“Com’ere Bustah,” the old coot barked gruffly. Slouched on a bench of stone and wood, he wore an oversized pea coat and a dark blue knit cap. Most noticeable were his pale swollen ankles, showing between high-water plaid trousers and scuffed brown brogans with twine for shoelaces.
Roscoe Swift was content to ignore the rumpled stranger until he made his purpose clear: “Gotta match?” Out in the bay, Alcatraz was partially visible in the chilly fog. The thick gray sky was speckled with noisy white seagulls.
Roscoe approached the weather-beaten character cautiously and handed him a matchbook. The old salt lit his crooked, hand-rolled cigarette. Then the man coughed, cleared his throat, and spat triumphantly on the heavy support of the nearby tourist telescope. Roscoe watched the oyster slime its way off the heavy base to collect on the pavement.After a couple of greedy pulls on his smoke, the ungrateful man threw the matchbook into the bay and said, “Look’ere kid, yer no prodigy.
Annoyed, Roscoe looked in the water for the matchbook. It floated up so he could still read the type on the cover. It said Fancy Melons.
“No sir, heh, heh, yer just another thin-skinned boy -- ha! maybe a skinless boy -- trying to bluff his way into heaven,” said the old timer, as his pale blue eyes twinkled in a maze of wrinkles and broken capillaries.
The sea breeze gusted. When Swift rolled over, he woke up startled and confused. Reality at the moment was no less weird than his dream had been. He found that he had been sleeping on a stack of inflated rafts on the sand. Suddenly, it was a beautiful morning in Virginia Beach and Roscoe was very thirsty. Slowly, he began to remember climbing the lifeguard stand on the beach to the top of a pile of rental rafts lashed to it. Strangely, in the moonlight, it had made sense to sleep on an open-air perch, 15 feet up. He shuddered as he thought of the old man in the dream that was already beginning to fade away.
Then he realized he was still dreaming.
April 9, 1980: Roscoe Swift woke up already aware of the warm, moist air wafting through the slightly open bedroom window. Contrary to the weather forecast, it was still raining. Selena Cross, asleep on her back, didn’t stir as he deftly climbed over her and down from his loft.
The dream-within-a-dream he had just endured was a familiar haunt. It went all the way back to when he was 16, shortly after he actually did wake up on top of a stack of rafts on the beach. Roscoe shut off the alarm clock and gathered up last night’s clothes -- a black “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” T-shirt, khaki shorts, white socks, and high-top Converse All-Stars -- on his way to the bathroom.
Dressed and finished with the bathroom, Roscoe passed the shoulder-level bed. Selena looked too good to be true. Indeed, their six-week-old secret affair -- out of context from all else -- seemed dream-like much of the time to him.
Leggy and graceful, bright-eyed Selena had a feline quality that Roscoe told her was reminiscent of a young Brigitte Bardot, in “And God Created Woman.” While such a comparison was obviously meant to flatter, it also recognized her natural talent for mimicry and disguising her thoughts. To him Selena always seemed to be working from a script.
Roscoe and Selena had a big day planned -- a stolen day, removed from time. As he headed for the kitchen to scavenge up some breakfast, she opened her eyes, unbeknownst to him.
Selena Cross waitressed three nights a week at Soble’s on Floyd Avenue. To protect her image as one who never partied after hours, or strayed from her main squeeze, Selena invented a system to facilitate her “sessions” with Roscoe. On the nights she worked, he would swing by the bar on his way home from work at the Fan City Cinema, where he was the manager. Her fiancé -- a 30-year-old antique dealer, with money to burn -- traveled frequently, usually for a couple or three days, on short notice. If she was free and feeling amorous Selena would wear her honey-colored hair in a ponytail, to signal Roscoe she would be showing up at his place later. That way they could confine their conversation in the restaurant to small talk and leave at different times without huddled discussions.
In spite of the obvious chemistry between the two of them, Selena had convinced herself this subterfuge kept her coworkers and the bar’s regulars from suspecting anything.
