Another season was ending. The mid-May sun had a tropic sting against my bare shoulders. Sweat ran into my eyes. I had discovered an ugly little pocket of dry rot in the windshield corner of the panel of the topside controls on my houseboat, and after trying not to think about it for a week, I had dug out the tools, picked up some pieces of prime mahogany, and excised the area of infection with a saber saw.
Cutting and sanding the new pieces to fit was a finicky chore. Sawdust stuck to my sweaty chest and arms. I was sustained by an awareness of the cool dark bottles of Dos Equis beer in the stainless steel box below, and by the anticipation of trudging from Bahia Mar over to the public beach where a mild wind from the east was capping the deep blue swells with white.
Also I was sustained by the determination that this would be a slob summer for McGee. It wouldn’t be a gaudy summer. There wasn’t enough bread for that. But a careful husbanding of funds would see me through, leaving the emergency fund untapped, ready to finance some kind of an operation in the fall.
I needed a slob summer. The machine was abused. Softness at the waist. Tremor of the hands. Bad tastes in the morning. A heaviness of muscle and bone, a tendency to sigh. Each time you wonder, Can you get it back? The good toughness and bounce and tirelessness, the weight down to a rawhide two oh five, a nasty tendency to sing during the morning shower, the conviction each day will contain wondrous things?
And I wanted it to be a loner summer. There’d been too much damned yat-a-ta-yak, fervid conversations, midnight plots and dirty little violences for which I had been all too unprepared. The pink weal six inches below my armpit was a reminder of luck. If my foot hadn’t slipped exactly when it did. . . .
A knife blade grating along a rib bone is a sound so ugly and so personal it can come right into your sleep and wake you up ten nights running.
I got a good fit on the biggest piece, drilled it, and was setting the long bronze screws home when I heard a tentative and hollow call from dockside.
“Trav? Hey, Trav? Hey, McGee?”
I turned and walked to the aft end of my sun deck and looked down at the dock. A tall, frail, sallow-looking fellow in a wrinkled tan suit too large for him stared up at me with an anxious little smile that came and went--a mendicant smile, like dogs wear in the countries where they kick dogs.
“How are you, Trav?” he said.
And just as I was about to ask him who he was, I realized, with considerable shock, that it was Arthur Wilkinson, dreadfully changed.
“Can I . . . may I come aboard?”
“Certainly. Why ask?”
The gangplank chain was down. He came across, stepped onto the afterdeck, tottered, tried to smile up at me, grabbed at emptiness and collapsed onto the teak deck with a knobbly thud. I got down there in two jumps, rolled him over. He’d abraded the unhealthy flesh under one eye in the fall. I felt the pulse in his throat. It was slow and steady. Two fat teenage girls came and stared from the dock, snickering. See the funny drunk, like on television.
I opened the aft door to the lounge, gathered Arthur up and toted him in. It was like picking up a sack of featherdry two-by-fours. He smelled stale. I took him all the way through and put him down on the bed in the guest stateroom. The air-conditioning was chill against my bare sweat. I felt Arthur’s head. He didn’t seem to have a fever. I had never seen a man so changed by one year of life.
His mouth worked, and he opened his eyes and tried to sit up. I pushed him back. “You sick, Arthur?”
“Just weak, I guess. I guess I just fainted. I’m sorry. I don’t want to be . . .”
“A burden? A nuisance? Skip the social graces, Arthur.”
I guess you always look for a little spirit, a little glint of the fang on even the most humble dog in town.
“I’m very polite,” he said listlessly. “You know that, Trav. A very polite man.” He looked away. “Even . . . even when he was killing me, I think I was probably very, very polite.”
He faded away then, like a puff of steam, quickly gone, his eyes not quite closed. I put my fingertips against the side of his throat--the pulse was still there.
As I was wondering just what the hell to do next, he came floating back up, frowned at me. “I can’t cope with people like that. She must have known that. Right from the start she must have known about me.”
“Who tried to kill you?”
“I guess it really doesn’t matter very much. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been the next one, or the one after that. Let me rest a little while and then I’ll go. There wasn’t any point in coming to you. I should have known that too.”
