Monday, September 8, 2008

The Big Lonely, Part One

Catherine seemed to be about fifty years old, but it was hard to say, the way she sat, draped over herself, a wilted flower, her wizened limbs peeking like spilled cutlery from under her brown blanket.
     When we first met, she was introduced as “Catherine the Great”, a comment that sent chuckles about the small fire pitched in the middle of a sparse grove of palms shaped like an open hand, against which the grinning faces of her friends were silhouetted, all frogs and toads and troglodytes in the dim, flickering flame.
     Catherine wasn’t fit enough, or well enough, to move herself. No one, other than Frank, her husband, ever bothered to walk her out along the tarmac road leading to the neglected stretch of public beach that her social circle called home. The wheels of her wheelchair were locked tight with rust and sand, the rubber tires, long since having gone brittle, were all but absent from the rims. It was in this weathered throne that Catherine Hammond resided, half-asleep, half-gone, drooling at the mouth, pupils searching the undersides of her lids. She was clearly the matriarch of the group, the eleven or so mostly middle-aged homeless citizens of Three Son Island, a tiny American territory in the lower South Pacific, a prehistoric junkyard I had been deceived into believing was some select tropical paradise.
     Three Son Island was discovered in 1843, by an Australian slave trading ship. History has it that the island was given its name after the three sons of the slave who rousted his fellows after the vessel had struck a reef only a few meters from the isle. Forming a small, but formidable, mutiny party, the father, along with his sons, and perhaps ten others, including a pregnant girl, separated their chains from the ruptured moorings in the hull, rising up through splintered gaps in the deck, quickly overcoming the wounded and dazed crew. Killing them all, in a desperate bid for freedom, the slaves took all they could of the ship’s provisions, struggling with them through the waist-high water to the thin beach of ashtray sand. Returning again and again, they grabbed all they could, even stripping away wood and iron, until the gravely-injured vessel slipped from its resting spot on the jagged reef and dropped into the ocean, the deck going under as it rolled over into the brilliant blue.
     It was the ancestors of these original settlers who mostly populated the island, mixed with a late century influx of Pacific Islanders, who had come from other territories in the French Philippines to work when Three Son’s natural salt beds became a point of interest to international trading companies.
     Barely thirty miles in circumference, the island was serviced by a single paved road, which traversed three quarters of its coast, the remaining fourth being home to towering cliffs that cut right into the ocean, offering no beach or safe place for boats. Here grew a thick, jungle-strewn sanctuary of banana and mango trees, bamboo, and choking vines, punctured by three red points, clay hills that rose up through the dense green canopy like a box of sharpened pencils. These were the apparent inspiration for the island’s naming, the founding slave declaring the spirits had left them as foretelling of his sons becoming kings of the new nation.
     On a thin peninsula of land, at the southeast corner sat Three Sons Airport, where a rickety and truncated runway had been laid, with a surface that made the moon look smooth. The tiny airport itself was mostly situated outdoors. The check-in desk was regularly buffeted by the wind, often carrying tickets towards the landing strip. A frantic island girl could usually be seen rushing after them in her neatly-pressed uniform.

It was here that I had come, some two weeks before, wanting to get as far away from the mainland as I could.
     The twin-propeller plane I’d taken from Proper Island, a larger isle to the north, under territorial jurisdiction of the French, had canvas windows, which snapped shut. The one by my seat, having popped two of its snaps, was flapping like a trapped bird, forcing me to hold it shut throughout the forty-minute flight. The company that operated this once-daily excursion also oversaw bicycle and moped rentals on Three Sons, the rental shop of which I was looking for when I first ran into Catherine’s husband.
     Frank Candlemaker was a native, his blood African, Pacific Island, and Native American. His great-great grandmother had supposedly been the daughter of one of the original three kings and he liked being referred to as “Prince Frank”, a title he asked be taken with a certain solemnity and respect, unlike that of his invalid paramour.
