nn Cummins

It began at twilight three days ago: sleeplessness. It began with heat. Every window and the door open, every sound in the marina amplified by the stagnant air. The houseboat, a throbbing furnace.

Sam sits on the middle of his couch. He showered half an hour ago, a futile effort to clean himself out somehow, to calm himself down. He put on clean clothes. A white cotton T-shirt, threadbare cotton trousers he gets laundered at Coo’s Dry Cleaning, so old they feel like pajamas, but even so, he can’t stand the touch of them. He has entered that state where movement comes in two parts, the thought and then the action. That disconnected state.

On the kitchen table in a cardboard box there are fifty hand-tied white flies. His hands, arthritic now, ache, and so do his eyes. Still, he wants to get back to work. These days, the only time he feels at home in his skin is when he’s tying flies. He is out of hooks. He needs hackle. He hasn’t been to the post office in weeks. He’ll have supplies there, he ordered them, he believes he remembered to, though that could’ve been last month, the memory of calling Miami, placing his order, sending the money order.

He will go out. He’ll go to the post office and see if his order’s in. The package window will be closed. It’s late. Twilight. He’ll go, and he’ll see if the little slip saying he’s got a package is in his box. That’ll be something at least. He doesn’t know what to do with himself if he’s not doing something with his hands, especially on sleepless nights.

Outside, the air is green. Fluorescent. The color of a scarab beetle. He is shaky and has to use two hands to grip the dock line, hoisting himself to the floating dock. Once there, he walks carefully down the middle, steering between rows of rope anchoring each boat in its slip. First the thought, then a step. He keeps his right index finger in his back right pocket, where it touches his silver flask. With his left hand, he touches his left back pocket where he put his money clip. He remembered money.

The neighborhood is loudly quiet. Nobody around, nobody he can see, but there’s busyness everywhere, the yowl of gulls, the wet kissing of boats. The whine, the incessant scream of his nerves. He walks quickly. His truck is in space #35. His space. The keys will be in the truck under the mat. And the battery won’t be dead because he took the truck out on Monday for gin but did not go so far as the post office because he wasn’t out of hooks then, not on Monday.

“Hot one,” somebody calls. A man in a blue baseball cap. Sam salutes with two fingers.

At the end of the dock he steps onto a dirt path, keeping his eyes on the ground, walking through the thicket of invisible sleeping flies nesting in the guava trees. Tree roots bulge from underground. The path is firm, packed by hundreds of people who climb here each day. He’s been trying to think of what else might be open where he could get hooks tonight. He should just drive to Miami, a two-hour drive on the Overseas Highway. Something’s always open on the mainland. Or he could go scavenging. There’s a nature preserve south of the Marathon post office where he could collect his own material. Crane feathers. Heron. Sandpiper. He’s done it before. Or he could go to the deer preserve for fur, or he could just walk along the beach and look for shells. He doesn’t need to buy supplies, they grow them right here, but he needs hooks, they don’t grow hooks. He touches the silver flask.

The parking-lot is full. It’s usually full on weekends. Full of rental cars. Weekend fishermen fly in from Miami. His old Ford truck is an eyesore among the slick new cars. Doesn’t need to lock it. Who’d want to steal it? It was once blue, but the paint has oxidized in the salty air, and tonight it’s pale green in the glow of a parking lot light that has just come on. Sam opens the door, fishes under the mat for the key, which he finds. He pulls the flask from his back pocket, gets behind the wheel, takes a drink, wedges the flask between his thighs, and turns the key.

He drives down Aviation Boulevard alongside the airport runway, past Stirrup Key and Mango Lane and Grouper Drive. His truck smells like oil, a good smell, and the plastic seat cushion is grubby, familiar. The steering wheel is sticky and hot, but it’s good to be moving, to stir the heat. On the runway to his left, a little private jet takes a leap and a hop and lands, speeding, then slowing, bearing left and turning near the runway’s end. Sam slides his fingers over the steering wheel grooves, noticing how the wheel turns a few seconds after he thinks about turning it. He tries to correct this, the irritating space between thinking and doing. He looks frequently in the side mirrors and in driveways as he passes them, watching for police, always. You can’ t be too careful on a weekend night.

He passes Marlin Drive and Harbor Drive, veers around the southern border of the runway and onto the Overseas Highway, which is busy tonight, cars and pickups and semis heading north, heading south, shadows following headlights, the flare of brakes, yellow blinkers. It’s Friday night, the roadside businesses busy, parking lots full.

