Castle Freeman Jr.
The Next Thing on Benefit
When the police in Miami—if police is what they were—asked Sharon how long she had been on Benefit Island, she found she didn’t know for sure.
“Three days?” she said. “Four days? A week? Not more than a week.”
When they showed her a log of some kind from the base at San Juan that had her party cleared through there in early February, she said, “Oh.”
They had her. They had her, but they didn’t seem to want her. They didn’t seem to care much about the little she had to tell them. When they asked her how she knew the man she had been on the island with, she told them, through her work. When they asked her what that work was, and she answered physical therapist, they looked at her. They looked at her, but they didn’t seem to care much about that, either.
They didn’t keep her long. Patrick had said they wouldn’t, and they didn’t. She was with them for half an hour. Then they drove her to the airport and put her on a flight to Newark. She had no ticket, no reservation, no bags, no money. Nothing was asked for. Patrick hadn’t said anything about that. Can the police do that? The police of what?
Duncan Munro did not at first look to Sharon like the next thing. “Duncan’s a trip,” her friend Wanda told her when she asked Sharon to take her appointment with him. Wanda had the flu.
“Duncan’s a trip,” said Wanda. “You don’t want to miss out on Duncan. Do you know the St. John?”
“Is it near the Carlyle?” Sharon asked her. She was used to working at the Carlyle. She had an arrangement with an orthopedist at Mount Sinai who had arrangements with several of the big hotels.
“Not really,” said Wanda. “It’s private.”
The Hotel St. John was in the eighties off Park. Sharon had walked down that block a hundred times; she’d had a client there, an older lady. She had never known there was a hotel on the street. That was part of the thing of being the St. John, she learned. The St. John had no awning, no doorman, no sign. You climbed the marble steps to the door, toward the warm yellow light coming from the front rooms, and somebody swung the door open for you. You got into an elevator the size of a phone booth, and up you went. The elevator opened directly into a suite of rooms. There was no hallway, there were no doors.
From what Wanda had said, Sharon expected Duncan Munro to be what Sharon and Wanda and their friends called a giant squid: ancient and hideous, raised from lightless depths, having an array of long, slippery arms that twisted and wriggled to turn up in unwelcome places. The giant squids had to be handled. Wanda, a black amazon, six feet two, with the shoulders of a prizefighter and the stride of a panther, handled them easily. Sharon, smaller, softer, not so easily. In this case, however, it didn’t matter. Duncan Munro, Sharon found, wasn’t a giant squid. He was a gentleman. He was a little heavy, but not soft; not really fit, but in decent shape. His age? Well, his hair was mostly there and mostly dark, though his eyebrows had begun to look as if two families of small birds, swallows or swifts, were nesting on the ridge there. He might have been ten years older than he looked, and he looked, say, fifty-five. No, he didn’t look like the next thing, not at first. But he was.
Sharon’s appointment was for five o’clock.
The management of the Hotel St. John had set up a massage table in Duncan Munro’s suite. Munro had a bad knee. He lay on his stomach with a towel over his middle. Sharon went over his back, his shoulders. She handled his knee.
“What happened?” Sharon asked him. “It feels okay to me. It wasn’t broken. How did you hurt it?”
“In a football game.”
Sharon was bending Munro’s left knee gently back as he lay prone. The work went best when you kept the talk going.
“College or high school?” she asked.
“Where did you go?”
“So, they play a lot of football there?’
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Why not? Did they kick you out? Were you bad?”
“Don’t be silly.”
Gently, Sharon let Munro’s left leg back down onto the table. She picked up his right leg, she began testing that knee.
“So, what did you play?” she asked Munro. “In football? Were you the quarterback?”
“I didn’t say I was playing.”
Okay. Okay, then. Fine. No talk. No questions. He wanted her to shut up. Sharon could do that. After all, she said, he was Wanda’s client, he wasn’t hers.
The next week Sharon had a call from someone with a British accent, someone named Patrick. “Patrick at the St. John,” he said. He wanted Sharon to take on Duncan Munro’s therapy as a continuing engagement.
