On a satisfying current of confidence, Charlie Brompton said his last goodnights and walked down the steps of his restaurant into the warm June evening. The food had been characteristically impeccable, he had seen a few good friends, but not so many that he’d felt obliged to converse more than he really wanted, and Camilla Stokes, his adroit and charming manager, and soon to be principal owner of the 26-A, had told him a raucous new joke.
His buoyant frame of mind arose from a pervasive sense of trust. After wavering for the better part of two years, Charlie had finally decided to pass on the 26-A, the elegant eatery he had established nearly twenty years ago in the early days of Seaside and had named for the stretch of scenic coastal highway on which it had grown to such preeminence, as well as the Blue Bar, its famously funky alter-ego a few miles west in Old Laurel Beach. He had nurtured the 26-A into what everyone who knew anything agreed was the best restaurant, both in terms of food and ambience, on the Gulf Coast. Some insisted it was the best in the southeast between New Orleans and Savannah. Over the years, Charlie had also worked his magic on the Blue Bar. He had enhanced its weird, cozy cachet and brought it to truly legendary status as the quintessential beach joint.
At sixty-six, Charlie was finally as ready as he was going to be to let go of his brilliant, renowned, and adored offspring—his only children: he had found the right people to whom he could entrust their life and future.
# # #
An hour later, emerging from the Blue Bar, he decided to leave his car in an out-of-town friend’s drive and walk home, to enjoy the still fresh and breezy air of early summer. With less than an hour now to closing, the band’s old soft-rock favorites and jazz had given way to slow-dance nostalgia. Their range was one of the things Charlie liked best about this favorite tried-and-true group: like the eclecticism of the Blue Bar itself, they had something for everyone. As he walked the familiar path, at first treading on crushed shell, then hard-pressed sand, among the low dunes and sea oats, the music eddied behind him, swirling away beneath the light slaps of wind from the Gulf and then welling back up in the silences.
“Lovely—never, never change, Keep that breathless charm—
Can’t you please arrange it?—’cause
I love you—just the way you look tonight.”
Charlie had reached a point a few years back when the poignant lyrics of all the great songs about love and moons and Junes, about all the pairings of life, as opposed to its solitudes, no longer caused much of a twinge. When they no longer evoked the many relationships of his life that had never quite made it, or the one that almost did—the one for which he had fought, suffered, nearly become a different person. He couldn’t remember now exactly when he’d first noticed this not insignificant release from the potent effects of good music, or how or why it had happened. Was it happenstance? Sheer will? A certain maturity? Hardening of the arteries? He was simply grateful for it. He loved music, of all sorts, and he had never liked trying to hide his heart from its power, any more than he would allow himself to pretend that it didn’t matter. Context, a longer view, old age. Who knew? But, whatever it was, it was, like so much in his life, good.
# # #
He was whistling softly as he finally approached his house through the overarching trees, breathing in deeply the outrageously synthesized headiness of magnolias, myrtle, and laurel, all, because of a cool, wet spring, still in late bloom. He decided to go in the front door, even though the path from the beach brought one first into the side yard and more closely to the back of the house. He often chose to do this, because he never tired of standing for a moment in the drive, before mounting the verandah steps, just taking in the house. It always seemed, on his returns, to be dreaming, in the moonlight, or in the soft rain, the sunset, or the wind, and then, slowly, to awaken, with something like a gentle smile, at his approaching footsteps.
What a corny old geezer, what an old homebody he was becoming.
He’d set out years ago to build a world on his terms. He’d done more than all right. It wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t completely successful. But, as he turned the key in the heavy oak door and stepped into the ocherish lamplight of the lower gallery, he felt pleased and content with life at large and with his corner of it.
And not a little sorry for all the human beings he knew, or had known—too, too many—who could not say the same.
