Chester’s is a two-story clapboard building set off the road and painted ivory and dusty pink. The parking lot has been taken over by a tent. Billowing out behind the tent are clouds of barbecue-scented smoke. Somewhere, a steel band is playing.
“It’s good that it’s crowded,” Cash says. “We won’t stick out.”
“Let’s get a drink,” Baker says. It feels wrong to be here. They didn’t know Rosie Small. They are the sons of her lover, the man who was taking her to Anegada, and who was indirectly responsible for her death. Surely there are people in attendance—possibly a lot of people—who believe Rosie’s death is Russ’s fault.
The place is too packed for there to be any kind of receiving line, thank God, which was another reason for avoiding the service. Cash seems to think everyone here is just going to offer up all kinds of information, but Baker isn’t so sure.
Baker asks a gentleman in a fedora where the bar can be found and the gentleman says, “Drinks inside but you got to pay. Food outside is free. Pig roast and all the sides, including Chester’s johnnycakes. You ever had Chester’s johnnycakes?”
Baker sidles away without answering. “The bar is inside,” he says to Cash.
“It’s hot,” Cash says. He’s pink in the face and sweating. He chose to wear a long-sleeved plaid shirt and a pair of jeans. Baker is in khaki shorts and a navy polo. They both look… well, the word Baker wants to use is white… he doesn’t mean Caucasian, exactly, but rather pale and out of place, like they’ve just parachuted in from the North Pole. Only half the people here are West Indian, but the other white people here look tan, weathered, well-seasoned.
The inside of Chester’s is mercifully cooler, and Baker immediately feels better because the bar is the kind Baker would seek out if he had time to seek out bars. There’s a long counter, a few tables, a sticky concrete floor, and a room through the back that has a pool table and a dartboard. Chester’s Getaway has clearly seen dramas more interesting than the one he and Cash are presently living, or at least Baker would like to believe this. Two TVs hang over the bar, but they’re both shut off. The line for a drink is three deep, and Baker decides to exercise his privilege as older brother.
“You wait,” he tells Cash. “I’m going to wander.”
“Wander where?” Cash says. “There isn’t room to think in here, much less wander.”
“Over there,” Baker says. He nods vaguely in the direction of an easel displaying photos. Celebrating Rosie, it says in bubble letters across the top. Baker hands Cash a twenty, since his brother is perpetually low on money. “And get me two beers, please, when it’s your turn.”
Cash shrugs and tries to shoulder his way closer to the bar. Meanwhile Baker shuffles over to the sign and the photos, wondering if there are any photos of Rosie Small with their father. There’s a woman standing next to the easel behind a small table where she’s encouraging people to sign the guest book.
“Hello,” she says to Baker. “Would you like to sign the guest book?”
Baker’s mouth falls open. It’s not just that he’s unsure of what to say—No, the answer to her question is definitely no, he does not want to sign the guest book—it’s that she is the prettiest woman he has ever seen. Ever. She has blond ringlet curls and a smile like the sun. She’s a natural beauty, and above and beyond that, she looks nice.
Anna is striking, certainly. There have been times in the past eight years when Baker hasn’t been able to stop staring at her. But this woman affects Baker differently. She’s lightly tanned, with freckles across her nose. She wears no makeup. She has blue eyes and straight white teeth. She wears five or six silver bracelets and a simple black jersey dress that clings to her slender frame. Looking at her fills Baker with wordless joy. She looks like hope.
I’m in love with you, he thinks. Whoever you are.
“Sure,” he says. “I’d love to sign the guest book.”
He accepts the pen from her, wondering what name he can possibly sign. He stalls by locking eyes with her and saying, “Can I get you a drink or anything? You seem to have pulled the short straw, being stuck back here in the corner.”
“Oh,” she says. “It’s fine. Chester is keeping me in rum punches.” She holds up a plastic cup containing an inch of watery pink liquid, a maraschino cherry, and an orange slice. “He’ll be back soon, I’m sure.” She sets down the cup and offers a hand. “I’m Ayers Wilson, by the way. I was Rosie’s best friend.” She tilts her head. “I don’t think I recognize you. How did you know Rosie?”
