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Spring/Summer 1996, Volume 13.2

Fiction

 

Grant Segall

Wading Birds


Grant Segall (B.A., Harvard University) is a feature writer for the
Cleveland Plain Dealer.

 

I met Jean-Michel my first afternoon on Mirasol. I was sitting under an umbrella at Alejandro's, holding a Dos Equis against my sunburnt nose, studying the twists and turns of a sea-grape tree, wondering what evolutionary purpose they served.

"Of course you don't." A Midwestern voice with a bit of an island lilt was coming from under the next umbrella. "But I bet you could."

A knot of people laughed. The voice belonged to a slim, youngish man with yellow hair tumbling halfway down his guayabera.

A bald man cupped the blond one's shoulder and said, "Yolanda! Another daiquiri for Jean-Michel, please."

"Hold on," said a man who sounded Scandinavian. "This round's mine, remember?"

Jean-Michel clucked. "Now let's not fight over me."

"Tell you what," the bald one said. "Lars gets the round and I get dinner. How's the Cricket Club sound?"

Jean-Michel looked from one man to the other. "Anything to make peace." He drained the last drops of banana slush from his glass. "Thank you both."

I smiled and turned over a postcard. It wasn't my concern why two guys would fight to treat a third. I'd picked the smallest, remotest island in the Caribbean for a break from trying to figure people out.

"Dear Beth," I wrote, "It took three days to get a ferry here, but it was worth the wait. The water's as blue as the sky."

A green-eyed woman about Beth's height, maybe slimmer, was making sandy footprints across the deck. "Hi, gang," she said, looking at Jean-Michel.

"Give me a few weeks to get grad school out of my head, and I'll try to think things through," I wrote. "Hug yourself for me, give the Cubs my condolences, and hold out for another solo. Love, Rick."

The woman showed Jean-Michel a silver chain with coral beads. He inspected it slowly. "That's a lovely shade, Amanda. Almost mauve." He started to give it back.

"No, it's for you!"

"Oh, you're sweet." He bowed his head, and she draped the chain over it.

My dad, who owned a welding supply store in Akron, thought it was strange enough for me to study writing, and stranger still to quit for a loll in the tropics. I just could have pictured his face if he'd seen me wearing jewelry from admirers.

"They look burgundy on you," said Amanda. "They look great."

Maybe it was his looks. His eyes were aquamarine. His skin was milky, despite what I would learn were steady afternoons in the sun. His smile was quick and warm. He seemed as innocent as a fresco Adam.

"The least I can do is paint you," he said, taking her hand. "How about tomorrow?"

"I'd love it. My room?"

"No, no; on the beach. Your colors deserve natural light."

I couldn't believe he was passing up an invitation to her room. It would have tempted me far more than chains or daiquiris.

I saw a painting on an empty table and skirted the crowd for a look. The signature was "Jean-Michel," with no last name. The subject was Larsa cheerful, boyish, opaque Lars. But the background was striking. It was split diagonally into sections of turquoise and lavender, pretty shades in themselves but tense together, with one section's strokes perpendicular to the other's. The guy was an artist, after all. Which made the face more disappointing. I hated to see someone with talent skim the surface, when I'd been struggling since high school to write something deep.

"Like it?" said Jean-Michel.

"I love the colors. Where'd you study?"

"Oh, Alejandro's Academy." He beckoned me to his table. Some of his friends scrutinized me as if I were a rival for his affections. Others made room for me on the bench and beamed as if I were a convert to their faith. I checked my beer: still mostly full. I was too poor to start buying rounds and too proud to be treated without reciprocating.

"I'm Jean-Michel," he said. "You're ?"

"Rick."

He shook my hand, took my elbow, and sat me down beside him. "How long are you staying, Rick?"

"Well, I'm playing it by ear."

He smiled and passed me a bowl of complimentary plantain chips. I took one and started turning to pass the bowl to Beth. I hadn't gone to a bar alone in two years.

Turning back, I asked, "Where are you from?"

