It isn’t your typical day at the SharkFin Tavern. The wind rips through the tangled little streets and clamors at the door, asking to come in. And not very politely.
My hands are chapped and weathered. I can’t even believe that they are mine. You’d think I was a fisherman, like so many other folks in Newport; but it wasn’t my calling. I suppose the wrinkling comes from years of pulling on the beer tap. And of course, serving hot bowls of chowder. I have the burns to prove it.
Being a bartender wasn’t my calling either, I promise you. But it came naturally to me. And I’m a fool for a good story. You hear a lot of great stories behind the bar. One of the greatest of them all began with a lady that is sitting right across the way.
Annie sits at her usual table, and has that damned computer in front of her face. I hate it when she does that, but it’s her ‘portable office’ as she calls it. I wish my office was portable. I’d take it to Ireland. Always had a thing for that place.
She looks up and winks at me, and I flush with a bit of pride. Annie is my girl, and always will be. Not in the Biblical sense, of course. I just wish she hadn’t been through so much.
“Another,” she says with a voice that I know means she’s stressed. The only woman I have ever seen who is stressed when she’s in a dark, quiet tavern, drinking whiskey on the rocks.
“Soup to go with it?” I ask, filling a glass with ice and reaching for the Jameson.
“I’m okay. Thanks, Tony,” she replies, not looking up.
I frown a little.
Just because I care for her doesn’t mean I have to act like her Jewish mother. But for crying out loud, she doesn’t eat enough.
“Whatever you say,” I reply, lifting my brow.
I fix the whiskey and carry it her way, trying to lean over to see what’s on the screen. Something brilliant, I imagine with pride. She’s been busting out those books of hers for years now, and from what I’m told, they’re selling nicely.
People that know of Annie and come to the SharkFin say they read her stuff on their Kindle. Makes me roll my eyes every time. I just think of a fireplace.
I notice the customary knit in Annie’s brow. She’s concentrating hard. I would like to talk with her more, but as always, I keep my distance.
Now, let me explain here: Annie ain’t young, but she ain’t old either! I am. That much is plain.
No, Annie is still beautiful. As beautiful as that fateful day that she came into the SharkFin for the first time. It was as though she were carried in on a gust of wind and snow, not unlike the kind that’s blowing outside today.
But I get ahead of myself. That story is yet to come.
Just then, Henry runs through the door, and I am reminded that the story ain’t so sad after all.
“Momma!” Henry cries, with June following close behind. That old lady (older than me) sure does take great care of that boy.
“Henry!” Annie exclaims, shutting her computer and throwing out her arms.
They embrace, and I have to smile when I see Henry. He’s getting so big so soon, and he looks so much like Jack.
Jack is the other piece of this story.
He and Annie were like peanut butter and jelly. Peas and carrots, bread and butter. All that nonsense.
Trust me, I never believed in this kind of thing either. Not until Annie came to town.
Getting ahead of myself again. Forgive an old man.
“We went sledding,” Harry says with joy, throwing his little arms around Annie’s neck.
“Well, I didn’t go sledding,” June says with a hearty laugh. “I can promise you the last time I went sledding was back when we were the 13 colonies,” she adds with a wry smile. Customary June humor.
Hard as nails, June Clements. I think Annie took a lesson from her.
“Well, we made it in one piece, didn’t we Henry?” June says, clutching her rather large knitting bag to her. She carries it everywhere. “And, Annie I made that pot pie I told you about. It’s in the car. I put it in one of those fancy Tupperware deals that has the top that spins in and clicks. About time someone thought of that.”
“Oh, June! You’re the best. Just when I thought I’d have to subject myself to another night of Sloppy Joe’s,” Annie says, making a stinky face at Henry.
“I love Sloppy Joe’s,” he replies, doing a little dance with his hands.
The red hair is a dead giveaway that Henry is Jack’s son. And the blue eyes.
“Annie, I don’t know why you make that sludge,” June says, collapsing into a heavy wooden chair and throwing her sewing bag to the side, as if she owned the place. “You could afford to order from King’s Palace,” she adds, gulping a glass of water.
King’s Palace is considered ‘expensive’ Chinese food in Newport. They’ve got the mystical lobster aquarium to prove it.
“It’s Henry’s favorite,” she replies, nuzzling him closer.
“You still on the Paris thing,” June asks, leaning her heavy chin into her hand.
By ‘Paris thing’, she is referring to the novel Annie has been working on for months now. Set in Paris. Annie only went once, but always wanted to write about it.
That’s a part of this story too.
“Must be nice,” June says, twirling her shell necklace between her fingers. “We’re in a blizzard and you’re writing about Paris!”
“You wouldn’t believe the things we do to keep sane,” Annie says with a smile.
Then she takes a sip of whiskey.
Okay, I gotta explain something here. It’s nighttime, it’s a Saturday, and it’s snowing out. The tavern is empty and Annie isn’t drinking hard. She’ll have one, maybe two, then put it away.
Also, there’s a Christmas tree in the corner with blinking lights, and she’s celebrating an anniversary of sorts.
In fact, it’s the first time I seen her drink whiskey in over a year. But why should I need to explain? We all have our vices. Mine is watching old motorcycle movies and eating peanut brittle. Go figure.
Gave up booze a long time ago. That’s why I can tell this story with a modicum of clarity.
All of this is to say that Annie is okay. You don’t have to worry for her. Yet still, it’s been 10 years, so I do worry about her on this night.
Ten years since she met him.
Annie left New York City in a storm of tears, nearly rivaling the one that was bursting outside her rental car windows. She was 25 at the time. She never told me that, but I just ended up doing the math.
She truly didn’t know where she was going. But she knew that if she stayed, she’d be ‘dead in a year’. Why she would specifically perish in one year’s time is unknown, but she said that it would be so. And I believe her. Everything Annie says ends up becoming oddly true.
Her heart had been pulled from her chest. And every time I think of it, I still want to punch a hole in that guy’s face. She had been in a relationship with a celebrity. And I tell you, to this day, she’d never tell me who it was.
And it doesn’t matter.
When she took that feverish ride to Newport, she was a young woman who experienced what it’s like to have a broken heart, for the first time.
I’ve had my fair share, so I don’t think having a broken heart is all that big of an ordeal. But now that I know Annie, I know that the blow was not of the normal, garden variety. Annie loves deeply and she loves purely, and nothing had ever gone so wrong before in the past.
“I’ll take a whiskey, neat,” she had said. Her face was chapped red and her eyeliner halfway down her face. She carried a small duffel bag and nothing else. Annie was soaked to the bone, and shivering.
Of course I felt bad for the girl. She wasn’t from around here; I could tell that much immediately. We have this joke in Newport that the newcomers stink more than the fishermen.
She collapsed into a chair, which later, when she was in a more sane frame of mind, would become ‘her’ table. On that night, it was basically the first one that she could find. Her vision was blurry from the drive, the blizzard, and the tears. She cried the whole way from New York, and she screamed.
I’ll never forget that hoarse voice.
“Don’t be stingy,” she said as I approached the table. I looked down at the neat whiskey, and it looked like plenty to me. But not one to want to disappoint my only customer, who I was beginning to feel bad for, I walked back to the bar and gave the whiskey a top-off.
When I returned to the table she managed a little smile, as though apologizing for her conduct. She didn’t have to apologize. I had seen worse.
“You looking for something to eat?” I asked, and there began our ongoing joke. Ask Annie if she wants something to eat when you’re dying to hear the words ‘no thanks’.
“No thanks,” she replied, cupping the glass in her hands as though it were hot cocoa.
I went back to my post and cleaned up some. Had inventory to do, and mostly I didn’t want to butt into the girl’s business.
Her behavior wasn’t strange, just a little striking. Now, I’ve seen some interesting behavior at my post, to say the least. But I can say that Annie had that quality you see in an animal after they’ve had a trauma of some sort.
Her eyes trailed off into the distance, blank and open. She was processing, that much I could see. She was thinking about something, whatever ‘it’ was. Trying to figure it all out. To solve it. Or perhaps just to convince herself that if she thought about it long and hard enough, maybe it would be that it would disappear into thin air, as though it never happened at all.
Polishing the glasses, I’d look up occasionally and find her in the same place. Just staring. And sipping.
Now, how it could be that Jack Spencer should come in that very night, I have no idea. He didn’t like coming into the tavern. Never did. But he was chilled to the bone. And his boat was diverted back from Maine earlier that day, as the storm reports guessed that things were going to get nasty.
