The resort concierge was a tiny, bald Frenchman in his sixties, but he towered over me in the hallway. The air of dignity and propriety he carried with him just made me feel worse. From my position, prone on the floor of the hotel hallway, I felt like a stain on his lush, forest green carpet. My own blood caked my chin and dress shirt as someone else’s vomit congealed down my back and across my lap. Cherry lipstick left a streak across my cheeks and my swollen bottom lip. As this wasn’t sufficient humiliation, I was drenched head to foot and smelled like chlorine, baked chicken, sparkling wine with a hint of cat food.
I was at the ugly end of a weird day.
But at that moment the details of that day were still hazy.
I appreciated the complete absence of judgment in his expression as the man with the Louis Renault mustache spoke.
“Mr. Casey, is it?” The man in the tailored suit planted his fists into his hips and waited for me to acknowledge him. When the palm trees behind him came into focus, I offered a little wave.
“Yes,” I replied, assuming he knew what he was talking about.
It was coming back to me as the hallway settled down to choose one compass bearing. I remembered the name of the island: Ebetha. Someone had called it the “New Orleans of the Caribbean.”
“I’m Jean-Paul Gautreaux: head resort concierge. You telephoned me earlier.”
Concierge. Resort. Telephone. Check. “Yes, hi.”
“Do you require medical attention?”
“No. Give me a moment to find my breath and I’ll collect the bits of my dignity I spilled all over your nice floor.”
He let the remark die in the air. “I was coming to give you an update on your missing bags and the problems in your suite, but – it seems you may have higher priorities at the moment.”
I appreciated his cunning read of the obvious. “Yes, Jean-Paul.”
“Would you like me to summon security?” To that point, Jean-Paul maintained what I can only imagine was a well-practiced stoicism. The only change in his face was to raise a single eyebrow to underscore his question.
“No. Just an ice pack. Maybe some Advil.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I enjoy problems that resolve themselves.”
A hotel manager has a rough line to walk. If a problem can just go away, Jean-Paul was happy to move on to the next problem. Fights break out. Hearts get broken. People get drunk, puke on their friends, and fall into swimming pools. Those things can fade into hazy memories if all parties agree to forgive, forget or just move on.
I chose to move on. “Have a new room for me, yet? Or does it still have a redneck water feature in place of a bathtub?”
“I assure you the problems in the suite we’ve assigned you will be remedied in the next hour or two. Also, I’m happy to report that your bags may have been located by the airport.”
“May have been? Well, I’m glad my stuff isn’t in Cancun like they originally thought.” Remembering things to be pissed off about was a good sign. Ideas and information fell into place as the evening began making sense again.
Nicely dressed guests heading up the hallway for dinner slowed as they passed. Some cast me the kind of sad glances one might give a dead bird along a scenic walk.
Jean-Paul noticed this as well. “Indeed, sir. Until then, sir, would you kindly come with me?”
“Where,” I asked assuming the answer was somewhere in the security office.
“Somewhere that I can have you disinfected…the staff would like to get started on this hallway as well.”
Jean-Paul directed me — at arm’s length — through a service corridor to an employee locker room and shower where I surrendered the only outfit to survive my flight from Baltimore. I presumed it would be burned. I spent the next forty minutes insulated by the hiss of the spigot and a bank of steam in the empty group shower scrubbing rot and shame off my carcass.
Habits from my first months out of the rehabilitation hospital meant I took care to clean the quarter-sized crater in my chest. This was the entry point for the Hickman catheter that, for 90 days, pumped corrosive poison up into my carotid artery and back down into my aorta, where it diluted into my blood before it could burn through the walls of my heart. This device was painful, but it also delivered the necessary medicine to kill the cancer spoiling my blood.
If ever comes a time when my memory of that exercise in human plumbing fades, the recurring nightmare of lying awake in restraints while doctors reeled the length of plastic tube up and out of my body will remind me. It puts all other categories of “shitty day” into sharp relief.
Washing my shrinking patch of short hair, I made note of the divot where doctors once made a hole to vent the pressure on my brain and plug a leak, the cause of which they have yet to explain to me or my attorneys. Fortunately, I was asleep for that fishing expedition and it only took me a week to remember my name and how to speak.
