IF YOU WERE TO COME UPON OLLIE BARON in his habitual throne at Catbird’s and ask him how he found himself shacked up with that waif prostitute and lingering on the brink of sure eviction, he’d likely blame the woman’s talent for thrift. Though she came to him with only a bag of skimpy clothes and a box of knick-knacks salvaged from the shipwreck of her life, Sky was a dollar stretcher of the highest order. She took what little cash Ollie could spare out of his monthly VA checks and spread it as far as it would go, haunting the manager’s markdown rack at the neighborhood Fiesta, clipping coupons out of the weeklies that landed in their box, scoring packaged castoffs in the dumpsters ringing their complex. She spread a red-checked tablecloth over the old trunk that served as his coffee table and laid out scavenged feasts for him in little plastic dishes meant for candies. The woman earned her keep, he often said.
Of course, she was also a helpless drunk. All that scrimping and saving and savvy homemaking was in service of the drink. At the end of the week, they took what was left of the cash and they partied. She matched him shot for shot, blow for blow, and then they held each other in their hangovers, the din of Houston highways lulling them into a kind of fractured bliss. One day, he kept telling himself, he’d slow things down and get a handle on his finances, his life. Until then, they were having fun together, weren’t they? Sky, a boomer hippie who’d named herself after a New Age radio station—SKY.FM—cast the arrangement in spiritual terms. “We’re going with the universal flow,” she said. “It would be unnatural to question it.” She also said it would kill her if she had to go back on the streets.
As Ollie’s barroom audience was never surprised to learn, it wasn’t possible to support two heavy drinkers on a paltry government check in the Montrose, a neighborhood in the midst of a cultural renaissance, as the real estate assholes phrased it—at least not for long. After eight months of scrimping and blowing, the rocks began to show in the universal flow. The weekend party money came out of the bank and then it came out of the rent and then they were flat broke. Ollie reached a bitter stalemate with the landlord. The problem, from Ollie’s perspective, was the young professionals moving into the complex. They were willing to pay more, and Ollie couldn’t compete. New, useless-to-him amenities kept appearing—wireless, covered parking, workout room—and then a letter about a hike in rent. The problem, from the landlord’s perspective, was Ollie’s tendency to pay rent on his own timeline, if at all. Pay up or get out. It wasn’t a humane position, Ollie thought. Without the cash for a deposit on another place, where were they supposed to go?
After a protracted voicemail battle, he decided to change the game and make a hand-written appeal to the landlord. He wanted to hit him on a human level. Veteran to veteran, do you really need to do this? The swift response was an eviction notice with a yellow, Post-It addendum: Veteran to veteran, pay up or get out. Sky let the paper drift to the carpet and said, “Game over, Ollie bear. What now?” Within a week, maybe less, some goons would show up to remove them and their possessions. By force, if necessary. They’d seen it happen to others like them and knew it as inevitable. With nowhere to go and no money in the bank, there was nothing to be done but wait. The thing between them would end. She’d go back to hooking, and he’d go wherever washed-up drunks went (he did not yet know where that was but he had a pretty good idea) and that would be it. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t say it. He couldn’t tell her it was over. And that was his burden, his guilt. He was the grand equivocator. The man who refused to make up his damn mind. He would pay for it, of course, but not nearly as much as she would.
“If they want a showdown, we’ll give them a showdown,” he said.
He resolved to sit on the porch overlooking the courtyard they shared with the other tenants, passing a bottle with Sky, watching grackles pick at the St. Augustine ringing the base of a fountain. He could call it making a stand, but it was more like awaiting a sentence. Soon, they’d be on the streets. Until then, why not sit back and enjoy the scenery?
Two days in, no goons had materialized and they were hesitating on the edge of an epic bender. It was hot on the porch, the first flare of summer burnishing the backs of their necks, and out of nowhere Sky decided she wanted to put her feet in the ocean. “I’m boiling out here,” she said. With only a half-tank of gas to last them through Ollie’s next check and eviction bearing down, it wasn’t a good idea. He knew they’d never make it to the coast and back if they hit any traffic.
She said, “If I could get my feet in the water, I know my hands would stop shaking. I’m so nervous sitting here.”
