Young and tall and tan and handsome, David Connally sipped a Cubra Libre on the Hotel Kingston veranda. Apart from the 99% humidity, Jamaica was like San Diego – especially the yacht club that eagerly took his reservation. He was still famous, despite his narrow loss to Charles Cathcart in the San Diego Regatta.
‘Irredeemably boring,’ he remarked on the telephone to his mother on the third day of his self-imposed exile.
‘You have to stay week at least. I’ll pay. We don’t want a reputation for being tight-fisted Americans. These Caribbean countries depend on tourism for hurricane recovery. Do your part, David.’
Behind the sunglasses, his eyes fought off sleep. At least he was away from Southern California’s verbal paparazzi.
‘Is that you, Davy Connally?’
He recognized Mavis Childress’ gruesome gushing. ‘No, Madam, you have the wrong man.’
‘It’s you, alright.’
The lingering scent of jasmine testified that she hadn’t left. ‘Taking the cure for a broken heart? How sublimely romantic. Lillian will be flattered if not appeased. It did appear that you dumped her.’
‘We came to a gentleman’s agreement that I wasn’t right for her.’
‘Not according to Lillian.’
‘I was talking about the agreement between me and Cathcart.’
‘They’re engaged. Temporarily. She found it in her soul to forgive you.’
He’d heard the news and been briefly nostalgic. ‘I’m here to meet a friend’, he countered.
‘A clandestine affair? Positively guaranteed to make you desirable. Who is she?’
Her eyes would be agog now; he kept his sunglasses on.
‘There are other, loftier pursuits.’
He heard the soft ‘click’ of a clasp, and knew she was checking her make-up, most likely refreshing her lip gloss. ‘Even if it’s true, you shouldn’t come out. Rich bachelors should at least pretend to be straight while on vacation. Who’s the lucky man?’
‘I’m here on a spiritual quest.’
It was almost true. The search for a genuine Caribe Obeah practitioner had proved fruitless so far. He’d come to rid himself of the curse on his sailboat. He’d told the concierge and meant it – temporarily.
‘You won’t find God at a yacht club, silly boy.’
He removed his sunglasses. He didn’t want to miss her reaction. ‘Jesus rode in a fishing boat once or twice, and you found him at the senior prom, as I remember.’
Poor Mavis. She and Martin Bingham had been humping in the audio-visual store-room next to a hot mic and she’d let out a whooping ‘Thank-you Jesus!’ at the appropriate moment.
‘You’ve a treacherous memory, Davy.’
It was true. Martin Bingham had run off with the housekeeper’s daughter in a poor imitation of incest.
‘Why are you here?’ He asked, following the trajectory of her gaze to a shaggy-haired blond boy in Hawaiian print swim shorts who smiled and waved. She waved back. Now David was distressed. The sole benefit of accidentally meeting Mavis in Kingston evaporated. She’d be singing halleluiah with her surfer bum tonight and he would sleep alone.
‘Bye-bye, Davy,’ she said cheerily and left.
He scanned the pool area for a prospect, but saw only strangers in this strange land.
At five pm, he changed lolling site from poolside to the balcony of his bedroom, having resigned himself to enjoying his own company, when Inspector Duval came calling.
‘You didn’t happen to bring any champagne, did you?’ David asked.
Duval was a short dark man – too short to wear a beige suit and a Panama hat.
‘I’ve come about Ms. Childress. Her friend said you know her from America.’
‘You must be talking about The Big Kahuna, Mr Surfer himself…’
‘I’m talking about Mavis Childress. She’s dead.’
‘I barely knew her. Alright, we went to elementary school together. And we bunked together through college. But, other than that … martini?
‘No, thanks. Do you know her parents? We have to do something about the body.’
‘Call my mother.’ It was so like bureaucrats to pass off their job to someone else. ‘She’s Mavis’ aunt.’
‘Mr. Connally, you haven’t asked me how your cousin died.’
‘It’s almost dinner time. I don’t want indigestion.’
‘You’re not curious?’
‘I’m famished. Played tennis after lunch. Okay, if you must, tell me.’
‘A palm tree near the pool fell and crushed her skull.’
‘Then I suggest cremation. A closed casket will only fuel speculation.’ Another knock announced the arrival of his lobster tails and asparagus tips. David scribbled his mother’s number on the message pad next to the phone and handed it to Duval. ‘I’ll see you out.’