“You look surprised,” Jack said coldly, just as cold as the icicles in his beard. His lips were chapped and blue, that much I could see in the dim light of the SharkFin.
“You mix up surprise and happiness,” I say warmly, and then clear my throat so as to maintain my rough exterior. Let me admit here, that to the outside eye, I do look a bit rough. Even back in those early days.
I won’t give you specifics, but just imagine the local bartender in your hole-in-wall bar, and that’s what I look like. A little wiry, and a mid-size belly. But with a fine polo shirt on. I like solid colors. I flip the collar like a good New Englander.
“Happy,” Jack huffs, and drops into a bar stool. He doesn’t have to ask. I know that Jack only drinks beer, so I pour him a Guinness.
“You look tired,” I reply, noting that even at the tender age of 30, Jack is sporting some bags below his crystal blue eyes.
“Thanks,” he replies, again huffing.
His beer placed before him, Jack turns his head towards the stranger in the room. Not that he had overt interest, but when there’s a lone female in the rooster house, a man is required to turn his head.
It seemed to the blind eye that Jack was detached from what he saw. The bright green eyes, framed by smudged liner, was dramatic for sure.
And Jack didn’t get mixed up in drama.
I’d always known that about him. Always a simple guy. Of the earth. Since losing his wife, whatever capacity he had for drama, which was nil, shrank even more.
And yet, for a moment, I could perceive that Jack wanted to turn his head again, but he stopped himself.
Annie sat there blinking, also slightly confused by the eye contact she was so briefly engaged in, and she returned to her blank state. Jack returned to his fatigue, and his beer, and all was settled in the world.
But I’ll tell you this, and I don’t tell a lie: For a moment, I could have sworn something about the temperature in the room changed when those two saw each other for the first time.
“Here comes trouble,” I said when I saw the gang piling in through the door. The gang was Jack’s fishermen friends. From the look on Jack’s face, I could tell that he was hoping to escape from them.
“Never thought I’d find you here,” Gregor said, patting Jack on the back. It was a hard, heavy blow. But Jack was a big guy. Stout. He didn’t bat an eye.
“Hey, Tony,” Rory said to me with a nod of the head.
“Hey there,” I replied, getting started on Rory’s gin neat.
The gang consisted of about three other guys as well, I can recall. But Gregor and Rory were the only ones I really knew. The former was a Russian import; came into SharkFin quite a lot. Rory, however, was Jack’s childhood friend.
Similar to Jack’s hefty build, Rory was, however, much more poetic in temperament. Was once the Hamlet of Newport. Always walking around with a book. Wanted to write, too. But as it turned out, there was nothing for him in the world but fishing. It was hereditary.
“Can’t I have a beer in peace?” Jack said, not turning his head.
“Ain’t nothing peaceful about the world today. Your beer is no exception,” Gregor said with mischievous glee. He sat beside Jack and immediately turned his head towards Annie, who was nearly through her whiskey.
Gregor turned back towards me as though I would be able to explain the girl. I couldn’t, so I just raised my shoulders.
“This storm vill make us broke,” Gregor finally said with distain. His dark coloring blended right into my dark-wooded bar.
“I’ve seen worse,” Jack said dismissively.
From the corner, I could note Annie’s eyes returning to the men at the bar. Perhaps she was annoyed. Maybe she wanted silence, instead of Gregor’s penetrating, albeit light, Russian accent.
But what I at first took to be frustration changed quite immediately. Annie seemed intrigued. Maybe the tumult and rustle of fishermen was comforting to her.
Despite the initial interest (each man turned his head to the corner one after another), the fellas went back to their own business. Soon the smell of fish and chips wafted through the air, and the creamy aroma of chowder.
They ate heartily, talked loudly, and drank copiously. Nothing was out of the ordinary.
It was when I saw a few of the men talking conspiratorially and looking in Annie’s direction that I knew trouble was headed our way.
Now, these were a few of the guys I didn’t know so well, so I didn’t consider what they were capable of. But a particularly tall fellow, who I was later told was a new guy on the boat, made his journey over to Annie’s table.
He’d had a few beers in him already, so his spirits were high. And his courage.
“I’m sent on a mission,” the man began by saying. Annie looked up. Her eyes were dry at this point and she was on her second whiskey.
Sensing the imminent loss of peace, I could see Annie collecting her duffle bag, no doubt to get a head start on settling up her tab.
“Oh,” she replied, feigning ignorance. She didn’t want to hear about the man’s mission.
“See that guy over there?” the man asked, pointing back to the bar and signaling his friend. “He requests your presence.”
Now, Annie has never been one to care if anyone requests her presence or not, but she was also a girl bred with good manners, and so she felt compelled to be polite in the situation.
“I’m really just here to have a drink. But thank you,” she said with a little smile, and looked down at the table.
Now, the smile was the problem. In retrospect I can see it clearly. It gave the wrong signal to the fisherman, and he persisted.
“Oh, come on now. Baby, it’s cold outside!” he said with a flourish. He said this loudly, so that his friends could hear it. He was quite proud of it, after all.
“I’m really alright over here, thank you,” Annie said again politely.
This is when I saw Jack bristle. If I know anything about Jack, it’s that he’s a gentleman through and through. Always pained him to see a lady pestered, and I noted that usual tense muscle in his jaw.
“If I have to carry you over to that bar then I will!” the fisherman said with a laugh. That’s when Jack really seemed to lose his patience. He clutched his beer tightly between his large palms.
Annie looked flustered and fingered through her purse, throwing some cash onto the table. I was just about to intervene when Jack did all the talking.
“Come on, man. You’re bothering her. Let it go,” Jack said. He kept his voice measured.
“What am I doing? I’m having a good time!” the fellow protested.
“Excuse me,” Annie said, beginning to get up from the table.
“Listen sweetheart, I’m just trying to be nice,” the man said, stopping her by putting his hands on her shoulders, lest he be misunderstood.
This is when the temperature in the room markedly changed. Rory looked petrified, Gregor just laughed, and Jack decidedly stood from his seat.
“What are you doing?” Annie protested, not at all liking the feeling of having that large guy’s paws on her.
Already in a weak state, I could tell that Annie was holding back tears. On any other occasion she might have been cool and collected, but it had been a long day.
She looked up into the large fisherman’s eyes, and all at once before a tear could form in her already red eyes, the man in front of her completely disappeared from sight.
She’d tell me later that it was a strange thing. One moment he was there, and the next moment he was gone.
What had happened, to everyone’s surprise, was that Jack had forcefully grabbed the guy by the back of his weathered plaid shirt, and pulled him quickly out of Annie’s path.
Before he knew it, the new fisherman was lying on the floor at the feet of a few barstools. And before Annie knew it, the path was clear.
She thought to run out of there quickly, but before she could go, her gaze caught Jack’s, for the second time that night.
Something about the look in his eyes gave her pause. His gaze was icy, for sure. Always had been, even when he was a kid. But there was something else there that she saw, and she couldn’t explain. It was a pained expression.
Their locking eyes finally came loose and Annie was out the door. Nearly knocked over my Christmas tree.
She had a hotel room to get to. She needed sleep. It was a modest Newport B&B. She’s always wanted to stay at one.
But before she could go into that quiet, Victorian room, she had needed two stiff drinks in her. Mission accomplished.
Oddly, when she stepped into the place, she didn’t feel as lonely as she feared. Something about Jack’s presence seemed to have followed her there.
Annie threw down her duffel bag, now drenched with snow and collapsed onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling. She told me that she just stared for a while, trying to orient herself.
Always strange ending up in a new town when it’s dark out. You can’t quite tell where you are. Easy for me. I know Newport like I know the back of my hand.
And it sure is pretty at night this time of year. All those twinkly Christmas lights shining in the empty streets.
But I know that Annie felt empty that night. Like she didn’t know if she did the right thing.
She had come to Newport years earlier, just for the day. She was with her mom. Showed me the sweet picture of the two of them splitting a lobster roll by the marina.
So Annie came back to Newport on a whim. Had fond memories of her brief time here.
But it wouldn’t be till the following morning that Annie knew she made the right decision. It was as though the sun had shed some light on the subject. Annie looked out the window of her room, pushing back the heavy curtains, and she saw that blanket of white snow, the water off in the distance.
Everything looked clean and pure, and just the blank slate she had been searching for.
