gray mare looked up with sleepy eyes to see the old man tumble through the door, just a couple of yards from where she ate.
Jedediah did smile when he saw that gentle horse. His belly was numb already, and he stood there, held a hand against the puncture in his jacket, felt the morning sun warm his face, then drew a welcome breath of the good fresh air.
“What the?” asked Mr. Engstrom. He’d been wiping his shack’s counter when he looked out to the old bench at the edge of the grassy bluff; he saw two people, one standing, one sitting, and he could see a horse. The fog was gone and the sky was blue. It was the clearest morning all week. He scratched the back of his head, and stared a while.
“Mr. Arkansaugh, Luisa. Good morning!” Engstrom cried out above the wind coming in off the sea. Now he was outside, walking toward the bench, and carrying his binoculars and a styrofoam cup of strong, black coffee. “I have everything you need, Mr. Arkansaugh. Luisa, anythin’ I can fetch for you?”
She gazed at Engstrom, annoyed. “No, Nathan. Just get yourself here.”
Jedediah was seated with one hand on his belly, the other gripped on the button at the top of his jacket; it was like he’d been holding onto his chest. The man’s hat was tipped down and his legs were crossed at the ankles, the heel of his left boot sunken in the grass. He’d been there for quite some time. Luisa Santiaga stood about five feet in front of him.
She frowned, arms folded, reluctant to get too close. The breeze was cold. She’d tied her hair and she wore a wool hat and a bulky parka. Her horse was secured to the bench; the reins had been looped three times, with a good strong knot for sure.
“Mr. Arkansaugh?” Engstrom whispered it as he sat down.
I know you’re here, thought Jedediah: hello, Luisa. The bleed inside was almost done. The old man could feel the wind’s chill and he felt the rumble of the whale among the waves, sensed his friends out there, could see them, too, he believed, even with his eyes closed and from beneath the hat across his face. But his ears still rang, and he was now unable to speak. Didn’t want to, really, and he felt nothing at all below his ribs. There was some residual feeling in the upper torso and the arms, enough sensation to be persuaded that he’d settled into the bench and gotten his breathing under control. And he was relaxed.
I’m fine, Jedediah thought: just fine. He saw the whale’s dark, celestial eye, saw that some of the sky was blue, but the rest of it was black, and the blackness was spreading, nipping at the waves, replacing them, creeping into the grass below his boots and probing with long dark fingers around his ankles and up across his legs.
If Jedediah could really have seen Engstrom, he’d have thought him a dear fool. His friend had put the binoculars in the old man’s lap, still hoping, and set the coffee on the grass beside his boots. But his friend had also noticed the fattened envelope poking out the top of Jedediah’s jacket. And it would be this kind and gentle friend who’d deliver the cash exactly as intended.
The black had taken full possession of his legs and eaten half his belly. He no longer felt his arms. Goodbye, you two, thought Jedediah. My Daddy’s come. He was five years old and his father had left work early, walked home to their sprawling family ranch. The man carried a briefcase. He wore a black hat and his judge’s black robe. The sky was black, too, yet the sun was high, and little Jedediah was lurking in the bushes beside the main house. He was dressed in white, in white sandals, white shorts, a white tee shirt and an oversized white hat; he had a stick horse, and he carried a toy gun.
“Bang!” he yelled, running. “Bang! Bang!” The judge was up for it; he played the part, dropped his briefcase, tottered back across the ranch’s front yard, clutched his chest and roared, “Whoa, you’re fast! Are you the hero, boy? You sure look brave to me! C’mere!” He bent down and he opened his arms out very wide; he was about to hug his son.
“Daddy, I think I’m going away,” said Jedediah.
“You are?” the judge asked. “Then, hey, we’ll leave together! You can bring your little horse, too!” And he was up again, and he ran around his child in ever-widening circles.
The boy laughed as he watched his Daddy. The judge’s polished shoes were grinding in the dirt. His hat fell off and his robe was flowing behind him in the breeze. “Good enough,” the judge was calling, as Jedediah collected his stick horse. “C’mon, brave boy: let’s go!”
Vincent Mannings is a writer living in Pacific Grove, California, with his wife, Helene. An excerpt of his contemporary novel, Mary Shelley’s Mary Shelley, has appeared in the journal Writing Disorder.