When I got to Peckerwoods’, not too long after noon on Sunday, the party was already in full swing. They’d decorated the walls with jerseys, posters, whatever paraphernalia they could find. Crepe paper streamers added color and festivity. There were four TV’s, none the huge big screens that were featured in the sports bars in town, but a real coup for some hole in the wall in White Sands, S.C. Every table was filled except one right in the middle which had a sign on it, “Reserved for the Yankee from Charleston.”
When I walked in everybody stood up and applauded. I hadn’t felt like such a celebrity since that fatal night three months ago when I’d drank too much gin, ended up next to Missy Pierson’s delectable ass, torpedoed my reporting career, and begun the journey that had ended up here.
I’d brought three beers and a little flask with a couple of premixed martinis. Sabrina hauled over a bucket of ice to keep my drinks cold. Looking around, I noticed one on about half the tables; I guessed the rest were still the Sunday dinner crowd. Surely there weren’t that many non-drinkers in White Sands. “We had to scrounge all over town to get enough ice buckets,” Sabrina told me. “Fortunately, Hanson’s let us borrow whatever they had that would hold ice.”
“If the crowds hold up, looks like you’re going to want to invest in something more permanent.”
“Yeah, Wanda’s ecstatic. She didn’t know how much stuff to buy and fix, so we’ll probably run out before the game is over. But if we do, she’ll turn a nice profit. All thanks to you.” She snuck me a quick kiss on the cheek, handed me a menu, and headed over to a table demanding her attention.
I was still trying to decide between the stuffed potato skins and the Cheesehead Chili—we were playing the Packers—when Lucas and Ellie walked in. As they studied the crowd, trying to decide if one of the tables might free up or if they were too late, I stood up and motioned them over to join me.
“We’d have been here sooner if Ellie hadn’t taken so long to get all painted up,” Lucas remarked dryly after we’d shaken hands and sat down. Indeed, Ellie was a thing of beauty. Somewhat out-of-date Michael Vick Jersey, Falcons scarf worn as a headband, face painted solid red on one side with an eagle logo on the cheek (she hadn’t painted the black side of her face, as I would have been forced to do). Carrying a Falcons bag with a pair of pennants on sticks poking out. Lucas was clad in his regular khakis, with a black t-shirt the only possible concession to the occasion. It may have been coincidence, but knowing Lucas, I was betting against it. He just seemed too aware of life for coincidences to have much of a chance. He’d also brought his own small cooler, not taking a chance on the availability of ice.
I ended up ordering the potato skins, sharing them with Lucas and Ellie, eating some of their wings, and then ordering the chili at halftime. By then some of the dinner crowd had thinned out but more fans had replaced them. Chairs were pulled up at friends’ tables, and a few diehards leaned up against the wall. Sabrina kept stopping by the table to check on us, but she was pretty much on the run the entire time.
At halftime Lucas told me that he’d shared with Ellie what I’d told him about the island, hoped that was OK. “I have no secrets from Ellie,” I assured him. “She’s seen me at my landlubber worst, so we’re fully bonded.” That elicited a smile from him and a laugh from her.
“What I really haven’t attempted to describe is how the place feels. It has a kind of power, and you’re aware of it the entire time you’re there. Like being out in a big lightning storm where you can sense the energy. Except this doesn’t feel dangerous. It’s like I’m more powerful somehow while I’m out there.” I didn’t bother to mention that more powerful included sexual stamina.
“I’ve asked Lucas to show the place to me, but for some reason he’s real reluctant to do that.”
“For some reason? I told you why, woman. You might fall in love with the place just like Rick has. And then what? You’d badger me to keep taking you there when it’s clearly told me that it doesn’t want any part of me.”
I decided against taking sides in this argument and didn’t offer to take Ellie out with me. Besides, she could drive a boat far better than I could; if she wanted to go bad enough, she’d do it herself. Most likely it was just a gentle way to gig Lucas.
The game got downright tense in the 4th quarter. Green Bay was up by four and with three minutes left was driving to make it a two score advantage and pretty much ice the game. That’s when a little-used third string cornerback stepped in front of an Aaron Rogers pass, tipped it up, caught it himself, and ran it back 54 yards for a pick six and a three point lead. Of course, three minutes was plenty for Rogers to bring the Pack back, and he was doing exactly that, eating up the clock so the Falcons would have no time left. Then a holding penalty stalled the drive and they had to try a 49 yard field goal, which had the distance but not the accuracy.
Peckerwoods’ erupted with joy. After the place finally calmed down, Sabrina rang an old fashioned dinner bell and announced last call for the kitchen, we could drink up for another half hour if we wanted to. I was long since out of booze but Lucas shared one of his last Budweisers with me.
I got up to leave when the Carters did, but Sabrina quietly asked me to stay for a bit so I said my goodbyes and sat back down. Lots of people stopped by on their way out, thanking me for throwing such a fun party and promising to be back the next week. I graciously accepted all accolades, which included a fresh beer, even though all I’d contributed was the idea.
Once the tables were all cleared and wiped down, Sabrina took off her apron and draped it over one of the chairs at my table. “OK, mister. You’ve got my curiosity all aroused. And look! I’ve got a free hour. Let’s take a walk.”
“Really?” My normal suave line of bullshit appeared to have taken a vacation. “J.D. won’t mind?” I kicked myself as soon as those words were out of my mouth, but Sabrina just shrugged.