In the summer between high school and college Selena had learned a lesson about being caught with her pants down, literally. Her outraged boyfriend, a judge’s son, beat her up. When the bruises faded she left her hometown for good. Sometimes, Roscoe didn’t know whether to believe Selena. Nor was he sure the ponytail really had everybody fooled. Still, with the bangs, it was a great look for her. Just the sight of that ponytail, bobbing and swaying as she walked, had a hypnotic effect on him.
Until this particular occasion it had been her custom to leave Roscoe’s carriage house apartment, in the alley behind the 1200 block of Franklin Street, before the first light of day. This time her fiancé was scheduled to be away longer than usual. Thus, this was their first morning together.
Roscoe Swift, 33, was a divorced wannabe filmmaker, who was too existential for his own good. Having had the same job for ten years, he could coast most of the time. Selena was a 23-year-old art history graduate. She led a disciplined, goal-oriented life and was ready to make her mark on a world of unlimited opportunity. Aside from a shared taste for Rockabilly music and a similar appreciation for black humor, they really didn’t have much in common. Generally, Selena didn’t talk about the past and Roscoe didn’t talk about the future.
Roscoe switched on the radio and opened the refrigerator. Then he remembered that Selena had wolfed down his leftover pizza. He was out of eggs, too.
What he had to work with was: a half-loaf of wheat bread, an almost new stick of butter, jars of mayonnaise, mustard and strawberry jam, a box of fig bars, a tired-looking head of lettuce, a bottle of extra dry domestic champagne, two cans of ginger ale, seven cans of beer and an empty pizza box.
Roscoe took out the champagne and sat it on the counter next to a small watermelon Selena had brought with her from the restaurant. As he carved up the melon, he whistled along with the radio to the classic Everly Brothers’ not-so-thinly-disguised ode to masturbation: “All I Have to Do is Dream.”
Selena, naked but for her thick socks, entered the room without making a sound. Amused that Roscoe hadn’t noticed her, she leaned her butt against the damp windowsill and folded her arms.
“Morning!” said Roscoe. “Hot coffee, buttered toast and cold champagne, with a watermelon spear, served in a pewter goblet. Presto! A perfect rainy day breakfast.”
Selena grinned. “I like rainy days. With no shadows, colors look more thick and juicy…”
“Miss Cross,” said Roscoe, “would you please slide the coffee pot onto the burner. It’s already loaded up.”
“You betcha,” said Selena. “Watermelon and champagne, together?”
“Yep,” said Roscoe, watching the gas flame burst into action, “this is an old Southern drink. They call it a ‘Spring Fling.’ You haven’t heard of it?”
“No, but it’s so totally appropriate,” she said with a yawn. The gesture fit well with her decadent rich girl act -- sometimes Selena almost seemed to have walked out of a F. Scott Fitzgerald story. Given her blue-collar, small town background, it was a persona he enjoyed watching her affect.
Roscoe popped the cork off the bottle of bubbly and the moment’s perfection promptly fizzled.
The bubbly wasn’t!
“Goddamn it!” he growled in a tone she hadn’t heard from him before.
While Selena’s body language had seemed to suggest that something other than breakfast was on her mind, anyway, the suddenly crestfallen Roscoe was focused on the flat champagne.
“I’ll be right back,” Roscoe blurted out, grabbing a hooded sweatshirt. He ran three-and-a-half blocks to a neighborhood wine shop in a steady rain, convinced the owner to open early, and returned with chilly bubbles aplenty.
“When you’re wet, you look fantastic!” A grinning Selena said, with eyes of mischief.
That prompted an impromptu session, with Selena seated on the porcelain kitchen table. Once again, they delighted in their collaborative ability to please one another. If anything, it was still improving. And, that was that.
The rain stopped and the clouds parted as they polished off their perfect breakfast with gusto. During the drive from Richmond to their destination, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, Selena and Roscoe sang along with a taped compilation of cuts by Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe.
