Monday, September 22, 2008

The Big Lonely, Part Three

“Well – what do you think, Doug?”
     I didn’t know what to say. It was about the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. It must have risen a hundred, a hundred and fifty feet above us, high over the pool of dark water lined by the field of boulders that my beautiful guide had just gone prancing across, with an ease that made my knees ache. Having spent the last two hours trekking through the verdant, lush jungle, we were at the base of Heaven’s Whiskers (each landmark had a seemingly more endearing name than the last), a majestic waterfall that fell from a monolithic slice of volcanic rock, a skyscraping buttress in the middle of the dense foliage, every bit as high as the Three Sons, but mostly hidden from the beach as it was a good four miles inland. Misty had insisted we hike out to it after we’d exhausted ourselves making silly noises inside Big Mouth. I wasn’t sure I was up to it, but had planned to see the real jungle anyway and I was damned if I was going to have my fifty-four year old body let me down now, not after I’d already done so well for myself.
     We’d started off on a fairly tame trail, one marked with cute, carved totems. “Do you know how many German and Australian butts sit on this dude to have their picture taken?” Misty had joked, setting herself down upon one of the posts, contorting her face in an attempt to imitate the carving.
     The trail soon became more challenging, turning into a ribbon of red clay that wound along the jungle-topped cliffs, often bringing us within inches of the plummeting drops, a forest of vine-choked trees now below and above us, ripe bananas and mangos hanging just over our heads. The air smelled of salt and fruit. I watched Misty move along ahead of me, her lithe body making it look effortless. She had changed into a pair of cut-off jeans and an old T-shirt with two big cartoon eyes across her chest. I was doing my best not to stare, but I suppose that was the point, not that she had any interest in being ogled by an old man. We stopped at a little bluff, where the bananas were so ripe they’d fallen to the ground. I stood motionless, quietly finding my breath, staring down across the cascading green landscape, seeing where it touched a thin strip of white, a beach that met the ocean, a breathtaking vista of aqua blue that I followed out, to the horizon, imagining that I had somehow stepped into another world, that the Earth of traffic and smog and lottery tickets was somewhere else, somewhere beyond the stars, spinning in its own busy orbit, leaving Misty and I to play, to venture our paradise like two – well – you know what I mean.
     I was quickly falling in love with my runaway island. Memories of those polluted waters alongside Frank and Catherine’s camp were almost now like a dream. The travel agent hadn’t lied to me after all – I
had come to paradise.
     “Are you OK, Doug?” Misty asked.
     “Sure, just remembering,” I replied, realizing my eyes were tearing. Her voice was so sincere, so unaffected. It sounds silly, I know, but I was beginning to see her as some sort of innocent, a delicate bit of beauty in a poisoned world, something, someone, I felt I would have done anything for, anything to spare her from fate’s cruel, indecisive, indifferent hand. But I caught myself, recalling the beach, the pot-fueled shanties, Tony’s drunken midnight madness, and I realized how foolish, how romantic I was being. I knew I needed to keep my head about me. And my heart.
     “It’s downhill for a good bit now, then we turn inland,” she smiled, looking sympathetic, making me feel older than ever.
     I motioned her on, steeling myself for what lay ahead. Watching her practically skip down the twisting trail, her bare feet playing hopscotch with the rotting fruit, I felt more than cumbersome, looking down at my hiking boots, imagining I must look like Frankenstein’s monster compared to my frolicsome guide. When she’d kicked off her flip-flops back at camp, telling me they were no good for hiking, I thought she was going to produce hiking shoes of her own. When she ran ahead, barefoot, I thought she was insane and had to quell a sudden urge to excuse myself from the odyssey. I was now wishing I’d brought something lighter to wear.
     We soon found ourselves on level ground, cutting through waist-high clusters of pale green grass that sprung up from the sand about our feet. Stepping over a stream, I noticed a small wooden sign.
Surfers beware, read its hand-written warning, this beach can kill. Under this were hatch marks. I counted seven. Catching up to Misty, I caught my breath. “That sign by the stream,” I breathed, “Is it true?”
     She nodded. “Nobody surfs here, not even the crazies.”
