Authors: Michael Tolkin
Copyright Â© 2002 by Michael Tolkin
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.
The lines on p. vii are from
The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt
by Amy Clampitt, copyright Â© 1997 by the Estate of Amy Clampitt. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Under radar / by Michael Tolkin.â1st ed.
eBook ISBN-13: 978-1-5558-4749-4
1. AmericansâJamaicaâFiction. 2. Insurance crimesâFiction.
3. Married menâFiction. 4. MurderersâFiction. 5. PrisonersâFiction. 6. RevengeâFiction. I. Title.
PS3570.O4278 U53 2002
813' .54âdc21Â Â Â Â Â 2002016390
Design by Laura Hammond Hough
New York, NY 10003
When he was twenty, Tom went to a party where a witch told him, “You will be found out.” Some years later, before he was caught, Tom was on a plane to Jamaica.
He had two little girls. Perri was nine and Alma was four. Tom wanted to take the family skiing, but his wife, Rosalie, thought that the routines of ski school, in and out of the cold, the agony of lost mittens, the struggle with ability, would give Alma tantrums, so Tom agreed withâor rather, conceded toâhis wife, that the children would be happier in a warm ocean, on an island like Jamaica; and, never having been there, they went. They planned to stay for two weeks.
Rosalie accepted a travel agent's recommendation for the Montego House because all of the hotel's rooms were apartments, with a bedroom, small kitchen, and living room. The hotel assigned every family a baby-sitter, a local woman given the quaintly offensive title “Girl Friday.” When Betty, who met them at registration and showed them to their apartment, proved cold and unhappy, Tom
agreed with Rosalie that rather than talk to the woman about her bad mood, or ask the resort's manager to replace her with someone who smiled, even artificially, they would keep her, so the children, in their first extended contact with a black woman, would have to fight for affection instead of collecting it as part of the Montego House all-inclusive package, along with free use of snorkels.
On the second day, Rosalie sent a postcard to the travel agent, thanking him.
It's glorious here. The children are happy. You
were right, the ginger beer is addictive
Tom had his own sour opinion, too brutal for a postcard. Though he knew from all of his travels not to trust his ill humor on arrival until he had slept a full night, his first tour around the hotel, past the swimming pool, the beach, and the central bar gave him little hope that his mood would improve. He hated the Montego House for all the reasons Rosalie adored it, for what appealed most to a good mother: it was safe for children. Were Tom to send a postcard, he would have listed his complaints against the hotel's bourgeois want of eccentricity, would have said that it was homey, with no sex, with none of the drama of sex. He'd seen the brochures for other resorts, with packs of horny modern women out for the
orgy, and the men who hunt them, ballplayers, contractors, young doctors, guys with cash, guys who exercise so they can look like ballplayers. If this had been a family hotel for the very rich â¦ but it wasn't. Everyone at the Montego House was comfortable without being wealthy, and this annoyed Tom, because he had a lot of money and he could have afforded a first-class resort with a bigger pool and room service. It was Rosalie who chose this, to save her children from a luxury that would forever spoil them for modest pleasure.
When Tom said to Rosalie after that first cruise around the grounds, “You know what this is? I figured it out. There's a brilliant conspiracy out there that had us committed to a minimum-security prison for families,” Rosalie told him to shut up.
It was easy for Tom to comply, since there was so much that he kept secret from his wife.
He didn't play tennis, he didn't play golf, but he did have a sport. On every vacation he always found a woman to secretly cast in a complicated story he built for his own entertainment, he always fixed his attention on a stranger in order for the trip to develop within its morbidly predictable and cloistered order the possibility of possibility, no matter how imaginary, from which he could draw some distracting energy. He had never had an affair after marrying Rosalie, and had very little experience with women before her. No, the whole structure of the game was hidden from the world. He never crossed the boundary
to the point where fantasy made a dent on matter, and he always burned, by vacation's end, his dense unwritten novel of travel, secret meetings, murder, punishment, and passionate enlightenment.
He understood that he might be a very sick man. He persisted anyway.