Suddenly I recognized a part of that stale smell about him. It was a little bit like freshly baked bread, but not as pleasant. It’s the distinctive smell of starvation, the effluvium of the sweat ducts when the body has begun to feed on itself.
“Shut up, Arthur. When did you eat last?”
“I’m not real sure. I think . . . I don’t know.”
“Stay where you are,” I told him. I went to my stainless steel galley, looked in a locker, picked out a tin of clear, rich British broth, poured it into a pan and turned the burner on high. As it heated I looked in on him again. He gave me that reappearing nervous smile. He had a facial tic. His eyes filled with tears, and I went back to the broth. I poured it into a mug, hesitated, then tapped the liquor locker and added a fair jolt of Irish whiskey.
After I helped him get propped up, I saw he could hold it all right in both hands and sip it.
“Take it slow, Arthur. I’ll be right back.”
I sluiced the sawdust and sweat off in a fast shower in the huge stall the original owner had built aboard the Busted Flush, put on denims and a T‑shirt and checked him again. The mug was empty. He was slightly flushed. I opened the promised bottle of dark beer and went back in and sat on the foot of the bed.
“What the hell have you done to yourself, Arthur?”
His voice blurred. “Too much, maybe.”
“Maybe I asked it the wrong way. What has Wilma done to you?”
Again the tears of weakness. “Oh Christ, Trav, I . . .”
“We’ll go into it later, boy. You get out of the clothes and into a hot shower. Then you eat some eggs. Then you sleep. Okay?”
“I don’t want to be a . . .”
“Arthur, you could begin to bore me. Shut up.”
After he was asleep, I took a good look at his arms. Big H could pull a man down quickly. No needle marks. But it didn’t have to mean anything. Only the eyedropper group, the ones who pick the big vein open with a pin, acquire scars. Any tidy soul with a decent hypo and enough sense to use an alcohol swab afterward can go unmarked indefinitely, as any urban cop can tell you. He was still a little grimy. It was going to take more than one shower, or two. The beard stubble didn’t help either. I checked through his clothes. They had been cheap originally. The labels were from Naples, Florida. He had a flat cigarette package with three one-inch butts carefully stowed therein. He had a match folder from Red’s Diner in Homestead. He had two pennies and some lint. I rolled his shoes up in the clothing, carried the bundle out at arm’s length and dropped it into the trash bin on the dock. Then washed my hands.
The sun was going down. I went topside. The cockpit cocktail hour, with music and girl-laughter from neighbor cruisers. As I drove the remaining screws home without working up a sweat, I kept thinking of Arthur Wilkinson as I had seen him last, over a year ago.
A big fellow, big as I am, but not the same physical type. Slow, awkward, uncoordinated--a mild and rather pedantic guy. I could remember coming across a few of the same breed way back in high school basketball days. Coaches would hustle them on the basis of size alone. They were very earnest, but they had no balance. You could catch them just right, with the hip, and they would go blundering and crashing off the court. For them, high school was the final experience in any body-contact sport.
Arthur Wilkinson had been a member of the group for a few months. I met him when he was trying to decide whether or not to invest some money in a marina enterprise. He was going around, talking earnestly to boat people. He surveyed me at drinking time, and stayed, and came back other times--came back once too often, perhaps, that time somebody had brought Wilma around.
He had told me about himself. Upstate New York boy. Little Falls. Department store family. Got a degree from Hamilton College. Went to work in the store. Became engaged to a doctor’s daughter. Didn’t particularly like or dislike the department store trade. Future all lined out, nailed down. Then it all fell apart, one piece at a time, beginning with the death of his widower father, then his girl marrying another guy, until, restless, irritable, unhappy, he had sold out his controlling interest to a chain, liquidated other properties and headed for Florida.
