••• The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Life/Death Stories
His head bent in frustration, Thomas Addison got back in his car and set his messenger bag on the passenger seat. He did not turn on the engine but, instead, took a couple of pencils out of his bag and began to strike them against the steering wheel. A backup drummer in his high school band, he had not played in years but sometimes, when he had nothing else to do, he banged pencils or Popsicle sticks as if they were real drumsticks.
Rat-a-Tat. Rat-a-Tat. Rat-a-Tat-Tat.
Shortly a mailman in knee-length shorts shuffled past his car and walked onto the porch of the apple-green house on the corner and slid a handful of letters through the mail slot. Seconds later, someone stepped past the front window to retrieve the mail and Addison smiled and put away the pencils. For nearly five minutes he had knocked on the front door and no one answered so he assumed no one was home but clearly someone was there after all. At once, he grabbed his bag and got out of the car, went on the porch and knocked on the door again. He waited a moment then knocked again.
“Mr. Andrew Franken, I have a delivery for you.”
Still, the guy didn’t come to the door.
He started to knock again but figured it would be ignored so he removed from his bag a long blue business envelope and slipped it through the mail slot.
For the past eight months, after being laid off his job as a sales associate at an electronics store, he had worked as a process server. And if someone refused to accept the documents he had to deliver, he could execute his assignment by what was termed “service by refusal.” So, following protocol, he announced in a voice loud enough for the recipient inside the house to hear, “Andrew Franken you are being served by refusal. The papers I put in your mail box pertain to your failure to pay child support.”
Still no response.
“Have a nice day,” he muttered as he hurried back to his car. It was almost four o’clock and he had three more deliveries to make today.
The last person he had to serve papers to was a desk clerk at the Aldington Hotel near the riverfront. He also was being sued for failing to fulfill his child support obligations. His name was Francis Conyers which sounded familiar to Addison but he could not recall knowing anyone named Conyers. Maybe it was some character on a television program, he thought, as he approached the lone male clerk at the massive desk. He looked for a name plate on his linen jacket but he wasn’t wearing one.
“Good afternoon, sir. How may I be of service today?”
“Good afternoon. I am looking for Francis Conyers.”
“You’re speaking to him,” he replied a little hesitantly. “Do we know one another?”
Without responding to his question, he drew a blue envelope from his messenger bag and handed it to the clerk. “You have been served, Mr. Conyers.”
“Are you serious?”
Addison started to turn away to leave when the clerk clamped a hand on his wrist. “You’re some shyster lawyer, aren’t you?”
“I’m not a lawyer. No, sir.”
“Well, whatever the hell you are, this is pretty damn pathetic serving me these papers at my place of employment.”
“What’s pathetic is you not keeping up with your child support payments.”
“You know where you can go, don’t you, shyster? Straight to hell.”
Addison, somewhat accustomed to such outbursts, jerked his wrist free and continued through the lobby and out the revolving door. His boss told him the day he was hired that some people he served papers to would blame him for being sued even though he was only the messenger. So he was instructed not to get in an argument with anyone, however abusive they became toward him, just make the delivery and be on his way. Sometimes it was very difficult to keep quiet, especially when someone got right up in his face, but so far he had managed to avoid any serious confrontations. If he didn’t maintain his composure, he knew he would lose his job immediately like Maurice, a veteran process server, who became so incensed when a guy half his size threatened to hit him with a baseball bat that he grabbed the bat out of the guy’s hands and bashed in his windshield.
Always remember Maurice, he reminded himself whenever he was involved in a tense situation.
Walking back to his car, which was a good half mile from the hotel, he paused to take a sip of water from a drinking fountain when he suddenly recalled where he had heard the name Conyers. It was the name of one of the tuna fishermen his second cousin, Tommy Gibbs, rescued almost a year ago when their boat started to take on water. He was of a mind to return to the hotel to ask the desk clerk if he was related to the rescued fisherman but doubted if he would answer him. In all likelihood, he would resume yelling at him for serving him papers.
