The ocean was black near the shore and farther out a storm was massing in the sky. He sat, looking out over the water, looking up aimlessly at the night from the tiki bar, wondering how it would work out. His arm hurt, and he was ashamed but somewhere inside he was secretly happy he’d beaten his father-in-law at the bar table. The silence between Paul and his wife that night had been as unbearable as the sound of a child that cannot stifle its own cries or be comforted in the middle of the night.
The surf nearly reached the legs of tables and chairs at the beachside bar. The encroaching water sounded against the rocks with hard slaps, lightning broke overhead, thunder followed with a dull, lonesome menace. It was the end of something, the beginning of another path. This was the only way home, if only he’d have seen it. She had left with them hours ago through the rain, heedless of the approaching storm.
“We no have hurricane in long time,” the barman said as he wiped the tables and counter of the sticky remains of rum-cocos and beer. “We never fear them. What will you do, anyway?”
The barman talked on as he slung his dreadlocks over his tawny shoulders, looking out as if he knew what was coming, as if he didn’t believe his own insouciance about hurricanes, his eyes darting toward the horizon as he polished the lacquered countertop.
Paul ordered another beer and sat alone and waited for her to approach him, to love him again, to forgive. He chatted with the longhaired, garrulous barman, listened to him the way we listen when we are listening so generously that it might save us.
“You beat big man tonight, eh?” “Yes.” “Go on a long time, no? I couldn’t believe how long you both held on. Look like he gonna break your arm off. But you won,” he exclaimed. “You won.”
Among a variety of things that had set his wife off was the arm wrestling match he’d drunkenly entered into with her step-father. “Doctor,” as if his Christian name had molted after his residency, stood about six feet nine. He was at ease and confident the way professionals often are. His head was a glass-smooth dome with no hint of stubble. He had rescued the family years ago. The real father had committed suicide years before in a truck with a hose running from the gas to the window. Paul had never met the biological father, but somehow he felt his presence and loved him and when he’d drive past the graveyard back in Flume, MO, he’d tip his hat or say a prayer for him or put flowers on the simple grave. As if his fate was somehow tied to the suicide, Paul hated what had happened to the dead man. He hated that it had occurred, been allowed, perhaps been encouraged.
Veranda had grown close to her mother in the way a promising flower can be choked out by a competing plant, wasting its fragrance by the side of the road. At first, Paul, in his new role as husband encouraged Veranda to forge a bond or just a relationship with her mother who’d been married herself four times. The mother, a nurse practitioner, forensic in all of her talk, had finally married the doctor to whom she often said abusive, vulgar things when she was drunk or down or happy or up or herself or not. One of her stock phrases always shook Paul.
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ, George!” she had screamed poolside a few days earlier after he’d brought the woman the wrong drink. “I asked for Hendrick’s!” Suddenly, the good doctor was merely George, a low, biblical name, a simple tag without status.
Even the rich are sometimes at a loss in this world, and Paul could pity them in his way, looking out at the sea from the hillside villa where they’d arranged to stay in Roatan. From where he stood he could see the madness of the blue of the water, the shores of Honduras faint and gray in the far distance. Paul wondered what might happen (as a thought-experiment) if the Christ appeared and served her the requisite gin and tonic. It was only a thought. The rich are too at home, he thought. They are too comfortable, and this makes them uninteresting. Not even an ocean impresses them, he thought.
When the family left that evening, he stayed back at the villa in order to sneak a cigarette. It had been a long two weeks of furtive drags. Sneaking around like some high school delinquent.
It was after the smoke and looking from the villa in late evening that he’d thought to go down to the bar, down the rock road that lead to the sound of the sea.
The doctor and his wife sat in silence just before the challenge, an offer, a wager that seemed to arise out of spite and boredom. Veranda’s mother suggested that Paul and the ready-to-please Doctor compete in order to find out who was stronger, better. “I mean, who’s the stud, here?” She’d laughed, tossing around her blond hair.
