by Dawn Myfanwy Cohen
It was as Carver Worthington was hunched over the bar, nursing his fifth (or was it his sixth?) rum and cola, that the translucent man sat down next to him. No one ever sat with him at this bar, where Cape May locals knew and greeted each other, and only sneered at weekend carpetbaggers from the city. He was blissfully anonymous at this refuge from his company, his $50 million albatross, where his employees hated him, competitors feared him, and everyone wanted something from him. Money was what talked to him. So it was disconcerting when the indistinct man with the large grizzled beard and torn pea coat with bits of seaweed stuck to it, a perfect rendering of Carver’s mental image of an 1800s sea captain, pulled up a neighboring stool and looked hard at him.
Finally he said to Carver, “I’m glad ye can stomach a man’s drink. With that womanish rubbish ye sprinkled all over my house I thought ye’d want tea or babby milk.”
Carver tried to focus on him, but couldn’t make him solid. The puddle of water mistily sparkling at the man’s feet didn’t help. Carver looked at his drink. It, at least, appeared quite substantial. “Are you talking to me?”
The fully embodied bartender stared at him, puzzled. “No, sir,” he said. “Can I call you a cab?”
The old sailor growled “Of course I’m talking to ye, ye mollycoddle! What are ye makin’ a fool of us both for,” wincing with disgust, “hangin’ up those rags a painter used to clean his brush! They aren’t paintings! If one of my men painted the deck like that I’d ha’ made him do it over.” The puddle rippled, as he stamped in anger.
Carver reached into his wallet, threw down a tip, and lurched out of the bar. The man followed, hounding him down the deserted street, bellowing to wake the dead, clearly wanting a fight, though (Carver could tell, even through his own fog) he wasn’t drunk. “Why are you following me?” Carver shouted. “I’ve never seen you before! I don’t know anything about your house!”
“Ye don’t, eh? Who was it, then, moved my picture of the telescope and sextant to the attic and put up that rag an artist wiped his arse with, instead? Not a real color on it, either! No red or black or gold! Just mud. Light mud, dark mud, it’s all mud!” Carver shuddered, as he had, indeed, removed just such an antiquated painting as the old man described and replaced it with a piece the interior decorator of his newly acquired beach cottage had assured him was ideally suited for his color palette and placed in accordance with the principles of Feng Shui. He had liked the old decor, but she had frowned at his suggestion of restoring the furniture and pictures, and instead steered him to relaxing desert beiges, pinks and oranges, crowned with the $20,000 abstract work that now dominated the stone fireplace.
“How do you know about my house?”
“Your house?” the old man roared, flickering with a little extra solidity in the lamplight. “Didn’t I, Abel C. Mann, build it meself? With the bounties I got from bringing down The Flint and The Scimitar, back in 1848!” His face softened, though Carver started at the names, which he had used in his own childhood imaginings of battles with pirate ships. “Ah . . . those were fights to make a man proud. And wasn’t my Peg fit to pop her buttons, she held her chest that high when I opened the house door for her the first time? It were she chose that picter.” He turned on Carver, fiercely. “She’d be sick with that squall ye’ve loosed on her house!”
“It’s my house! I paid for it!” Carver hiccupped. “Lot of money. Shithole when I got it! Had to pay a lot to make it decent. Got to be able ennertain.”
“Shithole, ye young son of a whore? Ye’ve turned it into one!”
They had reached the house. Carver quickly opened the door a crack, squeezed in, slammed it behind him, and turned the lock, panting heavily, with a rapid heartbeat. He stumbled to the kitchen, wishing he had some crackers to soothe his stomach, but there were only a couple of bottles of warm spring water. He’d come out to the country directly from work, dropped off his laptop and suit bag, and headed straight to the bar. It had been a worse than usual day. Those sharks Garvin and Silver had barged into his office, insisting on his refereeing one of their little spats, either of whose positions might jeopardize the upcoming IPO of his company. He had decided to side with Silver, but he’d worried about it all the way down to the shore. He hated being dependent on the expertise of people like that! He arrived at the cottage too agitated to do any grocery shopping. It was their fault he now faced an empty refrigerator.
“Ye can’t keep ’em! I won’t have it!” Carver jumped at the man’s voice booming on his left. “Ye’ve taken all the life out of the house with these eyesores! It’s not fit for a ghost, much less a man!”
Carver stared in dejected amazement at the shimmering figure with a puddle at its feet. “How did you get in here?”
The old sailor ignored the question, but as he looked into Carver’s eyes, his scowl faded and his face took on a worried look. “All right, lad. I didn’t come back all this way to fight. I’ve been a hundred years gettin’ home, and I’ve lost my touch for talkin’ peaceable to men. The waves don’t let an old salt go soon, once they swallow him, but they don’t fret if he speaks his mind. Buck up! We’ll put the piss ‘n vinegar back in ye! Ye mustn’t drift wi’ the tide. Ye’ve got to set yer own course, and steer the ship to yer port with the wind or without. It’s work, that it is, but ye’ll get there!”
Carver sat down heavily in one of the kitchen chairs and was rewarded with a painful stab in the back that jolted his foggy senses. He’d hated the chairs’ asymmetric contemporary design from the first moment he sat in one, but the interior designer had insisted that they were de rigueur for the executive wishing to leave an impression on guests, especially women.