“I… uh… I didn’t, really,” Baker says. “I came with someone who knew her. My brother. He’s at the bar, getting me a beer, I hope.”
Ayers laughs. “Nice brother,” she says. “How did he know Rosie?”
“Um…,” Baker says. “He worked with her.”
Ayers’s eyes widen. “Really?” she says. “Who’s your brother? Is it Skip? Oh my God, that’s right, Skip’s brother from LA, right? But, wait… he’s… she’s transitioning to a woman. That’s not you, I take it.”
“No,” Baker says. Just like that, he’s been caught. “Actually, my brother is at the bar, but he didn’t work with Rosie.”
Ayers shakes her head. “Don’t tell me,” she says. “You guys are crashing, right?”
Baker sighs. “Kind of.”
“Here on vacation, saw the crowd, smelled the pig roast, and figured why not?” Ayers gives him a pointed look and he feels like an idiot. Before he can decide if he should tell her who he really is, she shrugs. “I honestly don’t blame you.”
“You don’t?” Baker says. “I didn’t want to come. My brother insisted.”
“I’m actually happy to meet a complete stranger who has nothing to do with any of this,” Ayers says. “Half the women here are pissed that I’m doing the guest book instead of Rosie’s third cousin or Maia’s preschool teacher, and as if that’s not bad enough, over there in the doorway are my ex-boyfriend and the tramp he left me for.”
Baker looks toward the doorway and sees a chunky guy with a buzz cut and a woman in her twenties who has seen fit to come to a memorial reception without either washing her hair or wearing a bra.
He turns back to Ayers. He’s still holding the pen.
“Just write your name,” Ayers says. “I’ll remember you as the crasher and that’ll cheer me up.”
“Okay.” Baker says. He writes: Baker. Then he hands the pen back to Ayers.
“Baker,” she reads. “Well, Mr. Baker, it was nice meeting you.”
“Baker is my first name,” he says.
“Gotcha,” Ayers says. “You’re afraid to write your last name in case I call the police? Or do you go solely by your first name, like Madonna and Cher?”
“The latter,” he says. She’s flirting with him, he thinks. He stands up to his full height and squares his shoulders.
“Do you want to come outside with me and have a cigarette?” she asks. “Or are you horrified by a woman who smokes?”
He would follow her to East Japip to drink snake venom, he thinks. He answers by scooting the table aside so she can step out. “Lead the way,” he says.
She navigates around the crowd to the back of the tent, where a West Indian man with an orange bandana wrapped around his head is tending to the pig. There’s a rubber trash can filled with beer and ice. Ayers grabs two, then says to the man, “You forgot about me, Chester. I’m taking these.”
Chester waves his basting brush in the air. “Okay, doll.”
Ayers leads Baker to the edge of the parking lot, where there is a tree with a low branch big and sturdy enough to sit on. Ayers pulls a pack of cigarettes out of a little crocheted purse that hangs across her body and lights up. “I’m horrified by people who smoke,” Ayers says. “But my best friend just died and so I’m going to give myself a pass for a while to indulge in some self-destructive behavior.” She hands the cigarette to Baker. “Want to join me?”
“Sure,” he says. He inhales and promptly coughs. “Sorry, I’m out of practice. I haven’t had a cigarette since I was fourteen years old standing out in back of the ice rink. It’s been only weed for me since then.”
This makes Ayers laugh. “So where are you visiting from, Baker?”
“Me?” he says. “Houston.”
“Houston,” Ayers says. “Never been. Are you a doctor? You look like a doctor.”
No, he nearly says. But my wife’s a doctor.
“I’m not a doctor,” he says. “I used to trade in commodities but now I’m kind of between jobs. I do some day-trading and I’m a stay-at-home dad. My son, Floyd, is four.”
“Floyd,” Ayers says. “Cool name.”
“It’s making a comeback,” Baker says. “Your name is pretty cool.”
“My parents are wanderers,” Ayers says. “They travel all over the world. I was named after Ayers Rock in Australia, which is, apparently, where I was conceived. But since then the rock has been reclaimed by the Aboriginals and now it’s called Uluru. And so I am now politically incorrect Ayers.”
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