It was four thirty in the morning. We were walking the beach for shells. At this hour, if you weren’t worried about sharks or stepping on a sting ray, you could walk about half a mile out into the bay. There were barely any waves and it felt like you were on the shore of a large lake. It should have been peaceful but Marnie was walking about thirty feet ahead of me, swinging my camp lantern angrily, making our shadows stretch and contract wildly over the sand and gray water. We had passed a few old folks leaving the beach on the way in.
“We’re too late,” she said. “They got them all.”
And sure enough, there were only a few small shells.
Still, it was beautiful and now that the old beachcombers had gone, I wondered if I could talk her into something. Greet the dawn with a From Here to Eternity moment. Not much chance of that. She had been restless since the accident. Three months ago, about a half year since we started dating, she lost her right eye in a car wreck. For a month after, she walked around with a bandaged eye and a patch. In a dramatic moment at the doctor’s office, they took the bandage off and told her the obvious, that nothing could be done. Marnie had always been beautiful, too beautiful for me; but she knew me from a long time ago and maybe she liked that time better than whatever had been going on in her life. Imperfection, physically, was something that she hadn’t dealt with yet. The weekend that she stopped wearing the patch and wore her glass eye for the first time, she dressed up and we went out. She got drunk at the restaurant and made me touch her under the table. When we got home, she attacked me like it was our first night together.
When it was over and we were looking at the ceiling fan waiting for our breath to steady, she said, “I can’t believe that I have a glass eye. I just can’t believe it.”
“It’s okay. It doesn’t make any difference to me.”
“How can that be?”
She looked at me like I was hiding something, some imperfection. I never saw her without the eye and I never saw any of what I imagined must have gone along with it: spare eyes, things to clean the eye, something to replace the tears. Of course, the eye didn’t move. That she couldn’t hide but I think she learned how to keep the other eye still and just move her head around.
I caught up with her and took the camp lantern out of her hand.
“That motherfucker,” she said. “We asked him how the hunting was and he said only so-so with his bag full of shells. He could have told us that we wouldn’t find a damn thing.”
“Now we know. Just come a little earlier.”
“Tomorrow. We’ll show him. He can’t do that to us. Let’s come tomorrow, an hour earlier.”
"We have to work tomorrow. We’re closing.”
We both worked at the same restaurant on I-drive, Buffalo Wild Wings. Sometimes I wondered how much longer we could keep doing it. We were both in our early thirties. I waited tables and she was a bartender. It was odd to look over and see her flirting with all the tourists for tips. When things were just starting up and she noticed that I was feeling insecure, she would pull me into a broom closet and give me a little attention. Now, she barely looked over. Near the end of the shift, the workers from Universal and the gift shops and the bungee drops and the go carts and the mini golf came in. It felt like something substantial then, a town within a tourist trap, a secret village of carnies. Marnie changed it for me. I looked at this parade of tattooed losers and thought which one will she leave me for.
Before the accident, she was a princess. She was paid to be a Disney princess, mostly Aurora but in a pinch she could be Belle as well. After she lost the eye, they wanted her to take another job in the park but she wouldn’t. They offered her lots of money to do anything else. Finally it was the kids that did it. They kept asking her about the eye. They wouldn’t enter into the polite fiction that we adults did, that there wasn’t anything in the world wrong her unmoving eye. She just quit one day and I got her this job. Glass eye or not, she wasn’t a waitress. She was the kind of woman that belonged behind a bar.
“Why don’t we just sit here and watch the sunrise?” I asked. I sat down and took off my shoes. She looked at me distrustfully but I had already given up that notion. She sat down and pulled her knees almost to her chin and shivered. There were a few fiddler crabs on the firmer sand between us and the warm lapping waves. They ran sideways, froze, held up their claws, and then in response to some unseen pulse started their sidewise scuttle again.
“Hold this.” I handed her our thermos of warm coffee and she put it in her lap.
“What is he going to do with all those shells?”
“Maybe he has a shop? What do you want to do today? We don’t have to be at work until five?”
“Didn’t you used to live here?”
“A very long time ago.”
Now I was wary. This was Marnie’s kind of thing, driving by all her old houses and schools. It was fun the first time when I was learning everything about her but then we went back a second and third time to some of those places. She would look at me with this beatific expression on her face when we were outside a place as if to say, Now, do you see now?.