Hot showers are a temple for self-reflection and meditation and remember the words of a nurse who got me through the worst of it: You can feel. You can stand. Today is yours and, if you’re lucky, tomorrow will bring you something new.
I came to Ebetha because my old friend Lucy asked me to be a special guest at her wedding. Her fiancé Blake had his reservations, but being the dutiful – and submissive – partner, he went along with it. At the time, I didn’t know it, but Lucy had told Blake that I grew up with a crush on her and – despite being married to Claire – would take her in a heartbeat. When Lucy proposed a toast to my survival at her rehearsal dinner, the combination of sun, stress and wine inspired her to take the story a step further and talk about how sad it was that I never admitted how I felt and how horrible it must be to sit there knowing that in a few hours she would be gone forever. Then she asked me if I had anything to say to her before she gave herself away forever.
I said, “Did you know Blake slept with Claire while I was in the hospital?”
Events are fuzzy after that.
Someone left a chemical ice pack, towels, and some horrifying tourist clothes on a bench outside the shower. Jean-Paul returned to the locker room just as I finished dressing and ushered me further down the service corridor to a storm door leading outside.
“Come with me, Mr. Casey? I understand you asked the desk clerk to use a special membership card when you checked in.”
“Yes. She said it wasn’t transferable. The friend who gave it to me said it was.”
“That is correct, under most circumstances. But your friend – Lieutenant Grant Parker – he is an exception.”
“I hear that a lot about him.” We kept walking. By that time my body was so exhausted and my mind depleted, he could have been taking me to the incinerator and I would not have been aware of a problem until he turned on the gas. Instead, we emerged to a beach with only the western sky on fire, burning through a blanket of clouds far out to sea. The cool breeze and fresh air helped clear my head.
“I’ve approved you for the perquisites and courtesies we would naturally extend to Lieutenant Parker.”
“Very kind. He mentioned he was a frequent guest here.”
“Yes. He left instructions to take care of his friends on this clearly very special occasion.”
There was a definite change in Jean-Paul’s tone since our last encounter on the hotel floor. It had nothing to do with me, but my old friend Park usually left an impression on people wherever he was in the world.
“The executive lounge is straight ahead,” the manager said, then put a hand on my shoulder to stop me from wandering onto the beach in an entirely wrong direction.
I took note of the stone path leading through palm trees to a secluded pavilion.
“Your accommodations are ready. We’ll have your bags put there when they arrive from the airport within the hour. Until then, please… eat something. Drink and relax.”
I wandered toward the sound of surf and the strains of Jimmy Buffett somewhere in the distance and found myself at the edge of the civilized world; a stretch of pristine beach with feet planted firmly in warm, white sand. The tropical wind carried the smell of the ocean and stale beer. Immediately, I started to forget about things like lost luggage, a room without running water and the embarrassing end of a lifelong friendship.
The bar was an altar to expensive taste in booze. The wicker bar stool was comfortable and had a strong back. And it did not yell at me. Or regurgitate chicken on me. Or try to punch me in the face.
“Mr. Casey.” The voice sounded American with hints of Boston. He was shifting things behind the bar so I’d missed him coming in.
“How did you know?”
“The concierge phoned ahead to say I should expect a confused looking man wearing clothes from the gift shop clearance rack.”
The bartender was someone’s attempt to build a Patton Oswalt from memory and was distracted by Robin Williams halfway through. He was short, stocky and covered with hair with a head like a cube and a square jaw that looked almost as impressive as his massive brow. He wore his Hawaiian print shirt open to show off his ape-like torso and a single gold chain that looked like the Yellow Brick Road winding through a dark forest of man-fur. His expression reminded me of a cunning cartoon rodent. At first I felt inclined to dislike the man before his disarming candor pegged him as an honest man on an island of sycophants.
“Welcome to The Deep End, Mr. Casey.”
“Huh. Ironic since we’re at the shallow part of the ocean. Why’s it called The Deep End?”
“I’m thinking because ‘Secret Bar for Rich, Tourist Assholes’ didn’t quite ring the owner’s bell.” He caught himself. “Present company excluded, of course. I’m sure you’re not a dick.”
