Read Via Dolorosa Online

Authors: Ronald Malfi

Via Dolorosa (6 page)

“What story is that, sir?”

“The whole story. The story about Nicholas, here, and my boy. You
know that story, don’t you, Roger?”

“No, sir.”

“You know about my boy Myles?”

“Yes, sir,” Roger said. “I’m sorry about that.”

“Thank you. And I’m sorry for you, too, Roger,” Granger said.
“We’re like brothers, you and me. And we need to remain like brothers.”
He said, “We’re all sorry and we’re all like brothers.” And the bell captain
thumped a small, plump, red fist to his chest. His voice had taken on a
peculiar cadence; it sounded the smallest bit hopeful. “Like brothers,” he
repeated.

“Oh yes, sir,” Roger said, nodding without expression.

“This boy,” Granger said, rising from his stool and referring again
to Nick. That hand was back on Nick’s shoulder again, too. Nick could
feel the bell captain’s weight against him, righting himself as he stood.
Granger said, “This boy.” He said, “Some boy.”

“It’s nothing,” Nick said, not looking directly at the bell captain.

“He saved my son’s life,” Granger said to the bartender.

“Is that true?” Roger said.

“I didn’t,” Nick interrupted. “Honestly.”

“He did,” Granger went on. “In Iraq, he did. He’s modest so he
won’t tell it like it is, but I know the truth of it and I know what happened.
I know because I have it in writing, in handwriting. A medic that
worked on my son, he wrote it in a letter just before Myles died. I know
that Nicholas tried to save my boy’s life.” Turning back to Nick, and lost
in his own approbation, Granger said, “Some boy.”

“It’s late,” Nick said. “You look tired, Mr. Granger. It’s been a long
day, too.”

“I apologize, Nicholas. I shouldn’t have made you uncomfortable.”

“You didn’t make me uncomfortable, sir.”

“You’re a good boy.”

“Thank you, sir.”

To the bartender, Granger said, “He’s a good boy.”

“So then the next drink will be on the house,” Roger said with very
little enthusiasm.

“Yes! Because,” Granger went on, “he does not pay for a drink in my
company. Ever. For as long as I live.”

“All right,” Roger said.

“For as long as we
both
live,” Granger clarified.

“All right,” Roger said again.

“For as long as Nick and I both live, I mean,” Granger further clarified.
“Not you and I, Roger.”

“Yeah, I got that.”

“Though we are still brothers. Yes?”

“Yes, sir.”

Granger nodded, pleased. “Goodnight, then, Roger.” And in slow
motion he turned. “Goodnight, Nicholas. And I’m sorry for spouting all
that father stuff. It was uncalled for.”

“Goodnight, Mr. Granger,” Nick said. Once the hand was off his
shoulder, Nick turned to watch the bell captain leave the bar and disappear
down the corridor that communicated with the hotel lobby. Granger
walked like someone with a doomed destiny—heavy, dejected, resigned.
Nick could see the old man’s shadow stretched long and out-of-shape
along the gray-green linoleum floor tiles and move ghostlike along the
wall.

“They call him the poor son of a bitch,” Roger said, emptying the
remainder of the bell captain’s drink into the sink pit beneath the bar.
“Behind his back they call him that. There he goes, the poor son of a
bitch. Off to drink again, the poor son of a bitch. Lost in himself, the
poor son of a bitch.” Roger was watching his own hands manipulate and
twist a greasy dishrag into some sort of cudgel. “And,” Roger continued,
“it’s one thing to be a poor son of a bitch out in the open and when you
know you’re one, Lieutenant, but it’s quite another to be one behind
your own back.”

“It’s late, man. He’ll be all right.”

“He was in here an hour ago when he got off duty.” And then, as
testimony, he added, “The poor son of a bitch.”

“I could tell he was a little drunk. But that’s okay. He’s entitled.”

“Hell,” Roger said. “We’re all entitled.”

—Chapter III—

Nick woke early, but Emma was already up and gone. He touched her side of the bed and it was not warm. He wondered how early she had gotten up.

The sheer curtains had been pulled halfway across the glass patio doors, and the shades over the windows were still drawn. From where he lay, he could see only a cursory account of the outside world. There was scarce daylight; the rain was still coming hard, that second day of the storm, and the sky looked tired, yellow-gray, and worn out. The whole room looked exhausted and smelled strongly of sleep. The sun, shielded, burned silver the thin cirrus threads on the horizon. The coastline was a brute coastline, obstinate and heady, heavily foamed, bleached, alkaline. And despite the full onrush of the storm, the island sat eerily swaddled in quiet, like a great, beating throng suddenly paused, or like the cumulative pendulums of a massive network of clocks, all simultaneously frozen (and against all semblance of rationale) at forty-five degrees to the right, directing time to a standstill.

