“Since I Lost My Baby”
by Frank South
“I’m going to get another one of these blue drinks. What are they called again?”
She stood up and brushed some sand from the back of her calves. I looked up. The late afternoon sun was behind her new hat. I couldn’t see her face. “Blue Hawaii,” I said.
She knew that. She picked up her straw bag. It had the resort’s logo painted on it, surrounded by palm trees, leis, and a hula dancer, all backed by an orange sunset. “Waikiki Surf” was written underneath in blue like it was supposed to be the ocean.
“You want one?”
She knew I didn’t. “I’ll stick with water.”
“Fine, Mack. But you’re having cocktails at dinner-– minimum two. And then you’re taking me to a club. We’re going to dance ‘til dawn.” Vacation or not, she was drinking too much. But she didn’t care what I thought. Especially about that. Her perfect legs moved past me on the beach towel. “I’m going to loosen you up if it kills me,” she said.
I turned and watched her walk away. A woman in her forties who looked at least ten years younger. She was wearing the leopard print bikini I liked. It had a skirt bottom that moved nicely as her hips rocked. Twenty-five years of marriage. Though not, by most people’s standards, a great one. I didn’t talk much. Which upset her. I liked things the same. I had a desk at work. I had a desk at home. Three gray pin-striped suits. Oxford shirts. Blue ties. Dockers and polo shirts for the weekend.
Sherrie was a walking Fourth of July. She talked to everyone. Which upset me. She happily swam in chaos, her arms thrown over the shoulders of new friends. Fads, laughter, opinions, gossip, and exuberant bad taste popped out of her like multi-colored confetti. But still. Watching her walk, seeing her live with such reckless heat-– it took my breath away. Three guys in their thirties, sitting at a table by the pool with beers and new aloha shirts, noticed her too. They traded glances with each other, eyebrows working.
She looked back, feeling my eyes. She smiled, her eyes over the top of her sunglasses. She winked at me, turned, and walked around the corner of the bar. I turned back to my book. Stopped. If she was getting another drink, why did she walk past the bar? I shrugged it off. With Sherrie, it could be a million things. When she wasn’t back in an hour, I went looking for her. Then hotel security got into it. Then the Honolulu Police Department.
They found her that night lying on the grass near the pool at the Armed Services Resort about half a mile down the beach. The police said there was no sign of foul play. No witnesses saw her. No reason for Sherrie to be there. No reason for Sherrie to be dead. But she was. The grief was crushing. The pain and helpless fury were beyond endurance. But I did endure. I even indulged a flicker of sick pride at my ability to keep my emotions harnessed and handle things.
My son, his wife, and our daughter came. At first they were stunned I wasn’t taking Sherrie back to be buried in Chicago. Then they were angry. During the first night’s dinner, my children, Arthur and Hailey (“Hotel” was Sherrie’s teenage bible), kept throwing their napkins down and their arms up in exasperation. My son’s wife, Macon, knocked over her martini– vodka, and three olives on a little spear bouncing off my pinstripes– and told me I was being stupidly, boringly, horribly selfish.
I, however, was adamant. We spread Sherrie’s ashes in the ocean from a large outrigger canoe supplied by the hotel. It was something I thought Sherrie would have liked. Since her death, I noticed I had begun to think along those lines more often. An extreme example of “too little, too late” maybe–- but as she often said–- screw guilt. Over my strenuous objections, Arthur insisted on bringing an Episcopal priest with us in the canoe. Sherrie didn’t like ministers or church at all. She said she got along great with God and didn’t need other people’s stupid outfits and opinions getting in the way. But, I gave them that one.
A quirky wind came up when we were out on the water and Sherrie’s ashes blew back over all of us. The priest had an allergic reaction and fell into a gasping coughing fit, and dropped his prayer book overboard. With the Episcopalian turning blue, we had to head back to shore early. Kimo, the Hawaiian waterman piloting the canoe said very little during our burial outing. But he was smiling as he paddled us back.
Hailey, who during their last fight, called her mother “a soul-killing horror-show” and hadn’t been on speaking terms with her before the trip, cried, chain-smoked, and threw-up the entire day. I put them back on their respective airplanes. I told them I’d be home soon. During the first weeks, I tried, but I couldn’t even get myself to leave the resort. Finally, I packed, checked out of The Waikiki Surf, and got a cab to the airport. I got my suitcase scanned, checked it, watched it roll away on the conveyor, and headed for my plane back to Chicago.