     I decided not to ask who the “crazies” might be.
     We were now at the edge of an isolated portion of beach, the white strip I’d looked down upon from on high. The sand here was even whiter than anywhere on the island. The beach abruptly ended a hundred feet or so to the north of us, where great rocky cliffs rose up to meet the jungle, these being mere steps to the dizzying formations beyond, great, jagged fortresses of black, a natural wall holding back the ocean. Misty had jogged over to the cliffs and was pointing to something, urging me over. I trudged across the pristine sand, feeling I was desecrating it with my hi-tech hiking gear. “Nephella,” she said, directing my eyes to great webs stretched across the rock, only inches above our heads. I thought she was referring to the silky, dew-spotted strands until I saw the first of many large spiders, golden patterns decorating their grape-sized bodies. “See the faces, Doug?”
     “Wow, they
do look like faces, don’t they? Like masks almost,” I replied, staring at the designs, the gold seeming to stand out in relief, as if it had been applied to their bodies. “What did you call them?”
     “Nephella,” she replied, smiling. “That’s their scientific name. Most people just call them shield spiders, because the faces look like paintings on old shields.”
     “How do you know all of this?” I asked, giving her a sideways glance.
     “My father taught biology at the school before he got addicted,” she explained, matter-of-factly. I thought about his enthusiasm for the flattened bullfrogs and it all made sense.
     “They’re beautiful,” I said, almost adding “like you”, but stopping myself, knowing it wasn’t wise. “This is about the most
private “private beach” I think I’ve ever been on,” I declared, turning to survey the virgin setting, seeing no sign of others anywhere, not even marks on the sand.
     Misty smirked. “Oh, it gets used, for parties and stuff,” she said, already making her way back towards the tall grasses and the edge of the jungle. “The tide wipes it clean every day.”
     “Oh,” I replied, feeling my age about me like chains.
     We were soon making our way through what seemed to be uncharted territory, soaring trees rising on all sides of us, dotted with big, white flowers and clusters of red and purple buds, bristly vines running from one to the other, creating a roof that splintered the sun, giving some marginal relief from the heat. I was going to be surprised if I didn’t lose at least five pounds by the end of it all. Not that I couldn’t stand to lose them.
     “This looks a lot like
The Mushroom People!” I called out, but Misty didn’t hear, she was now quite far ahead of me.
     I carried on, letting the sweat run my face and neck, my mind drifting, back to the front room of the house where I grew up, a secluded cottage craftsman in Corte Madera, just north of San Francisco.
     I was just a boy, no more than six or seven, camped before the television set, the tiny black and white with the rabbit ears and the big ball of foil my mother had attached, so we could get channel seven, the channel that featured Thriller Bill, host of “my most favorite program in the whole world”,
Monster Masterpieces.
     “Are you wearing your glasses, Douglas Robinson?”
     “Yes!” I lied, not taking my eyes from the flickering screen, seated only inches from it, so close the tiny, blonde hairs on my knees stood out, charged with static electricity.
Good evening, thriller fans,” announced the host, poised between cardboard pillars, wearing a stiff, indigo blue tuxedo that was noticeably small. His hair was a shiny helmet of black curls, his upper lip hidden beneath a great, furry moustache. “Tonight we take you to the mysterious waters of the South Pacific and an uncharted isle where under every footstep waits unimaginable horror, the jungle floor lined with the terrifying spores of an alien army bent on the very destruction of the human race!”
     “Douglas Robinson! Turn that thing
down, it’s bad for your ears that loud! At once, young man, I’m listening!”
     “Yes!” I hollered, staying right where I was, utterly transfixed.
     “Sit back and prepare yourselves for tonight’s feature presentation –
The Mushroom People!” declared Thriller Bill, backing into the darkness between the pillars, where a plastic chair and a Styrofoam cup of lukewarm coffee awaited him. An eerie flourish of distorted electric organ blared from the set as a swirling white shape appeared, spinning faster and faster, making me blink.
     “Douglas Robinson?”
