Islanders by RT Both


One Sunday night, when I came back to the island after a weekend away, I found a dead rose taped to my door. At first I thought the rose – or its deadness – was intended as a statement of some kind, possibly an ominous one. But then I realized the rose was probably alive on Friday, when I had seen James and his boy cousins drive off in his pick-up truck with all his stuff piled in back. James must have come back later and left one last flower at my door.

In the two years that he had been my neighbor, James had left bouquets of daffodils and daisies, single roses, notes (lots of notes, many illustrated with tiny, clever drawings), greeting cards, chocolates, small amounts of marijuana inside white business envelopes, and even an oil painting. He often wrote simply, “Hope you’re doing okay,” which irritated me. Notes of more than one sentence were rare, but in one of his last, taped to my door a few weeks earlier, he had written: “I’m a bad man. But I’m a lot more good than bad. And yet you insist on this interminable intermission before the next act.” On this note he drew a box of movie popcorn in black ink.

“There isn’t going to be a next act,” I muttered, placing this small piece of paper in the folder where I saved all his notes. And yet, when it came to next acts, I was often disappointed by how little it took for James to believe we were having one.

Driving home across the long bridge from the mainland that evening, I had found myself wondering what it would be like without the creaky rhythm of James’s footsteps above my head. Now he’s making dinner, I used to remark to myself. Now he’s making himself a drink. And when I lay reading before turning out the light, it often seemed that he had followed me to bed. I kept glancing out across the bay, where the mist on the water made a single, low-hanging star look like a diamond on blue velvet.

Not long after we met, James said to me, “Maybe I came out to the middle of nowhere just to find you.” I replied, “I didn’t move up here to find you.” I moved to the island because I wanted to live someplace remote but not insular, with equal doses of nature and culture, and where the people were weird, with a little bit of an edge. On the island, you can watch the boats go out each morning to ply the bay for white fish, as they’ve done for generations. The middle of the island, dotted with farms and cherry orchards, has only one road running across it. Tourists mostly congregate along the water’s edge, and it’s easy to avoid them, except when I’m selling the work of local artists at the Bay Gallery. My winter-time job is teaching art to elementary school children. Artists, or artist/inn keepers, or artist/waiters have replaced many of the island’s native sons and daughters, the ones who didn’t own farms and weren’t crafty or sociable. When I came up here to look for a place to live, I gave a couple of postcards to a local, a motel clerk, to mail and she flipped them over and began reading. I said, “I’m still standing here, you know.” She gave me a puzzled look, annoyed at the interruption, and continued reading my postcards.

My first encounter with James took place in the parking lot of our building, wind rippling the puddles in the rutted gravel and the woods closing in on three sides. The battery of my ten-year old Nissan had died. Brandishing jumper cables, I approached the middle-aged man in beret and barn jacket who I figured must be my new upstairs neighbor. His ruddy cheeks were sprinkled with broken blood vessels; his pursed lips seemed to savor a sour taste. I smelled alcohol on his breath. He told me he didn’t know how to jump-start a car, which wasn’t true, of course, but I had no trouble believing it.

The building manager, Bob, eventually came along and gave me a jump, and I gave no further thought to James, intending to interact with him in the pleasant but distant manner I reserved for my neighbors. They were lifers; I was temporary. When I had enough money for a down-payment, I was going to buy the island’s only movie theater, a Quonset hut with seating for several hundred. I would live in the cottage on the property and screen independent films and pre-code bedroom farces, noir detective thrillers, 1950s Technicolor melodramas. My profits would come from the sale of homemade baked goods and glasses of local wine. There would be an art gallery in the lobby, and I would eventually establish a film festival.

A month or two after our inauspicious meeting in the parking lot, James appeared at my door. “Do you know anything about computers?” he asked. It was a warm spring day, and my windows were open, and he must have heard the sound of my printer spitting out the pages of a brochure for the gallery. With a self-effacing grin, he explained that the desktop of his old beige computer was covered in pop-up windows.

His apartment was exactly like mine, only brighter, with light-colored paneling in the dining room and an overbearing masculine aroma throughout. “Who painted these canvasses?” I asked, looking around. Leaning against the sofa was a series of abstract paintings whose flat greens and blues reminded me of the bay on overcast days.