Looking for a secret movie star, Tom strolled by the pool, dividing the mothers into categories. There were the good mothers, always attentive about settling their children's quarrels, married to the good men, fathers who changed diapers, threw the ball, and, without being asked, went back to the room for sunscreen; a few good mothers married to the wrong men, fathers who played deaf to their children's appeals for play; a few sets of bad parents whose children screamed and cried and got their way; and one divorced mother with her quiet son. What an awful place for a divorced mother! There wasn't a single man anywhere, not even a single father. Of course not; the single dads were at the sexy hotels. All of the men at the Montego House were with their wives. They were here because they could afford nothing better, and they could afford nothing better because they were good parents, because they put family ahead of work, taking the world as it came to them, and this timidity or acceptance, the frame in which they embraced their lives, outlined the limit of their ambition. Tom found them, like all the genially cooperative people of the world, impossible to talk to. “I can't talk to these people, they're so emotionally sterile,” he said to Rosalie, which she took as the start of a fight:
“I told you not to do this to yourself. Have a drink and relax.”
He couldn't follow her advice because he wasn't drinking, which made things worse, made him unappealing. Standing at the bar sipping cranberry juice and tonic, when he casually mentioned to a few of the dads that he was unhappy with the Montego House, he was disappointed because no one agreed with him or even wanted to hear his theories about the trapped almost-rich. He felt their suspicion. They assumed he was a self-declared recovering alcoholic, and since the hotel's open bar served good brands and the bartenders poured generously, the guests, within their own dull moderation, drank more heavily than they did at home. What they didn't want was anyone's disapproving eye on their third daiquiri of the morning. So it was Tom, sober, who ranted like a drunk. And he had stopped drinking for only a month before the trip, to see if his life felt any different, to see if he could stop the unending noise of his mind. Even though he rarely finished more than two glasses of wine at dinner once or twice a week, he felt polluted by the world, and toxic to himself, and so he wanted to purge his system. After a week the experiment yielded a result: Tom saw no real difference between having a drink and not. Worse, with every desire for a drink that challenged his abstention, he attacked himself using a fervor equal to his self-flagellation for the mildest hangover. If there was no difference, why not enjoy a beer and take a vacation from himself? Even Rosalie told him to drink: “You
don't like it here because you're sober for no reason. You're not an alcoholic. You can drink. Have a drink, Tom.”
He said he would think about it. He knew that the useless asceticism of his self-denial was feeble, a bargain virtue. By holding to his sobriety for the benefit of his detachment, Tom watched the dissipation of his integrity. So why not have the drink now?
Still he resisted escape; he preferred the constant nudging awareness of his need for a drink, just one or two beers. When he forced sobriety, everything he saw caught an echo or reflection, depending on his perspective, of the broken promise that holds time to substance. These stupid contradictions were lost on the other guests, who smelled his contempt for them and stayed away, sitting in the shade of the thatched roof over the bar, laughing with the bartenders.
So he would pretend to be drunk, to himself. He remembered the merciful benefits of a rum at lunch and located within the streams of his scorn toward everyone there a sappy appreciation for these dull wives, and forged from this a maudlin horniness for them, and convinced himself like a lush at closing time that their unimaginative faces, inclined to magazines and weak novels, hid the greatest perversions. He would save them from their sex-panicked husbands. In his counterfeit booziness, staggering between sympathy and sadness for the mother hens of the Montego House, he scanned the air for signals of lust or desire, hidden in this palace of familial sincerity that cried out to the observant, “I do not love the man I
married.” What to look for? What mattered? Which of you wants sex in a closet with a stranger? Yonder woman whose expensive haircut matches her ironic Jackie-O-with-Ari sunglasses, makeup during the day, and an especially pretty bag filled with fashion magazines and French suntan lotion? Maybe. How slowly did some women lower themselves to a chaise, how carefully did they arrange their bottles of water, magazines, and tubes of sunscreen? Did they smile inwardly at an idea of their own, not to be shared, a perception, a memory, a retreat from the impossibly uncosmic irritating banality of a swimming pool crowded with spoiled children? The woman reading
, why was she a likelier pervert than the woman reading
And the wider the brim, the more expensive the sunglasses, why, Tom wondered, was he so sure that these details advertised overdue wickedness? Or was theirs a bogus decadence, their broad displays of catalog libido and commercial sensuality a sign of the weakness of their impulse to sin? Were these indications of style only a more refined indication of panic and loneliness, which amplified these mothers' regretful desires into a drama they never really wanted, a drama for which they had no genuine aptitude? Or did they have aptitude but no worthy partners? He pitied the women for their men. What is it about this level of society that produces such dull men, the men of the middle? And why am I different? he asked himself. I can smell depravity on the unhappy wives because I can read the lock on a secret, because I have a secret. Yes, how many
of the men here, like me, are ten years past unpunished felonies?
