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From the acclaimed author of Night Over Day Over Night, Calm at Sunset, Calm at Down and In the Blue light of African Dreams comes a haunting, suspenseful meditation on the pain of memory, the obligations of history, and the shifting grounds of moral choice.
Although Paul Wedekind has created a new life for himself as a peaceful fisherman on the coast of Rhode Island, he is afflicted by memories of his violent past.
As an idealistic and patriotic young man, he enlisted in the East German army, only to be recruited by the omnipotent Stasi for an ambiguous intelligence-gathering role. Paul is sent to the far reaches of windswept Afghanistan, where he and his childhood friend are imprisoned and brutally tortured by the Mujahadin. Years later, living quietly in a New England fishing town, Paul sees his buried history return with shocking power. The Berlin Wall's collapse has left him vulnerable, uncertain of his role. A tight-lipped woman, Suleika, becomes his boat captain, fishing partner, confidante - and eventually his lover. As exiles, the two struggle to protect the secrets that have led them to one another, but both find that the past must be confronted if it is to be escaped.
In a voice both hypnotic and fierce, Paul Watkins unfolds a layered tale of loyalty, betrayal, and romance, spiked with scene after scene of a man and woman in mortal battle with the sea, and ghosts of the past - and themselves.
It had been a long time since I'd seen a man killed.
I was sitting with Suleika in a place called Bad Joe's Bar, down by the docks on Thames Street in Newport, Rhode Island. Suleika was not talking to me again. She pulled her shoulderlength blond hair down in front of her eyes and inspected each individual strand. When she did this, I knew she wanted to talk. But I'd have to gouge it out of her. It was like opening an oyster with my fingernails, working them between the bony halves, twisting and pulling, until at last in the yawning of the shell, I'd see what was on her mind. This time, I already knew.
Suleika is a name you don't see very often. Soo-lay-ka. It took awhile before I became fond of the name, and then I fell in love with it-the way the word slipped out of my throat and silenced itself with the ka at the end. Suleika was tall, six foot in her oil-stained work boots. She made some people nervous with her height. In winter, her pale skin was clear, but now that the summer was approaching, her freckles had returned. They made her blue eyes stand out more. The blue was ringed with a band of gray, which could be seen most clearly when you glanced at her, not if you focused hard. The only part of her that had suffered from the years out working on the water was her hands. They had lost their delicacy, and contained instead a kind of smoothed-out muscularity. It was the same for all of us. A fisherman can break bones with his grip, but the feeling in his palms and fingertips is dulled by calluses.
Sun reached through the windows of the bar. It filled the room with a silvery light that you get therein late afternoons in May. The walls of Bad Joe's were draped with old trawler nets to give the place a salty feel that the owner, a man named Biagio, who had never set foot on a working boat, hoped would attract tourists.
To Suleika and me and the other boat crews who fished for a living out on Block Island Sound, seeing those nets all around gave us the feeling of being trapped in one. Some crews wouldn't come in here because of it. They remembered other fishermen who were only themselves when on the water, blind drunk and mean on the land, who had ridden out into storms, believing themselves indestructible, drowned in their own nets, and whose tattooed skin the crabs and lobsters plucked in shreds from their pale corpses.
Suleika inspected her hair. What she wanted to talk about was the fact that we had reached a breaking point. We had known each other for years and were as close as a couple in a good marriage, and yet we were not married. I never thought the time was right. My stalling had eaten away at us until suddenly, catching us both by surprise, everything we had together seemed to be falling apart.
I did love her. Do love her. No one more than Suleika. I couldn't chase her from my thoughts for more than ten or twenty minutes at a time. In the beginning, I had reasons why we should not be married. They were good reasons. Unarguable, even with her. When they stopped being good, I invented new reasons, and these were solid, too. In time, they also faded. After that, when I came up with fresh excuses, they were only excuses and we both knew it. Still I clung to my invented logic. It was only recently, only this day in fact, that I realized I had neither reasons nor excuses left. The only way I could think to explain my hesitation was to say I did not feel permanent. There was a great fragility to the life I had made for myself here. I could not bear the thought of dragging her down with me if something went wrong. It seemed to me an act of greater love to keep that one last thing apart from her. This was our great unfinished business.
She could have had anyone. Half the men on the dock would have dropped their wives and girlfriends to be with her and not looked back. It was not for some mythic beauty she possessed, because she did not, but for reasons they only half-understood. The proof of their attraction to her was precisely that they made no comments about their desire, as if to do so would reveal more than they cared to show. It was not rare to find a woman working on the dock, but it was more unusual to see one on a trawler. Because of this, she was respected by men who had spent most of their lives beyond the sight of land and who respected almost nothing in the world.