Tommy, who was three years older, was the older brother Addison never had, someone he could rely on for advice, who taught him things he still remembered. He thought of him often and missed him terribly.
His cousin believed he was blessed to be born and raised in a small town on the coast because he loved being near the ocean. It was almost like a companion to him, a cryptic presence he had to work hard to get to know. Though it was much too cold to swim in without a wet suit, which he could not afford, he still went out into it for a few minutes each day. He just felt so much more engaged swimming in the ocean than he did in the warm chlorinated water of the community pool where for many years he worked as a lifeguard on weekends.
“I believe I am where I am supposed to be when I’m in the ocean,” he told his cousin one afternoon as they prepared to enter the frigid water.
“Not me,” Addison said, his teeth already chattering.
Tommy smiled. “I am who I am there.”
At the urging of his parents after graduating from high school, Tommy entered a community college up the coast but was so bored he left after a month. He knew he didn’t belong there, only enrolled because that was what his parents wanted him to do, so he decided to do what he wanted and enlisted in the United States Coast Guard. His hope was to become a helicopter rescue swimmer, identified in the Guard as an Aviation Survival Technician. The training at AST School was rigorous, with many grueling hours devoted to instilling confidence in the water. Nearly half the candidates dropped out of the program, and though Tommy thought about leaving too he didn’t and graduated near the top of his class.
“This is the proudest thing I’ve ever done,” he wrote Addison after he completed his training. “I know I have found my purpose in life which I’m sure some folks never find. So I consider myself very lucky, Thomas. Very, very damn lucky.”
Tommy had participated in well over thirty rescues when he responded to an early morning emergency call from the owner of a commercial fishing vessel that was taking on water and about to run aground off the northern coast. The vessel was some forty-five miles from the nearest Coast Guard Air Station. By the time the chopper arrived on the scene, the three fishermen had abandoned ship and pled into a small life raft that was visible because of the mast light of the fishing vessel. In a typical rescue at sea operation, a chopper hovered between thirty and fifty feet above those in trouble and a hoist and a swimmer were lowered into the water then, one by one, the swimmer loaded the people in a basket and they were hoisted back aboard the chopper. However, because of winds in excess of forty miles per hour, the aircraft could not hover below one hundred feet so when Tommy was lowered into the water he knew he would have to tow each fisherman to shore which was about a quarter of a mile from the life raft.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” he shouted, grabbing the wrist of the fisherman closest to him in the raft.
“Where is the basket?”
“There is no basket.”
“Come on, buddy. I’m going to take you to shore.”
“I’m going to tow you.”
“Come on, goddamn it!” he bellowed, yanking the guy out of the raft.
Gripping the fisherman’s right arm as tightly as he could, Tommy proceeded to swim through five-foot waves and a battering wind. The guy did not say a word he was so tired and quickly Tommy began to tire as well but he refused to reduce the pace of his strokes. To his right was a strong rip current which he carefully avoided on his way to shore but took advantage of to return to the raft. By the time he started towing the last fisherman he was exhausted and, just as he reached shore, suffered a severe cramp in his left leg. However, instead of joining those he rescued on shore, he headed back to the raft where he assumed the chopper would lower the basket for him. A spotlight from the aircraft followed him most of the way then, all of a sudden, he vanished. Frantically the light swept across the choppy water, back and forth, back and forth, but was unable to locate him.
Addison looked up from his computer and stared at the framed photograph of his cousin on top of the bookcase. It was taken at a family gathering shortly after Tommy got out of AST School. He strained to appear very serious, almost sneering at the camera as if to show the proper military bearing, but Addison could still detect a trace of a smile in the corners of his mouth. Next month would mark the first anniversary of his passing which was difficult to grasp because it seemed as if it happened only a few weeks ago. Nearly every day, as a process server, he was used to tracking down complete strangers so he decided to find out what happened to the three fishermen whose rescue cost Tommy his life. He thought maybe other members of their family might be interested but, in his heart, he knew the real reason was to find out if Tommy’s death was worth their survival.
