Keep It Moving
The night air smelled of alligators. Marty drove the Suburban down the wet boulevard that extended like a black tongue. Mangrove trees lunged at the truck from both sides, their gnarled limbs mired in the marshland. How different this ride felt from the morning walk he had been taking in the opposite direction toward Jerry's Marketplace to buy the daily paper, when the birds whistled at him and jewels of sunlight winked through the leaves as if to herald his homecoming. Now, he knew that if he pressed the accelerator to the floor, he would catapult the entire family into San Carlos Bay.
Lori made a disapproving sound.
“Please,” Marty said. “There's no one on the road.”
“Faster, Daddy!” said Kara from the backseat.
And then, his wife and son at the same time, “This isn't a racetrack…”
Marty quivered with the urge to apply more pressure. Frustration bled into his fingers and seethed in his joints, but he managed to squeeze it in, reroute it back to a knot somewhere deep in his chest.
“I will not die while I'm on vacation,” Lori stated, her hands covering her face. “I work too hard to die on vacation!”
The baby cooed and gurgled and shook her dolphin rattle.
“Goddamnit, all right!”
Marty lifted his foot from the gas, prepared to slam the car to a stop. But his foot hit nothing—it flailed and searched, then caught itself in the space between the two pedals. His shoe rammed back and forth between the two levers, trying to find the brake.
“What are you doing?” Lori shouted, slamming her palms against the dashboard.
The truck veered. Desperately, Marty pumped his foot into the cavern beneath him. After three or four unsuccessful seconds, his foot bore down on the brake with more force than he intended, and the truck protested with a lurch and a rumble. Something soft bounced against the back of Marty's head. When he looked down, the dolphin smiled up at him from the console. Suddenly, his chin jammed against his chest with the movement of the Suburban's front wheels jerking up off the pavement and lobbing back down, the rear wheels following in crunching pursuit. Lori looked at Marty in horror as they swerved and dipped into the rut at the side of the road.
“What the hell was that?!” She was glaring at him.
Kara clicked off her seatbelt. “We ran over something!”
“Christ, Dad!” said Max. “Didn't you see that huge thing in front of you?”
“Now, just watch your goddamn language!” Marty pointed a finger at him. “I'm getting out to see what the problem is. You all stay here!”
Four car doors opened. The humidity slithered over Marty's calves and between his toes as his flip-flops touched the ground. He hesitated for a moment, glancing around, testing the solid surface beneath him with a jounce of his knees. Just outside of the headlights' range, a lumpy shape lay across the yellow dashes on the blacktop. He took a cautious step toward the figure.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” whispered Lori.
The gator's yellow eyes were turned up to meet Marty's gaze. Claws, like an old lady's fat hands spiked with fake nails, curled limply against the asphalt. The animal's belly had burst beneath itself to release pink strips of muscle and rivers of bile. Marty gagged on the funky stench of algae, a mix of salt and fish.
“You killed him! You killed him, Dad!” screamed Kara.
Marty felt irritation—and maybe a little envy—toward his seven-year-old's emotional extremes, the drama she could instantly whip up and perform. Kara was exploding with empathy for a creature that couldn't be more removed from her tightly packaged world with its miniature crises, like limp hair and a lack of funds to purchase the latest single by the latest pre-pubescent boy band on iTunes. But even though Marty knew that the alligator didn't matter to any of them, something in Kara's voice made him uncomfortable.
“We need to contact the police,” Lori said.
“They're gonna arrest Daddy?” Kara cried.
Max pushed his black-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose. “They might.”
“Don't do that to your sister.” Lori rested a hand on the back of Max's neck.
“This used to happen all the time when I was growing up,” Marty lied.
He stood over the body. To estimate its length he pictured himself, at six foot one, lying down beside it. The gator had to be at least three feet longer than that, from snout to the tip of the tail. Insect wings reverberated in Marty's ears and he cringed, cuffing them away. The trees cawed and rustled above his head. He imagined what it would be like to be road kill, reduced to tissue and shards of bone, flesh turned inside out to expose his ordinariness, then pecked to scraps.
“Poor sucker,” said Max. “He was just too slow. This was probably his first trip across the street and BAM! Wrong place at the wrong time.”
“We're blocking the whole road,” Lori said.
* * *
Three months earlier, a pool of nausea forming in his stomach as he faced Dr. Ellison across a vast cherry desk, Marty had vowed to be honest with himself for as long as he had left.
“I would say that you fall into the category of RRMS—relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.” Dr. Ellison tapped his pen against the back of his hand.
For a split second, Marty wished that Lori were beside him. She would have started battering the doctor with questions, incensed by his laid-back demeanor. By the time they headed home in the car, however, her laments would be razoring Marty's nerves. “Why us? Why not that child molester who lives on Rickett Road? Take away his mobility; save the children. What did we ever do to deserve this?”
Marty gulped against a swelling in his throat. “RR—what?—what does that mean?”
“Clinically, or for your quality of life?”
