Excerpt

“Motivated Individuals”

Nick Fuller Googins

April 26, 2018 
"Motivated Individuals" is a story by Nick Fuller Googins from the latest issue of The Southern Review. Nick Fuller Googins has been published in Ecotone and Narrative, and his fiction has been read on All Things Considered. He recently finished writing his first novel.

Brett was crashing with me while he was on the lam after sucker-punching a Republican. You probably think harboring a fugitive is exciting, but it’s not half as thrilling as it sounds. The first couple days we slugged High Life, watched a ten-part documentary on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and reminisced about the glory days: the antiwar rallies, Occupy, our skirmishes with the campus police. When we ran low on memories, I taught him cribbage, but he accused me of letting him win and that spelled the end of that.

Brett couldn’t show his face in public, so it was up to me to walk the mile into Vineyard Haven for supplies. This didn’t bother me as much as I pretended. Any excuse to talk with Mandy, the supercute Rainbow Gardens cashier. I’d been living on Martha’s Vineyard for most of October before Brett showed up. Many trips to Rainbow Gardens, believe me. High Life, quinoa, black beans. You could say I was simplifying the recipe of my life. I was trying.

“Teddy,” Brett said, catching me on my way out, “how about some seitan?”

Brett, too, had remained a vegan since college. But he was pickier than I remembered.

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“Seitan’s expensive,” I said. “What’s wrong with beans?”

“I need more protein,” he said. “To heal.” He flexed his bruised hand, swollen yellow and blue.

The sucker punch, as I’m sure you’re wondering, occurred by the Boston Common. Brett had been canvassing, collecting signatures and raising money for Citizens Combating Climate Change, when the Republican challenged him, claiming global warming was a hoax. Dude collapsed like a suit slipping from a hanger. Brett’s words, not mine.

“Beans have loads of protein,” I said. “Quinoa, too.”

“Truth be told, Teddy. I’m getting sick of beans.”

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Truth be told, I was getting sick of Brett. We’d drifted apart in the years since college. Yes, he’d popped by to visit me at New Pathways the winter before, but for the most part we were two branches off the same oak: once together, now separate.

Don’t get me wrong. Brett’s a great guy. Nobody doesn’t like Brett. I didn’t not like Brett. But now that he was sharing my roof and eating my quinoa, a little appreciation would’ve gone a long way. I was putting myself at risk, harboring him. Risk and cost. My older brother’s money, but still. Brett promised he’d pay me back. He had some savings, he just couldn’t get to them, he said. One swipe of his card and the authorities would know where to find him.

By sheltering Brett I was sacrificing other things, too. My solitude, for one. Labor Day passes on Martha’s Vineyard and all these fabulous summer homes are suddenly begging for motivated individuals to crawl through a basement window, flip the circuit breaker, and turn on the water. A nifty little zine I’d saved from Occupy detailed the move-in process, step by step, illustrations and all. The house I chose was set far back from the road, well hidden by thickets of sweet-smelling rosebushes and apple trees. It sat against the bluffs, overlooking the harbor. Worn wooden steps led to a pebbly shore. Mornings, I sipped coffee on the porch, listened to the gulls caw, and watched the ferry dock. I messed around with a guitar I found in a closet. I admired the dental health of the Vandenwalkers, whose family photographs covered the walls. I hid when the Vandenwalker caretaker came to jiggle the doorknobs and mow the lawn. I meditated. Meditation, my second-favorite therapist at New Pathways had encouraged me to believe, was helpful for figuring things out. Mostly when I meditated, I napped. Naps helped, too.

I might as well confess that I’d fallen into an embarrassing depressive funk a while back. The important thing to know is that I was turning the corner. This quiet period on the Vineyard was my big “getting-back-on-my-feet time.” That’s how I described it to my brother when he dropped me off at the ferry: no phone, no Internet, just me, myself, and I. But then he happened to be on call at Mass General when Brett ran in with his busted, sucker-punching hand, and although I’d begged my brother not to tell anyone where to find me, you know how older siblings can be. So now Brett was here and privacy was not something he respected. An invention of capitalism, he called it, along with monogamy and Mother’s Day and bulldog purebreds and a host of other topics I was no longer as interested in discussing as I had been in college. He pried into my solitude like it was his job. I wasn’t eating enough greens, he told me. I should be exercising, he said. Couldn’t I play something more upbeat on the guitar? And how many naps did a grown man honestly need in one day?

