On Blue Cove
BUDDY JONES SAT ON THE EDGE OF THE BED straining to hear the distant music. Maybe that song was trying to tell him something, but it was impossible, there in the bedroom, to make out the words. To get to the door of the cabin, though, he'd have to cross through the tiny living area and kitchen. And that's where Luann was.
He turned, hesitated a moment, and then walked over to the window. The sash was already up to let in the morning breeze, so all he had to do was unlatch the screen, push it out, then climb through and ease himself down to the ground.
Buddy stood at the edge of Blue Cove, the waters washing across the rocky shingle at his feet. The sun was newly risen above the trees on the east, and Lake Hamilton, stretching beyond the narrow neck of the cove, was a sheet of blinding light.
The music wasn't coming from one of the cabins but from the other side of the cove, where split-level brick summer homes saddled the hill and three-story A-frames rose like pyramids of glass among the tall pines. The singer--a woman, he thought, but he wasn't certain--was singing a low, guttural, bluesy song. Even here, though, Buddy could not hear the words.
Suddenly he felt cold. He looked down. The water was lapping over his feet. Jesus, he was barefoot! Buddy lurched back out of the water as if it were roiling with snakes. He turned and walked quickly up the grassy slope and onto the front porch of the cabin.
He froze when his hand touched the door knob. He stood there for a moment, and then turned and ran off the porch, which was now marked by nine wet footprints, each one quite distinct against the unpainted wood planks.
Buddy sat at one of the four tables crammed into the rear of the combination office, baitshop, and general store that comprised the only amenities offered by Blue Cove Resort, other than the small children's play area and even smaller boat and fishing dock. A coffee-maker and column of Styrofoam cups stood on a rickety card table in the corner, the acrid odor of cheap coffee competing with the smell of grease from the fried chicken in the glass case up front. Did the store ever sell any of the chicken? The mound under the heating lamp seemed undiminished from four days ago when Buddy and Luann had checked in to the resort.
Buddy raised his cup and drank, realizing too late that the coffee was scalding. For a desperate moment he held it in his mouth before he finally managed to swallow.
“Ho-o-o-o,” he breathed out through the circle of his lips.
“Ha. Hot, ain't it? If this was a McDonald's, we could sue 'em and make money on the deal.”
Buddy pulled his bare feet under his chair. He hadn't realized there was a man sitting to his left, not five feet from him. Had he been there when Buddy came in a few minutes ago? Buddy shook his head in wonder at how things got by him anymore, how he couldn't seem to keep his concentration. It was a dangerous way to live.
The man continued to smile at Buddy like they were old friends. He did look familiar--balding on top but with thick gray mutton-chop sideburns, a faded Arkansas Razorbacks T-shirt stretched over his beer-belly. Probably they'd exchanged small-talk at the resort and Buddy'd just forgotten.
Buddy said, “Going to be a hot one today, looks like.” That was a safe thing to say.
“August, ain't it? That's why I was up at the crack of dawn when them fish is hungry for some breakfast. I already caught two bass, one of them a keeper. What've you been up to?”
Buddy held the coffee cup against the table with both hands.
“Been into it with my wife,” he said.
The man nodded and smiled sympathetically. “Yeah, we all been there. . . . Well, guess I better go see if Esther has that bass cleaned yet. You keep your woman occupied so she ain't got time to get in trouble and you do all right. Y'all take care, now.”
Buddy watched the man rise, stuff his coffee cup and honey-bun wrapper into the trash receptacle, and walk toward the front of the store. Buddy tried to fix the man's face in his mind so that if he had to give an accounting of this day, he'd be able to say, yes, this is the man I spoke to in the store. He caught two bass, one a keeper.
Buddy took a careful sip of coffee. It was cool enough to drink now. He drank the coffee.
Buddy stood outside the cabin looking up at the bedroom window. It had been easy coming out, but getting back in was another story. Reaching up, he could just get his fingers in under the loosened screen and grasp the window ledge. He felt tired and weak, as if he'd just recovered from a terrible illness, and he wasn't sure he had the strength to pull himself up through the window.
