The Art of my LifeChapter 1 Preview
Cal walked through the tinted glass jail doors into the loamy scent of Bermuda grass, pine bark, and freedom. The surf shorts and T-shirt he’d worn three months ago when the cop clamped metal on his wrists hung loosely, misshapen, like a life that no longer fit.
He scanned the weather-bleached asphalt, the smattering of cars roasting in the Daytona Beach summer. Sun glinted off the windshield of a silver Honda—Aly’s?—blinding his eyes, yanking her last words to him into the whiteness. I love you, John Calvin Koomer. Usually he blocked out Aly’s admission, but in jail the video had played over and over—the certainty in her eyes, the tremor in her voice.
He squinted at the Honda. Sweat slicked his armpits and tickled the side of his face.
Maybe he should have slept with Aly when she offered. He shook his head, dissolving the idea. No. It didn’t matter that protecting her from another guy taking what he wanted had earned him two and a half years of looking at the back of her head. It had been the right thing to do.
He’d smoked weed to forget her, crammed Evie into Aly’s place inside him, but going to jail had ripped away everything but the truth.
He loved Aly. Always had. Always would.
And it was time to do something about it.
The rumble of an engine pulling into the lot jerked his head around. His mother’s minivan puttered toward him, mowing down the stubble of his hope.
He glanced back at the Honda. No college graduation tassel dangled from the mirror. No silhouette of the Virgin Mary had rusted into the right front bumper.
The car was empty. Like he felt inside.
Mom angled into a parking space, her maneuvering as precise as everything she did.
His flip flops scraped the asphalt as he shuffled toward her. As his hand closed around the chrome door handle, heat branded his palm. He climbed into the stream of the air conditioning blowing from the dash, and the door clunked shut behind him.
Mom reached for him, and his breath stuttered.
When was the last time they’d touched?
She wrapped awkward arms around him. “I—I’ve wanted to hug you ever since the first day I visited you at jail.”
His hand lit on the fabric stretched across her dancer’s back. He sucked in gulps of human affection and the talcum scent of childhood while his mind tried to solve the puzzle of his mother. He coughed, searched for words to fill the silence, and found none. For a heartbeat he was ten with tears pricking the backs of his eyes.
She released him.
Relief, then the desire to cling to her, flushed through him making him feel lightheaded.
His mother’slim fingers shifted the car into reverse. Her dark hair, slicked back from her face in her customary ballerina bun, exposed the scar running from her temple into her hairline. It whitened now, the only hint of emotion on her face.
According to Grandpa Leaf, Mom had been dropped on her head as a child—causing her to rebel into conservatism from her hippie upbringing. Leaf always cackled after he told the story.
Why couldn’t Henna—his lumpy grandma—have picked him up? He pictured her, in one of her bird of paradise muumuus, beaming at him—someone he didn’t have to measure up for.
“Your grandmother is giving you her boat.”
His jaw dropped. Mom might as well have said Cape Canaveral would launch another Discovery with Henna as pilot. The forty-one foot Catalina he’d sailed a thousand times materialized in his mind.
“Your father and I thought it might give you a fresh start. You could run charters like you and Fish used to talk about when you were kids.”
That was before Fish fell in love with politics in tenth grade. He could almost see Fish’s perennially sunburned face. God, it had been a long three months without Fish.
His mind swerved back to Henna, the dots connecting. Henna held herself responsible for his going to jail. He’d tell her she didn’t owe him anything. But he knew she’d make him keep the Escape.
So what if he’d been caught with Henna and Leaf’s weed? He’d rather do the time in the Volusia County Correctional Center than watch his grandparents go to jail. They were more like leftover flower children than drug dealers. And he loved them. His favorite childhood daydream had been imagining Mom sitting him down and saying, all serious, that she was sorry, but Henna and Leaf were his true parents. He’d sniffle, plow a hug into Henna’s soft middle, then race free and wild into the rest of his boyhood—the way he was meant to be raised.
As they passed the New Smyrna Beach City Limits sign, Mom glanced at him. “I don’t have to tell you that whatever you do in this town sticks to you for the rest of your life. Promise me you’ll never smoke pot again. Salvage what’s left of your reputation.”
He’d always been The Scream to Mom’s American Gothic. “Your reputation. I don’t care about mine.”