She was still wearing the same clothes from the night before, stopped herself, and hopped in for a quick shower before going down to breakfast.
To her amazement, she was the only one in the place.
Now, I know Newport Hollows B&B. Been around a long time. And would you believe it, it was June Clements who owned it at the time.
When June saw Annie come into the dining room, she started beaming. Someone to feed! And trust me, I know that June prepared a feast.
“Well, good morning!” June cooed. She wore her favorite Newport, RI T-shirt. It had sailboats on it, and she was wearing her same shell necklace.
“Good morning,” Annie replied, a little embarrassed that she was the only one there.
Now, we’ve already discussed how Annie wasn’t much of an eater, but on that occasion, June was able to accomplish the unthinkable.
Before she knew what happened, Annie had a large bowl of yogurt in front of her, covered with granola and berries. She was relieved at first, thinking that this was all that she would have to face. And the yogurt tasted good; creamy and tart.
But to her dismay, the second course was placed before her. June gave her most winning smile.
“Toast and eggs,” she said. “They’re from my friend Trudy’s farm. Fresh as the snow.”
“Thank you,” Annie said softly. Truth be told, she never liked eggs.
“Oh, and the bacon and waffles are coming out shortly!” June added, running back to the kitchen.
Annie tried to protest, but June was too fast, and quickly out of sight.
June was real fleet-footed back then. Still has enough speed and energy to chase Henry around, after all.
Coming back into the room, June saw Annie covering her eggs in ketchup, and she frowned. Such a shame to drown perfectly good eggs in ketchup.
June continued to talk through the meal, and truth be told, Annie was quite happy to have the distraction.
She was told an earful. Annie learned all about June’s book club, garden club, and the Newport mansion society, which played dress-up every year around that time.
It wasn’t long before June had gotten Annie to agree to wearing some formal 1800’s attire, and nearly gave her orders for a specific Jane Austen book to read for the book club.
Of course, Annie had already read all of them. But she didn’t mention that.
It was when June started bringing up eligible bachelors for Annie to meet that she decided it was time to part ways.
“If you don’t mind, I do have to get started on some work,” Annie said.
Of course, there was no laptop then. At least not for Annie. So she was resolved to check out the local internet cafe to take care of business.
She says it was mostly odd jobs then. Writing articles, websites, that sort of thing. She could work remotely, and that meant she could get out of New York and still make ends meet.
June frowned, hating the idea that Annie would have to go out into the cold and go to that dreaded internet cafe. June never liked that place.
But Annie insisted, and she was out the door.
It is here that I’ll change directions a bit. Annie never likes me talking about her old writing days. She tells me it was the most unhappy she’s ever been in her life. Writing about all that plain nonsense.
So, instead I’ll tell y0u about this little gem.
Jack had slept poorly the night before. The wind kept him up, and he was used to waking at 4am to get onto the fishing boat.
Since there would be still no more fishing that day (the next storm on the horizon) he decided instead that it was a walk that he needed.
Walking down main street, Jack decided that a good strong cup of coffee would amend the fatigue, and perhaps get him through half the day. Barringer’s Coffee was his supplier of choice, and he couldn’t help but get the enormous blueberry muffin to go along with it. Pretty much the size of a baby’s head, those muffins. But Jack didn’t blink an eye.
Stepping back out into the cold, coffee and muffin in hand, Jack’s spirits lifted, until he saw that car driving the wrong way down a one-way street. And they’re tight streets there, down by the marina.
He hollered. Always hated when those damn tourists did that kind of thing. But when he saw who was behind the wheel, he couldn’t help but smile. And trust me, Jack has never been a smiler.
“Hey!” he cried, waving his free hand in the air, which was still clutching the muffin.
He saw Annie’s bemused expression in the driver’s seat, and finally the look of recognition.
Annie actually had to lean into the steering wheel to look closer, trying to be sure that what she was seeing wasn’t an apparition. She knew those icy blue eyes, and that large, strong form.
She waved her hand in the air to acknowledge him, and got out of there really damn fast. Her heart was pounding and she was blushing.
Jack just watched her as she drove off feverishly, and for a moment he worried that she was driving like a maniac. Perhaps the girl with the smudged liner and the glass of whiskey was just as crazy as she seemed.
Or maybe she was just scared. Running away from something, he thought. Jack was always curious about people’s real motives.
He waited till she was out of sight and then continued his journey along the marina. The muffin quickly vanished. So did the coffee.
Jack watched the boats gently swaying in the breeze. A breeze that would turn into a powerful wind, keeping his sea legs from going where they chose.
His heart sank when he thought about it. It always felt like a kind of prison when he was stuck in Newport, of all the places. It was the town where he was born and raised, and the town that dished out far too much tragedy for him to even comprehend.
For a fleeting moment he wondered if the winter storms had kept him stuck in Newport for a reason. If the house had kept him stuck there for a reason. Time to face things?
He shook the thought off. Didn’t believe in that kind of stuff.
The day took forever, the tasks were endless, but Annie felt something different, just being in Newport. She sat in the cozy internet cafe with a warm chai at her side, and hammered away at the computer, knocking off each item on her list. Every now and then, she gazed out the window and looked at the snow.
The warm glow of the sun reflected off the sheet of white, to the point where it was almost blinding. But it was beautiful, nonetheless.
Max Caramachi, the owner of the cafe, kept looking Annie’s way, curious about the determined out-of-towner. He wanted to make smalltalk, just like I always do. But he refrained. Sensed the girl was decidedly focused.
Now, if I know anything about Max’s cafe (never been there myself) I know that the pastries are damn good. Better than Barringer’s. He supplies our cannoli’s at SharkFin so I have a first-hand experience of what a genius Max is. His family is from Sicily.
All this is to say that Annie didn’t eat any pastries. But she did have two chai lattes before the work was complete.
And that was about the time that the storm started brewing again. In Newport, it can come out of nowhere. One second you have blue skies, the next second you have a doozy of a storm.
So it came as a shock to Annie when, upon leaving the internet cafe, the skies turned black.
She made her way back to the B&B wearing her heavy purple winter coat, clutching herself.
Getting into her blue rental car, she huffed a little. The very thought of when she would return the damn thing filled her with panic. But she reminded herself, as she still does to this day, ‘one day at a time.’
She needed that little saying. She learned it from her mother. It’s common enough, that phrase. But looking back on things, Annie says that it got her through hell.
Sounds dramatic, I know. It’s a certain kind of hell. She sometimes refers to it as ‘champagne problems’, when she’s trying to write it all off. But it’s hard to judge anyone when they’re going through hell. Sure, the hell of starving and having no money is different from the hell that Annie was going through. But you can’t judge a broken heart, nor can you really understand it. If I know one thing it’s this: you can’t really tell the hell that another person is going through. You can’t imagine it and you can’t feel it.
This I can most definitely say about Jack.
He spent a lot of time by the water that day, waiting for the storm and thinking about things.
Sometimes I wish that I knew his hell better. I even wish that it was my own, so he didn’t have to feel it so much.
Looking back on things, I think that what was about to happen between Annie and Jack made perfect sense. They were in the same place; like two lost children. Life had dealt them a serving of shit; pardon my language.
It does to everyone, at some time or another.
But the particular flavor of shit (sorry, again) was the same for them, at that exact time in the world.
They were both heartbroken and lost. They were damn afraid of how they were going to get through it. And very importantly, they both were swimming upstream. Annie: with a smile. Jack: with his rough exterior.
Inside, they were homeless. Outside, they couldn’t see that they were being bombarded with love.
“Five days till Christmas!” June exclaimed at the breakfast table, pulling out an advent calendar and handing Annie the little piece of chocolate.
Annie took it and popped it in her mouth. It tasted incredibly sweet and filled her with momentary glee.
“Tell me about yourself,” June said, plopping into a seat nearby to Annie’s.
Now, the last thing Annie wanted to do was talk about herself. I know this because nothing has changed. But on that morning Annie opened up, and it would save her, in the end.
“What’s to tell?” she asked, toying with her eggs using her fork.
“Oh, I can tell that there’s a lot to tell. I’ve been around a long time!” June said, knowing an interesting person when she saw one.
“Well, I came here because I need a little beauty right now. Don’t know how long I’ll stay,” Annie began to explain.
“Oh, we want you to stay a long time. . . “ June said with assurance. It would give her a chance to hone her matchmaking skills.
“Well, I don’t quite know where to end up,” Annie said with a hearty laugh.
