His wristwatch marked half past twelve. He fished in his jacket pocket for a pen and wrote HAPPY BIRTHDAY on a cocktail napkin in neat, capital lettering. He tilted the napkin to the right, then the left, finally fixing it upside down—the words, suspended atop a phantom Ferris wheel. He swung them distractedly.
The girl behind the bar was hoping he’d notice her and had been all night. She felt silly for watching him so unabashedly, and even sillier because he wasn’t watching her. When she caught herself brushing past him, closer and more often than necessary, she blushed and hurried to the ice bin, where she wetted a towel and pressed it to her hot cheeks. In a town where each spring ushered in a fresh crop of men and each fall saw them exit with the last salmon run, girls spent years immunizing themselves against the newcomers' sweet talk, their lewd comments and gawking stares. So how was it that one evening, one of them could walk into her bar wanting nothing more than a drink, and she was immediately reduced to a school girl? She eyed his near empty glass. She should offer him another drink. Or, was that too eager? She busied herself, instead, checking on her few tables and lingering over other patrons at the bar.
Dell rubbed his face hard, polished off his drink and rested his elbows on the mahogany bar. Wanting another whiskey, he surveyed the wait staff, lazily, aware that he hadn’t noticed his server enough to remember her. He was trying to think of something: something that had bothered him a great deal four drinks earlier. It was something Mrs. Begley had said to him at the hotel. Her skirt was red, like raw sockeye salmon flesh, and it was hemmed too long for her short stature. It trailed her like a wake, but just cleared her feet in the front, where its length was buffered by an unusually large midsection. He had followed her down a fishy-smelling hall and waited while she unlocked door number 9. The color of her skirt and the way it seemed to propel her over the concrete floor like a fish tail, together with the stench of dirty fishermen and sea-sopped clothes had made him queasy. He had leaned against the door-frame and closed his eyes. That’s when she said it. She had pressed a spare room key into his limp hand and said, “Make yourself at home”.
It was many years since he had seen his family home in Iowa; the weathered porch, the bright blue kitchen with yellow paisley-print linoleum, the green shag rug in his bedroom that doubled as his pasture when he was playing Jimmy’s horse. There was the living room, with his mother’s ceramic figurines and the “new” sofa, covered in heavy plastic for fifteen years. Mom insisted this was "to keep it nice", though nobody sat on it but twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, when Dad’s bachelor brother drove Papa Burt and Nana Kat up for a visit. The town was nice enough, with hard-working, friendly folk, but Dell had never quite made it his. He used to lounge in the fork of the old black walnut tree and read Jules Verne, while the other children played. When he left town at seventeen, he told himself it was in search of monsters, more than running away from what had happened there.
That was eleven years ago. He had seen other homes. He had seen Nicaraguan women, all but widowed, barely keeping their children alive in wood slat houses with leaky plastic roofs, while their men roamed far and wide, in search of non-existent work. Those who survived poverty and unclean water died from years of exposure to toxic smoke, billowing from inefficient stoves. Mercedes had daily turned the empty corn barrel and oil jar into scant tortillas or boiled a handful of rice with a few red beans—while babies played at her feet and smoke filled her tiny shack. In time, her elderly mother coughed up a bloody lung and her little asthmatic girl turned blue for want of air.
He had seen the masses of Katrina survivors, rendered homeless in one fell swoop; vagrants now—extra bodies with no place to put down. The relief effort, of which he was part, felt like a response at least as ineffective as, and far less impassioned than, that of a man whose story was circulated among the workers. Having no means of escape, he had climbed upon his rooftop and yelled into the hurricane winds.
He had known this very town, though it had changed since he was here last. Phineas--whose mother still lived here--was quick and sure with his fishing rig, and as dependable a friend as fisherman. In the water, he was a magic so astonishing that tall tales grew of his adventures; he was the Davy Crockett of the sea. He made his home at sea, but it betrayed him at last.
Dell looked, again, at the words on the napkin, as if hoping to make sense of them. He thought he’d identified his waitress; she seemed flustered when their eyes met but didn’t come to him. He closed his eyes. Eleven years…and at once he understood that he wasn’t looking for monsters. He was looking for where monsters were not. He was looking for home. In stories, the heroes—having battled the monster—returned home to great rejoicing. Slaying the monster made home safe; made home, home. But straight-forward monsters like dragons and giant squid were mere fantasy. In the world, there were only the ordinary monsters of poverty and inhumanity. Inhumanity, he had come to see, claimed poverty among its legion of psychopathic sons. Poverty could be dealt with, if uneasily. Inhumanity was unwieldy; it pervaded everything, the world over. Dell remembered the first time he’d seen a satellite image of the earth from space; it was cold and empty—unspeakably beautiful—but not a place he would instinctively call “home”.
When they finally pulled Phineas out of the tangled net, his face was contorted like something from a horror movie. Many friends, villagers and family members would tell the story of his death as a romance: a tall tale befitting a life of tall tales. They said the sea had finally claimed him, that he would have wanted to go no other way, that he was always more of the sea than of the land. One townsman even claimed to have seen him swimming in the bay, but upon over taking him, met a blue eyed seal, who looked at him, knowingly. Nobody, even the other crew members, ever mentioned his face. It was over-taken, afraid; as one surprised by treachery just before the plunge of the knife: Et tu, Brute?
Dell suddenly remembered how it felt to run the length of a corn row in the dark, with Jimmy and how he used to run ahead to lose him. He’d dart through the eight-foot wall of papery leaves, into the next row and sit, as quiet as his father sat when hunting pheasant in the brush at the far side of the crop fields. He used to watch the white moon--corn tassels like fuzzy black caterpillars, crawling on its glowing face--and listen to his brother wail. When Jimmy came up close, he could tell by the sound of his step when his foot left the worn trail and faltered in the soft mound of dirt heaped up around the plants or when he tripped on corn-stalk stubble. He could hear, too, Jimmy’s breath, labored and glitchy from running so hard and sucking up the snot running down his face. When he finally stepped back into Jimmy’s row, he did so stealthily, sidling up behind him until Jimmy felt his presence and turned around. This always scared Jimmy and Dell found his scream priceless, but a moment later when the moon shone on the boy’s upturned face, puffy and wet, he always felt a pang in his chest and would lie awake long into the night, remembering. Home, Dell decided, was somewhere in Jimmy’s face.
Dell slid sweaty hands from his forehead to his temples, pushing back loose strands of hair. He opened his eyes and stared at the waitress, without understanding her.
“Can I get you another?” She indicated his empty glass.
She hurried away, looking rattled and flushed. He shook a cigarette loose from his diminishing pack.
It used to be a show of bravery he put on for Jimmy, letting the match burn nearly to his finger before blowing it out. Now it was a reason as uninteresting as habit or as singular as curiosity. He didn’t know which and resolved not to find out. It was need, either way. He lit the cigarette and watched the match flame dwindle until he felt the quick pain of it on his finger. He blew it out.
“Whiskey, neat,” announced the waitress. She set a glass in front of him and hurried away, again.
He dragged on his cigarette, long and deep. When he reached for his drink he saw that the cocktail napkin was gone and the waitress had supplied him with a fresh ashtray.