(Art by spoon+fork.)
Before we got started, I offered Andrea Conti a joint.
Despite the close brush at JJ’s, I couldn’t stop smoking pot. It became even more exciting. Pot stayed in your body 90 days, as long as a warranty if you wouldn’t buy the extra protection.
“No way, get that shit away from me,” she said, as she continued to roll up her sleeve.
“Would you mind if I smoked?”
“No, it’s disgusting. Don’t do it.”
Andrea was getting fussy, but wasn’t any less enthusiastic in what she did, even when it took me longer sometimes.
The rules were set pretty early on. I couldn’t touch her and she wouldn’t take off any of her clothes. All she was going to use was one hand.
“Andrea, do you have a boyfriend on the side?” I said, as she unzipped me.
“I’m married, I don’t need a boyfriend!”
“If I were your boyfriend, you’d have sex with me, right?”
“I don’t like sex.”
“This is sorta sex already.”
“This isn’t sex, this is like my service. I like to make people feel good. I would never cheat on Michael.”
“He doesn’t know about this, does he?”
“Who do you think set the rules?”
Suddenly I wondered if there was a camera somewhere in the truck. Was this going out live on the Internet? I was distracted and went a little limp.
“You want me to talk like a black girl?” Andrea asked. “Would you like that, boo?”
“No, don’t do that,” I said. I closed my eyes but the thought was in my head.
I imagined Nadine from the bar.
“There we go,” Andrea said.
Nadine looking sideways at me. Slowly she changed into Mrs. Angrywall. The view moved from her face and down the groove in her calf to her dark brown feet with toe rings.
I wondered what Mrs. Angrywall would be like in bed, with those toe rings jingling around my ears.
When I was up on the roof with Mrs. Angrywall that afternoon, I noticed that she was wearing a pair of low-cut Converses.
“How come you’re not wearing your sandals?” I asked.
“Oh, the damn strap broke. I drag my feet too much.” She took a drag on the joint and passed it back to me. “Now I have to wear these evil Western shoes.”
“They’re probably made in China. They’re still Asian so you should like them.”
“Ah, yes, because China and India are such good mates. We’re all Asian, aren’t we? That’s like me telling your people that the English are your brothers.”
“From what my father told me, Irish killed more Irish during the troubles.”
“Could be true, but the provos are far more intelligent than they’re given credit for. There was no random violence.”
“How do you know about the IRA?”
“My boyfriend in college was Irish. From Ireland.” She took the joint back from me. “Oh, don’t mention that to my husband. I’ve never told him about it. He thought it was a white wedding.”
“He thought you were a virgin?”
“He did. My father did, my brothers, aunts, everybody.”
“How did you get around that?”
“Hargh! A woman has her ways around a naive and younger man.”
“Hey, I talked to him. He seems like an average kinda guy.”
“He basically didn’t watch TV or listen to music until he was 20. Although he’s quite the conversationalist, he’s befuddled by. . .situations.”
“Didn’t anyone know you had a boyfriend at school?”
“I didn’t have any relatives in the States.”
“Didn’t your family come over for your graduation?”
“No, they didn’t bother.”
“Not even for Harvard?”
“It was a girl graduating!”
She had a bitterness that genetically modified pot couldn’t mellow out.
“How come you’re here now?” I asked.
“I’m here to support my husband’s business. He bought this hotel with a loan from his parents shortly before our wedding. Earlier, he had co-founded a dot-com that went belly up.”
“How is the hotel doing?”
“Sean. We’re doing terribly.” She shook her head and grimaced. “Once upon a time, we had two clerks, but we’ve had to sack them. Now it’s me behind the counter.”
“But you people seem to be doing well. Almost every hotel here is run by hindus.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“If it was particularly lucrative,” she said, “do you think we’d be the only ones doing it?”
“I guess everyone would be doing it.”
“Then why are you and your husband doing it?”