     The shape had become a mushroom, an evil-looking giant white spore that hovered in the center of the black screen as the psychedelic organ faded and a soft violin began to play, ushering in pale typography that floated underneath the now-pulsing mushroom.
     “Douglas Robinson, why do you do these things to me?”
     There was a sudden loud noise and then I heard my mother cry out. I turned to see her laying in the entrance to the room, sprawled upon the tile floor, one of her little white bottles rolling from her hand. It was a sight I had seen before, too many times, a numbing tableau played out again and again, ever since father had driven his car into a tree, only a mile from home.
     “Welcome to Paradise Island, Doctor Fielding – I trust your journey was a pleasant one?”
     “Yes, yes,
excellent – thank you.”
     I turned back to the television, trembling, afraid to move, wishing that God had never planted that old tree by the baseball field.
     I looked up and saw Misty. She was standing in the dark pool of water at the base of the great, towering falls, up to her waist, the cartoon eyeballs on her T-shirt clinging to her high breasts, leaving little to be imagined.
     “Aren’t you coming in? It’s really refreshing.”
     “Welcome to Paradise Island,” I said, grinning as I collapsed on a big rock. I first removed my fanny pack, which held my valuables, my wallet, eyeglasses, and one return ticket. I then worked at the laces on my hiking boots, sweat running down my forearms, pooling between my fingers, making it difficult. I heard a splash and looked up to see Misty swimming straight towards where the falls hit the water. Shaking off my heavy boots and damp socks I inspected my pale, ugly feet, all red about the toenails, speckled with dark bits of cotton. I stood up, wincing at the feel of the rough stone, contemplating removing my hiking shorts, thinking better of it. I carefully trod down to where the dark pool met the boulders and slipped my sore feet into the cool water, instantly feeling relief.
     “Come on, Doug!” cried Misty. She was now directly before the rushing ribbon of white. She looked so tiny, so vulnerable. I grimaced her way, afraid for her, suddenly doubting myself, my ability to even swim. “You have to experience this – you
really do! C’mon!”
     “We arrived from the far reaches of outer space,” I narrated, letting myself down into the water, up to my waist, taking a deep breath. “Transported on the spores shed by our mother planet, we journeyed to your planet, seeking a host species to continue our one-mighty civilization.” Misty had now disappeared behind the curtain of falling water. I placed my feet on a firm rock and pushed off, moving out into the ebony pool with surprising ease. It was like no other water I’d ever felt. It snaked about my arms and legs, velvety and soft, offering no resistance. I closed my eyes, shifting about to recline on my back, something I’d always enjoyed as a boy. I watched my reddened toes break the surface. “Yes, Doctor Fielding, we need humans to nurture our young – you and your kind are to be the fields of our future harvest, your blood and organs will offer adequate protein to ensure the propagation of a
million new mushroom people!”
     It was Misty, she’d come up behind me, as silent as smoke. I laughed at myself, blushing quickly, turning over to face her. “I can’t believe how soothing it is in here,” I said.
     “You’ve got a thing for these “Mushroom People”, don’t you?” she giggled. I couldn’t help but notice how her shirt had billowed up under her arms. I could make out the dark of her nipples below the surface.
     “I told you – it was my
favorite movie!” I laughed, closing my eyes, dipping my head into the water, shaking off like a dog as I came up.
     “What State were you born in, Doug?”
     She sent a handful of water straight at my face. “Be
serious, Doug! I want to know!”
     Wiping at my eyes, recovering, I gave her a steady look. “Why do you have interest in an old guy like me?“ I asked. I needed to understand her. I’d followed her deep into the jungle. I wasn’t normally so trusting of people I didn’t know.
     She smiled, pulling down with her shirt, but it refused to cooperate. I turned away discreetly, not wanting her to know I’d noticed. “Why do I have to have a why?” she said, giving up on the shirt.
     I shrugged, the best one can while up to one’s neck in water. “It doesn’t usually happen to me, that’s all,” I replied, feeling a bit silly for having even asked the question, even though it had been at the center of my thoughts since early that morning.
     “What, people being friendly?” she asked, swimming to one side, her long bronze legs catching the sun hitting the surface of the pool.
