The first half of Chapter 1
Northport, June 1983
“Ba, ba, BAAH! …Ba, ba, BAAH!” At random intervals, a boy of three or four at the next table taunts his mother. She sits opposite him eating her breakfast while he ignores his. He pumps up the volume aggressively on the last syllable in each repetition, his gaze fixed on her twitchily smiling face. “Ba, ba, BAAH!”
Mommy pauses in her chewing to silently mouth the word “no.”
I wonder what she should do. I don’t know much about kids. But I do know she should do something to dial back her little dynamo’s life force. But what? Reason with him? Of course, I don’t think she should hit or scream at him.
“I’m a big BOY! I like COKE!” His final noun overemphasis reminds me of the eighties Bob Dylan doing a concert demolition of one of his formerly lovely sixties classics. Such an association does help me appreciate the vocal stylings of both a bit better – though “appreciate” isn’t exactly the right word.
I’m in a coffee shop that caters to the non-affluent who live in the neighborhood’s asbestos-sided, two-story “New Englanders,” and to the artists who work and, in some cases, live – mostly covertly – in the renovated spaces of the hundred-year-old brick industrial buildings that were once a source of this city’s prosperity. I’ve come to interview the painter John Hulton, an artist of some distinction decades ago, now pretty much presumed dead – presumably, that is, by any who might remember his name at all. But recently I got word that he didn’t die, he’d merely disappeared into a bottle. Now word is he’s come back out and set up a studio in a factory here in the provinces – in Northport, the town of his birth, and from where he strode thirty years ago in answer to the call he perceived coming from New York City, where he for a while rose high, then, when art fashions changed, fell. I stopped by that studio, a block away, as prearranged, but found it locked. He had told me on his home phone he’s not bothering to get one for calls to what’s only a temporary workspace. A small electrical fire put his barn studio – attached to his family homestead just outside the Northport city line where he apparently intermittently worked and drank in seclusion – out of commission. Right now electricians are hard to get, he’d said. Hard if you can’t afford to pay them is what I think. I left a note on his door that he could find me here. That was almost an hour ago.
“Ba, ba, BAAH!”
I risk a questioning glance at the mother. She replies with a questioning glance of her own. Well, she’s got my question wrong. I’m asking about her son, not her. Instinctively – though inconsistent with my interests at this moment – I glance at her ring finger. No ring. Unfortunately, she notices my focus there and smirks. She’s okay-looking, I’m thinking. But that kid!
That’s a bad attitude, I know. I’m sure I need to rethink the idea of kids in my self-centered life now that I’m single again. Angela didn’t want children, and that was fine with me. But most women do want kids. A lot of attractive, age–appropriate, single women – I’m thirty-three – have kids already. I imagine some might even have four or five. The little boy perceives that his mother’s attention is not 1000 per cent focused on him. He twists around and retargets – through the bars of his bow-backed chair – onto me. “Ba, ba, BAAH!” he challenges the intruder to his oedipal territory.
I give him a faint smile and look away. A handsome boy, I’m thinking; soft, supple flesh over a bone-structure that, in combination with those disarmingly cool blue eyes, could easily become, soon enough, the face of a bully. Probably much the same face as the one that spent a night or two – or ten, or two hundred – then departed, leaving behind a lifelong reminder.
I glance back at mother and child. Mom is looking in my direction expectantly. But even if I found her devastatingly attractive, and I could immediately resolve – or conveniently forget – my fatherhood phobia, this is not the time or the place for starting. I give her a good-natured nod and turn to carefully swish and examine the remaining coffee in the bottom of my cup. I concentrate my drifty mind on why I came: a work assignment.
“Ba, ba, BAH.”
Within my periphery, I see that Mommy is still side-longing in my direction. So this seems like the moment for a quick trip to the men’s. Hulton, I’m getting the impression, is either casual or copeless about keeping his appointments. Alcoholic behavior, I imagine. I hear that the habits can persist after the tap has been shut off. But I doubt he’ll have split-second bad timing, too, and show up in the next two minutes. I leave my bush vest on the chair.
On the way, I pass all kinds of kitschy stuff that is, or tries to be, the little restaurant’s identity. A wooden sled, a plastic statue of Marilyn Monroe, a fish tank filled with frogs. Frank Sinatra’s sincere voice – probably intended to be heard ironically, though – drifts softly from suspended speakers up in the corners of the black-painted, pressed tin ceiling. This place seems to be run by kids for kids – and as a challenge to adults. By kids, I mean twenty-two or twenty-four year olds.
In the bathroom, taped to the wall, a hand-lettered sign reads: “Clean Restrooms Are Up to You.” I wonder how they enforce this. Maybe I missed some ticket you’re supposed to take when you enter the place. And if your number comes up, that means it’s your turn to scrub the toilets – perhaps in exchange for free pancakes next time. A lot of artists are broke enough that that might actually be a good deal.