Jesus Christ. What the fuck do you think, Doctor? Marty could feel the burger he had ingested for dinner the night before churning in his bowels. Quality of life—wasn't that a term that they used with terminally ill people?
Dr. Ellison's moustache undulated on his upper lip. “Well,” he continued, “to start, you will endure bouts of symptoms of the condition, attacks or relapses, then you will go through an extended period of time not suffering from any symptoms at all. This pattern will repeat itself continuously.”
Marty felt like someone else. His body pulsed slowly, feverishly, lifting outside of itself then shifting back into its mold. His primary care physician had referred him to Dr. Ellison for his episodes of extreme dizziness, and he had expected to leave here with pills for vertigo.
“Symptoms include fatigue, balance problems, numbness…perhaps bladder and bowel dysfunction. Attacks differ from patient to patient.”
On cue, Marty felt a rush down below, and he squeezed his buttocks together to contain himself. He held his breath until the urge passed.
Dr. Ellison rocked forward in his chair. “You may have plenty of time before the next stage, Martin—ten to twenty-five years before it gets progressive. Don't let it stop you. Most people with MS lead active and productive lives.”
“So, I'm going to die in a wheelchair, is what you're saying.” Marty stared at the white moustache. Underneath it, Dr. Ellison's teeth hadn't even begun to yellow. All this horrible news he had to tell people, all of these life-crippling sentences that he delivered daily to the fools sitting in the chair that Marty was occupying now, and none of that trash that passed through the good doctor's lips had ever stained his teeth.
Dr. Ellison paused. “You could die emotionally and psychologically long before your body goes, if you can't get past the diagnosis. It's all up to you.”
Marty slid his way to the men's room, leaning against the taupe wall of the corridor and hauling himself along. He sat in a stall for twenty minutes with his head in his hands and his guts dropping out of him. He thought about how so few people had the ability to steer their futures; how most men just kept charging forward, and if they were lucky, upward, pursuing the rewards that they thought they were entitled to for simply being born. The blessing of not knowing when the crises were coming kept them going. But here he was, beholding the clear arc of the rest of his life—the downward slope that would chart the loss of the human traits, one by one, that he had spent his first forty years building and shaping. For the first time he imagined himself as his father, hearing the phrase “terminally ill” on the same day his savings account balance finally surpassed the dollar amount he still owed the bank on his small business loan. What bullshit. What fucking bullshit.
And then Marty's torso sprang upright and his heartbeat stopped at a revelation: this was it—he had reached his peak!
Marty needed time and room and freedom to think. He forgot to return to the office and spent the afternoon driving around, eyes leaking and bleary, intuition guiding him until he found himself in his own driveway—right at six-thirteen, per usual—with the blue-black January sky arched over him like a question mark. And so his decision not to tell Lori about the MS that evening inadvertently swelled into more decisions not to tell her.
Marty hadn't meant, initially, to keep it from her. But she was always so flustered, pre-occupied, pacing in elaborate grids about the kitchen when he arrived home from work, from the refrigerator to the counter to each kid's place at the table to set down his or her preferred dinner in turn.
And at night, when she flopped on the bed, sleep clamped over her like a Venus Flytrap, leaving him with his latest mass market mystery novel in the romantic pink blush of the bedside lamp.
And in the morning, she hated intimacy, groaning at the weight of his arm hanging over her slight frame and squirming away at the poke of his erection.
So really, there had never been a good time to tell her.
He grew very fond of the knowledge he kept to himself, storing it in some dormant place. Lori liked to organize and orchestrate; local mothers hired her to coordinate their kids' birthday parties and lead campaigns against the school board. She took their neighbor, Mrs. Henry, to dialysis twice a week. If Marty handed over what he knew, he would become her cause. She would knock his feet right out from under him.
* * *
The day after the alligator died, the family rented bicycles. They loaded backpacks with towels, sunscreen, and plastic baggies of Goldfish crackers and gummy fruits, and wobbled to the beach, single file. Lori had insisted on steering the line with Annie in the baby bucket, while Marty brought up the rear and shouted directives at the backs of heads encased by oversized helmets. Every now and then Kara's wheels would skid over shell scraps and veer into Periwinkle Way, and Marty's body would spring forward instinctively, only to compromise his balance and swerve him into the road, too.
“Keep your eyes on what you're doing!” he admonished her. “You want to end up like that alligator, nothing but pulp on the street?”
