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  The Loose Fish Chronicles
  Excerpt From a Memoir in Stories  by Beverly A. Jackson
 
  •  The Green Dress — 1960
    Fancy Soaps — 1961
  •  Dreams and Dreads — 1961
  Sleeping With Marilyn —1961
  The Bermuda Triangle — 1963
  Old Bucks and New Wings — 1964
 
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The Bermuda Triangle — 1963

The slam of cupboards and loud singing wakes me. I have to get my bearings, the strange bed, the fog in my head. Who is that? Wait, familiar voice. Tom! I can’t remember precisely what my new husband looks like. My temples throb. His loud rendition of “Hit the road, Jack, and don’t cha come back no more, no more...” makes me wince, and the smell of fresh coffee slightly nauseates me. It’s difficult to get the unfamiliar bedroom in focus.

Birdsong wafts from the open floor-to-ceiling louvers on two walls facing a bougainvillea garden. Tropical breezes flutter tall palms. I reach to the foot of the bed for a white peignoir, edged with stiff lace, a gift from Tom’s mother. My cynical friends joked that it was fancier than my wedding dress, a simple pique.

Had we made love last night? I can’t remember.

Tom appears, framed in the doorway, holding a bamboo breakfast tray. He’s clean-cut, handsome in an Eagle Scout, asexual way; a whole-wheat kind of guy. Short, light hair, blue eyes fringed with blond whiskery lashes. Not my type at all.

“Good morning, Beautiful,” he says. “How’ya feeling?”

“They put a Mickey in the champagne, right?”

“I feel terrific,” he says, placing the tray on my lap.

“Bully for you.”

I look down at a mug of coffee and slices of fresh pineapple. The ripe sweet smell convulses my stomach and I push the tray to the other side of the bed.

“They left us a basket of fresh fruit with a card. This place is terrific. You’ll feel better with a swim.”

I stumble to the bathroom and close the door. He’s still talking. I can hear his bright voice jabber on, “We can rent mopeds right here at the cottage office. Wait till you see the beach. Better not forget sunscreen.”

I sit on the toilet and push the handle before I even finish; the flush drowns out his voice. The medicine chest hangs open. It’s empty save for a small tube of toothpaste and three tiny bars of Ivory soap. Tom’s toothbrush rests on the edge of the sink, otherwise the room is bare. If we had sex on our wedding night, I didn’t use my diaphragm. I close the chest and peer into the mirror. My tousled blond hairdo is holding a shape thanks to buckets of hair spray, but the bathroom glare accentuates the dark circles under my eyes. I remember putting aspirin in my travel bag, so I stumble back into the bedroom. Tom is gone. For motor bikes, no doubt.

In the doorway, a huge marmalade-colored cat sits immobile. His tail is arranged in a feathery train about his paws, and his agate eyes peer at me.

I approach slowly, bending down to waggle my fingers at him, but he lurches and runs for the door.

“Yeah, so what else is new?” I say to the thick spray of orange tail that switches then disappears. Parrots shriek in the trees.

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Pre-ceremony wedding preparationsWe picnic at Spanish Point Park in Pembroke. Tom’s plan is to use our cottage-kitchen for all meals, thus affording us a week-long vacation on a scant budget. Mama and Pete didn’t attend the wedding ceremony, but instead sent a $300 check and a card of congratulations, the kind you buy at the corner drugstore. My parents have no idea I met Tom only a few months earlier, and moved in together after a month. Nor do they know he’s only a waiter at the Corner Bistro. The fact that he’s an about-to-be-published poet isn’t going to impress them either. If they knew, my parents would disapprove of all of my saloon society in Greenwich Village, the beatniks, actors, and artists I count as friends. Not attending my wedding is a blessing. But in my heart I badly wanted Mama there.

Tom’s father, a wealthy Detroit doctor, offers us a loan when it becomes apparent that my family isn’t hosting a wedding, but Tom declines his money. I know he hates his father. Jim Butcher offers the back room of the Bistro for our wedding reception—with folding chairs on floors scattered with sawdust. He even supplies the steaks for the dinner.