He didn’t know what to say to that, grand equivocator that he was, and so he loaded a few things into the truck and told her to get up, he was driving her skinny ass to Galveston. The tangle on the feeder route had him sweating, but about ten miles outside Houston, the highway loosened its snarl and he made good time.
“Look at this,” said Sky as they parked at the seawall. She held her hand level. “Already better.”
It was overcast on the beach, furnace of the sun obscured by thick, lilac gauze, which meant at least they wouldn’t have to lacquer themselves as often with their cheap sunscreen, which was as thick as clay, more poultice than lotion, and impossible to rub in completely. Ollie was conscious of the unnatural whiteness on his chest and arms. He saw it on Sky’s face and knew his must look the same. Clownlike. Fortunately, they had no one to impress. They were middle-aged and broke. Invisible to the naked eye.
“I’m going to perfect my backstroke,” he said.
He ran and made a show of diving into the waves for Sky, who sat on a tattered bath towel and clapped for him. She cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted, her words lost to the bash of surf. Be careful! or Have fun! It was one of those, he was reasonably sure. He let the current ferry him diagonally to the buoys just to see how deep the water was out there—he wasn’t a risk taker in the water, but he liked to know his limits—and was surprised to find a humped sandbar beneath his feet at the outermost edge of the swimming area. When he stood at the top the water was only waist high, which made him feel gigantic; he felt tiny when he turned to face the limitless sea.
The water was so calm out there. Like a bath. He had the fleeting thought that they could live on the beach for a while. If they caught any hassle from police or locals, they could get a little boat and drift in the water by night, sleep on the beach by day, as though sunning. Then he remembered the hurricane and what it did to his old apartment. His preparations were few: He stood the couch against the window in the living room, and he made duct-tape X’s over the others. It wasn’t enough to keep the glass from crashing through. In the end, he bunkered in the plastic bathtub. When he looked up to see the room filled with the green light of exploding transformers, the ceiling tiles fluttering like nervous mouths, he knew he’d made a mistake. He should have run when he had the chance.
He breathed salt and spit. Took in the bigness of the water, cruise ships idling, distant barges shimmering in the heat, and admitted to himself that the best place for Sky now was in the women’s shelter. He knew she’d resent him for leaving her there, but it was the best he could do. Their problems had outgrown his capacity to manage them. He was like a child trying to fly a jet. Who could expect him to keep the thing in air? When he returned his focus to the beach, he found Sky sitting right where he’d left her at a distance of about fifty yards. A pack of young men had materialized nearby. He knew they were loud by the way their arms moved. Big, sweeping gestures. They shoved and punched each other. Goofed. The way Sky hunched and angled her body away from them told Ollie she was scared. She folded herself up like a box, attempting to disappear inside.
It was a familiar scenario. Sky was a magnet for bad luck, and there was no shortage of disrespecting men in the world, some of whom recognized her from the streets. Usually it was a loudmouth in a bar, but recently they’d been overrun in the park by a pack of skater kids who’d mistaken Sky for a girl their own age and tried to chat her up. She was thin, with hips like an adolescent boy’s, and she wore low-slung jean shorts that showed the jut of her bones. With her big sunglasses and flirty pink headscarf, she could pass as a coed, but she was only a few years younger than Ollie’s fifty-five. What are you doing with that old guy? they asked, which elicited her trademark raucous laugh. It was her teeth that gave her away. Broken and stained. No high-school kid has teeth like that. The boys responded to her wide-mouthed guffaw with horror. Watch out, man, it’s got an old bitch face! Get a fucking dentist, why don’t you?
Ollie charged, but Sky grabbed his shirttail.
“They’re kids,” she said.
The skaters pushed away, and that was the end of it, but Ollie knew the incident had rattled Sky. She wondered what they would have done if she’d been alone. How would they have punished her for their mistake? This time there were five boys, and even from a distance Ollie could see that he’d have a tough time managing them if it came to that. They were fit. Athletes. Their arms and necks were ropy, their waistlines lean. Ollie was a solid man who knew his way around a fight, but his heart was a fatty bulb that had failed him once already. He knew the boys were talking to Sky because they were all facing her, lined up like soldiers before a supplicant captee. For her part, Sky looked back at Ollie across the water, her gaze fixed to his position on the sandbar, and waved him in with both hands. Come on, come on, she seemed to be saying. He had to get to her quickly if he was going to save her.