He took a deep breath and gave it a try, heaving himself up with his arms and scrambling at the side of the cabin with his feet. He managed to get his head level with the window sill, and he hung there a moment, toes digging for purchase on the wall, but it was no good. He dropped back to the ground and looked furtively at the surrounding cabins.
“You're making a damn fool of yourself,” he said, then laughed in spite of himself. Looking like a fool was hardly his biggest problem at the moment.
“Better get back inside before someone sees you talking to yourself,” he said, and then, quickly, before he could talk himself out of it, walked around the cabin, up onto the porch, and through the front door. He closed the door, took one look, then bent over and put his hands on his knees like a runner who'd just finished a grueling race. Finished and lost.
Luann was where he'd left her last night, sitting slumped over face-down on the kitchen table, palms flat on either side of her head. She looked like she was paying obeisance to Buddy, who returned it in his own peculiar way, bent over with hands on knees.
“Oh, Jesus,” he said.
The butcher knife stood up from her back like a monolith on a bare hill.
He remembered on his fingertips and the palm of his right hand how the knife felt as it slid smoothly into her. The ease of it had shocked him. He knew the human body was bone and gristle and tough muscle, and as he'd driven the knife forward he'd told himself that he'd hit a rib or the shoulder blade. The knife blade was thin, and he'd thought surely it would bend or break rather than pierce her flesh, but the blade held firm, the tip piercing halter top and bra and slipping easily through the flesh beneath Luann's left shoulder blade and between the ribs and slicing through the walls of her astounded heart. And now she was dead.
He sat down at the table opposite her--he owed her that much, he told himself--and forced himself to look at what he'd done. From that angle he could see her back, broad and foreshortened, her shoulders, the top of her head with the hair flipped up in back and held by a clasp, the way she wore it when she was hot or working around the house, and the fingers of both hands splayed upon the table, those of her left forming tiny peninsulas in the viscous red pool fed by the rivulet of blood that had run out of the left armhole of her halter top and down her arm to the table.
They'd bought the knife for one dollar at a garage sale. “That's Solingen steel,” the old timer who'd sold it to them said. “That's a knife that'll cut.” At some point Luann had dropped the knife, and the bone handle had broken off, and Buddy had made a new one by sawing off the end of a broomstick and drilling a hole in it and forcing it down over the square prong projecting from the base of the blade.
It hadn't looked as elegant as the bone handle, of course, but Buddy had taken a strange pride in the repair job. His father had been a carpenter and built the bed Buddy had slept in as a boy, not to mention the two-room addition to their house. Buddy had always figured he’d be a carpenter, too, but instead, after he and Luann got married, he took a job working in an auto parts store, thinking it would do until something better came along. But there he still was, spending most of each day sitting on a three-legged stool checking inventory on a computer screen and filling out forms.
Luann had never expressed admiration or appreciation for the job he'd done on the butcher knife, so last night he'd pushed it between her ribs and into her heart.
No, no! What a stupid thing to say, that he'd killed her for a reason like that.
Buddy stood up and ran into the bedroom, and when he came back out three hours later he saw that he'd stepped into a puddle of blood he hadn't realized had gathered under the table. Four quite distinct muddy-red footprints led from the table to the bedroom door.
He purchased fried chicken from the mound that rose perpetually undiminished in its glass case and fouled the air of the Blue Cove Resort bait shop-grocery store. The chicken tasted surprisingly good, though, savory and not as greasy as he'd imagined. He ate a breast and leg and then, hungrier than ever, ate two foot-long Slim Jims and an entire column of HiHos from a twelve-ounce box, washing it all down with a twenty-ounce bottle of Squirt. He hadn't had Squirt since he was a little boy.
He was halfway through a second column of HiHos when he realized a man sitting at an adjacent table was watching him. At first Buddy thought the man was the same one he'd talked to earlier that morning, but that was damn silly. The first man had been sixty or so with a beer belly and red T-shirt while this man was no more than forty, dark-haired with a thin face and a sallow smoker's complexion. How was it possible to confuse the two? Buddy worried about himself.
He slipped another HiHo into his mouth. The man broke into a wide grin.
“Man, you are hungry. I haven't seen anybody eat like that in a long time.”