“No way,” Paul answered. “I’ll be crushed.” He was trying to pacify the table. “Give it a fuckin’ try,” his mother-in-law said.
“It’s up to him,” the doctor muttered.
Veranda sat in silence through the debate around the table. She thought the whole thing stupid and suspected her husband would be humiliated again. Like at the college. Where he’d been dropped as an adjunct and grown so angry and self-doubting that he dropkicked their food into Lemp Avenue in St. Louis. This was after Veranda had sulked about the bad news at an Italian restaurant. Paul had always expected more of himself, of everyone. But money was money and, in the end, would dictate the terms.
Doctor and Paul joined hands, bracing their elbows against their left hands. He was prepared to lose, to fail again, and did not care so much about the results. He wished he was back in Missouri, alone.
For twenty minutes he thought his arm would snap. The doctor’s grip was immense, like a glove of iron clamped around his slender hand. It was as if the doctor, his father-in-law, wanted to hurt him, though the doctor was far too benign to justify this low suspicion. Although competitive, the doctor
– and he assumed victory – wanted a good match. His wife looked on with bleary, frustrated eyes, muttering things. (The good doctor, dammit, was supposed to do his job – efficiently.)
He has started too hard, too soon, Paul thought. I will hold on. I will break my own arm if that’s what it takes.
“Get him, George,” the doctor’s wife screamed, her husband relegated to his Christian name again. Veranda looked sullen and detached from the two men locked hand in hand, as if there was an
unspoken love between them. A few stragglers around the beach gathered near the table to watch.
Normally a recluse, Paul fed off of them, because they seemed on the side of youth and on the side of the smaller. The doctor’s arms were those of a lifter, much larger than Paul’s. The ocean sang in the back, and when the thunder roared, he began to move against the doctor, arcing his hand and trying to redeem all of his defeats, the images of his failures, into one true victory.
When he pinned the doctor — it was over. Veranda’s mother muttered something, got up, turned her back on the shabby bar room grapple, and walked away up the hill to the villa. The doctor reluctantly smiled, shook Paul’s hand, and followed her a few minutes later into the dark. His eyes were equine from strain, watery from effort.
“Yes. You won. It’s so stupid.” “I know.”
“What’s the point?”
“He asked me. Your mother asked me too.” “You should have said no.”
“I didn’t,” he said, the secret, shameful feeling of joy inside him for a second.
Veranda followed her family up the hill along the rocks and later was sleeping while he stayed at the bar. The hurricane was coming on. Palm trees lashed back and forth in the wet winds.
“You did beat him. Was that your… father?” “No. My wife’s father.”
“She pretty lady.”
The barman still wiped the counters and was putting away chairs. Paul thought about the villa and going home and how his arm ached. Perhaps he should have refused. It was, after all, stupid. He rubbed his right bicep with his left hand. The water was being struck by hard rain and he was under the roof of the bar. Hours earlier they’d taken photos by the beach. It had been sunnier then. They had been on their first drinks. They had posed for tourist pictures that a local took. Now the barman sang to himself, some song in Spanish, and he was happy and would walk himself home in an hour. Paul had little to no idea where home was, how to find his way back, as the storm increased, as it scoured the island. He said a prayer to the Virgin Mary, a prayer to Jesus, and felt absurd. He prayed for himself, for everyone and everything, rubbing his arm. As he walked in the rain toward the villa, he knew he was going back into defeat, that his victory would be swallowed up, forgotten, even by himself. The rain was cool and munificent. The power was out but the lightning flashes gave enough light to find the way back, and Paul could smell orchids and hear palms gnashing.
He waited outside their door, no beacon light in any window. He could hear Veranda, his new, soon-to-be-late wife, lightly snoring, and he imagined she was dreaming of a new life. He knew that his arm ached and was bruised. In the darkness he knew the ocean was there, out in the distances beyond the vines, beyond the hillocks of grasses, waiting to receive the waters of heaven.
Raphael Maurice is a poet, translator, and teacher. He resides in Washington, MO where the river keeps its secrets.