Authors: Jon Loomis
“Okay,” Plotz said. “No problem.” He smiled. His teeth were small and incredibly white, as if they'd just been bleached. “Can't blame a guy for trying!”
Back in the Town Hall parking lot, Coffin cast a longing glance at Boyle's Crown Vic, then wrestled open the Dodge's sagging door and ducked inside. He turned the key and the engine cranked and died, cranked and died. Finally, on the fourth try, it roared to life, a cloud of oily blue smoke spewing from the tailpipe. Three teenage boys on skateboards gave him dirty looksâ
After waiting a minute or two for a gap in traffic, he backed
onto Bradford Street, goosed the Dodge up the hill, passed the undeniably phallic jut of Pilgrim Monument, and turned right on Shank Painter Road, the Dodge's front end shuddering. He passed Conwell Marsh and the A&P, finally pulling into the parking lot of Billy's Oyster Shack.
From the outside, Billy's was not encouraging: potholed parking lot, green Dumpster wild with gulls. The paint peeled; cigarette smoke had yellowed the windows. Step through the sprung screen door, though, and you found yourself in an agreeable time warp. Billy's hadn't changed much in the last thirty years: torn red vinyl booths and mother-of-toilet-seat formica tables, stand-up raw bar, jukebox full of blues and Motown. When people who didn't know better talked about Billy's, they said it was “retro.” “Retro” was a made-up thing, Coffin believedâan interior decorator's word (“inferior defecators,” his father had called them), a self-conscious attempt to mimic the pastâbut only the chrome and cow-shaped creamer part of the past, the polished and disinfected surface, not the inside of the past, the grit between the floorboards, the flypaper hung in the windows like bunting. Not the past's unlikely business plan, either: fresh oysters, cheap beer, hold the phony ambience.
the past, and as such, Coffin knew, it was doomed. One day it just wouldn't open, killed by property taxes and its shrinking clientele, and in the long off-season would reincarnate itself into something he hated: Chez Whatever, purveyors of small food on big plates; a new dance club; another place selling T-shirts and plastic lobsters and postcards that said “Sun Your Buns in Provincetown” above photos of muscular men in thong bathing suits.
Billy was short, stocky, and slope-shouldered. He walked with a hard limp and always seemed to be leaning a bit, head cocked, as though he were listening to a neighbor's conversation through a
wall. He'd been a fisherman until the mid seventiesâhad fished with Coffin's father in all weathers for almost fifteen years. Then a winch line had snapped and a net full of cod and trash fish had fallen on Billy, crushing him like a bug, breaking his pelvis and his back. Coffin's father had helped him with his medical bills and “loaned” him the money for the restaurant when he'd recovered. Coffin knew his father had never let Billy repay a dime.
Coffin stood at the raw bar, watching Billy expertly shuck the dozen oysters he'd orderedâ
zip zip zip,
and there they were on their beautiful half shells, pinkish gray, essence of low tide.
“How's Captain Nickerson doing?” Coffin asked, squeezing a thick lemon wedge over the paper plate full of oysters. Billy's parrot sidled nervously on its little swing. The bird had belonged to Coffin's father; it was found aboard his fishing boat, the
when the Coast Guard discovered the vessel drifting and empty, back in 1978.
“He's old, ugly, and highly inappropriate,” Billy said. “Just like me. That's why I like having him around. Plus, he reminds me of your old man.”
“Dad loved that bird. He used to let him out of his cage so he could fly around the house. Drove my mother crazy.”
“He was a good man, your pop,” Billy said. “I know you two didn't get along so good, but he was all right.”
“He had his moments,” Coffin said.
Captain Nickerson eyeballed Coffin, tilting his green head. “Show us your tits!” he said.
Coffin ate the oysters slowly, slurping them from their carbuncled shells, savoring the rubbery pulp between sips of beer. They were the local variety, small, firm, and very briny, and he ate them plain except for the squeeze of lemon juice to discourage any lingering bacteria. He did not believe in burying good oysters under cocktail sauce.
