by Margaret Rowan
Cresting the dune, I looked out across the sand to the Atlantic, its foaming edge outlining the rocky shore of Phillips Beach. Aside from a few scavenging seagulls, I had the entire beach to myself. Better yet, a week remained before tourists infested Chateau Island. I breathed in the salty air then charged down the other side of the dune like a wild mustang, the warm sand engulfing my shins as my feet plunged in.
At the bottom of the dune I found a strip of sand nestled between the rocky beach and the ridge behind me. I’d chosen this rock-strewn section because not many people migrated to it. I’d waited weeks for this day to arrive. My life at home and at work was devouring me. My mind, barren of my own ideas, was now crowded with other people’s thoughts.
I spread out my blanket that I stow in the trunk of my car for beach visits and anchored it with my tote bag and three large rocks. The rocks were beauties. Polished by years of sea water lapping away their rough edges, they’d become smooth as glass. Kneeling down, I let my body collapse into the coolness of the sand beneath the blanket. As I lay there, listening to the syncopated rhythm of a buoy bell off in the distance, my body began disintegrating into sleep mode. But I wasn’t here for sleep. I raised my head and marveled at a gull catch a thermal, swoop up, then dip low over the waves breaking on shore.
A few inches from my hand, lay my camera. I propped myself onto my elbows to watch a lobster boat returning home. The sun was receding behind the boat and the silhouette would be the perfect shot for the cover of my next novel, Vicki Louise.
Vicki was a woman I’d met while having a cocktail at a restaurant bar. I was waiting for a table to free up so I could have dinner. I loved scallops and had been daydreaming about them on my drive up from New York to Darby Cove. The following day I would ferry across to Chateau Island.
Looking to sit down, I spotted two stools jammed beside a pole at the far end of the bar. A woman occupied one of them. She appeared quite at home, sitting alone with a drink and reading her newspaper. Moving closer to the stool nearest the pole, I sucked in deeply as you do when trying to make yourself…slimmer; then tried edging-up onto the seat without disturbing her. She turned and looked over her shoulder at me, then wiggle-inched her stool to the side, allowing me more space to slip in. Settling back, she side-glanced me a smile. “Hi, my name is Vicki Louise.”
“Oh?” I smiled. “I’m, Laura.” I hiked my butt up and sat down. “Thanks for letting me scrunch in. I wasn’t too eager to sit near that party of fishermen down there.” She turned and looked at them, then back at the drink in front of her.
My guess was that she was a frequent flyer here. I recalled an article I’d researched on people that sit alone at bars. They’re either lonely with a thirst for the benign conversation you find in a glass—or looking to meet someone. Ideally the sympathetic type you might find seated at an adjacent barstool. Well, my table isn’t ready yet. Let’s see if I can offer some comfort to Ms. Vicki. “Do you live in Darby Cove?”
“I work in Boston…why?”
O-kay, so I don’t want to know where she lives, got it. “I just drove through Boston to get here. It’s quite a ride.” I motioned for the bartender.
“Ninety minutes to Boston,” she said.
He walked over, stretched out his arms and gripped the edge of the bar. “What’ll it be?”
I gave a half-cringe, half-smile, “Could I see your wine list?” Many years ago, I learned to ask for the wine list before ordering. One vacation I got hit with a $22.00 check for a glass of Turning Leaf! Can you imagine? I quickly scanned the list and saw I wouldn’t have that problem in this place. “I’ll have a glass of chardonnay. The Perkins is fine.”
The bartender nodded towards Vicki. “And you?”
“I’ll have a Bloody Mary.”
Really, Jack? What are you thinking? She’s not finished the one in front of her and by the look of that mangled newspaper—she’s been here a while. Conversation, Laura, she needs conversation. “So you do live in Darby Cove. Nice. I thought maybe you ferried in from one of the islands. That’s a long ride to work every day. It makes my forty minute jaunt into New York City look like a pleasure trip.”
“I work for the Boston Gazette.”