When he was two years out of law school, Tom had joined an old friend, Paul Farrar, in a swindle. Farrar knew three doctors willing to go along on a risky venture, faking accident claims to take money from insurance companies. To complete his plan, Farrar needed a few lawyers. Just as he recruited Tom, and Tom recruited another lawyer, so Farrar's other recruits added the few necessary allies. Tom never knew the names of everyone involved, but Farrar had done his homework carefully and managed the crime with a cautious limit on greed; after the gang made enough money, the partnership broke up. Farrar, a genius of persuasion, insisted that each man at the start admit the evil nature of the endeavor, with no justification, no cynicism; no one could say that the insurance companies deserved this. “We're stealing,” said Farrar, “that's all we're doing. We're going to make some money, and then we're going to stop. And to settle the accounts a little, we're going to give some of that money back to the world, as charity.” He insisted upon this.
The swindle lasted ten months. The alliances within the group had never been more socially complicated than the conspiracy needed, so they hardly ever met when it was over, having little to talk about except their history. Among the people who knew one another already, Farrar discouraged social connections, on guard against friendships among the wives, which could promote more time shared by the men and might lead to private chats beside
the barbecue, one testing the other to see if he was game for another round of big money, which might lead to further crime, which might lead to arrest and then betrayal and the exposure of this careful fraud, and Paul Farrar's arrest. Tom was certain that Farrar would have killed to save himself. Seven years on, the statue of limitations had passed and they were free in the eyes of the law. Farrar joked, “With time off for good behavior, we'd be getting out about now.”
Tom liked to talk to Farrar about the implications of living with the memory of sin; it was one of Tom's favorite subjects, how the knowledge of an unpunished crime grinds a lens through which the world looks small and more easily managed. Paul noted to Tom that of the four marriages in the group, there had been no divorces. “I picked right,” said Farrar. “Everyone I picked was stable.”
They knew that guilt destroys some men, and Tom credited Farrar for refusing to pretend that their occasional streams of bad feeling weren't guilt. Each of them discovered that the world made more sense, knowing that anyone they met might just as easily have a secret such as theirs. Over the years, as the crime passed into a dimming legend even in his own dossier, Tom confessed small pieces of it to new friends, or alluded to his villainous past in a way that gave the impression he was talking about a few years wasted on drugs, hardly a special event, but he cast his net with a careful intonation when he wanted to test a hunch with someone he suspected of his own criminal story. He didn't expect anyone to suddenly tear the
wrapping off his secret any more than Tom would have opened up. If the other was as vigilant against exposure as Tom, he would, with tact and speed, move the discussion to neutral territory. Then Tom knew. Skilled deflection was the giveaway.
What if he pushed himself to one of the women by the pool and said straight to her face, “Listen to this carefully: a lot of people don't get caught, and sometimes there's no way to look at a man and guess his crime, but let him lift the veil on his own past, just a little, and when you know your own felony, you can see it on him like a tattoo.” What then?
Five days into the vacation, and none of the women had yet dragged a fantasy out of him. And then on the sixth day, the airport bus delivered her.
With hair short as Joan of Arc's, the woman on whom Tom would fix his fantasy sat with her feet in the water, reading an ancient edition of
Sense and Sensibility
. The book had a faded hunter-green cover, with the title embossed in a chipped gold. She wore a wedding ring and a small diamond. Tom was jealous of the woman's husband. Here was a woman careless enough to risk staining a rare book with suntan oil, just for the pleasure of reading a nineteenth-century novel in a nineteenth-century binding. What a wife she must be! What a companion! How well must she encourage her husband if she allows herself such a violation of custom. There's a husband who can share his secrets with his wife! But why are they here? The husband of such a woman, wouldn't he be a greater
success than the rest of the men at the Montego House, elevated by his wife's beauty, confidence, taste, and careless attachment to precious things, wouldn't he have the wealth for a suite at the Four Seasons, or a villa with a staff and room for his friends? Or was Tom's little movie of their success the payoff for an ambition she could have helped her man achieve, but together, servants of the highest moral style, they had rejected? Did she teach him that she was all the prize a man could want? Did she reward him for leaving the office in time for dinner with the children, helping them with their homework, reading poetry in bed? She could love him so well that her love tamed his striving after the real cost of the Four Seasons' fluffy towels and twenty-four-hour in-room dining. There's a noble wife for these greedy days, there's the woman of valor! Take the rare book to the beach because you want to. Don't work so hard that you miss the pleasures of the moment.