“I just killed my wife,” Buddy said. He hadn’t planned to say it. It’d just come out. Now that he’d said it, though, he felt relieved. Things could start moving now. They’d come to a completion of some sort.
Buddy expected the man to jump up and go for the police or something. Instead, all he did was smile and nod and say, “Yeah, a man’s gotta kill his wife every once in awhile. Keeps ‘em on their toes.”
Buddy got up from the table, leaving the half-eaten HiHos where they sat. He barely made it outside and over behind a pickup before vomiting. Now his breath stank of Slim Jims and Squirt.
He looked down the hill through the trees where he could see the cabin. It looked small and forlorn, like the run-down one- and two-story bungalows on the street he'd grown up on in Little Rock. Now he and Luann saved all year for a week in a cabin like that in Blue Cove Resort.
Buddy shivered like a wet dog.
He didn't want to go back to the cabin. Instead, he wandered out of the store parking lot and across the road to the Texaco station. He browsed through the rack of highway maps, then lifted out a Texas map and unfolded it. He would like to go to Texas. Amarillo. Maybe El Paso. Somewhere he could stand and see great distances on all sides, the wind coming at you crisp and clean.
He was hungry again. He stood at the snack shelves a long time and finally chose a package of Hostess Cupcakes and then, no Squirt in the cooler, a 7-Up.
“Been doing some fishing?” the clerk at the counter asked.
Buddy followed the line of the clerk's gaze to his faded blue jeans, on the left leg of which was a banana-shaped blood stain Buddy had failed to notice.
I just killed my wife, it was on the tip of his tongue to say, but his first confession hadn’t gone too well. So he said nothing in reply to the clerk, paid up, and once outside the Texaco threw the 7-Up and cupcakes into the trash can beside the gasoline pumps. Then he crossed back over the road.
Buddy sat on the little front porch of the cabin. He decided he would do absolutely nothing but sit there and think, think calmly and clearly, until he could answer the question, why had he killed his wife?
But try as he might, he could not focus his thoughts. When he tried to reconstruct minute my minute and word by word the argument that had led to his plunging the butcher knife in Luann's back, all he could see clearly was the play of light and shade on the dirt path that led from the cabin to the water's edge, how the bare earth was beautiful where it caught the light and beautiful in the cool shadows. He tried to think of Luann when they first met, but he couldn't remember her maiden name or what her hair had looked like then. At last he remembered the name—Pyrtle. What an ugly name, he thought. Her hair, though. What had her goddamn hair looked like?
The waters of Blue Cove winked silver and gold and turquoise at the end of the sun-dappled path.
“So, what have you done with Luann?”
Buddy came awake with a jerk. He didn't remember dozing off, but from the length of the shadow cast by the young pin oak near the porch, he must have slept a good while.
A woman was standing over him. She had thick ankles, and the toenails protruding from her translucent jellies were painted bright pink. It took him a minute to remember her name, even though he and Luann had struck up an acquaintance with the woman and her husband their first day at the resort and had spent half their waking hours with them, it seemed like, since then. Finally the woman's name came to him.
“Where's she hiding? I haven't seen her out of the cabin all day.”
Buddy hesitate, then said, “Luann's not doing too good right now.”
Buddy decided that if Jackie pressed him, asked him what was wrong, he'd go ahead and tell her and see where that took them. But she didn't ask. Instead she nodded wisely and said, “I told her that trout was tainted. How she could go ahead and eat it after she'd already complained it had a funny taste is beyond me. I'll bet she was up all night with it coming out both ends.”
Buddy shrugged. “She was in a bad way, all right.”
Jackie looked at the cabin but made no move toward the door. She looked back at Buddy and asked, “She going to be ready to go by nine?”
“Sure. You haven't forgotten, have you? We're supposed to go out to Joe Bob's tonight. Do a little dancing. Drink a little Kickapoo Joy Juice. You think Luann's going to be feeling up to it?”
Buddy looked away a moment. Then he said, “Probably.”
"Good!" Jackie said, then did a little impromptu Texas two-step that stirred up the dust.
When Buddy didn't respond with the proper enthusiasm, she said, “Aw, don't worry about it. These things'll make you sick as a dog for twelve hours or so, but they pass pretty quick.”
