The stuff oozed between my fingers, gumming the lines of my palm with gritty blackness. It felt potent, like some elemental memory of what it had once been like to move, run, live. Gull cries pierced the humid air. Waves crashed on the stained sand. I pinched the tar ball between my fingertips and launched it as far into the ocean as I could. You sons of bitches.
Glass shattered behind me. A hoarse GODDAMNIT roared from the bed and breakfast’s foyer. George, the innkeeper, had been scrubbing the salt tarnish from a chandelier that must have been old in his great-grandfather’s time and he’d knocked over one of the hurricane shades. I stepped over his bucket of brass polish, cloth, rubber gloves, trying to avoid what would come just as Ellen turned the corner.
“It’s not so bad,” George’s wife sad. “We can get another one.”
“You think they make these anymore Ellen? Who makes these?”
“You can’t get upset over every little thing.”
“The damn thing shouldn’t have fallen. I can’t replace that. Where are we going to get the money?”
For dinner Ellen made an étouffée. I stabbed a thin shrimp straggling through my rice and then paused with it on my fork. Ellen flushed with something like embarrassment.
“Oh no, gosh no it’s delicious!” I said. George cut tracks across his plate, thinking impotent thoughts. He chewed with a stubborn rattle of his jowls below his black horn rims.
The phone rang and Ellen answered. “Oh, from Maine!” she said curling her finger around the cord. “I’ve never been that far North. Yes, we’ve seen it here too.” Her voice wilted. “Of course, I understand you have to cancel.”
The next morning I walked and counted the brown measles of oil strung across the beach. How many arguments had there been with Celeste about the development before she finally left? I’d rather be anywhere else, she’d said. But things will come back. Katrina was the best thing that ever happened, she’d said. You just don’t know when to quit.
Standing on George and Ellen’s side porch I could see a tattered banner on the concrete shell of my building’s first few floors. Luxury Beach-Front Condominiums. Delivering February 2010! I’d thought that line would add punch. People liked to know deadlines, when they had to commit. But that was a long time ago.
“You’ve been spending all day out on the beach.” The tines of George’s fork at eye level. “What happened to your building? You still in business?”
“The business dried up,” I said.
That afternoon a BP crew swept down the sand in a brand new pickup. They wore ties on the beach and carried clipboards. They spoke in British accents and stayed in their own custom-built trailers. The news counted hundreds of millions that had been promised for the shoreline’s cleanup and redevelopment. A woman from California with a green blazer had come and pressed a rake and bucket into my hand. “To help you do your part,” she’d said. Ellen offered her a glass of sweet tea but the woman couldn’t stay.
The phone rang.
In the morning I woke to George’s ladder banging against the brick beside my window. Ellen had given me the top room and the key to the plastic shed where they kept the umbrellas and chairs. She hadn’t had the heart to charge me for the rental. A group of volunteers in orange vests and white coveralls trekked past me with shovels slung over their shoulders.
“Indonesia, Haiti…” one of them listed.
“I just don’t know how they’ll come back.”
“Where do you think they’ll send us next?”
“Chile. They still need a lot of help down there after the earthquake.”
The men dwindled on the horizon. Cell phones and hotel rooms and airline tickets paid for. George came out later and saw their bootprints. I could watch his mind, wondering where this group went. Why they didn’t stop at his beach. Or, at least, for lunch.
“What do we need them for George?” I said.
The sun swam in his glasses.
“You come here to give up?” he finally asked.
The phone rang four, five times a day.
Yankees with deep rings of sweat under their arms stopped at the desk and spoke with George. Texans talked about capping and skimming on the news. Bankers called from St. Louis, telling me there was nothing they could do. George and I listened to speeches about disaster relief, redevelopment loans, aid applications. And then they packed up and left me sitting there roasting in the tar.
George climbed up on his ladder to chip away at rusted bolts someone had driven into the house’s brick long ago. The gulls circled, feasting on bloated turtles and broiled seaweed that washed up along the shoreline.
The phone rang. “There will be a fifty dollar charge,” Ellen said. “I’m sorry, but it’s our new policy.” She bunched the blue flowers of her dress in her free hand. “Well I know about the spill, but we’ve got a business to run.” She left the phone off the receiver. I picked it up, hours later. The dial tone hiccupping in the empty house.
My skin damp on the walk back from the bar that night. Briny rot smell from the ocean. Ellen and George were sitting on the glider, holding hands. I could hear George from my room’s open window. “We’ll get through this,” he said. “We will.”
But they can ruin you and walk away George. All we’re good for is being left behind.
Later I came back down and watched television with them. An underwater camera showed gleaming metal in the deep blue. The well cap holding.
“It’s going to pick up,” George’s eyes magnified, hopeful.
“We could use some help, getting this place ready.” Ellen said. I looked over and she’d curled her gray hair down over her shoulder.
The phone swam in front of me.
That night I stayed drunk. Stumbled up the steps and fell into the soft bed. Heat lightning burst through the curtains and the sheets stuck to my damp chest like a shroud. I imagined girders, concrete. Skeletons stirring with life. They would fix it like they rebuilt New Orleans, make a good picture and a story and then they would move on. Locusts, hunting for the next disaster.
Someone had put a flag on top of one of my building’s stagnant cranes. Every day I’d watched the reds and blues fade in the sun and now I watched it shudder against the rotten breeze in the moonlight. It was better this way, easier.
Early the next morning I left my key on the front desk and got in my car and drove somewhere, anywhere. I disappeared without saying goodbye, like everyone else. It was always easier to run, rather than hope.