Tom watched her turn the page, slowly. From what service of devotion other than a love of precious thingsâlike this bookâand the freedom to lose them, damage them, could he recognize a woman whose conversation would surely slide from erudition to the capricious to the risquÃ© to bed? She was everything he had ever needed from a stranger. The intrigue of her signs melted his brain; her combination of fashion and literature, narcissism and intellect, made her the closest thing at the beach to Paris. Had she cut her hair for comfort? He hoped not. He wanted her to have almost shaved her head for a purpose
so complicated that her motivation was deeper than she might know; he wanted her to have cut that gorgeous hair in defiance of the world, to deny the raving famished beast of the world the morning milk of her beauty. He might have broken a window with his hand if he thought that by cutting her hair this woman's sacrifice was also cruel, to protect her man from the sin of adoring something she could lose, to ruin the revered crown of her beauty and diminish her beloved husband's strength for work, destroying his shot at marriage-wrecking wealth.
Tom tried to read her more deeply and studied her for ten happy minutes like a birdwatcher in a rookery. Now the full scene at the pool, so loud and annoying without this woman, giggled with the life of children in water. Nothing had changed except Tom's fervor.
Without warning, the woman's children hugged her from behind: her daughter, Tom guessed six; and a boy, probably four, whose Girl Friday brought them to her for just those kisses, on their way to the children's buffet. When they toddled off, the woman with short hair set the book down and leaned back to do stomach crunches, lifting her feet out of the water and pumping her legs in and away. Was she showing off? Good. Was she bored? Even better. What theater did she hope the attention would open? He tried to add up what excited him about her, and weave into this the elements of the day, the heat, the heavy wet air, and the fumes of his second imaginary rum punch. Taking these things together, he convinced himself that she was a rare free spirit with a profound inner
life like his, and if so, she would be available to him if he found the right words.
When he passed by, she stirred a little, and he knew that she knew, without knowing exactly why, that someone wanted her. He was certain that the Jane Austen of Jamaica felt all of this secret attention as a subtle pressure in the air from Tom's direction, and from then on that day, even as his furthest stray thought retrieved a mental image of her when she was somewhere else in the resort, she would look over her shoulder.
In bed that night, Rosalie said, “You're finally relaxing.”
“Yes,” he said. “It always takes me a while. I'm sorry.”
“That's why vacations last a few weeks. You work hard, you need a lot of time to find yourself.”
The next afternoon Tom saw Jane Austen's husband walking on the beach with the little boy and girl. Tom thought at first that this fat man in a pink Lacoste shirt, lime-green Bermuda shorts, brown socks, and black sandals, this sweating parody of the revolting American tourist, was only a friend, but the little boy called him Daddy and held his hand, chattering about octopus tentacles, and what happens if you cut off the tentacle of an octopus, and does the tentacle grow back? So Jane Austen, the best inspiration this stupid resort could offer him, was married to an oaf. If he was going to give himself a fever over a stranger, he wanted a worthy rival to illustrate the dust jacket, a handsomely corrupt pirate standing defeated in the background while Tom made love to his lady. He
wanted someone who threatened him, a lean man with the perceptive gaze of a flight instructor, a judge of character, a man who could size you up and, by the way you stood at ease or agony when no one was watching, judge even your father. But then a thought gave Tom fuel for his fantasy: the fat man and Jane Austen were lying, this marriage was all for show. She was his slave and would never see her real husband again, that man of muscle and sinew, if she didn't cooperate. Tom found himself rescuing Jane Austen from the demonically obese kidnapper only to return her to her grateful thin husband, a pediatric eye surgeon working among the poor in Haiti.