"Oh, the States," he said, like a foreigner.

That started Amanda talking about a spat with Customs in Houston and Lars showing pictures of a yacht under construction in Newport News. Jean-Michel encouraged them both, telling her "That's keeping them honest" and him "Those lines are sharp."

The smoother Jean-Michel's surface, the more the writer in me wondered what was beneath. As Beth once said, I would have looked a gift horse in the psyche. "Where do you live?" I asked him during an eventual lull.

"On the bluff. In a caretaker's house."

"Is that your job, caretaking?"

"Oh, it's hardly work. I just keep an eye on the place."

"Not a bad deal."

"It's a great deal. The owners heard I didn't have a studio, so they fixed me up." He sounded not so much grateful as gracious. He made the favor seem as natural as the sunrise.

I was leery of becoming a regular in his circle, but found over the next few days that nearly all the non-natives belonged to it. They were quite a varied group. They included a Surinam colonel plotting his return, a former Hollywood starlet tanning for a comeback, a Kenyan stockbroker who'd retired at 40, and a defrocked Philippine priest who considered Jean-Michel a prophet.

Jean-Michel treated them all alike. He accepted all their gifts. He joined all their group events. He declined all their invitations to tete-a-tetes. And he painted all their portraits with bland faces on brilliant backgrounds.

"You've got to send some slides to my brother's gallery in Soho," said Amanda. "New York would love you."

"Oh, it couldn't treat me any better than Mirasol," replied Jean-Michel.

I'd been on the island two weeks when a ten-day-old letter came from Beth. She said the parsley in the window box had frozen already, and she enclosed a tape of her opening concert. I listened on the beach as sweat and aloe cream seeped under my headphones. It was frustrating, as usual, to hear her beautiful soprano drowned out by amateurs. She should have been aiming for a career in music instead of urban planning. But she said she'd need steady work if she had children someday. She called the church choir a happy medium. She was big on happy mediums, such as our living in a dubious neighborhood halfway between school and her folks.

I opened my eyes. The sky had gone from steel blue to coal black in the span of a song. End of concert. I scuttled toward Alejandro's, dodging fat, warm drops of rain. Jean-Michel was sitting alone under the thatched roof, sipping a daiquiri. This might be a rare chance to dig beneath his surface. I waved hello, bought a Dos Equis at the bar, and joined him. "Could you see that coming?" I said, shaking my headphones dry.

"We never can, around here," he replied, taking a bigger sip than before.

He asked the next few questions, learning that my sunburn was better, that I loved the local mussels, and that the tape was of a "friend." I didn't want to say much about Beth on Mirasol. We hadn't talked about whether to see other people while we were apart. A different woman would seem strange after all this time. But it couldn't hurt to keep my options open.

When I got a chance, I said, "You know, I meant it the other day about your pictures."

"Thanks, Rick."

"The backgrounds, especially. Kind of a tension to them."

"Sounds like you've thought about them more than I have."

"Well, I don't know." I sipped my beer. "It's just that I like good work. I'm a writer, and I wish my work were that good."

"Oh, art's not a contest." He took a chug and eyed the sinking line of liquid with satisfaction. "Every piece is good in a different way."

I took a smaller sip than before. "You do anything besides commissions?"

"Oh, years ago, I did. In the States."

"What kind of things?"

"You know: still lifes, abstracts, the usual things for a serious young artist."

"Not here?"

"Nothing's serious here."

I could hear Beth proposing a happy medium, like making every second picture serious. She was the kind of person who could shut her textbooks at 11 every night and curl up with a Hill Street video, while I went on writing and rewriting for hours.

"No question, your style sells," I said.

"That's the idea."

I sipped again. The air was so hot and salty, I felt as thirsty afterwards as before. "Well, you're honest about it."

"Why not?" He propped his thonged feet on the table. "Everyone's got a different turn-on: art, romance, laughs…. You want material. Whatever. I aim to please."

I chuckled. "Romance? You keep turning women away."