Diving, he forced his body under the water with heavy strokes of his thighs and came to the surface with sea foam wrinkling in his ears. For all that strain, he’d only managed to make it a few yards closer to shore. The rip current was like a treadmill set on mad dash; he could run it all day and get nowhere. He shook the water from his head and dogpaddled as he watched one of the boys reach down to Sky and grab her by the wrist. A second dive he understood instinctually as ill-advised was even less productive. Sky was standing now, and one of the boys had her by the elbow. Her legs looked like a bird’s, unsteady and knobbed. Ollie didn’t know if he could make it to her before they had her in the water. Once they were out there, who knew what could happen? The waves were rough, the undertow strong. She weighed ninety pounds and didn’t know how to swim. She’d be halfway around the island before anyone knew she was gone. And then what would he do? Drive home alone?
He took a chance and dove parallel to shore, hoping to sidestep the treadmilling churn. The move put him downshore, but at least he was closer to land. A fourth and final thrust left him panting and exhausted on his hands and knees in the shallows. He had at least thirty yards to run up the beach to reach her and then who knows what kind of fight ahead of him.
THE FIRST TIME OLLIE TOOK SKY TO THE BEACH, they had the money for a decent liter of Polish vodka, and halfway through it she confessed she had two kids out there somewhere. That was the way she phrased it, and she ran her hand up and down along the horizon line over the water. He didn’t know whether that meant the kids were living somewhere out there in the world or that they’d passed on and become part of the great unknown. Both possibilities seemed equally plausible. Sky was a hippie and liked to make metaphors about the earth. She was also viciously secretive about her life before her fall from grace.
“Do you think about them?” he asked.
“Of course I do. They’re my kids.” She glared at him. “Jesus. What kind of monster do you think I am?”
The bottom of that particular bottle wasn’t far off. Then she dragged him to a cheesy beach bar where her chin met with the corner of a wooden deck. He thought she was gone when he picked her up limp from the floor. Since then he’d seen her come close to death twice—one other accident with alcohol and a month where she was off food—and he’d wondered about those kids. If they were alive, was there a way to contact them and should that be done? Would they want to know about their mother? Would she want them to know about her? As for his own kids, they were married with children of their own now and preferred not to know the details of his decline. If he wanted to see how they’d react to the news of his death he could probably deliver it himself. I’m a friend of your father’s, here to inform you of his tragic death. So extreme was his dissolution that they’d be unlikely to recognize him.
Ollie had never been a saint, but he’d always more or less aimed at decency until an embarrassing series of work-related disappointments had soured him on the 9 to 5. He was a shift leader at an auto parts enterprise, then he was a cashier, then he was a stock boy, and then he was cleaning the bathrooms and vacuuming between aisles. All because the new manager had caught him with a flask a few times. The pissant couldn’t fire him (Ollie’s allegiance with the owner went back to their Navy days) but he sure as hell could make him want to quit. Ollie took to dressing in his uniform and reporting to the bar instead of the shop. He told himself he had his pride—or something like it.
He sold his house and everything in it and resolved to ride his savings and monthly checks as far as they would carry him from that measly existence. Within five years, he’d become a stranger himself—the kind of man who drinks a Mickey’s on the way to and from the liquor store. When Sky came into the picture, he regarded his transformation as fundamentally complete. He was off the rails. You can’t call yourself a decent person when you invite a prostitute to live with you out of convenience. No matter how nice she is, no matter how resourceful, if her willingness to sleep with you is at all tied to your willingness to compensate her, you cannot claim to live a decent life together.
If he could imagine his death, he reasoned, he was ready to face it. Going out defending a woman would be a noble way, perhaps the best exit he was likely to muster. Even if she was a hooker. Despite his internal moral preparation, the gang of boys were white noise and hairy ankles in the water around him before Ollie knew what was happening. Why had they come to him? Disoriented, he managed to throw himself into standing position. “Stay away from her!” he said.
One of them grabbed him by the arm. “Whoa, man. Take it easy.”
“You keep your hands off!” Ollie crouched, bottom submerged, and prepared to strike anyone who came near.
