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  moonbeams and aspirin

On the verge of divorce, they headed for Florida: an island in the Gulf, a place they remembered as a refuge, dolphins, pelicans, vodka-and-Cheez Whiz picnics. They'd never been there in high season before, though. The roads were overrun with ice-cream-colored Cadillacs and Lincolns, Hoosiers in golf clothes, Buckeyes and Badgers and Show-Me's.

The last room on the island was next to the dock at the marina. The returning fishermen would park themselves outside the window every noon and boom at each other, driving Lockhart and Margaret from their beds, groping for aspirin and sunglasses. They began to feel hunted. Driving from restaurant to restaurant, searching for a late breakfast, they were crowded out by throngs of grinning well-off people who had been up since seven, who hadn't known a hangover since college. Not that drinking was solving anything, exactly.

And something was killing the fish: the dredge, was Lockhart's theory, anchored a hundred yards offshore and pumping streams of sand to replace the beach, which a winter storm had washed away. Every wave of the low Gulf tide brought ashore more dead fish, which had begun to smell. Half the island was uninhabitable.

Irritated and confused, they drove around in a rented pink Jeep. The only thing Lockhart was learning was how much he would miss her. They had nothing but each other's company; it was almost enough. The third day they found a little empty notch of beach, protected by a line of island pines, where the water was clear and the black-backed dolphins swam close to shore, breaking the water with their fins. Margaret read Jackie Collins, reading the worst sentences aloud. Lockhart went snorkeling and saw a beach under the water that looked exactly like the beach above the water. They swam, they drank sweet white wine, they didn't talk. A perfect afternoon. Lockhart was sorry to see it end. Waist-deep in the tepid water of the Gulf, alone, they watched the sun set through clouds: castles of fire, golden hillsides.

"Don't confuse me," she said. "I just want to be here, in this moment, right now, OK?"

Lockhart had nothing to say; technically, this was all his fault.

They stayed in the water until the moon came up, water and air the same temperature, pelicans flying through the evening, dark shapes against the dark sky. Lockhart tried to kiss her; she splashed ashore, pulled a dress on over her wet suit. The moon lit the path back through the woods. The Jeep sat at the edge of the road, the first step on a trip he didn't want to take, back to their lives, back into history. Lockhart wanted to stand naked, just the two of them, without words if they could manage it. Instead they drove, a car among other cars, searching for a late dinner among the cheerful throngs.

Traffic thinned as they drove the narrow thread of the road, past the bright resorts and busy restaurants, toward the vast blankness of the Gulf. Long stretches of darkness intervened between the villages of neon, lanes of little snug cottages. Lockhart thought of all the happy people in their cottages, all the happy evenings, knowing he was making it up. This end of the island was dark, deserted, the headlights of the pink Jeep cutting crazy shadows in the dense roadside greenery, sword plants and elephant ears and lianas. At the edge of the last parking lot stood a large grass shack of yellow cement: the Luau Hut. "Is this all right?" he asked her.

"What?" She was miles away, slowly coming into focus, looking around. "Well," she said, "I guess this will have to do."

She held her arm out toward the emptiness of the Gulf, all around them, as if she meant this to be an argument for something.

The dining room of the Luau Hut was half-busy but the bar was empty; they chose the bar, ordering gin and Bong-Bong Chicken Wings and not talking, still damp with salt water. After a round of drinks, a blind man came in with his dog.

"You can't bring that dog in here," the bartender said. "Is that your dog? You can't bring him in here."

"You must be new here," the blind man said, hoisting himself onto a barstool kitty-corner from Lockhart and Margaret. The big German shepherd curled at his feet. "It's a seeing-eye dog. Now get me a double old-fashioned on the rocks and a glass of water. Thank you."

The bartender glared at the blind man, glared at the dog, elaborately shrugged his shoulders and set to work. Lockhart wondered whom this little pantomime was for.

"Excuse me," he said to the blind man.

"Sir?"

Lockhart watched the blind man turn his head in the direction of the voice, another automatic gesture; empty sunglasses in a dead-white face. The blind man looked like he had never been outside in the daylight. He was about forty, dressed in a golf outfit that did not quite fit him, that wasn't quite clean, and from the relish with which he took up his old-fashioned it seemed that the blind man might drink a little.

"Maybe you can help us out," Lockhart said. "My friend and I were having a discussion . . ."

"Friend?" demanded the blind man. "What friend?"

"Over here," said Margaret

"Good evening, little lady. Now proceed."

The bartender scowled at all of them and retreated to the far end of the bar. Margaret started to feed pineapple chunks to the dog, who wolfed them down.

