The amber eyes of the singer glistened, her voice swelled hypnotically as she sang a passionately entrancing melody. The notes bespoke of lost intimacy, yet intimated a hidden volatility. Her enigmatic tone touched their souls. Her words swirled off her tongue like a troublesome fog on a desolate harbor. Patrons materialized from the haze, blank expressions and empty eyes carried haphazardly to their seats. Each word’s rise and fall tantalized. Emotional crests, neither good nor inherently bad, swelled as a tumultuous ocean ready to engulf them.
Oliver wobbled momentarily, then regained his footing. The pier rocked as his boat had the past few days; he had felt a storm brewing: sailor’s intuition. As he neared the glorified shanty overhanging the bay, he started to whisper the first step: “I admit I was powerless…” then the dream-like melody flooded to him. Unsure, he stood still and looked around. Several passersby bustled on, unaware of the eloquent voice; small honey colored earbuds buzzed noise Oliver could not hear. The harbor water moved with the wind, the musk of dead fish rose to his nostrils. A neon sign flickered "The Cove" reverse in the water, its adjoining neon mermaid had died long before Oliver could remember, perhaps swimming to the horizon. Standing at the doorway, he turned around to look at the skyline of the vast city before him just start to come to life. The sun had set and lights started to flicker on. Another whisper of a note tempted him. Mysteriously drawn forward, he pushed the ancient door open and walked into the run-down building.
The same smell of musty sea-water and soaked wood hung in the air intermingled with whiffs of rotten meat to create a sickly sweet nauseousness; Oliver’s stomach sank. A nagging and malevolent ha-ha of a flock of seagulls echoed in through a broken window near the bar, where a few glazed over men sat hunched. Oliver stepped towards the bar and sat on a stool. It jarringly creaked, shaking the man next to him from his stupor. I admit I am powerless, Oliver echoed, then turned to the stage. The woman's voice paused. Then the upright bassist snapped out a long and slow tune; steady words sexily pulsed in waves through the crowd. She slinked across the stage, her black feathered floor-length gown silently swept along one end of the stage to the other.
A haggard seaman sat in a back corner of the bar, a half-empty drink in front of him, harmonica in his hands. Salt encrusted hairs of his unkempt beard entangled on his chin. His eyes no longer sparkled with splendor for the sea; disaster had robbed him of his youth and a few fingers. He dragged the honey-combed steel of the tarnished harmonica across his cracked lips. A heady smell of stale beer and biscuits wafted through the harmonica, spitting out broken notes of a sorrowful tune. The rusted notes nagged Oliver, pulling him away from the melancholic song she sang onstage. The harmonica buzzed in his ears, the dissonance between it and her voice opened an audible door in his consciousness: he heard the barman absent-mindedly drop a glass and crash to the grimy floor, the off-beat slaps of the bass player previously unheard, and the creaking of the bar's pylons in the water.
Oliver looked back to the singer, harmonica still distracting him, and noticed that there was something sickly and unnerving about her appearance. Her eyes seemed a bit too sunken and her nose seemed unnaturally long and beak-like. But there was something more, something unsettling that he couldn't quite place.
Silently and unnoticed, the old seaman set his harmonica down as the grog of too many solemn years of drinking finally affected him. Her sweet voice lulled the sailor to sleep, snippets of songs and disembodied cheshire grins flitted through his dreams. Indifferent, she sang on into the microphone. With the buzzing gone, Oliver relaxed again, his eyes listlessly rocked from one end of the stage to the other, keeping pace with the gorgeous singer. A few strands of her hair slipped over her eyes. She slowly flipped her hair and Oliver’s heart fluttered. The disharmony vanished from Oliver's mind.
The clock struck 2am to Oliver’s surprise; the past four hours had been a blur devoid of memory. The singer whispered, just as Oliver remembered, an understated "thank you" and then moved off-stage to her dressing room behind a black velvet curtain. Oliver watched as man after man stood up and, missing last call, left with a desperate confusion they attributed to their sad lives.
