Ya Neva Know

Martin McAvoy was hiding from life in Anacortes. It was over two years now since he’d lost his sweet Heather to cancer. The vestiges of his grief’s numbness still lingered in his heart. Only now was he emerging back into the world as a participant.

He was a creature of habit but content in his left-brained precision and organized life. He wasn’t obsessive (at least he wouldn’t accept that word being ascribed to his habits), but he loved order, and sometimes Heather would call him a “neat freak.” Even as a child, he’d have his school homework done before dinner and had laid out his clothes for the next day before going to bed. Sometimes he had re-checked his homework and school supplies before retiring, lest he forgot something. He’d loved school every day because there was order to it, and his God-given arithmetic competence was a constant source of self-actualization. Becoming an accountant was a natural progression; everything was in its proper place. His vocabulary didn’t include the word “spontaneity.” Even now, when packing for travel, he’d first create checklists and begin the process weeks before his departure.

And yet he loved music; music and harmonics are chromatic and mathematical. He loved to sing (and no one within earshot would wince), and he was a habitual whistler; it kept him company, and he didn’t even realize when he was doing it. The most common words spoken by Heather were: “Uh, you’re whistling.”

And Heather, dear, creative Heather, who couldn’t add two double-digit numbers in her head, put up with his freakish neatness and addiction to order and his mind-numbing predictability. Sometimes he would joke with friends and ask them to guess what Heather’s calculator looked like, and then to their blank faces, he’d point to himself and answer: “You’re looking at it.”

The only class he ever came close to failing in school was Art; his elementary school teacher had called his mother to report how he was “astonishingly uninspired,” and then later, he fell in love with and married an artist. What an ironically perfect division of labor, he’d thought; she took care of anything with visual artistry, style, and design, and he handled anything having to do with numbers, including the financing of Heather’s interior design. 

Yet, even without an artistic flair, there was a sweet elegance to Marty. He would count his blessings often and talk about them with others, especially the beauty that Heather introduced into his life because he was incapable of doing it himself. “I can barely dress myself,” he would say. As Heather lay dying, he’d told her that she had been the great light of his life and that his greatest joy had been every day coming home and her greeting him.

They never had children, though not from a lack of trying. After Heather’s fourth miscarriage, they’d moved on to try adoption, and it was in the midst of that process when Heather fell ill with cancer; three years later, she was gone. With her loss, he retreated to his routine and his work. His emotions left him, except he became exhausted with his small social circle in Perth Amboy, New Jersey (created mostly by Heather), refusing to let him suffer his pain in silence. He was overwhelmed by the constant parade of well-wishers trying to help him rise again. Neighbors rang his doorbell with casseroles and pot roasts. He found it hard to breathe when they’d approach him. Six months after he’d lost Heather, they started to try fixing him up, sometimes with seemingly innocuous invitations to parties, when they would blindside him with a single, unaccompanied female invitee. Marty knew that he was a constant source of frustration and disappointment to them all. He had fallen beneath the weight of his loss, which continued to crush him.

Finally, on the first anniversary of Heather’s passing, he packed a bag, got into his car with his dachshund, Larry, and drove cross-country to Anacortes, in northwestern Washington, where he and Heather had embarked on glorious ferried vacations in the Pacific Northwest. 

Anacortes, with about 15,000 in population, is on Fidalgo Island and is the gateway, via ferry, to the San Juan Islands (such as Orcas Island and Friday Harbor), Victoria, and Vancouver. Once there, Marty caught his breath in a week and returned to New Jersey to sell his house and accounting practice and dispose of all trappings of his former life. After only three months back in Perth Amboy, he and Larry drove away for the last time, with the abandonment of a frightened bird. They arrived at Anacortes and settled in the furnished apartment he’d rented online, one that, of course, allowed small pets.

Rain was a constant in the Pacific Northwest. Other than the summer, the local weather reporters would sometimes jokingly quote a percentage chance of sunshine. But Marty found the rain cleansing and the resulting greenery and pristine air rejuvenating, and within days of his permanence, he donned his slicker on his way out of his apartment without giving it a thought. And Larry, whose breed with its comical paradox of noble, jutting chest and short legs, soon developed an acute proclivity for avoiding puddles. Of course, when the rain was heavy, Marty would carry Larry in one arm under his umbrella, and the sight of the two of them, a graying accountant with a paunch carrying a smooth-haired, red-brown dachshund with the dog’s tiny hind legs spread outward, brought smiles to passersby.