The boys backed away, hands up. “Whoa there. We’re trying to help you.”
“I know how to fight! I’m not afraid of dying, are you?”
“We’re a soccer team,” one of them said, flabbergasted.
The absurdity of the exchange knocked Ollie out of his fugue. It was then that he registered Sky standing ankle-deep down the way. She was perfectly fine, intact, her hands extended, mouth agape, whole body saying, What in the hell are you doing?
“You’re not here to fight me?” he said.
The boys shook their heads, bewildered. At that point, Ollie realized he had some work to do to avoid creating a bigger scene or drawing unwanted attention. He thanked the boys for trying to help him, offered them hurried wet handshakes, and asked if they planned to go out in the water. “Take it from a crazy old man,” he said. “That undertow is stronger than you think.”
“OK, man. Got it. We’ll be careful.”
Released, they seemed to leap fifty yards in one bound. They had a raft with them, a little red beer cooler. He watched these items get smaller and smaller until they were colored shapes in the gray water. When they reached the sandbar he’d just left, they waved back at him. It was much farther out there than he’d realized, spearing diagonally away from the buoys. He could see what it must have looked like to Sky, him standing way out there, lost in his thoughts. She probably thought he was afraid to move, stranded. It was very brave of her to ask the boys for help. He was surprised she’d risked the interaction. When he reached her on the beach, he didn’t know how to explain himself. For some reason, I thought I was in a fight for my life.
“What happened to you out there?” she said. “We thought you were paralyzed.”
He was still a little drunk; that was half of it. The other half was his ballooning sense of doom. How long could they keep living like this? How long could they hang on to each other? “I was thinking about the ocean,” he said. He could see she was unsatisfied with that response. He added, “I was thinking about how big it is. How dangerous.”
She sighed and touched his shoulder, still white with lotion. “It is very big,” she said. “There’s no denying that.”
“Those boys are a soccer team,” he said. “Did you know that?”
She snorted. “Their t-shirts had the name of it. The Scooters or something.”
“They thought I was nuts.”
“Are they wrong?” she said. She handed him a towel. “Here,” she said. “Let’s get situated and try to enjoy the rest of the day.”
He spread his towel next to hers on the sand and leaned into it. “It’s rough out there,” he said. “I hope those boys are careful.”
“Sometimes I think you need a drink and you’ll worry less.”
He wasn’t sure if booze was the problem or the solution, but he didn’t resist when she lifted a flask to his lips. “It’s the bad stuff,” she said.
He let the sting linger in the back of his throat. “I know a good place to get shrimp,” he said. “We should stay sober enough to bargain on the way home.”
“Shrimp sounds good,” she said.
“We could both do with some protein,” he said.
Ollie closed his eyes and listened to the ocean’s percussive prattle, disrupted only by Sky’s hand on his thigh, which meant she was ready to pass him the flask. Soon he was imagining himself as a piece of driftwood and Sky as a bit of seaweed flung on the beach. No one would notice them. They’d blend into the scenery. There would be no trouble, and the afternoon would pass into evening and they’d gradually transform back into themselves and make the drive in good time—no traffic—and then they’d sit down at the coffee table and make a plan for themselves, no joke. He’d propose marriage if that’s what it took to pin things down. Even if she didn’t say yes, it would bring them closer, introduce some clarity. They’d both know this wasn’t one of those things you find in a bar and maintain until the bender is over.
HE KNEW ONE OF THE BOYS WAS LOST IN THE UNDERTOW as soon as he heard the helicopter. It pulled him out of his stupor as though lifting him with a tow wire. He saw the whole scene—the mortified teammates, the red cooler bobbing in the sea, the lifeguards coming to shore empty-handed again and again—before he opened his eyes. He didn’t expect to find Sky in the water. She was up to her waist, leaning into the waves and yelling a name—Brandon, Brandon—as though the kid were lost in a grocery store and not the wild, raucous expanse of the sea. He heard the bad whisky in her rasp and saw it in the shifting, uneven panels of her face. He saw the horror contained in her open mouth: the boy was out there somewhere.