“I try not to be, though today seemed to be tougher than most. Not rich, either.”
He continued polishing clean glasses with a rag. “Besides, you appear to be my only source of gratuities tonight — so sky’s the limit, sir.”
“You said this is a ‘secret’ bar?”
“Some guests are more equal than others, so this little corner of the resort is kept off the ‘all-inclusive’ plan except for those aforementioned ‘rich, tourist assholes.’ We keep the really good stuff here, keep the kitchen staff working until you’re done gorging on lobster or pureed duck meat…whatever the hell rich people eat… and I’m something of a concierge for the things you wouldn’t ask the desk staff for or in the presence of island police.” The bartender paused but saw that this news did not pique my interest and so continued, “Looks like you took one on the chin there. Was that the big to-do I heard about up in the Botaki Room?”
“Well, that’s what we live for at this resort: watching the tourists eat one another. Need a bag of ice?”
I rubbed the side of my face where Lucy’s fiancé landed a drunken punch. It hurt a little, but not as much as getting punched in front of the entire bridal party. Or tripping over my own feet and falling into the pool after. Come to think of it, the punch fell below getting thrown up on by the bride at her rehearsal dinner and falling back into the pool trying to prevent her from falling in…which didn’t work.
Lucy and Blake were two people I’d known since high school. Each of them dated most everyone else in our extended circle of friends except one another. This was Lucy’s second marriage and Blake’s first. Blake always said he waited into his mid-thirties because he wanted to be able to provide. He also happened to be the Top Junior Sales Manager for my father-in-law’s Ford dealership back home. It was the only significant accomplishment of note in his life after being the big football hero of our senior year unless you count sleeping with my wife as an accomplishment. Lucy and I had been close since grade school. We even dated twice and agreed never to speak of it again. Nevertheless, I was her “advice guy” for many years because I was so boring and sensible which provided her devil’s advocate for every time she did something wild or stupid. She never listened, but it gave her something to open our conversations at two in the morning when she needed someone to bring her home from a party or pay her bail. To be fair, the bail thing only happened twice, but one time involved putting a car into Swatara Creek.
My friendship and loyalty to Lucy is something that Blake, in his growing insecurity, never understood. He didn’t like me and I wasn’t his biggest fan, either even before the infidelity. Blake was proud of his relationship with my father-in-law, especially the fact that the old man once told Blake he was the “son he never had.”
When I wrestled Lucy out I handed her off to Blake with a frustrated “She’s all yours, man. Good luck.” He chased me down the hall and hit me in the jaw.
Now that it all fit back into my head, I could let it all go until Blake realized he just punched his boss’ son-in-law and sought me out to apologize. So, I shrugged at Murray and distilled my night into a simple, “Shit is, my friend. Shit just is.”
“True enough. What can I get you? What’s your poison?”
“Never mind. How about a Ginger Ale?”
“You might have heard me mention something about a lot of free alcohol just now. I have 50-year-old single-malt Scotch back here, Mr. Winston.”
“Oh, I’d love to…uh…”
“Murray,” he said drawing a line under his invisible name tag with an index finger.
“…Murray. I got real sick recently. When I got better, I had my first beer and couldn’t take it.”
“You poor bastard. What kind of horrible, evil disease takes away a man’s ability to drink?”
“I know, right?”
“How is that even a thing?”
“Cancer killed your liver?”
“No…I’m wearing a new body that just looks like me. My oncologist said that when you kill all the marrow and get new marrow and blood and have your cells radiated your whole body basically regenerates…like a Time Lord.”
“Like a what?”
“Like Doctor Who.”
“Like a doctor who… what?”
“No, the television show…Doctor Who.”
“Oh. Yeah. Never watched. No idea what you’re talking about.”
He was not of the body. “Well, I was dying. So, the doctors pumped a lot of radiation into me because, why not? I was gonna die anyway if they didn’t, right? The radiation killed the bad parts of me, but also killed a lot of the good, but not enough of the good that I died. When it was all over, the bad parts grew back good and the good parts grew back good and everything was just slightly different.”
