I’m hoping my readers will let me know what they think of my newest novel-Adrift in Charleston. I’m planning on posting it chapter by chapter on my blog. Here’s chapter one:
I had memorized the mapped route, but I followed the GPS lady-voice to 454 McKenna. I had Googled the home address of Elizabeth Myers and the school where she worked, had viewed it in satellite and street view and as there was still an hour or so of daylight, I was certain he would recognize it.
I wound my way through the neighborhood, old but not ancient, near the University of South Alabama. The house was buried deep in the neighborhood, a cluster of circles and dead ends. I turned on McKenna and slowly passed in front of the house. Two cars were in the drive. I lit another cigarette and drove on. I couldn’t risk delivering his package to her today.
The house spoke of old Southern elegance, but not extravagance, a house much like the house in Ruston that I knew she had lived in as a girl, shaded by oak trees, a gravel drive, a long porch extending across the front of the house where a black man had been shot when he dared to peep into the matriarch’s window. Yes, I had driven by that house too, even though it was not relevant to his present task. That’s the way it is with the dead. You have a best friend, but you discover you don’t know much about them or what was really important to them. And to be truthful, you’re not that interested in where an old girlfriend of your buddy once lived. Then the best friends dies and suddenly everything about him is important.
You become a private investigator of the dead.
* * *
The next morning, from my hotel I called the school where she worked. “Can you connect me to Elizabeth Myers, please,” I said to the secretary.
“Who is calling?”
“Are you related to Ms. Myers?”
“No, but someone close to us died recently and I need to pass on the details.”
The voice that came on next was calm, but held a touch of urgency. “This is Elizabeth.
“You’re Elizabeth Myers?”
“I am. Do I know you?”
“No, but you know about me. I’m Michael. I’ve been a friend of Sean’s for years.”
“Oh, yeah, How can I help you?”
“He told you about me I guess.”
“Did he send you? What do you want? I’ve got to get back to my class.”
“He did send me with a very important request.” I could guess what she was thinking—Was Sean okay? Is he in trouble again? Is he going to try to come into my life again?
“He did send me, but only with a request.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Okay, here is the moment I dreaded, he thought. “He’s dead, Elizabeth. I’m to deliver you some things of his and fill you in.” I heard a chocked sob.
“Dead? Oh, God . . .”
“We need to meet so I can give you this stuff. It needs to be today.”
“Well, you can’t come by the house. Can you meet me at Books-A-Million on Airport at around 6:00 p.m.?
“I’ll be there.”
As I knew that their first meeting had been at a BAM, I thought it fitting that this meeting be there too.
* * *
Elizabeth hung up the phone. She wiped her eyes and let her students keep working. She looked at her bookshelves and saw his books. Each time one was published, he had mailed it to her. Next to the books was the framed photograph he had sent her—black slouch hat, fringed leather jacket, guitar slung on his back, jeans and cowboy boots. His writing and his music—so much a part of him, so much of what had drawn her to him.
She sat at her desk the rest of the day, putting the rest of the day’s classes to work after she took roll. There was too much to think about, too much to absorb.
On the drive home, she played one of the music CD’s he had made for her—songs that made him think of her, he had said. Now, the songs made her think of him–Evanescence, Kasey Chambers, Van Morrison—musicians and songs she would never have found without him.
She buys a family meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken, and when she arrives home she says to her husband, “Here’s supper. You’re watching Evelyn tonight. I’ve got a meeting tonight that I can’t get out of. I’ll be back by nine.”
He turned up his nose when he saw the sack of food. “Kentucky chicken? Going to a lot of trouble for supper tonight aren’t you?”
“You can cook something else if you don’t like it.”
“What’s this meeting about? I had a ball game I wanted to watch.”
“So watch Evelyn and watch the game. You’ll do fine. Make sure she does her homework. I’ve got to go.”
She slung her purse on her shoulder and walked out of the kitchen.
“Elizabeth,” he called out. “What’s this meeting about?”
She didn’t answer, and the sound of her steps across the hardwood floor were steady and determined. She knew she’d pay for this later. Mark would be pissed and he would alternate a silent treatment with vicious sarcasm. He’d sleep on the couch or gripe at her in bed until she would leave to go sleep with Evelyn. There hadn’t been a scene like this since she and Sean had broken things off two years ago.
* * *
I alternated sipping on his Fiji water and the tall Columbian coffee I had purchased. Sean’s package lay before me. I resisted the urge to go through it again. I wondered what her reaction would be to the photos, letters, and the book of poems—the one book he knew she didn’t have of Sean’s. I hated doing this, but I knew that Sean would have done the same or likely even more for me.
