“Hey, man, I’m Skip.” Skip offers Cash his hand, and Baker says, “I’m sorry. This is my brother, Cash.”
Skip asks Cash where he’s from and Cash says Breckenridge, Colorado, and it turns out that Skip was a snowboarder in Telluride in his former life. Cash says (as Baker knows he’s going to), “To hell you ride! No way, man!” And then they’re off and running, talking about how Peak 7 compares to Senior’s as Baker sits anxiously by, wondering when he can reasonably interrupt to ask Skip for a vodka tonic.
He feels a hand on his back.
“Hey,” Ayers says. “You came!” She looks genuinely happy and surprised, and Baker experiences a surge of pure love like a sugar high or a hit of nicotine—but then Ayers turns her attention to Cash. “Hey, stranger!”
Cash stands up and gives Ayers a hug—more like an overly familiar, overly affectionate squeeze—and Baker is confused. He recalls introducing Cash to Ayers at the reception briefly, but had they said anything more than hello?
Ayers looks at Skip. “Buy these two a round on the house.” She points to Cash. “Painkiller, extra strong, for this guy.”
Cash laughs. “No, thank you.”
“Aw, come on,” Ayers says. “How about a rum punch, Myers’s floater?”
“Stop!” Cash says.
Baker is lost. What is going on here? He’s about to ask when Ayers rests a hand on his bicep. Involuntarily, he flexes.
“Are you feeling better?” she asks.
“I… uh, yeah, yes,” Baker says.
“If you want to run, you should drive to Maho. There’s a four-mile loop to Leinster Bay. Skip can draw you a map, can’t you, Skip?”
“On it,” Skip says.
“Gotta get back to work,” Ayers says. “Say good-bye before you leave.”
“Thanks for the drink,” Cash says. Then to Skip he says, “Don’t listen to her. I’ll have a beer. Island Hoppin’ IPA is fine.”
“Did you go out on Treasure Island?” Skip asks.
Cash nods. “Yesterday. Poisoned myself.”
“That happens,” Skip says. “Did you go to Jost?”
“Baths, Cooper Island, the Indians.”
“Next time, you’ve got to go to Jost,” Skip says. “You haven’t lived until you’ve had a painkiller at the Soggy Dollar.”
Baker says, “I’ll have a vodka tonic, please.” He pauses. Then, at the risk of sounding like a douche bag, he says, “Pronto.” He’s failed: He sounds like a douche bag. But he’s learning that Skip is a talker and easily distracted. And Baker desperately needs a drink if he’s to process what he thinks is going on.
Skip slaps the bar. “Pronto.”
The drink does arrive pretty much pronto. Baker takes a long, deep sip before he turns to his brother, who is doing his best to look nonchalant—twirling his beer bottle, humming along to the guitar player, who is doing a fair rendition of “Promises,” by Eric Clapton.
“Do you mean to tell me that’s where you were yesterday?” Baker says. “You went out on Treasure Island? You went on a trip to the BVIs?” Baker lowers his voice and moves in on Cash. “Our father is dead. I sat home waiting to hear from Her Royal Highness’s blasted coast guard or what have you. I called the crematorium trying to track down the ashes, and you’re out getting drunk on a pleasure cruise?”
“Yep,” Cash says. A smile is playing around his lips and Baker wants to punch him. He was out all day on a boat with Ayers, getting drunk, getting cozy. Baker’s question is: How did Cash even know Ayers worked on Treasure Island? He hadn’t been around for that part of the conversation. Was it just dumb luck—Cash needed something to do, stumbled across Treasure Island, and recognized Ayers? Or is something more going on? Baker knows that Cash has long wanted to get back at him for hooking up with Claire Bellows at Northwestern. Baker had bumped into her at a Sig Ep party when he was a junior and she was just a freshman. Quite frankly, Claire had thrown herself at Baker. She had drunkenly confided that the entire time she’d been with Cash she had harbored a painful crush on Baker. Baker had pretended to be surprised by this admission, although he had certainly noticed all of the moony looks and the way, whenever Irene had invited Claire to stay for dinner, she had always chosen the seat next to Baker and “accidentally” bumped knees with him under the table. When Baker saw her at Sig Ep, he had spent a few minutes deliberating with his conscience. Could he screw Claire Bellows? He wasn’t a complete asshole, and he did love his brother, deep down. But Claire’s fawning attention and the number of beers Baker had drunk that night won out. He had taken her back to his room. In the morning, consumed with guilt, she had called Cash.
