By Luke Beling
The sea was a candle in his eyes. If he hoped to find what lay underneath it, he’d need to kiss her on the lips and promise to be back one day. Mary considered herself more than obtuse, undebated over like the choice of a holiday in the mountains or at the coast. And then there washer brother, Steven, lost in a moment on the whim of chasing fortune.
“Go, John. Go if you must. But I won’t be waiting for your return.”
The night he chose to leave the one he thought he’d lost, he imagined cracking a bottle of champagne over The Queen Elizabeth with strangers. He was as different from these men as lakes from an ocean. Yet he shared with them the chance of their working life ending before it began.
Captain Ricky found him and the rest of them in pubs after dark and on jobs where bloodied blisters on hands were proof of the day’s wage. John cut vines for a man who bought a farm without ever holding a shovel.
Ricky dressed in crocodile shoes and collared shirts. Though his bank account ran delinquent every summer, he knew the words the upper-class citizens minced between bites of caviar and sips of Dom Perignon.
“Say, Wilson, who’s that boy cutting your vines?”
“Don’t know his name. Saw him with a cardboard sign at a red light. Now, I’ve proof that his thumb is green.”
“Mind if I talk to him?”
John kept in the roots when Ricky raised his voice.
“Hey, you! What’s your name, son?”
The dirt on his face camouflaged his twitchy eyes.
“You know even mules stop to take a drink?”
John kept in the earth, unmoved by what he considered an illicit invitation.
Ricky’s feet pressed into the cement, a porch slab overlooking the wild overgrowth.
“You really going to make me get my shoes dirty?”
But the mule remained, tangled and twisted in mother nature’s twine, a mute unto his musing.
The stench of his sockless feet stole the summer from the air as he tip-toed on damp dirt, ducking below dangling, derelict drapes. Ricky touched him on the shoulder.
“Tell me your name?”
John jumped, startled by the man’s appearance, but then quickly lowered his face back to the land.
“Mr. Wilson doesn’t take it too kindly for his servants treating his guests with this kind of temperament.”
John paused then dropped his words gently like seed. “A mule drinks when his master says.”
The vines dug into Ricky’s tender hands as he lifted them off John’s head.
“Hear me out, and you’ll find I have something marvelous for you.”
His head wiggled, relishing the new space above it. His hands felt peculiar, suspended by Ricky’s words. If it weren’t for Mary, nights in barns and days on the bay suited him fine, even lovely, a world untouched by the swell of paper faces.
“John, if we ever buy a house, it won’t come from the ocean. Nothing ever came from that world of theft.”
He loved her with a heart that didn’t mind losing itself. But without a high school diploma or a voice to vouch for him, he was a half-eaten sardine left in the sun.
“You stand with that cardboard long enough, and somebody will give you a chance.”
He had similar thoughts about the sea. That if he settled on its waters, the dark shade of blue would open its mouth for him. He dared not mention that to her.
“I’ll give it a go if it’ll make you happy, Mary.”
Ricky watched a rising tide behind John’s eyes. The younger man’s palms all blistered and beaten pressed into the soil, kneecaps, and hands his four-legged resolve.
“You got a job for me, mister?”
Ricky bent his back, a crooked branch for pruning, then spoke as soft as a gentle wind above John’s ear.
“I got more than a job. I’ve got everything you ever dreamed of.”
John peered through the overgrowth toward Mr. Wilson’s house.
“It’s okay, son. He’s alright with me talking to you.”
His eyes softened, pearls on the ocean floor. “What kind of offer you got?”
“You sailed, son?”
He smiled, a faint giggle slipping through his lips.
“That’s all I do, mister.”
“Call me Ricky.”
“Where you sailing, Ricky?”
Ricky pulled up his slacks, straightened his back, then hunched into his heels. “You ever heard of the Ivory Coast?”
A breeze occupied his searching, hollow-eyed vision, hiding memories of high school geography. “Never.”
Ricky’s eyes swerved, breaking contact with John for a long stare at the horizon. “There’s treasure off that coast. Enough gold to bring Solomon back from the dead.”
John buried a laugh in the vines and began pulling weeds again.
“You don’t believe me?”
Ricky pulled out a thinly cut gold band from his pocket. He dropped his arm, lever-like, then opened his palm above the weeds.
