The compromise, p.1
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The Compromise
The Compromise

  By Chelsea Gaither

  Thanks. You rock.


  Discover other books by Chelsea!



  Silver Bullet (book one)

  Blue Ghosts(book two)

  Gray Fox (book three)

  Dark Hounds (forthcoming)


  Tales of the Gray Prince

  This Found Thing (book one)



  Starbleached (book one)

   Planet Bob (book two)

  Overseer’s Own (book three)



  Silver Bullet and Other Stories (2012)

  The Compromise

  Mr. Woolward sat down beside me and rolled a cigarette, a process I found fascinating because I associated it with illicit activity. He looked over the harbor and said, “You can tell a lot about a person by their boat.” He winked at me from under his Panama hat. “Forget about that table, Kelly. Let one of the…” he paused, and grinned. The usual word was “girls”, but everyone else on tonight’s shift was male. It wouldn’t work now, would it? “Let Dale get it.” Woolward said. Dale had already gotten the boat speech. “Come sit down beside me.”

  I came around the table and sat down beside Jim Woolward, cook and owner of the restaurant, Jim’s. It was part of the docks, the beating heart regulating its pulse. The yachts sat all in a line above sea water the color of stagnant emeralds. Moon jellies drifted through the water. The sun was long gone, the sky was spangled with stars. Jim’s had a faded yellow paint job Mr. Woolward meant to redo it every year during the off season, though by the time off season came around he’d have some other project more critical than repainting the restaurant. Fake wood flooring would probably be the project this year.

  I’d been bussing the last tables of the evening. There was a champagne flute in my hand and I set it on the tile beside us. Orange pulp clung to the glass. Why people pay good money to make perfectly good orange juice taste soured, I’ll never know. My hands were shaking. The boys said this was the beginning of Mr. Woolward’s almost mythical boat speech, but that must be to lull me into a false sense of complacency. Girls didn’t get the boat speech. Ever.

  The docks wouldn’t be the same if Jim’s weren’t there, with its tired yellow never-painted walls and comfortable chairs. You sank into it like a tree putting down roots. I’d begun to think I’d never leave, and I wasn’t sure if it were a good or a bad thing.

  Of course, mow I knew I’d be leaving soon, and I missed it already. Not the smell of fish and fried shrimp, or Mr. Woolward’s rampant misogyny, but I’d miss the docks. The clientele too, with their cares and stories, which I’d come to value more than their big tips. Maybe I’d miss Mr. Woolward. I’d definitely miss the yachts.

  Funny. The first time I saw them, they were extravagant displays by rich old men without sympathy for the working class. I’d been three weeks out of college with sociology drying behind my ears. Since then, I’d learned that a lot of these rich old men had once been poor young men, and they lived in memory. Strike that memory right, you got a good tip. Strike it another way, and you’d find the hidden gold of their life’s story. Now I looked at the yachts and they were the corps de ballet about to perform Swan Lake, all wrists and ankles and white. Bottled energy waiting for release that, for most of these beautiful things, would never come. Most of the yacht owners rarely used them.

  Dale Breakman bussed the last tables and got the dishes—and the other staff—out of our way. Mr. Woolward waited, smoking his cigarette. Dale wordlessly set a line of beers beside Woolward’s elbow, then went to write them down in our alcohol register under “kitchen”. I let my hair down and looked enviously at the hat. He kept a lot of them for the guys. If they grew out of their youth right, he’d hand one over. The girls were not allowed to wear them.

  When I first started here, I’d stolen one of the hats for job interviews. I felt classy and rich wearing it, until I got a job offer and realized I made more money as a waitress than I would at an entry level position. By then I’d accepted that I’d never do what I really wanted. I could work hard in a cubicle or work hard in a restaurant; I’d never work hard at an easel. I put the hat back on the shelf. It didn’t fit anymore.

  It was the hat Mr. Woolward was wearing.

  The restaurant shut-down drifted around us. Plates and glasses clinked as Drew put them into gray bus tubs. The music system squealed as they cut the power. Dishwasher rumble echoed like distant thunder. The doorbell gave one last ting as the last waiter threw the lock. We were alone.

