Beyond the Island
by John W. Steele
Driving down the interstate at ninety miles per hour released some of my tension and settled my nerves. My thoughts were scarce, and I dwelled on the distasteful predicament facing me.
Karen seemed to sense my pensive mood, but it didn’t appear to bother her. It seemed she understood some of my idiosyncrasies. I felt awkward and helpless in this situation. I was relieved that she did most of the talking.
She knew everything about the history of the area. Her insights and knowledge about the myth and legends of this region astounded me. I enjoyed listening to her calm, soothing voice. She seemed to revel in the fact she had my attention, and her stories about the characters and events that once took place here were filled with detail.
I also suspected a bit of hyperbole, as well. Despite the monster that dwelled inside, I felt secure and at ease with her. The journey ended too soon, and we arrived at the restaurant right on time. I handed the valet the keys and a hefty tip.
“Be careful with this thing,” I said. “It doesn’t cotton to strangers.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll take good care of it,” the young man said.
We entered the Copper and were greeted at the podium by the host. He was a tall, balding man, and his cheeks were pockmarked. The man had let all the hairs on one side of his head grow long, then combed them over his shiny crown and saturated them with hairspray. He wore a yellow shirt under a paisley vest. His thin neck was adorned with a flaming orange bow tie.
“Good evening, sir. Welcome to the Copper. Oh, Karen, my dear, how lovely to see you again.”
His smile looked synthetic and rehearsed.
“Hello, Barry,” Karen said. “We’ve made reservations.”
Barry’s eyes fell on my nugget. An uneasy smile formed in the corners of his mouth.
“I’m sorry, sir. Of course, you know formal attire is required here. If you forgot a tie, we can get you one. I’m sorry, sir. It’s the house policy.”
I looked hard in Barry’s eyes, and he blinked several times. “Watch this,” I said. “If you notice, my hand will never leave my wrist.”
I reached in the pocket of my jacket and, like magic, pulled out a wad of Franklins. Barry’s eyes lit up. His hand shot out like the tongue of a bullfrog snapping at a blowfly.
I placed one of the bills in his palm. “That’s for the tie.”
He stared at the wad like a dog drooling over a strip of bacon. I peeled off another Big Ben.
“What’s that one for?” His voice was soft and compliant.
“That one’s for the best table in the house.” I handed him the note. He clutched it affectionately and stuffed the bills in his pocket.
“There’s a couple more dead bureaucrats in that pile that belong to you, if you behave,” I said.
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir. We can dispense with the inanities. Rules are made to be broken. Please follow me.” Barry turned and swished down the corridor.
We followed our host towards the dining room. He raised his arm and gestured to the bartender as we walked by.
The dining area was spacious and elegant. There were perhaps two dozen square tables lined loosely about the room. The chairs were upholstered with luxurious red padded leather, and their metal frames were plated with copper. The tables were shrouded with copper laminate, the edges riveted securely with gold-colored star-shaped studs.
The clientele appeared upscale. The men were older, tanned and distinguished-looking. Many of them had silver hair and were draped in canary yellow jackets. Their ascots were the color of light coral or corn silk, their faces stoic and expressionless. They dined with one hand resting in their lap and sat like statues. The conversation seemed subtle and secretive, and they gazed straight ahead, their eyes never veering from the table.
The women were draped with diamond necklaces that hung like tiny glimmering mirrors beneath their sagging chins. I noticed a few of the younger male patrons had brazenly defied the ascot tradition and wore blue blazers with a matching tie. The younger ones eyed us as though we were gypsies and remained aloof. One of the women giggled. Evidently she’d never seen a genuine Alaskan nugget.
Barry escorted us to a large empty table in the center of the room. “Here you are, sir. This is the finest table in the house.”
I didn’t like the table or where it was located. “We don’t want this one,” I said.
In the corner of the dining area sat a roomy comfortable-looking booth. It was dark, private, and secure. The booth was vacant, and I pointed at it with my chin.
“We want that table over there.”
“But, sir,” the bald man protested, “this is the finest table in the house.”
I fixed Barry with a cold eye, and he swallowed hard. “I didn’t say I wanted the finest table in the house. I said I wanted the best table in the house, and the best table is where I say it is. We want the one over there.”
The man’s mouth hung open, and his eyes grew wide. Karen eyeballed him from head to toe.
“We don’t like this table.” Karen said. Her voice was pert and sassy, as though she’d been offended. “The table we want is over in that corner. And we want a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1996 right away.” She shot Barry an icy glance, and I saw him cringe.
“Yes, madam, my pleasure, madam, right away, madam.” He scurried toward the booth. Karen took my arm, and we strode across the floor.