# # #
Charlie was tired; he was rarely up this late anymore. But with his days as a hands-on parent and host now numbered he found that he sometimes liked to linger even more than usual over dinner at the 26-A, or take his drink into the kitchen beforehand and watch the easy command of Victor’s magic, staying well out of his way, of course, perched on a stool in a corner but enjoying snippets of conversation when opportunities arose on the fly, or, afterward, nurse a brandy or coffee in the roof garden or bar, allowing Fentry to regale him with the latest Seaside gossip. And, more often than he had done in quite some time, he would then sometimes cap the evening by stopping by the Blue Bar for a few minutes, simply to walk through its laid-back but boisterously joyful funkiness, its uniquely rich and teeming diversity of life.
On a recent visit, an old friend from New Orleans (a seminarian in his youth who had opted out for a career as a distinguished pediatrician primarily because of his passions for medical science, rich food, and grand opera) had irreverently nailed it one such evening with a fond smile: “Ah, we’re doing the stations of the cross.”
# # #
The great house felt assured, comfortably self-possessed, a bit mysterious and full of thoughts. It was after one, and the clocks had taken up the hushed chorus of their nightly rule.
He had turned out all the lights except for a side-table lamp beneath the broad curving staircase when he noticed the mail. He hadn’t looked at it earlier on his way out; it still lay in a neat stack at the end of the table: the usual assortment of bills, business, odds and ends. He was shuffling it back, to be dealt with in the morning, when he noticed a plain white envelope with crude block lettering, no return address, postmarked Panama City Beach.
He opened it. It didn’t take long to read.
WE KNOW ALL ABOUT YOU. YOU THINK YOU’RE SMART BUT WHAT YOU ARE IS A FRAUD. YOU THINK NOBODY KNOWS AND YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH ANYTHING. THAT REMAINS TO BE SEEN.
Charlie was, for a moment, slightly nonplussed. “Jesus,” he breathed. But, within minutes, he had torn the note and envelope into countless pieces and, not wanting it to adulterate the small brass waste can nearby, had walked all the way back into the mudroom off the kitchen to throw it into the trash.
It was difficult to be seriously upset or offended by such aberrant foolishness. It was only his passionate regard for personal privacy, his or anyone else’s, that made him angry. Certainly, in any public sense, he had never hidden anything, and people had, over the years, taken or left him as he was: one of the most successful and prominent businessmen along the coast, former three-term mayor of Old Laurel, twice a South Walton county commissioner, senior warden of St. John’s-by-the-Sea, pragmatically rabid nature preservationist.
He decided to put it out of his mind, and, to some degree, did so.
Slowly climbing the broad, curved staircase, he sought to reenter his earlier mood of quiet satisfaction. As he ascended, he looked at the oils and watercolors that curved along the high walls, looked down at the softly gleaming koa-wood parquet, heard the measured pulse of the clocks.
He might not have everything, but he had so much. Safety. Security. Friends. A beautiful and much-loved place. Regrets? Well, the losses that any human life is heir to. But nothing catastrophic, no unhealable wounds.
But then he found himself thinking, as he so often did, of Hudson DeForest.
In his heart, he wondered if Hudson had forgiven life, had forgiven himself.
And somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered if Hudson would be able to forgive him.
It was one thing, he thought, to have loved and lost. Certainly, loss could involve all sorts of violence. But Hudson’s loss—that kind of blow, that kind of violence—was altogether something else. Had it created an alien universe for him, one where quite possibly everything, and everyone, was irredeemable?
Would Hudson ever be able to listen to the great songs again?
If only Hudson knew what he, Charlie, knew. That he had had to build a life on trying to survive, to be content and confident, by acting like a survivor, by telling himself that he could be confident, be content. If I appear to be, maybe I’ll seem that way to the world. Maybe I’ll even seem that way to myself.
For the thousandth time, he thought, I, of all people, should—might?—be the one to help Hudson. But he also knew that he, of all people, was the one person from whom Hudson might least allow it.
Hudson DeForest had driven out of Memphis before dawn, with the heat from the previous day already gathering a torpid pulse in the dark. As he finished loading the Highlander, a sole cardinal, perched in the crape myrtle, floated a series of falling notes, a tired serenade with little variation, over and over again. There had been no rain for more than two weeks, just seamlessly sunstruck days and breathless nights, more characteristic of August than of early June. Hudson was eager—no, anxious—to get out of town, to be speeding south through the Delta so that at first light the sharp green of the undulating fields and occasional stands of old forest might afford at least the optical illusion of freshness.