Tom revels in this bohemian idea, and knows his elderly parents will feel miserably out of place in the back room of a bar. I am sympathetic to them, but I get their icy indifference for my trouble. They eye my bleached hair and knee-length pique dress with a pained expression that says Tom picked me only to stick it to them. They might be right, but it assuages my own guilt, because I fear that I don’t much love Tom, not really. I just don’t know how to refuse a man who proposes marriage. Ed, the one who mattered, is gone. Peter was a knee jerk reaction when I was on the rebound. It’s time to settle down. Diana’s my maid of honor and Jim walks me down the aisle of The Community Church where we’re married by a Unitarian minister. “As long as you both shall love...”

“If you marry Tom,” Diana said, “you’ll be cherished.” In our crowd, Diana is the only true believer. I imagine the others are wagering on how long this marriage will last. I wonder myself. “Besides it’ll make you forget Ed. Tom’s just adorable and thinks you are beautiful.”

“But I’m not beautiful,” I said. “So what does that make him?”

But I end up saying yes to Tom. Just like my mother had said yes to my own real father, without loving him. Decisive action is preferable to confused longing. And isn’t there always a gamble? After girlish dreams of Ed, chance seems to be all that’s left to me.

Many of the Bistro cronies attend the reception. Even Kirkaldy shows up, at Jim’s invitation. I ignore him. I figure he’s just there for the free steak. Peter does not attend. I certainly didn’t invite him, and Diana probably makes sure that Jim didn’t.

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“Isn’t this great?” Tom’s enthusiasm for a honeymoon trip won’t be dampened by anything as trivial as money. “I packed peanut butter sandwiches,” he says, passing me a packet wrapped in wax paper. I shrug. I like peanut butter.

The turquoise ocean shimmers beyond a beach that sparkles with freckles of mica. I sit on a blanket, under a red wide-brimmed hat, watching Tom. The sun beats down on our city-white skin. He stands waist-deep in water, talking to a tall boy. The tanned stranger holds a line to a wafer-thin boat which bobs in the froth of small waves. It’s one of the tiny Sunfish rented to tourists up and down the island. Together they examine the bright yellow sail of the boat, then suddenly Tom crouches atop the smooth plastic, and moves the ropes. I stand, alert, and walk toward the water. Tom stands up jerkily, sailing now, up and over a wave he goes, heading out to sea while the boy calls instructions through cupped hands. I see a faint greenish haze that hovers near the water, like a mist. Tom sails right into it and doesn’t look back.

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Tom whispers that he’s rented his own Sunfish the next morning, kisses me lightly and leaves me in bed. I stare at the ceiling fan for an hour, developing movies of Ed Shelton in my mind. Good riddance. He let me go before he even got a chance to know me. But his craggy face hovers in my mind, an apparition. He probably has his big shaggy head between someone else’s legs. His thick fingers are finding the secret, sacred districts of some other woman’s pussy. I can smell him on my own fingers and taste him in the spit of my own mouth when I come. Ed is like a huge, nasty bird, beautiful and elusive. Just thinking about him makes me want to tear my heart out to feed the parrots. Their squawks outside the window prevent me from going back to sleep.

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Tom sails every honeymoon day. His body browns dark as coconuts, his hair bleaches blond. When he returns from the beach he finds me sitting on the veranda in a big wicker chair with the orange cat on my lap. I have stripes of sunburn across my nose and cheeks from my short forays down to the water; my skin not attuned to the tropics. I wear an incongruous sarong of terrycloth.

“This cat finally gave in,” I say.

“Who can resist you?” He has all the right answers.

At night, we eat sandwiches on the veranda and Tom points out the Big Dipper. He tells me stories about his childhood. His physician father kept bottles in the basement of their Detroit home; bottles full of aborted fetuses and severed heads of dead patients. I know he’s lying but pretend to believe. His lying is part of his quirky charm. He gives me a childish love poem for which I fake appreciation. He’s always sweet to me, and when he drinks, he gets very funny, doing pratfalls and impersonations of Bistro characters. He’s even done one of Ed Shelton on the telephone, martini glass in hand.