There is one “main drag” in Anacortes, Commercial Avenue, and at its intersection with 3rd Street, a stone’s throw from and in perfect view of the Guemes Channel and Curtis Wharf was Frank’s Café. In Perth Amboy, Marty thought, Frank’s would be dismissed as just another greasy spoon, but here in Anacortes, it was the accepted neighborhood diner, with simple, shiny white, vinyl tuck-and-roll booths and a linoleum counter with attached, backless stools inside and navy blue wooden benches and tables outside on the sidewalk. If you had breakfast there each morning, as Marty now did, you could see your entire community pass by on the way to work or play. And Frank Furillo, the proprietor, cook, and staunch dog lover, would let Larry sit with Marty even at an inside table (“Those Health Department jerks can kiss my ass,” he would assert). If it wasn’t raining, Marty would take a table outside, sit down and inhale the comfort from his bench seat. It never failed to nourish his starved heart, and pedestrians would stop to pet Larry and smile. Larry was almost a public service uplifting the emotions of passersby on those mornings.

Even though today was the middle of April and rain was obviously anticipated but not yet present, Marty and Larry sat outside. Lulu, the ancient waitress with penciled eyebrows and false eyelashes, a tall, bleached blond beehive hairdo, a mouth full of chewing gum, and a face lined in deep trenches of life, cared about every one of the regulars. She wore an unflattering white blouse and old blue jeans, which seemed to be what “business casual” was in the Pacific Northwest. 

“Same old, same old, Marty, darling?” she’d ask. And he would dutifully nod his assent. That would be one egg over easy, black coffee, dry rye toast with grape jelly. She yelled back to Frank in the kitchen, “Marty’s regular, Baby.” Lulu was Mrs. Frank. They were former Philadelphia school bus drivers who had immigrated to Anacortes when Frank won $150,000 in the Pennsylvania state lottery. Frank’s was the first diner they found that they could buy. Having a neighborhood restaurant had been their dream retirement, and the dream came true. They, too, were childless, but their union and Philly accents were sound and secure. 

“Yo, Marty!” Frank called out the front door from the kitchen. “How’s about a little variety to spice up ya life? Like maybe sunny-side up,” he chuckled. “And why don’t I fry up a wiener for the wiener dog.”

“Frank,” Marty responded, “last time Larry ate your cooking, he gave it back from both ends within an hour. Come to think of it, so did I.” This was the daily dialogue Frank had with all of his regular male patrons: Frank would fire away a mild insult, and the customer, including Marty, would counterpunch with an insult to Frank’s culinary artistry. It was part of the ritual of the fraternity of men at the Café. It is, in fact, how men show their love for each other, something Heather never understood.

Once in a while, Frank would allude to adding “Larry Meatloaf” to the luncheon specials or make fun of Marty’s roots in New Jersey, such as “Yo, the only way you guys from Jersey could get food this good was to take the train to Philly.” Marty had spent four years in college in Philadelphia, so he and Frank would often discuss the relative virtues of the classic Philly cheesesteak from Pat’s, Geno’s, and Jim’s, three purveyors of that comestible within the City of Brotherly Love (Pat Olivieri is credited with the sandwich’s invention when his frankfurter supplier substituted thin beefsteaks for his usual order). Frank even had an “authentic Philly Cheesesteak” on the menu, but Marty knew that Frank’s rendition was way too healthy to match the real thing.

“Be careful what you say about New Jersey, Frank. At’s notso good foh yaw kneecaps. Ya knowwhatahmean?” Marty said in his best North Jersey mobster accent.

Within weeks of Marty’s residential exodus to Anacortes, he’d confided his recent history with these East Coast cohorts. Frank had been surprisingly compassionate with this revelation, but Lulu welcomed the introduction of an unattached male to the gaggle of single daughters of her female friends. She’d even tried to have Marty go out with her own divorced daughter, but Marty was too wise to take that invitation. He valued his relationship with Frank and Lulu too highly to jeopardize it with a romance that didn’t end favorably or, for that matter, didn’t end in matrimony. 

Eventually, Lulu brought Marty his order. Placing it down, she leaned over and said, “Marty, honey, you know I’ve got a couple of live ones I’d love to introduce to you. How about me bringing you their pictures? Or maybe Frank and I could set up a foursome with one of them, so you don’t feel uncomfortable?” 

“Lulu,” Marty said, and then looked up sadly, with clenched lips, “I’m just not ready to be dating. I just can’t.”

“That’s what you been sayin’ since ya got here. When do I get to be the matchmaker?”

“When do you tell these eager women that I’m a plain, 45-year-old, boring guy with no sense of style, a closet full of black pants, shoes, and socks, a meager income tax preparation business, an 11-year-old Ford, a furnished rental apartment, a dachshund and no boat.”

