Authors: Robert Pobi
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright ©2012 Robert Pobi
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
For my mother and father, who taught me to swing for the fence.
One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
But fix thine eyes below; for draweth near
The river of blood, within which boiling is
Whoe’er by violence doth injure others.
The Divine Comedy, Inferno
Montauk, Long Island
Two hundred feet below the rolling metal surface of the Atlantic, a handful of ghosts skittered along the ocean floor in a jerky seesaw roll, furling and unfurling in a diluvial ballet. They were dragged forward by the storm raging overhead, still together after miles of progress across the rock-strewn bottom. Soon the gentle slope of the sea floor would change pitch, the earth would drop away into black, and the ghosts would tumble down into the deep. There they would be picked up by the Gulf Stream to be dragged up the Eastern Seaboard, past Massachusetts, finally washing out into the North Atlantic. Maybe they would be consumed by the creatures that swam in the dark world of the cold waters—maybe they would simply decay and be forgotten—but it was certain they would never be touched by daylight or warmth again.
Debris littered the ocean floor around them and the sounds of the world coming apart at the seams echoed overhead. An army of lawn furniture, scabs of roofing tiles, plywood, tires, an old Barbie doll, golf bags, a dented refrigerator, oil paintings, a battered Dodge Charger—banged along in the current with them, heading straight out to sea. Of all the detritus, the Charger moved the slowest, tumbling over and over on its side, one door gone, the lights somehow still glimmering like the eyes of a dying robot. Barbie moved quickest, staying upright with the help of her buoyant plastic injection-molded breasts and the bubble of air trapped in her ancient, empty head.
The ghosts were given no special treatment, no consideration by the storm; they collided with appliances, snagged on rocks, were inelegantly covered with weeds and plastic bags and rips and tears in their skin like the rest of the garbage.
But unlike the other flotsam being herded out to sea, they were not the product of the hurricane; they had been created by something much more malevolent, and much less predictable, than weather.
Montauk, Long Island
Jake Cole stood at the door, looking down at the tattered mat he had last seen the night he had walked out more than a quarter of a century ago. Staring at the rug, he felt a minor sizzle in the circuitry as a burst of the old emotions came back but he very much realized that he was no longer afraid. Or angry. Or any of the other things that had finally given him the courage to leave. But the sensation was there, if only in the abstract.
The rug had aged, faded, and started to fray on three sides. Anyone else would have thrown it out. But not his old man. He had never paid attention to things like rugs. Or manners. Or his son. No, the only thing Jacob Coleridge had ever given a shit about was color. The rug was purple, only his father would have called it
. The flowers were once white—
. Purchased by his mother in a tourist shop in Montauk before she died and his father’s drinking got out of control and started crawling around in his skull like a poisonous spider, turning whatever kindness was left to pyrotechnic meanness.
Fuck it, Jake thought. “It’s purple and white,” and wiped his feet on it. He unlocked the big deadbolt and pushed the door open—his fingers splayed out on the dark teak—then stepped inside.
Without his father here he felt like he was invading the old man’s kingdom; besides being an extremely private man, Jacob Coleridge Sr. was a control freak extraordinaire. But Jake wasn’t an interloper; he had been summoned—beckoned, if you wanted to be exact—to make decisions for a man who was no longer capable of making them for himself. According to the doctor Jake had spoken to at the hospital, his father had set himself ablaze during an Alzheimer’s-fueled fit of confusion, coming as close to killing himself as anyone would want to get. And the hardcore hermit and workaholic had finally run out of time. He would never paint again. At that his son thought they might as well take him out behind the hospital, perch him on the edge of the dumpster, and blow his head off because without his painting, Jacob Coleridge wasn’t even there.
With perfect muscle memory, Jake’s fingers reached into the dark and found the heavy Bakelite switches just inside the door.
Flip, flip, flip.
The three Verner Panton Plexiglas globes that lit up the main foyer cracked to life. Jake stood in the doorway for a minute, the big aluminum Halliburton forgotten in his hand, and gazed around the room. In twenty-eight years it hadn’t changed—and not in the nomenclature of a real-estate agent telling you that it needed updating, although that was part of it; no, the stasis of the space was more visceral than that. The room was a stage set out of Dickens.
Jake walked past the Nakashima console in the entry—a big undressed slab of walnut—and dropped his keys on the dusty surface beside the wire-frame model of a sphere that had been there as long as he could remember. Dust and spiderwebs stuck to the polished metal surface in a fuzzy skin, and when Jake dropped the keys, the flesh of the sculpture moved, almost flinched, an optical illusion in the late-afternoon light. He moved into the body of the home.