There were others gathered nearby on the beach, and Sky’s behavior was upsetting them. Two women in floral swimsuits held their hands over their mouths, and an older man, his wet trunks clinging to his legs, seemed to have just given up chase. “She won’t listen to me,” he said. “I honestly think she’s drunk, if you want to know the truth.”
“I’ll take care of it,” said Ollie.
He was slow to find his footing in the water. The low position of the sun told him he’d been out for hours. The air had cooled, and the wind had a new violence to it. For a small woman, Sky could be strong and ruthless when agitated. In his present condition—hammered and reeling—he knew better than to try to touch her. He settled for standing nearby in the water.
“We need to keep a lower profile, babe,” he said. He tried to shake salt out of his head, get his bearings.
“They want to give up,” she said. She pulled a skein of stringy wet hair out of her face. “They say they don’t have the resources to keep the chopper and the boats out there past dusk. Can you believe that?”
It was sad, a sign of the times, the deflating pocketbook of a self-defeating nation. He’d seen a thing about it on the news, the infographic of empty coffers, the strained emphasis on personal responsibility. How can you do your part? If the water’s knee-high, it’s time to get dry. Don’t take unreasonable risks in the water. A travesty, to be sure. But yelling into the waves wasn’t going to bring the boy to the surface. “It’s messed up,” he conceded, “but what are you going to do?”
“It’s a person’s life!”
He held his arms out to her. “Come on,” he said. “Please. I’m in no state to deal with this.”
She dismissed him with a flap of the hand and went back to her work, tossing out her tattered flag of a voice and bracing herself for each wave. Meanwhile, he tried to do damage control on the beach, bumbling and burping through successive rationalizations. “The kid’s a relative,” he said, swell of whisky bile rising in his throat. “A nephew. You can see why she’d be so upset. Besides, she’s off her medication. It was making her jittery.” Lies weren’t getting any traction, so he made oddly truthful confessions. “She’s staring down the barrel at homelessness,” he said. “You might think you can protect her from herself, but you can’t.”
It wasn’t five minutes before a white Coast Guard truck rolled up and the tanned hulk inside leaned out the window to ask if there was a problem. The older man who’d spoken up before stepped between Ollie and the truck and said, “That woman out there is drunk. I think you’d better get to her before you’ve got another drowning on your hands today.” Just like that, Ollie found himself on the outside of a situation he knew himself incapable of handling.
And so it was that he simply stood and watched as two lifeguards moved toward Sky in the water. He watched her understand their purpose and try to outrun them, try to fight. He saw her call out to him, even heard a scrap of his name in the wind. But this wasn’t a gang of kids he could pretend himself capable of fighting off; it wasn’t a bill he could skirt or a notice he could ignore. Sky was in the process of casting herself out to sea and he was simply watching the long arch of a fishing line in the air. Like a spectator or a witness. Like a stranger to her. And so he observed as they pulled her by her armpits through the waves, her sunglasses tilted windows in the fading light of the sun. He stood by as they finally thought better of their strategy and each picked an end. As she passed, writhing and kicking in the air, she pleaded with him.
“Ollie, tell them you know me. Ollie, tell them you’ll drive me home. Ollie, baby, help me out here.”
He said nothing; worse, he turned his head. When a cruiser pulled up, cops grinning at the spectacle of this tiny woman, lifted high like a prize catch, he walked away.
HE HAD BEEN RIGHT TO WORRY about the gas in the tank: there wasn’t enough to get him home, which put him walking along I-45, a dangerous prospect even in the full light of day. It was after midnight when he finally reached the apartment and he’d never been more sober in his life. The strewn clothing that slowed his pace as he walked through the courtyard was his own; he noted Sky’s wardrobe brimming in the communal trash as he ascended the stair. He was not surprised to discover the locks had been changed, but the miracle of an open kitchen window startled him. Even more shocking was the good fortune of the tallboy sitting upright in the crisper drawer of the fridge. The decision to cash the whole can right there didn’t come hard. The beer was revelatory in its coolness. It was saving his life.