Under the stars, he soon tires of talk and leaves me sitting, watching the stars. As he heads off to bed, he leans down and brushes my forehead with his lips, whispering “I’ll wait for you, Bev.” But he falls into a deep sleep, exhausted from sailing. I can’t rouse him. When I awake each morning, he’s already gone to the bay. I don’t mention sex to him. I already realize that the boy is a little crazy.

I amuse myself during the day by motor-biking to far ends of the island. I take my moped to Southampton and at Church Bay, I park and walk up the beach, my sandals hanging off my finger. I spot a park that looks like it might belong to the Reefs Hotel on a hill overlooking the water. Two giant tortoises sleep at the bottom of a shallow pond. The placard says they are hundreds of years old. I kneel, peer through the brackish slime. The flippers of the enormous beasts look like khaki leather, or the skin of aged, weathered hands. I hold up my own hands to the sunlight.

“Wishing they were webbed?” a voice says behind me.

An elderly gentleman with snowy white hair shuffles his way to the bench, aided by a cane. His plaid pants, a muted green and black, are the only colorful aspect to an otherwise drab and unremarkable attire. His white moustache droops untidily beneath a large nose and rheumy colorless eyes. I drop my hands instantly.

“Good morning,” I say, rising. “I didn’t hear you come up.”

“The old boys are holding their own, eh?” he says, nodding at the pond. “A fellow American, are we? My name’s Georgy.” He smiles at me benignly. His extended hand trembles in a small palsy.

I shake the old man’s hand and sit down beside him on the bench.

“Beverly. Yes, from New York. And you?”

The man nods. “Been here since ‘47. How’re you finding our little paradise?”

“I’m too fair for this sun,” I say. “But it’s pretty.”

“Sounds like it’s not your cup of tea. Not for everyone.” He puts his cane across his lap and absently rocks it back and forth. “You have to love the water.”

“This water sometimes has a strange green smoke over it. Do you know what that is?”

The old man’s eyes widen. “You’ve seen it?” he asks.

“The first day, yes, I saw it.” I can see the man’s face is hungry with curiosity now. “When my husband was sailing.”

“It’s from the experiments,” he says. “It’s usually further out to sea. Where’s your husband now?”

“He’s sailing. What experiments? What do you mean?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.” I lean toward him.

The old man tips the cane back to the ground, and folds his hands over the head of it. “Well, it’s true because I witnessed it. But nobody believes me.”

“What happened?”

“How would you like to have brunch with me, young lady? My treat? They have the traditional codfish spread or good snapper right up there at the hotel.” He beckons to a sprawling building set high, overlooking the water.

I nod. I am sick of sandwiches. I take his arm and walk slowly up the path to the restaurant.

“Why aren’t you sailing with your husband?”

I shrug and avert my eyes. “Tell me about the green fog.”

Georgy’s old face twitches with a tic when he talks. “Well, you asked for it, don’t forget that.” He shakes an index finger at me. “I was a sailor on the USS Eldridge in 1943. Right here in these waters. War time, you know. The Navy was running secret tests trying to make ships invisible.” He stops to rest for a second and register my reaction. I keep my face neutral, nodding.

“It was the government’s first attempts at stealth technology, electronics to fool the Nazis. But we swabbies had no idea what was going on. A scientist named Von Neumann was in charge of the operation.” Georgy waves to the cashier as we enter and sits at a window table. A waitress with an English accent brings coffee and menus.

“So with no warning, one morning, this switch was pulled. I was on deck when there was a blue flash!” George throws his hands in the air. “Suddenly things started to fade in and out. We thought we’d been hit by a submarine at first, but it was just like mirrors in a fun house. The Captain knew something went wrong, and tried to reverse the switch, but it didn’t work.” Georgy’s hands twirl and then he clasps them.

“Sailors were screaming. Everything went nuts. Five men fused to the metal in the ship’s structure. The rest of us started jumping overboard, but the ship was sucked into this green smoke. I can’t tell you how strange and frightening it was.” Georgy pauses and shuts his eyes.

I clear my throat. “Wait a minute. Did you say they ‘fused’ to the ship?”

Georgy’s eyes fly open. “Yes! Everybody panicked and men were badly hurt. and the ship was blinking in and out of reality like an old silent movie clip.”

