“Twenty-ﬁve years ago,” he said, “back in ’80, there were two kids who took the six-thirty ferry to school instead of the seven-thirty. They were on the Bayview Consolidated High School Track Team, and they were also boy and girl-friend. Once winter was over—and it doesn’t ever last as long here on the coast as it does inland—they’d run cross-island, down along Hammock Beach to the main road, then on to Bay Street and the town dock. Do you see it, Stefﬁ?”
She did. She saw the romance of it, as well. What she didn’t see was what the “boy and girlfriend” did when they got to the Tinnock side of the reach. She knew that Moose-Look’s dozen or so high-school-age kids almost always took the seven-thirty ferry, giving the ferryman—either Herbie Gosslin or Marcy Lagasse—their passes so they could be recorded with quick winks of the old laser-gun on the bar codes. Then, on the Tinnock side, a schoolbus would be waiting to take them the three miles to BCHS. She asked if the runners waited for the bus and Dave shook his head, smiling.
“Nawp, ran that side, too,” he said. “Not holdin hands, but might as well have been; always side by side, Johnny Gravlin and Nancy Arnault. For a couple of years they were all but inseparable.”
Stephanie sat up straighter in her chair. The John Gravlin she knew was Moose-Lookit Island’s mayor, a gregarious man with a good word for everyone and an eye on the state senate in Augusta. His hairline was receding, his belly expanding. She tried to imagine him doing the greyhound thing—two miles a day on the island side of the reach, three more on the mainland side—and couldn’t manage it.
“Ain’t makin much progress with it, are ya, dear?” Vince asked.
“No,” she admitted.
“Well, that’s because you see Johnny Gravlin the soccer player, miler, Friday night practical joker and Saturday lover as Mayor John Gravlin, who happens to be the only political hop-toad in a small island pond. He goes up and down Bay Street shaking hands and grinning with that gold tooth flashing off to one side in his mouth, got a good word for everyone he meets, never forgets a name or which man drives a Ford pickup and which one is still getting along with his Dad’s old International Harvester. He’s a caricature right out of an old nineteen-forties movie about small-town hoop-de-doo politics and he’s such a hick he don’t even know it. He’s got one jump left in him—hop, toad, hop—and once he gets to that Augusta lilypad he’ll either be wise enough to stop or he’ll try another hop and end up getting squashed.”
“That is so cynical,” Stephanie said, not without youth’s admiration for the trait.
Vince shrugged his bony shoulders. “Hey, I’m a stereo-type myself, dearie, only my movie’s the one where the newspaper feller with the arm-garters on his shirt and the eyeshade on his forread gets to yell out ‘Stop the presses!’ in the last reel. My point is that Johnny was a different creature in those days—slim as a quill pen and quick as quicksilver. You would have called him a god, almost, except for those unfortunate buck teeth, which he has since had ﬁxed.
“And she…in those skimpy little red shorts she wore… she was indeed a goddess.” He paused. “As so many girls of seventeen surely are.”
“Get your mind out of the gutter,” Dave told him. Vince looked surprised. “Ain’t,” he said. “Ain’t a bit. It’s in the clouds.”
“If you say so,” Dave said, “and I will admit she was a looker, all right. And an inch or two taller than Johnny, which may be why they broke up in the spring of their senior year. But back in ’80 they were hot and heavy, and every day they’d run for the ferry on this side and then up Bayview Hill to the high school on the Tinnock side. There were bets on when Nancy would catch pregnant by him, but she never did; either he was awful polite or she was awful careful.” He paused. “Or hell, maybe they were just a little more sophisticated than most island kids back then.”
“He’s a caricature right out of an old nineteen-forties movie about small-town hoop-de-doo politics and he’s such a hick he don’t even know it.”
“I think it might’ve been the running,” Vince said judiciously.
Stephanie said, “Back on message, please, both of you,” and the men laughed.
“On message,” Dave said, “there came a morning in the spring of 1980—April, it would have been—when they spied a man sitting out on Hammock Beach. You know, just on the outskirts of the village.”
Stephanie knew it well. Hammock Beach was a lovely spot, if a little overpopulated with summer people. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like after Labor Day, although she would get a chance to see; her internship ran through the 5th of October.