“How can you go to jail, have to report a record every time you apply for a job—”
“Leave it, Mom.”
“Is pot why you never got through college?”
“I never got through college because I hated everything but art classes.”
“Maybe you’re self-medicating for ADHD—”
“I can paint a canvas for six hours straight.”
“Or bi-polar. You’ve always been mercurial.”
“Yeah, I get it from you.”
“Funny.” She didn’t crack a smile as she wheeled the van into a marina parking space.
He could sure use a good smoke about now. Maybe it was time to quit weed. But it wouldn’t be because his mother extracted a promise. It was his own damn life.
Mom killed the engine.
The car popped and crackled in the silence.
He gripped the armrest, poised to escape.
“We want to give you a shot at making something of your life.”
His failures throbbed in the car, the ones she’d spoken and the one’s left unsaid—his part-time job at Stoney’s Ink Slab that fell short of Mom’s idea of a career, his want of religion. Did the list ever end?
“We moved your stuff from Henna’s place to the boat. She kept your studio set up, so you can still paint there whenever you want.”
He heard the but in her tone, the word that always followed her praise.
She dug the boat keys out of her purse and handed them to him. “Your father and I are on the title for now because you need us to cosign for a startup loan. But if you default, you’ll have to sell the boat to pay off the loan.”
The whiskey shot that he was twenty-five and couldn’t sign for his own loan burned all the way down. “Fair enough.” He swallowed. “How much is the loan?”
“We figured forty thousand would cover repairs and get your business off the ground.”
His head knocked against the headrest. He’d never had more than two hundred dollars in the bank at one time. And now he was getting a ninety-thousand-dollar boat and more money than his brain could compute. Henna had always been wacky generous, but his folks cosigning a loan—mammoth. Was it a last ditch effort to shove him into the sausage casing of society? Well, maybe he was willing this time.
“I drew up a business plan—not so different from the one I did for my dance studio. We meet with Aly tomorrow at three to find out if the loan has been approved and sign the papers.”
He sucked in a breath. “Aly?”
“Who else would we go to? Aly’s practically family. She’s a loan officer—”
He wrenched the door open. “Right.” He stepped out and turned back to face Mom. “Thanks for the lift. The offer of the loan.” He stared at her, gratitude and shame stopping up his words, dampening his eyes. “I’ll think about it.”
She opened her mouth to argue.
He held up a hand. “I said I’ll think about it.”
Her brows arched into triangles and her lips pressed into a flat line, but she turned the key in the ignition.
The minivan eased out of the parking space, his mother sitting ramrod straight.
He released the air crowding his chest.
He swung open the pier gate and breathed in the familiar fishy, gasoline scent of the marina. The shock of freedom left him feeling exposed.
Afternoon sun baked his shoulders as he walked, dissolving the weirdness, leaving only a buoy of hope. A charter business could give him a life. In the next heartbeat the physical craving to paint washed over him. He inhaled, imagining he could smell the Vaseline scent of his oils.
Selling his work, someday seeing his face on the cover of People magazine throbbed in his gut. But it was time to kill that dream. He’d always paint, but Aly needed a guy who owned yard tools, tires worth rotating; who carried AAA, Visa, and voter’s registration cards. His stinking driver’s license wouldn’t even be back in his wallet for another three months.
If he worked the Plan B his family had dealt him and succeeded at running a charter sailing business, he’d gain a shot at Aly.
The only shot he’d ever get.
His gaze caught on Evie’s beater boat. The rotted rigging and his guilt flailed around its sail-less mast like a maypole in the hot breeze. The first part of his new start had to be ex-ing Evie—the epic mistake of his life—for good this time. The picture wasn’t pretty, but ninety days sober showed him he’d been using her.
And now he’d see her every day, living eight boats apart on the same dock. Well, he was ditching her this time, like he’d told her six months ago. She’d have to accept it.
A pelican settled on a piling in a flurry of clumsy feathers. Cal shook off thoughts of Evie and grinned. He’d snag a hot dog from Leaf’s stand on the beach—just a hot dog, no weed—grab his board, find Fish, and hit the waves. Then, he’d head for Henna’s to paint— enough to get it out of his system so he could focus on Plan B. Not painting had been punishing enough.