As I recover my seat, my attention hones right onto a striking young woman who’s just entering – and then to the equally unusual-appearing young man accompanying her. She has white/blond birds-nest hair, and skin almost as white. She wears a military-drab jumpsuit and carries a black portfolio case. Her features are a bit too irregular for serious beauty, but she exudes something I like – I don’t know – sexiness of an off-beat kind. Right now she seems to be pouting. I hate to admit that for me this adds to her attractiveness. Why is that? – And here I’ve just rebuffed an inviting smile from an over-indulgent, maternal type.
I realize I have seen this woman before. But I can’t remember where or when. How would I not remember a pretty woman so strange? Her boyfriend appears no less exotic and actually is the prettier of the two. He has finer, more symmetrical features and a skin tone as rich as hers shows absence of any richness. Middle Eastern appears his ethnic heritage. The two bicker. His lilting voice tells me that he is gay, therefore not her boyfriend – just a boy friend. He stops the waitress and asks her something. She points to a door behind the counter. He scurries off that way. In thirty seconds he returns, and they resume arguing. Eventually she shrugs and hands him the portfolio. He opens it and removes what turns out to be a poster. Then he takes a plastic Baggie from the pocket of his billowy, elastic-ankles pants. From this he extracts pushpins. He mounts the poster on the wall behind where other arriving patrons have started seating themselves. When all at that table are down, I can see the poster’s entirety. The image and text are minimal – though compelling enough. In a black bikini, the white/blond, white-skinned woman stands on one Doc Martens-shod foot, as if in frozen stride. The printed words say: “Contexts: Homage to Magritte, A Performance by Lucinda York. Blue Heron Beach, Marshland Section. June, eight” – tomorrow – “5 p.m. Be There Then.” Now I place her. She’s a performance artist I’d once seen – though a being transformed from a brunette, rather hippyish Lucinda York, who’d presented herself and her work several years ago in a temporary space in Boston’s South End. She was probably newly graduated from art school then – assuming she’d gone. She’d looked, then, early to mid-twenties. The performance was about breasts. And breasts of all sizes, presumably fashioned from foam rubber or Styrofoam, littered the stage and levitated above it. The accompanying written text denounced Western cultural fascination with the female breast. Called it regressive male hysteria. (Or something like that.) And the piece addressed a second tier complaint, too: inadequate funding for breast cancer research. At one point, the artist’s own breasts became part of the performance. They were painted florescent blue, or perhaps were white and just appeared blue under the glow of the black light in the darkened theater.
When the piece ended I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d gotten from it. My companion for the ride down, and roommate at the time, Stuart Cohen, didn’t much help me get a handle on what Lucinda York had to say. He commented only, “Nice tits.” I couldn’t tell if he was being clever about all the breasts we’d seen or was just performing – or even pretending at it – the requisite male/male solidarity confirmation: A man or boy almost always mutters this statement whenever two or more men or boys find themselves confronted, at a safe distance, by breasts, covered or bared, of above average size.
The artsy/new-wavy couple exits the coffee shop. And I realize that mother and son are now absent, too – their vacant table a plane of muffin crumbs and dripped pretend maple syrup. I guess she didn’t like me as much as I thought. Just as well: I hadn’t even noticed their departure – nor the refilling of my mug. I sip the coffee and muse that, as one of my several job titles at the paper is reviewer, I have a professional duty to “Be There Then” – Blue Heron Beach tomorrow, at five. That is, if I can get the boss’s okay. I decide I have been here too long. Whether Hulton has had another fire or is off on a morning bender, I can’t wait to see. I need to get across town to Capt’n Tony’s on the pier, to interview the man himself for his payback advertising feature. After that I’ve got to at least make an appearance at the paper. And I should fit in checking on my grandmother – since her cottage is not far from Phillip’s Cove. It’s a shame Hulton didn’t show – he would have been today’s better story. Tony is about the most boring man I’ve ever met.
A kid in shorts and Capt’n Tony’s tee-shirt tells me Tony will be late. Someday people will fear keeping a man like me waiting. But for right now, it’s okay. This pier is my favorite place in town, and for a half hour, I’m a free man and the humid early June morning is wondrous. Turn off my mind, relax and float down stream.
Too soon the world intrudes.
A male voice rasps across twenty yards of 10:00 a.m. summer air – from a Novi-built fishing boat to where I stand slouched against a weathered piling. I know who it is. I don’t want to answer. I don’t want anything encroaching on this caffeine-spiked, work-avoidance reverie I’m slipping into, my mind adrift on a morphing rainbow of spilled diesel fuel that I watch shimmer on the Cove’s rippling surface. Transcendence by pollution. A guilty pleasure.
Copper pulses into paisleys of teal, then into gold. Anyway, in another minute this incandescent slick will have disappeared – evaporated onto the morning breeze.
“Alex Perkins!” Fred Avery hails me again.