“Where are you from?” June asked, resting her chin in her hand, as she is accustomed to doing.
“I’m from Washington. Seattle. Moved to New York to start my writing career. Went to NYU. Things went really well at first, and then they sort of. . . fizzled out,” Annie said, still playing with her eggs.
“It’s not your fault,” June said, having heard many similar stories.
“But I fear that it might be!” Annie exclaimed, her easy-going exterior becoming indignant. And there were those damn tears again that she was so ashamed of. “Things were actually going really well for a long time. I was an intern at a great magazine, I was working on a novel, everything was lining up. I felt really confident! Then somehow it was like things abruptly. . . started slipping.”
“Life has a funny way of telling us to change course,” June said with empathy.
“Well, my life told me to get out. Fast. Now, I’m afraid I don’t know what is going to become of me.”
“You ever married?” June asked.
There was a pause as the generational difference sunk in. Annie never wanted to get married in order to support herself. She wanted to be a success! She wanted to take care of herself and not rely on anyone.
Annie didn’t even need to explain this to me. I saw it as clear as day. She was left in the funny place of being firm in her convictions, but wondering if she had sacrificed too much.
But Annie wasn’t traditional in any sense. Couldn’t be. She held firm that she could have both; love and career. Independence and companionship. It just hadn’t worked yet.
Finally, Annie spoke in reply.
“I’ve never married, no,” she replied with a congenital smile. But there was a pained expression there, as well. “Wasn’t sure whether or not I’d be good company,” she added with a laugh.
At this, June had to laugh as well.
“I was married three time, and I think my company was very good. It was my husbands’ company that I didn’t care for!” she exclaimed heartily.
The two ladies laughed again. Those girls haven’t stopped laughing ever since.
June felt a pang in her chest. She could feel Annie’s feelings. She knew she was going through a lot, and life didn’t even get that much easier.
“Oh hell,” June said, picking up the advent calendar again. “We’re going to jump ahead here,” she said, picking out two extra pieces of chocolate from days 9 and 8.
“What are we going to do tomorrow and the next day?” Annie asked humorously.
“I may need to buy another advent calendar,” June said. She paused for a moment and pulled out day 7, too.
In the days that followed, Annie’s spirits were lifting. It was the companionship that perhaps she desperately needed. She and June would have long talks over breakfast, which led to long afternoon teas, and finally, even evening glasses of wine by the Christmas tree at night.
They shared stories; Annie about her disillusionment with how she thought things should go, and June about similar feelings, while adding her sentiment that things turned out okay in the end.
“Don’t say ‘the end’,” Annie replied one night, nibbling on June’s homemade bruschetta. “That’s morbid.”
“You’re right,” June replied introspectively. “There is a lot more to come. But for now, I must admit that I’m happier in Act 3 than I was in Act 2!”
“That’s not like a traditional play,” Annie replied wryly.
“No, my play would be very boring.”
“I don’t believe that for a second!” Annie protested.
“It’s true. I’m going to be happy in the end. I’ve decided on it,” June replied, taking a sip of her wine and gazing at her Christmas tree. It had chili lights on it that she bought in Arizona.
June always said she’d retire in Arizona, but I know she’d miss the cold weather.
It was right when June was going to move on to more important matters, such as who she would send Annie on a date with in Newport, when things became pretty interesting.
That night, Jack Spencer came knocking on the door, and he was soaked with water.
The pipe ruptured just before 9pm. Something to do with the frost.
The old house that Jack had been fixing up as a pet project was in disrepair. That much was clear. Jack learned how to fix up houses as a young fella, before he became a fisherman. So he knew a big burst when he saw one, and he wouldn’t make it through the night in that house.
So Jack did the only thing that he knew how to do: he went to June’s. He’d been raised around June. I had seen it happen. June was friends with Jack’s mother.
June told him – when she knew he was fixing up the house – that if there was ever a kind of problem, like the one that he had that night, then he shouldn’t think twice about coming to the B&B. Jack obliged.
It pained him really. He’d just as well sleep on the boat. But sometimes, even a man as headstrong as Jack Spencer had to admit defeat.
I’m told that he was quite a sight when he came through that door. Not only was he dripping water, but a good portion of it had frozen in his hair as well.
So it came as quite a shock to him, literally freezing and angry out of his mind, when he saw Annie sitting there by the tree, drinking a glass of wine and chatting with June. Just earlier that day he had seen her asking for a car accident. And the night before, the altercation that stuck in Annie’s mind like icicles clinging to a tree.
Annie’s first inclination was to say ‘WTF’ (She has explained this to me), seeing the cavalier way in which Jack flung his way into the room. But then, something sank in her chest and she feared that something might be quite wrong.
Annie sprung to her feet, but June remained in her chair, her jaw agape.
“Jack . . . “ June finally said, putting down her glass.
It was the first time that Annie had heard his name, and for whatever reason, she thought it was a remarkable name, and well suited.
“Pipe sprung at Leavenworth,” Jack said flatly, shaking his head like a dog.
“Oh, no!” June exclaimed, putting a hand over her mouth. “Did you bring dry clothes?” June asked, the mother in her taking over.
Jack looked about him as though it were the oddest question in the world.
“Afraid not,” he replied, thinking he’d just come to the B&B and crash for the night, sorting things out the next day.
“Well, then. I’ve got some things upstairs,” June said, scurrying off quickly. She still had Earl’s clothes. Had been some 10 years since he had been gone.
Upon June’s departure, there was a penetrating silence in the room. Annie was pretty much speechless, and Jack felt a little embarrassed about his current predicament.
But I know from both sources, they were mostly happy to see one another.
Jack noted immediately how different Annie looked. The disheveled, frightened lady from days before had given way to a woman that was cozy, relaxed, and almost had a look of contentment. There was healthy color in her cheeks.
As for Annie, she saw something very different in Jack as well. His guard was down.
“Good evening,” he finally said, standing there in the middle of the room, without defense.
“Hello,” Annie replied, not sure if she should lift her hand to wave. “Is it cold out there?”
Annie most definitely wanted to kick herself for saying it. There was no excuse. Especially for someone from New York. But, something about Jack overwhelmed her. For a moment, she even felt the return of a childhood tick; a lisp.
Jack merely laughed, and it was the first time that she saw him smile.
His face lit up. His eyes sparkled. Annie feared that she was doomed.
Jack walked over to a chair and sat, rubbing a spot on his knee where the pipe had ruptured and struck him.
There was a bit of blood, and it took Annie a moment to see it.
“Oh no!” she said, springing towards the wound. “Are you alright?”
“This is nothing,” Jack said with customary lack of consideration.
That kid’s arm could be falling off and it would be nothing. Forgive me for calling him a kid, but he was, in my eyes.
“Can I get you something?” Annie asked, thinking she could fetch a damp cloth. A bandaid wouldn’t cover it.
“I guess a paper towel would do,” Jack replied.
Annie jumped up to find a wash room where she could get a paper towel, but in her concern she thought it was inefficient.
She ran into the kitchen, still smelling of the evening’s meal of chicken pot pie, and grabbed a white towel.
It seemed like the least practical thing to grab, but would be more absorbent than a silly paper towel. She soaked it in water in the sink, and turned to momentarily glance at a picture of June.
She was standing with a man that Annie assumed was June’s former husband. Perhaps the last of the three? They were smiling. The setting was tropical, and June looked happy.
Another story to tell there, but perhaps on another day. Newport is bounding with stories. Ghosts, too.
Annie came back into the dining room where Jack was now standing, looking at the ornaments on the Christmas tree. He was mesmerized, actually. There was something childlike about it.
“I have this,” Annie said, getting down on her knees and wrapping it around Jack’s wound.
He looked down to watch the gesture. He thought nothing of it at first, but then it became entirely too overwhelming and he pushed away.
Annie was startled, unsure if she had done something wrong.
“Do you just want to take it?” she asked, handing the cloth over.
“Thank you,” Jack said, a little flustered. He took the cloth from her hands and their fingers brushed.
It was a suspended moment. Not unlike the one they’d shared when they first made eye contact.
Jack rushed away and sat again in the chair, wrapping the cloth around his wound.
“I have some stuff here,” June said, coming into the room carrying an armful of clothes. “They should fit. Earl was big around the middle, and you’re big around the shoulders! It should balance out,” June said with a smile.
She stopped, noting the tension in the room. It was that temperature change that I was talking about the night before.