“I did,” James said, adding, “I’m an artist. A great artist.”

My eyebrows shot up in surprise.

I found his first note taped to my door on a summer night when I arrived home from a tavern in Stone Harbor. “Could you stop up?” The note had an urgency that seemed inappropriate, but any man who paints has the ability to interest me at least a little. James only wanted me to type and print-out his resume. He worked as a rehabber and commercial painter, and it took me less than five minutes to type his resume, which was shocking in its brevity. But I was surprised when James made no neighborly gesture in return, no “Next time your car won’t start” or “If you ever need anything painted.”

As I was getting ready for work a few days later, he called on the phone and said gruffly, “I need you to print out a map for me.” He was headed across the bridge for an interview with the manager of an office park and wasn’t sure of the location. When he came to fetch his map, I flung it at him. It fluttered to the hall carpet as he stood motionless, hands in pockets. His face registered shock as I shut the door.

That night, I had barely gotten the lights turned on in my apartment when James knocked. “Come for a star walk with me,” he said, as though the map flinging hadn’t happened.

The state park along the island’s northern shore is deserted at that hour. Tourists never visit the park’s picnic area or hiking trails at night because they’re afraid of the bears, even though there hasn’t been a bear on the island in eighty years. The importance of letting tourists think there are bears is one of the first things you learn when you become a year-rounder. You have to wear this knowing look on your face as you remark, “Oh, the rangers say there’s no bears, do they?” And then you snort and walk away before they can question you.

We drove to the park in James’s rusty-orange Ford pick-up while he asked me questions about Beverly, the owner of the Bay Gallery, whom he said he knew. Later, when I asked Bev about him, she said, “Yes, I know James,” and let it go at that. Still, I managed to talk her into showing a couple of his gray-green seascapes that match the color of the bay on overcast days. We even sold one.

When we got to the park, it turned out James didn’t really want to take a star walk; he led the way to some flat rocks near the shore where tourists sun themselves during the day, and when I was settled, hands behind my head, drinking in the stars, he said, “So how much did it cost you, that map you printed out for me today? How much was it worth in ink and paper? Ten cents? Five? Maybe three?”

I sat up and looked past James to the lights of Stone Harbor. Our apartment building, a remodeled ranger lodge still housing mostly seasonal tenants, sits across the road from the state park. But the park entrance is almost a mile away down an unlit country road. And the walk through the park’s tall pines to that road is even darker.

After brushing the dust off the seat of my jeans, I jumped down off the rocks and said, “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t bother me anymore.”

Tall pines faced me like a shivering wall of blackness, but the starlight was bright enough to reveal the pale sand of the trail head. I had followed the path through the woods to the parking lot and was walking down Drop Anchor Road when I heard the clattering of the truck, its headlights ballooning around me like a tent with yellow walls. The ancient Ford rolled to a stop. The passenger door creaked open.

“I’m sorry I made you mad,” James said. “I’ll never ask you to do anything for me again.”

“You took me out there to chastise me.”

“No, that’s not why I took you out there. I just thought we should get that cleared up.”

The skunky smell of high-grade marijuana drifted out the open door of the truck, surprising and welcome. I stood on the gravel of the roadbed taking deep breaths through my nose.

“C’mon,” he said. “Ride with me.”

I climbed into the truck and pulled the creaky passenger door shut. “Where are we going?” I asked, my eye on the pipe resting in the dashboard ashtray. Handing me the pipe and a Bic lighter he took from his shirt pocket, James said, “Oh, just for a little drive.” I could hear the smile in his voice.

One night in the middle of summer, I made dinner for James and me. He complimented me on the green beans – slightly firm, just the way he liked them – and asked if I knew how to make chocolate cake. His mother had baked him a chocolate cake every Friday, he said. I took a sip of the Merlot he had brought down and said nothing. He had not brought down any marijuana. James was getting touchy about his marijuana, refusing to share the name of his dealer with me while at the same time suggesting that his weed supply was the only reason I liked him, which was more or less true, though I’d found it strangely moving the time he said, “Sometimes I’m afraid I’m going to die all alone in this apartment.”