He fished two hotel keys out of his pocket and tossed them on the table. "Only in public. Jealousy's bad for business."

I lifted my glass. Mostly empty already. I set it down. "The island's so small. No one catches on?" "Oh, maybe they don't want to." He finished his drink and looked at me pleasantly, patiently. Well, he could wait all night. My ambitions were costing me thousands in student loans. I couldn't finance Jean-Michel's career, too.

"So what's your turn-on, money?" I said.

"No, fun." He clasped his hands behind his head. "I just need friends who can pay for it."

One of the keys said Hotel Coquille, where Amanda was staying. The other said Playa Penthouse. "Who's that for?"

"Gwendolyn."

"Who?"

"The new one." He put the keys away. "From Melbourne."

"Oh, who sent back her piña colada?"

"Yeah." He smiled. "She's just a little nervous in a new place, that's all. Like you."

"Me?"

"Oh, you know, worrying about art, watching your beer."

I tried to laugh him off. "You're too kind, waiting until I'm ready. Go ahead and order."

"Thanks." He beckoned Yolanda and kissed her hand. She laughed and whisked away both our glasses. I called her back. She kept going.

"Relax," he said. "She'll run the tab until our friends come."

"No, thanks. I'll get a separate check."

He patted my shoulder. "They won't do that here. I'm afraid it's treat or be treated."

Yolanda brought the next round, and Jean-Michel drained half his beer in a shot. With a sigh, I put enough money on the table for both of us.

"I bet we're going to be buddies," he said.

The rain had stopped, and the porous soil had sopped it up already. Jean-Michel asked where I was staying.

"Near Squatters' Cove."

"Oh, by the lagoon?" He began to examine a thong. "Seen the wading birds?"

"Sure. Hundreds of them."

"You know, the scarlet ibises, they're my favorites," he said, prying a pebble from a crack in his heel. "Funny things, so bright and scrawny. Living on water bugs, roe, whatever floats by."

The writer in me smiled at the tidy parallels between the birds and Jean-Michel. Then he added some messier details. "You know, they've got this clever way of camouflaging their nests. They make them from dead reeds and hide them in live ones…. The father and mother take turns sitting on them…."

The crowd began to gather, and Jean-Michel dropped the birds for the usual banter. I drifted to the railing and watched the waves trade sand with the beach. When I turned back, silver-haired spouses named Maurice and Natalia were inviting Jean-Michel to a yacht party that night.

"I'd love to," he said, waving me over. "Could I bring a friend?"

"Of course."

I'd been taught to stay out of strangers' cars, let alone their yachts. Still, if we got busted, maybe I could say I was just doing research for fiction.

I spent the night downing sangria and conch fritters on deck while everyone else vied for Jean-Michel's attention. Thanks to the waves, the stars pitched and rolled like the silver balls in a maze. I finally dozed off in a deck chair. At one point, my eyes fluttered open to see Jean-Michel nibble Natalia's neck when no one else was around. Toward dawn, he slipped down the hatchway with her teen-age daughter. After sunrise, he let Maurice hold his hand for a moment, then withdrew it without losing his smile. When we docked, the whole family urged us to come again.

Soon I was tagging along on most of Jean-Michel's adventures, from seaplane rides to shark hunts. I began to see that we weren't taking advantage of our hosts; they liked treating us as much as we liked being treated. Jean-Michel was a drawing card for their parties, an ornament for their verandas, a boost for their egos. And I, well, I was a perfectly acceptable part of the package. Sometimes he introduced me as his biographer and stage-whispered instructions on the text: "Make it clear this was Mona's idea, not mine." But he saved the best material for when we were alone. I'd buy him a ginger beer ("For special friends, I drink cheap," he'd say) and hear who'd tried to sleep with him, who'd succeeded, who'd become suspicious, who'd been placated.

"You know, you're the only one I'd trust with this stuff," he said after retelling a close escape.

"I'm the only fool who'd pay to hear it," I replied, flattered in spite of myself.