If this were so, thought Tom, how could I signal to her that I was here to help? I could tell her about Ira. I could sit beside her at the pool, and I could say, “I used to have a friend named Ira. He inherited a construction business from his father. He was always late to meetings, and he was lazy and slow and the business failed. He was fat. I'll tell you the truth, I used to bore my wife with all the excuses I made for Ira, because Ira was my friend. Even though he came to his mother's funeral in a hooded blue sweatshirt, I wanted to help him. One day he asked me to loan him money so he could buy an industrial coffee roaster, so he could open a coffee business. My wife said that if I wanted to throw my money away, I should at least buy the industrial coffee roaster myself and then lease it to him, so if he went bust I'd have something to sell. Of course the business died, what do you expect, because Ira was a loser. I sold the machine at a loss, but this was
good for me, a tuition payment on experience. In the difference between the price and the damage, I stopped justifying Ira's failures. I stopped having sympathy for Ira. I stopped looking at his inanimate bulk as the expression of some pain that made him such a disaster at business, at love, at friendship. Would you like to know why? Because of my wife. My wife didn't see obesity as a problem. She pointed out to me the many fat men in the world who transcend all of Ira's most unfortunate attributes: a thick nose, small eyes, big stomach, dying hairline; men with stunning women, maybe their wives, maybe just women they fuck. I saw these men, these larded medieval Jew barons, I had always seen them, but denied the implication of what they proved, to protect my buddy Ira.
“No longer. I'm a connoisseur now, and we have a name for these men: my wife and I call these men the Realized Iras. Realized Iras are otherwise grotesque men of commerce whose vivacious appetites make them sexually attractive, whose expansive capacities for money, food, pleasure, and friendship intimidate the world. And if I were going to leave my wife for you, Jane Austen, even in fantasy, your fat man would be a Realized Ira, not the sunburned sloth who made you his slave. Your alleged husband has no tone, no buoyancy, none of the elastic grace of the Realized Iras, and he has none of that grace in his heart,” which is why Tom killed him for what he did the awful night of the Reggae Party, after Tom had already resigned his tangled daydream.
It happened on the eighth night of the trip, when Tom was trying to make the best of things. He took his daughters swimming in the ocean every day, giving Rosalie the time to rest. This commitment yielded his marriage an allowance for gladness. He began to relax. He encouraged himself to see his surrender of Jane Austen as his triumph over an addiction to distraction. Rosalie, sensing a change in Tom's relationship to life, from sullen detachment to quiet acceptance, soon hugged him in pure appreciative companionship. “I love you, Tom,” she told him. “Tom, I really love you. You're so good, and I've been so bad. I have to apologize, I've been distant, I've been cold, and I see you with the girls, and I realize how much I've been withholding from the three of you. I'll try to be better.” So she blamed herself, the chill between them was her fault, blind to the price he made Rosalie pay for his passion for Jane Austen. He might have told her that the fault was his but considered that perhaps Rosalie was confessing in her own oblique way to sins he never suspected. He could have said, “Look,
Rosalie, it's not just you, it's me. I have my crimes, what are yours?” No, give her privacy. He hoped she was telling the truth in her own way, to relieve herself of a burden. He thought he could read her mind, which told him, “We always try to hide the secret of our lives. What I believe to be the hidden core of my life will not easily be deciphered, even when I give a hint, as in this shy apology, to the outer circumstances.” He loved her for this, and he hugged her close, and when she said, again, “Tom, I'm sorry,” he found a heavy tear that fell down his cheek, for he was crying in gratitude, crying in praise.
