Chapter Three: Dinner Party

I gave up on work for the afternoon—the deadline was blown so badly now that one day couldn’t make a difference—and took a shower, hoping to scrub away some of the anxieties about Pops. I dressed, pulling an old sweatshirt over my head, then swiped steam away from the mirror and sighed. I could put a little more effort into my appearance. I opened the old pine wardrobe in the corner of the bathroom and dug out a hand-knitted sweater, one I’d purchased at the farmers’ market last year when the first real royalty check had come in on the first book, and a pair of pants that, if not dressy, were not riddled with holes or covered in paint. My half-packed luggage sat in the guest bedroom, and I retrieved the bag of makeup that Billie had helped me buy on a previous ill-conceived trip to New York. I tried the tiniest bit of lipstick and a pair of earrings that matched the sweater then stood back from the mirror. Better. My mother’s features only loosely assembled with Pops’ green eyes and serious expression. Neither one thing or the other. It would never be good, but with the lipstick, it was better.

I returned to the front of the house to heat the soup and check the bread. Pierre hopped up from his place by the fire, eager for dinner, and I picked him up for a quick snuggle. “Bonjour, mon ami.” When Pops had brought me a puppy for my fourteenth birthday, I’d been studying French in school. I practiced the language on my new little friend, a habit I never dreamt would go on for so many years or lead where it had, with a picture book series and now, apparently, the possibility of an animated film. I snuggled him close while he licked the side of my face. “Tu as faim, petite chien?” I filled his bowl and was just pulling hot loaves of bread from the oven when boots thumped down the steps from the parking area on the slope above the house.

Seabiscuit, his bulk taking up the whole side window, waved from the stairs, then turned to speak with someone on the higher steps. Tess, his girlfriend—though it seemed odd to call anyone in her early seventies a girlfriend—made her way down the last few steps more slowly, though she waved away his hand when he offered it. They rounded the house to the sliding door and kicked the frost off their feet. Never ones to come empty-handed to dinner, Biscuit held up a pie box from Gaffer’s, and Tess carried a basket that experience told me would be full of something tasty. He opened the door, admitting a blast of cold, snow, and the smell of the sea. Pierre looked up from finishing his dinner and ran to greet him.

“Baby girl! I hardly recognized you!” He placed the pie on the counter and shrugged out of an oilcloth fisherman’s jacket big enough to use as a sail, then pulled off his red knit cap, letting thick silver dreadlocks fall like ropes across his shoulders. His dark cheeks had reddened in the cold above the long walrus-tufts of his mustache. “Bet you’ll feel right at home with those Hollywood types.”

I rolled my eyes at him.

“Seriously, you look nice, Chel. That cut’s a good one for you. Shoulda done that a long time ago. Now . . . don’t get all shy on me. Use it while ya got it, I say!”

“Hi, Tess.” I ignored him and took Tess’ coat. “Come on in. How do you put up with this bullshit artist?”

She shook her head. “Most days it’s hard, girl. I tell you. But I think he’s right this time. My meter is at . . .” She paused, put a finger in the air as if reading the wind. “Zero. Believe it or not.”

I blushed. Any compliment from Tess Joseph was worth keeping, as she did not hand them out easy.

Tess was a recent addition to our little family, part of Biscuit’s AA posse. I didn’t know her well or know the exact nature of her relationship with Biscuit, only that she’d been around the cove a few times for dinner, and that more often than not lately Biscuit’s truck was missing from the parking lot at nightfall. She was a bit of a local celebrity, a heavy-set Haida woman who had worked as a lawyer before retiring to Huna Island to write murder mysteries. Her main character, Jenny Seaweed, was an up-island bartender who solved cold cases of missing indigenous women on the side, always with a heavy dose of vigilante justice. I had three of her books on my shelves.

I offered Tess some tea, and she took a stool at the big kitchen counter while I busied myself with dinner. Biscuit reached in front of me to take plates and bowls from the cupboard, giving my shoulder a quick squeeze as he passed. “You all ready for the big shindig in the city? The movie gonna happen?”

 “A movie!” said Tess. “I just heard about this on the way over. Chel, that’s fantastic. I’ve been at this publishing thing for years, and a movie’s never been part of it.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” I said. “It’s just a meeting. It would be nice, though. I’ve got to keep my Huna boys maintained in the style to which they are accustomed.” I gestured grandly at my ramshackle cabin and the boats out on the water.

“Damn straight!” Biscuit chuckled, setting dining ware out on the counter with practiced familiarity—the guys had been eating with me weekly since I’d moved back to the island after college.

“Well, don’t get your hopes up. If I don’t get this current book done, nothing’s going to happen.”

“How far behind are you?”

“Two weeks.”

“Ah, but Chel . . . that kinda money is—”

“Yeah, I am aware. It just . . . it just doesn’t change how I feel about it.” I changed the subject. “Look. I’m glad you’re here early. Both of you, actually. You seen Pops lately?”

“Just once or twice. You know how he is. Always skittering in a million directions. Everything OK?”

“I think . . .” I buttered slices of bread and put them in the oven. “Well, I suspect that he’s drinking again. And he hurt his right arm, was evasive about it.”

“How do you know? I mean, Chel, it’s been fourteen years.”

“He didn’t get up this morning. And I could smell it on him when I went out there to check.”

Biscuit sighed, slumped onto one of the stools, shaking his head. “Goddammit.”

“Did something set him off? Anything I don’t know about?”

“Not that I know of but . . .” He shrugged sheepishly at Tess. “I been a little distracted lately.”

Tess, sitting next to him, patted his knee.

“I don’t get it.” I said. “Why now, after all these years?”