Smitten with the sight of her, Roscoe could hardly keep his eyes on the road. “I’ve smiled at you so much I feel like a Cheshire cat on two hits of acid,” Roscoe deadpanned, as he pulled his pale yellow 1973 Volvo wagon into the parking lot of the quaint Hilltop Hotel.
As soon as they got to their room, Selena went to the bathroom. As he waited, Roscoe lit a joint, took a hit, and asked, “Do you still want to go to the horse races in Charles Town? We’ve still got the rest of the day to go sightseeing, or do whatever…”
“Whatever suits me fine,” said Selena, as she opened the door wearing only the Fan City Cinema T-shirt he had given her. That, and a spectacular smile.
“What the hell,” said Selena, who rarely smoked pot, “Up here I’m as out of town as it gets, let me have a puff of that.”
After her second hit, as she passed the joint back to him, Selena lifted her right foot to rub the instep along the back of her left calf. Roscoe stepped closer, tossing the joint at the bedside table’s ashtray. Her head tilted slightly to one side. The air between them was charged.
She pulled at his belt buckle as they landed on the bed. His hands cascaded along her rib cage, across her hip to her bare thigh.
Roscoe heard a loud explosion; he flinched. “Wha, what the hell was that?” Selena laughed as Roscoe rolled onto his back, seemingly dazed.
“What was what?” she cooed.
“That sound; like a gunshot, or a bomb,” he gasped. “You didn’t hear that bang?
“It was passion!” she said, widening her eyes. “Pure, pure passion!”
Roscoe was still disoriented. Hadn’t the noise been real? Hadn’t she heard it, too? He sat up. “Come on Selena, you didn’t hear that sound?
She kissed him with such fury that even he had to stop talking.
Soon, thoughts of fiancés, ex-wives, everyday concerns in Richmond, horse races in Charles Town, and especially mysterious explosions in Harper’s Ferry, were effectively put aside. Later they slept the perfect sleep known only to earnest lovers, who’ve given their all to the moment.
The next day, in spite of his efforts, Roscoe was unable to determine if Selena had actually heard the explosion, too. They talked about it during the drive back to Richmond, but she never gave him a straight answer. She teased him -- maybe this, maybe that.
Exaggerating her southern accent, Selena would say, “Pah-shun.” Eventually Selena’s evasiveness began to rub Roscoe the wrong way, so he stopped asking.
They finished off the drive with little to say, accompanied by a Kraftwerk tape, turned up loud. He dropped her off at her Volkswagen bug, parked a block from his place. She planned to stop by her apartment and then take care of some errands.
Selena’s parting words were: “I’ll call you around dinnertime, about getting together later, if you’re up for a encore session.”
At 6 p.m., that same day, when Roscoe got home from playing Frisbee-golf, he found a message Selena had left on his answering machine. Essentially, it said her fiancé had returned from his business trip, without warning, two days early. Roscoe felt a sense of panic, wondering how much the man knew.
There must have been some gossip. Although she said twice that everything was “fine,” the fact she said it at all gave him a bad feeling. The end was abrupt: Harper’s Ferry proved to be the finale for Selena and Roscoe.
Two months later, Selena’s wedding took place in her husband’s hometown, Alexandria, Virginia. After a honeymoon in Ireland, the newlyweds surprised everyone by deciding to set up residence in Annapolis, Maryland.
And, that was that, except for this epilogue:
On a rainy day about a year after Harper’s Ferry, Roscoe, upon returning from a week’s stay in San Francisco, found a paper bag on the driver’s seat of his Volvo when he got home. In it was a bottle of Dom Perignon, along with half a small watermelon and an unlabeled tape cassette. He shoved the cassette into the stereo and switched the ignition on. Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” poured out of the speakers.
“Passion,” said Roscoe with chuckle nearly as dry as the bottle of bubbly next to him. He let out the clutch and turned up the volume.
Swift as the protagonist. The collection of fiction is called ‘Detached.” Art by F.T. Rea