FEATURE- SHORT STORY- Lost in the Land of Sunshine
Just inside the lattice gate where the restaurant patio gaped at the Manatee River, Baylor took stock. Barely dusk and the terraced space was already clogged. No one paid attention to Baylor, a short man in a backwards baseball cap with a small boy attached to each hand. They could almost be identical twins, but for the pudge of diaper below the waist of the boy who hung on Baylor's right wrist. Tugging them into the courtyard of Boatyard Roo's, he surveyed the picnic tables, gleaming white under carnival-lit canopies. Although he took in the concrete dance floor and the palm tree-skirted bar stools, he concentrated on identifying the women who were his age. Twosomes at the bar in halter-tops and cowboy boots mirrored couples on the dance floor. Across the inlet, a lazy sun tripped along the tops of the palm trees like a hand trailing the wake of a Jon boat. Baylor was 21 and looking for the woman of his dreams. Or at least someone who would help him take care of the boys.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
This story took third-place in the 2008– yup, 2008– short story contest. "The search for love leads men to all the wrong places," observed celebrated author and contest Judge John Grisham. Like the authors of the other two stories in this issue, Orange County resident Honenberger has previously won the Hook's short story contest, in 2004. Her second novel, Waltzing Cowboys, was published by Cedar Creek in January.
They were already sleepy and dragging as he pulled them through a clump of ringless women at the far corner of the bar. Slips of perfume and words out of context crowded around him. His head swiveled at their stiletto sandals and tight jeans. Their make-up and jewelry flashed back from a faceless mass. "Jess, James, keep up. I can't be looking for you in this mess'a folks."
A waitress in a black t-shirt and short-shorts squeezed between Baylor and a whiskered man. Posed like a Sumo wrestler at arms length from the bar, the portly man moved his hands in anxious conversation. He was clearly committed to maintaining eye contact with a buxom woman engrossed in a whispered tete-a-tete with another shorter woman. The tall woman ignored the older man except for an occasional flick of her cigarette in his direction, followed by the immediate arrival of a fresh drink.
Baylor lowered his eyes, ashamed for them both. She was so much younger. Bent forward at the waist to make herself heard over the canned rock and roll, she spoke to the mousy woman who nodded like a Kewpie doll.
When Baylor jostled the listening woman by accident, she turned and started to complain, but as soon as she caught sight of the tow heads at his side, she smiled instead.
"Where in the world did you find two of them so sim'lar?"
The Amazon woman with the bared breasts muscled in. "Twins?"
"Nine months apart," Baylor said, his head bowed in embarrassment, though they weren't his boys. He'd inherited them from a girl he'd loved and lost— literally— at the beach about three months ago. When Molly didn't come back from a beer run, he realized what a sucker he'd been to believe she cared about him. If she could dump two children for some stranger she met at the convenience store, she wasn't what he'd thought she was.
Not that he was at all sure, with three months of instant fatherhood to reflect on it, that her disappearance had been a whim. She might have planned the whole thing, figured him for a soft touch from the moment she'd sidled up to him at his cousin's wedding, the kids nowhere in sight. She'd asked a zillion questions so he'd tell all, probably how she'd calculated his weak spots. Once he bought her line about the dead soldier husband, she must have started planning her escape.
The boys, though, had surprised him more. From the first morning after the wedding reception, despite Molly's insistence on the couch, they clung to him, crawled into bed with him, scrunched up next to him when he was watching the news. They smelled like his grandmother's linen closet. Giddy and giggly, they begged him for stories, tried on his shoes, and stumbled around the apartment pretending to be army men and telephone repair guys and bus drivers. Like Molly, they were miniatures of the chunky kids he'd grown up with, his half-brothers and his older sister's bastards.
Molly displayed no such honesty. Face to face they'd stared into each other's eyes that first night almost like the schoolyard game, neither willing to concede anything. Only he hadn't thought it was a game. Long past midnight he realized he'd fallen fast and hard. At the cousin's open-air reception, in between those very one-sided conversations, they'd danced and danced. Molly wasn't one of those girls who slid her butt into your privates and tried to trick you into liking her. She asked questions, listened politely, smiled shyly as if she were waiting for the priest to hand out communion wafers.
"Molly Guildstone," she'd introduced herself after one long slow dance with her head on his shoulder, the air between them warm and more suggestive than spooning would have been. He'd felt the calluses on her fingers, seen the worn edge of her sandal heels, the blue black rings under one eye. Here was a woman who deserved better. He was used to being patient, winnowing an extra bowl of cereal from the box, changing the water so the wildflowers lasted one more day.
"Guildstone," he asked two days later while she hung the clothes she'd brought in a paper bag in his only closet. "Is that your father's name?"
"Stepfather," she said, blunt and open as if she trusted him not to go further.
"And the boys?"
"Flanagans." She looked away and he was sorry he'd asked.
When Jess ran in from the kitchen and reported James for spilling his juice, Molly griped, but went to straighten them out. Left in the bed by himself, Baylor grinned with the normalcy of it all. Maybe this was meant to be.