It used to be our favorite part of the day, just after quitting time, when we were tired in our bodies but not yet in our minds, and the sun off the water was bright but not blinding, changing from gold to brass to copper into bronze. The warmth of it still tight against our faces. It used to be the time of day when she and I could talk, but I thought better of it now. I would not have spoken clearly, anyway. Too many things were going through my head. I felt locked inside myself. If I said anything now, it would only make matters worse.
I pushed away my coffee, the milk gone chalky as it cooled.
"Are you leaving?" she asked, glancing at me through the mesh of her inspected hair.
"I'll be right back." I smiled weakly. I got up and went over to the jukebox. It was a Wurlitzer left over from the fifties. On its hazed plastic dome and dented metal sides were the imprints of fights among those same land-mean fishermen whose ships had gone down decades earlier. I rummaged in the pockets of my jeans until I found a nickel. Then I put it in the slot. Biagio hadn't figured out how to make the machine charge any more, so we still got music at the fifties price. But we also got music so out-of-date, some of it as old as the forties, that few us of had heard of even half the singers in the selection. As I scanned the names of songs, I caught sight of Suleika's reflection in the mirror behind the bar. She had stopped examining her hair and was looking at me. She couldn't tell I saw her. I lowered my head and pretended to study the songs. When I turned to walk back to the table, Suleika looked down again, not wanting me to know she had been watching. I stepped through the webbed shadows that the nets threw on the floor.
Biagio stood behind the bar with his arms folded. He dressed like a man who'd just arrived at Ellis Island at the turn of the century-a waistcoat and collarless shirt and sometimes a pair of suspenders with the half-gone elastic stretched over his shoulders. With his scrub-brush gray mustache and little bubble of a chin, he looked like he didn't speak English, but then he'd talk and you'd hear the generations-old Rhode Island Yankee twang in his voice. Newport became Noo-polywhat. Car became cah. He was one of those people who lived by the water but was not a part of it. He had no envy of those of us who made a living from it. He inhabited the middle ground of slate roofs wet with salt mist in the mornings, the sad crying of the gulls, seaweed wrapped around television aerials after the storms, and the talking drumbeat of sail lines against masts out in the harbor.
Biagio's name was pronounced Bee-aj-ee-oh, which the locals had abbreviated to Bad Joe. So many people would come into his bar asking who Bad Joe was that Biagio made up a story about Bad Joe being a notorious fisherman who died at sea with all his crew and whose ghost still haunted the dock. That was why Biagio liked to keep the fisherman's theme to his bar, with nets strung out across the walls.
Biagio bobbed his eyebrows at me and jerked his head toward Suleika. He knew what we were going through. He thought he did, anyway. Everyone on the dock had given me advice about Suleika. They gave her advice about me, too. They couldn't understand why she hadn't moved on to someplace else. She seemed too good for this hard and dirty work. They also thought she was too good for the likes of me. With us, people didn't see the whole picture. There was more to this unfinished business of ours, more than anyone knew except Suleika and me, which was why she had not left yet, as the dough-faced, fish-smelling women on the dock had often advised her to do.
She and I were usually the only ones in Bad Joe's at that time of day. We had just finished repairing our nets. All afternoon we sat on the great piles of nylon, weaving the tears closed with twine and large steel needles about a foot long and as thick as a man's thumb. They were more blunt than regular needles, but they still came to a nasty point at the end. If you let one drop from waist height, it would stick into the dock planks. We repaired nets every Saturday and they were patched with green, yellow, and orange.
Sometimes Biagio would sit down with us. He would talk about new plans he had to renovate the bar, which involved ideas as foreign to these surroundings as wicker, fake bronze tables with glass tops, and lunchtime specials like curry and falafel. You might get that stuff up on Bellevue, but not down here by the docks. More precisely, he came to talk to Suleika. He had convinced himself that she would know what to do. Suleika took this burden seriously, so as not to let him down. Privately, she admitted to me that she didn't have any idea what could draw in the herds of Day-Glo people who trooped down Thames Street all summer, their hands and faces and hair all sticky with ice cream and Dell's lemonade and homemade fudge from the Fudge Factory a few doors down. She and I didn't actually want them at Bad Joe's, but still we played along with Biagio's dreams. While the two of them talked, he would echo her thoughts by shaping the air with his scarred hands. The scars came from blue crabs that had pinched him while he was digging oysters down at Mackerel Cove in Jamestown. Biagio sold the oysters at the bar. When the dagger-shelled crabs lunged from the mud and clamped onto his skin, Biagio would take a pencil from his pocket and let the crab's other claw pinch that. This would release the pressure on the claw that was pinching his hand. He would hold the crab behind its legs, set it back in the water, and watch the beautiful swimmer sidestep away, claws raised, until it vanished in the rippling shadows. He could never seem to figure out why it was so often just the three of us. "Maybe if I sold fudge with booze in it," he would say. Then he would be back to square one.