O-kay—this could turn out to be a good day after all. I’ve stumbled across ‘a Vicki Louise’ who, like me, has printers’ ink flooding her veins. “Are you a journalist?”
What the hell does that mean? I read? “Like a proofreader?”
“I read books.”
“Oh, you critique them.”
The bartender brought our drinks. I nodded “Thanks,” and slid him a dollar.
“Mm…,” Vicki murmured, finishing off her earlier drink.
I took that as a yes and although Vicki had said she worked for the Gazette, I was a bit skeptical. “That can be somewhat tricky, appraising other people’s ideas without offending them.”
Vicki gulped her fresh Bloody Mary. In seconds her manner changed. She put the celery stalk to her forehead. “I’m getting bad vibes from you. Something is very wrong.”
An eerie feeling broadcast through my flesh as I contemplated this stranger with her nearly translucent skin, long, wildly curled red hair, and touting maxi, purple-plastic eyeglasses. “What do you mean—something is wrong? Why would you think that?
“I don’t want to say.”
She doesn’t want to say. Then, why say it—and leave me dangling? I pushed my wine glass to the side. I don’t need this nonsense. Where’s that bartender?
Vicki turned and looked behind her, then back at me. She crooked her head to the side, “You’re here for a reason.”
Of course I’m here for a reason. Who drives four hours just to ferry over to an island without a reason? She’s making me uncomfortable. I thought about the ferry ride tomorrow and all the maritime tragedies of late. I was not keen on traveling by myself, let alone on a ferry. You know—when we fear our time is coming soon? Like if I step onto that ferry in the morning…it will crash and sink. Well, that’s how I’d been feeling before the trip—about to crash. Plus my mammogram came back noting a suspicious spot. Now odd-looking Vicki is getting vibes. What is she, clairvoyant? Time to ditch this Vicki Louise and get my table. I looked around for the waitress then turned and answered Vicki’s question.
“I am here for a reason. I’m on vacation,” I said, annoyed with myself that I’d sat here this long entertaining a stranger that had gone from being friendly, to analyzing me. “I’m meeting my husband on Chateau Island.” I lied. Actually I was attending a writing workshop for the week, hoping to find the inspiration to write again.
Vicki disregarded my answer and toyed with her glass, turning it around and around until a Bloody Mary wave crested the rim and spilled onto the bar.
The bartender mopped it up before it reached the newspaper.
Ooh, this is not good. Let’s try another approach, Laura. I saw she wore a band on her finger but asked anyway. “Are you married, Vicki?”
Well, this conversation is heading for the dumpster. Talking to Vicki was like eating lobster with hot sauce. At first she seemed sweet, maybe a little airy, but she quickly turned acid. Her words as drained as the glass now teetering in front of her. She looked somewhat downtrodden…a bit artsy too, dressed in a rag-knit sweater, faux purple leather bomber jacket, holey jeans and cream colored cowgirl boots. I liked the boots.
Vicki pretended to gulp down what was left in the bottom of the empty glass, and slid it towards the bartender. She looked at me as if expecting a reaction. “My husband is coming here. He’s working on his boat today. There used to be four, you know. I came down to wait. He’s picking me up soon.”
“Well, that’s good.” Sooner would be better, I thought.
“What’s that?” she slurred.
“Your husband is picking you up.”
Vicki leaned closer to me. “You have beautiful eyes.”
“Thank you.” What else could I say? She’d already trespassed into my space by a foot. Who knew where this was heading. I really should leave.
“That must be it…”
“What must be it, Vicki?” For gosh sake, where’s that waitress. As comforting as I thought I could be for Vicki, I’d about had enough. I wanted my table.
“Eric is repairing one of his boats today, but you know that already.”
“Eric? Is he your husband?”
“Yes, we ate steamers before, and drank a few beers. I read the paper while he’s at the marina. You’re jealous.”