Jacob Conyers was not listed in the telephone directory but a J. Conyers was so early one evening Addison paid a visit to the residence. At first, he thought about calling the number in the directory but figured it would be a waste of time because whoever answered would probably assume he was soliciting something and hang up on him. The house didn’t appear to have been painted in quite some time and more than a few shingles were missing from the peaked roof. An old Pontiac convertible sat on cinder blocks beside the garage. In the rear window of the car was a tattered sign that said, in thick letters, “You Can’t Have Peace With Others Until You Make Peace With Yourself.” He wondered if whoever lived here was in as bad shape as the house.
“Hello,” he said after a middle-aged woman in a tangerine housecoat answered the door with a cigarette hanging from her lower lip. “Is this the residence of Mr. Jacob Conyers?”
“If he’s in, I’d like to have a word with him, ma’am.”
“You would, would you?”
Promptly he explained that his cousin was the Coast Guard swimmer who saved him from drowning when the fishing boat he was on capsized.
“I wasn’t married to Jake then but he’s told me about the incident many times.”
Then, lying, he added, “I’m writing an article about the rescue for a Coast Guard publication and wanted to get his thoughts about what happened that morning.”
“So is he here?”
“Well, mister, if you wish to talk with him, you’re going to have to put some miles on your car and drive upstate because he’s at Stone Creek.”
“He works there?”
She frowned, dribbling some ashes on her collar. “He’s an inmate there, I’m sorry to say, for writing a few too many bad checks.”
“I’m sure he’d be willing to speak with you because he doesn’t get many visitors now. I used to visit him a couple of times a month when he first went in but I haven’t been up there in quite a while. We just don’t have much to say to one another anymore.”
Nodding, he said goodbye and walked back to his car without any intention of driving to Stone Creek. He had found out all he needed to know about this survivor.
“Don’t be afraid,” Tommy said as he guided Addison into the community swimming pool where he was a lifeguard.
Smiling, he spread his long arms across the warm water. “Now lay down on them.”
“No, you won’t,” he assured him. “I’ll keep you up.”
Anxiously the youngster lay across his cousin’s arms, sure he was going to sink to the bottom of the Olympic-sized pool, but he remained afloat to his amazement.
Tommy held him in that position until Addison relaxed enough that he was able to remove his arms and let his cousin float without any assistance. “See, Thomas, you’re floating.”
The boy grinned in disbelief.
“You’ve done it!” he exclaimed. “You’re as buoyant as a beach ball. All you need to learn now are some strokes and you’ll be streaking up and down the pool.”
Two nights later, Addison visited the home of Leon Tambor which was on the east side of town. Planted in the middle of the front yard was a lopsided “For Sale By Owner” sign with a sleeve of handouts attached to the white stake. No one appeared to be at home but still he knocked on the front door. As expected, no one answered so he stepped off the porch and went behind some rose bushes and peeked through the front window. Only a few pieces of furniture were in the living room so he assumed Tambor had already moved to another place.
“Excuse me, friend. May I help you?”
Startled, he spun around, nicking the side of his left hand on a thorn, and saw a man in a wrinkled alpine hat glaring at him. “I was trying to see if anyone was at home.”
The man shook his head as Addison moved away from the window. “No one’s living there now.”
“So it appears.”
“Are you interested in making a bid on the place?” he asked suspiciously.
“So what are you doing here, if I may ask? You see, I live next door and I try to keep an eye on the house now that the Tambors have left.”
“I was hoping to have a word with Mr. Tambor.”
“Is that so?”
“Do you know where he’s moved to?”
“Are you a friend of his?”
He shook his head then told him how Tommy rescued Tambor from drowning without mentioning what happened to his cousin.
“Well, friend, I’m sorry to tell you that Leon’s no longer with us.”