Soon his admirers were cajoling me for inside information. I waffled at first, then made up answers. "Sure he'll write. He just lost your address last time…. Oh, he was with me all night. We slept on the beach…." I waxed the most creative about what he'd confided to me the least: his life in the States. "He's from Montana, but he can't go back. There's a warrant, you see…." The taller the tales, the more convincing, apparently, and the more fun to tell. They were the first stories I'd made up for their own sakes, not for higher truths.

Jean-Michel steered some of his suitors toward me at first, and a few of them seemed interested, like groupies who try to sleep their way up from the roadies to the band. I was too proud to be his surrogate but too restless to wait for Beth, either. At 23, I was still afraid of relapsing into virginity. So I worked out a happy medium, finding a lover without Jean-Michel's help.

Consuela was a cook on a charter yacht that docked twice a month for kiwis and triple sec. Her skin looked like caramel and tasted like it too, or so I'd imagine as we'd wriggle in the sand by the lagoon. Beth and I had fallen into the habit of talking and kidding during sex, but Consuela didn't speak much English. Aside from chuckling at my Trojans, she'd mostly pant and gurgle. I could concentrate on our bellies slapping, my veins pounding, her heels spurring my thighs. Afterwards, she'd doze on my chest, and I'd listen to the ibises chirping over morsels of food like metal detectors over coins in the sand.

Beth's next letter talked about Thanksgiving at her folks' place. I missed seeing their church, with its onion-skin domes and mosaic saints. I missed getting the crust from her piece of pumpkin pie. But I didn't miss her dad giving her nephews piggy-back rides and saying how wonderful grandchildren were.

She asked how my plans were shaping up. Plans? Oh, yes, plans. Well, this was no time to leave Mirasol, when I first was starting to do the place right. "I guess I'll stay another semester and see," I wrote. "Maybe you could visit sometime? I'm sure you'll want to spend the holidays with your folks, but maybe at spring break or whenever." Whenever Consuela would be at sea, that was.

If I was settling in for a spell, I figured I should at least keep a journal. So I bought a notebook at the general store and starting jotting in it daily. I described the breeze riffling the palms, the ibises circling the cliffs, my friends roasting a Christmas goose on the beach.

But it was hard to concentrate at Mirasol. The lines shimmered in the sun. My words seemed weightier than my subjects. The journal was down to once a week before long.

Soon I made a small withdrawal at the village bank and saw that three-fourths of my money was gone. I was surprised, considering how many treats we'd gotten. Then again, I'd picked up an occasional tab at Alejandro's, bought a wet suit, rented a dinner jacket, and given a few bread-and-butter gifts. I could have recouped my costs and more by accepting the fancier gifts our hosts offered: native pots, crocodile suitcases, satin sheets. Jean-Michel hocked the stuff as the need arose. But I took only the food and drink of the moment, nothing I'd have to see the next morning.

"Don't mind Rick," Jean-Michel told a would-be benefactor. "He likes to be independently poor."

When we were alone, I said, "You're cutting too close to the truth."

"Bad news," he clucked. "How will you keep me in ginger beers?"

Within a week, a few of our friends offered me work of one kind or another. Lars asked me to write a profile of him to complement his portrait by Jean-Michel. A councilman asked me to be the English-language reporter for Caliente, a government magazine that called crayfish "lobsters" and the prime minister "His Eminence." A middle-aged woman named Alice said, "My poor mother could use a healthy young companion like you."

I gave them all my regrets, but wondered what choice I'd have if I stayed much longer. And several of our friends were overstaying their plans. The starlet said her screen test would be any day now. The colonel said he'd buy arms for his return as soon as the guilder rose against the dollar.

I finally signed up for a tour of duty on Consuela's yacht. My chief duties turned out to be mixing margaritas, making banter, and fending off Monique, the 40-ish wife of the 60-ish corporate chairman who'd chartered the yacht for his board. When I made fun of Monique behind her back, Consuela said, "Oh, the poor woman, she's lonely. Her man gets around." It was true. I climbed to the deck that night and saw him get an arm around Consuela. His hand arched on her shoulder like a crab testing the sand. She leaned her head against his shoulder.