Everything was fine until the agent at the gate reached for my ticket. The air around me instantly thickened– as if all the molecules rushed together, sucked into to an impossibly dense invisible mass. I tried to step forward and the air slammed against me even tighter and my ears filled with the roar of wind and crashing waves. Then the mass was alive, and like some huge, furious animal, it bulled me back from the gate. A high-strung little girl let out a piercing scream as I fell back into her and her mother. I must have screamed myself. Water and wind roared in my head– the air was pushing me around. Things were definitely out of control. I was terrified. I ran.
This caused some problems at the airport and a lengthy visit with the FBI. And although they confiscated my pinstripe suits and the rest of my belongings in my checked suitcase, they were eventually convinced that I wasn’t a terrorist. To them, it seemed I was just a temporarily unbalanced, middle-aged guy crushed and crumpled around the hard dark fact of his dead wife. And I was. But there was something else. Something that I began to realize right before the three airport security guys and the sky marshal tackled me on in front of the Wiki-Wiki bus.
“A brain aneurism. Gotta be a very hard thing to accept-– coming out of nowhere like that.” Detective Tanaka picked up the file on his desk. He clicked his ballpoint pen. Click click click. “But hey, you’ve been holding up okay until recently, yeah? You gotta live with it. Like you said the night we found her—- ‘It’s a tough thing but there it is.’”
I nodded. “Yes. There it is”
Tanaka seemed irritated. But I didn’t know what to say. The airport incident had been two days ago. Things were changing.
“But we still haven’t been able find anyone that saw Sherrie from the time she left you at the beach and when she was found. We found the gentlemen at the bar you mentioned and they remembered her. And then nothing. Three hours nowhere then dead a half mile down the beach on military property. A beautiful woman like that.” Tanaka stepped around the desk and leaned back on it with his arms crossed.
“It’s a tough thing, Mr. Cross, but there it is.”
He examined me like he had found something odd and suspicious in the corner. “See, what happened to Sherrie had a little air of mystery to it, but with the aneurism, and people’s memories after sun and drink, my feeling was that we had a kinda quirky, but natural, death. But then you started getting lolo on us.” He caught my confused look. “You acted kinda crazy. You cremated your wife and stayed on to finish your vacation. Even extended it. You sat on the beach. You ate at the buffet.”
I nodded. I told Sherrie every time it came up that if I wanted to pick over left-over food that other people had breathed on, I’d really save a buck and go out back and dig in the dumpster. Too little, too late-– I went. She was right; the dill shrimp were fantastic.
“You didn’t care where your wife was or who maybe she was with in her last hours. Then you checked out and back in two hours later three days in a row. Then you finally get as far as the airport, where your guilty conscience grabs you by the short ones and you blow a gasket.”
He watched for a reaction. Like we were playing cards. “You see what I’m talking about, Mr. Cross?”
I was looking at his shirt. I liked that the detectives in Hawaii wore aloha shirts instead of suits. His was a pattern of outrigger canoes. “I think so. Yes.”
I remembered the wind. Sherrie’s revenge on the priest. I bit my lip to keep from laughing. Tanaka stared. “What’s funny?”
“I was thinking about her funeral.”
Tanaka looked curious. “You get a laugh out of that?”
I shook off the memories and looked at the detective full on. “You would’ve had to have been there.”
He leaned a little closer like he was sharing boardroom gossip at a dinner party. “You’re a pharmacist, Mr. Cross. Is there maybe some kind of drug that could cause an aneurism? Something a smart guy like you figures he could get past us island folk?”
“I own a chain of drug stores, Detective Tanaka. I push paper, not pills.” The air-conditioner hummed behind me. He kept his office cold. But the look in his eyes warmed. Now he was smiling.
“I know when people are holding back, Mr. Cross. And you’re holding back a whole big nasty bag full. It’s hurting you. It’s time to let go. You’re obviously a good man who loved his wife. But marriage is not easy. I know my marriage isn’t. . But you stuck it out, then finally she went too far. You were forced to act. It wasn’t your fault. I understand. Tell me. Tell me everything.”
Tell him what? What could I possibly say that he could even begin to fathom or accept? That bag wasn’t his to dig into with his childish moral judgments. It was mine. And Sherrie’s. Tanaka sighed, the nice guy mask fell away, and his words came like impersonal slaps. “Your son and daughter told me about Sherrie’s affairs. Your son’s wife says that you were trying to patch things up on this trip but it was too late. Sherrie was leaving you. And that you were dry-eyed during the funeral. That you seemed relieved.”