He should eat. Did he eat yesterday? He has not today. Alice always tells him he should eat. Says he’s the only man she’s ever met who needs to be reminded. Alice usually winters with him on the boat, has for the last seventeen years, ever since he moved east. He’d asked her to move with him, but she wouldn’t. He told her she owed it to him, the way she witched him and busted up his marriage, and she laughed. Said he busted up his own marriage, which was, of course, true. He never should’ve gotten married. Marriage made him crazy. Two weeks into it, he was looking around. Still, he and Alice, they’ve been steady. Every November, just before the mackerel start running, Alice shows up, and she always stays through February, but she didn’t come last season. Said she had to stay in New Mexico and help her mother with the farm. He wonders about that. Her mother never needed help before. Pretty self-sufficient, Alice’s mother, and her daughter’s just like her. Will she come this season? He wonders if there might not be another man in the picture.

Of course, there must have been men over the years, beautiful woman like that, but none she mentioned, none she married. All these years, she’s never married. Their relationship is a sort of marriage, a three-month-a-year marriage. They ought to write a book about how to be married but not swallow each other alive. Three months doesn’t make him crazy. They’re good together, he and Alice. She likes the boat. He taught her how to bring in big fish, the marlins, the yellowfin, and she taught him how to care enough to eat. He sends her money. She says he doesn’t have to, but he likes to; he likes to give what he can. He sent a packet of twenties just last month. Surely she thinks of him when she opens those envelopes. Surely.

He sees a familiar black-and-white sign up ahead. He slows, signals, pulls off the highway and steers into Artie’s parking lot, which is nearly full, but he finds a spot near the highway. The marquee says conch soup. Oysters on the half shell. He opens the flask, takes a drink, recaps it, and gets out.

He opens the restaurant door and merges with the crowd waiting in line. He breathes the thick smell of fried fish, watches the sheen of oil on lips and picnic tables overflowing with people and a baby crying, breadbaskets and fish shells, and there is cold beer at the bar where he finally sits.

It’s eight-thirty. He doesn’t know how long he stood in line watching the fans rotate, listening to the hum of conversation. There’s a paper placemat in front of him now, white with gray water spots, a paper napkin with Artie’s imprinted at the top, a metal soupspoon. He sips the foam from his beer, nods at the face of a man to his left who, like himself, is reflected in the bar mirror. In the corner of the bar a small television is tuned to the Weather Channel. It’s hot in New York, eighty-nine degrees. Sam watches a map of the United States. It’s hot most everywhere. All along the eastern seaboard, all through the south, out west, the states are tinted yellow with flares of orange, and Florida is yellow, too. The station breaks for a commercial featuring Toyota trucks.

To his right people keep brushing his arm, jostling in, ordering drinks. He has decided not to let their heat bother him. The truck on the TV climbs a rugged hill, bursts over the top, lands, fishtails, skids to a stop, making a perfect half circle, and voices sing “Toy-ota.”

Now the local weather comes on. An odd-looking carrottopped man says that if people haven’t started preparing for hurricane season in Marathon, they ought to because the El Niño pattern could bring some nasty storms this fall.

The young man operating the beer spouts asks the man beside Sam, who has a black mustache and a wedding ring, if he’ll get out for the season.

“Well, I’ll go when I get the ‘git out’ from the weatherman,” Sam’s neighbor says. He nods at the TV. Carrottop’s hair and face are the same color, an odd effect of the color on this TV.

“Paradoxically,” Carrot top says, “El Niño conditions can sometimes produce a lull such as the one we’re currently experiencing.”

“I’m pulling out this weekend,” a man down the bar says. “Putting my cruiser in storage on Sunday.”

“Bob bought himself a little Catamaran Cruiser,” the man with the mustache says. He nods at Sam in the mirror. “Pretty boat. I wouldn’t want to lose it, either, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a slip and storage, too. You’re not giving up your slip, are you, Bob?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

“You give it up, you’ll never get it back. I tell you, every time I come down here, it’s more crowded.”

“You’re telling me,” the bartender says.

To Sam’s right, heat; a woman’s watch catches the hairs on his arm. “Hey, Sam, where you been?”

Trish. He reads the name on her nametag. He gropes for the memory of her but he’s clouded with the sensation of her heat.

“Haven’t seen you in a long time.” She puts a bowl in front of him, the chowder brown and thick. He remembers he’d checked Conch Chowder on a menu that somebody had handed him. “Where you been? You been holed up? You want crackers?”

“Me, when I hear the warning, I’ll head inland,” the man with the mustache says.

Sam nods at Trish. Smiles at her. He smells her after she turns away, a soupy perfume of sweat, fish, and something chemical.

“Not me. I’m going to stick it out this year,” the bartender says.