Before we sat down to eat, James had said, “Um, I’m out of pot.” That’s what he called it. James was older than me and seemed curiously proud of it, though he would often lament the waste of his “God-given talent,” which he was certain should have brought him fame and fortune by now. He had started a new painting, and he wanted me to go upstairs with him when we were finished eating so he could show it to me.

But when we had finished eating my food, the rosemary baked chicken and sliced potatoes, the green beans in mushroom sauce, I asked him to leave.

“What do you mean?” he said.

“I feel like being by myself.”

I positioned myself near the door. “Out you go,” I said, with a wave of my arms.

As I washed the dishes, I heard his truck roar out of the parking lot, gravel flying. And then, about twenty minutes later, I heard it roar back.

That night, a fierce wind chased purple clouds across the sky. The trees flailed wildly, but no rain ever fell. From James’s apartment, I heard the sound of heavy objects being dragged, smaller objects being dropped. His footfalls centered in the living room, as though he were pacing back and forth in front of a canvas. Finally, around eleven o’clock, I heard a thump so loud it shook the walls of my apartment, followed by an eerie silence.

No one else was home at our end of the building. On the second-floor landing, the sound of the wind through the open window was like waves beating in to shore. I knocked on James’s door, softly at first, then louder. When I put my ear to the wood, I heard only the faint laughter of a talk-show audience. The knob turned easily in my hand.

Like mine, James’s apartment opened onto a small foyer with a closet on one side and the kitchen on the other. Scattered on the kitchen counter I saw several ice cube trays and an empty bottle of Snapple Peach Tea.

More interesting was the foot that extended from the living room into my field of vision, toes up. I heard a snort and moved forward to find James lying on his back, one leg extended, the other crossing it at the knee in a pose that reminded me of the Hanged Man of the Tarot. As he began to snore, I glanced around. Newspapers slid off the sofa. Balls of crumpled drawing paper lay on the floor. A bowl of Cheetos was upended on the carpet, and an empty bottle of Smirnoff sat in the armchair like a guest. Lying at my feet was a flyer that had once been taped to the wall.

This decades-old flyer advertised a gallery show in San Francisco that had featured James’s work. Even in the fuzzy black and white reproduction, the James pictured on the flyer, shirtless, brush in hand, sitting next to a canvas, looked handsome and a little dangerous. In those days, James had told me, he could walk into any bar and have his pick of women.

But all he wanted now was that one special woman. “And that woman is you, Woa-sie.”

To James, baby talk signaled intimacy. To me it signaled, “Time to go.”

I left the flyer lying where it was. But when I first encountered it, I had studied it for such a long time that James became jealous of his handsome younger self and snatched it from my hand. I hadn’t bothered to explain that it wasn’t James’s earlier incarnation that fascinated me, but the youthful James’s startling resemblance to another unsung artist, one I’d known well in my days on the mainland, who had already come to his own bad (and to me, quite gratifying) end.

Now, shoulders hunched, hands dangling from wrists, I scurried to the room James called his studio, where I knew he kept his marijuana in the top drawer of an old desk. While sliding open the drawer, I glanced at James’s work in progress resting on an easel, a vortex of red and gray and black. My eyes landed on a glass pharmacy jar crammed with buds. “Ha!” I whispered. In the other room, James snored lustily. I flipped open the silver wire that closed the jar’s lid and breathed in. My heart pounded as I removed a smallish bud. Changing my mind, I put the small bud back in the jar and selected a larger one, fluffing the remaining marijuana so that it looked as though nothing were missing. With the fragrant green oval cupped in my hand, I hurried from the apartment without a glance at the body on the floor.

Back in my own apartment, I placed the green nugget on the kitchen counter and dug around in a drawer of my grandmother’s dish cabinet for my pipe. I uncurled a paperclip and heated it in the flame of a lighter I also kept there. When the metal glowed red, I worked it back and forth inside the pipe stem to melt the dried tar clogging it. Then I broke apart the nugget and pressed some inside the shallow bowl. “Here’s to you, James,” I said, raising the pipe to the ceiling.

When I returned home from work the following evening, red-eyed and cranky, I found a bulging white envelope taped to my door. Inside was a fragrant nugget wrapped in cellophane. The note, when I got around to reading it, said, “Is this why you were mad at me?”