Women! He scrambled to his feet, knocking over a candelabra and breaking one of its tapers. “Peggy! Got to get to a supermarket!” The old man raised an eyebrow. “She’ll be here. In the morning.” The sailor leered. “No! It’s not like that, Abel! She works for me. Gonna show me her,” he hiccupped, “sales presentation.” Though really that was just his pretext to invite her — he wanted to spend time with her.
He’d been tempted to ask her to drive down with him, but he’d wanted to make a last check that everything was correct, before he let his first visitor see the place. He couldn’t welcome Peggy, the lone dove in that office of vultures, to his refuge, without being able to give her even a glass of juice! He jumped into the Ferrari, fumbling for his keys.
“Yer keys are on the kitchen table,” the sailor said, too loud for the enclosed space of the car, water pooling on the floor mat at his feet, “but yer in no state to take the helm. Sleep now.” Carver nodded and leaned back in the seat, closing his eyes for just a moment.
He started up at the sound of the doorbell. Though he couldn’t remember getting out of the car, he was now seated at the kitchen table, sunlight streaming in from the bay windows. He rubbed his stubbly chin, and reached for a water bottle. He took a swig, yawned and ran his fingers through his hair. Something looked odd, but he couldn’t figure out what. His muscles ached, probably from a hangover, though they felt more as though he had been carrying heavy things around. The doorbell rang once more.
Peggy! She couldn’t see him like this! Clothes wrinkled, unshaven, uncombed, not a peanut to offer her! But if he didn’t open the door soon, she’d walk away, and he’d never get her back here — she’d think he was messing with her head, the way he did with those jackals that worked for him. Well, he could at least throw on a fresh blazer! He rummaged through the suit bag lying on the living room floor, and pulled out the jacket, leaving a trail of clothes strewn around the room. He sprinted to the front door and looked out.
No one was there. He looked around, and far down the street, almost at the bar, he spotted her, walking back to her car.
“Peggy!” he called. She turned to him, and her smile was as beautiful and as glad to see him as if he were a movie star, just stepped off a screen. He ran down the street and took her by the hand to lead her back to the house. Before he opened the door, he covered her eyes — he was a little surprised at his own boldness, but she only giggled a little, and he kept on because he wanted to overwhelm her with the effect that the decorator had promised. He drew her into the living room, hand still over her eyes — and stared around in dismay.
Apart from the scattered underwear that lay exposed around his bag, all of the furniture the decorator had so carefully chosen and arranged was now removed and the old furniture that had been stowed in the attic was back! And the picture of the telescope and the whoosit was once more over the fireplace! He breathed heavily and wanted to punch something.
“Can I look now?” Peggy asked.
He took his hand off her eyes, crestfallen.
“Oh!” she gasped.
Oh? Was that a good “Oh” or a bad “Oh”?
“Oh, Carver! You must have spent a fortune on this place! Where did you find these?” She ran a finger over a chair, then bent over to look at a detail on the back. “My mother sells antiques like these. I help her with the research, so I recognize the style.”
“I didn’t know,” he said. He’d never considered that she might be interested in anything more than increasing his sales. He shivered at the thought that she might know enough to leave him, and support herself with an entirely unrelated career. “Do you really like these?”
“They’re wonderful! I don’t think I can bring myself to sit on them. This one must be from around 1850 or 1860. See this?” She pointed to some entwined oak leaves carved on the back of a chair, then looked under the seat. “It’s by a master craftsman who was very famous in this area at that time. Very popular with the wealthy in the maritime community. Where did you get it?”
“Well, I…” he didn’t think he could maintain a straight face while taking credit for choosing it. “It came with the house.” But he did want the credit. “One of its chief charms.”
She nodded. Her eyes swept around the room and lit on the painting above the fireplace. “Oh, Carver! It’s perfect! Did that come with the house, too? Look at the glow on the sextant! It’s gorgeous!” While she gazed at the picture, he deftly stuffed the underwear and other clothes into his suit bag, and pushed it to the side of a large table. Which he noticed for the first time held a platter heaped with grapes! He picked one and sniffed at it suspiciously, to make sure it wasn’t wax, then bit into cold, sweet flesh. He shook his head.
“Would you like some…water?” he asked, still not trusting the grapes.
“Yes, thank you!” She followed him into the kitchen, where, on the table, just past the bottles of water was a cutting board with a loaf of fresh bread and an array of cheeses, a bowl of cherries and another bowl loaded with apples, oranges and bananas. A rich coffee odor floated over the room. She flung her arms around him. “Oh, Carver! You didn’t have to go to all this trouble for me, but it’s all so beautiful! Thank you for inviting me!” she cried. He gave her an awkward squeeze, wishing he could bring himself to embrace her with all the fervor he felt. There was a tremendous crash from the attic, as of a pile of furniture toppling over, and instinctively he tightened his arms around her, as she clung to him.
“It’s nothing,” he said, with a sheepish grin, but not loosening his grip. “Just some stuff that fell down. I’ll clean it up later.” He muttered under his breath, “Must’ve been Abel.”
“Of course you’re able!” she smiled, “but I’ll help you fix it up.”
Dawn Myfanwy Cohen, a Belle Mead resident, is a senior IT business analyst. To preserve her sanity she writes fiction and the occasional poem, generally around 5:30-6 a.m. She says she benefits greatly from a very supportive and insightful writing group, as well as the Sharpening the Quill writer’s workshop.