“What does that have to do with Doctor Who?”
“You said you didn’t know anything about it so I tried to explain it a different way.”
“Oh. So, everything grew back, but you no longer like alcohol…so isn’t that growing back bad, sorta?”
“Well, I’m not dead. I think that’s good.”
“I see your point. Dead men don’t tip. Would you like something to eat? Fillet Mignon? Chicken Marsala? I like to pair our house root beer with the Ukrainian caviar served on Siberian wheat crackers.”
“You’re just suggesting items by price point, aren’t you?”
“Hey, it’s all inclusive and you have access to the real chef and the best parts of the menu. Just think of it as the finest dining by the sea at an 80 percent discount and no tipping required…well, there is tipping, but it’s based on the…”
“Yeah, I get where you were headed.”
“The salt air means you don’t have to season the food as much. You get the taste of adding salt, but the head chef tells me it’s just the sensation of the palate and the oily-factory sensation…the nose sense stuff. So, it’s like low-sodium eating.”
“Full of advice tonight, Murray.”
“I am, sir. Here’s some more: the tiny black eggs are amazing.”
“Cheeseburger. Medium. Steak fries. Let’s keep it simple.”
“That’s easy. I’ll call over to the kitchen. But. I’m still…”
“This whole ‘not drinking’ thing bothers me.”
“We’ve established it won’t have an impact on your tip.”
“It is my job to promote hedonism and self-abuse. I see this as a challenge.”
“Well carry on, then.”
He stared at me with the concentration of a guy working out the actual retail price of the second showcase on The Price is Right. “What wine or spirit couldn’t you stand before you stopped standing everything else?”
I thought about it for a moment. “Rice wine. Hate the stuff.”
Murray nodded, held up a finger to give him a moment and disappeared under the bar. A moment later, he produced a small, round bottle with a label covered in Japanese script. He poured a cloudy white liquid into a square tumbler and slid it across the bar to me. “Try this,” he said.
“I just said I hate this stuff,” I reminded him.
Murray had a tall brown bottle with the word “SEIMEI” written in Sharpie over top of a worn and yellowed label full of Japanese characters. “Got this for one of our older customers who liked aged saké from a particular toji…or brew master. He won’t miss it. He’s dead. I’ll miss Mr. Yukahama, but I think I’ll miss his gratuities most of all. Anyway, if your body regenerated and you hated all the other boozles, maybe it means you like what you hated?”
The liquid had a murky, golden color like storm clouds obscuring a sunrise. It smelled of island fruit, not chemicals but freshly cut oranges with a hint of cinnamon, I think.
Murray explained how Mr. Yukahama was a crazy old man who liked rare steak almost as much as he enjoyed tiny, plump island girls with small feet and big eyes. He slid the square, wooden cup across the bar at me. “One sip of this will bathe the drooping spirits in delight, beyond the bliss of dreams.”
“That quote. John Milton.”
“Huh. I thought I stole it from the old man who used to work here.”
“Maybe John Milton worked here.”
“No, not really.”
By all estimates I should have hated the drink. But it was wonderful. Within moments of drinking in a small shot, I felt majestic and expansive, relaxed in my own skin yet prepared to unleash hell upon the world. It was a good and hearty beverage I could picture warriors imbibing before…
Someone caught my eye at the other end of the bar. I sat up in my chair quickly to get a better look, but there was no one there. I took another look around and I’m sure Murray thought my actions a bit odd, but he didn’t let on. Eventually, a nice, warm wave of sorely-missed intoxication fell back over me, and I settled back into my chair. Murray seemed pleased with himself.
“Listen. You mind watching the bar for a minute? I gotta duck into the back and refill the cheap tequila bottles, if you get my meaning.”
I picked up the bottle of seimei in a toast to indicate I was quite content. I settled into my high back chair and watched the golden liquid fill the tumbler as my mind drifted toward the roar of the ocean.
“So.” The word felt like it found breath just behind my ear. “Rough night, huh, Winston?”
He was behind me, behind the chair and out of view and I had no desire to meet his gaze. I should have known he’d catch up to me. I let my defenses down. I didn’t hear him approach, but a man doesn’t survive five years in the Afghan mountains by drawing attention.