In between spikes of annoyance, Marty observed that the vegetation of Sanibel Island had regenerated itself in lush bounds. The last time Marty and Lori had vacationed here, to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, he couldn't believe the wasteland of stripped branches, the decapitated trunks of Gumbo Limbos and Sabal Palms caught mid-fall by their comrades, the few trees that managed to survive Hurricane Charley. He had spent that week with his heart thunking sadly inside him. Lori had tried her hardest to give him permission to mope, but the silence between them on the flight home had declared unambiguously the improbability of their returning for a long while. This time, as Marty drove over the swells of the Causeway from the mainland and the Fort Myers International Airport, he saw that everything was restored. The tempered glass surface of the water twinkled with sunlight for mile after undisturbed mile. Brown women lounging on the small decks of white boats allowed their husbands to race the boats to nowhere. Men with their pant legs folded up balanced on the edges of concrete blocks that helped to support the weight of the bridge, slinging their fishing lines into the bay. Pelicans, their elastic jowls hanging empty, rode the winds alongside the car, so close that the kids could perceive the ruffles in their gray feathers. At one point, the highway rose so steeply and the sky opened so widely above them that Marty thought they might enter heaven, right then and there. Though the road always brought him back down again and evened him out, island life proved an exquisite consolation prize for being mortal.
Crossing onto the island was like drifting straight into his parents' arms; it was like slipping back into his happiest, most valuable self. It gave Marty the right venue for what he knew he had to do after months of reflection. His family was about to implode with the secret he needed to share with them. Maybe, he thought, just maybe, the soft warm air, the palm tree leaves waving cheerful greeting, the stretches of unrushed time, would lessen the blow. He couldn't bear to think of sitting everyone down at the kitchen table at home, an emblem of the tedium and the burden of simulating family unity, for a “talk.”
When Marty first considered coming back to Sanibel with the three kids, to introduce them to what he considered to be his hometown, he had tried to rent the same property that had housed him and his parents during his teenage years, but he couldn't find the beachside peach bungalow through any real estate company that he contacted. His father quit his job as vice president of a modest farm machinery company when Marty was twelve and moved his son and wife from Concord, New Hampshire down South to build a mock-triathlon business. What better way to plunge visitors from all over the world into this utopia of nature, this prime universe of health and healing, than to give them the opportunity to push beyond the limits that their real lives imposed on them? Tourists would love blending with the earth and sea as they bicycled, walked, and swam against the backdrop of American paradise. During his school vacations and summers, Marty served his father's vision. He traveled with the hired guides and their floppy-hat-wearing, tote-bag-toting visitors on shuttle busses from location to location. Day after day, he collected jewelry and watches in tins, handed out miniature cups of water, and lugged around mesh bags of life preservers. The silver-haired ladies flirted with him; the lithe young girls rolled their eyes at him.
As Marty grew older and he developed grace and strength, his father allowed him to lead one tour group a day through the triathlon stations. Many of his followers were not accustomed to the power of the sun this close to the equator. By the final challenge, the aquatic sprint, at least half of his tour group would be sitting back on the shuttle bus fanning themselves with their complimentary maps of Sanibel Island. Marty had to focus very hard in order not to plow ahead. His arms and legs, taut and sinewy, propelled him through the water too fast, and the coolness of the water rehydrated him through every pore. Eventually, his dad fired him for leaving everyone behind.
When Dr. Ellison had given Marty his diagnosis, an image of himself charging through the surf of the Gulf of Mexico had popped into Marty's head.
He was standing with his feet apart in the sand, a swim diaper in one fist, looking out over the water.
Lori peered at him from beneath a shading hand. “Can you change the baby while I go back and lock up the bikes?”
Marty turned and retreated to the blanket, pinching his lips together in recognition of Lori's most recent tactic: calling him back from any reverie that took him away from her for too long. And yet, if he goosed her or pressed against her from behind while she was sautéing chicken at the stove one too many times, she was likely to withdraw from him for days.
He pulled himself up the small incline of the beach. It was here—more or less—where he had met his first fiancée, Amelia, as she kneeled on her lime green towel and switched the lenses on her Nikon, a couple of weeks after his graduation from University of Tampa. She had coiled her glinting red hair into a makeshift French twist against the back of her head and shoved a pencil through it, all the while returning his stare, and asked him politely to step out of her shot. A native of Sanibel, Amelia was spending a year building her photography portfolio for graduate school applications while she lived at home and waitressed. Marty proposed to her three days before his father was diagnosed with liver cancer. After his father died, he followed his gentlemanly instinct and moved with his mother back to New Hampshire, back to her family. Amelia stayed behind, for the time being, to pursue her MFA at Clemson. Within six months, Marty's mother had undergone pulmonary surgery. Lori, in her crisp white scrubs, walked into Marty's house on a frigid day in January to take his mother's vitals, blinking her feathery blond lashes and putting the sullen patient in her place: “Get over yourself, Beatrice.” Lori's ability to articulate what he hadn't had the courage to say to his mother impressed him. He thanked her with a local folk concert and a piece of cheesecake.
He hadn't thought about Amelia in a long time, until he sat down on the plane in Boston just under a week before, and the medicinal odor of the air brought him back to the flight that took him away from Sanibel, away from the companionship of his father's ghost, away from a future with a girl whose red hair and whirlwind spirit could set his soul on fire.
It was all right to think of her, Marty told himself, and then to fold up his thought and tuck it into some interior pocket. Amelia would never have moved to New England. She had been in love, mostly, with her own goals. He burrowed his thumbs in his eyes to rub away the images behind his lids. When the spots cleared, Lori's face came into view. She was watching him, one side of her mouth cocked back toward her ear, as though she knew what he was thinking.