“He’s a tough one to figure, your old man. But you know, after he  . . .” Biscuit paused, scratched his beard with a meaty hand. “Well . . . what he did. You know, it woulda killed a normal guy. So . . .” He cleared his throat. “If he’s a few screws short, from time to time, I’m not gonna fault him.”

A few screws short. They all danced so carefully around Pops’ mental state, never said out loud what others on the island surely did sometimes, or used to: batshit crazy.

“What are you talking about, Matthew?” Tess always called Biscuit by his real name, and hearing it startled me every time. “What did he do?”

“What Hardly . . . Well, it’s not mine to tell anyway. I will tell you that me and Longbone, and Renny too, we wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for Hardly. He saved us from a nasty situation. In ‘Nam. And he did it at . . .” He glanced at me, then back at Tess, shifted in his seat. “At great personal sacrifice to himself. Enough to drive any man off his nut for good. That’s all I’ve got to say about it. It’s no reason to kill yourself with booze, it goes without sayin’, but I sure as hell understand the impulse.”

I had always wondered at Biscuit and Longbone’s loyalty to Pops, despite how difficult he could be, and was surprised by this nugget of information, so easily pried out by Tess, when all my questions over the years had produced only silence. But then I supposed I’d always be a little girl to Biscuit, while Tess was a peer.

“Well, regardless, he needs to cut it out,” I said. “Can you help me—”

Footsteps shuffled up the stairs from the beach, and Pops and Longbone appeared at the door, so I cut it short. Pops had dressed head-to-toe in fatigues, had combed his hair and scraped a razor across his cheek. My heart skipped a beat at the sight of him.

“Why’re you all tarted up like that?” Pops snapped at me. “You are outta regs, Private.”

He nodded briskly, then marched to the back of the house with an olive-green duffel—his laundry—slung over one shoulder. I blew out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.

Dressing in uniform and sporting a clean shave wouldn’t be worthy of notice on anyone else, but for those of us who knew Pops, knew how he had been years before, the change awakened a nauseous anxiety. This military persona was one he used to take on after a bender: a harsh, angry disciplinarian personality that was meant, I suppose, to impose order on his internal chaos, but mostly just offended everyone around him. He’d taken my request to heart, it seemed, but I did not welcome the reappearance of these whip snap personality changes.

“Longbone!” I whispered. “Did something happen when I was gone?”

Longbone smiled at me, but it was a furtive, apologetic kind of smile, and he merely shrugged. He patted my arm and offered two long parcels wrapped in wax paper and twine. I didn’t need to ask. I knew what they would be: cooked crab legs and smoked salmon, most likely illegal.

“Thanks, Bone.” I exchanged the gifts for a hot cup of tea, which he took in gnarled hands, nodding his gratitude.

“Don’t worry, Chel.” Biscuit whispered in my ear. “I’ll talk to him. Tomorrow, after this passes.”

With Pops in a state, conversation at dinner was sparse. Biscuit tried to ask about the Vancouver trip, but I wasn’t up for offering details, Longbone never spoke anyway, and Tess was too new to make waves. My stomach was in knots. In childhood, I’d been accustomed to Pops’ mercurial moods, but I’d grown complacent after fourteen years of calm, and this was an extreme shift from just hours before. I watched as he fumbled at the soup spoon with his left hand. Still no mention of what had happened to his arm.

Biscuit, between loud slurps of soup from the other men, did his best keep conversation going, if only for Tess’ sake. “Saw in the paper, ’nother one of those feet washed up in White Rock yesterday.” The mystery had been all over the papers for several years: unclaimed and unmatched human feet—fifteen now, in total—had washed up on beaches from the States all the way up to the Gold Coast. “Good start for one of your books, Tess.”

Pops scowled and straightened in his chair. “Some idiot threw himself overboard. What’s that to do with us?”

So much for conversation.

I remembered the red marble and got up to retrieve it from my coat pocket.

“Speaking of things washing up, look what I found on the beach this morning.”

I offered it to Pops, who blinked without recognition, so I set it on the table in front of him.

“What’s that?” He took another sip of soup, spoon clanking on his teeth.

“I think . . . I think I might have had some red marbles once. Didn’t you tell me a story about that?”

Biscuit chuckled. “Who could forget? Folks were changin’ their skivvies here to Victoria the night you lost those. Your first night here. What a racket.”

“I kind of remember something about that, but not really,” I said.

“They belonged to your mom. To Martha. Or that’s what we figured out at the time.”

“Funny. I don’t remember. But I don’t remember much from when I was a kid.”

Pops’ eyes flashed a momentary desperation before he focused on the marble with a hard stare. “Where’d you find it?”

“Just below the house here.” I answered. “Can you believe it?”

“Hell of a storm.” Biscuit offered. “Churned up all kinds of junk.”

Pops reached for a piece of bread with his left hand and tore at it with his teeth. The way he chewed—each muscle outlined on his lean jaw—told me he was no longer with us, and my heart clenched. I snatched the marble back from the table and put it in my pocket. Longbone reached out a scarred hand and set it lightly on Pops’ arm, but his eyes flashed a warning that belied the gentleness of the gesture, and something—I couldn’t tell what—passed between them. Pops took a deep breath, staring up the ceiling, then breathed out, seeming to deflate, the anger leaving him, replaced by an expression of sadness.

“Yeah, I never saw those marbles,” Pops said. “You’d flung ’em overboard before I got to you. But they were your mom’s. I’m glad you found ‘em. You should have some things of hers. She was a good woman, Martha.”

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A.G. Bennett lives with her wife and family of elderly four-footeds in the woods of Wisconsin. She has worked on a crab tender off the Pribilof Islands, as a Hardee’s line cook, a dishwasher, a waitress, a roofer, and as a glorified toilet cleaner in a ranger’s uniform. She has published several children’s picture books under another name.

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