“It’s called meditation,” I said.

“I can hear you snoring,” he said.

Worst of all, Brett was ruining my Mandy plans. For weeks I’d been working up the guts to invite her over. We’d play cribbage, strum guitar, stretch out on the carpet with the door cracked to enjoy a slice of bluff and moonlit harbor and whatever activities might logically follow. Now, of course, I didn’t dare. Brett, in addition to his dreamy fugitive escapades, had green eyes and dark hair and what everyone agreed were incredible cheekbones, plus the build of a former NCAA athlete, which he was. He’d played baseball freshman year, before discovering Chomsky. Big points with the sorority and activist girls alike.

*

“All hail seitan,” Mandy said, making devil horns with her fingers. The register bleeped and blooped. She scrunched her eyebrows at my packages of ground protein. “Wowzers. Stuff’s expensive. What happened to the beans?”

“I’m broadening my horizons,” I said.

“Don’t broaden them too far.” She fluttered her eyelids and shot me her look, the one that made my throat sort of strangle itself.

It hadn’t always gone so smoothly with Mandy. My first week on the island, I’d diligently avoided her register. How does one talk to supercute cashier in a way that doesn’t betray one’s fear of talking to supercute cashier? It was a Zen koan, an unanswerable riddle, the kind of thing I could’ve meditated on forever if Mandy wasn’t so superfreakingcute. Back when I’d finally mustered the courage to approach her, I went with, “Cool ink, what is it?”

She held out her forearm. “A cyborg vagina. Isn’t it obvious?”

“Extremely obvious,” I said.

She smiled and bagged my High Life on the sly without passing it over the scanner.

Since that first exchange we’d gotten to know each other in snippets. She learned about my college activist days, my “house-sitting” gig, my physician assistant of an older brother. I learned that she suffered from bouts of clinical boredom, lived with two girls from high school she didn’t especially like, and had grown up an only child. Neither of us were on great terms with our folks. Mine worked for a right-wing super PAC that represented everything wrong with the world. Mandy’s mother had moved with a boyfriend to North Dakota for the shale oil boom. Her father was MIA. After high school she’d enrolled at Cape Cod Community College, but seasickness made the ferry commute a mess. She’d since transferred to Mandy State, meaning she taught herself online and at the library, majoring in environmental sciences with a minor in romance novels.

Don’t get me wrong. Brett’s a great guy. Nobody doesn’t like Brett. I didn’t not like Brett.” 

Her tattoo, I should mention, was not a cyborg vagina. It was a flower—Queen Anne’s lace, she said—drawn in thin lines of blue-black ink, which matched the color of her eyes, which matched the color of her hair, which she wore in two long braids that always seemed a little wet, as though she’d jumped in the ocean right before work. Just a few Mandy details I adored. Others included that she wasn’t freakishly skinny and that she hardly wore any makeup (even though her cheeks were a little rough from old teenage acne) and that she talked back to her manager. Big points all around. And then there were the white ribbons of scar tissue that her Queen Anne’s lace did not fully conceal. The scars ran from her wrist to the crook of her elbow and they told me that we shared something in common: we could both be hard on ourselves.

“At least you haven’t given up on this stuff,” she said, weighing my bulk quinoa, heavier than usual now that I was shopping for Brett and myself.

“Well, it is an objectively perfect protein,” I said.

“Shucks, I bet you say that to all the grains.”

My heart performed its usual ninja kick against my ribs. I was halfway home before it settled down.

*

When Brett’s stay entered week two, I casually inquired about his plans moving forward.

“Hard saying, not knowing,” he whispered. We were huddled in the upstairs closet, hiding from the caretaker as he made his weekly inspection and mowed the lawn. “Maybe Canada? Or Mexico, for the weather? Or what about Cuba? Seriously, Teddy, what if we went to Cuba?”

I slumped against a box labeled july 4th decorations. Brett sounded like my brother’s fiancée, who discussed potential wedding locations in the same wistful manner. He wasn’t going anywhere.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t ask him to leave, it’s the same reason I bought him pricey substitute meats and let him win at cribbage: the poor guy was unraveling.

I recognized all the signs. Spanish Civil War documentary behind us, he tried to keep busy with an exercise routine—push-ups, wall squats, he even lugged rocks from the shore for bicep curls—but he was losing it. I’d return from Rainbow Gardens to find sheets rumpled in bedrooms I’d declared off-limits. Mangled High Life cans on the back porch, their aluminum twisted into weird spirals. Late one night I heard a wet thwacking sound that cut above the roar of the surf. I stuck my head out the window. Brett had a pile of apples from the trees at the property’s edge and a softball bat from the shed.