He got along fine with the group. He was amiable and very decent. We felt protective about him. He had been schooled for survival in Little Falls, and might indeed have been formidably adapted to that environment, but away from it there was something displaced about him. He was perfectly frank about his problem. He had left, after taxes, almost a quarter of a million dollars. It was in good solid securities, bringing in, after personal income taxes, nearly nine thousand a year. But he felt it shameful to squat on it. He wanted to move it around, put some work with it, make it produce. Some of the genes of his great granddaddy kept prodding him.
The group changes; the flavor remains the same. When he was in the pack, he was the gatherer of driftwood for the beach picnics, the one who drove drunks home, the one who didn’t forget the beer, the understanding listener who gets girl-tears on his beach coat, the pigeon good for the small loan, the patsy who comes calling and ends up painting the fence. All groups seem to have one. He had a fair complexion, blushed readily. He always looked scrubbed. He laughed at all the jokes, nearly always at the right place, even though he had heard them before. In short, a very nice guy, that Arthur Wilkinson. Part of the group, but nobody got really close to him. He had that little streak of reserve, of keeping the ultimate secrets. Liquor might have unlocked him except for one thing. When he took one over his limit, he fell smilingly, placidly, irrevocably asleep. And smiled in his sleep.
I could remember that for a little while Arthur and Chookie McCall had something going. She had just finished a dancing engagement at the Bahama Room at the Mile O’Beach. She’s big, beautifully proportioned, vastly healthy, a dynamo brunette with a stern and striking face. Chook had fought with Frank Durkin and he had taken off and she was rebounding, and certainly Arthur was a better deal than Frank. Without a dime, Arthur would have been worth nine Frank Durkins. Why do so many great gals latch onto a Frank Durkin to mess up their lives? When she got a three-week gig up at Daytona Beach perhaps Arthur could have gone with her, but he didn’t make the right moves. Then Wilma Ferner moved in when Chook was away. . . .
There are a lot more Arthur Wilkinsons in the world than there are Wilma Ferners. And this Wilma was a classic example of the type. Little, but with a bone structure so delicate she made a hundred and five pounds look like a lush abundance. Fine white-blonde hair always in that initial state of disarray which creates the urge to mess it up completely. Husky theatrical voice which covered about two octaves in what was, for her, normal coversation. Lots of anecdotes, in which she played every part, face as mobile as a clown’s, making lots of gestures, flinging herself around, the gestures seemingly awkward at times until one noticed that they kept that ripe little body in a constant state of animation and display, a project given a continuous assist by her wardrobe. There were little traces of accent in her normal speech, when she wasn’t imitating someone, but it seemed to vary from day to day. Hold a small clear wineglass of Harvey’s Bristol Milk up to the light and it is pretty close to the color of her eyes. And, once you got past all the crinkling and sparkling and winking, her eyes had just about as much expression as still wine.
She came in on a big Huckins out of Savannah, amid boat guests in various conditions of disrepair, much of the damage evidently being accomplished by people beating people in the face with their fists. She moved into a hotel room ashore, in the Yankee Clipper, and after the cruiser took off without her, she somehow managed to affix herself to our group, saying that the lovely people on the Huckins were going to pick her up on their way back from Nassau, and she had begged off because she could not endure Nassau one more stinking time.
In that venerable and useful show biz expression, she was always on. The gals seemed to have an instinctive wariness of her. The men were intrigued. She claimed to have been born in Calcutta, mentioned the tragic death of a father in the Australian diplomatic service, mentioned directly and obliquely her own careers as set designer in Italy, fashion coordinator in Brussels, photographer’s model in Johannesburg, society and fashion editor on a newspaper in Cairo, private secretary to the wife of one of the presidents of Guatemala. As she cooed, twisted, bounced, exclaimed, imitated, chuckled, I must admit that I had a few moments of very steamy curiosity. But there were too many warning flags up. The pointed nails curved too extremely over the soft tips of the little fingers. The poses and pauses were too carefully timed. And there was just a bit too much effervescence and charm. Perhaps if she had come along a few years earlier--before I had seen and learned all kinds of con, before I had found some of the sicknesses no clinic can identify . . .
Excerpted from Bright Orange for the Shroud by John D. MacDonald. Copyright © 2013 by John D. MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.