He also wanted to get to the cottage by mid-afternoon so that he would have time to unpack and turn around a few times before the long Gulf twilight set in. To arrive at twilight, always his favorite, and, for the past two years, also the most fearful time of day, would not be the way to begin. He had made good time and, unless he ran into unexpected road repairs, would be at the cottage around two o’clock. The closer he got, the stronger the urgency. Nothing was more critical now than getting to the cottage, unless perhaps it was the constant realization that he must stop focusing on its importance.
He was still in pain. He was still angry. He was ready as he would ever be.
At noon, he crossed the long bridge over Mobile Bay, the first sight of southern blue waters looming up all around him. The glittering expanse stung his eyes. Two, two and a half more hours, and he would be there. He would pull over onto the narrow, sandy shoulder, into the shade of the pines. Even before carrying a first load up the walk overhung by the magnolia, the scrub oaks, and the two giant lantanas, he would simply climb the two steps to the front porch, put the key in the lock, and step inside. For only a moment. Then he would begin the business of settling in. But it was that one moment that he needed to come to now as soon as he could possibly reach it. The moment he had approached over and over again, for months, both consciously and in dreams, the moment he had lived up to but not yet through, and which, until he knew he could, stood between him and what remained of his heart.
# # #
“Kate,” he said, once softly, and then, immediately, more loudly with a kind of fury.
From sound sleep on the cool plank floor at the end of the bed, the golden retriever thrust up on his front legs, barked once, low, almost silently, and stared questioningly at the figure now sitting up in the bed.
“Sorry, Moon. It’s okay. Go back to sleep…”
But Moon, despite only one prior visit to the cottage three years ago as a puppy, recognized a pre-dawn routine he had not seen for some time at home, a tone in Hudson’s voice, a tension in his shoulders, and did not lie down.
“The Return of the Bad Roommate. Four forty-eight. Almost six hours. God knows I’ve done worse.” He disentangled himself from the sheet. “Since I’ve wrecked your well-earned beauty rest, may I offer a low-fat Milkbone?
With Moon uncharacteristically following at his heel, Hudson shuffled along the hall to the main room with its open kitchen in one corner. Across the long room, he had left a lamp on near the hearth, and it illuminated the area in which he had made his stand for a couple of hours after a long walk down the beach at last twilight: magazines, a book, a glass. The third scotch was probably the culprit. He might have slept another hour or so. It hadn’t seemed particularly indulgent. He rarely overdid it and had weaned himself, though not easily, off the sleeping pills a year ago. The furniture had been fanatically rearranged, and some pieces might be moved yet again. And though most of the packing had been carefully put away in its places, some things had even more carefully been left as a possible planned activity for today.
“A guy with a plan, Moon, that’s your old man.” Moon contented himself with a Milkbone and was looking up for another when, instead, he rolled his head aside and stared at a point about four feet up in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that flanked the fireplace.
It was the tentative yet querulous sound of Hudson’s tabby cat, Olive, who thus far could discern no reason for her recent upheaval. She stared down, appalled, at Moon and then up at Hudson.
“All present and accounted for.”
He made coffee, and just as the windows began to grey up with morning, he finally allowed himself to sit down and cry. No racking sobs, only a quiet weeping that lasted two or three minutes. Though Moon came closer and sat at his feet, the beasts seemed not otherwise perturbed, and by six-thirty, when real sunlight finally worked its way through the trees and the fanlight above the front door, and Hudson was making toast, Olive leapt gently onto the pickled pine floor. Without looking at either Hudson or Moon, she stretched, nudged her way around the long trestle table, still unconvinced, then sauntered to the middle of the kitchen and sat, unmoving, her shoulders rigid, expecting someone to begin right then and there to ameliorate her lingering perplexity and abject, though artfully masked, terror.