I give a limp wave without looking up. It’s not just coffee, summer air, Tony’s tardiness, and some boater’s careless refueling that I have to thank for the halcyon intimations. Oblique light playing over any water – or shining on grass or creeping along a wall – could entrance me even as a kid. Lots of beautiful things can do that. I’m pretty much what you would call a “beauty addict”.
“Perkins – we’ll want a han at tha dock!”
Fred intermittently affects those “Down-Easter” tones. Throws in an accented word or two every few sentences. He was born in Machias, Maine, maybe forty-two or -three years back, and is proud of it. But his family relocated here in Northport, Massachusetts, so his father could get a better job. I happen to know this was before Fred spoke more than a dozen words in any accent. Fred cultivates inscrutability. But, he’s easier to read than he thinks. Without hope of further evading, I disengage from the remnants of drifting refined fossil fuel to try to focus on Fred Avery on his idling Laura T, waiting his turn about a dozen yards out while a lobstering vessel casts off from the floating dock fifteen feet or so below wharf level on the ebbing tide. But my attention is drawn to a gleaming yacht of forty or forty-five feet, still under sail on the fresh southeast breeze. It’s also approaching the dock. And it’s moving, it seems, much too fast.
As I try to be heard shouting, “What do you need, Fred?” above the thrub, thrub, thrub of the departing lobster boat, the sailing craft cuts my line of sight and sound to the Laura T. It flashes into the narrow expanse of water between the fishing boat and the dock. The skipper of this interloper consummately single-hands his quarter-million worth of racing equipment. He dumps wind by rounding up to windward at the optimum invisible point and as effectively curtails forward motion as if he’d thrown the boat’s motor into reverse – which, by harbor rules, is what he really should have done anyway. The shock-absorbing white plastic fenders, dangling from his vessel’s rail, only gently nudge the floating dock when he connects. I look across to the now once-again-visible Laura T, expecting to see Fred riled. But he only looks amused. Or he wants it to appear that way. This sailor has been lucky in randomly picking Fred Avery to cut off. An angry outburst would be a predictable reaction from most fishermen around here. One in ten might grab a deer rifle and fire it in the air. But doing anything predictable would be against Fred’s code.
The skipper – tall, fifty-ish, impressively tanned in pressed, cream-colored slacks and a French vanilla jersey with its collar raised lets his mainsail and jib flap. He waves a dismissive thank you to Fred, as though his taking Fred’s turn is what is sanctioned by the coast guard’s sailboats have right of way over power. With the breeze paralleling the leading edge of the dock, his luck holds and the boat shows only a mild inclination toward outward drift. He swoops to the deck amidships to take up the coiled half of a line, pre-positioned there, that runs to the bow. Then he steps gingerly onto the spot Fred, by all rights, should be occupying. He snugs the line around a cleat, hops back on board, paces aft, and picks up a coiled stern line. This guy’s meticulous, I’m thinking. I’m a bit of a sailor, too, but I usually coil lines only after hauling a boat out in the fall. Sometimes not even then. Stepping back onto the dock, he loops this rope under a cleat at the opposite end, then shifts his weight against its tugging, listing slightly into the wind, reining in his flighty Pegasus to the public rail. He glances at his watch then frowns up to where I stand at the top of the gangway.
The muscles of his cheeks abruptly shift to project what I guess is a version of smiling, an expression usually indicating pleasure. However, his face has a grimacing quality usually associated with something like gastric distress.
“Ah!” he intones. “There you are. I’m glad to see you can seize the morning.”
I, not fully revived from my reverie, for a second perceive he’s addressing me.
“Heads, fella,” I hear from immediately behind me. Someone intending to slide past onto the ramp and down to the float. He carries a cooler on his opposite shoulder and its bulk cocks his head toward me. His grinning face, only a foot or two away as he passes, exudes goodwill.
“All yours,” I say, gesturing toward the ramp.
“Cheers,” he says, upping the bonhomie.
Something about him is familiar – as if I’d encountered this face only yesterday. The Big Chill. That new movie with the overly snappy dialogue, the one that’s about ex-hippies turned yuppie. Actually I reviewed it for Currents only a few weeks ago. This guy looks like the actor who plays the TV star – a detective, or something – who jumps into convertibles without opening the doors. Tom Berenger. Who knows? It’s June in Northport and the boat is expensive enough for a Hollywood type. Maybe this guy is Tom Berenger.
And my Hollywood moment is further drawn-out by the demure nod and eyes-only smile I receive from the man’s female companion, trailing a few paces behind. She doesn’t look like any movie star I can think of. Yet, if she could only stumble through even the most pedestrian of scripts, she might still – the way her green, almond eyes project a truly gorgeous other-worldliness (India, perhaps?) – be “box office.” These, I realize, are the “beautiful people.” We get to see them only in summer here in the provinces. Even the captain – for all the oddity of his facial expressiveness – has a kind of beauty. The beauty that money conveys. Does my beauty tropism that far?