“Ya gotta remake a life sometime, Marty,” she said. “Most women in this town close to your age have had a tank full of ‘unpredictable’ and ‘flashy’ creeps and think ‘boring’ would work out just fine. And you got no baggage like spoiled kids or a greedy ‘ex.’ You’re a catch, kid”. She elbowed him softly as she walked away. “And besides,” she said, walking away, “You’ve got Larry, and he’s a chick magnet.” Whereupon Marty reached down to pet Larry and received his confirmation lick. 

Anacortes had nearly two men for every woman, but Lulu would always say that “the odds are good for a girl here, but the goods are odd.” Sometimes it was a real find for a girl there to meet a man who would say the words “I love you” to anything besides a bottle of beer or a boat.  

Lulu retrieved her coffee pot, walked over to the table behind Marty, and refilled the cup of the well-dressed, slender woman at a table nearby. This one isn’t from here, Lulu thought. The woman was facing Marty’s back but kept staring at him. Lulu poured into her cup and looked at her shoulder-length raven hair and alabaster skin. “You waitin’ for the ferry, Snow White?” 

The woman was stirred from her contemplation and looked up at Lulu. “I’m sorry. I was lost in my thoughts. Thanks for the refill, and, yes, I’m taking the nine o’clock ferry this morning.” She took a sip of the coffee as if it were liquid courage, put her cup down, and immediately rose from her chair, walked just past Marty, and then turned around to face him. 

“Please forgive me,” she said as Marty looked up at her, “but I couldn’t help hearing the cook and the waitress call you ‘Marty’ and talk about New Jersey. You look so familiar; could you be Marty McAvoy from Perth Amboy?”

Marty turned his eyes down and didn’t move as if in shock. His escape had been discovered. “Y-Yes, that’s me,” he stammered, and then he looked up again and was immediately taken by the woman’s striking appearance and pale blue eyes. She was about his age but had obviously worked harder than he to keep her youthful charms. She spoke in a soft, embracing voice, and his first thought was how graceful she was, even though she wasn’t moving. But he couldn’t place her in his memory, much of which had become crowded over the years with Treasury Regulations and sections of the Internal Revenue Code. “Uh…have we met before?”

“I guess you don’t recognize me, but we went to Monarch Elementary School and Pierce Jr. High together. I’m Brenda Morris.”

“Brenda Morris,” he ruminated as he stared into her bright eyes. Then it dawned on him. “Of course! Now I remember you. Yes..yes…I can see your young face in my mind’s eye. You had the whitest skin, and you wore your dark hair held back with a pink headband. And,” he recalled, “you’re left-handed.” 

“That’s one thing that hasn’t changed,” she said, extending her right hand to shake. Heather had been left-handed, too. It was something that Marty had a lifelong interest in and an elephant’s memory about. He could probably name all of the people he’d known who were southpaws.

“Oh, yes,” Marty continued as he concluded his access to the memory, “and you had the nicest voice. You were really easy to listen to. I remember that your voice was different from the other girls. It was soft and kind, almost like music.”

Then he hesitated, having spent his available thoughts. For the slightest moment, there wasn’t a single brain cell focused on Heather. Finally, he caught himself and blurted out, “Uh… oh.. where are my manners? Would you like to join me?” He stood and held out his hand, palm up, as an invitation.

Without answering, she immediately moved back to her other table, retrieved her coffee, and sat down across from him. “I’m catching the ferry to Orcas Island. My baby brother, Nick, runs a bed-and-breakfast in Deer Harbor, and I’m visiting him. Do you remember Nick?”

“I do now that you remind me. The boys called him ‘Nick the Stick’ because he was so skinny. And… and he had massive braces on his teeth with rubber bands.”

“Yeah,” replied Brenda, “those were tough years for him. When he talked, it sounded like his mouth was drowning.” 

“I hope he has lovely teeth now because that must have been torture.”

 “He does, Marty. He does. Um…what are you doing here, Marty? Do you live here?”

“My wife died of cancer a little over two years ago. I was an only child, and I don’t have any family to speak of, so Larry and I packed it up and drove to the last place where I had a happy vacation, the Pacific Northwest, and ended up here in Anacortes. That’s Larry down there,” and he pointed to the dog. Brenda pulled out her chair and bent over to pet Larry, who responded lovingly. “He likes girls,” Marty shrugged.

“I’m so sorry about your wife. Any children?” Marty shook his head. “Me neither. I was married, too, but my husband traded me in for a younger model.”

“That’s a shame,” said Marty. 

