For once I was glad my little sister was with me because I couldn't remember what Mom sent us to the swap meet for. I was watching the kasheeskis (spider-legged elephants if you ain't from around here) belching white clouds into the air. They get twenty feet tall this time of year. The alpha of the herd puffed a cloud of white smoke in our direction that almost made me lose my balance. Ran over a pothole so big that Mom’s instructions bounced outta my head and almost took Anne with them.
The Sunday swap meet was in full swing when we got there. Old Miss Fullerton was selling corn and squashes from her little wooden cart. She's almost a hundred years old and still she hauls that cart to and from the pier ever Sunday with her own two hands. Next to her was Gil, the only black in South Beaufort, in his little plywood stand selling handmade soap. Anne likes Gil's stand the best because them little soap bars come to life when you look at them. Some even get down on their knees and beg you not to use them. Anne hopped off the bicycle and ran over to Gil's cart.
She stood on her tippy toes, looking into the bin at the trembling little things. "Can we get one?"
I followed her to the stand on the bike and told her no. "We need to get what Mom sent us for."
Anne crossed her arms and rolled them green eyes of hers and said, "You don't even remember what it is."
"Course I remember.” I leaned over from the bicycle and put my hand on her shoulder. “I was even gonna let you give Mister Simic the money if you acted like a big girl."
Anne pulled her shoulder away from me. I lost my balance and almost fell flat on my butt.
Gil started laughing at me and Miss Fullerton shook her head and said, "O, bless yer heart, child."
I knew when I got up that I'd started to blush, which made old Gil get to laughing even harder. I wanted to yank Anne's head by her pigtails, but I knew I couldn't do that with two grown-ups watching. At the end of the pier, by the ferris wheel, a guy in a suit and tie was drinking from a glass bottle and breathing fire into the air in the shape of circus animals. Some lady standing next to him was selling mason jars to the kids crowding around him. He'd spit fire into the jar and it’d turn into whatever shape the little kids wanted. They’re supposed to stay alive in there for five days if you don’t open the jar.
I reached into my right pocket, where I keep my own money, and pulled out fifty cents. "I'll let you buy a fire-baby if you tell me what Mom wanted me to get."
Anne gave me that sly look of hers, snatched the coins outta my hand and started running toward the fire breather.
I said, "Hey, wait a second!" and she turned around and yelled, "Yer s'possed to get a watermelon, duh!"
Gil was having himself a laughing fit. Miss Fullerton gave him a smack on the knee with her newspaper and told him to hush up. I asked if they’d seen Mister Simic and his fruit cart but they both said they ain't seen him. The fire breather belched a whole swarm of pixies with little sparks shooting off their wings. Anne and the other little brats ran around trying to catch them. I'm not gonna lie, I kinda wanted to try and catch one too, but around here you get made fun of for baby stuff like that.
Just then I had this prickly feeling on the back of my neck. When I turned around I saw a blue pickup with a yellow tent set up next to it on the edge of the beach next to the pier entrance. It wasn't there when we first got to the swap meet. I hopped on my bike and rode down there. The bed of the truck was full of fruit; strawberries, mangoes and watermelons. A tall, skinny man in a wifebeater was sitting in a fold out chair in front of the tent.
He held a brown, glass bottle to his forehead and smiled at me. "Well howdy, son."
I just kinda looked at the ground and said hello. There was a coyote sitting next to him on one side with different colored eyes, one brown and one blue. On the other side he had a styrofoam cooler like the one me and my dad take with us when we go fishing, 'cept his was full of ice and brown bottles.
He offered me a root beer but I said no thanks. "C'mon now. You gonna sit there and tell me you ain't thirsty? You sweatin' like a hog right now. "
I ain't gonna lie, I was thirstier than hell. But something about that man and his dog, the way the man smelled like cigarettes and laundry bleach, how the dog looked at me like it had something to say that I wasn't gonna like, it made me feel like a scared little kid who lost his mom.
The man got up and held back the curtain to the little tent. "C'mon into the shade fer a minute, son. I ain't gonna bite."
Kinda felt like hopping back on my bike, scooping up Anne and riding home, watermelon or no watermelon. But this stranger was being nothing but nice to me. Dad says you gotta be nice to the one’s that’re nice to you. They may be the last kind person you ever know. Inside his tent was a table with two chairs on either side. There was a cartoony looking map of South Beaufort on the table with little pushpins sticking out of it, a dozen or so red and yellow ones, about three green. He told me to take a seat and handed me a root beer. Asked me how old I was and I whispered ten.
"What was that, son?"
"Ten, sir." He looked at me from over the top of his glasses and smiled, "and a half."
He chuckled a little bit. "Ten and a half year old lady-killer. Handsome kid like you must have all the girls chasin' after ya'."