I never knew exactly what she wanted of me in those moments. I must have been more patient than some of her old boyfriends. We were both children of divorce. I understood the desire to try to hold on to these things that she had to give up before she was ready. If she wasn’t with me, Marnie was most likely sitting on her Mom’s couch watching TV. The walls of the living room were covered with pictures of Marnie: a life sized picture of her as a baby, the march of time through elementary school, pageants, sports uniforms, a few oil paintings. There wasn’t anything else on the walls. No knick knacks. Not a sunset or a clown juggling or dogs playing poker or even a classy blurred out Monet. Her mom had been beautiful too before she had Marnie. But the woman I knew was overweight and smoked without stop. Which would be fine I suppose, but she was bitter about anyone else being beautiful and thin. We tried to go to Disney World and she couldn’t walk one hundred feet without a coughing fit and needing to take a break and smoke another cigarette. She had this crazy parrot that was always squawking and the TV volume was pitched a few decibels louder than the bird. Marnie would get mad that I wouldn’t go over there and just hang out with them. The few times that I went, I felt buried alive. Mostly they watched soaps and Dr. Phil, and Marnie came home full of homespun wisdom that she would never put into practice. She would tell me that I should spend more time with my mom, that it wasn’t healthy not to talk to her for months at a time. My mom doted on her, even more since the accident. She had told me more than once that she has Grandmother’s old wedding band and how nice it would be for someone to wear it again. I suspected that Marnie called her sometimes and kept it secret from me.
“We are about five minutes away from it.” She took a piece of paper from her back pocket with directions to my old house that she had printed from the internet. She leaned into me, kissed me on the neck, and, very lightly, bit me. The offer was clear. Humor me and I’ll humor you later.
I didn’t need the directions. A few minutes later we were in my old neighborhood. It was still before sunrise and the only things moving were the sprinklers with their nervous chatter. We turned by my elementary school and went down the old block. The house looked exactly the same except it was painted and the lawn looked professionally done, the edging sharp and the tops of the bushes absolutely flat. Dad hated doing the lawn. Our lawn mower was an unloved and uncared for thing. It would only start after about ten minutes of pulling the cord. My parents would fight about the lawn sometimes and while he was pulling the cord Mom would tell him that he should get a new lawn mower and ask him how he thought that little mower was going to cut the foot long grass. To which he would always say it wasn’t a foot long and he was right but not by much. He liked to say, "Don't cremate me. I want to be buried. I want to lay there for eternity and know some poor bastard is up there, cutting my grass."
We didn’t. I called the cemetery myself to find out how often they mowed.
There was a beige Cadillac with gold trim in the driveway. It was about ten years old and in perfect condition. I looked about the neighborhood and all the driveways had large fancy four door American sedans. Nobody was raising children here. It was a neighborhood of retirees.
We stopped in front of the house and I knew that she wanted something from me and worse, it would be cruel of me not to give her it to her. I pointed to the tree and said, “That thing was about the size of a basketball goal when I lived here before. I used to climb into it and read books. Dad tied a rope with knots in it from one of the branches higher up and I used that to climb up and down. When I went up into the tree, I would pull the rope in after me.”
“Do you think it’s still there?”
“No. That was about twenty years ago.”
She started to get out of the car. I tried to pull her back but her arm went slick and eel-like and she kept going. She walked right next to the tree and looked up. Fuck, I thought, scanning the sleeping street for movement and hoping Marnie would be pretty enough to talk us out of any trouble. I made an angry gesture for her to get back into the car but she waved her arm behind her to say leave me alone and maybe a little bit for me to stop being such a pussy. She ducked under the branches and stood right next to the bough so that all I could see were her legs. First one foot and then another disappeared into the tree. Then the leaves moved as she got higher and higher in the tree.
I walked right up to the tree and whisper-yelled, “God damn it, Marnie! Come down. You are going to get us arrested.”
The drapes in the living room window moved. I hoped it was their air conditioner. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to be here. I could have left her there in that tree with her glass eye and her crazy mother and that stupid parrot and the flirting at the bar and the always wanting to have the lights out when we fucked. The car was still running and the door was open like we were robbing a 7-11.
The drapes moved again like whoever was behind them had had enough. My old front door opened and there was an old man in his pajamas and a jacket. He wore a blue navy cap with the numbers of his old ship and his right hand was jammed into his jacket pocket, just like some old Dick Tracy movie. I wished Marnie was out of that tree to explain all this with her blonde hair and big boobs and infinite innocence.
He asked the obvious, “What the fuck are you doing in my yard?”