The wine arrived almost immediately, and we giggled over the incident. We were both hungry. Karen suggested I order the prime rib. Her instinct was perfect, and the food was superb. The steak was as big as the sole of a logger’s boot, marinated in garlic and smothered with mushrooms, a slab so tender that I cut it with a fork. Karen ordered filet of sole and she commented several times how much she enjoyed it. Midway through our sumptuous feast, we ordered anther bottle of Margaux.
The evening unfolded flawlessly, and despite my inhibitions, I enjoyed Karen’s company immensely. Her mind was open and refreshing. She was unassuming, funny and exquisitely seductive. Her jewel was intact, and she’d guarded it well.
I was torn about how to proceed with my assignment. Part of me was burning with curiosity about her, but I felt like a hypocrite and I didn’t want to know her any better than the present. Despite my reservations, I grew mellowed by the wine and unwittingly blurted out,
“Well, Karen. You know about all about me but I don’t know anything about you.”
“Yes, that’s true, Brian. It’s rather unfair, isn’t it? I thought you’d never ask. What would you like to know?” Her face was aglow, and she slurred her words very slightly.
“Well, for starters, what is an attractive and intelligent person like you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
She laughed heartily. “I asked myself the same question for a long time, but after a while, I found a life here. Sometimes you have to build on what you have left, not what you’ve lost.”
“I understand, Karen. I know what loss is. What did you lose?”
She took a sip of wine. Her eyes grew soft and melancholy.
“I know you know what loss is, Brian. Somehow, I know you do.” Her eyes were moist, her face long... contrite. She reached her hand across the table. I pretended not to notice. She gently withdrew it and looked away.
“I was married to a psychiatrist named Erich for almost ten years. We lived on the island. He has a thriving practice, and many of his clients are women. He always seemed to have a great deal of empathy for women who were twisted and sleazy. He could only relate to people who seemed to worship him and his intellectual bullshit. Of course, I didn’t fall in that category so he treated me like a rug.
“Throughout our marriage, Erich had a number of affairs. It got so bad that he ended up spending his weekends with a patient who was a stripper with a drug problem. He was so obtuse that he expected me to accept this arrangement. When I wouldn’t, he accused me of being rigid, prudish, and emotionally disturbed.”
“He sounds like a jerk. What kept you with him?”
“Our son, Alex. He’s the only reason I tolerated Erich’s behavior. Despite his infidelities and disrespect for our marriage I wanted to keep our family together. I was willing to sacrifice my dignity for the sake of our son. Alex was all that mattered to me. He means more to me than anything I’ve ever known. I probably would have hung on to this illusion of family at least until Alex went off to college. But that all changed the night Erich hit me.”
The thought of a man hitting a woman was one of the few things that rankled me. Karen told her tale with such sincerity that I felt a surge of anger. I slammed my fist on the table; the silverware rattled and the water splashed from our glasses. Like a clap of thunder, I bellowed, “That son of a bitch!”
The room grew silent. Karen recoiled and looked in my eyes. Once again, she reached across the table. This time I took her hand in mine. Gradually, the generic chatter leaked back into the room. I looked over at the crowd like a man who’d farted in church. I’d meant no disrespect, and I lowered my head. She took a sip of wine and continued with her tale.
“After all he’d put me through, I was so angry I fought back. I scratched his face deeply with my nails. Drops of blood flowed down his cheek. He flew into a rage. His face turned white, and his breath came in short shallow gasps. He wrapped his fist with his belt and beat me until my lip split open and blood flowed from my nose. When I hit the floor, he kicked me in the ribs until I could no longer breathe. I vomited and thought I was going to choke to death.
“I’ll never know why, but while I was lying on the rug, I saw a flash of white light. For a moment, Erich seemed dazzled. He shook his head like he’d been blinded. I thought he was having a stroke.
“With my last ounce of strength, I ran from the house and spent the night in a motel. When I called the next day, the phone had been disconnected. I am an only child, and my parents are dead. I had no friends that I wanted to drag into my dirt and I was alone.
“Erich filed a police report, and his lawyer tried to have me arrested for aggravated battery. It just so happened, the judge was one of Erich’s clandestine patients and he granted Erich an order of protection. I was banned from the premises. Everything I had was tucked in that house, and I was now destitute. Erich froze my accounts and credit cards. I was totally screwed. Fortunately, I had saved some cash that carried me through the ordeal.”
I felt completely absorbed in Karen’s dreadful tale. We connected on a very personal level. She fascinated me, and I wished I had been there to help her. I thought my problems were unique, but listening to her made me realize islands are abundant with unimaginable strife and designer hells. “How did you ever find your way out of that mess?” I asked.