She smiled slightly. “He was the captain of the Rutgers football team, and I was a silly, superficial girl. I let him drag me to Seattle while he chased a job, and when we arrived, he started chasing skirts.”

“I guess you didn’t marry him for his intelligence,” he said, but then realized how insulting that sounded. “Wait, that didn’t come out the right way. I meant that he was stupid to lose you.”

She shrugged. “I guess that life has a habit of slapping us around.” 

They settled into a short, comfortable silence. At length, she broke it. “You know, Marty, I always wanted to tell you how grateful I was to have you as a friend at Monarch.”

Marty was puzzled. “Wait. You considered me your friend? I was a boring bookworm. A wallflower. A math geek. You were the nicest-looking girl in the class. I could only fantasize about being your friend.”

“You don’t remember, do you? Think back. Do you remember what they called me at Monarch? They called me ‘The Big B.M.’ They took my initials and gave me that cruel nickname.” 

He squinted at her in concentration. At length, he remembered and looked down. “Oh…. Yes….but I don’t think I ever called you that,” he said defensively because he didn’t remember if he had. God, he prayed silently, please don’t remind me that I was mean to this girl. 

“No, no; you didn’t do it. The other boys, and many of the girls, would call me that name as they ran away from me in the schoolyard, or they’d come close enough to touch me and then retract repulsively, gleefully screaming, ‘Ewww, the Big B.M.! I better wash my hand!’ You were the only boy who would sit with me at lunchtime. You were the only person who wasn’t cruel to me. You even shared your lunch with me sometimes because your mother overstuffed your lunchbox.”

Marty massaged his forehead. “That sure was my Mom. She prepared my lunch as if she had triplets. I do remember sitting at lunch with you a couple of times. I really liked that. You made me feel special.” And suddenly, he remembered how wonderfully joyful he had felt just looking at her eat and hearing her address him in that melodious voice. But then his smile unraveled, and his face dropped. “I’m so sorry I didn’t defend you.”

“No, no; that’s not what I wanted to tell you. Marty, don’t you see? You were the kind boy. You were the one who made me feel normal in the middle of that cruelty. No matter what my parents told me at home to console me, it was you who showed me that I wasn’t an outcast. And what’s even more endearing now is that you don’t even remember that you did anything special.”

He squirmed in his humility. “Brenda, I have to be honest. I didn’t eat lunch with you because I wanted to comfort you. It was because, for those brief moments, I had the attention of the best girl in school.” he finally said. “You were nice to me. Most of the other girls ignored me or laughed at me behind my back. The boys were only kind when they needed my homework. I guess the name-calling business you endured never made much of a dent in my memory. Now that I know how they hurt you, I feel bad about it.”

“Don’t persecute yourself, Marty. You should take pride in the fact that, even at that young age, you were truly a compassionate human being. You made me come back to school each day, and, most important, you gave me confidence. Except, of course, in arithmetic.”

Marty smiled. Those were the days when his right arm became overdeveloped from raising it so often in class. That sense of self-worth helped to offset his abysmal failure as a social animal. 

“There,” she said. “Now I’ve finally told the best person in my childhood how much he meant to me. Thank you, Martin McAvoy. Thank you for being the anti-bully. Your kindness kept me sane and alive in those days. Thank you….” Tears were rolling down her cheeks as her voice trailed off, but then, after a few seconds, she surprisingly began to chuckle. Larry had started to lick her toes, exposed at the front of her shoes. Dogs know when sadness needs sympathy, and Larry was as smart as they come. Marty looked under the table to watch, and he smiled.

She looked at her watch, and her eyes widened. “Oh, gosh, I have to leave to catch the ferry. Nick will be expecting me.” She rose and pulled a card from her purse. “Listen, I have to come back this way. Could we maybe have dinner together when I come back on Tuesday afternoon? I’ll be staying overnight at the Ship Harbor Inn that evening before driving back to Seattle in the morning. I’d really like a chance to spend more time with you, Marty. It seems to me that you’re still the sweet boy I remember.” 

She handed him the card. Marty noticed that, apparently, she sold real estate. She pointed to a phone number on the card. “That’s my cell phone. Marty, please call me before Tuesday and tell me you’ll meet with me.”

Marty blushed but managed to raise a smile. “Of course. I’ll call you.”

She leaned over, petted Larry one last time, then rose and walked away as he followed her with his eyes. No wonder the football captain wanted her, he thought. After a dozen paces, she looked back at him and flashed a sparkling smile, then turned and proceeded to the ferry. There was a noticeable spring in her step.

And I’d really like to hear more of that wonderful voice, he thought.