  I suppose I should have been concerned about my safety, a skinny twenty-something locked up with a sixty year old woman hater. But Mr. Woolward was waiting for humanity to get over this whole dual sex thing and get back to pollination. I was safe. The dishwasher shut off, and silence glided over us. Moonlight glimmered on the water, and bird wings hissed as gulls put themselves to sleep.

  Mr. Woolward pointed across the water. “You see her?”

  Yes I did, but I didn’t want to talk about that boat, her dead owners or the terrible, wonderful thing they had done for me. A present. A bequest that turned my reputation into mud, if it ever got out. Thank God Mr. Woolward didn’t know the details. He suspected something, but I’d spent months misdirecting him. It was a habit, now. I squinted at the boat next to the one he indicated and read the name off her back. “Mary Brenner?”

  Woolward laughed. “I was pointing at Compromise next to her and you know it.”

  Yes, I did. I could draw Compromise with my eyes closed. Rigging fine like spider-silk. White and blue pinstripes. Blue curtains in the windows. She’d gone out a lot before her owners died, and they kept her up. Even the mister, when he was alone, had spent weekends getting her square, polishing the wood, installing new canvass. Every Wednesday he and his wife had brought fish to Jim’s for our famous BYOF preparation. You have it one of three ways. Mr. Compromise liked his sautéed in butter and garlic, and the Mrs. had hers with blue cheese and horseradish. They were great tippers.

  The last time Mr. Compromise changed out his sails he gave me the old canvass and asked me to use it in The Project. That was how it came, excess caps and all. The canvass he’d given me wasn’t art quality, but I’d use it, sure as shooting. Piece by piece.

  Mary Brenner, now, she was an expensive shiny object. No sails, electronic teeth jutting out of her roof. Radar, radio, satellite TV. Streamlined and screaming I-got-money. Her owner threw parties on her deck, flashing lights and pumping music, and then went back to his fancy house on the bay and left his boat tied to the dock all season. You’d hear it every night. Baby bump that track.

  “I’ve never seen Mary’s owner in here.” I said, stalling for time. It wasn’t unusual. Most of the owners came to Jim’s, but not all of them.

  Woolward turned his head aside and spit in the water. “He come in here twenty years ago, when we was new and he didn’t have that boat. Nice little Porshe 911 though. Lemon yellow, chrome wheels. He gets a new one every year and tricks it out for racing.” He gave me a sideways glance. “He and his girlfriend, a Malaysian mail-order bride, came in here at seven-forty-five on a Saturday and ordered hamburgers.” I winced appropriately. Jim’s a good restaurant, but we are not a fast restaurant, and if you come in at seven forty-five you will get your food at eight thirty. And we don’t do hamburgers. Ever. “Then he ordered stuffed crab appetizers and a double order of curry chicken for himself, half a tilapia fillet for the girl. No sauce, no spices. He said, and I quote, he wanted to taste the fish.”

  “And this was the girl’s food?”

  “This was the girl’s food, but he wa
nted to taste the fish.” Woolward rolled his eyes. “So the waitress brings them the wine and it’s in those colored stem glasses we use when it’s by the glass and not by the bottle. Well, that doesn’t suit Mary, no sir. He demanded the ‘nice’ glasses and wasn’t happy at all when the staff brought them a less than full glass. ‘Cause you get the same serving, no matter what it comes in, and the ‘nice’ glasses were a damn sight bigger than the usual. They got their appetizer by eight-fifteen, the girl finally gets to their salads, and the next thing I know I hear cutlery pinging off the floor. I come out and damn if the fucker isn’t screaming at the new girl and throwing, I shit you not, his silverware at her for not getting his ‘goddamned salads on goddamned time.’”

  He took a swig of beer. “So I go up to the little bastard, all polite like, and I ask him what’s wrong. He is five two.” Mr. Woolward was six-five, mostly muscle. “He sticks his face in mine, red as a beet, and says ‘We have been waiting thirty minutes for our entrees. Three zero min-u-tes, comprehende, you Latino motherfucker?” Mr. Woolward chuckles at this last bit. He looked kind of Hispanic, if you were drunk enough and squinted sideways. “So I tell him, ‘Yep, so?’ and he kind of looks at me for a couple seconds. ‘Do you know who I am?’ he says, ‘Do you know who I fucking am?’