I didn't say nothin'. I kinda felt outta place, like walking into a room full of my dad's friends drinking beer. Took a sip from that bottle he gave me. That cooled me down more than I expected. I felt like a fish in a big lake somewhere up north, where the snow falls on the mountains year round. The man asked me if I had a girlfriend. I told him about this girl I like, named Brooke. Brooke smells like smoke, but not the same way that man did. Her smoke was like the cedar tree down the road from our house when it got struck by lightning last year. Her hair is long and silver and it turns black when the sun hits it. But she's a year older than me and I'm too scared to talk to her. Don't know why I told him that. He kept asking me all sorts of questions and I kept drinking that root beer since there wasn't nothing else to do.
"What church you go to?" He'd ask me, "What kinda sports you play? Ever been to Acre City?"
Looking in his eyes was like being alone on a stage in front of a theater full of people; a thousand eyes inside those two of his. I tried not to look at them. I stared at my sneakers when I answered his questions and kept drinking that root beer. Each sip made that lake in my head grow bigger and bigger, while I went from a whale to minnow.
He put his hand on my shoulder. "You alright, son?"
I didn't even see him get up from his chair.
"Look," he said, "I'm still tryin' to figure out my way around this town. How ‘bout you point out on this here map where yer house is. It’ll keep me from getting’ lost."
I felt like a little baby when he said that. He rubbed his fingers on the back of my neck, all sandy and wet like shark skin. I lifted my hand and the little cartoon sun in the corner of the map smiled and winked at me. I pressed my finger on the cliff where my house is. He reached into the little box on the edge of the table and put a green pushpin where I'd pointed.
"That's a good boy."
A puff of white smoke blew in front of my face. I closed my eyes and pretended I was in Arizona. Saw my grandma's house. Pictured myself standing underneath the gannet tree in the backyard, warm dirt between my toes, branches covered with white feathers.
The little ghosts of heat was rising off my bike seat when we went back outside. Lifting it up by the handlebars I felt like I betrayed my family somehow.
"Ain't you forgettin' somethin'?" The man said.
I turned around. He was holding a watermelon in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I reached into my pocket for the money Mom gave me. He told me this one was on the house.
Before I could say anything he put his finger on my lips. "You go on home now, son. And sleep tight."
Anne found me walking my bike up the pier. She was holding a jar the size of her head in her arms with a scared looking fire-baby inside it.
"I got a pegathis!" She waved the jar in my face.
"Let's go," I said.
Anne asked me what's wrong. I told her everything was fine.
She looked at me with her head tilted sideways, same way Lewis does whenever he hears another dog barking on the TV. "You been cryin'?"
"Can we jus' go, please?!"
Anne didn't say nothing else. She put the jar in the milk crate on the back of the bike and we left. Dad wasn't home when we got back. Mom said he had to work all night. I was kinda hoping Mom would make kasheeski burgers but she made chicken instead. She cut up the watermelon for dessert. I didn't eat any.
Before bed I went out to the back porch to say goodnight to Dad. There's a little patch of grass with no trees where you can see the ocean. Duck Island is just a little ways out there and on top is the red and white lighthouse. I shined my flashlight at the tower three times and waited. Anne came outside with the jar. The little fiery horse was flapping its wings and bucking its back legs in the air.
"Did ya say goodnight to Dad yet?"
I said yeah. She asked me what he said and I told her he didn't answer yet. We both just sat there for a while. Anne kept looking over at me like there was something she wanted to say but didn't know what words to use.
She held the jar up to her nose. "I don't think I like pegathises. Shoulda got a giraffe."
"It's called ‘pegasus’, stupid."
Anne didn't say anything. She just sat down on the other side of the porch, far away from me to let me know how mad she was. I just ignored her.
After a little while she said, "Dad's not in there, ya know."
I told her she didn't know what she was talking about. She went back to not talking to me for a little bit. After a while we heard this big groan from the ocean, like the earth was waking up from a long nap. A fish the size of the island jumped up from the surface. We could see the moon reflecting off its eyeball before it went back down. When the waves died down we could see a green light flashing at us from the lighthouse.
"See," I said, "told ya he was there."
I turned on the flashlight, but it was so dim you couldn't hardly see it from across the porch, let alone the island. Anne and I just sat there for a minute. She picked up the jar and held it in front of her nose again. She looked at me, back at the jar and sighed. When she twisted off the lid the pegasus hovered out of the jar like a bumblebee. It went up to the height of the trees then disappeared in a bright flash without a sound. You could see its smokey ghost in the moonlight for a second before the wind got to it. A minute later the green light flashed at us from the lighthouse three more times.
Anne said, "Goodnight Daddy," and walked back to the door.
Before she went inside she looked at me and opened her mouth like she was about to say something. When I looked back at her she closed her mouth, looked at her shoes and just whispered goodnight. She went back inside and I was alone again. I sat there on the porch for as long as I could, thinking about coyotes and smoke and what color the moonlight was turning Brooke’s hair right now. But mostly I was just trying to stay awake, trying to keep myself from dreaming, to keep another day from starting.