But when Jess bolted back to the bed, silent suddenly, a raw handprint on his cheek, Baylor had to admit he'd never been a good judge of character.
"Bay," Jess pulled Baylor's hand during a lull in the music, "I need to pee."
"Okay, okay." He should have thought of that himself. There was an ache in his own groin he'd been ignoring from multiple cups of coffee. He couldn't afford beer after Molly cleaned him out. Once he realized she wasn't coming back—both boys asleep under his towel just above the high tide line at Town Beach—he'd gone straight home and checked the shoebox in the closet. Empty, cover discarded, the dust bunnies curled next to it in one corner, the box looked as worthless as he felt. Another setback.
At twenty Baylor had figured to be employed in an upwardly mobile career with an associate's degree on his wall. His mother's cancer had delayed that. While part of the funeral home bill remained, he'd met the payment schedule for every last doctor. A friend had repaired the transmission on his Datsun. And this year's tax refund had been safely stowed in the shoebox. Until Molly. He should have known better.
In the men's room he held Jess, face out, against his chest and let him dribble into the urinal. Without Baylor's hand to hold him up, James sunk down onto his bottom, the diaper making a soft poofy rush of air, which Baylor assumed meant the diaper at least was still dry.
A hairy man in a muscle shirt stumbled through the restroom door. He mumbled, loud enough for someone, everyone to hear. "They're all hot to suck down your money— Long Island Ice tea, what the hell's that?— but they won't dance the slow ones. Bitches." Bloated and red-faced, he stepped dangerously close to the toddler's fingers splayed on the tile for balance. "Whew," he whistled as he coated the wall, urinal, bowl, and handle. The man's mammoth hand covered the sign that said, Please Pay Attention. Clearly the Neanderthal couldn't read. "Jesus, that beer's got a mind of its own."
Baylor couldn't think of anything to say that could make a difference. The guy left without acknowledging the sink or the toddler at his feet.
Without setting Jess down, Baylor pivoted on his heel and lugged him to the sink. When the faucet sprayed them both, Baylor had to choke down the automatic fuckit. Poor kids, they didn't need any more ugliness in their lives. Mother on the loose, strange man carting them around at all hours.
Outside the air was cooler; the embered sun a lipstick line of red at the horizon. He found a table, set James on the top, and pinned him in place with his stomach. The little boy's fireplug legs squirmed against the restraint, a reminder of Baylor's mission. The girls must have all gone to the powder room at once. On the dance floor an ancient couple held each other up. They swayed to the loudspeaker music, only two beats behind. The old man's three-pronged cane with rubber tips stood solo on the sidelines.
Baylor laughed. Jess giggled too, though Baylor had no idea what part of all that a three and a half year old would find humorous. The dancing man had thin white hair, the strands so fine they slid from side to side on the wizened pink head as he danced. It reminded Baylor of his grandfather, the way Baylor remembered him from the wake. His white hair lost in the white satin pillow.
No going back, Baylor had thought to himself as he stared at his grandfather in the coffin, and when he buried his mother, the same flat, opaque feeling had engulfed him. The distance between death and life so far, the whole thing so unreal. For weeks afterwards whenever he looked at the photograph of his mother as a child astride her father's knee, he expected her to scamper off at any moment.
Nothing stayed the same for long. Even your memories were forever silting and sinking, a hand rising from the mudflats with a day you thought was lost forever, only to be disappear in muddy swirls when you stooped to examine it more closely.
When the dance ended and the older couple remained entwined, the audience clapped loudly. A woman behind Baylor whistled. Startled, James started to cry. Although Baylor knew he should pick up the little guy, he couldn't figure how to do it without letting go of Jess. Bolder and quicker, Jess might disappear in the forest of legs, tanned, hairy, varicosed and blue-jeaned. Once lost, it would be the devil of a time finding him in this crowd.
Baylor was beginning to regret having come. With the music, conversation with a strange girl would be difficult and dancing impossible. The boys must be bored already, and the smell of French fries too tempting. James was probably crying because he was hungry. Baylor couldn't remember what he'd fed them last.
Resumption of the music, this time live, did the trick though. At the activity on stage James stopped fussing as quickly as he'd begun. Plywood painted black, Ricky and Frankie in large pink letters, glowed in the spotlights. With mikes larger than their fists and a stream of wires flowing from their arms, the two middle-aged singers, all in black themselves, could have been wrestlers straining at the bell. They crooned along with the taped music, barely making themselves heard over the audience's slapstick karaoke.
Jess had climbed up on the bench next to Baylor and was tickling his little brother. Gurgles of laughter filtered into the cooling night air. A pair of young women in white jeans and spaghetti straps with not much in between swirled onto the dance floor. Their bare arms raised to clap enthusiastically, they looped between each other. Twisting on bended knees, they laughed at their own antics. Baylor grinned. Cute.
Once the music switched to My Girl, Baylor watched the two friends signal each other without words and return to their table. One blonde, one brunette. Cute and unattached. Wiggly suddenly, James pushed his big brother away and tried to slide past Baylor to the ground.
"Hold up, buddy. They'll be back." He gathered the thrashing arms and legs and juggled James until he was upright again on his shoulder. The boy's gibberish escalated.