  “I say, ‘a little snot that made your money easy. I make my money hard. The girl you threw shit at makes her money harder. Get the fuck out of my restaurant.’”

  He jerked his head at the water. “Ten months later I hear he wants a kid, but not an Asian kid, so he promised a white college girl the world just to get in her pants. About a week after that, I see that big-ass boat come sailing into its slot, and there’s a pretty blond baby in the Malaysian girl’s arms. Daddy named her Mary, and painted her name across his boat’s ass like he actually gives a shit.

  “But you know when I knew Mr. Mary was a worthless s.o.b? It wasn’t when I threw him out of my place, and it wasn’t when he decided his wife wasn’t good enough to have his baby. It was when he hired somebody else to drive that big-ass boat for him. He lays out on the back deck with expensive beer in one hand and expensive tits in the other, and a little boy fresh out of college is taking the bastard’s shit just so he can drive that beautiful lady through the water. And damn if God don’t have a sense of irony. That kid got hitched to Mary last summer. Now he’s got his own boat, he’s got the girl, they’re taking both her mammas and moving to Alaska, and Mr. Mary got left with a big chunk of fiberglass and gadgetry he don’t know how to use.”

  “Good for them,” I murmured. I had taken my shoes off and now swished my toes through the water. Silver schools of bait fish delicately ignored me.

  Mr. Woolward pointed at Compromise. “Now, them I met when they tied their boat up six years ago. One year before you showed up, right, Kelly?” I nodded. “Mr. Compromise is this billionaire technology guru, and he shows up with a baggie of the most beautifully filleted mahi-mahi I ever seen, and a girl…oh, damn that girl.” He shook his head. “She had some black in her hair and Cherokee in her face, and that Irish girl’s temper. And she got them eyes. There’s people that say races shouldn’t mix, but if it take three different countries to make eyes like that, put ‘em all in a blender, I say.

  “But it was hard for them. Mr. Compromise said his daddy took one look at her and blew his gasket. Told him money or honey. Mr. Compromise told Dad fuck you, and married that girl with ten dollars in his pocket and a hole in his sock.

  “He had this idea, though. A little thing to make wireless signal stronger so you don’t need as much electronic stuff to make it work. But his idea was a bitch to make, and it’d only be cheap if you make a lot of ‘em. Nobody thinks it will sell and nobody want to give Compromise their money to try.”

  Yes, I thought, playing my toes through a swath of moonlight. That attitude was why I was still a waitress when I had a sociology degree and, not to be immodest, a pretty good serving of artistic talent. Dreams are like fruit. Most of them die on the vine.

  “And then there’s Mrs. Compromise.” Woolward shook his head. He looked out over the water, at the boat whose owners were both dead. For a very long time, he said nothing at all. Then he took a swig of beer. “First day I see her, she’s got that black-girl hair all braided up, and she’s wearing a tank top, daisy dukes and a pair of flip-flops that seen better days, and you bet your ass those shorts were made out of three hundred dollar jeans. More money than God, but she work hard.

  “And speakin’ of God, she got a cross on her neck, and she got somethin’ else too. Little gold thing that look like a dog. I ask her, what’s that. She says, ‘Coyote.’ I say, ‘What you doin’ the emblem of Christ next to that little First People Coyote?’

  “Well, Her daddy was white protestant and her ma, and I quote, ‘didn’t hold much with the white man’s shit.’ So whole school year she go to Sunday School and sing about Jesus and worship the Holy Spirit, and come summer her momma pack her up and send her to her Cherokee Grandma in Oklahoma to study up on the old people. When she comes home, her momma get mad at her for talkin’ about Jesus, and her Daddy get mad over her liking Coyote. She’s too young to understand, they’re just fighting their marriage out in their kid.

  “When she’s fifteen, her mommy sends her off on her vision quest and doesn’t tell Daddy about it. She goes off into the woods, does whatever it is they do, and all of a sudden she’s on a road that forks off. There’s a coyote sitting on one rock looking down one road, and a fluffy white lamb sitting right next to it, looking down another road. Now, she’s a little girl but she’s not stupid, and rather than pick a road she sits down and starts bawling.