She could sense it as well as I could, and it froze her.
At a later date, June would tell me about it. And she would also tell me about a premonition. (She was prone to them. Went through a phase of reading palms.)
On that particular night, her premonition included both something wonderful and something hard.
And she saw a baby.
That night, Jack lay in the Blue Suite wearing old Earl’s pajamas. It was unsettling to him. He glanced out the window and noted that the storm had passed for the day. The air was calm and still.
There was no caroling off in the distance, as was customary for this time of year in Newport. He actually felt relieved by it. That damn caroling always annoyed him.
This was another night where Annie and Jack found themselves looking up at the ceiling, waiting for sleep to come. Only this time, Jack was looking up at his ceiling, which was where Annie was sleeping.
He knew so little about her, and thought that maybe it wasn’t best to learn more. Jack leaned over on his side and tried to think about nothing at all.
Unfortunately for him, (I understand this because it’s my same affliction) all the most painful thoughts come just at that time, between day’s efforts and the night’s long-awaited sleep. Horrible thoughts. The ones that the business of the day had kept at bay.
Annie knew that Jack was below her. They said goodnight on the stairwell and she saw what room he went into. She didn’t mind that he was right below her, but there was a brief moment that she looked down at the floor and knit her brow.
This is when, as Annie recounted to me years later, whiskey in hand, she assumed the only reason she was infatuated by the taciturn fisherman was because she was trying to recover from a broken heart.
She doubted her attraction, as any sound-minded woman would. She knew that she was on the mend. I guess, you can’t even say that. The mending was yet to begin.
Her wound was fresh and excruciating. She was dizzy from it. I remember from the past, when my heart got ripped out of my chest, everything feels heightened. More severe.
Annie assumed this was why, for the second night in a row, she couldn’t stop thinking about Jack, the man whose name she learned just that night.
In the end, sleep didn’t come hard for either of them. The beauty of the silence and the charm of June’s well-appointed B&B put their cares to rest, and it wasn’t long till they were awakened, not by the sound of alarm clocks, but the smell of blueberry pancakes.
Some guests of June’s have remarked that she funnels it through the pipes in order to wake her guests. If she has, I gotta pick her brain. I should be funneling the smell of chowder out into the street from SharkFin.
But, it was probably 7am when the smell roused them both.
Jack felt his stomach growl, but Annie wanted to lie in bed all day and just be bathed in the fragrance of it. In the end, her hunger gave out as well and she washed and came down the stairs.
She was immediately struck by the image of Jack, sitting by the frosty window and devouring a stack of cakes like a hungry animal.
The image was heartening, and she couldn’t conceal a smile.
Jack, upon seeing her, crumpled to perfection from a good night’s rest, cleared his throat.
“I nearly fell out of bed when I smelt it,” Annie said, walking over and seating herself at the table beside his.
Jack looked over furtively, seeing that she didn’t sit with him. But of course she wouldn’t! They hardly knew one another. Yet still, it seemed like it just wasn’t right.
June was out before Annie nearly plopped her bottom in the chair, and had a plate for her, as well.
“Quill and paper,” June announced, placing the pancakes before Annie.
It has always been June’s way, preparing for her guests pancakes in various shapes dependent upon what she knew about them.
That morning, Jack got a stack of fish and boat-shaped flapjacks.
“Oh my goodness!” Annie said in dismay, putting her hands to her cheeks.
“They taste just the same as normal cakes,” June explained, hoping the shape wouldn’t turn her off.
“Better,” Jack replied, knowing full well that June’s cakes were the best he’d ever had. And by that time, he had a belly full of them.
“Thank you,” Annie replied, picking up fork and knife and finding that she actually had an appetite.
“Bacon, Jack,” June said, by way of a statement, and not a question. She rushed back to the kitchen and Annie was left to indulge in her first bite.
“Did you sleep alright?” Jack asked, not knowing why the hell he asked it.
Jack has never been touchy-feely, I must note. Therefore asking how someone else has slept was foreign to him.
“Like the dead!” Annie exclaimed, realizing that she had never slept so well in all her life. It was as though the entire time she had been in New York City, she hadn’t slept a wink.
“Well done!” June exclaimed, pertaining to the bacon. She knew that was how Jack liked it.
“Thank you, June. This is a treat,” Jack said humbly. Truly, he never ate as well as when he was in June’s company.
“I don’t know what you poor guys eat out on those boats. Would have made your mother batty to think of it.”
“It’s pretty simple out on the boats, I’m not going to lie,” Jack replied, digging into his bacon.
“And at the house. Do you cook?” June asked, and immediately regretted it.
Jack went silent. The house alone was a touchy subject, but his living in a house alone was yet another. June shook her head, wishing she could retreat to her room on the basement floor.
“Never have been much of a cook,” Jack replied with decency.
“And the work there is . . . “ June asked.
“Coming along,” Jack replied with a humble smile.
You could tell, however, that he was eager to change the subject.
“And you, Annie. What are you up to today?” June asked, feeling as though the room had gotten a little hot.
“Oh, just some work.”
“What do you do?” Jack asked, a bit above board.
“I write, I guess,” Annie replied.
“What about?” Jack asked, not entirely impressed. It wasn’t that a writer wasn’t intriguing. And in fact, considering the manner in which she arrived in town, it made perfect sense. But for Jack, there was nothing impressive about it. Only yeoman tasks were impressive to him.
“Oh, just nonsense,” Annie replied, hoping to not talk about it further.
“She wants to write a novel!” June said, with immense pride. “We talked about it last night.”
“I do like to write stories,” Annie replied, far more sheepishly than she should.
Annie can be too bashful, I know this about her now. She never gave herself any credit, before.
“Stories about what?” Jack asked, taking another bite of bacon.
“Well. . . I don’t know,” Annie replied dreamily, looking about the room. She gazed out at the blanket of white snow just outside the vast Victorian windows. For a moment, the very idea of it made her feel expansive. There were so many possibilities. “I think I might like to write about the sea,” she said, her love of Melville overtaking her. “Or Paris,” she added guiltily, knowing how inconsistent she was.
“The sea or Paris,” Jack repeated with humorous wonder.
“I suppose so,” Annie replied, not really self-conscious about it.
“Well, Jack can tell you about the sea. He can take you on the sea!” June said quickly, noting the opportunity, and wishing to capitalize upon it.
Annie turned to him, and their eyes met. She thought about how much she desperately wanted to go out on the water. To feel the wind in her hair, and have the sense that she was riding away from things. Off into a new horizon. She was desperate for it.
Annie turned away from him, feeling as though she was meeting his gaze for too long.
She looked down at her watch and felt her stomach lurch in her throat.
“Oh, I have to go!” she said with a start, rising from her chair.
“Is everything alright?” June asked, not used to people in Newport getting on with such a start.
“Yes, it’s just that . . . I have to start working by 9, or the day is shot!” Annie exclaimed, rushing out the door.
Both June and Jack regarded her with wonder.
“She’ll slow down a bit,” June said hopefully.
Not wanting to make a comment about Annie, lest he might be giving himself away too much, Jack got up from the table as well.
“I gotta go fix that house,” Jack said, standing to his full 6” in height.
“And when do you get back on the water?” June asked, knowing full well that it was where he was most at home.
“Don’t know,” Jack said, wiping his brow. He was back in his own clothes, after June had washed and dried them through the night. “Maybe in a week.”
“Well, that will finally give you a good chunk of time here in Newport!” June said with excitement. “We haven’t had you stay in quite a while.”
Were it up to Jack, he’d be gone for years on end.
“Just to work on the house. . . “ Jack said, giving a purpose to his stay. “That’s all I’m here for.”
Jack walked out into the cold and brought his hand to his opposite elbow. For a moment it made June think of John Wayne.
I mention this because she told me about it, and I always saw this gesture in Jack. John Wayne was my hero as well, in the end.
Jack didn’t bother to put on his winter coat. He’d be walking to his truck, and that was that. Back to the house, where he’d be awaiting the plumber, and could get to work on other things that needed fixing.
His mother let the home fall to shambles when she was alive. But then again, she didn’t have anyone to help her in the matter.
I could explain this further, but it might pain me too much. But the story does get happier, and when I’m in a lighter mood, I might be able to tell that part of it, as well.
But I’ll mention here that it’s not just a house. It’s a mansion. Jack never uses that word.