Frenzied barking erupted from Zeke’s fishing boat two slips down. Van Gogh! Cal’s chocolate lab-weimaraner, scrabbled across the gangplank, toenails dancing against the wood.
Joy bubbled up, something he hadn’t felt since the arrest. His throat tightened.
Had Mom brought the dog down to the marina? But what was he doing on Zeke’s boat?
Van Gogh planted his paws on Cal’s chest, quivering, tail beating a frenzied rhythm against the light pole. A sandpaper tongue swiped Cal’s chin.
“I’m glad to see you, too, boy.” Cal scratched soft doggy ears and inhaled canine and river water scent.
Van Gogh shimmied, wagging his butt along with his tail.
“I should have known you’d show up sooner or later.” Fish’s familiar voice.
Cal’s head popped up and warmth pumped into his chest, washing away the time they’d been apart. It didn’t matter that Fish hadn’t visited him in jail. Like the hospital, who liked the lockup anyhow? They’d scarcely gone a day, much less months, without seeing each other since toddlerhood.
Fish stepped from the fishing boat to the dock. Wisps of baby-white, surfer hair stuck out from under a backwards baseball cap that brushed the arch in the Zeke’s Fishing Charters sign.
“Hey.” Cal went for a hug.
Fish shoved a palm against Cal’s shoulder. His face contorted. “Take your friggin’ dog and clear out. By the way, I dog-sat for VanGogh’s sake, not yours.”
Fish’s harsh tone felt like stepping on a stingray out of nowhere. Cal’s brow scrunched. “Whoa. What’s got you pissed? And thanks for taking care of my dog. What? Did Van Gogh eat your stogies? Do his business in your Corn Flakes? Look, I’ll pay you for the dog food.”
“You don’t know, do you? You don’t freakin’ know.” Fish shook his head, incredulous.
“What? What? Tell me.” Cal’s gaze flicked to Sean Fisher scrawled inside the white oval of Fish’s work shirt.
The grease-stained material flapped against Fish’s bony ribs in the wind.
“You got me fired,” Fish ground out.
“How the he—”
“What were you thinking ditching your weed in my locker? I didn’t even know it was in there.”
A chill slid down Cal’s spine. “You’re kidding me. Nobody told me.”
“It took me two weeks to get a job working for Zeke. I lost the apartment. I don’t have family around to coddle me.” Fish stared him down, stone cold, the same look Cal had watched Fish give his parents when they’d told him they were moving to Peru.
Cal dropped back a step, remorse flushing through him. Throw another failure onto the pile. “I’m sorry, man. I had no idea.”
“That’s all you have to say?” Disgust radiated from his eyes.
“Look, it was what? A few joints? I was taking the rug rats to the beach, and I didn’t want the stuff anywhere near them. My sister-in-law already thought I was scum. I’m surprised she let me hang with the kids.”
“Old Man Phillips called the cops. They hauled me off in the police car right out the front doors of Circle K.”
“Look, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Ever.”
“You don’t know what you’re apologizing for.” Fish flung his hands up in the air. “Poof—you killed my political career before it started. You killed my future.”
Cal flinched inwardly. “One arrest would keep you from running for office?”
A muscle jumped in Fish’s granite jaw.
There was no use arguing with Fish when he got like this. “Screw you.” Cal knocked a shoulder into Fish’s arm, shoving him out of the way and stepped toward the Escape. They’d work it out later.
Fish grabbed Cal’s bicep and spun him back. “Looks like you already did.”
The barb embedded into the soft flesh of Cal’s gut. He jerked his arm out of Fish’s hold.
“Get Van Gogh’s crap off Zeke’s boat while I’m gone. We’re done.”
For a millisecond Cal thought he saw hurt under Fish’s anger.
Fish strode down the pier.
Done? Fire coral and kelp, anger and grief, wound around each other inside. “Why not stay and watch. Aren’t you afraid the ex-con will clean you out?” Cal shouted at his back.
“Get your lousy carcass out of my life. It’ll be worth whatever you take.”
The comment stabbed deeper than we’re done. Fish knew he wasn’t a thief.
Van Gogh nuzzled his hand, and Cal squatted to the dog’s eye level.
Van Gogh stared placidly into his eyes, fogging his face with doggy breath. He slurped Cal’s cheek.