They walked to the door and Duval uttered his thanks, handing him a business card with the instruction: ‘Call, if you hear anything from your relatives.’
Of course, but information wasn’t going to do Mavis any good. Unless Duval suspected murder by Arecaceae. David had the bellboy move the dinner cart to the balcony. Below he saw a small crowd near the place where he’d spoken to Mavis earlier, and noted the fallen palm, looking like a great gray snakeskin lying across the patio, its fronds hanging over the water. Two nubile bikini-clad blondes were comforting Mavis’ surfing paramour. A sympathy-fuck was no doubt in his future.
‘Do you know the people at the pool?’ he asked the bellboy.
The young man looked at the grievers and sighed. ‘It’s Doug ‘Hang Ten’ Flieschman and the girls from Fresno State University. He’s a surfing instructor and they’re… beautiful Tri-Deltas.’
‘Put a bottle of your best champagne on my tab. Deliver it with a message to Mavis Childress’ bereaved boyfriend,’ David said. ‘Tell him and his two friends to join me in a toast to the dearly departed.’
He watched the boy deliver the message and waited for el blondo to look up. David waved to them. They’d see him from afar, in his white Armani tux, and assumed he was rich. They’d forget there were wicked trees out there waiting to murder members of the finest Californian families. They’d all pretend the week-long party was for Mavis. Blessed rescue. There’s a lesson: life can change quickly from collective tragedy into individual happiness.
And yet how quickly individual happiness can be quashed by a phone call. Mavis chasing after a beach bum named Doug was an indignity, but dying in a foreign country was unpatriotic.
‘You’ll have to fly back with the coffin,’ his mother instructed. ‘Your Aunt Vicki says Mavis’ demise is partially your fault and the situation is too bleak for any mother to handle.’
‘Family responsibilities are precisely why men shouldn’t marry or have children,’ David said to the first-class traveler sitting across from him in the Sky Lounge. ‘I didn’t push the palm tree onto her head.’
‘I’m no engineer, but you’d think she’d have time to move out of the way.’ Leave it to strangers to speak rationally about the dead. ‘Still, you had a nice holiday except for that, right?’
‘Indeed. Procrastination makes all things possible.’ Had it taken less than three days to arrange Mavis’ departure, he’d be flying coach instead of first-class.
‘It’s too bad you have to return to San Diego so soon,’ the man continued. ‘I’ve a ranch near Dallas.’
‘I’ve a two-hour layover in Dallas,’ David said. ‘We could have dinner.’
‘Perfect. You wouldn’t mind playing the role of business associate, would you? My wife insists I went to Jamaica to cheat. She’s meeting me at the airport to accuse me, and means to lock me out of the house if last year was pretext.’
It was a bit early for a stranger to ask for a favor, but he might need to visit a Texas ranch hideout someday. ‘Happy to oblige. What business are we in?’
David studied his face. ‘Oh, you’re the George Perry!’
‘That’s right. My wife and I write the ‘Goulash for Lost Souls’ series. Repent and Become Impoverished. How to be your Own Fair-weather Friend…’
‘The classics for the self-made man. I’ve been thinking about becoming a self-made something or the other. God knows, it works for Charles Cathcart.’
George stabbed at an olive on the hors d’oevres tray. ‘That rascal! We met him in the Hamptons and seriously considered boycotting his east coast victory party.’
Once aloft, David and George retired to their respective laptops, sealed off from the hoi polloi by a thick blue curtain, and served by stewardesses under thirty. George busied himself with editing a manuscript, while David gave daily chase to Cathcart on the internet. If he could find one misdeed he could report to the FBI, Cathcart’s name would be Mudd, perhaps disqualifying him from regattas world-wide.
A lightening flash and a sudden plane pitch brought him back to reality. ‘This is your Captain speaking. We’ve hit bad weather, so we’re going above it. Not to worry.’
The plane climbed steeply then leveled off. David rolled up the window cover and looked out on a blanket of fog. ‘Are we stateside?’ he asked the stewardess.
‘We’re over Louisiana.’