So we headed toward the river in the opposite direction of the boat ramp and down a little path along the waterline. Without speaking, curiously enough. The tide was near dead low, exposing vast stretches of marsh and mud. The big birds were out in force, three great blue herons and a handful of snowy egrets, not to mention seagulls diving into the water further away from the shore. Totally peaceful.
At least outside. Inside my stomach was fluttering more than the booze and the chili could account for. Jeez, Rick. You’re acting like a teenager. It’s just a conversation with a woman you like to talk to. Not a date.
Around a little bend, out of sight and hearing of Peckerwoods’, we found a little grassy rise, tested it to make sure it was dry enough, and sat. “OK, let’s hear it. I love mysteries. Hope you weren’t just handing me a line to get in my britches before the honeymoon.”
So I pretty much told it all, omitting only my marathon sessions with Chai. Trying to keep it orderly, but only partially succeeding. Sabrina was back to her sassy self, asking questions when I jumbled things up or commenting whatever caught her fancy.
“So the golden-haired woman just showed up in his sketchbook one day? And you haven’t discovered anything about who she is or where she came from? Doesn’t sound like the same hot-shot reporter that wrote those articles in the paper under your byline.”
“You’ve read those?”
“Well, duh. Of course I’ve read them. You don’t think I’d marry some hack who can’t string two cohesive sentences together.”
“Sabrina, you continue to surprise me. And I’ll bet that’ll still be true thirty years from now. But no, I can’t find out anything about her at all. I’ve shown the picture around but nobody recognizes her. Been through every inch of George’s cottage, through every computer file, everything I can think of. Not a trace. Lacey wondered if she was just somebody he imagined.”
“Maybe she’s an old girlfriend from high school or college that he met back up with through Facebook. That’s supposed to happen a lot, although I don’t know anybody personally who’s done it.”
“Excellent idea. It’s hard to imagine that George was a Facebook sort of guy, but I confess I haven’t dug much in that direction. I could probably get copies of his high school and college yearbooks too. But now that I think about it some more, there’s a problem with that. She’s a lot younger than George is, at least fifteen years.”
“Oh, well. There goes my one good idea. Guess after we’re married I’ll have to clean house to earn my keep. And whatnot,” she added with a wink.
We were quiet for a bit before she asked, “You said that you thought about her while you were walking that wheel thing George built in his back yard but didn’t get any insights. Have you tried that on the wheel you built out on the island?”
“Well, actually, I haven’t even walked the wheel out on the island yet.”
“Really? Boy, if I’d gone to all that work hauling those rocks up the hill and all, I’d at least have tried it once. You and that Voodoo lady must have found something really fascinating to keep you busy.”
Totally unprepared, I blushed. I don’t think I’ve blushed since I was a teenager, but I could feel my face getting hot. And the blood rushing to my face must have all come from my brain because it stopped working at the same time. I mean, I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. In retrospect, there probably wasn’t anything to say. Keeping my damned mouth shut, while not the path I would have chosen on my own, was likely the wisest course.
Sabrina just let me stew a minute, and then added, “Look, there’s one of those sea eagles fishing out there. My grandmother used to say it was good luck if they caught something on their first dive. Watch—there he goes. Nah, no fish for you, mister bird. And no good luck for me.”
She turned at looked me in the eyes. “She also said, ‘You should make your own damned luck, so don’t count on no rabbit’s foot.’ Boy, that’s the truth. First time you asked me out I should have said, ‘Screw it, let’s go.’”
“How about tomorrow. It’s your day off, right?”
Tears just exploded in her eyes. She looked away, then impatiently wiped her eyes on her sleeve and shook her head.
“I guess I still can’t. No good luck for me.”
“What is it with you and this guy?” I was right on the ragged edge of where it was none of my business, maybe even across it. And way past Lucas’ advice about staying out of it. But I asked anyway.
“Just plain stupid, that’s what it is. He’s the worst thing ever happened to me, and that’s God’s truth. Way worse than getting divorced and being a single mom and all the other dumb mistakes I’ve made. I’m so fucked up over him, excuse my French, that some shrink would have a field day with me if I could afford one.”
“You deserve better, Sabrina. Whatever demons you have down in there,” I tapped her gently on the forehead, “you deserve better.”
“Yeah, well, the demons don’t always listen.” She wiped her eyes again, although the tears appeared to be gone. “And anyway, you don’t want anything to do with J.D. You’re a nice guy, and he’s not.”
I didn’t answer that because, truth be told, I didn’t want anything to do with J.D. I wasn’t the type to take Lucas’ advice and plug him in the back with an untraceable pistol, and I didn’t have any alternative plan to his, “Either that or stay the hell out of it.” And I didn’t seem to be doing too well at that one, either.
Sabrina looked down at her watch and abruptly stood up. “Hour’s up, gotta go.” She brushed herself off and started back down the path. Then she turned back and took my hands in hers.
“Sorry, I was being rude. Rick, I love your mystery. Can’t wait to hear how it turns out. Thanks so much for sharing it with me. And for keeping after me until I made time to listen.” She looked down at our hands for a minute. “And I’d love to go out to your island sometimes.”
Mr. Lust immediately started to visualize what that might be like. But she interrupted his little fantasy by kissing me under my left eye, right on that place where the cheekbone juts out. A quick kiss, but nothing impersonal about it. Then she turned and started walking back toward Peckerwoods’. I started to go after her but she shook her head so I just waited there until she was out of sight, watching her walk away.