I went straight to Monique's cabin, and bragged about it to Consuela the next day. "Naturalmente," she said, stroking my cheek. "We all got to make a living." Was that why I'd done it? The couple moved onto other crew members, but I stayed away from Consuela. For four whole days, anyway.

In the end, some supposed expenses were deducted from my paycheck. I netted less than my overdue rent. My bank balance would fall below the return fare to the States.

I excused myself from Consuela for an hour and went to the post office. A letter was waiting from Beth. "Sorry, but I just can't afford the trip. Money's tighter this year." Now that she was paying the rent alone, she meant. I searched her trim little script for additional meanings: spite for my absence, doubts about my return, feelings for another man. Well, it was her loss. Let her stay home and swim in Lake Michigan. All she'd need was an ice pick. I had the sun and Consuela to keep me warm. And Alice's mother, if necessary. For now, I just wanted company, so I knocked on Jean-Michel's door. It drifted open. The place was empty, but so was mine. I went inside. The furniture was stylish, all rattan and glass, but buried under mounds of miscellany. Seizing the chance for research, I unearthed cocktail straws, two left-footed sandals, a novel ten years overdue at the village library, refund slips for plane tickets (probably to friends' hometowns), and, to my relief, three half-empty boxes of Trojans.

I came to a yellowing scrap of paper with a sketch of an ibis on a branch. It was hard to believe a pencil could capture things with such different textures: wispy feathers, waxy leaves, steamy water flecked with seafood. The bird was standing on one claw, ignoring the food, and cocking an eye toward the sky. It had more depth than all of Jean-Michel's painted people put together.

"Want to read my diary next?" Jean-Michel was standing in the doorway, hand on hip.

"This is terrific!" I blurted out.

"Aww, I bet you say that to all the artists."

"I'm serious."

"Yeah, too serious. So's the sketch." He tossed his sunglasses to the floor. "I only do people now. They pay better."

"Well, sure, but…."

"But what?"

"But I'd go back to grad school in a minute if I could do anything half as good."

He wiped his face with a silk bathrobe. "Look, serious stuff would mess up my image. I like to think I'm a work of art myself."

That he was, all right, but a work more like his portraits than his sketch. A work that prettied him up and flattened him out.

Soon I was walking alone on the beach, thinking how sensible a happy medium sounded and how hard it was to find. Jean-Michel was letting his talent run through his fingers, and I was choking mine.

At the lagoon, the ibises were cooling off: soaking their wings and rolling the water down their backs. Their legs were reedy, almost translucent; their bills, little more than straws. It took courage for them to live so close to the shore, where a hurricane would strike first. Something about them lifted me out of myself. They made me want to write not to explain life but to wallow in the whole, beautiful mess of it: waxy leaves, sandy footprints, refunded tickets, camouflaged nests.

I drifted back to my cottage. Consuela was sitting on the railing. "You forget me, no?"

Soon we were back at the lagoon, mingling our groans with the chirps. Afterwards I tried to say how the birds made me feel. "They're so skinny, and I…." She glanced up from my chest and smiled blankly. "I mean, living near the ocean and all…." How the hell did you say "breakthrough" in Spanish?

I wrote Beth about the birds the next day. "You know, you're the only person I can explain these things to," I found myself adding. "The one islander who'd understand would pretend he didn't. I'm hard up for money myself, but let's find a way to see each other soon."

A few days later, a golf pro offered Jean-Michel and me round-trip tickets to a tournament in Phoenix. I could have traded them for ones to Chicago. But I still couldn't bring myself to take something so expensive from a stranger. Who knew what he'd try to stow in our luggage?

Beth wrote that my letter was a relief. "You'd been sounding so distant." But she still didn't want to come. "Whatever you're down there for, it's not me."