Annie stumbled into SharkFin around noon. The moment I saw her I perked up. We had the usual crowd that afternoon; locals that came for a hot meal in the midst of a frigid day. But there was something about Annie that always made a room come to life.
“Could I see a menu, please?” she asked, seating herself at the table where she first sat.
My ears perked up like a dog and I grabbed the old, plastic-enclosed menu with glee.
“Take your time,” I said, running back to the bar to grab a Cobb salad that had been placed there, waiting for me to bring it to table.
The Cobb salads were good at SharkFinn. Actually, I can honestly say they were the best in New England. It was a local favorite.
But Annie was going traditional that afternoon. She got the chowder in a bread bowl, and I found myself bursting with pride.
She jotted down notes upon a yellow note pad, which I later learned was a way to organize her flummoxed brain.
When the soup came out, it was as fragrant and hot as ever. I dare say, it was probably Jack that caught the clams in that soup.
Annie looked at it with wonder and took a big spoonful. A pink flush came to her cheek from the warmth of it, and I began to pour a refill of beer for Hank, my most expected regular. Hank used to be a fisherman, but now devoted his time to beer and football, a retirement that I envy.
Annie kept to herself; always does. But on that afternoon, the inquisitiveness that June instilled in her, still new, had its way with her.
She motioned for me to return to the table and I did so dutifully, although I admit, it was never my desire to serve folks food! It was something I only engaged in with the afternoon crowd. But for Annie, I would have served her up all of Newport on a platter.
“Can I ask you something?” she said mischievously.
“Of course,” I replied, never being one for words. Except the words in this story, which I take pride in.
“Do you know that guy? The one from a week or so back?” she asked, and I could tell that she was embarrassed that she was even asking. She shouldn’t have been, because it was an important question.
“I know him well,” I replied casually, not trying to give away how much I knew the kid. Okay, he’s not a kid. I have to get that out of my head.
“Where is he from?” she asked, again with that feminine guilt that only comes from someone who thinks that they should never be so nosy.
“Newport,” I replied with pride. “Born and bred.”
“And he lives here now?” she asked, still sheepishly.
“On and off,” said I. “Been living here while he’s fixing up the house,” I said, then immediately regretted it. It sounded too familiar, my statement. Like I knew the house in question.
Just then I was called away to replenish a basket of bread, and I was momentarily glad about it. I didn’t know how much more I could explain to Annie.
Small town life seems quaint and without consequence, but I’ve learned that when you dig up one shovel-full, you’re getting into a whole mess of things.
Annie continued quietly with her meal, and for some time I saw her staring at the flashing Christmas tree near the entrance, with that same vacant look that I saw the first night she came to Newport. She was dreaming of something, I didn’t know what.
I walked back over. Hoping I might replenish her soup or give her something else.
“You seen the town yet?” I asked with pride.
Let me note now that this was out of character for me. I have always been fond of where I live, but never proud. Never directing tourists towards the next showy thing. But I sincerely wanted Annie to see the sights. I wanted her to love Newport. I oddly wanted her to stay.
“Not much, no,” she replied, looking around a little apprehensively. She was a strong woman, no doubt, but still had reservations about dining alone.
“You need to see the mansions. Especially this time of year,” I replied, picking up her empty plate. All the soup gone, half a bread bowl left.
“I hear they’re beautiful,” she replied warmly.
“They’ve got this dress-up occasion,” I began to say.
“The costume thing!” Annie said with recognition.
“Yes, that’s it,” I replied, liking the light in her eyes.
“June was telling me about that!” she added, with extra enthusiasm.
That’s when I first learned where it was that Annie was staying, and who was her host.
I liked her a lot on first sight, but I liked Annie even more when I learned how much she liked June. Good people like good people.
“You’re staying at the the Newport Hollows B&B?”
“I am. It’s wonderful!” she replied.
“How long you staying for?” I asked, realizing that I was still oddly holding her plate in my hands. Funny how serving people makes you feel funny sometimes.
“I don’t know,” she replied, again looking off with that distant stare.
“Well, we’ll have you as long as you want to be here,” I replied, knowing that maybe I said too much.
But Annie looked up at me as if no one had ever said such a thing to her before. Funny that that should be.
“Thanks. That’s nice to hear,” she replied innocently. Her thoughts turned inward. “I’m sorry, but is that man. . . “
“Jake,” I said quickly, filling in the blanks.
“Jake!” she replied with recognition. “Is he . . . alright?” she asked.
“In what way?” I asked, not understanding her meaning.
“I don’t know, he just seems so,” she paused for a moment and cleared her throat. “Sad.”
That was the lone word that she could think of. There was a sadness to him. It was clear as day.
But what Annie didn’t know, and what I DID know! was that she could see it so plainly, because she felt it herself.
“He has seen a thing or two,” I replied, trying to keep my answer as general as possible.
“Well, he seems very nice,” Annie finally said, getting a hold of herself. “I’m grateful for what he did the other night.”
“I’m sure it was his pleasure,” I replied without reservations.
But Annie looked at me a funny way, and gave me a confused smile.
I made the statement clear enough. I saw what was going to happen. But Annie was too hard on herself back then so see when something good was going to happen.
Annie sat in the Newport Book Club, held at the Newport Public Library, wondering what had happened to her life.
Sure, she was happier in the wee few days that she had come to Newport, and yet, she had ended up in a public library with women twice her age, talking about Jane Austen.
It was all too formulaic.
Still, she couldn’t help but feel comforted by it. Talks of Mr. Darcy and Elinor and Marianne were far more enjoyable than life itself.
Listen, I have not read these books and I don’t know these characters. My wife loved them, though.
A sort of calm came over her as she sat in that stately room, with years of history. The Newport library is historic, I must add. She felt a certain weight in her being released. There was nothing else to do that afternoon but sit, and hear about Jane Austen.
“But don’t you think it’s sad how all the women had to rely upon men?” Myrtle asked.
Myrtle was a curmudgeon, and I must say, is no longer with us. Thanks for the memories, Myrtle. But, she always spoke the truth, and shot from the hip.
“That was just society at the time. This still exists!” Peggy argued back. Now, Peggy is still with us, and married a rich financier in Newport. She spent her girlhood touring mansions, and now she lives in one.
“We know it still exists,” June Clements said under her breath, rolling her eyes. Peggy had come into money by marriage, and June was both repulsed and envious. Again I say: a complicated woman.
June also didn’t approve of Peggy because she was a vegetarian.
“I’m just saying that, it’s romantic and all, but their lives were just about marriage,” Myrtle went on, noting June’s snide comment.
“Well, the Regency period was when women started to have a choice about their partners,” Annie chimed in. “It was when romance started to be possible. A woman could choose based upon what her heart told her.”
The ladies turned to her. There were about a dozen of them, and the mood in the room lightened up a bit.
“I don’t know that I believe in romance anymore,” Myrtle said with a frown.
“Then why are you reading Jane Austen?” June asked with a huff.
“Because there was nothing else to do on a Tuesday night! My husband is driving me crazy. All he does is watch baseball.”
“I would still like to believe in romance,” Annie said, the attention turning towards her again.
Cucumber sandwiches were being passed around. And strangely, Oreo cookies. It was Myrtle’s night to bring the refreshments. Clearly not June’s.
“Do you have a partner?” A rather large woman named Gayle asked. Her eyes lit up with hope.
Annie became sheepish and recoiled.
“I’m just sort of. . . getting out of something,” Annie finally replied, wondering why the hell she should be so embarrassed about not being in a relationship.
There was silence for a moment in the room, which June broke with a conversation about her latest knitting project, and the Christmas gala to take place at the Montgomery, one of the larger mansions in Newport.
The ladies discussed their costumes, the food that would be provided via potluck, and the number of guests that would probably attend.
There was also discussion of the dancing, the live four-piece orchestra, and the traditional reading of the 12 Days of Christmas.
All this while, Annie was kicking herself. Why should it be so damn uncomfortable to tell other women that you’re single? It was baffling to her.
Annie still deals with this, by the way. Although oddly, it made it easier once she had a kid. Was some kind of armor. Annie didn’t like to admit this, but she admitted it to me.
More discussion of Jane Austen ensued, and Annie found herself thinking about Jack. She knew that she shouldn’t do it, but it was something that popped into the forefront of her mind out of nowhere.
Had been for at least a week.
I wish I could see right then and there that it was the same for Jack, but it wasn’t for years after this that he admitted to me that he was having similar thoughts.