Oliver rose. The bar’s lights seemed oppressive and he couldn’t quite see. Rubbing his temples as a headache started to slip in, Oliver blinked rapidly to clear the florescent aura obstructing his vision. He stumbled towards the exit, stopped, then looked back at the stage. The bass player lifted the curtain to the Cove's back lounge to grab a cigarette from his case. Behind the curtain the singer sat on a plush cushion, twirling one of her dark curls. She smiled and coyly waved Oliver into the lounge. Oliver felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. When he placed his hand on his pocket, she smiled. The phone throbbed three more times, then went silent. He shuffled past chairs and exiting customers, clumsily knocking into tables and bumping drinks over.
The bass player, lit cigarette in hand, lifted the curtain and led him to the seat next to the singer. Smoke swirled through the room obscuring her face. Circulating throughout the room was a subtle smell of oak, slightly rotting. She reclined, the slit in her dress slipping to expose a think, but well-defined leg. A milky white thigh peeked from her dress; Oliver’s eyes lingered a moment too long. Amused, she readjusted herself to expose another inch. She spoke with a slow, methodical rasp.
"Baby, come slide a little closer to me, let me see those big beautiful eyes of yours."
Entranced, Oliver moved closer, his eyes red and puffy from the smoke and the drinks.
"That's better, suga', don't be a stranger."
Oliver liked the way she called him "sugar." It was how she said it: shu-gah. He liked how her mouth opened slowly at the end of the word, like an invitation. He leaned forward. She talked to him in the same melodic tone as she had on stage, one word following another in perfect rhythm.
"Tell me about yourself, honey. What's your name?"
As Oliver responded, her hand reached for his, caressing his knuckles and rolling it over, exposing his palm. Oliver looked down in bemusement. Even if she didn’t remember, he did. He knew what would come next. Under his breath he muttered Step 2; he asked for sanity. Oliver could feel his walls collapsing as he stumbled further into despair. She cooed about his future, yet all he wanted to hear was the beautiful invitation: shu-gah. His phone vibrated again, introducing another episode of buzzing disharmony. One, two, three buzzes later, it stopped; he was no longer concerned.
“Your wife misses you,” she said.
Before he could think, he replied, “I’ve been gone a long time and should be home now.”
“She’s probably worried.” Her hand dropped to his knee, thumb kneading his inner thigh. “You should go to her, shouldn’t you? She wants you, I can feel it.”
“I can go soon enough, I don’t want to interrupt you, you were saying such beautiful things.” Oliver lifted his hand and offered it to her again.
She closed his open palm and placed it on his leg. “No, no. I’ve told you enough for one night. If I tell you too much, suga’, you won’t ever come back to me. You just remember when you hit it big who told you first.” She leaned over him, her breast brushing his chest, and added her cigarette to the mountain of ashes. On her way back, she cupped Oliver’s face and smiled, looking right through him. “Now get out of here, suga’, there’s a worried woman back home.”
Oliver stepped out of the Cove to see the shimmering skyline in the distance still alight. Drowsily, he checked his phone: four missed calls, two voicemails. Thumbing an icon on his phone, Penny, his wife, spoke through the speaker, “Hey babe, I miss you. Are you running late? Call me back when you get this.”
His tired feet carried him to the nearest train station on the mainland. He slipped his metro card through the reader. It cycled the card in and out quickly, then kept the card, honking a warning. Checking over his shoulder and seeing no one around, he jumped the turnstile and went down the steps to the waiting terminal.
A train rushed in. The doors opened, the driver telling the next destination: “Northern Line: Ithaca.” Oliver thumbed his phone again and pressed the handset to his ear firmly so he could hear over the high pitched squeal of grinding steel. Penny’s voice, more frantic this time, talked in Oliver’s ear: “Oliver, where are you? I’m getting a little scared, this isn’t like you. Please call me back.” The train slipped into the tunnel under the river, the clack of the tracks nearly putting Oliver to sleep. He tried to call Penny, but there was no signal underground. Rising from the tunnel, the train stopped at the Ithaca station. Oliver disembarked, walking the short distance home.
On his door step, he hazily dropped his keys. Carefully picking them up, he opened the door to his expansive suburban apartment and walked in, a light in the kitchen still on. Removing his shoes and his jacket, he wearily rubbed his red eyes and went to the kitchen where Penny sat at the table with a half empty cup of tea in front of her. She jumped to her feet and ran to him and wrapped her arms around him.