They went to dinner. The girls ate with all the other children on a different terrace, watched over by the nannies. Rosalie brought Tom to a table with a woman she was excited about, Avital Davis, an American who lived in Jerusalem with her husband, an Israeli, who was at home. Avital was here with her parents and sister and her sister's family, all from Cincinnati, for their annual reunion. Everyone was agreeable: the two sisters, women of attractive high intelligence and culture, and their parents, serious and attentive, taking their place in an unforced easy way with a younger generation. The mother was a labor lawyer. The father was a judge, and Tom, for the first time that week, found himself in conversation with a man he admired. Tom, in turn, felt Judge Davis's interest, curiosity, and respect. The men let the women talk about children and education while they talked about jail. They came to the subject easily. Judge Davis had many things to say about the breakdown of the prison
system, which fascinated Tom, who did not tell the judge that his obsession with life behind bars was not just academic. He craved to know what his life would have been like if the conspiracy failed and the men were arrested. Here was the syndicate's weakness; Farrar swore the men never to tell their wives. “Call me when you want to talk about itâat any time of the day or nightâif you can't bear your guilt, but don't tell your wives.” Farrar was a genius, and a genius is someone who understands men, one at a time. Though they trusted Farrar and wanted his admiration, Tom composed a fugue of betrayal in which one of the doctor's wives, suspicious of her husband, discovers his hidden money, and then the crime, and, in a fit of ethics, leaves him, hires a divorce lawyer, himself an ethical man who encourages her to bring her evidence to the district attorney's office, and she, made horny by her lawyer's integrity (in Tom's imagination, he's in a wheelchair), falls in love with him while informing on her husband, devoting the rest of her life to the service of this honest invalid. She leads a fight for the rights of the handicapped while Tom is in jail.
Nothing like this happened, but stories about prison were Tom's pornography.
“Did you send many men to jail?” Tom asked.
“Well, yes, I did,” said the judge.
Tom waited for him to say more. Judge Davis waited for a better question. Tom found one, not a question but a way into the subject. “It's a fascinating subject.”
“Carry some guilt, do you?” Tom saw the judge treat the word lightly, this was Jew-to-Jew talk about the emotional scars of a particular childhood, not a hint of insight into Farrar's conspiracy.
“You're very shrewd. I suppose I do.”
“It's typical.” Typical of what? The more reassuring word would have been “normal.”
“Does prison help?” asked Tom.
“You mean, does the shock of the system cure some criminals of their crimes?”
“Something like that.”
“I think I know what you're asking,” said the judge. “You've read some articles about the expanding prison population.”
“And you're aware that while more money is being spent on prisons, the cash goes to contractors and guards, not to any rehabilitation programs.”
“Right,” said Tom, with a mixture of relief and embarrassment for his awkward phrasing of something Judge Davis could put so simply, and his shame for the way his morbid fascination with prison could come out only in such a squeak, while behind the misshapen presentation of himself something inexpressible cramped the flow of thoughts.
“But this assumes,” continued the judge, warming to an audience, “that the main function of prison has to be a cure for crime, something other than punishment, or punishment that also protects.”
“You and me,” said the judge. He looked hard at Tom, because Tom had just confused the criminal with the victim. Tom was thinking about prison as a place where the criminals are protected from their victims. Now he was sure that Judge Davis, drunk but no fool, saw this blending as the real reason for Tom's questions. Yes, thought Tom, he knows I am guilty of something real.
“I meant that prison can protect the criminal from the people he hurt, the people who would want revenge.” Boy, did that sound odd.
“That's a novel thought for a lawyer.”
Tom felt the judge drifting with him into incoherence. He stammered, “And then, and then, you know, there's rehabilitation. Not to mention his punishment. I mean, not to mention that he's being punished. That is â¦ you know, he's given the chance to, you know, look at where he is, and maybe decide that when he gets out, he doesn't want to go back because â¦ jail is so horrible, and it is horrible, jail, isn't it?”
The judge dropped his congeniality. “I'm a liberal Jew, Tom, but I don't believe in rehabilitation for all but a few, in fact, for such a few that when I look at the individual cases of those who returned to the path of lawfulness, I see men whose returns were promised in their falls, and that's a small group of men, Tom, whose crimes were spiritual crises, almost artistic crises. The average thief and rapist, the average killer, however much and perhaps because he was so damaged by society and conditioning,
is too wounded and broken, too sick, too stupid, for any restoration of decency. Lock them up, Tom. Did I say stupid? Yes, I did. Do I sound cruel? I've sent three men to their death, Tom. You didn't ask about that. And I can sleep at night.”
While the men talked, the children's dinner ended. Tom paid some attention to Alma and Perri as they followed the fleet of children to the broad wooden deck beyond the dining room, where the hotel band played on a low stage. One extension of the deck was built on stilts over a rock shelf, which the water just covered at high tide. Then the children raced from one side of the deck to the other, to the few triumphant dying waves, inches tall, that succeeded from the bay. This gave the parents great happiness, the giddy shrieks of their children blended with the sounds of ocean and kitchen, every property of the evening resonant and clear, each fragrant piece of it, sound, vision, and emotion, suspended in a Jell-O of gently drunken satisfaction.