“What?” he said.
Her lips evened into a smile, but a flat one, ironed on. “Nothing.”
Marty tried to read the book he had brought, but the straw-like plastic bands of the folding beach chair chafed the backs of his thighs when he fidgeted. His gaze continually lifted from the sun-blanched pages to the rounded back of his son before him. Max was wearing his black Maroon 5 concert tee shirt and a pair of jean shorts that refused to stay on his narrow hips. He was listening to his iPod and not to his mother, who was badgering him to take off his shirt before he baked outright. Max wasn't really like Marty at all. Max wrote songs and sketched, preferred watching movies and playing ping-pong in the wood-paneled cool of the basement; Marty calculated numbers all day, could hardly tolerate the oppressive length and contrived plots of films (he and Lori had not been to a theater in two years, much to her disappointment), and liked the feel of twigs beneath his Timberlands and the stroke of the surf on his bare feet. At this moment, Max seemed out of place on the ivory mounds of sand, his body a dark splash against a radiant world.
“Dad,” said Kara, “when we get home, can I get a new American Girl doll? ‘Cause Genevieve just got one for no reason at all and she brags about it every day. And I'm sick and tired of hearing about it.”
Lori looked up from her task of handing Gerber puffs to Annie one by one from a Snack Trap, the purpose of which was to give babies autonomy over their own feeding, minus the spillage. “Where did you learn to speak with that tone of voice, my friend?”
Kara crossed her arms. “I don't know,” she said. “But can I get a doll, though?”
Marty thrust his book into the sand. “Can't we just concentrate on being here, in this gorgeous place?” He spread his arms. “I mean, look at it! It's the promised land, for Christ's sake! And you're whining about some doll?”
Kara blinked a couple of times before the tears dribbled down her copper-colored cheeks.
Lori touched Marty's shoulder. “What's wrong with you?” she said quietly.
“Nothing!” Marty stood up, intending to take a walk. “I'm just saying that the idea is to get away. Get away, get away, get away.”
He had gone only about twenty yards down the shore when he sensed the light movements, the skipping and leaping of legs and the crunching of heels against shells, of his children following him. Though he continued to stride straight ahead as he zeroed in on the distant point—miles away—where the beach and the water converged, his heart mellowed at their proximity, just a little.
* * *
Marty's eyelids lifted with laborious strain, then closed again. He knew he could be conscious of what was happening if only his damn eyelids would stay open. They heaved themselves up one more time. No—down they fell. His body felt like a six-foot sandbag imprinting the mattress. His skin tingled as if coated in salt water after a swim. Trickling and plinking noises from the canal that snaked around the house played nearby. He needed so desperately to get up, to rise from this bed, to react against what looming entity was after him, and he couldn't move one goddamn inch.
Somewhere between sleep and wakefulness Marty lay, every few seconds glimpsing the window ledge right above his side of the bed where a moon-ray had settled. Moths slapped against the screen. He wriggled his fingers until they touched the curve of Lori's slender back. Relief sighed through him until he realized that he was going to have to lift himself over her to leave the bed, and the prospect of exerting that level of energy made his nostrils smart. Something was coming for him; it was descending fast. Marty needed to get the hell out of here. But all he could do was stay still under the cool tent of the sheets, waiting.
He must have fallen back to sleep because the next time his eyes registered the room and the outlines of its 1960s turquoise furniture, he was able to move much more freely. He folded aside the sheet and maneuvered his way to the bottom of the bed, trying hard not to jostle his wife. She snorted, rubbed her thighs together, murmured, and lapsed back into steady breathing.
The ranch house hummed. Plastic and wooden fish models of varying sizes hung crooked or too close together on the walls of the living room and the way the moonlight swabbed everything in a blue hue made Marty feel as though he were submerged in an aquarium tank. He walked carefully across the sticky linoleum floor toward the lanai, his muscles stiff. When he pushed aside the sliding glass door and into the backyard, the grass scraped his ankles mercilessly—in Florida, the blades were coarse and tall and a virile green, unlike the ashy stubble that grew by the acre at home.
He could see only hazy shapes across the canal, hovering against the winding concrete retaining wall—the docks and yachts and dinghies of wealthy Sanibel natives who actually owned their beach houses. Marty approached the edge of his rental property and looked down at the water. Every now and then a series of perfect circles radiated out from a random place, signaling a greeting from some concealed creature. A fish flickered; a duck squawked. Marty's body relaxed in the breeze that swathed him. He suddenly felt the presence of his father at his shoulder. Living on Sanibel, they had cast lines nearly every day.
Then, Marty saw a tiny flare of light in the water. He leaned in, staring at the spot. An electric eel? A firefly?
Another flash. An object waving. Marty knelt on the gritty stone ridge of the wall and leaned farther over the water.
