Photograph by Ray Mortenson
Gus doesn’t know for certain what started the fire on his boat last night, but now that he’s had a cup of coffee and a smoke, and his mind has cleared a bit, he’s about ready to relinquish the possibility of conspiracy. He knows the Commodore wants to kick him out of the marina, but nothing about her is deceitful, aside from her pure-white Keds. For the life of him, he can’t figure out how she keeps a pair of shoes so clean.
Listen to author Jessica Murphy Moo read this story
But most likely the fire had nothing to do with her. Most likely one of his cigarette butts got friendly with his beer cozy, the one shaped like a neoprene life vest that his ex-girlfriend, Christie, gave him for his 50th last year. He remembers when she held it up to her cheek, brushed pink for the occasion, and said: “Isn’t this the cutest beer cozy you’ve ever seen? It’s even got a real zipper!” That was Christie for you. She could muster genuine enthusiasm for the littlest things. He even remembers starting to believe that that beer cozy was the cutest thing he’d ever seen, and he feels a little remorse knowing that all that’s left of it are a cluster of orange flecks near the ashtray and a scorched zipper.
Last night, after he’d finally convinced the Hingham Fire Department that he had everything under control, Gus lay in bed, looking at that zipper long and hard. Only the metal tab and slider remained. The paint had melted off, and when he pressed it against his thumb, he could see its imprint, the letters YKK, on his skin. After he blinked a few times, the imprint disappeared. He stared and stared at the zipper, trying to force it into some sort of symbol of lost love, but he couldn’t get the metaphor to fit before exhaustion overtook him.
Now, with the spring sun warming his shoulders and reflecting off the bay and into his eyes, he needs to focus on the task at hand. He is determined to follow through on the promise he made to himself last night.
First he writes his name, GUS GEASEY, in capital letters. Next will be to write where he is “from” or a “longtime resident of,” and that is where things get complicated. He writes “eastern seaboard” and decides he’s going to have to revise. Writing an obituary is going to be harder than he’d thought, but he wants his life on record. Doesn’t need a will—doesn’t own anything but the Wellcraft, which he won at a St. Anne’s raffle 20 years ago and which is now charcoaled and seems to be floating a little closer to the surface of the harbor—and he doesn’t know anyone who would want it, anyway. But he does want people—his son, Bradley, in particular, and Christie, out of spite—to know when his time comes. It could very well have been last night. He tries to focus. He writes “Geasey is survived by” and pauses. Again, stumped. The usual suspects wouldn’t want to be identified.
Pondering this, he looks up just as a skiff carrying the Commodore and three blond adults in orange life jackets motors by. Predictably, they wave. Predictably, he stands up and flips them the bird. Their faces flash at one another, at him, at one another, at him.
Gus laughs. That trick never gets old. No matter how many times. If Christie were here, if she weren’t off sleeping with her new male-oncology-nurse boyfriend, she’d have told him that he has issues with authority. And she’d have had a point. He knows he’ll get a call from the Commodore. She’ll tell him he’s at risk of losing his place in the marina if he doesn’t change his behavior—This is a place for families. You’re only here because we don’t legally know how to get rid of you—and then he’ll tell her how he’s fully recovered from his penile-implant procedure and how he’d like to have her over for dinner. She’ll hang up on him.
He places the fire extinguisher—thank Christ he’d had it on hand—on the edge of his obituary to keep it from flying away. He’ll have to finish it later. Too much to do before his doctor’s appointment. The cab should be here any minute, and he hasn’t showered or given his Rottweiler, Philip, his insulin shot.
He ducks into the cabin. The place still reeks of smoke, and the ceiling is now covered by an angry brown stain. The fire had been close. Awful close. He can hear Christie lecturing him about smoking. “Screw it,” he says, and lights up. He takes the insulin from the fridge, pulls the syringe from the cabinet, and measures a double dose. “C’mere, Philip!” He opens the door to his bedroom. Philip is sprawled on the bed, black paws crossed over his brown snout. A circle of drool pools on the sheet beneath his head. “C’mon now, buddy. I know you were scared last night, but you’ve got to fight your fears. Come here now. You know it’s for the best.”
As he flicks the needle with his fingers, he feels a little bubble of emotion rise inside him. Philip saved his life. He was the one who first smelled the smoke. Philip had woken him up. Gus sinks the needle into the flesh behind Philip’s left shoulder and rubs his forehead with his thumb. If only people could take a shot in the scruff as well as Philip, he thinks, the world would be a better place. Then he pulls the needle out, checks the level, and injects the remaining insulin into his own arm.
He hears the cabbie laying on the horn. “I’ll see you tonight, Philip.” He pats the dog on the head, and Philip lets out a whimper. “I’ll leave the door open for you, but no humping the Commodore. Remember, you gave it up for Lent.”
He chuckles as he climbs into the cab and tells the driver to head toward Boston. As the driver takes him up 93 and nears the city traffic, Gus gives his own Lenten sacrifice some serious thought, but he keeps coming up cold, so he starts to think about what everyone else he knows should give up. Christie should give up her nurse and come back to him. It’s only right. The Commodore should give up frosting her hair. It makes her look older than she is. His ex-wife should stop pretending he has money to give her. His son, Bradley, should not only give up giving him the silent treatment—the trial had come and gone!—but he should also give up trying to have children. At this point, his poor wife has gone through so many in vitros that she must be feeling like a pin cushion. Plus, Gus could think of many other good uses for all that hard-earned money.