Alma loved music, and when the bass player or the pianist first tested the volume, she left the wave chasers. Alma, at four, was happy as soon as the musicians arrived in the little shack. She was old enough to know that the tuning and the busying with volume and balance were not yet the show, but was fascinated by all the efforts that she could not yet explain. Alma liked men, but she didn't know that she did; the power of the musicians was not just in their music and the skill from which the music flowed but from the stunningâto a four-year-oldâ
difference and presence and distinction of their sex. And then they were black, and their blackness was of a piece with the strangeness of their skills, the strangeness of their quiet assembly among the loud instruments. She didn't know that the house musicians were only adequate at what they did, that house bands, in the bargain for a steady job, trade away the possibility of a larger audience that can be theirs only if the audience is not captive. Like all house bands, they tested and then abandoned their original songs a few times, since the hotel's guests weren't there to hear that specific band but rather a set of generally familiar songs. Every night the band played roughly the same set, which always included “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Michelle,” and a synthesizer-steel-band-calypso version of “Cheek to Cheek.” This repetition of old hits usually makes for sloppy music, but the house band had a sense of humor, which made them cynical, so they amused one another. This made them entertaining.
The band played, and Alma stood to the side, watching them. The judge continued to pound away at Tom. “As for punishment, our society chooses boredom over humiliation. I suspect that if we publicly scourged our criminals every now and then, some categories of crime might be less popular.”
Alma jumped up and down to the music behind in a line of other little girls.
The judge: “It'd work like gangbusters for your white-collar types, I can assure you of that, much more
so than it would on the poor. A man needs bread, or money for his drugs, and in the heat of his necessity, he'll do what he must, careless of which consequence lies in wait. But you and I have chewed that crust already. You take a lawyer who's pulled some kind of con, and you lead him into the town square and lay on fifteen good ones with a cat-o'-nine-tails, and I bet you that up on the forty-ninth floor, after that spectacle, there'll be some serious hesitation about cutting the legal corners. And I would love to extend this to public officials who take bribes. But what do you think? Do you see many dirty lawyers?”
Tom was distracted by the way Alma was dancing now; she was in front of the other girls, closer to the singer, who seemed to be singing directly to her. This might have been charming, but Tom was uncomfortable with the singer's connection with his daughter, he wasn't treating her like a little girl. He was singing to her like she was a woman. Tom wanted to stop this, but he had the judge's question to answer.
“Malpractice isn't my specialty. I do wills and trusts. It's all very dry.”
“With your interest in such things,” said the judge, while the singer was bumping and grinding and Alma was responding, “you might want to expand your practice. Curiosity and obsession are the best mentors.”
“I don't know if it's an obsession.”
“I think it is. That's not a crime. Wills and trusts are pretty far from helping drug dealers wash their dirty money.”
“I don't do that,” said Tom, about to get up. He tried to catch Rosalie's eye. She was deep in a huddle with the judge's wife and daughter, and he didn't want to make a scene.
“Of course you don't. You wouldn't be staying here with such a lovely wife.”
Tom took “lovely wife” to be a thought of pure condescension. The judge, having uncovered from Tom's slips of conversation the evidence of his criminality, saw a dull minor felon and reduced the sentence; Rosalie was not the glamorous hetaera who anneals herself to the serious bad guy, so if Tom was guilty of a punishable offense, it must have been small potatoes. Tom also read that the judge, after all of his years on the bench, had come to envy something in the criminal parade, nothing so easy as to say the freedom of the outlaw, but there was a kind of fabulous woman who, by her endorsement of an incriminated man, made Judge Davis repent his own pious authority and moral virtue. The judge could have said “beautiful,” but the beauties as he knew them were linked to men whose wealth afforded them the next level of luxury, at the resort hotels with full service spas and big bathtubs and thick robes meant for courtesans.
The singer was fucking the air across the dance floor from Tom's little girl. “Excuse me,” said Tom, rising. He knew he was giving Judge Davis the impression that he had left the table to escape his insight.
