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Authors: Richard Ford

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Arnie Urquhart is changed and changed dramatically from the last time I saw him—at the closing, a decade ago. Every year he's sent me a Christmas card, each one with a shiny color photo showcasing several smiling, healthy-as-all-get-out humans, grouped either on a dense, oak-shaded lawn, grass as green as Augusta, a big, white, rambling red-shuttered house in the background; or the same bunch in cabana attire, tumbled together on the sand, all grins, with a sparkling ocean behind and a golden retriever front and center. I assumed the beach picture to be taken more or less where we are at present, depicting the righteous outcome of things when life goes the way it ought to. At one point a smiling
brown
face became part of the Christmas showcase (female, pretty, young, in some kind of ethnic or tribal costume). Then two years later that face was replaced by an even more broadly smiling blond girl who I thought (for some reason) was Russian. I might've noticed the change in Arnie's looks right then, if I'd been looking closely. But I was never bored enough.

But sometime in the decade Arnie's undergone considerable “work.” The Arnie Urquhart I sold my house to—age fifty-four—was a stout, balding, round-belly, thick-knuckled old Wolverine net-minder and only son of a crusty Eastport lobsterman. Arnie had made it off the boat on his hockey skills, then studied history and became a scholar. After graduation, he drove dutifully back to Eastport to be stern-man for
his ailing pop, but got “kicked off by the ole man for my own good.” After which, he picked up an MBA at Rutgers, worked a decade in institutional provisioning, then went out with his own ideas and made a ton of money running a fancy fish boutique, catering to big-money types in Bernardsville and Basking Ridge. With his Maine-boy solidity, athlete's doggedness, and a lifetime gnosis regarding fish, Arnie (who was a quick read) figured out that what he was selling was authenticity—
his
(as well as Asian Arowana and Golden Osetra). The Schlumberger and Cantor-Fitzgerald bosses all adored him. He showed up personally in the van with his sleeves rolled up, meaty forearms bared, grinning and ready to give great service at a top price. He toted trays, set out canapés, made tireless trips back to the shop, saw to it that every single fishy thing was better than perfect. He reminded his rich customers of the get-your-hands-dirty (and smelly) New England work ethic that made this republic great, powerful, and indomitable and always would, and that they'd gone to Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth to make sure they never got any closer to than the length of Arnie's sweaty arm.

“I just shake my head, Frank,” Arnie said to me, when we were getting the house sold back in '04. “My ole man'd drown each and every one of these cocksuckers like palsied puppies. But I like 'em. They're my bread-and-butter. The moment they're gone—and they
will
be, take my word for
it—I'll be right up there in Hopatcong with fish gunk on my hands, delivering lobsters to a whole new limo-full of boy geniuses.”

Arnie knew something about the future. How much he knew might've been worth something to somebody paying attention to our economy back in '08.

What's since then happened to Arnie appearance-wise, however, is not much short of alarming. His big face, once scuffed and divoted by a boyhood on the briny, now looks lacquered, as though he'd gone to the islands and picked up some new facial features. There's also something strange about his hair. Arnie, like Corporal Alyss, was never a good-looking brute. And even with whatever strange resurfacings and repointings he's gone in for, he's no more handsome than he was, nor any younger-looking—which must've been the goal. He has the same snarly mouth, the same pugnacious chin, the same brick-bat forehead and too-narrow eyes and meaty ears. I'd assumed the new brown face in the Christmas photo had been a son's young wife. But possibly she'd belonged to Arnie, who by then had made some dough and traded up from his original wife—first, for a winsome Shu-Kai, then later on for a busty Svetlana. Along the way he'd felt the need to make the old outer-Arnie keep pace with the spirited, energetic, seemingly ageless inner-essence Arnie. Whatever. His need dictated a Biden-esque transplant to replace his old Johnny-U
flattop—a follicle forest that's now grown in but will never look natural. Likewise, the center crevice between Arnie's thick eyebrows has been paved over—the part he formerly utilized to register stare-you-down take-it-or-leave-it's to the high dockside price of halibut and Alaskan crab claws. Plus, the old gulley-gulley of his previously pocked neck now looks the
smoothed
way it did in his '68 Wolverine team picture, when he was known as “Gumper Two” and had the habit of roaring out from between the pipes and kicking your ass if he thought you needed it.