‘Close enough,’ David sighed. But what if they crashed? Alligators were as deadly as sharks. What if he’d been sitting under that palm tree’s descent? Life was tenuous. He didn’t have a will. There was so much he hadn’t experienced. Cathcart would ‘tsk-tsk’ and lead a long successful endorsement-filled life.
He typed Charles Cathcart’s name into Google and was instantly directed to a Wikipedia page that hadn’t been there yesterday. He checked the stats: Engaged to Lillian Singleton. Yes, Mavis had told him. But, she’d also said that Lillian wanted him back. Perhaps it was fortunate he hadn’t found a Caribe Obeah to celebrate his break-up with her. Maybe he’d actually dodged bad karma. If he won Lillian back, Cathcart’s Wikipedia page would have to be edited to read: ‘Broken engagement to Ms Singleton because she reunited with her true love, David Connally’. Maybe his new friend, George, would post the edit for him.
He glanced at George. ‘I hate to interrupt, but would you poke a man in his tummy if he was holding a gun on you?’ The question had been plaguing him since he menaced Cathcart with his .38 in the Hotel Del Coronado patio.
‘Certainly not,’ George answered immediately.
A feeling of omnipotence spread through David’s being. He’d made a useful friend. A man who responds unflinchingly to a direct question about something of which he knows nothing is worthy of respect. A man who pokes another man’s tummy while staring down the barrel of a pistol was a damn fool masquerading as a brave man. His sailing team may have been slightly overweight, but he wasn’t, and Cathcart had no business poking his person. Overdosing on anticipation, David drifted into a nap from which he only stirred once, his eyes shifting to George who was being straddled by a friendly stewardess, and then closing tightly until he heard, ‘Now approaching Dallas International…’
‘And to think I was afraid she’d drown when she took up surfing. Pools are so much safer, I told her.’ Tearful Aunt Vicki placed a forlorn hand on Mavis’ casket and took David’s arm to steady herself. ‘I hate that the news people called her death “a freak accident”. She wasn’t a freak.’
He made a note to describe Mavis’ accident as unfortunate, although Professor Jason Grayson Mason calculated the odds of being killed by such a bizarre occurrence as ranking with being hit by falling space debris. PJGM said so too, when he spoke of how close David and Mavis had been during their college years.
‘What did happen, David?’ a tearful Lillian asked him, as they walked back to the limousine from the graveside service. If he answered her question, maybe she’d answer his: where was Cathcart? ‘I know it’s difficult, but please tell me. She was my best friend.’
‘If Doug hadn’t rolled off of her at the last second, it would have been him that took the blow.’
‘You mean they were….?’
‘Otherwise occupied. I guess Mavis didn’t hear the tree falling in the forest.’ He paused. ‘Cathcart couldn’t make it today?’
‘He said it might be uncomfortable. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was afraid of you.’
David’s arm became the shelter of her broken heart. Her eyes told him Mavis had spoken the truth and that she forgave him all.
Revenge by Degrees
Lillian Connally gave birth to her daughter, Madison, nine months to the day, hour and minute of her wedding to David.
‘Alright, I will,’ she had answered when asked if she’d have him.
‘A disappointing ceremony on two counts,’ his mother said. ‘She underplayed her best line in the performance and produced a girl-child destined to be as fickle as she is.’
He regretted telling his mother that Lillian had posted a video of the ceremony on her web page. ‘Her assent may have been less than enthusiastic, but the male determines the sex of the child,’ he said instead.
‘False humility is no consolation, David. It makes the gene pool appear weak.’
David now had other burdens to shoulder – one that spat and cried – and Charles Cathcart, who was still in San Diego. His diet wasn’t going well either. He’d put himself and his regatta crew on a strict regime of lean meat and water and, collectively, the six of them had lost two pounds.
‘I am weak, Mother. Starvation does that to the best of men.’
‘Your Uncle Norbert had beriberi in Burma and managed to catch enough fish to replace his thiamin, so weakness isn’t necessarily fatal. In any case, carbs can be corrected by copious consumption of roughage. I suggest bran cereal three times a day.’
David dutifully followed her advice and was in hospital, conveniently, the morning of Madison’s christening.
‘It’s too bad you couldn’t attend,’ Lillian said as she patted the hand attached to a wrist decorated with an I.D. bracelet. He’d been admitted for dehydration and intense abdominal pain due to dysentery, and a lower G.I. series had been ordered. ‘What end did you say the barium needed to be injected, dear?’