“Soâany leads?” Billy asked, leaning against the counter, wiping his broad hands on a bar towel. Billy was a scanner junkie, Coffin knew, one of those odd men who spent their free time listening to hour after hour of mindless police and fire department chatter, just in case something “good” happenedâwhich, until now, had meant a break-in or bicycle theft or DUI.
Coffin shook his head, mouth full of oyster and beer. He chewed deliberately and swallowed. “I thought Kathleen smashed your scanner with a ball bat,” he said.
“Got a new one.” Billy grinned, showing big yellow teeth. “On sale at Radio Shack, down in Orleans.”
“We don't know squat,” Coffin said. Anything he told Billy would be broadcast all over town in ten minutes flat. “Not our case, so nobody's telling us anything.” He sucked another oyster into his mouth.
Billy rolled his eyes. “Oh, that's great,” he said. “State police, then. Couple of brown suits from off-Cape interrogating the tourists. Can't be good for business.”
“The hell do you care?” Coffin said. “Last time a tourist came in here was three months ago. You threw him out because he was wearing a Yankees cap.”
“Eat me!” said Captain Nickerson. “Eat me!”
Billy smirked. “I taught him that. Pretty good, huh?”
“You're a genius.”
“So, I got a theory,” Billy said, leaning close.
“Good for you.” Coffin sipped his beer, then dabbed the foam from his mustache with a paper napkin.
“I figure it's a hate crime.”
“Yeah,” Billy grinned. “I figure the wife hated the son of a bitch so much, she wasted him.” He cackled, then coughed.
“Thar she blows!” said Captain Nickerson.
“Delightful,” Coffin said, frowning at the parrot. “You teach him that, too?”
“Nope. I figure your pop's responsible for that little nugget.” Billy leaned an elbow on the bar. “The Merkin guyâis it true?”
“Is what true?”
Billy lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. “He only had one ball.”
Coffin frowned. “You hear that on your scanner, too?”
Billy leaned close. His breath smelled like cigarettes and whiskey and something else, a sour whiff of decay. “I heard some other stuff, too.”
Coffin finished his beer. “Like what?” he said.
“I heard maybe your uncle Rudy's in town. Or was, anyway.”
“Who told you that?”
Billy's eyes were slightly yellow, like a goat's.
, Coffin thought.
“Ticky. Said he saw Rudy yesterday at the Little Store, buying rolling papers.”
Ticky was a retired fisherman with a neurological disorder that made his face twitch and jump in unpredictable ways. For the past ten years, he'd spent most of his time and most of his monthly disability check at Billy's.
Coffin's face felt hot. Rudy the loose cannon; Rudy who had something for him. “You believe anything Ticky says, you're dumber than I thought.”
Billy grinned. “The way things are going,” he said, “I don't know
to believe anymore.”
Coffin had been waiting in Dr. Branstool's office for almost ten minutes. The big bay window had a fine view of the town cemetery, the graves of all those fishermen, their wives and children.
There were the recent graves, too, so many in the eighties and early nineties, as the AIDS epidemic raged unchecked.
Dr. Branstool's office was brightly lit, with walls the color of buttercups. His desk was neat, the blotter and telephone and pictures of his children at precise angles. Coffin had the urge to rifle the file cabinet but sat still instead. Someone knocked discreetly at the door, and Branstool stepped in.
He wore a white lab coat over starched chinos and a pale blue shirt. His tie was raw silk, unpatterned, with a blueish gray sheen. His hair was short, not quite brown but not quite gray, his face placid, recently shaved. Branstool was a bit of a cipher, Coffin thought. He appeared neither stupid nor smart, outgoing nor shy, tall nor short, skinny nor fat, old nor young.
“Well well well well,” Branstool said, shaking Coffin's hand. “Good to see you again, Detective. Busy times for you these days, eh?”
Branstool sat down and opened a yellow folder on his desk. “You're here for a consult on your mother, isn't that right? Quite a girl, that mother of yours. Keeps us on our toes around here.”
“Full of piss and vinegar, my father would have said.”
Branstool frowned and pushed his round glasses up a little on his nose. The gesture was fussy; the doctor was a bit of a prude, Coffin thought.