I didn’t turn to greet him. I just kept staring into the square glass. Reflected in it was his shape, standing still under swaying palms. “Park. I didn’t expect to see you outside the hospital.”
“You don’t even seem happy to hear from me.”
“Why are you here, Park?”
“Because you haven’t opened the package I sent you.”
“Why don’t you just tell me what’s in it?”
“I can’t do that, Winston.”
“Why not? We can talk about it over a drink.”
His reply contained a low growl. “Because I can’t. You know that.”
He moved off to my right toward the center of the bar. I looked up from the glass and into the distressed metal backsplash behind the bar. While not the best mirrored surface, I could see the warped reflection of myself and the chair with Parker’s shape outlined behind me.
“I don’t want to know what’s in the package.”
Again, silence. I could feel him just behind me. I resisted the urge to turn around and just have it out. Parker was committed to his enterprise. He was always about following the rules, keeping the pact and seeing things through to their bloody end. It pissed me off that I knew what he was thinking even after all these years and I had no way of convincing him to just… let it rest. “Right. It’s the fucking game again. I have to play it through, even though you’re…” I swallowed the last word in a mouthful of saké.
He moved a step closer to me and then another. I felt a cold chill under the skin around my neck, like Parker was reaching out to me, his fingers just millimeters from my flesh. “I’ve been planning this for months. For us. You owe me your attention if nothing else.”
He stood directly behind me now and the chill of it rolled over me, causing my body to shiver and my teeth to chatter. It didn’t scare me. It made me angry.
“How helpful was your dungeon master bullshit over there in the sandbox?” I turned in my chair, prepared to face my old friend. “Parker?” There was nothing there to yell at.
“Mr. Casey?” It was Murray, back up front to scare the piss out of me. “I thought I had another guest. You okay?”
“Cell phone coverage sucks down here,” I replied without a hint of a cellular device in view. As lies go, it was a poor one, but as transgressions go, a man talking to himself in a bar and then lying about it was probably not the weirdest thing in Murray’s experience.
Murray decided it was easiest to just agree with that statement.
“So. Are you gonna open the package or not?”
I looked up at Murray who waited expectantly for an answer. He was eavesdropping on my conversation with Parker. Did he see him? Did he see Parker’s face?
No. No one ever saw Parker on his visits.
“What did you say?” It came out stronger and darker than I expected and hit him unprepared.
“I asked, ‘you wanna open another bottle or not?’ Though, the way you’re draining that one, you might wanna slow your roll there, gaijin.”
I realized that in my conversation with Parker, I put down at least two inches of the four in the bottle of seimei. It was starting to swim across my frontal lobe again in a loving, warm kind of way that I quite missed. I said. “Got any more of this gold stuff?”
“I’ll check in the back,” Murray said as he turned toward his little store room behind the backsplash. I took a breath and turned to where I knew he would be standing.
There was my old friend Parker again.
I remember Grant Parker back when he was just a lanky kid. I remember him long before he went to college to become an officer in the Army, before he won his silver bar and took his first platoon to Kuwait in 1990s, before he took a bullet in the hip for one of his soldiers in Basra, and long before he earned his second silver bar and command of a company of military police in Afghanistan. He was the kid who turned the monkey bars on the school playground into a medieval keep under siege. He and I were part of a group of misfit geeks huddled together in my basement playing Dungeons & Dragons or Twilight:2000 over an entire weekend.
I remember Grant Parker blooming into the handsome jock and student leader who still had time for his buddies on the Island of Misfit Geeks, setting up treasure hunts in the acres of empty woods behind his house, and the fight between him and Nate Hamm over Nate’s underage drinking and the rift that sent Nate out of our loyal group of five. I remember the Grant Parker who, after receiving decorations for heroism and valor, sent me a hand-written letter from a combat zone telling me that I was the bravest man he knew for fighting The Monster in my blood.
And I remember Grant Parker’s blackened corpse standing at the foot of my bed the night after he died in Iraq, one blue eye fixed on me while the remains of his shattered face smoldered and cast embers onto my linens. There he stood once again, as he was in the end, saying what he said to me then: “Winston. It is time to really live. For I cannot really die until you do.”