Surrounded by a shameless audience, Alma stood alone on the dance floor, six feet from the singer, shaking
her body to mirror his moves. The singer stabbed his hips toward her, he was fucking her for laughs, and she answered him in her own spastic way. She followed his lead, possessed by the music and the encouraging laughter and applause of the crowd. Jane Austen's fat husband was nearby, and as Tom ran to take Alma from the floor, Perri came up to him and said, “That man,” meaning Mr. Austen, “told Alma to dance.”
What an ugly thing, to see my daughter made into this joke, thought Tom. What a disgusting thing for everyone to think it's so funny that my daughter is innocent of the implications of her beauty and energy and love of music and movement. What evil people let a four-year-old roll her hips like this for their cheap amusement?
Tom rushed through the children dancing at the edge of the floor and took Alma in his arms. She kicked him. “I want to dance!” she cried.
“Honey, that's enough.”
“No!” She kicked him again, then punched him. Now everyone was laughing at Tom. He wanted to scream at them. Pagans! he wanted to say. This is child sacrifice, he wanted to say, burning a child's dignity for laughs.
The singer didn't stop. Tom pulled Alma out of the circle and brought her to the rail at the edge of the deck. The sound of gravel rolled by the sea like wind in tall grass, calming both of them.
“I want to dance,” she said, but the fury was gone. Tom thought that she was grateful for the rescue.
“You danced enough.”
“Why did you take me away?”
“The band was loud, and I didn't want the music to hurt your ears.”
She accepted this. It was often easy for Tom and Rosalie to quiet the children with simple lies that addressed the issues in close consonance. It was a lie, but if his four-year-old had not been tricked into dancing like a whore, he might have taken her away anyway, just as he explained. She asked if she could dance where she was, and he said Yes. Now she danced like herself, a free ballerina or figure skater,
, back arched and right leg lifted. She rolled her hips and belly in one sexual shudder, as she had on the floor, but Tom kept a blank face and, allowing no response to her lewd gesture, he began to sever the connection between the encouraged concupiscence and the approval of her audience. After this, the charming ballerina took over from SalomÃ©.
All of this happened quickly, and Rosalie joined them.
“Did you see that?” Tom asked quietly, while Alma danced.
“What was she doing?”
“That fat fuck over there”âTom almost said “Jane Austen's husband,” but why give Rosalie a peek into the deeper vaults of the cave?â“told Alma to dance.”
“Oh, Alma,” said Rosalie, giving her Terpsichore a big hug and picking her up. “You do like to dance, don't you?”
“I was dancing,” she said.
“Yes you were.”
Rosalie took Alma in her arms, the girl's legs straddling her hips. Tom looked his daughter in the eye and saw confusion. She could not articulate what she was feeling, but Tom was certain that in her own way she knew that the performance had violated her. Alma had a sense of honor.
“It's over,” said Rosalie. “Come back to the table, Tom, the judge loved talking to you.”
“In a minute.”
“Where are you going?”
“I just want to say something to the guy who told Alma to dance.”
“I want to tell him that I wish he hadn't.”
“Just don't hit him.”
“I won't.” She was joking. Tom wasn't.
Rosalie carried Alma back to Judge Davis's table. Tom stepped over the legs of some children who sat beside their parents on the deck. It was all so ordinary. Jane Austen's husband drank a Red Stripe beer, and his head kept time with the music. Tom stood next to him.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but did you tell my daughter to get up and dance?” All of this was only five minutes old.
“Your daughter?” asked the man.
“That little girl over there.” Tom pointed to Alma, sitting in Rosalie's lap.
“Oh. Yes. She was on the side of the dance floor jumping around, and there were some kids already there, and she seemed kind of shy about it. I thought she wanted to dance with them, so I told her to get out in front and have a good time, not to be shy.”
“And you saw what happened.”
“She danced. Is there a problem?”
“That was a stupid thing to do. That was inappropriate and stupid. She's four years old.”
“I'm not quite sure what you're so upset about, but if it's your family custom not to dance, then I'm sorry, I really am.”
“Do you think someone with a family custom against dancing would come to Jamaica?”
“Anything is possible. People make mistakes.”
“So who made the mistake here, you or me?”
“Maybe both of us. Why was she alone?”
“She was with her sister.”