     I grinned. “I guess,” I offered, wishing I’d kept it to myself. She was clearly a different sort of creature than those I was accustomed to. She was free, fresh, her motives seemed without suspicion, without consideration, she seemed to simply enjoy my company, showing of her island. Why was I having such a hard time accepting this? I had to let go of my deliberations or I was going to ruin what was turning out to be the most enjoyable day I’d had in a very, very long time. “New Jersey,” I said, cutting through the water with my arms, my eyes following her as she headed towards the center of the pool. “Lambertville. A quaint, pretty, rustic place, lots of older artists and writers lived there, still do. We lived on a small farm.”
     “Your dad was a farmer?”
     I laughed. “No, he wasn’t a farmer, he was a photographer.”
     “For like newspapers?”
     “Uh, well, sometimes, sure – he did lots of different kinds of photography,” I replied, not needing to explain that he was primarily what they called a “cheesecake” photographer, working with half-dressed models for a variety of tawdry men’s magazines. My mother was one of these models. They’d met on the job.
     “He’s dead now?”
     “Yes, he died when I was just a boy, in fact,” I offered, surprising myself with the ease of my candor. I felt a cool spray on my face and suddenly realized I’d followed her almost to the bottom of the falls. I then turned about to see that I’d actually entered the falls themselves. I couldn’t believe it. What looked like a forceful vertical river from a distance was in reality nothing more than a saturating mist, like a showerhead set to fine. It was beautiful. I looked straight up, seeing white shapes drifting about the falls far above me, herons, their wings catching the updraft, letting them spiral the mighty rope of bubbles. I moved through the shower, seeing Misty on the other side, pressed up against the black, shining walls of the cliff, smiling at me with those huge eyes, her long dark hair like seaweed about her round face. I hesitated, staring at her, not quite believing I was still alive.
     “Come here, Doug,” she said softly, blinking. I felt myself gliding through the wet air, towards her. She reached out and caught my shirt, pulling me close enough to lean her chin forward, her young lips touching mine, leaving me with the most gentle kiss I’ve ever known.

     I stared at the spray, mesmerized at how the sun was cutting through it, reflecting back upon itself.
     “I used to know another Doug. He was busted for selling on Proper Island.”
     It was as if the sunlight had been captured in a thousand tiny glass tubes.
     “If we’re going to hike into the jungle we’d better get going,” Misty explained. “The later it gets the more chance there is of a rainstorm and the trail gets too slippery then.”
     A thousand glowing tendrils strung across the mouth of the cave.
     I turned to see her, my young new friend, standing in the dim of Big Mouth, looking anxious. “It’s unpredictable this time of the year,” she stressed.
     I smiled, shaking the strands of my intoxicating daydream away, almost blushing when her eyes caught mine. “Right! Let’s go then. Maybe we can even make it to the falls.”
     Misty shook her head, moving past me. “Not the season for that, Doug. Heaven’s Whiskers lies at the end of a river valley which can flood out in half an hour if the rains come.” I watched her pass through the sparkling curtain, tasting my own lips, my heart aching.

I was sitting inside my tent, lacing up my hiking boots when I heard the scream. I scurried out the open flap to see Misty and a lean, muscular young man, standing before a weathered grey VW Bus, a jolly roger strung across the cracked rear windshield.
     “I just wanna say goodbye, Tony, that’s all,” Misty declared, lowering her voice as they both turned to see me peering out of my tent, hanging there like a cuckoo sprung from its clock. The young man shook his head, pulling her close, moving his mouth along her neck. “Ton-ee!” she screamed again, this time with less conviction. A moment later they were both inside the van.
     I backed into my tent, not looking their way. I lay there, my eyes closed, listening to the sound of the wounded engine starting up and suddenly felt very alone. “Welcome to The Big Lonely” I sighed, recalling a conversation I’d had with Frank two days earlier, how he’d asked me if I’d had the “big lonely” yet, telling me that every visitor to the island gets it, even those enshrined within the service comforts of the Ramada. “You’ll know it when it hits you – it’s more lonely than any other lonely,” he’d explained.