“What are you doing?”

He looked up at me through the moonlight like I was the one standing at the bluff in his underpants. “Batting practice,” he said. “Want in?”

Here’s the deal: no matter how many rallies and demonstrations and direct actions you organize—no matter how many signs you wave and chants you chant— people go on polluting and bombing and abusing. The cumulative failure, it gets heavy. And then comes the guilt of giving up, doing nothing. These were the missteps that had initiated my tailspin and crash landing into New Pathways, and I recognized them now in Brett. Only it felt worse watching Brett’s nose dive. He’d been our shining leader, an all-star radical with a chest of activist medals. After college he sailed with the Sea Shepherds and Greenpeace, climbed trees with Earth First!, pitched a tent with Occupy on day one. That he’d been reduced to canvassing, shaking down pedestrians for signatures? It reminded me of the time in middle school my brother and I saw the great Pete Rose, ignored and old-looking behind an autograph table at Shoppers World: sad, sad, and sad.

The next day, after meditating a touch longer than usual, I woke up and decided to confront Brett. He was in the living room, grunting through his midafternoon workout, when I came downstairs.

“Remember that Che Guevara saying we used to pass around?” I said, opening a window to chase away the tangy weight-room funk. “The revolution is not an apple that falls when ripe—you must make it fall.”

“I remember,” he said, jacking a big, sandy rock overhead.

“So how’re you going to make the apple fall? And do not say collecting signatures for ten bucks an hour!”

He put down his rock, not laughing with me, and brushed his hands on his shorts.

“I was hoping you’d tell me, Teddy. What’re you thinking after this? What’s the plan?”

“I’m just working on being present and positive,” I said, repeating word for word the mantra that my third-favorite New Pathways therapist helped me develop.

“Works for me,” Brett said. He nudged his rock with a toe. “Want to jump in for a set?”

“I’m good.”

“How about a swim then? When’s the last time you went in the ocean?”

“It’s freezing.”

“Come on, Teddy. Exercise produces natural endorphins. Great for fighting depression.”

“But I’m not depressed.”

“Well yeah,” he said, flushing red and picking up his rock. “I know that.”

Poor Brett. The kid was projecting. He needed what anybody needs: a cause. A good cause would light a fire under his ass, and maybe—if I was lucky—get him to pack his bags, hop on the ferry, and go set the world aflame.

*

“Boredom, ocean acidification, sharks,” Mandy said when I asked what kept her up at night.

“Sure, but what about a cause?” I was bagging while she scanned. “What one big fight would amp you the most?”

“Easy. Global warming.”

I perked up. “Did I tell you I chained myself to an Exxon refinery valve in college?”

“You did. And I told you that civil disobedience is way sexy.”

You’d think a compliment of such caliber would be a big high five to my ego, and it was, but at the same time I had a vision of Brett casually flexing his bruised hand, telling Mandy about his work with Greenpeace, the CCCC, the Republican who collapsed like a suit slipping . . .

Brett dove into the job of saving the world. He converted the dining room to his office, leaving only to fry up seitan steaks or pump out a set of bicep curls.”

“Amanda?” her manager called from behind a magazine rack. “Don’t forget to clean the cold cases before you clock out.”

“Chill, Dennis, I’m engaging a loyal customer.” She threw me a wink.

“What kills me is that some people still believe global warming’s a hoax,” I said. “Nonbelievers should be knocked over the head.”

“Knocked over the head with wolverines,” Mandy said.

“Knocked over the head with wolverines, then fed to other wolverines,” I said.

“Nonbelievers should have to see the Gay Head Cliffs,” she said.

“Totally,” I said. “What are the Gay Head Cliffs?”

Mandy gave me a look—seriously?—and just like that, after I helped her clean the cold cases, we headed out on our first date.

*

She drove, and I packed her glass piece. Her piece was blue and yellow, modeled after Marge Simpson’s famous beehive. I rarely smoked anymore—who knew, with potency these days?—but I had the first-date jitters and was grateful for something to keep my hands busy.

The potency turned out to be great. Forests and stone walls blurred pleasantly by. Enya sang from the stereo like a pro. We were winding through the Vineyard’s woodsy belly, Mandy navigating the bends and narrow roads she’d known since childhood.