‘Any enema is the enemy of dignity,’ David replied. ‘Madison didn’t fuss at the baptismal font, did she?’
‘She was an angel. I hope you don’t mind that I changed her middle name to Charlotte. Mavis is such an awkward name. I made it a point to apologize to your aunt, though. If it hadn’t been for Mavis’ unfortunate accident, we might not have reconciled.’
‘My family has perfect timing.’ At least the nurses treated him well. He got to drink through straws.
‘Cathcart understood too, I believe. He looked so forlorn at the ceremony,’ Lillian mused.
‘Why, both of them, David. You know he attended our wedding too.’
‘Our wedding?’ He lifted the glass to his mouth and took short sips of water.
‘Yes, what a gentleman. He came to the dressing room to wish me well. Don’t worry, I locked the door so no one would know, and he watched the ceremony from the choir loft. He’s a great top tenor, and the alto soprano said they appreciated his contribution.’
‘Bittersweet all around.’ Although he couldn’t sustain exhilaration with degradation approaching in a mere twenty-four hours, there was a fleeting satisfaction in the thought of Charles Cathcart looking on longingly at what he could never have.
Nurse ‘Beulah The Beast’ interrupted their delightful conversation. ‘Visiting hours are over. Skedaddle, Missy.’
No matter. Gloat was a dish best savored alone.
And yet, his mother’s words kept intruding on his reverie. Lillian had been hesitant. That her entrance required two choruses of the wedding march, he chalked up to her desire to show off her six-thousand-dollar Vera Wang gown. The glazed stare of her eyes as she waited for his at-the-altar kiss, he assumed, was pique at the pre-nup his mother demanded she sign. If divorce became a reality, Lillian would get zippo. But if they had a child? There was no alimony, but the child support agreement was positive piracy.
He grabbed his cell phone: what are the feminizations of Charles? Carlotta. Caroline. Charlene. CHARLOTTE.
His loose hospital gown suddenly felt like a straight-jacket and truth was being forced down his throat. Charles Cathcart was in a locked room with his bride an hour before the wedding, and had probably laughed his ass off while singing Oh, Promise Me. Blasphemer! Was nothing sacred? Not to a ne’er-do-well sailor. Was svelte and slimy Cathcart out training his crew, or with Lillian, eating lambchops and bread sticks while he was under the knife?
His eyes darted to the four corners of his room. Cathcart was always in the shadows, menacing his happiness.
When Nurse Beulah brought his sleeping pill, he swallowed it gratefully. He needed to sleep, perchance to dream of a way to rid himself of the pernicious schemia sapping the strength of his life. The final solution had to look like self-defense.
His dream-phantom voices gave way to Beulah’s blaring reveille: ‘Check his I.D. bracelet. We don’t want to irrigate the wrong rectum. Hoist up that gown, Connally’
Next to his bed was a tall, metal rod that held a large bag of fluid connected by clear tubing and an ominous eight-inch nozzle. A male voice added to his embarrassment. ‘Lie on your side. Knees bent. Hit the call button when you need to go.’
‘Without a date or a kiss?’
‘I hope you didn’t complain, David. People look to us to set an example of courage under fire,’ his mother said. ‘When will you get the results from the proctologist?’
‘My colon is positively shipshape. The doctor took pictures. I’m absolutely fine. It was a totally unnecessary procedure. Dr. Arliss was smiling when he said it, so I assume he’s telling the truth. Too bad he couldn’t make his diagnosis without the test.’
He repeated this regret to Lillian when she called.
‘I knew it would go well, dear. Dr. Arliss plays golf with Charles Cathcart. We had a lovely foursome. Dr. Arliss confided all to me when he made a birdie on the sixteenth hole. Luckily just too much roughage…’
‘I’m coming home,’ David said to his mother.
‘I’m sure they don’t want you to eat rich foods, dear.’
Luckily, revenge has no calories and the rich can always get away with murder.
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over two-hundred print and on-line journals. Her how-to book, Writing Beyond the Self; How to Write Creative Non-fiction that Gets Published was published by Vine Leaves Press in 2018. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Non-fiction in 2011, and a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story: Red’s Not Your Color. She lives in Kentucky and writes full time when she’s not watching classic movies and eating chocolate.