Buddy couldn't think of anything to say to that, so he just shrugged and mumbled, “probably” again, and Jackie nodded like, yes, that was the right answer. She wiggled her fingers at him and walked off in the direction of her and Phil's cabin.
Buddy watched until she was out of sight and then got up and walked slowly around the side of the cabin and began working his way up past the cabins on the south edge of the resort, behind the store, and then across the ditch and out onto the road.
It was still daylight, but the sun having dropped below the bank of hills to the west, Buddy was walking in the deep afternoon shadows. Up ahead a neon sign blinked on and off
There was a bottle of Evan Williams, half full, back in the cabin, but he was not going in there any more. He entered the store and selected a 750 ml. bottle of Wild Turkey. It would no doubt be his last bottle of bourbon, he decided, so he might as well go first class.
When he got back to the cabin, he resumed his position on the porch. Then he unscrewed the cap on the bottle and raised it to his lips.
He'd never been big on drinking liquor straight, and the bourbon hit him with a hot shock. He took another drink, and it went down not burning hot but warm this time. Then he took a third, and the warmth began to spread through him.
Okay now, he said to himself, remember the good things.
He sat there a long time. Nothing much came to him. Had they ever been in love? What had her hair looked like? He shook his head, took a swig of bourbon. Maybe he was asking the wrong questions. To late for that stuff, anyway.
“Okay, pal, why’d you do it?” he said in a redneck imitation of some tough-guy cop. He thought it was very important to have something clear and logical to say when they asked him for an explanation. But he had nothing. What kind of man was he to know so little about his own life?
Buddy looked at his watch. The phosphorescent hands swam dreamily until he squinted them in place. 8:35. How had it gotten to be so late? A mosquito hummed in his ear.
All at once, Buddy was frightened. He jumped up and ran down toward the cove and the H-shaped wooden dock with its two speedboats and half-dozen fishing boats. The speedboats were chained and padlocked, but the fishing boats were only lashed to the dock with ropes.
Buddy chose a fishing boat at random, untied it, and pushed it away from the dock.
He sat in the boat in what seemed to him the exact center of Blue Cove. The oars hung limply from the gunwales into the gentle rise and fall of the water.
Buddy felt sure that now with the end so near some important realization would come to him. Instead, all he could think of was his watch, which even with its phosphorescent hands he could not read in the darkness cut by the glaring lights from the resort marina and private docks on the north shore of the cove; the bottle of bourbon, which in his haste he'd left on the cabin porch; and music from one of the big summer houses, which pulsed like a huge heart in the night but whose lyrics he could not quite make out.
At a time Buddy would have guessed to be precisely nine o'clock, he saw Jackie and Phil walked up onto the porch of the cabin. Phil bent down and picked up something from the porch. The bottle of Wild Turkey. Jackie raised her hand to the door. Buddy could see her knocking, but the sound was lost among the music and the night noises of woods and water.
Buddy leaned back and let himself down until he was lying in the bottom of the boat, the calves of his legs resting on the seat. It wasn't that he was trying to hide, it was just that he was suddenly too tired to sit upright.
He stared straight up into the sky. His breath came quickly, and the muscles of his arms and shoulders tensed painfully as if he expected a great blow to fall on him at any moment.
Then the scream came, a sharp “Ow!” like you'd make if you stubbed your toe--only much louder. Jackie. Then she made the same sort of stubbed-toe cry again, even louder this time, and after it added a “No!”
Buddy relaxed and began to breathe more easily. Everything was out of his hands now.
He lay there looking straight up. At first he thought the night sky was beautiful, but then he decided it wasn't beautiful at all. A thin, ragged veil of cloud had moved across the sky, half obscuring a cold, gray, gibbous moon. Only here and there was a star visible and then only as an indistinct smudge.
What should he be thinking now? What idea should he cling to as an anchor for the rest of his life?
Buddy decided that his greatest crime had been to lead a vague life, and his punishment would be to float on Blue Cove forever. But at that moment the boat came up against the rocky bank with a grating thud, and Buddy heard footsteps racing down the slope toward him and voices raised in rage and triumph.
Something In the Water