“He is,” he answered. “I understand he took too many painkillers one night.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
The neighbor nodded. “It’s too bad your cousin wasn’t here to save him again.”
“Strike the middle of the bucket,” Tommy said after he handed Addison two pencils with erasers on both ends.
Tentatively, with the plastic sand pail tucked between his knees, the youngster banged one of the pencils right smack in the middle.
“Strike it again. Harder.”
He did, gritting his teeth.
“That’s a bass note you just made.”
He was surprised because it sounded a little thin.
“Now hit the rim of the bucket.”
“Now hit the rim and the middle at the exact same time.”
He hit one pencil a little ahead of the other.
“At the same time I said.”
He tried again and this time succeeded.
“Good. That was a snare note you made which is another basic drum beat.”
He grinned with satisfaction.
“Keep it up and you’ll be a real drummer before you know it.”
The woman who answered the door nodded in silence, sliding one bare foot behind the other.
“I was wondering if I might speak with your husband?”
He then told her what his cousin did for her husband.
“He’s not here.”
“Do you know when he’ll be back?”
Her eyes narrowed in irritation. “I said he’s not here,” she snapped. “I don’t know when he’ll be back. I don’t know if he’ll ever be back. The prick just walked out three months ago without so much as a word and left me with two kids to raise and a stack of bills to pay.”
“You’re sorry!” she blared. “Hell, I wish your cousin never saved that prick’s sorry ass.”
Before he could reply, she slammed the door in his face, cursing her predicament loud enough that he could hear every word she said.
“I envy you,” Addison said to his cousin one afternoon as they waded through the surf. “You don’t know what it’s like to be afraid.”
“What are you talking about? I can barely keep my eyes open in scary films. You know that.”
“I’m talking about the water, Tommy.”
He did not say anything as he turned and watched the waves crash against an enormous rock near the shore line.
“That’s why I know you’ll do well at whatever you do in the Coast Guard.”
He smiled. “I hope you’re right.”
“I just wish I wasn’t so afraid of the water. I tell myself I shouldn’t be now that I know how to swim but I am.”
Warily he cupped a hand over his mouth as if he didn’t want anyone else on the beach to hear what he had to say. “Sometimes I’m also afraid, especially when I’m out in the ocean. So many things can go wrong out there. You just pray all the training you’ve done will get you through whatever happens.”
Seated in his car, waiting for a guy named Ratner to come out of a pancake house so he could serve him with divorce papers, Addison methodically banged a pencil against the rim of the steering wheel. As he did, he recalled the time Tommy showed him how to play drums on an empty sand pail. The recollection made him wag his head with a huge grin. His cousin assumed he would become as proficient as he was and be selected to join the Drum Corps in their high school but that didn’t happen because he never progressed beyond the few things Tommy taught him. He practiced, maybe not as often as he should, but just never seemed to get better. About all he was known for in high school was beating a snare drum in the stands during football games. The nickname of the team was the “Warriors” so he would pound away incessantly as if a member of some tribe on the warpath. At times, he was worried his drumming might embarrass his cousin who played on the team but Tommy was always full of encouragement because he knew him as well as anyone and knew he wanted to participate in the game somehow.
Tommy was almost as skilled a drummer as he was a swimmer, able to produce sounds with a pair of sticks that he could never make however hard he tried. He was so good at whatever he tried that it was hard to believe he was not around to show him other things. He had no doubt that the three people his cousin rescued nearly a year ago were not worth his life. They were not as talented as Tommy, not as courageous, not as strong and reliable and honest. Not at all. They should have been the ones who drowned at sea, not Tommy, but he also knew his cousin did what he was trained to do, what he was expected to do, so they were a testament to his prowess as a rescue swimmer.
Slower and slower he banged the pencil against the steering wheel as if in a funeral procession.
© Thomas Healy December 2018
laurel462001 at yahoo.com
Previously by T R Healy