“It’s still better than running a convenience store, making our money from lottery tickets and lurid magazines and videos. ” The joint was at the end and I ground it into a black smudge with my shoe.
“Sean, I have to tell you something. I’m Indian. Don’t call me a ‘hindu.’”
“Do a Google search.”
“I’m not allowed to use the Internet.”
“Then you’ll never know why you’re wrong, and if you don’t know why you’re wrong, you’ll never improve yourself.”
“Well, actually, I have been improving myself. I read this self-help book in prison, “Man Has to Be His Own Savior.” You have to be completely honest with yourself. You have to find what you love and persevere. That’s the secret.”
“Not everyone’s free to pursue what they want.”
“Everybody is! They only think they can’t.”
“At first, I was excited that the hotel was right on the Barnegat Bay. It tied into my doctoral thesis on marine grasses and macro algae. It was no Chesapeake Bay, but still it’s an important estuary. I applied for and was awarded with a grant to carry out a study in the area. But I had to give it up to work at the hotel. They asked me to return the grant or at least my data so far, but I never did. We didn’t have the means to pay it back and the scant information I had was useless.”
“If you could do anything in the world, you’d want to be studying sea grass?”
“Yes, I would. I still read about submerged aquatic vegetation online,” she said, then giggled a little. “Sometimes I even go into my small marsh and clear out the debris.”
“You have your own marsh?’
“I like to think of it as my own marsh, but really it’s one small part of Gaia.”
“That’s the idea that we’re all a part of one giant, super-organism. Gaia.”
“Mrs. Angrywall, I didn’t go to Harvard, or nothing. . .”
“It’s got little to nothing to do with Harvard,” she said sharply. “It’s. . .an idea. We all have our own small part to do to keep the earth going.”
“I should probably get going and do my small part flipping burgers. I can’t understand how our stand manages to stay afloat. We must be cutting it pretty close.”
“Do you think you’d have a job at the burger takeaway if it were a money maker?”
“What do you mean? We make a lot of money!”
“That stand is a tax-loss write-off for Michael Conti’s big restaurant! He also gets money for letting an ex-con work there.”
“Hey, I understand that I’m in a pretty special situation right now. But if I keep my nose clean a year, I can get an office job in the city. Then I can really do my small part for Gaia.”
“You’re already converting oxygen to carbon dioxide.”
“Everybody does that.”
“Do you want to see my marsh, Sean?”
She wore a pair of clamdiggers with her Converses and a loose cotton-knit top. I saw her complete neck and upper chest exposed for the first time. Dressed like that, Mrs. Angrywall could pass for a dark Italian.
We walked across a pedestrian bridge from the bay side of Shore Points that went out into a series of marshes. Or maybe it was one big marsh. The bridge seemed to be made of the same wood from the boardwalk and it kept us a foot or so above the muck.
Mr. Angrywall had gone to Asbury Park where they were auctioning off parts of a demolished hotel and ballroom. He was looking for good cheap wood.
“How are the repairs going?” I asked Mrs. Angrywall.
“Slowly. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose. We couldn’t rent out the rooms even if they were pristine.” Our footsteps sent thin ripples across the bubbly and oily surface of the marsh. Vegetation that looked like little plucked cloverleafs covered up parts of our reflections.
“Did you know that we’re no longer in New Jersey?”
“We’re on federal land. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife bought these small islands several years ago, after my disastrous grant work.”
“These little pieces of shit count as islands?”
“Believe it or not.”
“I can’t believe they still let you back here.”
“They don’t quite ‘let’ me back here,” she said slowly. “In fact, you might say that we’re trespassing now.”
A dim memory surfaced. My mother and I running in the rain, taking shelter in an abandoned shack off the boardwalk.
“We’re trespassing,” my mother told me.
“What does ‘trespassing’ mean?” I asked.
“It’s when you go somewhere you’re not supposed to be in order to get to where you want to go. Remember the Lord’s Prayer?”