The waitress appears with a tray. Georgy pauses while she puts bread and butter in front of us. He orders lunch for both of us and I add a Rum Swizzle. My throat is suddenly parched. I look around the restaurant. There are three or four people seated, just an ordinary afternoon.

“So, what was it?” I ask cautiously.

Georgy shrugs. “We jumped ship in 1943 and a few minutes later we were picked up by a rescue boat in Montauk, New York. That Dr. Von Neumann was on board, but he was an old man. He told us it was 1983. He had been waiting forty years into the future for us to turn up”

I throw my head back and let a laugh explode. “Well, you had me there for a minute.”

Georgy doesn’t smile, but picks up his glass of water and sips it slowly. My drink arrives. We sit quietly while a couple pays their bill, and leaves the restaurant. Out the window, I can see them holding hands as they go down the path. We sit, letting the silence stretch between us. The waitress places entrees in front of us. I order another rum.

“You think I’m making this up?” Georgy looks down at his plate. I think he might be going to cry.

“Well, you have to admit that it’s a fantastic story.”

“I told you you wouldn’t believe me. Try me, you said.” Georgy pokes a forkful of food into his little mouth.

“Well, I don’t disbelieve you. Maybe it’s just gotten mixed up over the years?” I say gently.

“No! Exactly as it happened. Von Neumann sent us back to the ship with axes to destroy the equipment. We did and immediately,” Georgy snaps his fingers, “the ship returned to its original point in space with us aboard. About three hours had elapsed. So, an entire ship and crew went to a future distant location and back again, all in a matter of hours! Just by chance, I was there.” Georgy puts down his fork and flings his hand at me. “It doesn’t matter what you think.. I know what I know.” He meets my eyes and his face softens.

“Is that what I saw that morning?” I said.

“You didn’t see a ship evaporate, did you?” Georgy smirks and rolls his eyes.

“No, but I think I might have evaporated.” I say. “That’s possible, right?”

“Anything’s possible. We’re not connected to these points in time and space, you know. It just looks like we are.” He pauses. “Are you honeymooning?”

“How did you know?”

“You just have that foggy look of the newly married.” He smiles and smoothes his moustache.

“I made a mistake,” I say, mashing a piece of fish into pulp with the back of my fork.

“Ah, don’t cry, my dear. Maybe it’s just your perception.” His old face is soft with concern. I can see that he must have been handsome as a youth. Clean cut. “This place is sucking up ships and planes. Who’s to say people don’t have similar warps? Who’s to say you haven’t married the perfect man? It may just take a shift in your certainty. He may be waiting for you.”

I stare into the old man’s face. “The man I really love has disappeared,” I say. “that’s for sure.”

“Sometimes it just takes time for the molecules to sort themselves out,” Georgy says, his eyes narrowing. “It’s hard being young. And you, my lovely girl, are very young.”

“Nobody’s tried to shut you up about all this time-travel?” I ask.

“Nah, folks just think I’m dotty. The Navy covered up so many deaths, so many mutilated bodies. They knew nobody would believe us. Even my wife left me when I got home—so I know how you feel. That was hard. I never married again. Do you know what? You remind me of her a little. You want to be careful what you do from now on.” Georgy’s fingers reached out and touched my hand lightly. “Do you believe my story?”

“I don’t know. It sounds crazy, but I like it. I can see that you believe it. Why do you tell people?”

“People ought to know. Such things are important,” Georgy says firmly. “If I didn’t think I’d frighten you, I could prove it to you.”

“How?” I lean forward in my chair, prepared for another story.

Georgy moves in close to my face. “Take a good look at me.”

“Yes,” I say, studying the pouches and lines around his eyes. It’s a good face, I think. The face of a man capable of great love. I wonder if the old dog is flirting with me.

“Well, all you have to do is think it out. In 1943, I was 20 years old. This is 1963. Twenty years later. That makes me forty. Do I look forty to you?” He removes his wallet, and opens it on the table, with his driver’s license in its little plastic case facing me.

I read the birthdate. May 17, 1923.

“You see,” Georgy continues rapidly. “I was one of the casualties. I came back with the crew, but some of us came back forty years older.”

My feet are flat against the hardwood floor, but I have a sensation of motion. It’s like seasickness; a giddy weightless nausea.