Sam picks up the soupspoon and watches it shake. He is not himself tonight. He leans over the soup, bringing some carefully to his lips, watching green and red peppers floating in the brown gravy. The taste is tangy, hot. There’s an oily film on the gravy.

“Son, you ought to rethink that. We been lucky. Haven’t we been lucky?” the man with the mustache says, looking at Sam in the mirror. “But this El Niño pattern . . .” He shakes his head.

“The main factors in the above-normal outlook are the active phase of the Atlantic multi-decadal signal and a continuation of warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures across the tropical Atlantic,” Carrot top says.

“How ’bout you, old man?” mustache says, nudging Sam. “You heading out?”

Sam shakes his head, blows the soup, sips from the spoon.

“Never known you to.” The man grins. Sam looks at him. Gray eyes. “You don’t know me, do you? I got that Stephens across the dock from you. Gary.” He holds out his right hand. Sam looks at it and watches his own fingers open, dropping the spoon in the soup, reaching out to shake his neighbor’s hand. “Pleased to meet you,” Gary says. Sam nods. His tongue shudders and does not come up with language. He picks the spoon up.

“Yeah, we keep different hours,” Gary continues. “You’re a night owl, aren’t you? I see your light on sometimes in the middle of the night. You’re the guy who makes the flies, right?”

Sam nods. He opens his mouth and says, “Sam.” He wonders for a second when he last heard his own voice. Tonight it sounds guttural and phlegmy to him.

“Here you go, hon.”

Trish deposits packets of saltines on the plate under his bowl. He gets a soupy whiff of her, and she’s gone.

“I’ve been there three years, and I always leave when the warnings come,” Gary tells Bob. “This guy ”—he points a thumb at Sam—“he’s always there when I leave, and he’s always there when I come back. You just ride ’em out, don’t you? Ever have cause for regret?”

Sam puts his spoon down. He tries to think of how to answer this, but then realizes the man is just talking about staying for the hurricane season. That’s all. He shakes his head. He touches the silver flask in his back pocket, then takes a sip of beer, his hand trembling.

“And how long you been here?” Gary asks.

Sam picks up the soupspoon. “Since ninety.” He sips the soup, chewing the ground conch.

“Guess you’ve seen some weather.”

“You ever notice how that guy always looks surprised?” Bob says. He nods at the weatherman, whose blue eyes are indeed mad with surprise.

“That yokel?” the bartender says. “Man, does that guy think he’s a celebrity. He comes in here, shakes everybody’s hand like he’s a movie star. You can hear him all over the restaurant. ‘Paradoxically,’” the bartender says in a loud nasally voice, “‘we’ll have sunshine today.’ Did you ever notice how that’s his favorite word?”

Gary laughs, and Bob does, too.

“Paradoxically, I got shit for brains,” the bartender says.

Sam tears open a packet of crackers and crumbles two saltines into the soup. He runs his index finger over the ragged edge of the plastic wrap, which feels like the nibs of quills, a row of them. Peacock.

“Me,” Gary says, “I’m insured up to my teeth. I figure I’m not going to be pulling my boat out and putting it in storage every time a storm blows up. But I’ll head inland. I’m no fool. Boats can be replaced. People can’t.” He watches Sam in the mirror. “Since ninety, huh? I guess you’re lucky.”

Sam puts his spoon on the edge of his plate, pushing the plate away. The soup has cooled and is starting to congeal. He feels full. He picks up his beer. “I’m not lucky, that’s for damn sure,” he says.

“Paradoxically,” the weatherman says, “the lull hasn’t produced the kind of bumper crop . . . ”

“See what I mean?” the bartender says.

“I was born there,” Sam says. He nods at them, the movement of his head almost coinciding with the thought, and he thinks Alice is right. He must remember to eat. It’s all about food. “Paradox, Colorado. 1944.”

“Yeah?” Gary says.

Sam tells him that his dad was prospecting for gold near the Dolores River when he was born.

“Did he find any?” Gary asks. “Gold?”

Sam sips his beer. “It’s a geological term. Paradox. Something about the water shaping the rock. Layered in the rocks you’ll see these yellow streaks.”

“Gold?” Bob says.

“My dad thought so. But it was uranium.” The year his mother was pregnant with Sam, his father dragged her all over the Utah Canyonlands and the high Rockies. When he saw the yellow streaks, he staked claim, and took off to test the ore, leaving Sam’s mother by the river. “You could dig the ore out with a spoon,” Sam says. “It was right there on the surface.”

“You done, hon?” Trish is back. Sam nods at her and smiles. She gives him his bill, $15.97, puts her hand on his shoulder, massages it and tells him not to be a stranger.