"Shhh, Jess and I are right here, buddy. You're okay. Listen ... hear the drums." Baylor tapped the same rhythm on the toddler's back.
On stage Ricky and Frankie ah-hummed in the bridge between verses. In the drumming section of the middle school band Baylor had learned rudimentary music skills. His mother boasted about his talent without understanding a thing about music herself; a walking advertisement for the band. She hadn't missed a concert until the cancer took over. Although by then his sister had found a sugar daddy to help her with her twins, Baylor dropped band for a part-time job. He didn't bother her with the chemotherapy schedule or the medical bills. She'd never been interested in music or family.
Once he settled James on his shoulder, the silk of baby hair tickling his neck, Baylor realized the space at his knee was empty. At the instant that he opened his mouth the stage show was between songs. He closed his mouth. What kind of person let a child loose in a place like this? His body spun to scan the rows of picnic tables. No bobbing head of a small boy. Beyond the bar the harbor glistened pink and blue like a giant smoothie like a cartooned backdrop to a fairy tale.
"Jess?" he managed to croak. "Jess." It was a prayer, a plea, not a command.
He hesitated. Should he stay close to the dance floor in case Jess came back to a place he recognized? What if he'd gone to explore by the water? There were alligators in Florida. Kids disappeared all the time here. Bullying ex-husbands, perverts, schizo mothers. Jess could be anywhere. How long had he been gone anyway?
Baylor started elbowing his way through the clusters of people. He stepped over the outstretched legs of motorcycle lords and the pocketbooks of women who looked more like Samurai than ballerinas. From the flip flop of James's legs at his waist Baylor knew the younger boy was asleep. The idea of James's reaction to waking without his brother by his side tightened in Baylor's gut like a belt after a big meal. Supper, whatever it had been, punched and kicked back as Baylor scrambled towards the water.
"Jess," he cried out in real distress, forgetting the embarrassment of admitting he'd lost a child.
From the crowd the pair of dancing girlfriends emerged in front of him. "Hey, you okay?" the blonde said, putting her hand on his arm to stop him. "You don't look good."
"Jess," he eked out, squeezing James all the tighter, the hot skin of the sleeping boy a sharp reminder of their connection, wanted or unwanted.
"Your boy run off?"
He nodded. No point in correcting them. Who else did James belong to at this point? Molly hadn't cared enough to stick around. The kid had no one. Even Baylor had botched it, too busy dreaming of the perfect ending that never came. There was no dream girl, no happy ending, no rosy sunrise on a new day.
"He's four. Not quite. Curly blond hair, kind-a-sunburned. I was supposed to be watching him." He bent double with the churning in his stomach. "For his mama."
"You stay here where he can see you. I'll check the bathrooms," the first girl said.
Baylor, struggling for words, pointed at the island bar counter and the waves lapping the far side. She sprinted past the tables. Ducking under a full tray of burgers and beer, she climbed the wooden steps to the grassy knoll littered with Chinese lanterns and empty beer cups.
"I'll check your table again," the brunette announced and disappeared.
Frozen, Baylor noted his heart rate was crazy, and he wondered how part of him could move so fast while the rest of him couldn't move at all. The image of Molly running into the surf, hair every which way, rose in his mind. He and the boys had watched her leap and disappear in the green gray water, an uneven ripple the only sign she had been there. When she popped out of the foam four feet away, a spinning funnel of pink suit and tan skin, they could hear her laugh above the roar. He had tousled the boys' heads, but he hadn't thought it was funny.
His free hand beat a tempo on his thigh. "Jess, Jess, Jess," he repeated at conversation level, fighting to keep it from transforming into a panicked yell. When the singers renewed their vocals, Baylor thought about asking them to make an announcement. If everyone looked, surely Jess would turn up.
"Bay," the voice was a squeak from under the table. There was a light tapping on his shoe. "Bay."
The blonde arrived, breathless, her eyes swollen with tears not yet released. "I can't—"
Baylor signaled with his open palm and leaned down, staring into the murky space below the table. "What're you doing down there, buddy?"
"I thought I saw Mama." Grime streaked the boy's face where he'd wiped at tears with dirty hands.
"Yeah, me too." Baylor thought about his dream of a house, a yard with a dog, and kids swinging. He thought of Molly brushing her hair in his bathroom, leafing through his magazines while he wrestled with the kids on the bed, her eyes blank and far off as if she were blind. For those few weeks he'd convinced himself she was happy.
"Come on out, now, bud," he said, more calm than he felt.
"Not till she's gone."
"She wasn't ever here."
The golden head appeared. Jess leaned into Baylor's leg as if the water were rising. "So James and me don't have to go away?"
There were dreams and dreams, Baylor thought. Each man made his life to suit himself. Sometimes unexpected things happened and sometimes the everyday scrolled out and out and out without your realizing time was passing you by.
Taking Jess' hand, he stood, repositioning James on his shoulder.
"Thanks," he said to the blonde.
"You aren't staying for the band?"
"Maybe another time," but he was already planning how to fit bunk beds in the apartment, where he'd store the tricycles.