He recoiled and bolted to his feet, heart ricocheting off his ribs. Jesus Christ! The kids had been playing hide-and-seek out here earlier—they were always hopping around the edge, hooking their fingers into each other's tee shirts, yanking and spinning each other around in pseudo-battle. He had reprimanded them three times already for not paying attention to their surroundings. He had also told them about the lady from Naples who took her granddaughter butterfly-catching by the pond near her double-wide trailer and lost half her face and a shoulder when an alligator lunged out of the water. Marty squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head, bent over the wall again. Could alligators even swim in the canal? He tried to will the flash to return, heat seeping into his cheeks. Come on. You know you're there.
“Marty? What are you doing, honey?”
Marty stepped back onto the lawn, not turning around to face his wife. His back clenched.
“Are you all right?”
Marty knew that she was standing on the square of concrete right outside the sliding glass doors, her arms folded, unwilling to endure the piercing assault of the grass on her delicate feet.
“No? You're not all right?”
“No.” Marty extended a hand toward the water. “I saw something out there.”
“What did you see, Martin?”
Marty had to check his instinct to shoot back a sarcastic remark. “I don't know, Lori.”
She was quiet for a moment. “Are you having nightmares about the accident?”
At his wife's tender tone, the muscles in Marty's neck relaxed. Maybe she was right. Maybe he was hallucinating, trapped by the trick of midnight consciousness. His mind was torturing him for murdering an innocent animal.
“Come in,” Lori said sweetly. “Come in.”
They splayed on the bed with the sheets in lumps beneath them. Minutes passed by and sleep passed them over. Lori covered Marty's hand with hers.
This could be it. Marty licked his lips, but the moisture evaporated instantly. He could tell her now, partly concealed by the slatted shadows and unthreatened by the inconvenient entrance of a child asking for something. His heartbeat revved. He licked his lips again.
“I need to…”
Almost imperceptibly, Lori's fingernails pinched down into his knuckles. “Wait a second. Did you lock the sliding door?”
He sighed. “Yes. You think the manatees are coming to get you?”
“Screw you.” She let loose a small laugh and slapped his stomach. “This place skeeves me out sometimes.”
“Hey,” he said. “Watch it. This is where I came from.”
“You came from New Hampshire, just like I did.” Lori arched her back and writhed in the soggy nest of their bed. “It's so hot.”
Marty turned his head toward her. She was staring at the ceiling.
“Lori,” he said.
“Do you think we should go to the shell museum tomorrow?” she asked. “Or drive to the Naples Zoo?”
* * *
He watched Lori, slender, her tanned skin almost iridescent with the sunshine, through a fog of heat as she stood in line for tickets to the Nature and Sea Life cruise. She bounced on the balls of her feet and extended her neck to see above the people in front of her who were inching toward the window. Marty knew that she was figuring that the boat held only so many, and was determined to make the 1:30 departure because she wanted the kids to see the touch tank presentation as well, which made the entire experience one-and-a-half hours, and they needed to return to the house to shower before heading out to an early dinner. Marty snorted to himself, not unfondly, as he lounged in wait at a picnic table with Annie's bare legs suctioned to his lap. So sometimes, Lori's intensity could be helpful. His mind tripped back to the first morning of their honeymoon in Venice. He had awoken, face down and drooling in his pillow, to the clang of the hotel room phone.
“Where the hell are you?” Lori's voice had cawed. “The tour bus is leaving in ten minutes!”
Kara was treading on tree roots embedded in the earth like they were balance beams, and every now and then Max would shove her off-kilter. Otherwise, he kept his chocolate brown head bent over a hardcover book on alligators and crocodiles that he had bought in the gift shop. Every few minutes, he pelted Marty with another fun fact.
“Dad…did you know that in fights, crocs bite off each other's legs?”
“Didn't know that, Max—thanks.”
“Awesome. Oh…and crocs and gators can actually run, like up to eleven miles an hour! But sometimes when they have to do that, they get so tired that they sleep for over a day!”
“Amazing, Max,” Marty said.
“I mean, who knew?” Max squirmed excitedly on the bench. “We think they're as slow as shit, and really, they could catch up to a running human if they wanted to!”
Marty knocked his son on the knee. “For Christ's sake,” he said. “Please stop swearing.”
“Alligators can go through two thousand to three thousand teeth in a lifetime,” Max added. “Aaaannnd… they have to drown their prey to eat it. But they can't eat it underwater or else their lungs fill up with water and they drown, too!”
“What are we waiting for?” said Kara. “I wish we went to Disney World.” She swatted at some fugitive strawberry strands from her ponytail, which Marty supposed was stylish in its unkemptness.
Marty smiled. “Eh—Disney's overrated. How weird are adults who dress up like cartoon characters for a living?”
Kara harrumphed. “Mom said you wouldn't let us go because being around lots of kids annoys you.”
It was true. He had never claimed to his wife that he dreamed of a family of five, screeching voices, small heads and feet ramming into the crevices of his body unexpectedly in the middle of the night, red popsicle drippings outlining mouths like clown makeup. But he had shared his insecurities about being a good, loving father with only Lori. “As long as you don't let them catch on,” she had said.
