Islands by Jill Bellrose

“Rusty” appeared to be an ordinary supermarket checker.  Tall and slim, he had an all-American, Huck Finn sort of face with a half-jaded, half-amused half-smile.  The only readily noticeable difference between Rusty and his co-workers was his efficiency.  His  remarkably deft hands were pale and a bit chapped (as is so common among redheads), with long, slender fingers that always seemed to be in motion.  Like all the regular shoppers at that Alpha Beta store, I went straight to Rusty whenever he was working a till because the line moved along so quickly.  He seemed to know all the prices, and counted out change faster than any bank teller I’d ever seen.  In time, we became friendly, and chatted about nothing much while my groceries whizzed past into waiting double bags.

Rusty wore long-sleeved shirts over tight-fitting, long-sleeved thermal underwear, even on the hot Coronado days when the Santa Ana winds stripped even the store manager down to short sleeves and an open collar.  I thought perhaps Rusty was a speed freak, shooting up during his lunch break, just trying to cover up the tracks on his arms.  More likely, the air conditioning bothered him.  Either way, it was none of my business.

I didn’t think much about Rusty’s clothes until one day when I was about to leave the store with my groceries.  The bottom of the bag had started to rip, and Rusty lunged over the counter and caught it in time.  This sudden movement caused the sleeves of his undershirt to creep up an inch or two.  I looked hard at his wrists and then into his eyes.  Rusty’s half-smile was gone and he looked away, busying himself with repacking the groceries even faster than usual.

“There you go now, ma’am.  You have a nice day.”

Ma’am?  Have a nice day?  I tried to smile and left the store in a hurry.  Walking home, I thought about Rusty’s cold, deep-blue eyes.  But Jesus, I thought, they weren’t as blue as the blue—not to mention the red, indigo and green—of the tattoos that began at his wristbones and probably went all the way up to . . . to where?

Now, I’d seen tattoos before, but nothing like these: intricate paisley swirls, cats’ eyes and fishtails, with not a speck of pale flesh anywhere.  I remembered scenes from The Illustrated Man and Predators.  Weird.  Where in the world would a seemingly clean-cut supermarket checker pick up such colors?

I stayed away from the market for awhile.  Rusty and I had shared an intimacy neither of us had asked for or wanted.  I’d become more than a customer, and Rusty was no longer just a supermarket checker: he was a man with a past.  And now I had seen some of it.  Just the same, when the coffee and bread ran out, I ventured on in to the Alpha Beta.

My plan was to avoid Rusty by sneaking around the back to Coffee, Tea, and Powdered Beverages, but as luck would have it, he was restocking the shelves with iced tea mix.

“Where you been keepin’ yourself, ma’am?”

I looked up from the coffee grinder to see an almost complete smile on his face.  “Oh, I’ve been working on my boat,” I lied.

“No kiddin’?  You have a boat?  Where is it—down there off Orange Avenue?”

“Yeah.  The Esmeralda.  She’s a beat-up 31-foot yawl.  Small enough to single-hand, but big enough for me to live aboard.”

“Sounds terrific.  I used to live on a boat in Louisiana.  Kinda miss it sometimes.”

I tried like hell not to look at his wrists, but couldn’t resist, and glanced down for a split second.  When I looked up, he was grinning and looking over his glasses straight into my eyes.  He leaned past me, very slowly, and exposed—for just an instant—between his white throat and the neckline of his thermal undershirt, a half-inch of skin the colors of Amazon parrots.  Still smiling, he handed me the bag of coffee.

“Here you go, ma’am.”

“Thanks a lot . . . sir.”

He threw his head back, laughed, and then said, “Don’t you be a stranger now.  I mean to take a ride on that boat of yours.”

For the next few days I worked in earnest on Esmeralda.  I scrubbed the deck, mended sails, changed the oil in the inboard—anything I could think of to make her ready.  Exactly what I was getting ready for was unclear, but I polished, painted and tinkered just the same, every day until sunset.