“Hm, well,” Branstool said. “Was there a specific concern about your mother's condition, Detective? Something you'd like to discuss about her care here at Valley View?”
A small Jamaican man was mowing the grass outside, pushing the mower back and forth in front of the big window, the sound of its motor building and receding.
“I wonder what your assessment is,” Coffin said, raising his
voice as the Jamaican yardman passed the window. “Of her mental state. She seems pretty loopy most of the time, but I wonder if I don't set that off in a way. Is she ever lucid? Does she know what's going on around her?”
Branstool leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers together. His glasses glinted in the greenish fluorescent light, and Coffin wondered for a moment if the lenses might be plain glass. Had Branstool chosen to wear spectacles purely out of vanity? Did he think they made him look smarter?
“An interesting question,” Branstool said, consulting the folder. “It's difficult to say, really. Your mother's very
as you're no doubt aware. Certainly paranoid; sometimes delusionalâshe's accused her caretakers of all sorts of things, as you knowâvery common in patients with midstage Alzheimer's. But there are other factors at work, as you suggest. Some Alzheimer's patients develop strong, irrational antipathies to certain people, which may cause them to act spitefully or deceitfully, even to become violent. Your mother has, at times, exhibited all of these behaviors. She threw a baked potato at Mr. Conwell last week, for instance.”
“What if she said she'd had a recent conversation with someone that she most likely couldn't have had. That he was in her room.”
“To put it bluntly, Detective, Alzheimer's eats holes in people's brains, but the brain is a remarkably resilient organ, with a capacity for creating new pathways, little detours around damaged areas. In Alzheimer's patients, it's not uncommon to have hours or days or weeks of unexpected lucidity, a kind of temporary remission, as a new pathway opens up. Then, eventually, that pathway also becomes damaged. It's one of the saddest things about the disease, really. Now you see them, now you don't.”
Outside, the Jamaican man paused by the window and wiped his face with a large red handkerchief. Coffin caught his eye for a
moment. The man grinned, showing gold teeth, and twirled his index finger at his temple:
. Then he turned away and began to push the roaring mower again.
“So you're saying it's possible. She could have been telling the truth.”
“Or a version of it. She might have confused one person with another. It's not out of the realm of possibility, certainly. It's also possible your mother is playing some sort of game with you. She can be manipulative. The psychology of confinement.”
“What do you mean?”
“It's fairly common for institutionalized personsâthose who've lost a degree of personal autonomyâto wage an ongoing power struggle with those whose job it is to oversee them. Your mother's quite clever in this regard. She seems to take pleasure in tweaking us a bit from time to time.”
Piss and vinegar,
Good for her.
Before he left the nursing home, Coffin stopped in to see his mother. She lay sleeping in her bed with the television on, the remote clutched in her hand. Fox News was running a story about brave American soldiers stationed in a desert somewhere. Coffin stood in the doorway for a moment, looking at her. Asleep, she looked a hundred years old, her cheeks sunken, her forehead deeply lined. An incongruous stuffed duck in a yellow oilskin rain hat sat next to her on the bed. Coffin felt an ache start in the back of his throat.
His mother's eyes flew open. “Take a picture, why don't you,” she said.
“Hi, Ma. I didn't want to disturb you.”
“Well, you did. Whoever the hell you are.”
“It's me, Ma. Frankie.”
She glared at him, black eyes glittering in the greenish fluorescent light. “You're not Frankie,” she said. “Frankie's dead.”
Coffin pointed at the duck. “Is that new?”
“It sings,” his mother said. She pressed its foot, and the duck squawked through two choruses of “Singin' in the Rain,” flapping its wings and bobbing its beaked head to the rhythm.
“Good God,” Coffin said, reaching for the duck. “Where'd you get that thing?”
His mother snatched the toy from the coverlet and hugged it to her scrawny chest. “Keep your greasy mitts off my duck,” she said.
“Okay, okay.” Coffin held up his hands. “Whatever. I just wondered who gave it to you, that's all.”
His mother grinned, sharp-toothed and feral. “That's for me to know,” she said, “and you to find out.”