IN THE TWO MONTHS Ollie spent on the street, dragging a black plastic bag of scavenged belongings behind him, Sky flitted across his mind whenever he chanced to sight a skinny figure loitering in an alleyway or standing in line at one of the downtown shelters. Word on the street was that she’d spent more than a month in lock down for drunk and disorderly and walked out to nothing and no one waiting for her and nowhere to go. How a body recovers from that kind of treatment, Ollie didn’t know. In his darker moments, he pictured a bitter end for Sky—a drainage ditch somewhere near Galveston, one of the more ramshackle XXX establishments on the feeder routes. In lighter moods, he figured she’d go bad penny on him, and he’d be forced to explain himself and answer for his sins. In either case, he felt suitably mortified by his culpability, but could not for the life of him imagine a better path for himself. What was he supposed to do? Go down with her?
In a couple of weeks, he’d have enough savings to get himself back into an apartment of some kind, to re-orient his navigational system toward decency again, perhaps even crawl back to beg for permission from the pissant to scrub Auto Barn toilets. But until that happened he was busy with the daily pressures of maintaining his drift. Homelessness was hard work in Houston. You had to wake before dawn and remove yourself from sight, and then you had to keep moving from one place to the next. The fast-food joint, the bus station, the park.
Out of respect for the institution and a fear of becoming yet another cliché, he resisted holing up in the library until the winter rains ruined the good thing he had going at the little dog park downtown. Then he settled into a carrel and passed the time reading newspaper archives. He planned to start with the first day of his dissolution and work up to the present. He was only a few days into this job when he spotted Sky at a water fountain. His arms rose involuntarily to embrace her. It felt good to see someone he knew, even if it was someone who might want to roast his balls. A subtle shake of her head told him to check himself. Of course, of course, he mouthed and settled for a double-handed wave, which she returned.
He couldn’t say she looked good. She was as scrawny as ever, and there was a dullness to her clothes that told him they’d been washed again and again. But her manner was light and easy, and a spark lit her eye.
“I wondered when you’d finally roll in,” she said, outguessing him.
He sat with her in a carrel for the better part of an hour, small talking around the issue, and then finally told her he was sorry he’d failed her on the beach. “It’s no excuse, but it was all a little too much for me to handle,” he said.
She grimaced, but the sourness around her mouth was quick to fade. “I don’t hold it against you,” she said.
She was lying, he knew, and it was the reason they’d never share more than this moment together. “That’s nice of you to say even if it isn’t true,” he said.
The thin line of her lips crinkled and she squeezed his hand. “Anyway, it was story with a happy ending.”
Ollie was capable of imaginative thinking, but he failed to see how this particular ending could be construed that way. “Whatever you say,” he said. “I guess I’m glad you can see it that way.”
“Wait a minute, you really don’t know, do you?” she said, her knee thrumming beneath the desk. “About the boy?”
He’d bite. He owed her at least that. “The boy?”
She smiled. “Wait until you hear this.”
The story she unfurled for him then was the one he’d tell and retell in the future bars of his life, knowing full well that no one would believe him. Like all the best bar stories, the improbability of the thing was its most crucial component. The point was that it couldn’t happen. That’s what made it so compelling.
According to Sky, the cops had her in the back of the cruiser for an hour while they wrapped up the search efforts. She was silent the whole time. Cooperative. Docile. They decided she wasn’t a problem or a threat to the peace they were trying to keep, so they let her go. They looked at each other, shrugged, and flung open the door. She couldn’t believe her luck—she had a warrant for failure to appear on a prostitution charge, which they would have known if they’d run her name—and scurried over the dunes before they could change their minds and throw her in jail.
Once she got to the seawall, where she expected to find Ollie waiting for her in his truck, her luck seemed to change. She sat there a long while—longer than was sane—before she realized he wasn’t coming back. He was gone, probably forever. The thing between them was over. But before she could morn her shambling love life, she had life-and-limb issues to consider. First, she was stranded forty-plus miles from home. Second, she was broke. Not a dime on her. And finally, she was sand-blown and dressed for a heat wave. It was going to get cold near the water, where, in all likelihood, she’d be sleeping for at least one night. Her body fat percentage was in the single digits and she hadn’t eaten all day.