His words took me away from the beach, away from the feeling of victory and freedom I already seemed to be taking for granted. The world went black for a moment and I caught a glimpse of the things hiding in the flickering torch light waiting for me to invite them to take me away.
“You’re dead already. That’s the line you’re going with? A bit melodramatic, isn’t it?”
“You’re the writer, Winston. What am I supposed to say?”
I took another drink.
Flakes of ash fell slow to the white sand, bits of Parker’s uniform and charred flesh started a ring around his body. “Just open the package I sent you. Get it over with.”
He moved to the bar stool next to me. His one good eye — piercing blue and gentle in contrast to the rest of his shredded remains — would not look away from me. I could smell gunpowder and grilled beef. Looking left, I could peer into the bone ashtray that once contained Parker’s brain. The inside of his skull was peppered by the blackened bearings and screws blown from the pipe bomb that killed him.
“All great adventures start here.” His breath reminded me of half-cooked beef left on the cold grill overnight.
“A tavern. All great adventures begin in a tavern. You said it yourself.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“The Prancing Pony. The Inn of the Last Home. The Horse and Groom. That place Nate wrote into our Twilight:2000 campaign…”
I smiled. “Kozlov’s. Where the strippers were all Soviet asp-throwing assassins.”
“Right. Well, here you are: the start of your adventure. Up to you to make it great.”
And he vanished.
It was rare to see him fade away and the act strained my eyes. I had to blink away the blur. When I opened my eyes and focused, the space where Park had been opened to a tall mirror on the wall at the end of the bar. I realized I had affected the hunch of the power drinker, curled over the bar and over my drink as if afraid someone might try to snatch my bottle. I turned away from the image and looked through the torchlight at an empty beach. Moving presented something more of a challenge than usual. I was moving as though on the water, carried on fluid motion.
I moved, but I felt little resistance in my muscles, just the sensation of movement. It felt like my head remained motionless and the world moved to put Murray in front of me. Everything left a trail of light and sparkles as it moved. I had to steady myself in the chair a few times until the world stopped.
The smell of meat returned and I turned back expecting to see Parker again, but it was Murray. He smiled and pointed to something on the bar that rose to the center of my blurry view: a plate containing a huge hunk of meat on a seeded roll. Lettuce and tomato. A big pickle. A healthy pile of seasoned steak fries. The world moved just slightly to put each item in the center of my view.
My sudden hunger made everything around me more vivid. I only stopped when the plate was empty of everything but sesame seeds and ketchup smears.
Murray stopped back. “Good?”
I made some kind of noise that answered in the affirmative and he took away the remains.
“The Big ‘C’ didn’t take your appetite, looks like. Did it do anything else? Give you super-powers?”
Waves crashed behind the sound of a gentle acoustic guitar. The flicker of torchlight made Murray’s eyes twinkle. My catheter scar itched. Philosophical and a swelling with drunk-pity, I confided in my bartender. “I don’t feel anything, Murray.”
“I told you, that rice wine is potent shit.”
“No, it’s not that. I stopped caring. About a lot of things.”
“Make sense. A lot of people are like that these days.”
“No, that’s just selfish and …another, worse word for selfish… entitled. I spent nine months in a hospital. A lot of that time I had absolutely no control over myself, when I slept, when I ate, when I shit… Meanwhile, life went on and everybody who visited me brought all that polluted, pointless crap in with them from the world. Politics, the weather sucks, the Eagles can’t play for shit this year… who cares? My blood was on fire, my body burned from inside out with the kind of pain…” I stopped talking, knowing I was headed for a tangle of words and emotions that never managed to come together clearly to anyone. The silence at the end of an unfinished sentence like that always seems to explain to whatever level people could best understand it.
“Anyway, I came out not caring about gas prices, traffic, the new electronic toy coming out, movies, sports, life… marriage, kids, friends…. work, oh work was a load of fun to re-visit. Nothing is important. Nothing excites me, Murray. It’s like that’s the part of my brain they took out. Show me a king or a commoner and I’ll give equal shits about both which is to say none.” I took another swig for punctuation, not realizing – or caring – that the taste had left the drink.