  “Coyote and the lamb stop looking down the roads and they start looking at her. They say, ‘Why are you crying, little one?’

  “ ‘Because it’s too important, and I don’t know how to choose.’

  “Not true,” say the lamb.

  “ ‘You can’t lie to me,’ say Coyote.

  ‘“I don’t want to choose. You both feel right.’

  “The Coyote and the lamb looked the space in between them. And now she sees that there’s a rabbit trail right between them. And the lamb said, ‘There’s a road here.’

  “Coyote says, ‘It’s hellish narrow, but you can make it. Just don’t slip. It’s real easy to fall on these high roads.’

  “She takes that road, but when she wakes up she knows things are gonna be bad if she’s honest about it. She goes home the next day, and she can tell that it’s been World War Three between Mom and Dad while she was gone. Dad asks what happened, and she says ‘nothing’. Feels like she cut off part of herself. Tells her mom ‘nothing’ too, and that’s another part gone. All she needed was a rooster crowin’, and she knew it, but the truth was trouble and she didn’t want to deal with it.

  “Then she marries Mr. Compromise. They got no money, so she works at this slug-a-bed restaurant that sucks the black out of space, it’s so bad. Hubby’s fighting every free minute for his idea, but he gives her what time he can. Then she gets pregnant with a kid all four grandparents would rather see drowned than raised. Her hubby is pregnant with an idea and worse off than she is, and she’s still waiting tables though she’s out to here,” Mr. Woolward gestured with his wide hands, “and has a better chance of dropping the kid on a diner than she does of getting their salads out on time.”

  Mr. Woolward grinned and took another swig of beer. It was a shark’s grin. Not a lot of mercy in it. “Then she gets docked her check, and only makes fifty bucks in tips for the week. It’s a Sunday. She walks down to the busstop and collapses more than sits. She’s so far gone, so tired, that she prays like she ain’t never prayed before.

  “Jesus,’ she say, ‘I need help.’

  “And of course, nothing happen. ‘Cause you and I both know, Kelly, God ain’t listening.

  “ ‘Can’t something break a little my way, please? Would it kill you? You got all them angels, Cher. Ca
n’t I have one? Or how about that damn dog Coyote?’

  Woolward took a swig of beer, then nodded at the table behind us. “She tells me this story sitting at that table you just cleaned off, and I can see the tiredness in her. Rock bottom sticks on you like footprints on the moon. You know that tired. I know you do, ‘cause I saw the way Mr. Compromise watched you after his wife died. Remember?”

  Yep. That was when Mr. Woolward began to really hate me.

  “I don’t like girls in my restaurant.” Woolward took a final sip of beer, then threw the bottle into the lagoon. “Everybody knows the yacht people go here. Especially you little young things with your blond hair, tight shorts and smiles. You wait on these sharp young men with no wives, or these saggy old men with dead wives, and the shirts get lower and the shorts get shorter and I have to find a new goddamned waiter in the middle of the June rush because you’ve gone off with a sorry old widower to get pampered.

  “I saw how Compromise looked at you the year after his wife died, and all I could think about were those eyes of hers watching your white butt waggle for her husband. You started spending a lot of time on Compromise with the mister, and I thought I had your number, Princess. You’re no boat person. You look at them, but you don’t know a goddamned thing about them. I couldn’t think of anything else you’d have in common with Compromise except maybe the horizontal shuffle.”

  “I never did.” I whispered. Not that I expected him to believe me.

  Mr. Woolward waited a few heartbeats, then opened another beer. He drained half of it.“So there’s our lady,” He said, at last. “Young and pregnant, praying to the Protestant Jesus and her mother’s heathen Coyote.

  “And she hears something. Not with her ears, but with the part of her that really matters. It says, If you hadn’t lied about us, we’d be doing something for you. She wrestles with it through the weekend, then calls her Momma and says she’s a Christian. She calls her Daddy and tells him about the vision quest and Coyote. Her daddy get angry ‘cause she dabbling in pagan stuff, and her mommy get angry cause she holding to the white man’s stuff. Our girl goes to bed crying her eyes out. She got honest about God, and got nothing but grief. We pay for honesty through the nose, Kelly. It’s lyin’ that comes cheap.