     Frank had a surprisingly high voice, which I mistook for that of a young girl the first time I heard it, busily making my way down the dirt thoroughfare of a fleeting rash of pre-World War II development on the south western tip of the island, a bizarre approximation of a small town middle America that the locals called Bijoux, after the long-vacant, but still standing movie theater where thousands of American servicemen and women had passed their time during the long days of the war’s Pacific theater. On my tourist map the town was listed as Leavestown, a name nearly as literal as Bijoux.
     At one time, from the late sixties, right up until 1992, when a ferocious hurricane hit the island, leaving much of it in ruins, Bijoux had been a thriving stretch of bohemia, peopled by American and European refugees of the cultural wars, societal dropouts with the prerequisite grey hair and pony tails. What little was left of that now, a vegetarian cafĂ© and an art gallery that posted no hours, was depressingly situated in the middle of general disrepair and ruin, many buildings still having open walls, looking like the backs of doll houses.
     As I made my way towards a small rack of primary-colored bicycles that advertised the rental shop, I suddenly heard Frank’s high-pitched voice, coming from across the street, in the shadow of the derelict Bijoux itself.
     “Hey! Mister! You’re interested in decorative bulls?” it called, taking my attention from an exposed child’s bedroom, still partly papered with Dennis the Menace wallpaper. I looked across the all-but deserted street, seeing a figure standing under the faded marquee. “You’re interested in bulls?” it called again, a body now crossing the road towards me, entering the bright sunlight, revealing its short, barrel-shape torso and head, with a face that appeared to have been whittled, great gorges and lines crawling across the cheeks and about its yellow, jaundiced eyes. I shrugged, confused by the odd question. “See?” Frank furthered, passing a flat object before my eyes. “Bullfrog – perfectly preserved in two dimensions!” he claimed, with a cartoonish grin.
     “You found this on the
island?” I asked, feeling quite ignorant.
     Frank laughed, this too like that of a young girl. “Where
not can I find these?” he said. “You are walking the highway in the morning, between Salt Face and the Ramada, you’ll fill a basket. It’s the tourist bus, it flattens them to the road,” he added, placing the frog across my hands. It felt like a dried bean husk and was almost as light. It had apparently been hit mid-jump, it’s long limbs outstretched, a leathery coil hanging from its open mouth, which I had to presume was its tongue. It wore a mocking, winking expression, one mottled eye still in its socket. Seeing its delicate backbone, jutting up through a long fissure on its back, I imagined it would probably rattle like a maraca if I were to shake it.
     “Don’t they get eaten by birds?” I inquired, feeling less intelligent with each question.
     “Chickens don’t eat
frog!” Frank responded, with another peel of playground laughter. “They’re poisonous to its digestive tract.”
     “Sure!” he grinned again, taking back the cardboard amphibian, putting one foot upon what remained of a low concrete wall that quickly disintegrated into a patch of lusty-looking nettles. “We’ve got a chicken problem on Three Sons, sir,” he began to explain, shaking his head sorrowfully, the grin softening.
     I looked surprised. “Is that the odd sound I heard this morning, when I awoke on the beach at Salt Face? A chicken? A 
     Frank laughed again, making half an attempt at dancing like a chicken for my amusement. “Three Sons has three
thousand chickens!” he declared. “They climb trees and knock down unripe fruit! They shit in our gutters! They are a nuisance, but we are not allowed to kill them – not yet, anyway.”
     I was still confused. “They’re not indigenous? Where do they come from?”
     He rolled his eyes.
Foolish tourist. “Nothing comes from Three Sons, sir, everything here arrived on the wind. We are a shipwreck people,” he stated, a slight twinkle to his eye. “The chickens, the bullfrogs, the goats, the pigs, my ancestors, they were all brought here from somewhere else.” Just then a thin, striped cat dashed between us, disappearing into a gap in the crumbling wall.
     “The cats too?” I asked.
     “Feral,” he replied, looking at the frog. He held it up again. “You’re interested in decorative bulls?” he asked anew, suddenly seeming to have forgotten the thread of our conversation. “They look great in the basement or game room!”