Vicki’s accusation startled me, but I sensed that she had downed more than just a few beers since she’d been at the bar reading the Boston Gazette. Letting the remark pass, I eyed the newspaper that lay in front of her. How long had she been here? The damned thing was the size of the Sunday News back home and was stained with red spots and oily crumbs. “You read the whole paper?”
At first she seemed anxious to engage in another conversation. Maybe about what she’d read, but her eyes took on a profound look. She fidgeted with the lime colored boa wrapped around her neck and shoulders, twining it between her fingers then flipping it aside. Above her eyeglasses, Vicki’s brow knit together. “Yes, that’s what I do.” Shifting on her barstool, she never took her eyes from mine. “You don’t believe me.” She turned her head to one side, then back at me, and glared.
I felt as though the devil himself had bored through me. I took a sip of wine from my glass and set it on the bar. Maybe I’ll just call it a day. Go back to my room. I’ll order in.
“He’s coming to get you…isn’t he?”
Who the hell is she talking about, the devil? “Who’s coming to get me?”
Vicki anchored her hands on her hips and struck a pouty pose, you know the defiant kind that queries a person’s honesty.
It was then I observed the real Vicki. She was not just a woman who’d had too much to drink one day, but a troubled one with serious problems. Sadly, I recognized in her a misery that only exists in someone who’s lived through way too many bad experiences and is trying to survive the heartbreaks of life. Although at the moment, she was on a roll, spewing vile allegations.
“You know who Eric is, my husband. And I know he’s coming to get you.”
“Ah, no, he’s coming to give you a ride home. I’m going to have dinner and then head back to my hotel for the night. Tomorrow I take the ferry over to Chateau where I meet up with my husband, Scott. Remember?”
Vicki looked at me in a pathetic way; got up from her stool and slid behind mine. What is she up to now? She was standing near the pole to my side and slightly hidden from the crowd that had now wandered in off the ferry looking for a place to eat.
“We have to stay quiet.” She looked around as if she was searching for someone in particular. “I can’t tell you this. You won’t like me.”
“I like you, Vicki.”
“Well, no one else likes me…” She climbed back onto the barstool, “…I don’t have any friends. I went to Winslow you know.”
My heart welled with empathy for this young woman. A Winslow graduate, the most prestigious women’s school in the northeast. How did she end up on a barstool in a place like this? I began to speak.
She put her finger to her lips. “Shhh, they’ll hear us.” Shielding her face, she mouthed beneath her elbow, “They didn’t see me, did they?”
“I shouldn’t have told you.”
“Told me what?” Crap, she’s got me whispering now.
“It’s bad to tell. Are they gone?”
“Yes. They’re gone. Who were you looking for?”
Vicki straightened up and sipped her drink.
“Are you on medication, Vicki?” That would explain the swings between friendship, mistrust and withdrawal.
I gently touched her arm, “You know meds plus alcohol don’t mix…right?”
“Who—are you? I don’t know about you. What’s your story? I’m getting vibes again.”
Not again! I really need to find that waitress.
Vicki picked up her wallet from the bar and slid a credit card from her checkbook towards the bartender. I thought she was leaving. “I want to buy…” she turned to me. “What’s your name? Pam…yes, I want to buy Pam, a drink…”
“No, Vicki. My name is Laura, and I’m not having another drink…but thank you.”
“You want me to leave, don’t you?”
Leave? God no, you’re in no condition to leave now, I wanted to say. “Uh, well…not really,” but before I could finish, Vicki scooped up her credit card and clutch purse, leaving her checkbook on the counter. She turned on her barstool as if to go.
“Come home with me, Pam. I like Pam better. She’s more fun. I have a pool table! It’ll be cool…and you can stay.”
Stay? Oh, Vicki, how often do you invite strangers home? I could be the Bonnie in Clyde. “I’m sorry, Vicki, I can’t…I’m getting on the ferry tomorrow.”
Vicki ignored me. Then she swung back around and ordered another Bloody Mary—without the celery stalk, she told the bartender, saying she was full.