I just have to trust that the old Arnie's in there somewhere. Though, in truth, his re-purposed “look” has left him looking compromised and a little silly and (worst of all) slightly feminized—which couldn't have been what the doctor promised. These decisions are never a good idea.

A
RNIE'S WALKED ON AWAY FROM ME AND COME TO
stand in front (though also possibly to the side) of our ruined house. He's looking up into what's been skinned open by the wind and water—stark rooms with furniture, plumbing, appliances, ceiling fixtures, white electric harness-work sprung and dangling, giving the shambles a strangely hopeful stage-set look of unfinality, as if something might still be done. It can't. The Democrat-donkey weathervane I nailed
to the roof ridge back in '99 at great risk to myself has been bent and busted and left hanging—unrecognizable, if I didn't know what it was and signified. Opposition to “W” Bush.

Arnie's wearing a sharp, brown-leather, thigh-length car coat, high-gloss, low-slung Italian loafers, a pair of cuff-less tweed trousers that probably cost a thousand bucks at Paul Stuart, and a deep-maroon cashmere turtleneck that altogether make him look like a mafia don instead of a high-priced fishmonger.

I've struggled out of my car, tossed my gum, and am instantly cold—my ribs especially—as if I wasn't wearing a shirt under my jacket. The leavening effects of the Gulf Stream are, of course, bullshit. I'm only wearing an old Bean's Newburyport, chinos and deck shoes—at-home attire for the suburban retiree-not-yet-come-fully-to-grips-with-reality. I'm also concerned about stepping on a nail, myself. And because of something Sally said, I feel a need to more consciously pick my feet up when I walk—“the gramps shuffle” being the unmaskable, final-journey approach signal. It'll also keep me from falling down and busting my ass.

What is it about falling? “He died of a fall.” “The poor thing never recovered after his fall.” “He broke his hip in a fall and was never the same.” “Death came relatively quickly after a fall in the back yard.” How fucking far do these people fall? Off of buildings? Over spuming cataracts? Down
manholes? Is it farther to the ground than it used to be? In years gone by I'd fall on the ice, hop back up, and never think a thought. Now it's a death sentence. What Sally said to me was “Be careful when you go down those front steps, sweetheart. The surface isn't regular, so pick your feet up.” Why am I now a walking accident waiting to happen? Why am I more worried about that than whether there's an afterlife?

Fog has pushed in onto the high-tide beach. My cheeks and hands are stinging with damp. The air's hovering at the dew point, ready to turn to water and freeze when the temperature dives. Somewhere nearby a vicious saw whine goes silent. A truck door slams, its engine starts, then revs, then shuts down. The Mexican house gutters, invisible beyond the berm, have knocked off for an early almuerzo. Quiet and wondrous seaside beauty has descended. The ocean's hiss and foghorn are all that's audible.

And like a pilgrim at Agra, I'm struck by my former house's solid stationary-ness, a wreck held in place only by its great weight. It has taken up a persuasive residence on the berm, with its former neighbor houses all gone. It is solemn, still, and slightly mournful teetering so, as if it was aware of its uninhabitability, but determined to re-find dignity in size. I look to my toes to determine if I've got good footing. Something catches my eye, sand crusting over my shoe tops. A bright blue condom lies in front of my toe—out of its wrapper,
elongated and spent, its youthful users now far away. I could see it as a gag gift from Poseidon. Though I prefer to see it as a sign that humans are drifting back to this spot already—now that it's vacant—and utilizing the beach as they have and should. Possibly sooner than anyone's predicting, complex life will resume here, and time will march on.

“So. The guy says to me. This putz speculator,” Arnie says. We're at a distance from each other. Forces of officialdom have spray-painted a red circle on the broke-open side wall of the house, then divided it into pie-shaped thirds, and inscribed mysterious numbers and letters—code for the structure's present state of body and future. Total loss being the gist of it. Arnie's carrying on talking. It could be to anyone—if anyone else was here. I notice he's lost his old nyak-nyak Maine accent. “. . . he says, this speculator, ‘We'll buy your lot, pay to have the derelict hauled off. Write you a check on the spot. 'Cause you're gonna be payin' taxes on the fucker, house or no house. Insurance won't pay. Rates'll be sky high if you
do
rebuild—assuming anybody'll insure you at all. And once the new flood map's issued by fuckin' Obama's lackeys, you'll be sitting on unbuildable ground. If it's not already flooded
again
. Plus the goddamn thing'll have to be up on fucking stilts. Who wants that kind of African rig-up? Beachfront. BFD.'” Arnie shakes his head, staring up at the vacant husk. He sniffs, clears his throat, coughs in the new, approved CDC
way—into his elbow. No doubt his new wife has schooled him in this. He would never do it otherwise. “So what's your view, Frank? A disinterested observer? What would
you
do? I said
ix-nay
to three million exactly one year ago. And that was a shit market. I'm fucked, is how you spell it.”