  “Next day she gets flat nothin’ in tips. I think it ‘cause everybody thinks she’s poor, which is true, and doing drugs on top of the baby, which ain’t. She’s walking home with five dollars in her pocket that she needs to save for food. And she hears a dog bark. There’s an abandoned church across the street, and sitting in the middle of it smart as you please is a brush tailed coyote with a piece of paper in his mouth. He trots over to her like a tame thing, drops the paper at her feet and then goes running off into the brush in the churchyard. She says she never saw a coyote in the middle of that northern town before, and never saw one since.

  “Well, of course she picks up the paper, ‘cause she’s not an idiot, and she finds it’s a lottery ticket from last week. Losing numbers. That same still little voice she heard that made her call her parents says she needs to go buy herself a lottery ticket and bet on those numbers.

  “Now, she needs that five dollars to eat on. But the idea won’t go away. She needs to go across the street and bet part of her last five bucks on a set of numbers that already lost. She’s about to walk away, and that still, small voice says, you don’t get to deny us again, Cher.”

  Mr. Woolward stopped and blew his nose. “That how she talk, yeah? She see you twice and like you, you her Cher. You remember how she talk when she order that fish o’hers?”

  Hey, Cher. You got my cheese in? A thick glaze of New Orleans honey, with her bronze fingers wrapped around the stem of a Sangria. And how’s your Mama doing back North, baby? I never did find out where exactly Mrs. Compromise lived. There were other, more important questions to ask. How do you want that trout? “Yeah. I remember.”

  He nodded, pressing his lips together. Then he said, “She crosses the street and gets her ticket, shoves it down into her pocket and buys four packets of noodles for the rest of the week.

  “Next Wednesday, Mrs. Compromise is sitting on the break stool at work watching the news. She tells herself she ain’t doing what she think she doing, but she knows she is. When you’re at rock bottom hope is a disease. It keeps letting you down, and you can’t shut it off. But wouldn’t you know? Lottery numbers come up, and she got every one of them right. She’s a waitress eight months pregnant, two seconds ago she was contemplating a ramen noodle dinner, and now she’s got sixteen million dollars in her hand. Just. Like. That.” He snapped his fingers for emphasis, then looked at me with his eyes gone sly.

  “You know what I do, that happen to me? I walk up to the fat old cock I work for, who rags on me ‘cause I’m a skinny pregnant mix-breed nobody love, and I tell him to take his fucking spatula and stick it up his hairy ass. I upend the tea pitcher on the customer who plays grab ass with me and then leaves fifty cents on his ticket. I walk out sweet as you please and go get a house on the Riviera and a yacht, and then don’t do nothing till the money run out.”

  “But the money will run out,” I said, quietly. “You know, statistically, most lottery winners go bankrupt? It’s not a good thing, having that much money just … dropped in your lap. People can’t handle it. They don’t know how to be rich. They blow it all and wind up worse than they were before they got it.” My voice trembled on the last few words.

  We watch the waves a moment more, Mr. Woolward nodding gently to himself. “Well, here’s what she did. That fat-ass cook is screaming at her, so she gets up, puts her lottery ticket back in her pocket and gets her drink tray. When she gives Mr. Grab-ass his next cup of iced tea he pinches her left cheek. She almost does dump that pitcher of tea over his head. Then she thinks to herself, I might not ever feel that again. That asshole is just another marker on her road of life, and it’s gonna end real soon. She goes through the whole night, serving drinks and food and telling nobody she’s a goddamn millionaire with sixteen big ones burning a hole in her pocket that second.” He looked at me again. His eyes were like a rat’s, contemplating a cracker smeared with bree, and he reached around behind him to produce another beer. The cap flipped off into the darkness and he took a long swill. “Why you think she did that, Kelly?”