     I lay there, listening to the breeze pestering the tent flap and the regular crashing of the surf, straining for the noise of the departing van, but it was gone, headed for who knows where. I let the sudden loneliness wrap itself about me, a swelling sense of desperation, a feeling of never again knowing another human being. It wasn’t new to me. I had to smile at my fate. I’d been a companion of the Big Lonely most of my life, no surprise for a man raised by a woman who’d given up on her own.
     Shaking off the melancholy, I stuffed my pockets with a few of the energy bars I’d picked up on Proper Island and slipped on my fanny pack, placing an unopened bottled water into the holder against my right hip. A few minutes later I was making my way into the shade of the jungle, having located the entrance to the trail. I hiked at a steady pace, every step taking me further from the loneliness of the beach. On and on I marched, the trail getting redder as I went, twisting up and up, soon heading along the magnificent steep cliffs that raced down into the unnaturally blue ocean. I didn’t stop until I came to the first valley, where a thin strip of pale sand lay exposed to the water. Here I found a tiny stream that seemed to run right underneath the beach. Following it with my eyes back into the jungle I could see that it gradually widened. Wiping the clinging perspiration from my face with a bandana I’d tied about my head, I began to follow the softly running water, busy trying to keep the image of Misty from my mind, of her brown body shining in that dark, cool pond. I soon came to a point where the terrain rose up steeply before me, impossible for an old man like me to climb. The only way to continue was across the stream, which was now a good seven or eight feet wide. I stood on the bank, measuring the depth, noticing the peculiar orange and red pattern below the surface. It was as if a thousand goldfish had settled there, coiling themselves into glistening balls. Knowing that wet boots and socks wouldn’t benefit a long hike, I nevertheless left them on. I raced across the stream, reaching the other side, charging through a patch of thick ferns to find out just what the orange and red had been. The jungle floor was literally covered in fallen mangoes. As I stepped towards them a tangle of fruit flies filled the air, so thick they swarmed my nose and eyes and throat. Gasping, I hurried around the rotting field, spitting frantically, my eyes tearing. A few moments later, I was still blowing my nose, continuing on through the thickening veldt. Looking down at my feet I’d begun to notice little flashes of brilliant green, like fleeting embers escaping a campfire. I then saw what they were, tiny lizards, no bigger than my thumb, scurrying from under the leaves as I approached, keeping just a few steps ahead of me. I moved on, my eyes to the ground, mesmerized by this fascinating display, until I smacked right into a low-hanging branch, making me shout out in surprise. Listening to my voice echo along the jungle valley, disappearing without a reply, I had to fight back the unbearable loneliness all over again.
     I don’t know how long I’d trekked before I came upon the thick stand of bamboo, blocking my way, stretching a good twenty feet around. I began to circle it, until I came to where a few shoots had been broken to the dirt, creating an entranceway. Relishing the shade within, I entered, adjusting my eyes to the dimness, which was splintered by knives of brilliant sunlight. I soon realized that the thick shoots all about me were decorated with intricate marks, as if they had been carved. My eyes now used to the light, I moved in close to inspect one, imagining ancient symbols, or even an alphabet long ago abandoned by Three Sons’ original inhabitants. “Alice loves blowjob,” I read out loud, blinking, not quite believing it, quickly scanning the poles all about me, finding more of the same, nothing that would have seemed out of place in any public restroom, except for the last one I came to, scratched within a big, lopsided heart. “Prince Frank loves Catherine the Great. Forever.” I then noticed the dirt at my feet was littered with bits of torn condom packets and the shriveled, used sheaths themselves. I suddenly wanted to be anywhere else.
     Bolting from the disguised party shelter, I charged back down towards the stream, not even slowing down as I stampeded through the fury of fruit flies, striding across the river like a man half my age.
     Paradise had revealed its ugly side once again; the stagnant, polluted beach waters along the homeless camp seemed only a moment away; the sad, wrecked look in Frank’s eyes hovered before me, making a mockery of the lush greens and blues, the fragrant flowers hanging pregnant with blossom in the trees above me. I raced on and on, my clothing drenched with sweat, my eyes stinging with the salt.