I sat down at the table just as the Wurlitzer started to play the wrong damned song, as usual-"When the Swallows Come Back from Capistrano." The jukebox decided for itself, like a crotchety old man, just what it wanted to hear. It seemed to like the Capistrano song, and played it all the time. The worn-down record hissed and hummed. "Look," I said to Suleika while both of us ignored the record, "don't get how you get." I lowered my head almost to the level of the table, trying to stare up into her face. If I could get a smile out of her, we would be all right for another day. "We can talk," I said.
"No, we can't," she said, and did not smile. "That's the trouble."
You don't mean it, I thought. I saw you looking at me. I know you haven't given up on us yet, even if you want to make it seem
as if you have. "I was thinking," I told her at last, when my thoughts had grown quiet enough for me to speak. What I wanted to say was that I had been crazy before. I would put away the past. I would ask her to marry me. I would tell her I was sorry for the waiting. I had been meaning to say this for so long now that I even had the pattern of my breathing figured out for when I spoke, except I never got any of the words out of my mouth. It was as if every time I came close, a choking back the words.
"What did you want to talk about?" she asked. Her fingers worked masochistically through the brassy strands. She would focus and focus, blinding herself like an old lacemaker lost in the minute details of each thread, until she was exhausted.
The bell over the door clanged and a man walked in. Suleika and I raised our heads. We stared at the stranger, not to make him feel unwelcome, but because we weren't expecting to see anyone. There were times of day when almost nobody walked into Bad Joe's, in the afternoon limbo when it was too late for lunch and too early to be drinking except for the drunks. For a moment, we both forgot the fact that we might be breaking up.
The first thing I noticed about the man was that he was bald, and not bald because his hair had fallen out, but because he shaved his head. His skull was finely sculpted beneath the polished skin. His strong hands might have been fisherman's hands, except he was wearing a suit and his face was not weathered the way the skin of fishermen is like saddle leather after decades of riding the waves off Nantucket.
The man ordered a plate of Biagio's famous oysters.
"Who is that guy?" asked Suleika.
"I don't know," I answered. "Why Should I?"
"You're staring at him."
I hadn't realized I was staring. I wanted to ask the man how he had found out about Biagio's famous oysters. They weren't on the menu. Biagio didn't even have a menu. Then I remembered hand clamped onto my throat, that it was painted on the side of the building in letters so faded that I saw them every day but had forgotten they were there.
Biagio hoisted a bucket of oysters onto the bar. It was an old tin bucket and the oysters were resting in seawater with ice cubes floating in it. Biagio seemed eager to please. I imagined it going through his head that this might be the first of a whole new type of customer, one who had held out on him until now. He dug his hand into the bucket and fished up a gnarly-shelled oyster. "These are the best you'll ever eat," he said confidently. He held it out for the man to see, twisting it back and forth in the soft light as if it were a mighty diamond. Water dripped from the oyster onto the bar. "I choose each one and they are the best." Then, becoming flustered at the man's unchanged expression, Biagio said again, "The best!"
The bald man took out a large handkerchief. It was red and white, with a pattern. He began to mop up the spilled water on the bartop.
"You don't have to do that," said Biagio. He pulled his own, less impressive handkerchief out of his pocket.
The bald man still mopped up the water. "I'm going to wipe it up before it stains."
He made me nervous. I didn't know why. I was suddenly uncomfortable sitting there at that flimsy table. I felt sweat on my forehead. I looked at Suleika, as much as if to ask, You see why I was staring?
She nodded at me. She felt this strange man's trespass as much as if he had laid his hand on the small of her naked back.
Biagio stuck out his hand to the man. "Biagio," he said. It really did sound like Bad Joe.
The bald man nodded. He looked at his own hands for a moment, as if to check that they were clean enough for shaking. Then he seemed to decide that they were not and he laid his palms flat on the counter. "My name is Mudge," he said.
"Mudge?" Biagio raised his eyebrows. "I never heard that name before."
"Yes. Mudge," said the man, in a way that made me think he had gotten into fights over people making fun of his name. I figured, looking at him, that he won most of those fights. "Samuel Mudge."
S. Mudge, I thought. Smudge. That man's name is Smudge. I would make a joke about it later to Suleika.
"Where are you from?" asked Biagio.