John picked it up with two fingers, almost dropped it, surprised by its weight.
“Pure gold. Read the inscription.”
Squinty-eyed, John turned the band towards the midday sun.
Von Sim 1441
His eyes rounded.
“This is over 500 years old?”
Ricky’s palm opened beneath him. John placed it neatly on the man’s dry, calloused skin.
“There’s a lot more where that came from.”
He patted his hands together, dirt falling to the ground like raindrops. “What’s your offer?”
Ricky slid the ring into his pocket, pulled out his hand, then put it back in. “We’ll need a crew, at least six of us. When we find the treasure, we’ll split it six ways.”
John’s fingers, washed in muddy brown, went palm up under Ricky’s nose.
“I’ll go with a down payment.”
Ricky clutched his pocket. “I can’t give you this. You know how much it’s worth?”
John’s face shone with the noon-day sun. His head bent back like a bird thinking about flight. “I guess you’ll need to find somebody else. I’m heading to lunch.” He set his tool belt on the earth and placed his straw hat over it with gentle hands. His back turned to Ricky as he struggled through a patch of overgrowth he’d have to clear in time.
“How about a week’s wage?”
The words whispered across his shoulders, hitting his eardrums like a song in the background. Coming out of the last of it bit his ankles, a daily reminder to wear a pair of socks that rose above his heels.
Ricky ground his teeth, squinted hard at the boy. “Fine, take it!”
John’s bare feet wet the concrete with prints of sweat as he made his way to his truck.
Ricky’s steps quickened, the ring now in his fingertips.
“Did you hear me? I’ll give you the ring.”
He pulled his hand from the rusty door handle of the faded baby blue Chevy pickup and extended it towards Ricky.
“Mary’s going to love it. When do we depart?”
That night he kept a stomach full of nerves over a bowl of plain spaghetti. They shared the last bit of wine in the only coffee cup they owned.
“I have news.”
Her eyes lifted from the porcelain pool of red. “What, love?”
He took her hand and covered it with his. “You know I love you.”
“What is it, John?”
He slipped his fingers into his pocket and placed Ricky’s ring behind her knuckle, a near-perfect fit.
Mary’s mouth went big as a clear sky, bright teeth shone like stars against a sea of reddish-grey gums. “Where–where did you get this?” Her eyes froze like statues on the thin gold band around her finger.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s so different. So lovely.”
“So, you like it?”
The frogs and fireflies kept thin sounds between them, and then as if struck by lightning, she sprung to her feet. “Marriage! You’re asking me to marry you?”
He joined her; feet soiled in the cold kitchen floor. “Will you?”
“Did Mr. Wilson give you a raise? Or something better?”
John reached for her hands. She stretched her pearl-white palms across the table, and they fell gently into his.
“Something better. But I need to go away.”
Mary slumped into the wooden chair. “Where?”
His eyes weakened. He pushed his red plastic seat under the table then kneeled in front of her. “There’s treasure near the Ivory Coast. I met a man today who promised I’ll never need to work another job to gain all that we’ve been dreaming of.”
She pulled her hands from his, sunk her sharp eyes into his deep ponds of turquoise. “The ocean! That wasteland of death! West Africa! You’ll join him and be none the richer!”
He fetched the chair and placed it near her feet. “I know it’s a sacrifice. But it’s the only way.”
Mary moved the ring up and down her finger until pulling it off and placing it on the table. “Steven told me the same thing. That he’d return with treasure, that we’d be rich.”
The flame was a dim flicker burning on wax, and the sounds that previously kept harmony carried on out of tune.
“Your brother didn’t know the ocean like I do, Mary.”
Her eyes labored with tears. “Go, John. If you must. But I won’t be waiting for your return.”
His knees stretched straight in their sockets. “All you’ve ever wanted was money from me. And now it’s not enough?”
Her body trembled like a daisy, helpless in the wind of his anger.
“You’re ungrateful and greedy and know nothing about love.” John took the ring, slung it into his pocket, then stomped out the front door.
“I love you, John. I’ve never wanted more than your love.”
He never drank much, only if somebody offered, but now he didn’t mind how much it might cost.