She decided to try to steal something that might improve the odds of her survival. So despite the fact that she had only just emerged from the rear of a Galveston PD cruiser, she scoped a lonely Jeep with its top down and reached inside for a blanket. Underneath was a full bag of soccer balls, and she realized it might be the drowned kid’s ride. Sure enough, his name, Brandon, was embroidered on the bag beneath a big red seven. There was a certain symmetry to this turn of events. Sky was the last one on the beach to hold out faith that the boy might still be alive, so maybe in a convoluted way he owed her a safe place to sleep in return. At least that’s how her reasoning went. She certainly wasn’t doing him any harm by tossing the bag of balls into the passenger seat, slipping beneath the blanket, and falling asleep in the back.
Then a dream came over Sky like a coma, the deepest and most restorative sleep of her life. She dreamed a dream so rich and complex that she could barely contain the intricacies of its flowering upon her subconscious. She saw a figure hovering over the water and it told her, lift your head and see the truth. Sky emerged from her magical sleep and raised her head like an obedient visionary, only to spot Brandon as he walked—
careening and drunk in his swim trunks—along the seawall. He was alive. Undrowned. He was carrying a tattered case of Coors at his side like a suitcase and listing in circles. He’d been off drinking all along, Sky gathered, and his friends had only misremembered him in the water. Now he was too drunk to make sense of the vanished sun, the strange absence of the scene he’d left hours before. How had the day passed without his awareness of it? This was an experience Sky understood. This kind of situation was well within her purview. She went to him, arms open.
“I’m looking for my friends,” he said. “I think they may have left me.” He began to weep, his shoulders bowing. “I lost my phone and my wallet and I think there’s something kind of wrong with me.” He opened his mouth and let vomit fall into the sand, dropped his prize suitcase of beer.
“Don’t you worry, honey,” she told him. “We’re going to get you fixed up.”
The next thing was to get the boy into the Jeep and then get the Jeep to the hospital. These were tasks she accomplished with supernatural ease, for the boy was pliable in his weakened state and the keys were (miracle of miracles) still zippered into his side pocket. She had no compunction about going into his trunks to find them there.
“You had everybody looking for you,” she told him. “Your poor momma’s going to want to give me a medal.”
He let his head fall back on the black vinyl headrest and wept. “Does she know I was drinking? I’m supposed to be at my cousin’s while she’s in Ft. Worth.” He vomited again. “But I lied.”
Sky had to drive quickly, though the speed sent her hair flapping wild in her eyes and numbed her hands on the wheel. She blazed straight up to the emergency-room doors and leaned heavy on the horn. “I have the boy! I have the boy!” she shouted.
Nobody responded until she calmed down, walked inside, and told the admittance nurse she had singlehandedly saved the drowned one, the one from the soccer team.
The nurse eyeballed her. “You say what now?”
“He’s in the Jeep, right goddamned there. Go and see for yourself if you don’t believe me. Brandon.”
And there he was, head lolling to one side, but alive, a beautiful cherubic symbol of resilient boyhood. To Sky’s thinking, she’d raised Brandon from the water with the pure power of her magical dreaming. As they wheeled him belching away, she blew him a jubilant kiss.
“When you wake up, I’ll be right here,” she said. “I’ll be waiting for you, honey.”
She spent hours in a state of awe, pacing the waiting room. He was fine, they said. Slated for a good stomach pumping, but fine. They’d want to talk to her about what happened, they said. How did he get the booze, who was with him in the hotel room? The police were on their way, the news crews already circling the corridors, they said. She thought of the boy’s mother, en route from Ft. Worth and thanking her lucky stars her son was alive. Maybe the mother would give Sky a place to stay while she got back on her feet, a room in a suburban basement or a small apartment over a garage. She’d settle for a warm cup of coffee, a pair of socks or shoes. But the police, the news crews. They’d dig up her warrant, and her whole history would come like rotten seawater from a bilge. Nobody wants a whore lingering around thwarted tragedies. They’d blame her for the boy’s delinquency, slap her with fines she couldn’t pay, lock her up.
“Who are you, now?” said the admittance nurse. “Some kind of friend or something?”
“Nobody,” said Sky. “I’m nobody.”
In a panic, she made an excuse about needing to use the bathroom and fled to an unlocked employee lounge where the coffee was warm, the creamer plentiful and easy to pocket, and bunkered for the night. When the sun came up through the dusty aluminum venetians, it didn’t take long for the local news to break into the morning show on the television: Lucky Number Seven, Alive and Well. The nurses in the room with her tsked and clucked when they saw Brandon’s beat-red, beatific face on screen.