“I like being around you,” Marty said. “And Max, and Annie.”
“Oh—is that why you're always yelling at us?”
Kara's words struck Marty with bewilderment. “I'm not always yelling at you.”
“Ready to go?” Lori's hand touched his shoulder. “Let's get on first and grab good spots so that we can ‘get a close-up look at wildlife.'”
“Are there any alligators in there?” Kara pointed toward the water.
“Nah,” replied Max. “It's usually low-lying waters, marshlands and crap, where they hang out.”
So it couldn't have been the tail of an alligator Marty saw in the canal two nights earlier. Maybe he really was starting to lose it. Kara's accusation burned in his brain. Was he always yelling at them? His memory pried into its saved images of the past few days. If he was always yelling, wasn't he justified for trying to keep them in line, to keep them safe?
At least the pontoon boat was covered. Marty was beginning to feel a little woozy from the mid-day blaze. Lori took Annie from his hold, swung her onto her hip, and walked assertively toward the dock. Kara and Max followed diligently behind, leaving Marty to clutch onto the side of the picnic table to stabilize himself. Damn vertigo. The corners of his lips spasmed into a small grin at the joke, but his amusement didn't last.
As Marty followed the troupe to the water's edge, the picture before him began to tilt and smudge. He stopped short, planted his feet in the sand. His wife and children were just blue-gray paint strokes on a canvas. He started moving again. If he sped up, he would get to the dock faster, hustle himself back into orientation. He strived to march through the sand, but his feet only shuffled. The image of the boardwalk doubled, tripled, whirled. His shoulder throbbed. He tasted grit.
“Dad? Dad!” Max nudged his hands under Marty's biceps and yanked upward.
“I'm okay, I'm okay,” Marty said. “I'm okay, Bud.”
All of their faces came into view above him. He placed a hand flat against the ground and cranked himself up to a sitting position. His head was still in orbit.
Lori had plopped the baby down in the sand. “Please. Let's get you checked out.”
“No.” Marty's response dispatched like a bullet.
“We can go to someplace in Fort Myers. Just to make sure.” She was half-pleading, half-instructing.
“I said—no.” Marty wiped his grainy mouth with his sleeve. “I'm fine. I have pills for this. I don't need a four-hour wait in an ER fifteen hundred miles from home.”
A hospital visit would be disastrous. Marty's chest was contracting with the very thought, and with every glimpse he caught of his wife's searing gaze as he tried unproductively to avert it. Sweat was seeping through his shirt.
“Dad, Mom's right,” Kara said.
“Now isn't that a phenomenon,” Marty said, smiling. He rose to his feet, calves seizing, and reached out to grab Max's shoulder involuntarily.
Lori shook her white blond head. “Why don't you want to go? It seems pretty irresponsible to me.”
Marty wanted to roll his eyes, but decided to behave in front of his children. “I know my limits. I'm fine.” He knew what was coming next.
“You're not going on that boat today, that's for sure. Can't have anyone going overboard.” She scooped up the baby. “Come on, Anniekins.”
While the rest of his family enjoyed their tour around the refuge—not before Lori marched over to the ticket booth and instructed the old lady with the khaki visor to keep an eye on her husband—Marty entertained himself with a long-handled shovel that, with the squeeze of a lever, opened and shut a set of multicolored jaws that resembled a toucan's beak.
* * *
Marty awoke before six each morning, finding the covers heaped on top of Lori and his body quietly gasping. She impressed him with her ability to sleep in any condition, at any time; he wished he could let go as freely as she did into a saturating unconscious. They had made love the night before and she had curved under him and avoided his eyes, digging her fingernails into his arms with an urgency he hadn't felt from her since they had tried to conceive Max twelve years ago. He had looked down at the very last moment and unwittingly nuzzled his nose in her hair, which smelled like oranges. Usually, he had no trouble sleeping afterwards. But here, it was too goddamn hot.
He stretched his limbs in the living room with some exercises he used to perform before local road races and set the timer on the coffee maker for her. Then he hesitated at the door.
Lori's arms encircled him from behind. She rested her forehead against his back.
“Couldn't sleep,” she murmured into his shirt. “Have some coffee with me.”
Her embrace was like a yoke, pinning him in place. So that he wouldn't surrender to the compulsion to wreathe away from her, he concentrated on the scene beyond the front door. In two days, their vacation would end, and in partial grieving and partial alert, the morning greeted Marty with a typically overcast sky. The weight of his impending return to normal life hung all around him in the atmosphere.
“Don't you want your fritters?” he asked her.
He had jogged to Jerry's every day to pick out jumbo-sized chocolate-dipped doughnuts for his children and apple and raspberry fritters crispy with honey glaze that he and his wife liked to divide with a serrated knife and devour on opposite sides of the lanai. They had established an island routine, here, in just over a week. But soon this experience would be compartmentalized in its proper place, encapsulated in a porcelain fridge magnet, perhaps, painted with a tiny palm tree and “Sanibel Island” in swooshing coral script, or a glass vase of shells that they had collected at the prickly shore on Captiva. Marty would go to work to manage other people's finances, instruct them in how to be stable. And then he would come home at night and everything would fall apart.