"Oliver! Jesus, where have you been?! I've been so worried, I had no idea what had happened to you. You're never this late." Then she smelled the cigarette smoke slightly laced with wisps of rotten tree bark. She immediately retracted from him. "Where exactly have you been, Oliver?"
He stood under the now harsh kitchen light, weary with travel and fatigue. Step 5 commandingly ran through his mind: admit the exact nature of my wrongs. Oliver responded simply, "The Cove."
"Again? I thought we talked about this before. You can't keep doing this to yourself. Were you drinking again?"
"I don't remember."
"Well, what was it then? Old sailors spinning stories?"
Her sarcasm didn't go unnoticed. "I told you, I don't remember." Oliver's temper started to rise: he knew where the conversation was going and he felt helpless to stop it.
"You come home smelling like cigarette smoke and some gross perfume and expect me not to ask where you've been or what you've been doing? Tell me the truth dammit."
Through grinding teeth he spoke slowly, "I don't remember. I walked past The Cove and heard her voice. I walked in. Then I don't remember what happened."
"Her? Her voice?! Who is she, Oliver? Is that what I'm smelling on you, some other woman?" She paused. Oliver could see her contemplating what to do. Should she hit him? Turn her back on him? Tell him to leave? He was no longer angry. After his entire night of god knows what, he no longer had the energy to argue. He just wanted to sleep.
The anger still apparent in her eyes, she thrust her hand outward, her pointed finger stung just as her pointed words. "Get out. Now. Take your things and leave. I don't want to see you, I don't want to hear your nonsense tonight." He opened his mouth to protest; she added with finality: "Leave."
He picked up his jacket and shoes and walked towards the door. She watched, frozen as a statue, her arm in the same outstretched position. Oliver knew there was nothing he could do. Every step away from her was a step into the darkness. Penny had held him close through the most trying time of his life. She helped him stay true to the 12 Steps, making sure he went to his meetings and stayed clean. A sense of overwhelming guilt overcame Oliver. He could feel the self-pity and depression beginning to cloud his judgment. It scared him, but he was helpless to stop it.
Sinking with every step, he opened the door and walked through. He threw one last look backwards hoping to instill some sympathy or to get one last look at her. Her arm started to shake and waver, her face was contorted in some sort of sickly grimace, and her cheeks turned red. Her eyes became pink, puffy globes welling with water. He closed the door and left, unable to watch her cry because of his foolish mistake.
He didn't know what else to do, so he walked. It was nearly six in the morning, cold and lightless. It would still be about an hour before the sun started to rise. He walked past street signs he had known all his life, past his childhood home. He saw where Jason and Will used to live. They called each other the Three Musketeers of Wordsworth High School. Then he remembered how the drink had estranged them after so many bitter arguments. He came to the corner of Virgil and Homestead, in front of the Orpheum. He had met Penny there for the first time nearly ten years ago. One foot after the other, he walked further. The sound of his shoes echoed off of homes, storefronts, then warehouses as he traversed the city. Every step and every memory was tainted with an insatiable desire leading him back to the same place, back to The Cove. It was some strange compulsion. He had to return, to see her, to hear her again. Before he knew it, he was at its entrance.
But there was nothing. The sign was off. There was no one inside. No voice to guide him on. The only trace of her was the same oak musk on the wind blowing out to sea. He followed it, climbed onboard his small charter boat and cast off. Maybe he would find her on some hidden island. Maybe she lived out there among the waves.
Every breath of cool bay air drew him further out to sea. A giant red orb rose from the east and he remembered what his father had once told him, "Red at night, sailor's delight; red in the morning, sailor's warning." He didn't care. He pressed the throttle down and powered through the rough seas, spray misted onto the ship's windows and deck. After opening the windows to the wheelhouse, he could again smell her; the chase was on. He had to know more about his future, he needed to know what would happen. He knew that she could tell him how his fight with Penny would end. Oliver needed to know everything was okay, that this pit of darkness inside him would lighten.
He thought he saw her resting on a rock, just a few hundred meters away. Her flowing dress flapped in the wind, jet black hair trailing as if she were swimming. He gravitated towards her all-knowing amber eyes. Soft and soothing, yet gravelly, her voice traveled over the turbulent sea. Steering towards her, with each ticking second, her voice was louder. He could almost make out words. The songs of fortune and glory, fame and acceptance calmed him, suppressing his own fear of insignificance and worthlessness. Oliver pressed the throttle down as far as he could.