He was at Leavenworth mansion, sitting in front of a big fire. I can’t even say it’s a big fire, because from what I remember of that sitting room, the fireplace is nearly as tall as Jack.
He sat in front of it drinking a beer. Jack stared at the massive flames and counted the days until he could again be at sea.
The plumbers finally arrived that day and fixed the break. This was a relief for Jack, because he was more comfortable at the house by himself. Didn’t like to rely on anyone, and couldn’t stand those ruffly curtains at the B&B. But there was one thing that he missed.
Now, Jack hadn’t been romantic with a lady in some time. It’s hard for me to say this with certainty, but I know that after Lily passed he kept his distance. Couldn’t stand the idea of being hurt like that again.
So it was strange for him to have his mind fixated on a lady. It was like something that was only allowed to his former self.
But Annie did capture his imagination. Same way she did mine.
Now, sitting at the corner of that sitting room, so old and tarnished that one could never imagine that it was once a wealthy estate, there was a Christmas tree. I couldn’t believe it when he told me.
Jack was never festive in any way. But something that afternoon inspired him to go down to the lot right on main street – run by the Newport boy scouts – and buy a mid-size fir. He even planned to decorate it. Went to the hardware store and bought lights. But as he sat there looking at it, the remains of his beer drawing towards room temperature, he couldn’t manage to do it. Decorating a Christmas tree alone seemed far too ridiculous.
So he just stared at it.
Now, here let me boast about the Christmas tree at the SharkFin! I did it myself. All blue lights, flickering in the darkness of the maritime tavern. I even went down to the local drugstore and bought ornaments that are made of glass and glitter. My favorite is a large shiny orb that has a boat painted on it. Made me think of Jack.
And I didn’t feel lonely when I decorated it. I never feel lonely at SharkFin. There’s always people coming in. And I’ve been using the same decorations for years. It’s comforting in a way.
Jack used to love decorating the tree as a kid. But here I’m being sentimental and giving too much away.
What you’re probably hoping for now is when Jack and Annie meet again, and it’s coming soon. I promise you.
It happened just the following night, when Annie had become addicted to my chowder! (Alright, it was when she became addicted to my whiskey. She never liked to drink alone) and she found herself at my altar on a Sunday night.
She was sipping her drink, sitting at her table, when Jack came in to my great surprise and delight. Rory was with him.
Jack’s friend was eager to talk about the good ole’ days. When they were in school, playing soccer and gorging on pizza after school. Jack wasn’t eager to talk about these things, so he listened silently. He was always a good listener.
The two friends went to the bar, and Jack spotted Annie immediately. He had trouble focusing on what Rory was saying.
Annie had the same reaction. It was like everything became heightened. She didn’t know if she should ignore him or get up to say hello. Did they know each other? Were they close enough yet to acknowledge one another?
Jack nodded his head towards her. Again, it was his John Wayne temperament. Annie nodded back, but added a girlish smile.
Rory continued to talk, ordering his gin, which I supplied before he said a word.
But it was Rory who was the first one to make a scene about Annie’s presence.
“There’s that woman again,” he said under his breath.
“Yah,” Jack replied without feeling.
“She’s good looking,” Rory said, lifting his brows.
“Sure,” Jack said without emotion, knowing full well that when one man shows interest, it peaks the interest of the others.
He didn’t want to peak Rory’s interest.
“Remember that night when you. . . “ Rory began to say.
“Just drink your drink,” Jack replied, cutting him off. The event was only weeks ago, and Jack didn’t want to think that his barroom scuffles were not just a thing of the past.
“I would go talk to her, but I’m afraid that I’d end up on the floor,” Rory said, taking a sip of his gin. He lifted his brow.
Jack just shook his head.
I watched this little interaction and brought the guys a plate of mozzarella sticks. They didn’t ask for it, but I provided it gratis. I was just thankful that the recent storms had kept them on terra firma for so many days.
“Thanks,” Jack said, looking up at me with a look that was cutting. Now, Jack always has that look, I must say. But for me, I’ve been on the receiving end of it for many years. So I’m used to it.
“Eat up,” I replied, returning to a bit of chopping and zesting.
It’s embarrassing to say that a large part of my job is chopping and zesting, but so it goes. My days are filled with lemons, limes, and oranges.
It was around this time that a gentle snow began to fall. I could see it outside my porthole. And by saying that I have a porthole, I’m being literal. There’s a porthole behind the bar, and from it I can see the harbor, just a few paces away.
I went to the radio and turned on Christmas music. I’m nostalgic, so help me! Christmas Eve was the following day. What can I say?
Josephine, the old lady in the kitchen that had been working there since God knows how long – older than me – had been baking bread pudding that day to serve for our special Christmas eve pre fix dinner, and the smell was wafting through the joint.
The combination of that, with Annie sitting there, and with Jack sitting there, just went to my head.
I ran into the kitchen to get a fresh plate of the pudding. Josephine scolded me, and said that it was too soon to serve it. But I figured it was never too soon to serve dessert.
I took a huge pile of it and put it on a plate. Carried it out of the kitchen and walked towards Annie’s table. I placed it before her ceremoniously.
Her eyebrows lifted. She was as intoxicated by the smell as I was. But she was intimidated.
“Is that for me?” she asked with surprise.
“It is,” I replied simply with a boyish grin.
She picked up her fork with wonder, then she shook her head.
“I can’t do it alone.” Annie looked towards Jack, and felt his gaze upon her. Because he was looking at her, that much was clear. And his ‘gaze’ was intent.
“Do you want to help?” she asked, smiling at him.
Jack smiled back.
“I’ll help you!” Rory said with enthusiasm, rising from his bar stool. Jack knitted his brow, seeing that his friend was swooping in.
Annie laughed to herself, and delighted in seeing Rory sit across from her, ready to indulge. He asked me for another fork and I ran back to the bar. I looked at Jack, and I saw that he was fuming a little.
I brought Rory a fork, and the man took a large portion of it. Placing it in his mouth, he moaned with glee.
Annie was surprised that he dived in with such relish. But she was about to see him dive in even further.
Rory was quick to interrogate her.
“I’ve seen you here before,” he said between mouthfuls.
“Yes, I’m starting to like this place,” Annie replied. In the corner of her eye she could see Jack watching her.
“How much more do you want? Because I could eat this whole thing,” Rory said, noting that Annie had only had a spoonful.
“Just dig in,” Annie replied, putting her fork down. She tried not to look at Jack again, but she couldn’t help it. Every time that he looked at her, her hair stood on end. It was instinctive.
Rory went to town on the dessert, and finally Annie spoke up. She couldn’t help herself.
“Do you want some?” she asked, directing her voice towards Jack.
Jack smiled at her, then looked away. He was beginning to be incensed by all the smiling she brought out of him.
“I’m good, thanks,” he replied curtly, turning back to his beer.
“Suit yourself,” Annie replied, taking another bite.
Jack turned his head back towards her and saw her bring fork to mouth, watched her place the pudding in her mouth and chew. It shouldn’t have been erotic. It was a normal act of being human. But there was something totally remarkable about it to him.
Jack smiled to himself and shook his head. He was losing his wits. Clearly.
“You still at the Newport Hollows?” Jack finally asked, suddenly wanting to know where she was living. Almost intently.
“Yes, still there,” Annie replied, toying with the fork in her hand. She wanted to say more. About how she was looking for apartments. Even thinking of staying in Newport for quite a while.
Annie had never stayed in one place for too long. But she was beginning to wonder if she might take a chance on this town.
I couldn’t have worked it out more perfectly myself.
“Well, enjoy yourself,” Jack replied, feeling foolish again.
He looked positively embarrassed, and it warmed my heart. I’d never really seen him embarrassed on any occasion.
Meanwhile, Rory looked like he was at a tennis match, and not happy about it.
He kept glancing back and forth, from Annie to Jack, noting the exchange.
He decided to dive in.
“Have you ever been sailing?” Rory asked, adrenalin flowing through him. Jack heard it and turned towards his beer.
“No, actually. I . . . haven’t.”
“We should go,” Rory replied with enthusiasm.
I saw that knot in Jack’s jaw again. He wanted to intervene. Jack was good at intervening. But the past prevented it.
Jack and Rory were always immensely competitive. Like brothers. And in this situation Rory got the upper hand.
The exact moment that Annie felt the sea breeze in her hair, Jack took a hammer to an old wall.