It was near dark when I made it to my tent. The beach dwellers were keeping to themselves again, hardly a sole was in sight.
     Though I’d promised myself I wouldn’t, I searched Misty’s camp hopefully, seeing no sign of her having returned.
     Tired beyond belief, my arms and legs covered in scratches, my eyes still red from the flies, I crawled into my tent, zipped up the flap and fell fast asleep, not even bothering to remove the uneaten energy bars in my pockets.

I woke to the rising sun, an orange ball glowing through my tent.
     I’d slept heavily and felt surprisingly good considering.
     Having no desire to remain where I was, I made short work of taking down and packing and was soon fastening the strap of my pack about my waist, giving the lazy beach settlement one last look over, before making my way to where the road ended (or began, as it were). Not expecting to find a ride so early in the morning, I started trudging back along the way I’d arrived two days earlier, when I’d still been full of expectation, imagining the jungle paradise I’d first seen as a child, on that unreliable old black and white television.
     I was glad I’d ventured on by myself, glad I’d seen what little I did, even if it had been spoiled, for I felt a certain sense of having completed a task forty years in the waiting.
     At long last, I’d walked with the Mushroom People.
     Transported on the spores shed by our mother planet, we journeyed to your planet, seeking a host species to continue our once-mighty civilization.
     “Farwell, Paradise Island,” I sighed, taking one last look back, to where the dark road slipped quietly into the lush wall of green.
     I’d only been walking twenty minutes when I came upon a van parked alongside the skinny road, blocking a good third of the tarmac. An elderly native man wearing a straw hat looked up as I approached, from where he’d been leaning against the front of the vehicle, reading a newspaper. He eyed me cautiously, before offering a curious smile. “You a hippie?” he grinned, shaking his head slowly.
     “Not a hippie,” I smiled. “Too old for that sort of thing.”
     “You need a ride?” he asked. I read the side of the van.
Sam’s Fresh Fish Tacos.
     “Yes, yes I do,” I replied, enthusiastically, hardly believing my luck.
     “I go to the Magic Mart,” he offered, folding the newspaper on his knee. “That far enough?”
     “Plenty,” I said, not having any idea where the Magic Mart was.
     The older man tossed his newspaper in through the doorless driver’s side and motioned for me to get in. I jogged around the van and quickly removed my pack, setting it before the passenger seat, sliding in myself, taking the newspaper as I did.
“Murders, births, and sex,” remarked the taco man, glancing at the paper, which I know held against my knees. “We got that too on the Sons, just not so much maybe,” he grinned, a silver filling in his mouth catching the sun coming in through the scratched Plexiglas windshield.
     I laughed softly, opening the paper. It was the previous morning’s edition of the Proper Island Gazette. There, at the bottom of the front page, was a small headline:
California Jackpot Winner On Island.
     “You from mainland?” my new driver asked, starting the engine, shifting gears, making a sound that made me clench the seat cushion, wishing there was a door at my side.
     “Uh, yes – I am,” I offered, suddenly feeling quite exposed. I folded the newspaper again, quickly sliding it into the gap between us.
     “My brother is in Tennessee. He makes chickens for fast food. Which state you from?”
     “Philadelphia,” I lied. “Pennsylvania.”
     The elderly man chuckled, tapping the steering wheel, the noisy van now rumbling along at an uncomfortable speed. “The City of Brotherly Love – in The Keystone State,” he declared, proudly, flashing me another big grin.
     “Very good,” I said. “That’s more than many American’s would know.”
     He touched his bronzed temple. “I read.”
     “And you
remember,” I said, instinctively pushing the paper further down between the seats.
     “I have an island brain,” he smiled, looking ahead. “It’s small maybe, but it keeps good track of itself.” A rooster suddenly ran into the road, from seemingly nowhere. We didn’t slow down at all. There was a soft sound underneath my feet and I looked out the van to see a receding trail of dark orange feathers.
     “Magic Mart,” I breathed, now holding the seat with both hands. “Magic Mart will be perfect.”