“What’s it like living on an island your whole life?” I asked.

“We all live on islands, Theodore,” she said, speaking in a pretty convincing German accent that made me laugh. She was still wearing her purple Rainbow Gardens apron. How freaking adorable?

She had me jump out to unlatch a gate. A gravel road took us past a sagging barn and down a hill. She parked, we hiked up a grassy dune, and there were the cliffs, striped in hues of salmon and quartz, bending around the island’s western tip. A jumble of boulders littered a crescent of beach. The foaming surf. We sat on a driftwood bench. The sun was bright, the wind brisk but not cold. A bag of Cheetos emerged from Mandy’s apron pocket. She opened and handed me the bag before helping herself, which confirmed everything I suspected about the kind of person she was.

The suck and sigh of the ocean. The smell of salt and artificial cheese. We turned our fingers orange and took in the scenery. It felt pretty unreal. I wasn’t about to break the spell. Mandy licked a finger and pointed to a brick lighthouse perched on the cliffs.

“They had to move the whole thing back a few years ago. It would’ve toppled in. You should’ve seen the dunes we used to run down as kids. Totally gone now. Same thing at Lucy Vincent Beach, Chappy, everywhere. My home is literally crumbling into the ocean, like—five, six feet a year. Some people say it’s erosion but erosion doesn’t work this fast. This is global warming in real time.”

A V of Canada geese interrupted, flying low overhead. We listened to their wings brush the air. Mandy went on.

“The clinically insane part is we’re sitting back, letting our planet die. Every second we do nothing, it’s time we can’t get back. But then it’s like, OK, so what can I actually do that will actually matter? Right here, right now?”

“Some people say we should just work on being present and positive,” I offered, but even as I channeled my inner–New Pathways, I pictured the miles of Vineyard shoreline that the rising Atlantic had swallowed since my burnout—everything I had not been doing for the planet—and it occurred to me: If everyone’s being present, who’s looking after the future?

“But personally, I think we should attack the root problem,” I said.

Mandy scooted down the log so our knees touched. This probably doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, but keep in mind I hadn’t enjoyed a surplus of romantic contact in a long while. She looked at me with shining eyes. “That’s what I’m saying—everyone should be chaining themselves to refineries! We need to keep the shit in the ground. Like, why aren’t people blowing up pipelines?”

“And fracking rigs,” I said.

“And drilling platforms.”

“And oil trains.” I crumpled the Cheetos bag in my hand for emphasis.

“And the White House!”

Her cheeks and neck were flushed, nostrils flared, eyes severe. I’d always had a thing for activist girls, but this was next level. I was donezo.

*

“So, terrorism,” Brett said, hands on his hips.

“They called Mandela a terrorist,” I said. “And John Brown. And Jefferson.”

“Jefferson?” Brett said. “Because he owned slaves?”

We were veering off topic.

“I’m just proposing a plan,” I said. “There must be loads of people willing to throw down for the planet, only they need a leader, someone to strike the first match. Shit’s gotta start somewhere. Why not here? Why not now?”

“You sound like Rage Against the Machine,” Brett said.

Of course I did. I’d loved Rage since middle school. Brett had, too. He was just being antagonistic. He’d accosted me the second I walked in the door: Where had I been all afternoon? Why did I smell like pot? Had I remembered to pick up spinach and tempeh bacon? He said he was worried, but really, he was hungry. A tempeh bacon spinach salad, a slug-a-glug of High Life, and he warmed right up. Of course he did. When had Brett ever been happier than organizing to occupy the dean’s office, to block an army recruiting table, to march against the campus police?

“This isn’t collecting signatures,” I prodded. “It’s a war against the machinery destroying our only planet. Remember what Che said: ‘The apple will not fall when ripe . . .’”

A smile spread across Brett’s face. The poor guy. It was almost too easy. I gave him three days before he’d be too amped to lounge around the Vineyard another second. A week, tops.

“To old friends,” he said, cracking two High Lifes. “To old friends helping each other help the world.”

We cheersed to that.

*

Brett dove into the job of saving the world. He converted the dining room to his office, leaving only to fry up seitan steaks or pump out a set of bicep curls. He had me run laps to the library for atlases, chemistry books, civil engineering manuals. Surrounded by maps and schematics, we brainstormed locations, materials, contingency plans. I devised a blueprint for a nifty little DIY detonator. We traded notes, manifestos, media strategies. And you know what? It was fun, collaborating with Brett to outline a hypothetical guerrilla war against fossil fuels. His enthusiasm was contagious. I was almost going to miss the guy.