"I'm not from here," he said. "That's for damn sure." His voice was deep and scratchy, as if his lungs were filled with smoke.
"It's too hot in here, Biagio," I announced. It was at this precise moment that the jukebox stopped playing, so my voice sounded idiotically loud. As soon as I had spoken, there was complete silence in the room. Biagio and Suleika turned to look at me.
Suleika was embarrassed. I could hear it in the way the air caught for a second in her throat.
"It's hot," I said again, but softly.
"No, it's not," said Biagio. "Is anyone else hot?"
The bald man Mudge was watching me now, as if he had not seen me before. Slowly he turned back to his oysters.
I slumped back in my chair. The cream from the coffee was a bitter slickness in my throat. "Well, it just seems stuffy to me," I said quietly to Suleika.
"You're out of your mind," she said. She never did let me off the hook.
"I'm with the trade commission conference up in Providence," Mudge said to Biagio. "I'm taking a break for the day. Thought I'd come down here and see the sights."
There was some international trade commission thing at the state conference center. It was a big deal and had been in the papers for a while. The Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce had campaigned for the commission to be held here as much as if they'd been campaigning to host the Olympic Games. It was all about opening up new trade routes between America and the former East Bloc countries; East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bosnia, and so on. I hadn't paid much attention to it.
The bald man and Suleika and I watched in silence as Biagio shucked the oysters with a little blunt-tipped knife. Salty juice poured down his wrists. He lined up the half shells on the bar. "You want hot sauce?" asked Biagio.
"Not at all," said Mudge. "Lemon instead."
Suleika leaned across to me. "That's got to be the first person in months who's come in here and ordered oysters who actually knows how to eat them."
It made me jealous that she was praising this man who had so obviously snubbed me just because I thought it was too warm in the room.
Mudge raised the cup of shell to his nose, closed his eyes, and sniffed the oyster. Then he squeezed a drop of lemon juice into the shell, slid the oyster into his mouth, chewed once only with a sliding, grinding revolution of his jaw, and then swallowed.
I could taste those oysters going down his throat. The faint sweet saltiness of them, as if I knew even the particular texture of the water in Narragansett Bay, a connoisseur not only of oysters but of the oceans in which they lived. I tasted the cringe of lemon at the corners of my tongue. Saliva welled up in my throat.
Mudge turned away from the bar and walked over to a table. He sat down and, with his big-knuckled hands, he smoothed out the red-and-white-checked tablecloth. "I'll eat the rest here."
Biagio set the remaining oysters on a big white plate and brought them over.
Suleika clicked her tongue. "A man of the old school, I'd say."
"Oh, shut up," I muttered. "Now you're doing it on purpose.
Mudge turned his head toward us. He knew we were speaking about him.
We nodded back, clumsily. Then we looked away. "Well, I think," said Suleika, "that he should be allowed to eat in peace."
"Fine with me." I bounced the heels of my palms on the table. I was thinking that perhaps the man bothered me because he looked rested and well fed and as if he didn't do hard physical work for a living. I was thinking that if my life had gone the way I'd thought it would, I might be more like him than I was now. I knew what he would be thinking of me, in my work clothes and my heavy rubber boots with the heels worn down. Being out-ofdoors all through the year had rubbed creases into my skin. I looked older than my age, which was thirty-two. I wanted to tell him that I had an engineering degree, that I spoke a couple of languages, that I wasn't who I seemed to be. But then I would have looked even crazier. "I'm good to go," I said to Suleika, trying to sound jolly, but all I could think about was that fact that we were only getting a reprieve. Nothing had been solved.
I was getting ready to stand up when someone else walked into the bar. It was a man. With him came a peculiar but unmistakable static, as when the air seems to crackle before a bolt of lightning strikes nearby. I knew this without having seen anything, because my back was to the door. A second later, when he walked by, I noticed that he was tall and heavy-shouldered, with short dull black hair. The man wore a brand-new blue-jean jacket. I didn't catch sight of his face, but I smelled a familiar smell. Musk. Cedar. Leather. Some crush of these together in a cologne or a soap. At first I couldn't place it. All I felt was a reeling in my head as my mind searched for the source.
The man in the too-blue jacket walked over to Mudge, who had seen him the moment he came in and had stopped eating his oysters. Mudge sat back slowly and set his hands flat on the table. "Now what?" he asked impatiently.
The man spoke to Mudge in a low voice.
Slowly, Mudge folded his arms. A calm and measured gesture of defiance. "That's right," he said. "So?"
If my instincts had been working, I would have taken Suleika by the hand and led her fast and quietly out of the bar, out into the street, and then we would have run for it. But I was so preoccupied with the business of Suleika and me that I just sat there.