The house had been one of the first all-glass dwellings built on the point. A marvel of modern design, with a heavily canted roof, California redwood beams, and a kitchen straight out of a Scandinavian design lab. His father’s reference library was there, swallowing up the wall around the slate fireplace. The surfboard coffee table was littered with dusty coffee mugs, scotch bottles, and unopened elastic-bundled copies of the
New York Times
. A forest of stubbed cigarettes filled a big ceramic ashtray with a bite-sized chunk sloppily glued back in place that sat on the floor. The sofas were in the same positions, the leather polished to a fine sheen, the arm of one chair hastily—and probably drunkenly—repaired with duct tape. His mother’s Steinway, unused since the summer of 1978, sat in one corner, one of Warhol’s
—a gift that Andy and that six-foot-three blonde he used to travel with had dropped off one weekend—hung lopsided over the dusty top.
Jake walked slowly through his father’s life, examining the last quarter-century. Obviously, Jacob had been riding the dementia train for some time; this didn’t just happen overnight. It took some doing. Some
doing. And the closing number had been one for the family album—a human torch dancing around the living room, punctuated by a crash through a plate-glass window topped off with a dive into the pool. Sure.
All systems go. Houston, we have no problems.
The general mess that used to lie on top of the order had burrowed down, into the bones of the place, so that disorganization was now the rule. Like a wrecking yard, entropy seemed to be the governing law of mechanics. The bottles, always a must in any room inhabited by the great Jacob Coleridge, were strewn about like empty shell casings. Jake bent over and picked one up. His old man’s taste had gone from Laphroaig to Royal Lochnagar—at least he hadn’t gotten cheap in his later years.
The weird part was the knives—yellow utility knives scattered throughout the space, always within reach. Jake picked one up, spun the wheel, and slid the blade out of the handle. It was rusty. They must have been on sale, Jake thought, and put it back down.
One of the twelve floor-to-ceiling panes that opened onto the ocean had been replaced with a sheet of exterior-grade plywood, the edges painted a bright green. This was where his father had gone through the glass on his way to the pool—clothes burning, fingers melting like candles. The pool sat in the middle of the weathered gray deck, a now green rectangular pond, the inside painted by Pablo Picasso and his father one drunken weekend in 1967.
Leaning against the back of the sofa was a Chuck Close portrait that someone had slashed the eyes out of—no doubt with one of the utility knives—the secret graffiti of one Jacob Gansevoort Coleridge Sr. Why would his old man do that?
Jake paused to examine a note taped to one of the remaining big front windows. Across a chunk of sketch paper, in the bold draftsman’s block letters of his father’s hand, it said,
YOUR NAME IS JACOB COLERIDGE. KEEP PAINTING.
Jake froze, his eyes crawling over the rough surface of the sketch paper, trying to decide if he was ready for this. The answer wasn’t long in coming.
. But this wasn’t one of those
things, this was one of those
things. There was a difference. He went into the kitchen.
He checked the fridge. Three cans of light beer, steaks that had passed being fit for consumption—human or otherwise—some time ago, a dozen Styrofoam soup containers half-filled with sludge well on its way to being petroleum, a lone wrinkled lemon that looked like an ancient abandoned breast, one shoe, a ring of keys, a dried-out chunk of sod, a couple of paperbacks, and a pair of utility knives—one in the vegetable drawer, one in the butter compartment. Jake closed the fridge and scanned the rest of the kitchen.
There were no dirty dishes to speak of, just a mottled layer of crumbs, dust bunnies, and paint-crusted fingerprints that looked like they had been there since before the Internet existed.
He opened a random drawer and found some paintings stuffed inside, small canvases stacked like books, dreary irregularly shaped blobs of black and gray that grimaced up at him, daring him to keep looking.
His father’s work had always been dark—in composition and theme—an early trademark among the proto-flower children of his generation who painted in beautiful colors and optimistic brushstrokes. But these little pictures were lifeless fields of gray and black with a red striation running through them, like veins just under the surface. They weren’t classic. They weren’t modern. When he thought about it, he realized that they probably weren’t even sane. Then again, what else could you expect from a man who kept chunks of lawn in the fridge and torched himself on a Thursday evening?
He looked around and wondered what had happened to the man he had left. The brilliant Jacob Coleridge had been reduced to leaving himself notes and painting mindless blobs of madness. Of all the things he had expected of his father, meaninglessness had never even been considered. Jake dropped the canvas back into the drawer and pushed it shut with his knee.