I frowned at the bartender and mimed, “Are you crazy?” But he mixed Vicki another drink.
She turned to me. She looked desperate. “Don’t go on the ferry. I’ll be alone again. Come with me.”
“Come on, Pam. Laura left on the ferry. Let’s go now before…”
“But Eric is coming to get you soon. You want to be here when he arrives, don’t you?” I looked for the bartender to get my check, but he was gone.
“Somewhere Beyond the Sea” blared from Vicki’s leather jacket she’d hung on the back of her barstool. The song was a real oldie, recorded in the ‘60s by Bobby Darin. She must have an old soul. “Is that your phone? It might be Eric…”
Vicki shot me an angry look. She picked up her glass and drank the Bloody Mary down like it was iced tea. “I know. He just left. He’s coming to get you.” She dropped the glass on the bar. I watched it bounce to the floor and smash into pieces. Her face took on an acrid color. “My sister fell off a horse,” she said nastily. “There’s something wrong with her head…”
I was speechless.
Vicki gave me a side-wards glance as if waiting for my response, then slid off the barstool and staggered out through the front door, leaving behind her purse, checkbook and jacket.
I watched through the mullioned windows as she weaved her way through hanging buoys, nets and shells that flanked the sandy court yard entrance. Quickly I motioned to the bartender who’d returned through the swinging door between the kitchen and the bar.
“You want your bar bill…give me a sec.”
“No! The woman I was talking to just left the building. You do know she had too much to drink, right?”
He nodded and without a word came out from behind the bar and went after her. I watched in fear as Vicki crawled up the embankment that led to the roadway above, nearly being hit by a car as she stepped into the street. I went over to the hostess at the service desk near the front door. “Excuse me. The woman I was sitting with left her jacket and purse on the barstool.”
“We know her. The bartender will take care of it.”
“The bartender…you mean the dumb ass who’s been feeding her Bloody Marys’ and celery sticks all day? You’d have thought he’d have taken care of…IT…sooner!”
The hostess gave me ‘the look’ and shook her head. “He’s married to Vicki’s twin sister, Louise, who works in Boston at the Gazette and is gone most of the day.”
“So…he lets her drink the time away?” Oh-my-gosh, she’s a twin?
The hostess curled her upper lip. “A year ago, Vicki lost her husband, Eric Darby, in a boating accident. His boat crashed and sank after running into the ferry on a foggy morning. He’s still out there.”
A shudder careened through my body. “How tragic, I didn’t know.”
“A few days before Darby’s death, she and her sister went horseback riding. Vicki took a dive off a horse on one of the ridge trails and tumbled down the dune to some rocks, where she hit her head. Darby was coming to take her home from the hospital on Chateau Island when the boating accident happened. Every day she sits waiting for him to come pick her up.”
I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the waitress. She had a table for me, but I didn’t think I could choke down one morsel this evening.
Vicki’s memory haunted me as I drove onto the ferry the next day. I parked and got out of my car and watched Darby Cove shrink out of sight, leaving only the image of a grieving woman dragging along in the spray behind the ferry.
She was adrift, just the way I’d believed I was before walking into that bar. I was amazed at the kinship I felt towards her; our circumstances were so different. Her thoughts shot to hell by tragedy, drink and drugs—and then there was Laura, with a secure life waiting for her back home.
At the bottom of my beach bag, I found my pencil. I turned on my side and propped my head with my hand. “Good-bye barren mind,” I whispered to the sea gull pecking at the laces on my sneakers.
About the Author:
Margaret Rowan was a legal secretary, a production artist and proofreader for the Patent Trader newspaper. Today, she owns and operates an antiques business with her husband and writes lively descriptions of their inventory. When not at home writing fiction, she is traveling around the country, where her creativity is sparked by the ‘characters’ she encounters and the places visited in her hunt for the antiquated. Margaret belongs to the Mahopac Library Writers’ Workshop, headed by author and historian, Vincent T. Dacquino, whom she credits for his years of encouragement.