I ran across Frank, and Catherine, more than once over the next few days, mostly at the horseshoe-shaped beach on the eastern side of the island, the unloved public area boarding an inlet of fetid, milky-white still water, its oily surface dotted with bits of floating garbage. This spot had been their home for almost two years, Frank had explained one evening, after I’d accidentally stumbled upon the camp.
     “Mostly locals use this beach,” he told me, shoving an overripe mango past a neglected scattering of grayish teeth and red, angry-looking gums. He pulled another, brown and dimpled, from his pant’s pocket, holding it towards me.
     “No thanks,” I declined, smiling, my eyes searching the little camp, seeing the hammocks slung between listing palms, the corrugated metal sheets that provided shelter from the constant wind, the tireless AMC Pacer that was home to Alice, the eldest of the little colony of homeless individuals, whose body was racked with bedsores and rickets, who lived her days, sprawled across the front seats of the abandoned car, talking to herself. I noticed Catherine’s wheelchair, sitting vacant beside a smoldering campfire. I was shocked not to see her in it. “Catherine?” I almost gasped, motioning to the chair, fearing the worst. He just laughed, patting me on the arm.
     “Not to worry, mister,” he smiled, his motley teeth full of mango. He pointed behind me. “She’s in the lavatory!”
     I turned, seeing a portable toilet, sandwiched between two trees. “Oh!” I blushed. “I didn’t see that on the way in. Aren’t the bathrooms at the building working?” I was referring to the public house located at the entrance to the beach, the concrete bunker where a group of listless teenagers sat about, looking bored with life.
     “Backed-up,” replied Frank, taking a small penknife to the fruit I’d declined, surprising me by actually cutting away part he deemed too gone to eat. “Bad plumbing. The park system ignores us mostly. We’re lucky they brought the replacement.”
     “I guess it makes it easier for Catherine, being so close.”
     He made a face, rolling his eyes, his cheek bulging with mango. “She’s been in there almost half an hour – she’s reading her
Rolling Stone.”
     I offered him a surprised look. “The magazine?”
     He nodded, belching, wiping his mouth. “I got her a subscription for her birthday. It’s always been her favorite. She once met Robert Plant of the Led Zeppelin, you know.”
     “Really? When she was working for the airline?”
     He nodded again, digging his hands deep into his pockets, spreading his stance, pushing the air with his thick chest, glancing the way of the portable toilet. A knocking sound was coming from the door. He cleared his throat and began to head towards it, turning back to look at me as he did. “Says Robert Plant tried to woo her, but she didn’t go with the rock star – she’s too fragile for that kind of life. She needs a man like me – a man who isn’t going anywhere.”

The next time I saw Frank, he was with Catherine, pushing her across the street in what appeared to be a wheelbarrow. They were leaving the Three Sons Clinic, which was housed in the same modest stucco building as the Three Sons Post Office, which doubled as a shaved ice stand. Frank had explained that Catherine suffered from numerous maladies, not the least of which was a pancreatic cancer that was quickly killing her. All the doctor could offer were pain killers, heavy sedatives, which were mostly to account for her somnambulistic state. Seeing me, Frank held up his hand. “Mister!” he shrieked. “Hello! It’s Prince Frank!”
     “Hi there – we meet again!” I called out, making my way across the hot, black road, which the locals simply called “the highway”. Tugging on my backpack, decorated like a washing line with the laundry I was airing, I squinted into the sun, seeing the body in the barrow. I thought for sure Catherine’s time had really come, but, as I neared, I saw her weak smile, heard the cooing sounds she was making. “Greetings, Prince Frank, Catherine the Great,” I announced, offering Frank a little smile, whose head was now hung low. He didn’t look very happy.
     “She’s getting weaker the doctor says,” he almost whispered, setting the wheelbarrow down on its haunches. “I will soon be saying goodbye to her.” I tried to convince him that, as a territory of the United States, residents of Three Sons must be entitled to some sort of assistance. Perhaps the Red Cross could procure the appropriate chemotherapy? He just shook his head. “No, no, mister, you just don’t understand – it is too late for that. Besides, we are gypsies. No government will help us.”