“Well, not exactly sitting,” Dave amended. “Half-sprawling was how they both put it later on. He was up against one of those litter baskets, don’t you know, and their bases are planted down in the sand to keep em from blowing away in a strong wind, but the man’s weight had settled back against this one until the can was…” Dave held his hand up to the vertical, then tilted it.
“Until it was like the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” Stefﬁ said.
“You got it exactly. Also, he wa’ant hardly dressed for early mornin, with the thermometer readin maybe forty-two degrees and a fresh breeze off the water makin it feel more like thirty-two. He was wearin nice gray slacks and a white shirt. Loafers on his feet. No coat. No gloves.
“The youngsters didn’t even discuss it. They just ran over to see if he was okay, and right away they knew he wasn’t. Johnny said later that he knew the man was dead as soon as he saw his face and Nancy said the same thing, but of course they didn’t want to admit it—would you? Without making sure?”
“No,” Stephanie said.
“He was just sittin there (well…half-sprawlin there) with one hand in his lap and the other—the right one—lying on the sand. His face was waxy-white except for small purple patches on each cheek. His eyes were closed and Nancy said the lids were bluish. His lips also had a blue cast to them, and his neck, she said, had a kind of puffy look to it. His hair was sandy blond, cut short but not so short that a little of it couldn’t flutter on his forehead when the wind blew, which it did pretty much constant.
“Nancy says, ‘Mister, are you asleep? If you’re asleep, you better wake up.’
“Johnny Gravlin says, ‘He’s not asleep, Nancy, and he’s not unconscious, either. He’s not breathing.’
“She said later she knew that, she’d seen it, but she didn’t want to believe it. Accourse not, poor kid. So she says, ‘Maybe he is. Maybe he is asleep. You can’t always tell when a person’s breathing. Shake him, Johnny, see if he won’t wake up.’
“Johnny didn’t want to, but he also didn’t want to look like a chicken in front of his girlfriend, so he reached down—he had to steel himself to do it, he told me that years later after we’d had a couple of drinks down at the Breakers—and shook the guy’s shoulder. He said he knew for sure when he grabbed hold, because it didn’t feel like a real shoulder at all under there but like a carving of one. But he shook it all the same and said, ‘Wake up, mister, wake up and—’ He was gonna say die right but thought that wouldn’t sound so good under the circumstances (thinkin a little bit like a politician even back then, maybe) and changed it to ‘—and smell the coffee!’
“He shook twice. First time, nothing happened. Second time, the guy’s head fell over on his left shoulder—Johnny had been shakin the right one—and the guy slid off the litter basket that’d been holding him up and went down on his side. His head thumped on the sand. Nancy screamed and ran back to the road, fast as she could…which was fast, I can tell you. If she hadn’t’ve stopped there, Johnny probably would’ve had to chase her all the way down to the end of Bay Street, and, I dunno, maybe right out to the end of Dock A. But she did stop and he caught up to her and put his arm around her and said he was never so glad to feel live flesh underneath his arm. He told me he’s never forgotten how it felt to grip that dead man’s shoulder, and how it felt like wood under that white shirt.”
“But he shook it all the same and said, ‘Wake up, mister, wake up and—’ He was gonna say die right but thought that wouldn’t sound so good under the circumstances . . . and changed it to ‘—and smell the coffee!’”
Dave stopped abruptly, and stood up. “I want a Coca-Cola out of the fridge,” he said. “My throat’s dry, and this is a long story. Anyone else want one?”
It turned out they all did, and since Stephanie was the one being entertained—if that was the word—she went after the drinks. When she came back, both of the old men were at the porch rail, looking out at the reach and the mainland on the far side. She joined them there, setting the old tin tray down on the wide rail and passing the drinks around.
“Where was I?” Dave asked, after he’d had a long sip of his.
“You know perfectly well where you were,” Vince said. “At the part where our future mayor and Nancy Arnault, who’s God knows where—probably California, the good ones always seem to ﬁnish up about as far from the Island as they can go without needing a passport—had found the Colorado Kid dead on Hammock Beach.”
“Ayuh. Well, John was for the two of em runnin right to the nearest phone, which would have been the one outside the Public Library, and callin George Wournos, who was the Moose-Look constable in those days (long since gone to his reward, dear—ticker). Nancy had no problem with that, but she wanted Johnny to set ‘the man’ up again ﬁrst. That’s what she called him: ‘the man.’ Never ‘the dead man’ or ‘the body,’ always ‘the man.’