It was amazing how things could just turn to shit. Thirty-three years of misery had lived here. The house stunk of it. Maybe the best thing he could do would be to light up one of the newspapers, lob it into the living room, and close the door, leaving it to the fire. Let the whole place disappear from memory. Maybe that’s what the old man had been trying to do himself. Maybe he had finally had enough of his own company.
“Stop it,” he said aloud, and with the sound of his own voice came the realization that he was doing exactly what he had promised he wouldn’t—feel sorry for himself. He left the kitchen and crossed a hardwood floor littered with dozens of small Persian area rugs, overlapped at weird transepts like foreign postage stamps on a package.
He went to the big sliding doors that opened up to the ocean, and stood there, his hands in his pockets, his mind trying to be somewhere else. Anywhere else but here, in this home, in this place he swore he would never come back to. He watched the water and took control of his breathing. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a pack of Marlboros, and fired one to life with the sterling Zippo that Kay had given him.
He took in a lungful of smoke and focused on the ocean out beyond the beach. Staring at the water, he remembered the hurricane that was on the way. Another Cape Verde. The town was already preparing for it; he had seen the signs as he drove through on the way to the house—shutters going up, cars being loaded, bottles of water and flashlight batteries being horded by the crate. The grinning orange face of the CNN anchorwoman on the screen of the silent hospital-room television had held a little extra twinkle of malice in it when she had pointed to the massive swirling eye of the beast on the satellite images. It was a big one, bearing down on New England with an ETA of a little over fifty hours. Plenty of time for him to cross the Ts and dot the Is on whatever forms the hospital needed and still get the fuck out of Dodge. He focused on the horizon, trying to see past the clear sunlit day to the approaching storm, but all he saw was the static blue sky of a Winslow Homer watercolor. But bad things were on the way. Something about coming home made it necessary. Good old-fashioned luck, it seemed.
Jake finished his cigarette, dropped it to the floor, crushed it into the carpet with the heel of his boot, and turned away from the photorealistic painting of the Atlantic to the scratched negative of the house. He took his iPhone out of his pocket, dialed without really looking at the screen, and dropped into the thick leather sofa in a cloud of dust.
rings. He checked his watch. Jeremy would be with the sitter and Kay would be at practice, her phone turned off and—
“Kay River,” she answered, the distant caw of the orchestra resonating thinly in the background.
“Hey, baby, it’s me. I just wanted to hear that you and Jeremy were doing all right.”
“We’re good. Don’t worry about us. How’s your dad?”
Jake thought back to the sedated man he had seen at the hospital an hour ago. The white points of mucus in the corners of his eyes. The labored breathing. His hands, melted off and swathed in bandages. “Older would be the appropriate response.” He focused on the waves beyond the pool, hitting the beach, the music accompanying Mother Nature nicely. “Campioni?” he asked, trying to place the arrangement.
Kay laughed. “Good guess. Luchesi.”
“Sorry. I try.”
“I didn’t marry you for your ear.”
“I know.” An image of Kay flowered in his head, her freckles and smile swirling into a mental hologram.
“Are you at the hospital?”
“Finished an hour ago and just got to my dad’s place. It’s a mess. Don’t know if I can stay here.” His eyes crawled over the room, taking in the details. With the garbage and art it looked like a ransacked tomb in the Valley of the Kings, minus a sarcophagus. “Or want to.”
“You can. And should. This is what you need, even if you don’t know it, Mr. Know-it-all.”
Why was it she always knew how to make him feel better about the demons? All he said was, “Okay.”
“Look, I have one more rehearsal tomorrow that wraps up early. Jeremy and I could catch the bus out there. I can spare a few days. I don’t want you going through this by yourself.”
His eyes left the bright moving canvas of the beach beyond the window and found the broad porcelain ashtray with the hastily repaired chunk. That had happened what? Thirty-one years ago now. His hand unconsciously went to the base of his skull and he felt the lump of scar tissue, the one that still lit up if he stared at bright lights too long or got stuck in traffic.
“—ake? Are you there? Jake? Are you—”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I guess I’m more tired than I thought. I’m going to grab a nap, maybe get some food.”
“That sounds like a good idea. Eat some protein. Sardines and cream cheese on multigrain, okay?”
He smiled, and it was a welcome change from the grimace welded to his skull since the hospital had called. “Thanks, babe. I miss you already.”
“I miss you, too. Call if you’re feeling lonely, even if it’s two in the morning. Deal?”
“Deal. Bye, baby.”
He dropped the phone to the littered surface of the coffee table. Motes of dust sprouted, and Jake realized that if Miss Havisham had been a booze hound, she would have hit it off with his old man. As long as she was good at hiding under beds and locking doors when the wolfing hour took hold of her man.