“You’re a modern-day Diogenes, then?”
“No. Maybe I’m just a sociopath now. But way to use that degree in philosophy.”
“Communications.” I took another bite of my burger and chewed.
Murray seemed to come to some decision about me because he put his hand on his hips and he rocked back on his heels as he fixed me with this weird, but knowing look. It reminded me of a stage musical at a moment when someone was about to break into song.
“What if I told you that I could change all that?”
“Change my cynicism?”
“Mr. Gautreaux said you were a guest of Grant Parker’s. Have you seen his place?”
“Whose place? Parker’s?”
“Yeah, we put you in his bungalow out in the village.”
“How do you know Parker?” My brain floated about like a docked boat in white caps.
“He’s another exception to that club of assholes I mentioned before. Great guy, awesome tipper. I tended bar at a few of his parties down here. And you, sir, have his pad all to yourself. And if you play things right, you don’t have to stay all to yourself.”
“You know…Parker’s dead.”
He nodded with sincere remorse. “One of the greats.”
“He come here a lot?”
“Twice, three times a year, especially when he was coming off one of his deployments. He used to take a long weekend break between events. And then he stayed two weeks before shipping out to some dirt farm in central Asia. I didn’t think the military was so generous with leave, you know? But when he was here, man, it was one hell of a party, let me tell you. They bought out the whole village.”
“I guess so. Lots of people showed up with him. They weren’t all allowed in here. Just him, a couple officers as guests, maybe a writer or two. Oh, man the stories they told.”
Murray poured himself a tall glass of whiskey. “I won’t tell if you won’t.” He raised the glass. “To one of the good guys.”
I raised my wooden cup and we emptied our vessels to his memory. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And still did when I repeated the gesture twice more. Murray joined me again but with only a shot of something red.
I can only recall flashes and feelings ten minutes after tapping the second bottle of seimei. Murray and I talked about the new Star Wars movies. Murray redeemed his geek cred by speculating that J.J. Abrams hijacked the Star Trek franchise to make a $150 million audition film for directing The Force Awakens.
Later, we shouted and stumbled through the lyrics to our favorite Schoolhouse Rock songs and I noticed a woman sitting near us at the bar. I think I’d ignored her because I thought Parker was lurking nearby. I didn’t even notice Murray serving her the drink she held in her hand.
At some point during the hooking up of words and phrases and clauses I turned to see Halle Berry with Betty Boop eyes, the smile that connected you to her even though she was the kind of beautiful that was usually kept behind a velvet rope or on the other side of a glass teat. She leaned against the bar two stools away from me, turned toward Murray and me, smiling and sipping from a clear glass with a lemon slice on the rim.
She captured my attention like a shooting star and suddenly Murray was the only one listing the major conjunctions in song at the bar.
The woman in the canary bikini offered a polite finger wave. “Hello, Mr. Casey. I’m Nadeim.” I couldn’t place her accent. She said my last name emphasizing the “SEE.”
“Nod-Yem?” It was part of a question my brain wanted to work out internally but mis-routed to my mouth instead.
“Yes.” She moved – writhed is a better word – to the stool next to me. “I am your valet.”
This took a moment to process. I looked to Murray for help.
He said. “Nadeim here works with our elite clients. You’ve been bumped to Grant Parker’s bungalow.”
Nadeim put a hand on my forearm. “There was a mix-up at the reception desk. Mr. Parker’s instructions were clear so I apologize on behalf of the resort.”
“What did Park want? I don’t understand. Why do I need a valet?”
“It’s okay,” Murray assured me. “You found a gold ticket. Take the ride. So to speak.”
Nadeim had not moved her hand and she moved in closer, more like an old friend wondering if there might be a chance for something more. Her glance was a mix of amused and seductive. “Your suite is ready whenever you are. I’m sure you’ve had a long day and you’ll want to get some rest. Ebetha is not an experience you’ll want to sleep through.”
“Lady’s got a point,” Murray hinted.