“I think I need some air,” I say.

Georgy signals for a check, and takes some bills out of his wallet. “I’m sorry, dear girl. I shouldn’t have.”

“No, really, it’s okay.” I grip the table and rise. “It’s just a little crazy, you know?” To go to the trouble of having a license made to defend his story takes the cake. I really do need some air.

Georgy nods. “I know, I know. But I assure you, I’m as sane as you.”

“That’s not saying much,” I say.

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From the cottage windows I frequently check the beach. I can always make out Tom’s silhouette on the Sunfish. He and the boat meld into one form like a corporate logo for an exclusive beach club. He’s expert now, leaning far out over the water at a sharp angle, his arms and strong legs taut and tan, defying wind and gravity, the bright sail curving in on itself like a conch shell. I understand and hate the perfection of it because it leaves no room for me to change my mind. Georgy, the wind, the little sail, the orange cat and the sandwiches had somehow conspired to steal my indecision. I look for the green haze on the water, half-expecting it to pick up my husband and carry him into the past or future, but the blue sky meets the aqua water cleanly across a wide horizon.

I return to the tortoise pond once more, but do not find Georgy. I sit on the bench. Ed Shelton is fused to me like those pitiful sailors mutilated in the metal of the Eldridge. But maybe that connection isn’t permanent either. Maybe it is just the past that clings, and not Ed at all. My skin prickles under the hot sun, and I ride the moped back to the cottage.

Tom drags the Sunfish onto the sand. I see him through the kitchen window and pour a finger of rum into each of two jelly jar glasses and split a can of Coca-Cola between them. My hair’s wet and wavy from the shower, and my face has a biscuit tan, at last. I carry the drinks out to the veranda and wait for him to come up the walk.

He grins when he sees me.

“How was your day?” I ask.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” Tom says, sipping the rum as he lowers himself onto the wicker chair. “It’s like being in heaven out there.”

“You’ll miss it,” I say. “We leave tomorrow.”

Tom wipes at the sand that dries on his feet and ankles. “It went too fast,” he says.

“I’m ready to go home.” I drop onto the string hammock. I see a flash of orange fur in the hibiscus bushes. Above my head, the scold of a cockatiel breaks the air, followed by a flurry in the trees.

“It hasn’t been much fun for you, has it?” Tom says. “I guess I’ve been pretty selfish. Just hard to resist the chance to sail.”

“I don’t begrudge you.” I stare at the foliage, looking for the cat.

“Are you sorry?” Tom asks. His bronzed face turns toward the sea; the taut profile gleams in the dimming light. Striated in a palette of magentas, the sun slips under the dark water line. “Tell me that you’re not sorry.”

“I’m sorry that I burn so easily,” I say, trying to joke. He turns and meets my gaze. I realize that he hasn’t looked directly at me in the entire seven days.

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I know,” I say, steadily framing him like a memory as darkness soaks up the sky and sea behind him. “The marriage.”

“I love you.” He tentatively reaches out with one hand and then changes his mind, gets up and goes to the kitchen instead.

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The morning of our departure, I find a dead baby parrot on the sidewalk to the cottage office. Its feathers are scattered in a tiny circle beneath a riot of squawking in the trees above me. I pick up a tiny iridescent plume and fold my palm around it. The cat is nowhere in view.

I wear a smart city dress, high-heeled pumps and sunglasses for our trip home. Tom is dressed in Bermuda shorts and a madras shirt, his skin burnished like a new saddle. He snaps pointless photos of airplanes, other peoples’ dogs and children, and lets the camera dangle about his neck while I sit in the tiny waiting room at the airport and smoke filtered cigarettes. I think about the randomness of possibility and disaster. About the promise of certainty. I calculate my chances. Mine versus those of Mama when she was my age. I figure I come out ahead regardless. She once said “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” I think I finally understand. But growing up isn’t just about understanding. My father, sitting in the tail of a B-17 shooting at Nazis, didn’t understand, but he did it anyway. It was the gamble he took. And I’m nothing if not a gambler.

My handsome husband comes toward me, the camera raised to his eye, his finger poised on the button, his white, even teeth gleam in his mouth like dice.

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  © Beverly A. Jackson, 2011
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