Sometimes while meditating it occurred to me that I’d motivated Brett to continue fighting the good fight, and I’d motivated Mandy to finally leave Martha’s Vineyard, and if this was all I’d been put on earth to do, I was OK with that.”

While he obsessed over his project, Mandy took me to Lucy Vincent Beach, Chappaquiddick, a secret kettle pond in the West Chop Woods—all her favorite places. She liked seeing the Vineyard with fresh eyes, she said. She had fun adventuring with me because I was interested and I listened and I packed what she called a “Goldilocks” bowl: not too dense, not too loose—just right.

“Goldilocks was a thug,” I said. “B and E. Thieving. Squatting. Think about it.”

“Chick was ratchet,” Mandy said.

We were walking a path around the kettle pond, surprising turtles off their logs, watching trees spiral reds and yellows into the water. Don’t ask me why this particular moment seemed like the one to ask about her scars, it just did.

Mandy kicked a stick into the pond. I knew I’d made a mistake when she scrunched her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Never mind. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“Who’s crying?” she said, wiping tears from her pockmarked cheeks.

“Definitely not me,” I said, my mirror neurons turning the woods all blurry.

We walked the path, crunching leaves underfoot. I held her hand and she squeezed back. I told her what my favorite New Pathways therapist gave me permission to tell people who asked, which was that not all decisions are made from choices. Many decisions are made from feelings—feelings so strong that there is zero room for choice.

“That blows,” Mandy said, rubbing her arm over her sweat shirt, tracing her tattoo or her scars, I couldn’t tell which. “I want room for choice. I want to be able to choose to do something good that actually matters.”

“Me too,” I said, but my head echoed with that same old question: What actually matters?

On one hand you had the crumbling Gay Head Cliffs and our beautiful dying planet, and yes, fighting to save all this was definitely the most important thing, blah-blah-blah, and nonbelievers deserved any number of wolverines to the head. But holding hands around a kettle pond as the leaves fell was also the most important thing, and anyone who didn’t realize this deserved the crash landing they had coming, believe me. The trick—God knows how—was aiming for both at once.

Mandy wiped her eyes. “You want to know what it’s like to live on an island your whole life? Everyone is an alcoholic or an addict or clinical and it makes it impossible to pretend you’re not. I have to get off this place.”

This seemed like the natural time to apologize for bringing up her scars and ruining the kettle pond vibe, but it also seemed like the natural time to kiss her, so I did.

“Wowzers,” she said. “Finally. Now I only have to wait, what—five years for tongue?”

She leaned against a tree trunk and smiled. I don’t think I’d ever felt so good about myself or life in general. For the first time in ages, I knew exactly what to do.

*

She dropped me off at the end of the driveway as usual (I enjoyed the walk, I’d told her) and we made out one more glorious time through the window. I waved as she pulled away, honking, then I ran the hundred-yard dash up the driveway and barged inside, yelling for Brett. His activist vacation was over.

I found him out back by the bluff, shirtless, even though it had to be sweater weather at best. “Teddy, just in time.” He was working a tangle of wires over a bucket.

I sniffed the air. “Is that gasoline?”

His grin told me it was. “I drained the lawn mower.”

“Why would you do that?”

“To test your detonator.”

He’d followed my blueprint, wrapping wires from a clock radio around a filament that he’d extracted from an incandescent light bulb. When the alarm tripped, instead of triggering the radio, the current would flow through the filament, burning it red-hot. A simple design, built from common household objects, easily replicable for the earth-loving masses. That was the idea, in theory. Brett balanced the contraption on the bucket’s edge, set the alarm, and we backed away. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed when nothing happened.

We looked at each other and said—more or less at the same time—“We need to talk.”

Brett beat me to it. He threw an arm over my shoulder. “It’s a sign” he said, pointing to my failed detonator. “We should start smaller.”

“Smaller?”

“We can blow up pipelines later. First we need to organize the base. Which we can’t do from an island. Time to take this party to the mainland.”

I nodded and sighed, a deep sound meant to conceal my relief that Brett was finally ready to leave.

“Great,” he said. “Let’s crash with your brother first. To regroup, check in.”

I calmly explained that while I supported his need to actualize, I wasn’t going anywhere.

“Bro, you can’t stay here forever,” he said.