“We ask God to ‘forgive us our trespasses.’ So it’s okay to do bad things as long as we always ask for forgiveness.”
The rain came down hard and seemed to go on forever. My mother lifted me up so I could see above the boards nailed over the window. The ocean was leaping into the gray sky. Angry walls of water crashed against the beach and seethed in the sand.
“Why are there so many waves?” I asked my mother.
“Because people on the other side of the world are splashing around. Maybe there’s a birthday party and some boys are doing cannonballs and sending waves all the way back here.”
“Here we are,” said Mrs. Angrywall. She raked her fingers through her hair and magically it seemed to grow an inch longer.
“Not much to see.”
“Without the proper instruments, you can’t really appreciate what’s going on here. You have to sort of feel it.” She sat down cross-legged on the bridge. I sat down next to her.
“What’s happening now?” I asked.
“There are plants taking energy from the sun, generating oxygen and filtering water. They don’t look like much but these little smudges of green provide the basic necessities for life in the marsh. Take them out and the shellfish and fish die, the birds fly away and the water turns toxic. Not necessarily in that order.”
“Life is funny isn’t it? Algae is making this all possible.”
“Algae are making this all possible. It’s a plural word.”
“You’re making me feel really stupid.”
“I don’t mean to. Hey, let’s get higher than kites.”
“Now you’re talking,” I said, pulling out a joint I kept in the right cuff of my shorts. We lit up. After a while, I thought I could decode the language of the chittering bugs in the weeds.
One was saying to the other: “They are trespassing.”
I imagined Mrs. Angrywall doing her experiments in the marsh. Snipping leaves into plastic bags. Filling glass jars with water. Scooping up mud and wiping it all over her breasts. Pulling off all of her clothes and rolling around.
I closed my eyes, turned to her and said, “I’m sorry, but I keep seeing you naked in there.”
“There’s nobody there.”
I lay back and looked up at the sky. My mind reset itself.
“How come you didn’t finish your project here?” I asked her.
“I was too busy at the hotel.”
“You could have come back on like the weekends, right?”
“The weekends are the busiest times for the hotel! Very nearly all the rentals are for Friday and Saturday nights. Oh, pardon me, I meant that they once were.”
“Is it too late for someone else to take over your experiments?”
“I suppose I could have left instructions for someone else to collect data, though I would have had to analyze the information. I certainly didn’t even have the time to do that.”
After a while, Mrs. Angrywall said, “Every time I come back here, I can feel the magic of this place. There’s a real, tangible life force with feelings. I had a portable radio back here once and the aerial wouldn’t work.”
“I’m so sorry. Antenna.”
“God, it’s like you’re speaking a completely different language.”
“You still understand what I’m saying, mostly, don’t you?”
“I think so.”
“What’s a coach?”
“The guy who’s in charge of the team.”
“It’s a bus. What’s a car wing?”
“Something Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has.”
“You call it a ‘fender.’ What’s polythene?”
“I don’t know.”
“I still don’t know what it is!” We had the giggles for a little while.
When the silliness went away, I said, “You could still do it. Later, I mean. Your marsh project. You’re still young.”
“Sean. I’m 40 years old.”
Suddenly, I was sober again.
“Forty! Oh my God!” I yelled out. Married and 40. Two reasons to really stay away from her.
“Thank you so very much,” she said, scrunching up her face.
“You. . .you look like you’re 28 or 27.”
“I feel 40. Bloody hell, I feel 50. This business, it’s never going to work out properly.”
“Can’t you use it as a tax-writer thing? You know, try to lose money to make money?”
“It only works when you also have a profitable business. You sort of get a discount on the taxes for your rich hand to compensate you for your losses on the other.”
“Oh,” I said. I became aware of burbling sounds coming from the marsh and looked across the water. I saw the sun’s reflection shimmering in the air and I thought about Genesis 1.
(Part 10 next week.)