I kept myself reigned in. They were children.
“I was relieved when they left me to grieve instead of tend to them. I loved my wife. I still do.”
“Maybe so. But I think you killed her.”
I still see Detective Tanaka around occasionally. We used to bump into each other at Longs or Safeway every couple of months or so until I got a small house in Waimanalo near the canoe club. He sent me letter a few months after our set-to in his office. He was calling off the dogs after all the tests and all the research he could conceivably do told him that there was no murder. As disappointing as it was to my daughter-in-law, Sherrie had simply died.
But nothing is really all that simple.
It was maybe a week and a half after the canoe funeral. I was still at the Waikiki Surf. The kids were gone-– off being eye-wateringly sincere and over-dramatic somewhere as far away from me as possible. I had eaten at the buffet – dill shrimp. But also a roast beef sandwich that I took with me, sticking half in the pocket of the red board shorts I had started wearing.
I sat on the beach and stared out at the blue water and listened for the breeze to bring me my daily talk with Sherrie. It was really more of a one way thing, though sometimes I whispered back. I’d wait and eventually the wind would find its way around the right palms, bounce off the bar stools just so, and Sherrie would find her words.
That was the first time. And it kept repeating until there was no doubt it was Sherrie’s voice, and I went and got a cold one and sat back down. The days went on with one word messages like “laugh” and “eat” and profane references to copulation. A number of times, toward the end of the afternoon, she said “love you” to me and I whispered it back to her and we went on repeating– over and over. Yes, too little too late-– but it’s what we had and I was getting some big lessons in acceptance.
The afternoon in question, Sherrie had been breezing around with “canoe” and a word I realized over a month later was “Kimo.” Then the wind stopped and I heard footsteps step up behind me. I turned to see who it was and the sun threw my visitor in shadow, just as it had Sherrie the day she walked away.
My visitor, Charley Tessler, sat down on the sand next to me, gave me a half smile and introduced himself. After a couple of uncomfortable beats while he gathered his words, I recognized him. He was youngest looking of the three thirty-something guys at the bar table who had checked out Sherrie in her leopard bikini. He nodded.
“Mr. Cross, I wanted to tell you personally how sorry I am about your wife’s death.”
He looked like he was in some kind of pain. Like he had a cramp. I took a sip of my beer.
“Call me Mack. Her name was Sherrie, by the way.”
“I know,” he said.
I nodded. “I guess everybody does by now…”
He took a breath and plunged. “No. I knew her name then. I knew her. We knew each other. I can’t tell the police. I’m a Navy Officer. Married. It’s been eating at me and, well I knew I’d want to know where my wife was, if, I mean, I didn’t want to, I don’t, but it’s like I have to, so you at least know the truth. It’s like, no matter what, you at least deserve that.”
The words started to bong around in my head like church bells, not connecting, meaning less and less. They had met a day or two before–- just flirting–- escalated so fast–- they had snuck off–- careful– something quick–- time got away–- they were running back–- laughing–- she just stopped–- headache–- stumbled–- then nothing. I hadn’t ever met one of her men face to face, but each one froze me in pain and shame until we could pretend them away. Plaster them into the walls of our marriage. Cover them with time. And it was a marriage-– we had intense, funny, uninhibited and passionate sex. We did. And she loved me. She did.
But when she slipped over the lip, I never had to really know. I never had to see the face. Now this one. This married Navy boy whispering his dirty little secret to me – His dirty little secret that holds my Sherrie’s death in its shameful greasy claw. I walked away from Charley the Navy guy with his two-penny guilt and oblivious wife. Over the next three days I avoided the beach-– her whispers– they were only comforting lies-– you tell them to a child. I was consumed by panic. I didn’t know what to do. The safe, familiar walls she had carefully built for me over all the years finally collapsed. And the chaos swallowed me.
I knew I had to get back to a world of my making: Business. Item and price. Order. And banish her from me forever. Then, at the airport, Sherrie made it clear she was having none of that.
I still talk to Sherrie, but these days it’s often in the canoe. Over these last few years Kimo has taught me much about the big outrigger canoes I paddle with him and the other watermen in the canoe club. Paddling and listening in the canoe, I learn how much more there is I’ll never understand about the dangerous, loving, treacherous, and kindly water that holds it.
Out on the water, when we talk of the funeral, Kimo laughs and imitates the choking Episcopalian, and I laugh with a love and freedom I never had until Sherrie died and let me breathe her bones.