"We were talking earlier about whether or not animals have souls," Lockhart said. "Actually, we had it narrowed down to whether or not animals had as much of a soul as humans--so we wouldn't have to figure out if humans had souls."

"Good," the blind man said. "I was going to bring that up."

"And anyway, since you seem to spend quite a bit of time with your canine friend there, I was hoping you might have some thoughts on the matter you could share with us."

"I do," said the blind man, and scooted his barstool six inches closer, the dog following automatically. Margaret was fishing maraschino cherries out of the well across the bar and popping them to the dog, who shagged them easily as Willie Mays.

"My name is Wilson Petie," he said. "After having thought long and hard on this topic for a good many years, I have come to the conclusion that there is no innate difference between the basic existence of myself and the basic existence of that dog, or, God bless her, Trixie, a golden retriever who preceded Rex in this capacity. In other words, that dog is as much of a being as I am or you are."

"Is that all animals?" Margaret asked. "Or just some? How far down the chain of command would you draw the line? Fish? Mosquitoes?"

"Are fish the issue here?"

"They are," Lockhart said. "My friend here claims that it's OK to kill a few fish so the rich vacationers can feel sand between their toes."

"While he says it is murder," Margaret said. "All the time he's eating chicken."

She slipped the bone out of a Bong-Bong wing and lobbed the resulting gob of meat toward the German shepherd, who caught it easily.

"I cannot speak to fish," said Wilson Petie. "I cannot speak in regard to fish, I mean. But I will tell you: the fundamental differences between a dog and a human being are in regard to capabilities, not existence. In other words: if you walked on four paws, had a great sense of eyesight and of smell, had fur all over your body and liked to relieve yourself outdoors, you would be--"

"My first husband," Margaret said.

"A dog," said Wilson Petie. "I have felt this through my long years of association with the dog. What I cannot tell you is whether a person would get that same intuition about the inner being of that animal if he or she spent long years of intimacy with a fish."

"So where does that leave us?" Lockhart asked.

"Where we started," Margaret said. "Nowhere. Excuse me, Mr. Petie, but..."

"What?"

"The three questions you were going to ask," Wilson Petie said, irritably. "How long have I been blind, how long have I had my dog, what's the one thing I'd most like to do--always the same damn three questions."

"Actually, I was going to ask if I could take Rex out into the parking lot and play fetch with him."

"You could drive a car," Lockhart said. "Maybe not solo, but if you had someone to give you some directions and took it nice and easy."

"I've felt the same thing for many years myself," Wilson Petie said. "Unfortunately, I've never found anyone else who agreed with me. How would you like to give me a driving lesson?"

"No problem," Lockhart said. "Come on." He left a ten on the bar and yelled to the bartender to mind their drinks. Wilson Petie groped for the leather handle on the dog's harness and let himself be led out into the parking lot. The night was warm, thick, buzzing with millions of bug wings.

"Now, get yourself situated." Lockhart sat in the back of the Jeep with the dog, Margaret up front, with the top down to get the full rush of wind. "That thing on the left is a brake pedal. You're going to use it when you want to stop..."

"I know what a brake does," said the blind man. "I listen to plenty of TV. This must be the gas."

They backed up--screeched to a stop--backed some more, almost into a Camaro. Margaret had her hand on the emergency brake, but she waited to apply it, and finally Wilson Petie found the means to stop.

"Easy," Lockhart said. "Nice and easy. Now we'll drop it into Drive."

"This is all right," said Wilson Petie.

Before they started forward, though, Margaret turned and grinned at Lockhart, free and easy. She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me. Lockhart thought, This is it, this is all I've ever wanted. He slipped the gearshift into Lo and the car lurched forward.

"This is all right," Wilson Petie said again. He accelerated forward slowly, listening intently to Margaret's instructions: a little left, left, now straighten it out, that's good, out onto the highway. She leaned forward as he brought it up to speed, intent. Lockhart leaned forward, too, rested his cheek against the side of her head and touched her neck with his hand. The engine roared and heaved in the low gear, propelling them down the dark, deserted lane as slowly and jerkily as a clown car in a circus. Lockhart felt deranged with happiness.

"I love you," he whispered to Margaret.

"Not now," she said, still poised over the emergency brake.

"This is all right," Wilson Petie said for the third time. In the dashboard light, his face was manic, lit with glee, wind pouring through the sides of the open car.

"Let's go," Lockhart said to the blind man. "Let's do it. Make this pig squeal."
 
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    Copyright © 1993 Kevin Canty.

Originally published in Story Magazine.