“Johnny says, ‘I don’t think the police like you to move them, Nan.’
“Nancy says, ‘You already moved him, I just want you to put him back where he was.’
“And he says, ‘I only did it because you told me to.’
“To which she answers, ‘Please, Johnny, I can’t bear to look at him that way and I can’t bear to think of him that way.’ Then she starts to cry, which of course seals the deal, and he goes back to where the body was, still bent at the waist like it was sitting but now with its left cheek lying on the sand.
“Johnny told me that night at the Breakers that he never could have done what she wanted if she hadn’t been right there watchin him and countin on him to do it, and you know, I believe that’s so. For a woman a man will do many things that he’d turn his back on in an instant when alone; things he’d back away from, nine times out of ten, even when drunk and with a bunch of his friends egging him on. Johnny said the closer he got to that man lying in the sand—only lying there with his knees up, like he was sitting in an invisible chair—the more sure he was that those closed eyes were going to open and the man was going to make a snatch at him. Knowing that the man was dead didn’t take that feeling away, Johnny said, but only made it worse. Still, in the end he got there, and he steeled himself, and he put his hands on those wooden shoulders, and he sat the man back up again with his back against that leaning litter basket. He said he got it in his mind that the litter basket was going to fall over and make a bang, and when it did he’d scream. But the basket didn’t fall and he didn’t scream. I am convinced in my heart, Stefﬁ, that we poor humans are wired up to always think the worst is gonna happen because it so rarely does. Then what’s only lousy seems okay—almost good, in fact—and we can cope just ﬁne.”
“For a woman a man will do many things that he’d turn his back on in an instant when alone; things he’d back away from, nine times out of ten, even when drunk and with a bunch of his friends egging him on.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Oh yes, ma’am! In any case, Johnny started away, then saw a pack of cigarettes that had fallen out on the sand. And because the worst was over and it was only lousy, he was able to pick em up—even reminding himself to tell George Wournos what he’d done in case the State Police checked for ﬁngerprints and found his on the cellophane—and put em back in the breast pocket of the dead man’s white shirt. Then he went back to where Nancy was standing, hugging herself in her BCHS warmup jacket and dancing from foot to foot, probably cold in those skimpy shorts she was wearing. Although it was more than the cold she was feeling, accourse.
“In any case, she wasn’t cold for long, because they ran down to the Public Library then, and I’ll bet if anyone had had a stopwatch on em, it would have shown a record time for the half-mile, or close to it. Nancy had lots of quarters in the little change purse she carried in her warmup, and she was the one who called George Wournos, who was just then gettin dressed for work—he owned the Western Auto, which is now where the church ladies hold their bazaars.”
Stephanie, who had covered several for Arts ’N Things, nodded.
“George asked her if she was sure the man was dead, and Nancy said yes. Then he asked her to put Johnny on, and he asked Johnny the same question. Johnny also said yes. He said he’d shaken the man and that he was stiff as a board. He told George about how the man had fallen over, and the cigarettes falling out of his pocket, and how he’d put em back in, thinking George might give him hell for that, but he never did. Nobody ever did. Not much like a mystery show on TV, was it?”
“Not so far,” Stephanie said, thinking it did remind her just a teensy bit of a Murder, She Wrote episode she’d seen once. Only given the conversation which had prompted this story, she didn’t think any Angela Lansbury ﬁgures would be showing up to solve the mystery…although someone must have made some progress, Stephanie thought. Enough, at least, to know where the dead man had come from.
“George told Johnny that he and Nancy should hurry on back to the beach and wait for him,” Dave said. “Told em to make sure no one else went close. Johnny said okay. George said, ‘If you miss the seven-thirty ferry, John, I’ll write you and your lady-friend an excuse-note.’ Johnny said that was the last thing in the world he was worried about. Then he and Nancy Arnault went back up there to Hammock Beach, only jogging instead of all-out runnin this time.”
Stephanie could understand that. From Hammock Beach to the edge of Moosie Village was downhill. Going the other way would have been a tougher run, especially when what you had to run on was mostly spent adrenaline.
“George Wournos, meanwhile,” Vince said, “called Doc Robinson, over on Beach Lane.” He paused, smiling remembrance. Or maybe just for effect. “Then he called me.”