Lori didn't let go. “With my second cup,” she said. “Come on. You can put off your run for ten minutes.”
Marty capitulated. Lori nestled into the tropical-patterned-cushion on the wicker chair in one corner of the lanai, and Marty sat on a sagging hassock in the other. The way she curled her feet under her and held the coffee—one hand grasping the handle and the other cupped underneath the mug—seemed to Marty to mirror her tight satisfaction at persuading him to stay.
Well, he thought. The children wouldn't be up for another half hour. He had the power, right here and now, to turn things inside out.
“I'd like to go to the flea market today,” Lori said.
Marty sipped his coffee, then grimaced and set down the mug on the tile floor. He had made this batch too strong, too bitter.
Outside, in the backyard, an exhalation of wind shuffled the leaves on the trees.
“Lori,” Marty began.
She jumped up from her seat. “Gotta close this window,” she said. “It's a little nippy in here.” A few drops of coffee had splattered her pajama bottoms with her abrupt movement, and she rubbed a palm against the new stains, one, two, three, four, five, six times. When she sat down again, she perched on the edge of the cushion and balanced the mug on her knees with her two feet flat on the floor. She wasn't looking at him. He stared at the crown of her head. A few renegade hairs, mussed from sleep, danced in the dying breeze from the once-open window.
“What is it?”
“I have to tell you something.”
Lori eyes flicked up to meet his. “I said, what is it?”
She was angry. He wasn't sure why. Her reaction unsettled him, threw him off track for a second or two. He paused.
“I know exactly what you're going to tell me,” she said evenly.
Marty's lips parted in surprise. For another moment, he made no sound.
“You asshole,” she said. “You think I don't know what you've been keeping from me all this time?”
From across the room, Marty saw her tears falling. That knot that had been growing within him since January pulsed with incendiary desire.
“Lori, I want a separation.”
His own words shocked him. They shocked him so greatly that his jaw hinged open and stayed open while he watched his wife's face slacken, then fill with white panic. She looked as though Marty had socked her in the throat.
Marty couldn't speak the words again. But he knew he couldn't retrieve them. He was suspended, treading, about to rise and breathe. He didn't answer her.
And all at once her arms were spinning toward him and her fists, as hard as iron, caught his left cheek and his right bicep. She mounted his lap and dug her knees into his groin as her hands grabbed and boxed and her wailing nearly cracked open his eardrums. He thrashed back at her, trying to take her by the wrists.
Her face was so close to his that he was ingesting her sour breath and the salty scent of her tears, feeling the heat coming off her skin. Chunks of blond hair clung to her cheeks. Her eyes confronted him as he held her.
“You need me,” she said.
Marty didn't say anything. At one point, he may have thought that she was right.
“I fight for you,” she said. “I've always fought for you.” She slid from his lap, took back her hands. A tiny river of mucus ran from her nose and over her top lip.
Marty let a humble laugh escape from his throat. “Most of the time you fight against me, Lori.”
“Our family wouldn't run without me.”
Marty raised himself from the chair. His quadriceps shivered like plucked rubber bands, sending a reverberation down each leg. He could detect a waver in her voice. He saw a wrinkle or two in her forehead.
“You're a good mother,” he said.
“No shit,” she said.
A breathless impatience flared up in him. “Yes, Lori, you're the martyr, the one who sacrificed everything to raise the children the minute you figured out I was useless. You swooped in and saved my ass. I'd be stumbling around drooling if it weren't for you.”
They both stood there soundlessly for a few seconds as his words paralyzed the air between them.
“Well,” she said finally, and smiled. He didn't recognize the smile. “I wasn't about to let you waste away waiting for that artsy slut in Carolina.”
“I left her for you,” he said.
“No,” Lori said. “You can't remember a goddamn thing, can you? You couldn't do the deed, Martin. You needed help with that, too. She stopped calling you. Why? Because I called her and told her off.”
Marty's brain searched for an illuminating memory, like hands patting blindly over a wall in the dark, hunting for the light switch. Had it happened that way? Had Amelia withdrawn from him, forcing him to end it? He couldn't remember; that was so many years ago. He could recall knowing one day that his heart had flipped over from one girl's possession to the other's. He could recall the brash drive of this woman that kept up with the speed of his ambition and therefore, in his mind, predicted their eternal partnerhood. He could recall the way that she used to make him believe that they were smarter and more powerful than anyone else, by taking his hand or resting her head on his broad shoulder, expressing her faith in them with these quiet, tender gestures. For a long time, she walked—sprinted, ran, shot—toward the future alongside him. And she looked goddamn beautiful as she did it.
He surveyed her. Her smirk pierced his composure, exploded it into pieces. He could imagine the scraps of his shredded tolerance littering the lanai.
“It doesn't matter,” Marty said. “It doesn't matter at all.”
