Serve You Right to Suffer
Good beginnings always start in the middle. Taz was sure about that much. It was just that he wasn’t sure about this particular beginning. He was rubbing his cheek, picking off bits of the decayed rope he had coiled and used for a pillow. It was just before dawn, by the looks of it. Gray in every direction. A light drizzle fell through the mist. Out over the salt marsh the plaints of seagulls pierced the fog. Taz cast a bleary look around the floating dock. Low tide. Smell of damp salt and marsh grass. He heaved himself up to the deck. A deep rumble as a scallop boat thrummed down the channel toward the breakwater at the old bridge. He kneaded his neck. His collar was wet with dew.
Only his mouth qualified as dry. An army in dirty flannel boots had apparently marched over his tongue in the middle of the night.
Fuck me and fuck the whisky too.
Seemed like a good idea at the time. He tried to remember the sequence of events that had led to the brilliant inspiration to spend the night on the dock. Whisky, cigars, and poker with the crew of the Mary Dee, one of the scallop boats that made regular refueling stops on the Chincoteague docks. As usual, he had lost more than he had won. Afterwards, a long and unsuccessful flirtation with Roxy.
How’d I even get here?
The Pony Pines, the island’s only real bar, the one where Roxy presided, was a good mile-and-a-half away, down the Eastside Road facing the Assateague Channel. Taz looked around, unzipped, pissed into the dark water. At least the town cops hadn’t found him curled up next to the Ski-Doos. The only thing for it was to head home and clean up.
He stepped gingerly along the wooden deck on the side of the old restaurant, closed now for two years. Sidled around a few spots where the planking was rotten and he could see through to the oily water. At the back, the deck opened onto a big gravel lot where folks used to park to drink at the old Chincoteague Inn. Not a vehicle in sight. Sharp gravel reminded him that he was barefoot. No clue where he’d left his shoes. Stepping tenderly across the gravel to Main Street, he headed east on Ocean Boulevard. Found his truck next to a yellow front-end loader in the vacant sand lot behind the Dollar Store. A twelve-year-old Toyota. She had once been red. “Rusty but trusty,” he liked to say. Old Faithful. She started with the usual cough and growl and stink of gasoline. When, exactly, had he lost his way? And when had we—all seven billion of us—fucked everything up? Irrevocably.
Back at the cottage, he lit a gas burner, pulled a coffee cup out of the pile of dishes in the sink, drizzled what was left of yesterday’s coffee into it, and tuned the radio to the local NPR station. Nothing there but bad news. He shut it off and searched for his current favorite record, John Lee Hooker’s only album on Impulse, a jazz label. Skipped the boogie-woogie and got right to the title track. He bounced the needle and cursed. A grim smile as he heard the deep, guttural voice, the voice of a man who had seen it all.
“Serve you right to suffer. Serve you right to be alone.” The bass throbbed and the reverb on the guitar sounded as ghostly as ever. “That’s why, that’s why, that’s why—you can’t keep from crying.”
He splashed cold water on his face. Again. The image in the mirror was not bad looking, though it would be unlikely to end up on the cover of a fashion magazine. Wavy brown hair parted on the right, with touches of gray above the ears, just now more than a little mussed.
A red welt on his cheek from snuggling with the ragged hemp rope. Rust-colored stubble beard, shaved close, also flecked with gray. Nose just slightly crooked, broken in high school by a zealous center back. Eyes medium set under brows just prominent enough to give a convincing glower, or arch with a question. Brown with hints of green under unruly eyebrows. He brushed his hair, pulled out some tangles, winced. Hint of a smile as he finished the mental catalogue.
“Your doctor told you to take milk, cream, and alcohol . . .”
Taz rustled up some eggs for breakfast, ran through a quick inventory of the day. The heating ducts in the crawl space needed to be bracketed and taped. Figure two hours on that, then bike to the beach. Look for migrants along the way. September’s good for godwits, or maybe a few early teal. Walk up the strand a mile or two. He had found a loggerhead turtle nesting there a week before. Wondered whether Ricky had a good-looking flounder fillet for dinner. Maybe just settle for a slice of pizza from Famous next to the Greek place down at the circle. Then a good stiff drink. Or two.
It wasn’t the life he had imagined as he faced the roaring forties, as the Antarctic sailors would put it. Envisioning his future had never been his strong point. Much less designing it. Maybe he had just peaked too early. Policy deputy to the Secretary of the Interior in his early thirties; lead environmental negotiator for the State Department at thirty-seven. Two global treaties under his belt and an invitation to join State’s team at the United Nations in New York. Romanced and married the girl of his dreams. High times.
Then the country went crazy, the Supreme Court threw the election to the losing candidate, and Taz’s political status changed overnight from up-and-coming to boarding the Siberian Express. Can’t blame politics, though. That’s like blaming the weather. Politics is something you navigate—or don’t. If you wind up facedown in a ditch, maybe you’d better learn to pack a parachute.