Cal crossed the gangplank onto the mammoth fishing boat Zeke’s Ambition. The cruiser must stretch fifty feet. He wrinkled his nose at the fish smell clinging to the bare wooden planks flecked with old paint.
He opened the door, and Van Gogh burst into the cabin.
“Where’s Fish’s bunk, buddy?”
As though he understood, Van Gogh trotted toward a wide shelf over a row of storage lockers where a sleeping bag spewed across a rectangle of foam rubber.
The ratty red and green plaid lining shot Cal back to a hundred campouts he’d shared with Fish on Pelican Island, the crunch of singed hot dog skin between his teeth, and a brotherhood that went deeper than the blood they’d dripped from their pointer fingers onto the beach the summer after third grade. He ran his thumb over the jagged ridge on his index finger where he and Fish had pocket-knifed their bond into flesh.
The dog pranced and barked at a roach while Cal emptied his wallet, one hundred and thirteen dollars from the pay check he’d cashed the day he got arrested. The bills would cover dog food and a little extra. He slid the money under Fish’s pillow. The faint scent of Fish’s sweat drifted toward him, wrenching him like the final twist of a C-clamp.
He grabbed the half-empty bag of food and stuffed the dog bowls and multiple pieces of an “indestructible” Kong dog toy into the bag. He squashed the roach Van Gogh had cornered with his flip-flop. “Come on, boy.” Cal ducked his head through the door into sunlight and came face to face with Evie on the dock across from him.
Shock registered on her face, then she screamed. “Cal! You’re out!”
As his foot touched down on the dock, she barreled into his chest—a flash of breasts, strawberry-blonde hair, and the scent of vanilla. Her greeting rivaled Van Gogh’s and almost tottered him into the drink.
Cal set her away from him with one hand and clutched the twenty-five pounds of dog food and paraphernalia with the other.
“You’re pissed because I didn’t visit you.” Her eyes bore into him. “I don’t stinkin’ do jail.”
His gaze traced the familiar tattooed daisy petals peeking from her blouse, the stem plunging into the valley between her breasts. He ripped his attention away. Looking was what always got him into trouble with Evie. He walked two slips down and vaulted onto the Escape.
Van Gogh trotted across the gangplank, Evie not far behind.
He glanced at her, scrounging for words that would make her back off. “Ask Stoney if he’ll rehire me.” Evie hated doing favors. And doing tats was worth considering before he signed loan papers below his folks’ signatures.
“What will you give me if I march my butt to Stoney’s?”
Cal barked a laugh. “Like you’re not going down there every day to pierce anyway.”
“If you think I’m pissing Stoney off for nothing, you’re crazy.” She planted her hands on her hips. “Face time. I want face time.”
He didn’t want to have this conversation less than an hour out of jail. He sighed, emptying all the air from his lungs. “All we do is fight. We’re toxic together. We should have broken up two years ago and stayed broken up.”
“We’re good together. The sex—”
Cal rattled the boat keys in his pocket. “You talking to Stoney or not?”
“I’m not doing your dirty work—”
“Fine. I’ll talk to him myself.”
Evie flipped him off. “Bite me.”
Two boats down the dock, Fish paused as he crossed Zeek’s gangplank and looked their direction as if to say he shared the sentiment.
Cal turned his back on both of them and walked down the deck.
Evie’s wrath he deserved, but he’d stood by Fish when he sunk into a funk their whole senior year of high school after Fish’s family left the country. He didn’t care what Fish said, they weren’t done. Not if he had anything to say about it.
He swallowed the lump in his throat and skimmed his eyes over the Escape’s graceful lines, her mast jutting into blue sky. He unlocked the hatch, tossed the dog food through the opening, descended the ladder into the musty cabin with Van Gogh hefted under one arm, and shut out the drama.
Salt and stale marijuana smoke hung in the air. Water lapped a rhythmic peace against the hull.
Van Gogh’s sniff-fest traveled the length of the cabin from the forward bunk, to the dining nook, the galley’s gimbaled stove that rocked with the sway of the boat, and into the master suite.
He owned the Escape. Amazing.
Hope lurked despite Evie’s crazy, Fish’s anger, and his mother’s expectations.
But first he had to face Aly. And talk her into loaning him forty thousand dollars.