Running to the bow of the boat, she was almost in reach. The wailing of her voice reached an ecstatic peak, every word perfectly enunciated and sang with charm and peace. Oliver leaned over the bow railing to grasp her hand. Just out of reach, he leaned further, his feet barely on the ship's deck. He slipped, falling back into the ship and banging his head on the metal rail. A raven flew from the rock he swore she had been on moments prior.
He swore as his head pulsed with pain. He could feel the fatigue of the night rushing in and realized that the operatic explosion of her voice had disappeared. Soaked through, Oliver slowly climbed upright and gazed out one last time to look for her. He saw no flowing dress or amber eyes on the horizon, but two hundred yards out he saw the white caps of a natural shoal, some jagged rocks jutted from the water's surface.
Shakily running to the wheelhouse, Oliver slowed the throttle and turned away from the shoal; hoping he had enough time to avoid it. The boat moved perpendicular to the shoal, the white caps came closer and closer. Cranking the wheel as far right as it would go, throwing the throttle fully forward, the boat achingly lurched. The engine roared below deck, fighting against the sea pushing him forward. The sea's motion propelled the boat further sideways. In the wheelhouse, Oliver heard the high-pitched shriek of stone on metal as the aft section scraped against the nearest rock. He could feel the vibrations of strained steel buckling against the shoal. The ship remained hooked on the shoal for a terrifying moment, then broke free, shooting forward.
The sea continued to roil, but he had pointed the boat homeward. Oliver scampered below deck to check for breaches or water water spilling in. Running his hands along the distorted and buckled hull, he felt the power of the mounting storm, strong and unrelenting. The pit in his stomach lifted ever so slightly; he was struck by a feeling of awakening and remember Step 12. He climbed back into the wheelhouse and set course for home, confused and his head throbbing.
Oliver awoke that morning with an old fisherman, his face obscured by a scraggly beard, leaning over him, shaking him awake. He had collapsed from absolute exhaustion, nearly crashing his boat into the pier. The fisherman had been just leaving when he saw the out of control boat motoring dangerously fast. He climbed aboard and took the controls, slowing the boat and bringing it safely to port. He had called Penny and reconciled with her, admitting his faults to his only friend.
He still didn’t quite remember why he had gone out that morning, or what he was trying to find, but every day the pit of darkness and despair in his stomach lifted minutely. His charter business began to pick up as fishing season started. Nearly everyday, Oliver would usher his customers off his boat and clean the deck after a prosperous day of fishing.
It had been three weeks since that early morning journey on the sea. He felt good, relieved even. It had been three weeks since their argument and things seemed back to normal. Everyday Oliver would pass The Cove, although only occasionally would he pause and wait to hear a few notes of the singer's tantalizing whispers. Today, he walked by the flickering neon sign and noticed the mermaid was a man holding a trident in one hand, a glass bottle in the other. Sound leaked from the bar, but it wasn't a melancholy voice. Instead, Oliver heard the amplified whine of an expertly played lap steel and laughter from within. He could hear old sailors telling stories about their largest catches and brushes with gigantic beasts, while others talked about their next odyssey upon the sea. “Step One,” Oliver mumbled.
The sun was nearly setting, the massive golden orb hovered over the horizon. Rays of soft yellow and white light streamed through the buildings of the city. Deep purple and gentle pinks colored the clouds like Easter eggs. Oliver smiled and walked to the train station in the waning sunlight. A train ride later, he stood on his porch, readjusted his leather satchel, unlocked the door, and was immediately engulfed by Penny. She passionately hugged and kissed him, nuzzling into his shoulder. Sweet sourness of lemons and the mellow strength of freshly cut garlic wafted to Oliver. The smell of pepper pleasantly tickled his nose. She had made his favorite whitefish recipe.
Penny still embraced him, squeezing him tight. Oliver felt the soft, yet jagged caress of a black feathered headband on the top of his ear. He had never seen it before. He remembered how he had seen something similar once and, for only a second, he wondered what had happened to that singer. Penny touched the headband and bounced her hair playfully. Her smile shined, “What do you think?”