“What's the guy offering?” Arnie's a few feet up the berm. I'm not sure I'm being heard.

“Five and change. I told you,” Arnie says bitterly. “I was leavin' the place to the kids. My daughter's a diplomat in India. Got her own car and a fuckin' armed driver.”

“Do you need the money?” I've come to within a few feet of him, but I'm still talking
up
.

The cotton-y whiteness of the fog has made a cloud of vitreous swimmers swarm my vision, slightly disorienting me. Tiny tadpoles of blood cells, like space junk, shift and subside in my vision—the result of an old Marine Corps cudgel-stick blow to the eye that sent me reeling. They're harmless and would be pretty if they didn't feel like vertigo.

Arnie obviously believes that the money question doesn't require an answer, because he's stuck his hands in his pockets and extended his big chin like Mussolini.

“Was the place paid off, Arnie?” As I said, I haven't consulted my records. I believe cash was exchanged—though a second mortgage is possible.

“Nah,” Arnie says. “F-N-C. I paid you cash. You're slippin', Frank.” He swivels around and looks at me dismissively, a few paces back down the berm from him. There's, of course, a standard calculator for “calamity expense”: take the rebuild off the value of the house the day
before
disaster struck (October 28th); add twenty-five K as an inconvenience surcharge, then don't sell the sucker for a farthing less. That, of course, may not work if you can't be certain the ground will be ground and not seawater in ten years. Normally I counsel patience in most things. Patience, though, is a pre-lapsarian concept in a post-lapsarian world.

“If one of these speculators suffered what I've suffered here, you know what would happen to him?” Arnie's turned and started back down the berm, his loafers taking on sand. He's stared at his ruin for long enough. He doesn't really want my advice.

“He'd get richer, Arn,” I say.

“So fuck it,” Arnie says. “F-U-C-K.” Like most conversations between consenting adults, nothing crucial's been exchanged. Arnie just needed someone to show his mangled house to. And there's no reason that someone shouldn't be me. It's a not-unheard-of human impulse.

Arnie walks right past me in the direction of my car. “You're well out of it, Frank,” he says. Close up, I can see better the elements of his new feminized visage. Possibly he
forgets how he looks, then remembers and feels skittish and starts looking for an exit. He realizes everyone's seeing the new Arnie, the same way he does in the mirror every morning, and that it's weird as hell. The smoothed-out, previously raveled Gumper forehead, the stupid tree-line hair implantation, the re-paved cheeks and un-ruckled neck. I don't look in mirrors anymore. It's cheaper than surgery.

“Here's what
I'd
do, Arnie,” I say to Arnie's back, heading down the berm. “Sell the son of a bitch and let somebody else worry about it. It's OPM. Other people's money.” I don't know why, but
I'm
now talking like a Jersey tough guy.

Arnie's not hearing me. He's already down by my car in the shifting fog. It's gotten colder than I want to expose myself to in just my light jacket. My toes are stinging up through my shoe soles.

Arnie stops by my blue car, turns to look at me, where I'm still halfway up the sandy-weedy extrusion, the house shambles behind me. The foghorn emits its baleful call from nowhere. The striper fisherman's long gone. Likewise the Glucks (we always called them the “Clucks”). It's just us. Two men alone, not gay, on an indeterminate mission of consoling and being consoled, which has suddenly revealed itself to be pointless.

Which means trouble could be brewing. Arnie's a man who answers his phone by just saying his name—as though
to say, “Yeah? What? Speak your piece or get lost.” These men have hair-trigger tempers and can't be trusted to do the right thing. How many
women
answer their phones by saying their names? So much for “I'm here.”

BOOK: Let Me Be Frank With You
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