Nick pulled himself from the bed and crept over to the patio doors. Peeling back the sheer curtain, he could see the world outside still dark and gray and monochromatic. The tallest of the courtyard palms were
bowed
over in the strong wind, their leaves whipping frantically, bullied, stripped and shiny and slick with rain. He managed to prop open the doors, just slightly, and finagled a cigarette and lighter from the pocket of his shirt, which was draped over the back of a desk chair. A flick of his lighter coaxed a blue flame. He smoked, shirtless, exhaling through the slight opening in the doors, and it felt good. The shock of the freezing cold air made his nostrils burn. His right hand shook when he held the cigarette, and it made him not want to look at it, not want to think about anything in particular, anything at all. He was glad, in some strange and melancholy way, that Emma had awakened early and was not in the room with him now. He could still smell her presence, though, like the cold tendrils of a passing ghost through his body, and he suddenly knew it did not matter if she were here or not because, on some level and in some way, she would always be here, and she would continue to pass through him like a ghost. There was no changing that, no escaping any of it.

Some goddamn world we live in,
he thought,
when even the saddest
ghosts are spitefully relentless.

“You’re a dumb son of a bitch,” he told himself casually, tossed the cigarette out the crack in the door and into the storm, closed the patio doors, and made his way to the bathroom.

He showered for a long time, the water hot and pleasant on his tired skin. He dressed in black corduroys freckled with paint and a threadbare pullover. Then he went to a large clapboard trunk that was pressed up against one wall and opened it. Inside were crusted tubs of paint, gouaches, gums, brushes, an old
Richeson
wood palette, oil bars, painting knives, solvents, and hard, crusted rags. There were stacks of sketchpads, too, and he did not need to open them and flip through their pages to know what was inside them. Nor did he open them now but, rather, knelt before the clapboard trunk and ran his hands over their covers and examined them with only his eyes and his fingers, but tried hard to ignore them with his deeper senses. Their covers were worn, faded, pitted, gored by forgotten dirt pellets and scratched by ancient sand. He had filled the pages of those sketchpads back during a different time in his life. In a way, it had been both a more complex time and a simpler time, although he was not quite sure how that could be or even how he came to understand such a thing. He had sketched them wholly and freely and undaunted, unlike how he had sketched the hotel mural for the past two weeks. The mural was different, requiring intense concentration and much deliberation. He was a different person now, it seemed. And he could only work a few hours before the lousy
Raynaud’s
set in, and he’d have to stop and wait and think and do nothing else but wait and think. It had never been that way before. It was a new process to him.
Process,
he thought again, turning the damnable word over and over in his head but too ashamed to speak it aloud.
There it is again, that lousy word.
And he could not look at the sketchpads without thinking of how he used to be and, sadly, how he was now. He knew that if he bent down and smelled the sketchpads they would smell like the desert. They would smell like Iraq. And thinking this made him think of the bell captain from last night, half drunk and nostalgic and full of self pity.

Get off it,
he thought.
Everyone feels sorry for themselves. It’s the way of
the world. Who would we be if we didn’t feel sorry for ourselves?

Still, he did not like to think of the bell captain.

Closing the trunk, he stood and stretched his back until it popped, and realized he was hungry.

Downstairs, he crossed the lobby. The Palauan conch peddler who, for the duration of the good weather, had manned a small wicker hut out on the beach and had contented himself with vending drift jewelry to small children with fistfuls of coin, had, on the persistence of the storm, moved his wares indoors; he stood now in the hallway, swaddled in the cool summer gray of a lightless morning, the shadows of the raindrops falling out beyond the foyer windows dimpling his dark skin, his face, the wide, tented expanse of his shoulders. He was a good-looking, tall, red-skinned man, vaguely European in some respects, whose hair was a black mat of tight curls cropped close to the scalp, but slightly longish at the back. He stood now behind his improvised dais, fronted with layered latticework and rosary ivy hung in looped smiles. A display of hemp-strung seashells and statuary conchs, each glossy and shellacked, was spread out like the honed tackle of a skilled surgeon on a felt coverlet atop the dais. There, too, were necklaces of sharks’ teeth and pale green twists of palm for sale; were the ruddy, barren shells of oysters adorned with faux jewels; were the fossilized indications of starfish and horseshoe crabs impressed upon the stone; were wreaths of magnolia blossoms strung together on lengths of wire.

“Sir,” the Palauan said.

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