This was days later, and Annie and Rory had agreed upon the right time when they might go for a sail. It was fair-weather outside, and it was only a hitch in his boat that was keeping Jack on the ground. One thing after another prevented him from leaving. Perhaps the biggest thing was that he still hadn’t asked Annie out on a date.
She was practically becoming a town regular, and quickly!
Jack saw her almost daily; at the coffee shop, the pharmacy, the SharkFin. She just kept popping up.
Knowing that it was the day she was out on the water with Rory, Jack decided it was high time he tore down a wall at the mansion. It just felt good. And he was mad at himself, not Rory.
Jack had never felt inclined to ask a woman out for many years. Annie was the first to make it seem like a pressing issue, but Jack didn’t give in to the desire. He sunk himself down in contemplation.
Lily, God rest her precious self, had even told Jack that when she was gone – she knew she was going – she wanted him to find someone else. Didn’t trust Jack to be alone. He couldn’t cook or clean. Wasn’t even keen on buying new clothes.
Jack would absolutely not listen to Lily when she told him this. The agony of it was too great.
I do remember that, during Lily’s decline, those were the years where Jack’s beard grew, his shirts became holy, and his diet was comprised of Hungry Man frozen meals. I kid you not.
Even though he avoided the SharkFin during Lily’s tough months – says he didn’t want to see that look in my eye – every time he made a rare appearance, I’d fill that guy with about as much food as I could find. In the back Josephine would put more butter in the chowder, put more oil on his meat, add cheese to his fries!
Now, there wasn’t a need to fatten Jack up. He’s always been a well-built guy. But during that time, he was getting a tad sinewy. Even Hungry Man meals aren’t enough for a furnace like Jack Spencer’s.
I digress, but my point is, Jack wanted to spend time alone with the mysterious Annie from the Big City, and was even given permission by the late missus, but still, he couldn’t do it.
And because of his cowardice, that very afternoon, his best friend was enjoying her company. And a double blow: they were out on the water.
Jack gave that wall a serious beating. He didn’t even have to explain it to me.
In fact, he probably got a week’s worth of work done in that one afternoon, running around that old manor like a madman.
He became motivated to finish the renovations quickly, sell the damn thing and finally move to Maine. Maybe Vermont. Hell, anywhere but Newport. With all its money, and history, and tourists, it was not the best fit for someone like Jack.
He could live in a shack by the marina and be perfectly comfortable, so long as he could get up in the morning and get right on his boat.
But there were family ties that Jack had to attend to. Demons that he couldn’t escape. And his internal demolition on that mansion was just another way of killing those demons.
Jack stopped, and felt the sweat trickling on his brow. Even though it was cold as hell in that old house, the sheer exertion of Jack’s effort brought a sheen there.
He was wearing a white tank top in the middle of winter for crying out loud. But I already mentioned that was is a furnace.
So, Jack looked out the window. Out towards the sea. The manor house was on a steep hillside, so he could see the water clearly. Everything was grey; the sky, the sea, the hillside.
Christmas lights were twinkling down in the town, of course. And the big tree on Main Street was in view.
For a moment it softened him, and Jack thought again about decorating his own tree.
Maybe it was okay to be alone, to be heartbroken, to be lost, and still to open yourself to pleasure in life.
This moment was fleeting, because then Jack spotted a lone boat out on the water.
He knew that it was Rory’s.
They were in the cabin, of course. It was cold as sin. Annie was bundled up in her purple coat, and Rory looked quite at ease behind the captain’s wheel. It was a small vessel; not the fishing boat of coarse. Just a ship that Rory used to ride as a kid. His cheeks were pink from the cold.
“Do you need more coffee?” Rory asked with a smile, seeing Annie clutching herself. He had brought a little portable pot.
“Oh, that would be great,” Annie replied, watching as Rory poured another serving into a styrofoam cup.
“Is it everything you hoped it would be?” Rory asked, his finger gracing hers as he handed her the cup.
“You mean, being on a boat?” she asked.
“No, I was referring to the Maxwell coffee,” he replied humorously.
Annie laughed. There was something smart and intelligent about Rory that she liked. She considered if maybe they were there on that boat together for a reason.
“It is quite amazing,” she said, looking out towards the grey sea. “I just can’t imagine living like you guys live.”
Rory felt defeated for a moment. He didn’t want to be roped in with all the other fishermen. He didn’t want it to be his identity. Especially considering the treatment that Annie received the first night that she came to Newport.
I’ll say this much about Rory: He’s a good looking kid. Always had a way with the ladies. But he found himself entering into his 30’s without a wife, wondering what the hell he had done wrong.
In Annie’s eyes, he saw potential. I just know it. Someone vulnerable, looking for a safe haven. I don’t want to say that he saw his children in Annie’s eyes because that kind of stuff turns my stomach. But Rory had some definite intentions.
“I couldn’t either, when I was a kid. My father was a fisherman, and I was determined to do something else. I wanted to be a writer,” he said with pride.
“Oh?” Annie asked. In truth, she couldn’t imagine why the devil he would want to do that.
“Yes, I wanted to write the next Lord of the Rings!” he said with great enthusiasm. “And then I realized that I just wanted to read Lord of the Rings.”
Annie had to laugh again. She thought about how funny it is, what we’re motivated to do with our lives.
“What do you do?” Rory asked, liking that he was making her laugh.
“I’m a writer,” she said casually.
Rory’s eyes went wide, and his grin even wider.
He was thinking that the prospect of starting a romantic relationship with Annie was becoming even more alluring. If just to live vicariously.
“I promise you, I don’t write anything interesting. Just boring stuff,” she said, taking a sip of her coffee.
“Have you written any stories?” Rory asked, trying to incrementally draw himself closer to her.
“I tried to write this book set in Paris. I visited it briefly, years ago. It has been on my mind every since! I got half way through writing it, and I just stopped. It was like fight or flight took over. I couldn’t go back to it.”
“You got halfway through it and stopped?!” Rory asked with wonder.
“Yah, I think it was a good story too. About a single mother down on her luck who moves to Paris and enters painting school. Changes her life, etc. I guess it sounds a bit formulaic.”
“No, that sounds nice,” Rory said warmly.
“I’ve actually never told anyone about that book,” Annie said, with an embarrassed smile. “I was just so upset that I froze up like that.”
“There’s still time. You’re not dead yet,” Rory replied, putting a finger under her chin.
It was an intimate gesture, and Rory knew that he had done it too fast.
He pulled his hand away and turned back out towards the sea.
The grey had become heavier, darker, more ominous. Rory knew instantly by the look of it that the storms were returning. It had been a particularly violent winter.
“I think we’d better go,” Rory said, turning the boat around.
“Will you be spending time with Jack tonight?” Annie asked, a bit too impulsively. She’s always been impulsive.
Rory looked at her quizzically, wondering if all this time his hopes were unfounded.
“No, Jack keeps to himself,” he replied, annoyed yet again, that Jack stole the spotlight. He tensed his jaw and continued to spin the boat 180°.
“Yes, I think that Tony told me that,” Annie replied.
Rory gave a nervous grin. He knew a hell of a lot more about me than Annie did at that time.
“Tony,” he said dismissively.
“I like him,” Annie protested. (This is not for sure but I choose to write that here)
“Jack’s been working on the house, mostly. Well, at least trying to. Feels guilty about it,” Rory explained.
“Why does he feel guilty?” Annie asked, turning to him.
“Because of all that money,” Rory said casually, not turning away from the sea. “He’d just as well get rid of it all. But he feels the weight of that history. That legacy,” Rory tried to explain.
Annie looked at him with a confused expression.
She didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. Why was Rory speaking in hushed tones? Hell, why do I still speak in hushed tones about it?
Money has been in Newport since Newport was Newport! And I can say – I haven’t seen all of Newport’s history, even though it feels like it – Jack Spencer might have been the first to consider Newport wealth as a curse.
“Isn’t there some other family member that can help with the burden?” Annie asked, Jack’s deep, sad nature beginning to make sense to her.
Rory paused and chose his words.
“Tony wouldn’t be able to do it. The family disowned him a long time ago.”
“You mean, SharkFin Tony?” Annie asked, rather confused.
“Jack’s father,” Rory said solemnly, looking off onto the horizon.
Annie didn’t ask anything more, feeling as though she had stumbled upon a landmine.
Our story is a kind of Newport landmine. I wanted to wait before you knew. I’m still afraid that as the story goes on, you’re going to begin to see my character as a villain.