Mudge talked to the man in the jean jacket, jerking his chin upward to make a point. Whatever they were talking about irritated Mudge. I still couldn't hear exactly what they were saying. If they had been shouting, I might have felt a little safer. But they were both saving their energy. It looked like the beginning of a fight, but not the pointless bar punch-ups I had seen here before.
Suddenly, the man in the blue-jean jacket snapped his fist in the air.
I felt myself stop breathing. I thought for a moment that be was going to take a swing at Mudge. Then I noticed that there was a knife blade in his hand. Shock surrounded me. It muffled my nerves. I could barely register what I was seeing.
The man smashed the blade doom through the top of Mudge's bead, and only when be let go did I see that the knife was in fact one of the heavy spikes Suleika and I had been using to repair our nets.
Mudge tried to stand, but instead be slid sideways out of his chair. He tipped onto the floor and then tried to stand again, his legs thrashing on the tiles. The top of the spike stuck from his head. The rest of it was buried in his skull. His face was splattered with blood. It arced in crazy lines across the smoothness of his skin, as if his flesh had cracked like broken pottery. Mudge set one hand on the table and tried to raise himself up, but the table pitched over on top of him. Oyster shells crashed on the floor and skittered away.
Biagio was still standing behind the bar, a roll of white receipt tape in his hands. It unraveled slowly down to the skidproof matting where he stood.
Mudge was on his hands and knees. His eyes were wide and dazed. His head hung down. Blood tapped the floor in a fast Morse code of droplets. He breathed in sucking rasps. He seemed to be trying to hawk something out of his throat.
The man reached down, hooked his fingers deep into the flesh around Mudge's jaw, as if he meant to break the bones of Mudge's face. Mudge's mouth was open and bloody, the teeth outlined in scarlet. The man held up Mudge's head until the tendons stretched in his neck. He grunted deeply, then let go. Mudge's face smacked against the floor among the shells.
I had no sense of how long this had lasted. Ten seconds, maybe less. I waited for the man to turn on us. It seemed inevitable. I felt powerless to prevent it.
Instead, the man walked unhurriedly toward the rear door, the jacket still shop-creased down his arms. He stepped out into the parking lot that separated the dockyard from Bad Joe's. As he swung the door open, sounds of the docks flooded into the barthe groan of machinery and the whirring crunch of the chipping machine that loaded ice onto the trawlers. It was then that he swung his head around and stared straight at me. His eyes were the color of cigar smoke-gray and bottomless, the way smoke baffles depth. I knew those eyes. A prickling, burning sensation spread out from the center of my chest, like a sweep of fire across my ribs, curving around until it reached my spine. Then he was gone.
Suleika breathed in sharply.
Biagio was still holding the receipt tape. Tears were running down his face.
Adrenaline cascaded through my body. I ran out into the parking lot and dodged among the empty freight trucks. I didn't see anybody. The man had disappeared. Even if I had caught up with him, I would not have known what to do next. I just had to be sure it was him. For a long time, I stood out in the lot, not knowing what to do next. I was sweating as if I had a fever. Then I heard Suleika call my name and I ran back into the restaurant.
Suleika knelt beside the body, her knees stained with blood. She had two fingers pressed against the artery in Mudge's neck, checking for a heartbeat. The dead man's eyes were wide-open, domed red and shiny.
I went behind the bar and dialed 911. I reported the killing, repeating it several times. The operator didn't seem to understand what I was saying. "Are you sure?" she kept asking. Biagio sat at my feet, coiled in his tape of receipts, weeping in sharply exhaled breaths. People out in the street still had no idea what had happened. They continued to shuffle past in a procession of pale legs, brightly colored T-shirts, and baseball hats. I shut the door, flipped the sign to CLOSED, and pulled down the blinds. In the milky, gloomy light, the nets that spanned the wall seemed to close even tighter around us.
I went out and slumped down on the pile of nets that Suleika and I had spent the afternoon repairing. A minute later, Suleika came out and sat beside me. Wind off the bright water blew her hair across her face.
I reached over and touched her bare arm.
Suleika recoiled, as if my fingers had been freezing against the warmth of her skin. She stared at me as if she had never seen me before. It lasted only a moment. Then she took hold of my hand.
I heard police car sirens. With them, I felt chaos riding toward me, swirling through the streets like water from a broken dam. I cannot place inside the scaffolding of words how it felt to recognize those eyes. They belonged to a man I thought had died in my arms years before, at the start of the journey that had brought me to the place where I am now, with a different name and a different life, on the other side of the world.