I experienced another patch of hazy memories. The small clock beside the radio reported it was just after three in the morning. Had I really spent five hours with Murray? I didn’t feel sick or exhausted but relaxed. Relaxed is something I don’t take for granted. Feeling entirely free of stress gets put up there with a hard orgasm or a good sneeze.
Suddenly I was walking the beach past tiki torches under the stars, Nadeim on my arm to make sure I didn’t trip over the sand. We made small talk and she deflected my questions about Park with grace, bringing the subject back to me and how I was feeling about Ebetha, the resort, and life.
“What’s a valet,” I asked. I knew what the word meant, but not how it applied to this situation. I thought it might be the resort’s way of managing its drunk and attention-starved guests. “I thought a valet was a man…I mean male…not a woman, I mean.”
Nadeim chuckled. “I was Mr. Parker’s personal assistant on Ebetha. The other members have traditional man-servants for their stay.”
“Well, that’s progressive. And by that, I mean racially insensitive. He didn’t ask specifically for a woman to add a layer of sexism on top of it, did he?”
She raised an eyebrow. “You do know Grant Parker, don’t you?”
“I – thought I did.”
We passed through a cluster of privacy bushes and another distressed metal gate. Nadeim waved her clutch over a sensor pad and the gate clicked open. “Almost there. How are you feeling, Mr. Casey?”
I was staring up at the stars like it was the first time I ever noticed the larger universe out there, a big dopey grin on my face from the artificial feeling that nothing really mattered and – even if it did – so the hell what? Nadeim put a hand on my back to stop me from swaying.
“You look entirely relaxed, Mr. Casey. Do you feel relaxed?”
“I feel …” I turned to Nadeim, her eyes capturing the tiki light, wide with anticipation. “…good.”
Oh, that smile on thick, painted lips. She caught me staring and kindly turned us toward the gate. “I am glad to know this, Mr. Casey.” She led me through. “Would you mind leaning on me? The breeze is a little chilly.”
Always a gentleman, I slid an arm around her slender, naked waist. I didn’t notice the chill air from the ocean until I felt the heat of Nadeim’s body on my skin. She put a hand on my shoulder and led me up a low slope into a neighborhood of huts and cabins each high enough on the side of a hill to have the same dramatic view of the Caribbean.
As hard as they tried to make a realistic, old European village, the modern signs stuck out. The torches were real, but the doors and window settings in the huts were twenty-first century. The sign posts along the path matched the style of shingles hanging outside the little shops in the open lobby of the resort. We passed a rusty penny-farthing bicycle leaning up against a hut covered in ivy and I laughed.
“What is it,” Nadeim asked.
“If I try to escape along the beach, will I get chased by a big weather balloon?”
I recall her look of amusement even if she had no idea what I was talking about. “Sorry?”
“Well, my dear, if you don’t get my fifty-year-old television references, I don’t know if we can be friends!”
“I would be very sad if that were so, Mr. Casey.” She said. “Not far now,” Nadeim promised as though reading my mind. Though I imagine she probably felt more of a burden keeping my pace on the incline.
She pointed up to the top of the hill and a thatch roofed cottage. “Number 18.”
Number Eighteen featured a wide porch in front of big bay windows holding a commanding view of the landscape. I stood looking out into the darkness, squinting at the point where the stars hit the horizon, using a little trick my father taught me to look a little higher than the horizon to bring out the slight contrast between the night sky and the sea. I held the railing tight and shuddered from a sudden breeze.
“Would you like to come inside, Mr. Casey?”
Sudden warmth. Bright lights. Cool water in a plastic bottle.
“Hydrate. Trust me.” She smiles at me at the threshold, not like a lover but like a nurse on rounds.
I took the bottle. Taking me by the hand, Nadeim pointed out the important points of interest in a room that never really came into focus. The most important was the long hallway (longer as my strength and consciousness ebbed) leading to the master bedroom at the end of it. We walked by a kitchen lit only by a single nightlight under the cabinets. She guided me back to the master bedroom and a turned down king sized bed, soft night lighting from each wall, and from the on suite.
“I sleep down the hall,” she said, taking back her hand as I settled down onto the bed.
She said other things, but the room turned and twisted away into darkness.
(C) 2013 Jay Smith