“Uranium, huh,” Gary says. “That’s not gold. But I guess it’s worth something.”

Sam flexes his fingers, working out the tension. “It was. We never saw any money, though. Here’s your luck for you. My old man traded our claim for an old ramshackle house. Got into the gold digging business too late and out of the uranium business too early. Seven years later, old Charlie Steen was making a killing off uranium all around Paradox.”

Sam’s father was, in fact, the king of bad timing. Sam’s mother was entering her eighth month of pregnancy when his father went off to stake his claim, and she’d given birth to Sam a month early, cut the cord there by the Dolores River and nearly bled to death. His father came back just in time, found his squalling son in a pool of blood.

“Colorado.” Gary shakes his head and tsks his tongue. “Bet it’s cool there.”

“Hell, it’s crowded, too,” Bob says. “Isn’t it, Sam?”

“I expect so.” He slips off his barstool, pulls a twenty from his clip, lays it on top of the bill, and salutes the group with two fingers.

Sam keeps the key to his post office box on the ring with his truck key so he doesn’t lose it or forget it when he drives to get his mail. He enters the empty post office, only trembling slightly now, only a little disconnected, walks under the purple-tinged fluorescents, passing the rows of brown boxes with their metal keyholes, and he congratulates himself for remembering about food and for devising this strategy. He cannot drive to the post office without the key to his box anymore since it’s with his truck key. Alice had once told him this was what made him lovable, how he could be glad over something little, like not losing things. He is glad right now.

He stoops and inserts the key into the lock on 623. They no longer put flyers in his box because he told them not to. Still, his box is crammed full, mostly with catalogs for fishing supplies, but there are a couple of envelopes, one with handwriting he recognizes, and a name, Alice Zsa. He drops the mail on the floor, rips the envelope open, and blinks at a wad of twenty-dollar bills.


He rifles through the twenties. No note.


Why would Alice send his money back?

He turns the envelope over and stares at the address. It is addressed to Alice Zsa, P.O. Box 217, Shiprock, New Mexico, and his own name is in the left- hand corner, Insufficient Postage emblazoned across the letter’s face in red letters.

Not insufficient. Nonexistent. Had the stamp fallen off?

More likely, he hadn’t put one on. “Jesus Christ.”

How long has the letter been sitting in the box? The stamp had not been canceled. They cannot cancel a stamp that was never there.

“Jesus fucking Christ.”

He scoops the mail up, walks through the empty post office, dumps the batch of it into the trash bin just inside the door, shoulders the door, takes the flask out of his pocket, takes one swig, then another, climbs back in his truck, and heads north, drinking now, tilting the flask again and again, gripping the steering wheel with his cold, now shivering fingers, trying to hold his foot steady on the gas pedal, just keeping his eyes on the taillights in front of him, letting them pull him north. He is floating, the highway liquid, the air neither hot nor cold, and he is sluicing. Along granules of road that slip into gel, everything a tunnel, a vacuum, a wormhole pulling him home, that home, his home, that is neither here nor there, just the hard wall of his own skull, which cracks for an instant and he remembers what he hates: losing things. He opens his fingers and things fall out. Always have. But he is floating; the fissure closes. Through the parking lot, space #35, passing the marina office, down the path, over the dock. No longer disconnected, he is air, his legs mercurial, his fingers jointless, ten white worms slipping in and out of his pockets, his own pockets, always just him, until he crosses the extension bridge, a plank over water, and collides with a memory so physical the tunnel splits and crumbles. He is on an extension bridge with his father, the footbridge over the Animas River. This is the river of lost souls, his father had told him. The bridge undulates with each step they take. His hand in his father’s, his father’s gripping his. Squeezing, loosening, letting go. They stand still for a moment in the middle of the bridge, an icy Chinook wind cutting under their shirt collars, the bridge bouncing.

The boat shivers. High tide. Inside, he turns lights on, the lamp in the living room, the fluorescents over the stove. There’s a cardboard box on the kitchen table. He slides into the booth, laying his hands, blue-veined in the cold white light, palm down in front of him. He pulls the flask from his pocket, opens it. He remembers something somebody had said tonight: Ever have cause for regret? He recaps the flask. He pushes it to her side of the table.


Ann Cummins is the author of a short story collection, Red Ant House, and a novel, Yellowcake; this story is an outtake of the latter. Her stories have appeared in publications including The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Barcelona Review, and have been anthologized in a variety of series, including The Best American Short Stories, The Prentice Hall Anthology of Women’s Literature, and The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories.A 2002 recipient of a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, she divides her time between Oakland, California, and Flagstaff, Arizona, where she teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University.


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