“Bro, neither can you,” I said.

“Teddy?”

We whirled. On the back porch stood Mandy. In one hand, the six-pack of High Life I’d stupidly left in her car. In the other, a sheaf of plans from Brett’s dining room office. She’d let herself in through the kitchen. She did not look overly at ease. It didn’t help that my detonator chose this moment to trip. With a sizzle the filament burned orange and ignited the gasoline fumes. The bucket sputtered up in flames, though sort of lamely. More like a mild campfire than a bomb.

“Welcome to our humble seaside abode,” Brett said, introducing himself with a bow. Given the circumstances, you had to admire his composure.

Mandy stared at his abs as he pulled on a T-shirt. Her eyes flashed from the slogan across his chest (citizens combating climate change) to our bucket (still aflame and beginning to melt) to me (about to black out). She took a backward step.

“This is weird, Teddy. You said you were house-sitting alone.”

I stammered. “I was. I was supposed to be.”

The ferry tooted its horn from the harbor. She took another step back.

“He’s covering for me,” Brett said, flexing his hurt hand like a martyr. “I’m a fugitive.”

Activist résumé, sucker punch, suit slipping from the hanger: out it came, every envious bit. But instead of Mandy’s eyes dilating as you might expect, she squinted. Her face went dark, though not in the cute, suggestive way I’d come to adore.

“So what did they charge you with?” she said.

Brett coughed. “Well I escaped before—”

“Then there’s a warrant?”

“Basically. Yes.”

Mandy shook her head. She looked exhausted. “I’m so done with boys lying.”

I leaned in. “He’s not lying. Brett, tell her.”

Brett looked at his toes. My heart sank. You probably saw all this coming from the start, but not me.

“You’re full of shit,” Mandy said. “Both of you. Full of shit, and batshit crazy.” She rifled through our plans: “‘Fifteen Natural Gas Pipelines of New England and How to Slay Them.’ ‘DIY Detonators for Dummies.’ ‘Industrial Arson: Maximize Your Diesel-Unleaded Blends.’”

Out of context—I’ll be the first to admit—it reflected poorly. I tried explaining that it wasn’t real.

“Looks pretty fucking real,” she said, pointing to the bucket fire.

“I was just helping Brett get back on his feet—”

“Me?” Brett blurted. “This was your idea. I was only doing it to help you.”

I laughed, but not like someone having a blast. “Canvassing? Collecting signatures? Pretending to be a fugitive? What happened to you, man? You’re the one who needs help, not me.”

He scoffed. “Who mopes around all day? Who plays nothing but sad, minor-chord songs on guitar?” He was ticking off grievances on his fingers. “Who always sleeps past noon?”

“It’s called meditation!”

“Who hasn’t eaten a single goddamn vegetable in the past two weeks?”

“I can take care of myself,” I said.

“Your brother sure doesn’t think so.”

Further embarrassment before Mandy was the last thing I wanted, but I couldn’t help myself: in a shameful, squeaky outburst, I told Brett to keep my brother out of it.

Brett threw his arms in the air. “He asked me to come here, Teddy. He’s worried. And he’s not alone—you tried to kill yourself, man. You forget that? Because the rest of us didn’t.”

I turned my back and walked to the edge of the bluff. Seagulls were dropping crabs on the rocks below. Brett came to stand beside me. My face was burning.

“That was private information,” I said.

“Sorry,” he said. “But it’s true.”

A big schooner with two masts and lots of wedge-shaped sails circled the harbor.

“Did you even punch a Republican?” I asked.

“If the guy hadn’t been, like, a hundred years old, I definitely would have.”

I glanced at his hand.

“The gazebo in the Common,” he said. “I had to hit something. It’s been a discouraging year.”

I made a weak fist and thought about hitting him, but couldn’t muster the anger. Honestly, I was more sad for Brett than mad at him. Sad and embarrassed and thankful. And mad. Then a car engine caught out front. The spin of tires on gravel.

Mandy had bailed. She’d left the High Life on the porch. Brett’s plans—our plans—were blowing across the lawn. We scrambled before the wind could pull them over the bluff.

*

Brett’s packed duffel was in the kitchen the next morning. I did not beg him to unpack. When the time came, I walked him down the driveway. He was catching the noon ferry. Off to spark the ecological revolution, he said. Had to start somewhere. Maybe not exactly like we’d sketched, but anything was better than nothing. He was amped, all bad mojo between the two of us apparently forgotten.