“I didn’t. I was so inexperienced with the ways of the world that I made things worse.”
“After several weeks of isolation and separation from Alex, I grew frustrated and impatient. My attorney stonewalled me, and I suspected Erich was paying him off. Erich’s psycho comrade, the honorable Judge Snipes, acted like a zombie and refused to hear my side of the story.
“One night I drank more than I should have. I sped across Manhattan until I reached our house, then shot up the driveway and smashed my Beemer into the garage. I caused a lot of damage. It’s terrible how distraught a person can become. I’m not sure what I was trying to do but thank goodness no one was injured, not even me.
“Of course, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Judge Snipes finally agreed to review our case. Erich wanted to have me committed to the psychiatric center. He claimed I was a threat to others or myself. He had the medical clout to do whatever he pleased with me. I knew if they put me away, I’d be a vegetable by the time the nurses pumped me full of psychotropics.
“I was given a choice. I could either grant Erich a divorce on his terms, or face treatment for my alleged psychiatric disorder. Erich had me right where he wanted me. I agreed to a pittance in the divorce settlement but Erich had so much money, the settlement was substantial by normal standards. My only concerns were the stipulations about our son and visitation rights.
“My attorney suggested it would be a good idea if I left the area for a while. I was so confused and despondent that I took his advice. I got in my car and headed west. I had no idea where I was going, but I liked the feeling of serenity I found here. I needed to work and I have my bachelor’s degree in accounting. When Confederate offered me a job, I took it and I’ve been here ever since.”
“Where is Alex now?”
“Karen lowered her head. “I don’t know. His father seems to have disappeared, and I’m unable to contact him. My lawyer is always looking for money but he says he can do little about the situation under the circumstances. Erich claims I abandoned my family for another man. My attorney says Erich has witnesses that will testify to this. The last I heard, Erich had sent Alex to a military school in England. I haven’t heard from my son in years. I’m certain Erich has poisoned him against me. I don’t think Alex knows where I am or even if I’m alive.”
Karen’s face drooped, and she sobbed. “Do you have any idea how it feels to lose someone so dear, Brian? Alex was the sweetest and most bitter experience I’ve ever known. There’s nothing I can do. I’m absolutely powerless over this situation. I know I’ll never see my son again.”
Tears streamed down her cheeks, falling like a gentle rain. “It’s not fair... It’s just not fair.”
She looked like a broken doll. I wanted to comfort her. I got up, sat next to her, placed my arm on her shoulder and pulled her gently to me.
“I’m sorry, Brian. I don’t mean to dump on you. I’ve never told anyone about this. I just couldn’t help myself.”
“It’s okay, Karen. I’m sorry. I truly am. There is no justice in this world, and the corrupted always triumph.” I wiped her eyes carefully with a napkin.
She buried her head on my shoulder, her tears moist on my skin. I gently raised her head and looked in her eyes. Strangely, this seemed to alleviate her distress.
“You’re beautiful inside and out, Karen, but you’re especially beautiful when you’re smiling.”
She laughed a broken laugh. “Thank you, Brian. I needed that.” We gazed in each other’s eyes. I lost my mind and kissed her tenderly.
“It’s going to be okay, Karen. Somehow, I know it’s going to be okay. I never dreamed it would be like this...”
I didn’t know how it was going to be okay and I really didn’t believe what I said, but I hoped she did, and that was all that mattered.
When Karen regained her composure, she held my hand. She looked how I felt: lost and alone. “Are you seeing anyone, Brian?” Her voice was hesitant.
“I’m seeing you.”
We laughed and held each other close, but there was a sense of foreboding in the air. We clung to each other without speaking.
I returned to my seat, and the rest of the evening was wonderful. Karen drank coffee, and we talked like old friends until closing time. By the end of the evening, there was no doubt in my mind. We were the same.
“I think it’s time to leave,” I said. “I have to meet the Kaminski boys in the morning for one final bout with Feinstein.”
The valet brought the Hummer to the entrance. “Oh, this looks like fun,” Karen said. “Can I drive?”
I was feeling a little tipsy and I thought it was a good idea. “Sure.” The valet handed her the keys.
Neither one of us said much on the way back home. I slid Bach into the CD player. The music flooded the cab with the sweetness of a lullaby. The fireflies were at their peak, and we sped along the open highway as though we were in a spaceship sailing through the universe at the speed of light, far away from this world of injustice and despair. When I felt confident Karen was comfortable driving the vehicle, I reached over and placed my hand on her knee.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2009 by John W. Steele