The Magic Mart Grocery and Bait Shop was situated next to another of the large, roadside shrines. Much like the first one I’d encountered, it too was festooned with a bounty of fruits, and vegetables, and flowers. Walking up to it, I tilted my head, seeing the rather impish grin on its oval face, how its hands came together just below its chin, forming a pyramid, thumb to thumb, fingers to fingers. I stood there for a moment, in its shadow, feeling the pleasant morning breeze at my back. Instinctively slipping my hand deep into my pocket I felt one of the energy bars from my jungle hike. Pulling it out, I saw it was crushed, but the wrapper was still intact. “Peach and Granola,” I thought, dropping it amongst the ripe offerings about the pedestal of the shrine. “The price of a safe ride to the Magic Mart.”

I was only two miles from the airport and it wasn’t quite eight o’clock.
     I was happy to be traveling before the day’s heat set in. The road after the Magic Mart was sparsely populated, offering little sign of life, apart from an occasional rusty mailbox attached to a pole, at the foot of a winding path that seemed to lead to nowhere, or a hubcap set against the base of a tree. It wasn’t long before I came upon one of Frank’s “decorative bulls”, splayed across the black road, looking more like a starfish than a frog. It was a relatively fresh kill, its skin still glistened, a rose-pink tongue lay uncoiled from its torn mouth. I began to search the sandy edge of the road for another, my eyes following the dry brown grass until I noticed a group of colorful objects assembled in the grass. I then saw another and another. Walking towards them, I realized they were pauper’s graves, like those I’d seen during my inaugural day on the island. I knelt before the first. Scrawled on a wooden cross, secured with wire and string, were the simple initials D.F., followed by 72-97. About the cross was an assortment of rubber dinosaurs, a red plastic keychain from the Ramada Inn, and a broken pink dinner plate. Some cheap costume jewelry dangled from one end of the cross. I ventured further into the thrift store cemetery, spellbound by the unexpected intimacy of the sad little memorials.
     The next featured a Frisbee, a leather cat collar complete with silver bells, and the top half of a Ken doll, positioned at the base of the wooden cross. It would have been a fallen crucifix, slipped from its cross, but Ken’s arms don’t bend that way. Painted on the cross, in all capital letters, was WAVE-MAN, GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN. I noticed a plastic rose had been placed inside the Frisbee.
     The third was a bit more elaborate, the cross having been set on a stage of red bricks, surrounded by shells and bits of sea glass, the green and brown remnants of bottles washed ashore, plus a Pennsylvania State license plate, leaning at the base of a crude wooden cross. I could see that it was the newest grave of the three, the loose red earth about the stones indicated it just how new it was. There was only one other item of decoration left at this one, a plastic toy airplane, hung by its hollow underbelly atop the cross, like a coat on a hook. It was bright orange and white. On the tailfin was a patch of dry glue, where a decal had obviously been. The cross itself was blank, which I took to be another sign of how fresh it was. I stood back, taking it in, wondering what new offerings it might acquire with time, the detritus of the buried. “We go on collecting, even when we’re dead,” I thought, half-smiling, beginning to back away from the grave, when a thought suddenly struck me. I made my way around to the other side and there on the opposite tailfin of the toy plane was a tiny Pan-Am logo.

That evening, I pressed back into my seat on the shaky commuter plane to Proper Island, wondering if I really had witnessed the grave of Catherine the Great, knowing all too well that I’d more than likely never know, for my time on Three Sons was over.
     As I’d sworn to myself that afternoon I’d hung my Gone Fishin’ sign back in Echo Park, I was never going to return, not to anywhere, ever again.
     Outside my little window was nothing but blue, ocean as far as I could see. My thoughts drifted to the image of those blood-stained rooster feathers, scattering across my mind like vapor. “Your seat belt, please, sir,” came a sudden voice.
     I looked up to see a young woman, no more than twenty-five, offering me a professional smile. Grinning sheepishly, I secured myself, watching her making her way down the narrow cabin aisle. Pressing back into my seat, I closed my eyes, imagining Catherine’s wheelchair, sitting vacant on that spoiled stretch of beach. I then saw Misty, smiling to me from behind the curtain of the rushing falls, and I began to cry.

The End   ©2008 Jeremy W. Eaton