In the evenings I’d have a sandwich and some Scotch, and try not to think about Rusty and all those colors running from his neck clear down to his wrists and God knew where else.  Maybe he’d been in the Navy.  Nah; that sure didn’t look like a navy man’s ink.  A gambling man, judging by his quick hands—used to dealing cards and counting out money.  No way.  The days of riverboat gamblers were long gone.  Maybe a biker—some East Coast version of Hell’s Angels—they liked tattoos, didn’t they?  Not a chance.  Too scrawny.  Too smart.  Too much paisley.  Anyway, the Angels I used to know ended up dead, rich or in prison, not as checkers at the Alpha Beta.

A carny guy, that was it.  A sideshow geek: sleight of hand, shell game, all that jazz.  Finally just got tired of it and went straight, maybe, or got into trouble and had to hide out from the law.  Rusty: an a.k.a. if I’d ever heard one.

At night I dreamed in Technicolor: sunlit fields of violets and poppies creeping with diamondback turtles and coral snakes, paisley storm clouds whirling in time to a calliope.

The night before last, while pouring my second whisky, I heard someone walking along the dock toward Esmeralda and me.  I was so sure it was Rusty, I poured him out a drink.  And there he stood on the other side of the hatch, smiling.  A warm wind ruffled his white, short-sleeved shirt, and by the glow of the lantern I saw just the tail end of a copperhead weaving its way across his chest.

I hung the lantern in the forward cabin.  All through the night, as he lay sleeping, I traced the geckos and daffodils, discovered ferns and inlets, circumnavigated palms and Egyptian pyramids, and gazed into the blue, blue sky.

Yesterday morning, just before dawn, I was inspecting a stand of evergreens on Rusty’s left shin when he woke up.

“Hey, what you doing down there, Ma’am?”

I left the trees and carefully placed my head onto a dolphin on his left shoulder.

“Come here, pretty lady,” he chuckled.  “I won’t break.”

He kissed my ear.  I kissed the dolphin.

“I know you won’t break.  It’s just that . . . well, you really are something.”

“I do what I can, Ma’am.”

“No, Rusty, you know what I mean.  Why did you ever get all these tattoos?”

He lit a cigarette and took a long drag.  “Why not?  It was just something to do.  I don’t know.  I guess I wanted something special that nobody could ever take away from me.”  He tossed the cigarette out of the porthole.  “And anyway, the ladies like ‘em, don’t they?  I’m here in your bunk, ain’t I, ma’am?”

The smile ran up his right cheek, halfway to his ear.

“Yeah; I guess you’re here, all right.”

He pulled me over to him.  The sun rose and flooded the cabin with light.  His skin grew brighter and brighter until I had to shut my eyes.  We held onto each other so tightly in the heat and dampness of that cabin, I almost believed some of the color ran off of him and onto me, like those Crackerjack tattoos I wore as a kid.

I fell asleep and dreamed in black and white.  Rusty and I were sailing Esmeralda in the South Pacific.  I stood at the stern in a sheer white dress, feeding dolphins, while Rusty handled the wheel.  Very cozy.  It was only when I woke up that I realized the Rusty in the dream had skin as blue-white as skimmed milk.  I rolled over to have another look, but he was gone.

The smell of coffee wafted in from the galley, so I got up and went in.  A little note was taped to the coffeepot: “See you at the store!”

A few hours ago Esmeralda and I sailed neatly into a slip, up here in Avalon.  Thought I might take her all the way to Ventura, but I need a good night’s sleep and some supplies first.  Nice little town, though.  There’s a supermarket just around the corner.

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About the Author

After obtaining degrees in creative writing and English literature, Jill Bellrose sailed to Southern California, where she spent several years writing for a top-25 daily newspaper. Now back in her beloved Portland, Oregon, when she’s not working on her first novel, Jill creates content for numerous advertising agencies and commercial websites, and regularly writes nonfiction pieces for a popular series of humor books.