“Can you imagine? He’s off chasing tail and his mother thinks he’s dead,” said one.
“I’d murder him,” said another.
“He should at least pay the bill for those helicopters.”
The boy looked green on the wide screen. “I don’t remember how I got here,” he said into a bulbous microphone, “I think an angel must have driven me.”
His words pinioned Sky. Every molecule in her body pulled her toward the boy, but she saw with startling clarity how she’d kill the image of the angel if she came forward and revealed herself. “Can you imagine?” she said to Ollie, pointing to her mouth. “This maw on the local news?”
He could not. In fact, there with her in the library, he could not imagine her anywhere but where he’d first found her: in a leaning highway icehouse with no running water and a rooster roped to guard the latrine where she sometimes turned tricks—the furthest place from heaven one woman could get and still be in Texas. And yet, hadn’t she always been sweet to him? Hadn’t she feathered his nest like a preening mother bird?
“It doesn’t seem fair,” he said. “You should get what you deserve. Try to find that boy and tell him what you did for him. If you called him over the phone, he wouldn’t ever have to see you.”
She released her throaty laugh on him one last time and then folded like a sheet of paper. “What’s fair?”
Sometimes, in his beery telling of this part of the story, Ollie has Sky flash him a wry smile, a gotcha grin that implies she has taken him for a ride. The unbelievable truth, the God’s-honest if you really want to know Ollie’s version of it, is that she never told a lie. That kid really did survive. Ollie found him on five separate front pages of Galveston County Daily in the library archives. And the boy, Brandon, did talk about a guardian angel coming to save him—in his dreams, a shimmering mermaid with a pink kerchief in her hair.
“I mean, how else do you explain a boy with twenty beers in his system getting to the hospital in one piece?” Ollie would say.
If the rhetorical question set off a round of speculative guessing—his was an audience that regularly consumed massive quantities of cheap beer, drove home, and lived to tell—he often put that all to bed by asking a series of related questions: “OK, but if you’re that kid, why don’t you get into your Jeep and sleep it off? Better yet, why don’t you climb back into bed with the Budweiser bikini who got you into all this trouble in the first place? Her hotel room was fifty yards away. Last place you’d want to be is in the hospital answering questions. Am I right?”
He was always right. And once he’d silenced the twittering of the disbelievers, he’d turn contemplative and sigh. “You know, if I hadn’t walked away from Sky when I did, she wouldn’t have been on that beach to find that boy, and we wouldn’t be sitting here having this debate. Mark my words, that kid would have turned up dead, drowned in an inch of water under the pier, and his mother would have had to deal with the tox report.” There was a certain way of telling the story that made Ollie seem like the hero, the unknowing trigger of a dozen benevolent turns of fate, but he didn’t like to put on airs. He was, at heart, a humble man—the kind who had learned to accept his own insignificance in the larger scheme of things. “It’s sad it had to end that way between me and Sky, but it was for the best. I hear that Brandon kid really turned himself around. Graduated summa cum of his class or some shit.” His eyebrows high, he’d sometimes offer a little flourish of the hand or time his final pronouncement with the downing of his last inch of beer. “And that,” he would say, “is the legend of the angel of Stewart Beach.”
OLLIE NEVER SAW SKY AGAIN. Instead, he re-animated her in the bar whenever he felt lonely for the past. Like any committed drunk, he had his pet recursive loops and Sky was almost always in heavy rotation—especially when there was new blood in Catbird’s. As time wore on and the terms of the storytelling inflated and contracted, he had to wonder if the Sky he imagined when he told the story still matched the Sky who’d held his shaking hands that first night at the icehouse and told him she had a cure for that. “It’s called love,” she said, “and it works real wonders.” In the end, though, maybe what mattered was that someone remembered her at all.
Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). She’s a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowship, an Ohio Arts grant, a Glenn Schaeffer Award from the International Institute of Modern Letters, and other honors. Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Witness, Harvard Review, Gulf Coast, The Southeast Review, The Normal School, the Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and earned her PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She teaches creative writing and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle at the University of Louisville.