I wanted to just say that I used to live there but that didn’t really explain why I was there at five in the morning. I couldn’t tell him that it was because my father got bored of my mom or that Marnie was a junkie for the past and that I couldn’t say no to her because she only had one eye.
I turned my hands over so that he could see there was nothing in them and said, “Sorry to wake you up, Sir.”
“What is going on down there?” Marnie asked.
The old man’s hand moved in his jacket pocket and I could tell that he wasn’t sure whether he should keep whatever it was pointed at me or the voice coming down from the tree.
“That’s my girlfriend. I used to live here. She wanted to see my old house and I told her a story about the tree.”
“Are you two on something?”
Before I could answer, Marnie called out, “I found it,” and the rope dropped into view. The sudden movement startled the old man and he pulled the small black gun from his pocket and was pointing it at the rope for a moment and then turned it back on me.
“Sit the fuck down.”
I kneeled in the grass.
“Marnie, keep still. He is pointing a gun at me.”
I looked up at the old man to see if he understood, not just the immediate predicament, but the larger cosmically fucked up problem that I found myself in. His eyes were slits of incomprehension and pent up anger.
“Oh, I don’t know. It is five in the morning, a perfectly good time to call on anybody, and we are on his property, climbing his frigging tree.”
“I hate it when you talk to me like I’m stupid. I shouldn’t even show you what else I found up there.”
“Can she come down?”
“Nice and easy.”
Marnie came down the rope and she was holding a small black trash bag. The old man gestured with the gun for her to move next to me. The sky was getting brighter and the neighbor across the street was on his porch. His hand was jammed in his jacket pocket and he was coming over to see what the first old man had caught. He gave us a wide berth and when he was standing next to the first old man he pulled out his own nearly identical gun. Somewhere off in the distance, I heard a rooster. They had the look of satisfaction that comes from a job well done.
“What do you have here, Sam?’
“I don’t know. Probably just a couple of kids but they are acting a little funny. The girl was up in the tree.”
They looked hard at us to try to figure out what drug we might possibly be on.
“The man says he used to live here.”
“My name is Mike Nystrom and I lived in your house for fifteen years. I went to Xavier Elementary school and then Flagler Middle School. My initials are carved on the tree in the backyard inside the outline of a skull. I drew a picture of the grim reaper on the attic roof. I put an AC/DC sticker on the inside of the fusebox. I buried two dogs and a cat in that backyard under the weeping willow.”
“You had dogs?” Marnie asked.
I ignored her. “I have no idea how I ended up here and I am sincerely sorry for waking you up and the scaring the hell out of everybody.”
The old men put away their guns with some reluctance. The second man asked Marnie, “What’s in the bag?”
“I don’t know; it was tied to the rope.”
Marnie started to untie the knot on the old plastic bag and the whole top of the bag fell off in her hand. The men’s wives had joined them in their floral quilted night gowns. I wondered where those grandmas hid their firearms. Maybe there was a special pocket in the housedresses of this neighborhood. The sun was just above the roof of the house now. She pulled a small pocket knife out of the bag and put it in on the grass and then an ancient box of Fig Newtons, a Hardy Boys mystery and an old Penthouse featuring, of all things, the cheerleaders of the USFL. Marnie gasped with delight and hugged the old magazine against her chest.
“That might be worth something,” the first old man’s wife said.
He squinted at it a second, “Depends on the condition.”
Humiliated, I stood up. Marnie and the grandmothers were paging through the magazine, laughing at the women. My knees were wet. They were all friends now and I was scared that we would be invited in for coffee. I remembered that the last time I was in this yard I was crying while the movers drove off. Dad was already in his new apartment by the beach. I walked back to the car. They were all watching me. I slammed the door and gave an angry burst with the horn.
Marnie ran to the car, still clutching the magazine and said, “I love you.”
She got in and put her hand on my shoulder. Her good eye and bad eye were perfectly aligned. It was the first time that she said it, but I was too angry to say it back. I drove twenty minutes out of our way to avoid seeing any place that I knew. It didn’t work. On an overpass, I was surprised to see the back of Dad’s perfectly manicured cemetery. I didn’t tell Marnie.
About the author:
Jason Primm lives in Brooklyn and works on the casino cruise ship of Manhattan. His work has most recently appeared in Vayavya, burntdistrict, Heron Tree and the Southern Humanities Review. His most prized possession is his slice backhand. He maintains a blog here.