In late summer, James and I began going for walks to the old graveyard on Cemetery Hill, where rows of weathered headstones claimed a view of the bay. Often James was hung over, and usually he wanted to drive to the graveyard, but when I said I was walking whether he came along or not, he tagged along. While I walked among the rows, reading the names and dates and captions out loud, James sat on the grass and waited for me to finish.

Afterward, we went upstairs to his apartment, and James filled iced tumblers with vodka and Peach Snapple for himself, water for me. Not that I wouldn’t have drunk his vodka, but he never offered it. If he hadn’t seen me for a while, he brought out his pipe. But when he didn’t, I waited until he went into the bathroom to silently slide open the drawer of the antique desk, all the while keeping an ear on what was happening across the hall. James’s urine stream drummed loudly on the water of the toilet; I could hear it when I was in the bathroom downstairs, heard him peeing over my head several times a day. As soon as I’d managed, with heart-pounding excitement, to snatch some bud, I ran noiselessly back to the living room and called from the doorway: “Gotta go. See you later.” As I fled, I could hear him shouting, “Wait! Why do you always have to leave so soon?”

And then James stopped going to the bathroom. Something had evidently gone wrong with his prostate. I found myself having to ask him if he had any weed, and if he said he did, I would have to sit with him for a while, listening to his slurry talk.

James found me “extremely attractive” as well as “sexy and cool.” These words didn’t make me feel any more warmly towards him, especially since, every time I opened my mouth to speak, he cut me off. I was usually about to say something like, “I see no future in this relationship,” or, “You should really get yourself a better day job.” Still, it was frustrating to be cut off like that, and being a teacher, I wasn’t accustomed to it.

One night, when he was telling me how funny and entertaining I was, I said, “How would you know? You never let me say anything.”

“Oh, Rose,” he said imploringly, “You don’t really know me. We’re just getting to know each other. You have to let me – ”

“Let you what?” I said, looking at him through narrowed eyes.

“Let me tell you! Let me talk to you, Rose!”

“I’m going downstairs to pour myself a scotch.”

James, who was nearly out of vodka, grinned. “Bring me back at least two fingers.”

I came back with two fingers and handed him the glass.

“Pour it over ice for me.”

“I’m sure you can manage.”

“Pour me a drink, woman!”

I stood up again and moved toward the door.

“Wait! Don’t go just because of that.”

I sat back down and picked up the pipe on the coffee table, lighting it and holding the smoke in my lungs for as long as I could.

“I almost got you to do it,” James said, almost to himself. “If I hadn’t said, ‘woman,’ you would have.”

Leaning back on the sofa, I put my feet on James’s coffee table. In a more conversational tone, he started talking about how he wanted us to move into a big old house together, like one he’d seen on the other side of the island, where we could each “do our thing” until it was time to drink tea and talk about “our work.” I still held the pipe cupped in my hand, and as I flicked the lighter and lowered it to the bowl, I glanced at James in surprise. “Tea?” I said, holding my breath.

After a while, and not a long while, his boorishness became intolerable, and I stopped going for walks with him and instead began to wait downstairs for distinct signs that he’d passed out. Or more often, during the day, I’d see him walking past my living room windows, heading for his truck. I’d wait a few minutes to make sure he didn’t come back. I had some ideas about what I’d do if he walked into the apartment while I was there; what I’d do if he came up the stairs just as I was leaving. He never caught me, but the possibility added to the thrill, the pure delight, of my marijuana thieving.

One night in fall, as I sat alone in my apartment watching TV with the lights off, a small black creature with a long tail dashed across the rug and disappeared under an armchair. Bounding from the sofa with a shriek, I raced upstairs and knocked loudly on James’s door.

“Who is it?”

“The Wu Tang Clan. C’mon, open up.”

The door swung open, and James stood there, his hair coming to triangular points all over his head, looking pleased. He wore plaid pajama bottoms and a white, V-neck tee shirt that stretched taut across his belly. He looked appealing in a teddy-bear way, but of course he was drunk. “Come in,” he said, beaming. As I stepped into the living room, I saw his pipe, a couple of inches of ribbed metal with a tarnished metal bowl, sitting on top of a drawing pad next to a freshly made cocktail. As soon as I sat down on the sofa, he handed me the pipe. Flicking the lighter with a calloused thumb, I noticed that the bowl was unfired. James said, “I had a feeling you’d come by tonight.” He pressed his knee against mine.