He wore his big fisherman’s hat, afraid of being recognized and kicked out. Larry’s Pub was a mean place. Locals only. Faint neon lights hanging by frayed wires dressed the entrance door. He ducked while walking in, despite plenty of room, in fear the sign might shock him if he got too close.
Men filled the stools at the bar shoulder-to-shoulder, leaving only space for seating around the main floor tables.
John sat with heavy thoughts and rage tightening a string around his chest. It was twenty minutes before he realized his throat was dry. He waved a hand, wanting a fill of something to still his fury.
His knees knocked. His fists froze into hard-knuckled balls of stone. He stood up, bumping the table on its side. Nobody turned an eye, the loud thump just a rickety fan spinning with half-life. He left it there with the same apathy handed to him. It made sense to find a place behind the register, hoping the barman would catch his eye or the cash in his fingertips.
But the scrum of men obstructed his plans for drowning in booze with their shots lasting seconds and their hands raised tall as lighthouses. John edged closer and heard a voice that felt familiar enough to recognize, but only because it was a sound he’d heard recently.
Ricky was drunk, slurring words like a slingshot, falling left and right like a tiny rig on a heavy swell.
On Ricky’s sides, a pair of men almost fell off their stools, bursting with laughter at the sound of his sloshing.
John thought about tapping him on the shoulder, saying, “Hey Mr. Ricky, mind to get me a drink?” But first, for lack of courage and then curiosity upon hearing his name, John bit his tongue, inched closer, and pulled his hat further over his eyes.
“Then there was this boy I met today in Wilson’s field. Because that ain’t no vineyard, he’s got there. It’s a pile of weeds strangling any life left to death. John, I think he was. I told him there’s buried treasure near the Ivory Coast, that if he’d come with me, I’d make him rich.”
One of the men came off the line like spilled salt, tears filling his eyes from laughing so hard.
“How’d he believe you, Ricky?”
Ricky turned his head to the floor.
“I gave him a knock-off ring to prove there was loot!”
The man on the floor remained a curled mess of chaos, burps, and howls intersected by dizzy spells of stupor.
“More! Tell more, Ricky. Please.”
The barman topped their empty glasses, and as quickly as the liquor settled, it fell into their throats, floundered in darkness.
“He said he needed that ring for his woman. But we’ll be long gone before she knows any better!”
John’s sheet-rock fists turned into iron with every stolen word. He raised them to his chin, surveying a small opening on Ricky’s left cheek, but quickly figured he could flatten at least three of them with a single swing.
As he cocked his fist high as a mast, a wind held it in place.
“He’s strong enough, I tell you. And a hard worker. He’ll do good, and by the time we’ve docked and got rid of the shipment, he’ll be begging me to get off that boat.”
The man on the floor raised his stomach above his legs, words slurring from his lips.
“I don’t know how you keep this up, Ricky. Over five years now, right? How you never get caught’s brilliant.” And then the drunkard hit his head on the tile with a thud.
John, peacock-chested, inhaled a deep breath and found dark notes for his voice.
“Say, Ricky. What you got in that shipment?”
The huddle of joshing men turned lazy heads to Ricky. He lay corpse-like, snoring loud as the jukebox player sounding tired hits.
The barman looked at John with a cloth in his hand while collecting empty glasses. With shaky hands and nervy eyes, he whispered, “Cocaine.”
When John returned home, the only thing left of Mary was her scent. Her clothes, her hairbrush, her picture of the cathedral at Amiens a ghost. The big suitcases, never used, no longer obstructed his path to their bed. Her lavender perfume haunted every wall as he tried to find a reason for her coming back.
He dropped his head on the pillow she never liked, and it nearly broke his neck. On it was a framed photo with a note taped to the front.
The last time I saw my brother.
John removed the note to examine the photo. Steven wore a smile bright as a waxing moon, arm in arm with the rest of the crew, ready for departure. John gasped. A shiver rolled down his spine. He squinted to confirm the fist in his stomach as if struck by an invisible hand.
Almost hidden but easily recognized, Ricky stood behind the crew’s pose, a cigarette in his mouth, his eyes cast toward the dark blue ocean.
Luke Beling studied creative writing as an undergraduate at Campbellsville University and is a content writer for a leading surf brand. He’s currently working on his first novel to be published later this year.