     Catherine lifted her head. “Who did you bring for me, Frank?” she asked, her voice dry and crackling.
     “It’s the pleasant gentleman, sweetheart.
Remember? The one who thought the chickens would gobble up the frogs?” Catherine giggled, her body shifting under her old blanket. She was slumped backwards in the wheelbarrow, her bare, red-marked legs spread between the handles, offering me a better view of her ravaged body than I’d wished to see. I must have blushed, my embarrassment noticeable, even under my heated, perspiring face. “We’re only teasing you, mister.” Frank offered. He seemed comfortable calling me mister.
     I’d not given my name to a soul since the girl at the airport gate and didn’t intend to. I wasn’t sure if my story had made the papers on Proper Island and didn’t want to chance being discovered. It had been hard enough getting to the airport and on a plane back on the mainland, and that was before they’d disclosed the full amount of my winnings. “Oh, I know,” I assured, wiping at my brow. “How are you feeling, Catherine?” I asked, leaning around Frank, catching her faraway smile. “Frank tells me you’re a Pennsylvania girl. I have family in Pennsylvania.” She gurgled in response.
     Catherine Hammond was not a native of Three Sons. She’d first come to the island in the early 70s, as a stewardess for Pan-Am. She’d been given a week’s layover vacation on Proper Island and had climbed aboard the same twin-propeller I’d traveled in, coming to Three Sons at the request of a hippie friend who was living in a teepee on what the natives called “Burnout Beach”. Frank had told me they’d met about a campfire. They’d gotten high, they’d talked into the morning, they’d “made love” on the white sand and had fallen asleep in each other’s arms. “Thinking like we’d never leave each other again,” Frank had sighed. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to Catherine having to catch her flight on Proper Island the next day or if he was thinking of the disease that had forced him to wheel her, like a bag of bananas, to the doctor. It was almost five years before they saw each other again. By that time she was working for the government, in an administration building in Washington, D.C., acting as assistant to America’s regional “ambassador of territorial claim” in the South Pacific, a position she had gotten purely through chance, happily saying goodbye to her years of jetting about the world. Little had she known, when she’d nervously shaken President Jimmy Carter’s hand at the swearing-in ceremony for new employees, that she’d promptly be asked to accompany the ambassador on a five-territory junket. Initially, upon her return to the mainland, she and Frank had written each other with devotion, rarely missing a week, but then she met a nice man in her department and her answers to Frank’s long, heartfelt and funny letters began to grow further apart. He knew something had changed, but she refused to explain. They eventually stopped communicating, the dream of living together, like a new “Adam and Eve”, on their own island, became nothing but a bitter joke to Frank. His heart badly broken, he swore to “never fall for another woman who came in on the wind” and quickly married an island girl named Misty and had three children, all of whom he loved, but more out of duty than any true feeling of the heart. When he saw Catherine, all those years later, striding across the pavement at the tiny Ramada Inn situated next to the airport, her dark hair bundled upon her head, looking so smart in her glasses, holding her briefcase, he knew he could not return to his family in good conscience.
     At first, Catherine resisted his advances, ignoring his every entreaty.
     On the island for a full week, she kept to the ambassador’s schedule and the hotel swimming pool, locked in the world of the privileged tourist. Frank almost gave up, thinking it was because she did not want to see him, but it was quite the opposite.
     She had begun imagining a reunion weeks before she’d left Washington, the memories of that blissful night on the beach, of all the amazing things they’d shared in their letters, coming back, filling every moment she hadn’t been diligently preparing for her first expedition as a representative of the United States. But, seeing him again, looking as fit, as pleasantly thick, as the day they’d met, she’d instantly shut down her feelings, terrified of jeopardizing her new career. Hiding within the walls of the hotel, she was desperately trying to save herself, knowing what she was denying her heart.
     “Where are you coming from?” Frank inquired, peering quizzically at my pack, the clothes-pegged shirts and underwear flapping in the hot breeze.
     “Salt Face,” I replied, snapping out of my reverie, blinking, feeling the effects of the blazing morning sun. I gestured back down the dark ribbon of tarmac I’d been making my way along all morning, since breaking camp.