I had to get to Chicago fast. I wasn't ready to give up Mirasol for good, but maybe I could coax her back with me for a while. If we cared, we'd find a happy medium somehow.

Where could I get the money? Jean-Michel's ticket. I laughed out loud. The eternal dependent helping someone else—that would really mess up his image. He'd resent me just for asking, I'd resent him for saying no, and that might be the end of my best friendship on the island.

But suppose he came through. Just suppose. We'd be equals, and better friends for it. On my third date with Beth, we'd ended up proofing each other's papers all night. We became lovers at dawn and still made our deadlines.

I went to Jean-Michel's, but he was out, so I left my plea in a note and kept walking. It was dusk when I circled past the lagoon. The ibises were snuggling down, their feathers and the reeds turning the same shade of gray.

Jean-Michel did not show at Alejandro's that evening. The coward, I muttered between shots of tequila. I left after three hours of fending off a woman who squeezed my arm and said my sad eyes reminded her of her boyfriend in prison.

As I neared my cottage, I glimpsed yellow hair disappearing around the back. I opened the screen door. The ticket fell to my feet.

The poor guy. He must have struggled with the decision all evening. And he was a guy who hated to struggle.

That night, I kept picturing Beth in my sleep. She was singing Springsteen songs and brushing her hair to the beat. She was catching the alarm and kissing me awake. She was giving me tactful advice about my stories.

I went to thank Jean-Michel in the morning. At his front door, I heard the back one slam. When I caught up to him, he was mounting a bicycle.

"Jean-Michel! Wait!"

He wheeled part-way around and balanced on his toes. "What's up?"

"I want to thank you."

"For what?" He scratched an elbow. "Oh, the ticket? Well, you know I wouldn't have used it."

"Sure, but I thought you'd cash it in."

"You can do that?"

It would have made both of us look bad to mention his refund slips. "Well, thanks all the same."

For once, he seemed to grope for words. "She must be nice," he managed.

"She is."

He raised a foot to the pedal. "So, see you tonight?"

"Sure. I'll buy."

"No need. We've just squared our accounts. Let the rich folks pay."

I spent the afternoon in the village getting ready for the trip. I exchanged the tickets, drained the dregs of my account, wired Beth, and bought her the only souvenir I could afford: a conch-shell belt that would be lucky to survive the flight.

I reached Alejandro's at twilight. Jean-Michel was painting a pear-shaped woman. Her identical twin was stroking his back. The portrait was painfully bright, with a virtual halo around the head. "Hey, amigo!" he called to me, with more of a lilt than usual. "Want to pose with Hilda? I told the ladies all about you, and they'd like to take us to a casino in Freeport."

"Let's just have a drink," I said.

"Oh, sorry. Didn't mean to embarrass you." He turned to Hilda. "He still has some standards, I guess."

"Jean-Michel," I said.

"What?" he replied blankly.

It looked like there was only one way to be his equal: to share in his unequal dealings with others. "Nothing. I'd better go. Someone's waiting for me." I cupped his shoulder and walked away.

"We'll drink one for you."

He was still painting when I returned to the plaza at dawn. The starlet was posing now, and the twins were murmuring in a corner. I checked my backpack on the ferry, went to the post office, and left Consuela a sweet, vague note. The last call was sounding as I scurried back to the dock. Jean-Michel did not look up. Soon distance made the twins look slimmer and the starlet younger (more like their pictures, no doubt). I leaned against the gunwale and woke up in Kingston, with a prickly stripe on one cheek and a last sunburn on the other.

A Customs agent in Miami fished something from my pack that wasn't mine: a tube from a roll of paper towels. Inside was the sketch of the ibis.

"Forget to declare this?"

"I, I don't know." Jean-Michel must have stowed it while I was at the post office. He must have figured that there was nothing to bring me back to the island.

A few months have gone by, and the conch belt is chipped already. But Beth framed the sketch and hung it over my desk. The bird is still on one claw, hovering between branch and sky.

 

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