Holding the smoke in my lungs for as long as I could, I shut one eye and regarded James with the other. Reaching for his cocktail, James took a long drink and said, “Honey, you know we can’t go on like this.”

As a precautionary measure, I took another hit as soon as I’d exhaled the first one. James started to reach for the pipe but thought better of it. Instead, he put his hand on my knee and squeezed. I shifted slightly. With sudden desperation, he said, “I’m a man! Lord knows I don’t want anybody as much as I want you, but ‒ ”

Releasing the smoke, I said, “I think I just saw a mouse in my apartment. It was black! I never saw a black mouse before.”

“I know, honey, I know. I know all about dee iddy-biddy mousies.”

“So you have mice up here too?”

“Oh yeah.” He took another deep drink. “I caught one, and I didn’t know how I was going to kill it, so I put it in a bowl and poured boiling water over it.”

“You did what!”

“I put a plate over the bowl while I boiled the water. It was scratching around in there, trying to get out. And then I poured boiling wa-da over dee iddy-biddy mousey.”

As I ran out of the apartment, I heard James shout, “This is what you do, Rose! You take whatever you want from me and then you run away! You’re a user, Rose! You use me and then you toss me aside!”

My car keys were somewhere inside my apartment, where the mice were even now taking up winter residence. Opening my door just enough to reach inside, I grabbed a hooded sweatshirt hanging from a hook and slipped it on. Outside, there was a full moon. I walked all the way to Cemetery Hill, where I sat down on an overturned gravestone, wrapped my arms around myself, and stared at the shimmering pathway the moon shed on the water. When it got too cold, I went home to rejoin the mouse.

Winter closed in again. I welcomed it, usually; I liked the feeling of being enclosed, inside layers of clothing, inside my apartment. Snow mobiles were banned on the island, and outside on winter nights, you sometimes heard nothing but the sound of branches creaking or the hoot of an owl. On clear nights the stars were so bright and thick you strained your neck staring up at them.

After the note I’d left James, explaining why he should start locking the door to his apartment, I didn’t hear from him for a while. I had some moments of desperation, turning the knob of that locked door in my hand, when I wished I’d never told on myself, but I resisted the impulse to knock. And then, sometime during the winter, his notes began again, and sometimes there were flowers or gifts, supermarket roses on Valentine’s Day, an Easter card featuring a bunny, and even a series of unspecific apologies. James seemed to think that his problem was just “being a guy.” He seemed to forgive me for stealing his marijuana. When I found the envelope with the lump inside that crunched when I pressed it with my finger, I took it back upstairs and slid it under his door. I usually returned the flowers and the greeting cards. I ate the chocolates, however, and I kept the painting because it was beautiful in a minimal way: my first initial as a jewel-like red blossom with a curling blue stem. I figured I deserved it because he had seemed to paint more after I convinced him to stop repeating that mantra, “I’m a great artist.”

The flowers and gifts continued through the spring and summer, but I never spoke to James again. One day in early fall, heading out to my car just as James pulled away with a bunch of his stuff jammed into the bed of his truck, I caught his glance in the rear-view mirror. Returning home a few hours later, I found his last note: “You looked nice today.”

It was Bob the building manager who told me James was moving. Bob was laying carpet and painting walls, but there would no new tenant in James’s apartment until spring. Now, when I strolled outside to the parking lot, no one would be watching from a second floor window. James’s creaky footfalls, tracing his familiar route, were gone. “You wouldn’t believe the mess that guy James left,” Bob told me. Bob had often said to me, “Just say the word, and I’ll kick him out.”

But I never said that word. Because after all, you can’t ask for a better neighbor than a drunk who lives alone.


RT Both’s short stories, creative non-fiction, and articles have been published in Great Lakes Review, Brooklyn Review, Weep, and Chicago Magazine, among others. Her magazine article “The Banishment of John McAdams” appeared in Milwaukee Magazine and was nominated for a Press Club award in the profiles category. Her book reviews have appeared in Fiction Writers Review, Colorado Review, and Rain Taxi. A doctoral student, she will defend her dissertation project, The Comedians, a novel, in Fall 2016. She teaches in the First Year English program at Marquette University.