     Frank looked suspicious. “You still at the beach? Why aren’t you at the Ramada?” When we’d met, three days earlier, I’d told him I was going to camp at Salt Face and he’d laughed, softly mocking me for wanting to “go native”, but now he looked genuinely upset to hear I was still here. “What’s wrong with our Ramada?” he pressed, sounding offended. “It’s not good enough for you?” 
     “Oh, no, it’s not that, it’s, well – I prefer being outdoors,” I tried to explain, recalling the amazing events of that morning.
     I’d woken to the chorus of rooster calls and the hissing of feral cats scampering about the beach, watching the silhouettes of giant cockroaches scurrying all over the outside of my tent. Making my way to where the white sand met the pristine blue water, I’d begun my regular fifteen minutes of stretching, walking right into the ocean, which was as warm as a bath. I’d not felt so natural, so aware of simply being alive, in years.
     Swimming casually out into the mild little harbor, I let my mind drift, back to the previous week and the announcement of the largest ever single-player win in the California State Lottery and the subsequent discrepancy in the tabulating process that caused my name to be made public. I was, in a matter of hours, living the nightmare I’d often imagined all big winners must face, old friends and forgotten acquaintances suddenly arriving on my doorstep, tracking me on the internet, filling my mailbox with all sorts of bizarre and desperate messages. Making matters worse, my face and name had been all over the local news only two weeks before, when I’d stumbled across a mugging and had intervened without really thinking, rescuing the elderly man’s wallet and chasing the young mugger right into the hands of the arriving police. They tagged me “Good Samaritan of the Week”, a title I tried my best to disavow. Only thirteen days later it was revealed that I was the holder of the biggest lottery windfall in state history. I was quickly deemed a blessed man, one whom complete strangers felt would be all too composed to share his God-given grace and prosperity. I was offered no peace, no respite from the public awareness of my fortune. One of my neighbors, endlessly pestered by his wife to ask me for a loan, was arrested for hitting her with a broom. Another, so distraught that I’d not answered his calls, drove his car into the dry canal, breaking both arms.
     I had no choice but to flee the growing madness.
     Packing all of my valuables in three boxes, placing them in storage, I left a little sign on my Echo Park bungalow door that read: Gone Fishin’, and slumped low in the back of my taxi, all the way to LAX.
     Grinning, remembering the nervous cab driver thinking I was having a heart attack, I felt my body floating in that tepid, salt water bath, feeling blessed.
     It was as if I’d woken to find myself in an old Disney cartoon, reality, and all my troubles, suddenly far behind me. Settling on my back, letting my toes break the surface, I was looking straight up into the fibrous white clouds that stretched across the china blue sky, catching the tops of the palms swaying gently along the beach.
     I was in paradise, I decided, choosing to forget the poverty I’d encountered on the trek to Salt Face, the dirt-poor farm trailers and the pauper’s graves along the road, many decorated with plastic toys and jewelry and US license plates, the purpose of which I’d meant to ask Frank about.
     It was then that I heard a loud, forceful grunting sound, and a violent splashing, only a foot or two behind me. Twirling about frantically, I came face-to-face with a monster, its head easily the size of a large wastepaper basket, its eyes hidden behind heavy, shiny lids, set above great loose jowls peppered with thick, black bristles that sparkled in the sun.
     Freezing, unable to take my gaze from what I believed was the face of death, my mind built horror upon horror. I could almost feel the bulk of the creature striking me, burying me beneath the surface, devouring me like a sardine.
     Then, all-at-once, it gave off another mighty snort, creating a stench like I’d never experienced, making my eyes water, blinding me momentarily. In that instance it was gone, slipping down into the deep blue below. Desperately swimming ashore, I half believed I was missing a hand or a foot.
     “You danced with a sea cow!” Frank laughed, upon hearing my story, giving his wife’s sneakered foot a shake. “I hope you didn’t try to
milk it!”
     I grinned, thoroughly embarrassed, wishing I’d kept the encounter to myself.

     To Be Continued