Lori sneered at him. “So what are you going to do now, then? How will you take care of yourself? Passing out, hallucinating—you're fucked, Martin.”
For the first time, he felt utterly satisfied that while she stood there convulsing with indignation, he was as light as he had ever been, buoyant, like a man on the moon.
“I think I'm fucked either way,” he said. “But thanks, as always, for the warning.”
* * *
Marty headed out on his route toward Jerry's Marketplace, inhaling the coolness of the unbroken day and marveling at the confidence of the 1.5-million-dollar homes that stood tall on Angel Drive. When he reached Dixie Beach Boulevard, he stopped, rotated his ankles, one, and then the other, and shook out his feet. The blacktop rolled out in front of him but the haze overtook it a half-mile down.
The run would clear his mind.
Every thump of his soles against the pavement launched an electric current through his legs. Was this what the terror of freedom felt like?
Lori had confessed: she had called Dr. Ellison directly, pretending to request a new supply of “vertigo” pills, pretending to know everything. And she had kept her own secret while she fed his secret for six weeks. He didn't know which one of them deserved the credit for the worse transgression. At least he had been honest with her, in the end.
The synapses in his head popped at a stunning rate. He thought about his kids. Maybe one of them could move out with him. Maybe one of them could move down here with him! Maybe he could take this chance to broaden and deepen his love for Max, to show Max how charming and lazy life could be, how bright and invigorating. He imagined himself charging out of that surf, day after day after day. He could start another tourist business. He could loiter in every square foot of that downward slope that was dumping him unapologetically toward his fate.
It took only five hundred yards for those electric currents in his legs to fizzle. Marty could see the individual needles of rain dropping down with easy release and disappearing into the earth. He looked down at his shirt and shorts to find them splotched with moisture. But he plugged on. It was like one of those dreams in which Marty found himself running across the airport in slow motion so arduous that he was nearly running backwards, trying to make it to his gate before his plane took off without him, even though he had left himself plenty of time not to fail.
His cell phone was ringing. He pulled back on his pace, against his own wishes. He wasn't sure if he'd be able to regain speed if he slowed down.
“Come home—it's about to storm.”
Marty wondered how long it would be before he'd lose his connection completely. “It's fine out here,” he said, struggling to tame his raucous breaths and his distaste for her voice. “It's actually kind of nice. Refreshing.”
From her silence he could tell that she was closing her eyes and summoning patience before she answered him.
“You're out by all those trees. You'll get struck by lightning.”
Marty had to muffle a laugh. “I'm not really worried about the chances of that,” he said.
“Do you have a jacket?”
“Don't you want your fritters?”
Another pause. “Yeah, Martin, that's what I want. My fucking fritters.”
Marty's voice gurgled in his throat. It was growing a little difficult to speak. And walk. To speak and walk at the same time.
“I'm telling you, come home.”
The thought that Marty would actually rather be anywhere else but home occurred perfectly naturally to him, without guilt. He wasn't making very fast progress up the road, but he had come a long way.
“I don't think I want to come home,” he said.
“Yes. I think I'll just stay here, if it's all the same to you.”
“I'm coming to get you,” Lori said haughtily.
Marty shoved his phone into his pocket. There was no chance in hell that he could make it to the main drag of Periwinkle Way before Lori reached him. He looked across the street at one of those million-dollar homes. He found nothing to hide him—the front yard treeless and expansive, the porch screened in, no conveniently voluptuous bushes in the landscaping. He looked behind him. The mangroves had to be crawling with alligators.
Marty willed his legs to keep moving. Even though he knew the boulevard was as flat as a runway, the labor of walking had become mountainous.
Soon, he heard the grousing of the Suburban behind him.
Marty turned painfully to see Lori's bloodless face, so small protruding from the enormous truck's driver's side window. His arms were strange, dangling from him like lead pipes. His tongue felt fat and dry and he tried to chew it awake. Movement crackled in the mangroves.
“Get in the car,” she said.
Fatigue swamped over him. He steadied himself by placing his feet wide apart. “No. I don't think so.”
“Martin!” She was crying, now.
Marty strained to see through the truck's windshield, as impenetrably black as the surface of the Sanibel canals. Were those the faces of his children, hovering like white apparitions, in the backseat? He couldn't tell. He struggled to turn back toward his destination, scraping his right heel backward bit by bit and pivoting on the ball of his left foot until his body was once again headed in the right direction. The rain had drenched every part of him, inside and out. He pitched forward.
All he needed to do was stay one step ahead of the Suburban.
Elizabeth Mastrangelo, by day, teaches ninth- and eleventh-grade boys at a college prep school. Nights, she spent earning her MFA in creative writing at Emerson College. In the cracks of time between these ventures, she enjoys freelance work in the realms of ghostwriting, copywriting, and editing. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Sheepshead Review, Black Heart Magazine, Burningword Literary Journal, Extract(s), and Crack the Spine. She blogs at www.spurredgirl.com.
Back to Issue 19, 2016