I whispered, “Damn you, Sean. Why did you have to go to stinking Iraq?” The question was rhetorical because internally I knew why Sean had gone—for the money, for another book idea, because he no longer cared what happened to him in life. Maybe the one thing about the brutality of life is that if an experience or beating is bad enough, you are no longer afraid of what can happen.
I recognized her immediately when she entered BAM, dressed in typical teacher attire—button down white shirt and black jacket, black skirt to below her knees, black heels. Her hair was strawberry blonde and she had a freckled face. So, this is the woman that stole my friend’s heart, I thought. I wondered if it was something more than her obvious beauty that caused him to get off-kilter. Did he know deep down that the relationship was something that would never work? Did the poet inside him need a muse, even if it was a relationship that would only progress so far? Was their love like that of Dante and Laura, Dante’s beau ideal? No, Sean and Elizabeth’s relationship had gone far beyond that of Dante’s and Laura. Their year together had been the most passionate experience of his life Sean had said.
I raised my hand to catch her attention. She came to the table and asked, “Are you Michael?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Please sit down. Can I get you something to drink?”
“I’d like a chai with Splenda.”
I slid the package over to her. “This is yours. Why don’t you take a look while I’m ordering your tea.” He already knew from Sean’s poem “Chai” what she would likely want. And that she would want three packages of Splenda.
She looked at it a minute, as if weighing her own desire to look inside, then opened it.
I turned and moved on the line at the coffee counter. Whatever this moment was, he would let it be hers, and hers alone.
I returned and set the tea down for her.
“Thank you,” she said.
“No worries,” I said.
“Sean said that all the time.”
“Said what?” I asked.
“No worries. He was always so confident that one way or another, he could fix anything, or that serendipity would come our—his way.”
The photos inside the package were spread out in front of her. She picked up the book, caressing the cover with her hand. 300 Poems by Sean Evans. “I didn’t know he had written this one.”
“It came out last month when he was still in Iraq. I don’t think he even saw a copy. He dedicated it to you.”
She nodded. “Did you ever hear of anyone writing 300 poems for someone?”
“No,” he said.
“So, tell me about Sean’s death. It was in Iraq?”
“Yes, he was there teaching ESL classes to Iraqi government employees. He was one week away from coming home. He lived in the Green Zone, but one of the random rockets found his trailer one night. “ I handed her a business card. “You’ve got to contact this lawyer. Sean named you as his benefactor in case of death. You’ll get about a hundred thousand after lawyer’s fees.”
“Only one week away from coming back?”
“He went knowing the risks, but he thought the situation was stabilizing enough, so he just wanted to do his time and get out. Just like he and I both did with our marriages.”
“Well, actually she divorced him when he started drinking hard and spiraling out of control. She vowed to bleed him and she did. He felt his life had turned to shit, and I think he was hoping his books and music would take off and enable him to cut loose from working for anyone. He said, ‘Michael, I don’t think I’m suited to work for anyone on a long-term basis.’ I think he was right on the mark—after you two broke up, he was too high-strung, too independent, too self-destructive to work for anyone but himself and he knew it. So, he signed everything he owned over to his ex, bought a manual typewriter, a new laptop, and signed a year’s contract with one of the civilian contractors in Iraq. In his mind, he was trading one year of his life in misery for ten years of freedom. It seemed like a good plan. His funeral is going to be next week in Monroe at Kilpatrick’s.”
“Should I go?”
“His wife doesn’t know about you, so I think it would be okay if you went with someone else who knew him.”
“Why are you going to all this trouble?”
“Sean stuck with me all these years, even when everyone else had written me off. As I remember him talking, even you weren’t that crazy about him hanging around me.”
“Sorry about that. He told me that friends were off-limits, so I knew better than to ask him to choose or demand he not be your friend.”
“Yes, Sean did not respond well to demands,” I said. “Anyway, he’s going to be cremated. I’ve got a cenotaph to be put up in Magnolia Cemetery.”
She looked puzzled, so I said, “You know what a cenotaph is, right? It’s one of those markers set up to honor someone whose body is not there.”
“Did he want that? Why place it here? He never lived in Mobile.”
“Because you live here. So he could be near you at least in spirit. You told him you’d never leave Mobile like you did Monroe, right.”
She was now crying hard. “He died from a stray rocket?”
“Yeah.” She didn’t know that I was lying about dying from the rocket. But I knew she wouldn’t want to know the details about how he really died. Hell, it was almost more than I could stand to know. There are some things you can’t tell—even to the woman your best friend loved more than he had ever loved anyone.