Cash had been pissed enough to threaten getting on a bus from Boulder to Chicago and showing up to kick Baker’s ass.
Baker had laughed and said, “I can’t help it if chicks like me better, dude.” He had meant this as a kind of apology, but Cash had taken it as exactly the opposite. Things between them had never been the same. Baker thought, Fine, whatever. He wished they were closer or at least on less prickly terms, but they were adults—or at least Baker was, with a house and a wife and a child. Cash was still a punk, mooching off their father’s magnanimity, and apparently still a sore loser. It could be that Cash has been waiting all these many years to get back at Baker.
“Really,” Baker says now. “How did all that come about?”
“Ayers invited me,” Cash says.
Baker finishes the rest of his vodka tonic in one swallow, then holds his empty glass up to Skip, and Skip says, “Pronto, man, as soon as I finish with the sixteen orders from the service bar,” a response Baker knows he deserves.
“Invited you when?” Baker says.
“When I bumped into her hiking,” Cash says.
“Winnie and I hiked the Reef Bay Trail on Saturday,” Cash says. “And we came across Ayers by the petroglyphs, crying and nearly out of drinking water.”
“Stop,” Baker says. He can all too easily picture the scene. Winnie probably approached Ayers; Cash was fond of letting his dog introduce him to women. And then Cash wooed her by being his well-prepared Boy Scout self. “Just so we’re clear on this, I’m going to ask her out.”
“What?” Cash says. “You can’t ask her out. You’re married.”
“I…” Baker realizes he hasn’t told Cash about Anna, so he most definitely sounds like a world-class jerk. “Anna and I have separated.”
“What?” Cash says.
Baker can’t explain right now. And he can’t wait another twenty minutes for a drink. And he can’t sit and eat a meal with his brother, who has seen Ayers two of the past three days and now has his own private jokes with her.
Baker stands up. He sets the Jeep keys next to Cash’s beer. “I’m out,” he says.
He expects Cash to protest, but all Cash says is, “Good.”
Baker weaves between tables as the guitar player croaks out “Thunder Road.” Baker scans the restaurant and sees Ayers taking an order out on the deck. He stands a few feet behind her until she finishes and then he whispers her name.
She spins around. “Oh, hi,” she says. “Are you leaving?”
“I only came for a drink,” he says. He squares his shoulders. “Listen, turns out I’m here for a couple more days. I’d love to take you out.”
“That’s sweet,” Ayers says. “But I’m pretty busy. I work two jobs and I have…”
“When are you free?” Baker asks. “I can do lunch, I can do dinner…”
Ayers chews her bottom lip and peers into the restaurant. Is she looking at Cash? he wonders. That’s just impossible.
“Seriously,” Baker says. “I can do breakfast or late drinks. Or late dinner. How about tonight, after you get off?”
Ayers looks hesitant. She’s wavering. There’s no way she’s into Cash; Baker rejects the very idea.
“Please,” he says. “Just tell me what time.”
“Ten o’clock,” she says. “I’ll be done by ten and we can go to De’ Coal Pot. They serve Caribbean food.”
“Perfect,” Baker says. “I’ll be back at ten.”
Ayers nods and hurries inside, and Baker watches her go.
Just please don’t invite my brother, he thinks.
What is she doing?
What is she doing?
What is she doing?
She is throwing away the rule book, she thinks. And it feels okay.
For the first fifty-seven years of her life, Irene stayed on script. She was a dutiful daughter, a good student in both high school and college. She got married, had children, took a job that was suited to her.
She had been a good mother, or good enough. The boys were fine.
She had been a good wife.
It’s only at night, after Irene has taken one of the pills that Anna prescribed, that she allows herself to indulge in self-doubt. Where did she go wrong? She feels like she must have done Russ a huge, terrible injustice somewhere along the way for him to engage in a deception so wide and deep.
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