“Good luck,” I said, sticking out my hand.

He pulled me in for a hug. “Thanks for the vacation, Teddy. I needed it. Take care of yourself.” He slapped me hard on the back so I’d know he meant it.

“I will,” I said, slapping him harder.

“Sorry about Mandy,” he said.

“Super not your fault.”

He stepped back, flexing his hand in an absent, nostalgic way. “Teddy?”

“Brett?”

“Can I bum a twenty for the ferry?”

The next day I marched into Vineyard Haven to explain myself to Mandy. The problem was that Mandy had quit. She’d left to visit her mother, her manager said. One of the Dakotas. He couldn’t remember which.

“North,” I said.

“That’s right,” he said, and by the way, had I considered a career in retail grocery?

My first shift was zero fun, waking up so early, but by day two I already enjoyed being out of the house before noon. The work was easy, familiar. I stood where Mandy had stood, working her old hours at her old register, possibly even wearing her old purple apron, who knew? If it sounds a little stalkerish, don’t worry, it’s not like I was creeping the docks, craning my neck for a glimpse of her coming off the ferry. That I could do with binoculars from the privacy of my bluff.

It came down to this: I had to apologize to Mandy. I needed to show her that I wasn’t like everyone else on her island. I’d made some changes. She needed to know that I was jogging around the kettle pond now, and lifting with Brett’s rocks, and taking batting practice. I’d become the type of person who made and ate salads. had a job. I played happy, major-chord songs on guitar. I meditated, awake, reflecting on all my great progress. Sometimes while meditating it occurred to me that I’d motivated Brett to continue fighting the good fight, and I’d motivated Mandy to finally leave Martha’s Vineyard, and if this was all I’d been put on earth to do, I was OK with that. But I wasn’t totally OK with that. Because, where did it leave me? Who was going to ignite my future? Shit’s gotta start somewhere. Sure. But not on an island. Not by myself.

Watching through binoculars as the evening ferry, windows ablaze, drifted into the harbor, I’d visualize Mandy at the deck railing, coming back to give me a second chance. If I willed her return hard enough, I told myself, it could happen. And it did.

I was taking batting practice at the bluff, the ocean pinked in sunset, when a car pulled up the driveway. A door opened and closed. My heart ran a Keith Moon drum solo, but as soon as Mandy turned the corner of the house, I saw that second chances weren’t in her eyes.

“Hi, Teddy.”

“Hey, Mandy.”

She had a bag of groceries in one arm, greens spilling out the top, and a space heater in the other. She set the heater on the porch. “It’s a good one,” she said. “Kept me warm for years. These summer homes aren’t insulated for shit. You’ll need it soon.”

“You won’t be cold?” I asked.

“I’m moving. I have to. Some crazy immigrant to the island stole my job.”

She made a face that suggested we were partially cool, but not cool enough for her to tell me where she was moving if I asked. Instead, I explained that a full year and change had passed since I’d written my brother a note and swallowed a bottle of Percocet, but still I had a hard time processing what happened and coming to terms with my wonky neurochemistry and, most of all, knowing when to tell people all this, especially people I didn’t want to push away.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, and she said, “I’m so sorry, too,” and neither of us asked what the other was so sorry for because everything was so freaking regrettable and her face made it pretty clear that we were choosing to move on.

“I’ve been exercising,” I said.

“Exercise is important,” she said.

Somewhere far away a foghorn moaned.

“Your friend?” she asked.

“He left to start the revolution.”

She frowned. “Winters are lonely here, Teddy. You don’t have to stay. You can go. You get to choose. Remember that.”

She gave me her groceries (she’d emptied her fridge) and a courtesy hug and then she left. Naturally I felt like jumping off the bluff, but I was making healthier choices these days, so after watching her car disappear I returned to batting practice. Batting practice helped. I swung my way through every last apple that the trees had dropped, soggy bits exploding into the air. I stood on the bluff until stars popped, then I went inside to tidy. I washed dishes and made beds and put away the guitar. I swept and packed my bag and checked the morning ferry schedule. I wrote a thank-you note to the Vandenwalkers, complimenting their bright smiles. I plugged in the landline and dialed my brother. I was pretty sure he was on call, but he picked up on the first ring, as though he was waiting to hear from me, which he was.

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From The Southern Review: Spring 2018. Used with permission of The Southern Review. Copyright © 2018 by Nick Fuller Googins.




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