  “Because she knows being a waitress,” I said, without hesitating. “She hates it, but at least she knows it.” I should have stopped there, but I didn’t. “She knows the smell, how to open the beer right so it won’t spray her hands. The lyrics to the songs the owner plays. She can organize the wine in her sleep. How to keep the orange pulp from sticking to the mimosa glasses. She knows what she’d rather do, or she thinks she does, but when she gets that money,” I gulped. My eyes were burning and it was hard to swallow, “When she gets that money, she’ll actually have to do it. She doesn’t know what it’s like out there, where you don’t have silverware to polish. The unknown is terrifying, even when you wanted it your whole life.” I swallow again. “And one day long, long before she got here she decided that she’d never get to do it, but that was okay. What would she do when she didn’t have to come here every day? What will life be like when she’s free?” I looked down at my hands. I could still smell the beer from the last bottle of Dos Equis.

  Mr. Woolward sighed contentedly to himself. “You know I witnessed Mr. Compromise’s will, right?”

  It hit me like a wall of fire. He knew. Oh God. He knew all along.

  “Compromise told me about your great big dream, how you’d damn near given up on it. Everybody gives up, and he didn’t mind that being your choice if you didn’t like the work. What he didn’t like was you thinking you weren’t worth more than working your ass off for me. And even though I felt like he was getting his ass played by a boat-bunny, I witnessed his will for him. I thought I’d see the last of you after the reading. I figured you’d just walk in here and tell me to get fucked. I never did believe that Mrs. Compromi
se just kept on working like she did, you see. Maybe for the first night, but not for the next six years.”

  I gasped. “Six years?”

  “Yeah. ‘Cause it wasn’t her dream she paid for. It was her husband’s. She dropped the job for a month to have the tyke, but she took it back up once she and the kid was settled. And she kept waiting tables for nasty men when she had more money in her bank than most of them combined. She didn’t even tell the mister that first night. She wanted to be herself a little bit longer, a poor girl sleeping between Wal-Mart sheets. She needed that one night to look at the ceiling and accept that her life as she knew it was over.” He sipped from his beer. “She say she cried, and it wasn’t ‘cause she happy.”

  “I cried, too.” I said, silently.

  “I saw you. Girl, you think nobody watch you. You think you got nothing of substance to back you up. You don’t get that you are substance, and you’re all the substance you’re gonna get. If you don’t start whole, all the money and power in the world won’t fill you up. That’s why I never trusted you with Mr. Compromise. I knew you were better than a boat bunny, but I didn’t think you believed it. And if you were tired enough and desperate enough, you’d make that mistake.” He sipped his beer again.

  “They had enough money to change their lives, but not enough to get his dream started too. They can be rich and wonderful for a little while, or they can live in a slightly better apartment while he chases his pipe dream. She says she just wants to live where there ain’t bullet holes in the wall. So they sit down together and plan out how they can live around the money while he builds that internet thing of his. That’s how she put it, too, Living around it. Like it was a rock in the middle of the road. They put together a bunch of rules, a whole ton of compromise.

  “They did get a nicer apartment, but it’s still an apartment. And maybe they get a more expensive TV they use less than they did their old one, because Mr. Compromise be working all the time on his dream, and Mrs. Compromise be working all the time with her baby.

  “And wouldn’t you know it? That damned idea of his made him money after all.” He drank a long gulp of beer, wiped a dribble of foam off his chin. “They get that boat when their son go off to college. It was either he get a big-ass party boat or she get new tits, and they agreed they wanted that trim lady over there more than either. That’s why she’s the Compromise.” He chuckled quietly to himself, then looked back at me. “How much of that money did he leave you, Kelly?”

  “Sixteen million,” I whispered.

  “Ain’t that something.”

  I closed my eyes. The year before Mrs. Compromise died, I sat down in front of the statue of Jesus and Mary on the bluffs half a mile from here. I held a heavy rock in my hand, and I wondered why a loving god would give people a dream, and then not help them get it. I thought maybe, if I threw the rock right, I could dent the halo around Mary’s head. Then a warm nose pushed itself into my rock hand and made me drop my ammo.

  He was a biggish dog, gray and sandy brown, and I was an idiot city girl. He had no collar and his eyes were wild, but he licked my chin and sweet-talked me into a belly rub. He had to be someone’s pet. I tied my belt to his neck and lead him back to Jim’s.

  Only Mrs. Compromise was sitting out on her boat, and she called me over. “Hey, Cher!” Her eyes were kind of wild, too. “I know whose dog that is, Kelly. Get you below and I’ll take care of it.” I agreed. She came down after a few minutes, no dog, and offered me a drink. I don’t, as a rule, but I finally accepted a pina colada with a splash of rum while she mixed herself a mimosa. She looked tired.

  “What’s wrong?” I asked her.

  It was a while before she answered. She was old, but Mr. Woolward was right. Even with tired skin and hair shot with gray, she was gorgeous. Only those amazing hazel eyes had all the pain in the world. She set down the mimosa and lit a cigarette. Burned it halfway down in two deep drags. “I heard today that my son died. Took a turn too hard and crashed his car. Don’t get you a Porsche, Cher. They bring nothing but trouble.” She dragged. The cherry burned like a star. “My daughter in law is pregnant. I didn’t want her to marry him, and I haven’t spoken to them in years. God. Our pasts turn on us, don’t they?” She took one more drag and stabbed the cigarette out. “Come ‘round and bite us on the ass.” She dropped the butt into a can and lit another. Ash hit Compromise’s royal blue carpeting. “Goddamn coffin nails.” Smoke now curled around her hair. Her eyes gleamed suspiciously. “Sometimes I wonder what God is thinking,” she sighed.

  “I don’t think there is a God. Or if there is, he pulls the wings off us flies for fun.” I thought about my poor, never-born dream. I thought about Mrs. Compromise’s dead son.

  She looked at me, thoughtful. “Maybe. But maybe he needs us to learn how to walk. Windstorm’s comin’, Cher. It’s safer on the ground.”

  She invited me to come around on my days off. Eventually I showed her my artwork. She was the one I told about the canvasses. I wanted to paint a map of the world on a hundred panels, but to have each panel be a church, a cathedral, or a holy place. I never had much truck with religion, but it struck me as a found thing. God was something we unearthed with chisel and hammer and soft brush. Of course, if he was there, he finds us the same way. Cuts away our hardness, leaves only us behind. Maybe the search for God was two way, both of us reaching through the blind dark for a shape we didn’t know. That’s what I wanted to say, but I knew I’d never get a chance to.

  Mrs. Compromise died a year later of uterine cancer. Her husband, six months after that. I thought about what she’d said a lot, now. Cigarette smoke in her hair. Hazel eyes full of her illness and her son’s fresh death. Windstorm coming. It’s safer on the ground.

  “When you come back to work the first day, I overstaffed.” Mr. Woolward said. “I wanted to replace you when you blew. But you didn’t blow. And you didn’t do it the next day, either. It’s not because you love it here, and it’s not because you hate it.” He waited for me to finish, damn him.

  “It might not work out. I might not be good enough. Or I might be good enough, and nobody would want it. Or everyone will want it, and my dreams will all come true.” I was shaking now.

  “Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. You gonna stay here forever ‘cause you don’t know?”

  We were quiet for a very long time, watching the lines of yachts at the dock, dancers whose owners used and misused them. They were beautiful. Some of them were taken out so rarely they should have looked pristine. But the ones that never went out were the ones that looked tired and abandoned. Their owners didn’t use them. They had no reason to keep them square. Fear of losing them kept them tied to the docks.

  Mr. and Mrs. Compromise had reached their goal. How empty had Mr. Compromise felt when his dream was born? Did he have another to replace it? How empty would I feel when I reached that pass?

  “You really think you can do it, Kelly? It’s gonna be hard. And there’s a lot of things I can see you wanting. New dress. New hair. Maybe one of those ladies.” He pointed at a yacht.

  “I’m never getting a boat.” I said, with feeling.

  He chuckled low. “Ain’t you listened to a word I said?” He ruffled my hair, then dropped the Panama hat on my head. “All we got is our boats. You’re just particular about the canvas sail.”


  Chelsea Gaither lives near Corpus Christi, Texas. For more information on her upcoming projects, and South Texas life in general, visit her blog at

  Follow her on Twitter: @CWGaither

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  Hold on! Keep reading for a sneak peak at Starbleached, available now

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