“I can’t do that,” Sharon told him. “He’s Wanda’s client. I can’t just cut Wanda out. We don’t do that.”
“Call her,” said the man named Patrick. “We’ll look for you Wednesday, then, shall we? About five?”
Sharon called Wanda. “Go for it,” said Wanda. “Go right for it. It works for me. I heard from Patrick, too, you know.”
“I sure did,” said Wanda. “I heard from him big time. I am a happy camper today. A very happy camper.”
“Why?” Sharon asked her.
“I guess you could say Duncan bought my contract,” said Wanda. “Duncan’s a trip. You’ll have fun. Don’t worry about me. I’m going shopping.”
So Sharon began calling on Duncan Munro. The squid never appeared. Munro stayed on the table as Sharon worked on him. His towel stayed on. He didn’t turn over, he didn’t pat or grab or squeeze. He didn’t even flirt. He also didn’t complain.
“Am I hurting you?” Sharon asked him.
“Tell me if I hurt you, okay?”
At the end of their third or fourth session, when she leaned into his ankle and worked it back, back, Munro said, “Enough.”
“Enough, that hurts?”
“No,” said Munro. “Enough, let’s have dinner.”
Sharon was uncertain.
“You mean sometime?” she asked.
“I mean now.”
“I couldn’t,” Sharon said. “I’m not dressed or anything. Look at me.”
“I am looking at you. I have been for a couple of weeks. You look fine. You’re dressed beautifully.”
“No, I’m not,” said Sharon. “Or, where did you think of going?”
“No place,” said Munro. “Are you busy? Do you have to be anywhere?”
Briefly, Sharon thought of Neil. Did she in that moment discern the ineluctable advent of the next thing? Probably she did. She thought of Neil.
“No,” she said.
Duncan Munro ordered dinner brought up—no ordinary dinner, the kind of dinner Sharon didn’t get every night, didn’t get every year. A dinner on heavy linen, perfectly white, a dinner under silver covers, with a couple of bottles of champagne, a dinner rolled in by two waiters, one to serve and one to light the candles and pop the corks. With them was a tall man wearing a blue suit, an Englishman.
“This is Patrick,” Duncan Munro told Sharon.
“Hi, Patrick,” said Sharon.
“Good evening, miss,” said the Englishman.
“You and I talked on the phone, didn’t we?” Sharon asked.
“Indeed we did, miss,” said Patrick. “Will that be all for now, sir?” he asked Munro. Munro nodded and Patrick shooed the waiters off and followed them to the elevator and out.
“Who’s Patrick?” Sharon asked Duncan Munro.
“Patrick’s an Etonian,” said Munro.
“What’s an Etonian?”
“A good thing to be, where Patrick comes from,” said Munro.
v“Are you one?” Sharon asked him.
“I might have been,” said Munro. “But Patrick’s the real thing. Patrick is a man of many talents.”
“He’s like the concierge?”
“Yeah. He works for the hotel, doesn’t he?” asked Sharon.
“No,” said Munro. “Not for the hotel.”
They began on their dinner. Munro wore a robe, and Sharon sat opposite him in sweatpants and her FDNY T-shirt. She expected Munro to drink a lot, but he barely tasted the wine. Sharon drank most of it herself. Probably that was part of the thing, long after dinner, of her finding herself with Duncan Munro in the suite’s shower. They stood in each other’s arms under the warm water.
“I think I’ve had too much champagne,” said Sharon.
“Don’t be silly,” said Munro. “You can’t have too much champagne. It’s good for you.”
“Well, at any rate,” said Munro, “it’s good for me.”
“But you haven’t had any.”
“But you have.”
Sharon realized she was a little taller than Munro. She had never before been together with a man shorter than she. She looked him over. He wasn’t a big man.
“I guess you’re not quite built like a football player, at that,” she said.
“You are. Those broad shoulders. Those strong legs. You’d have made a beautiful football player.”
“So, do you think I could have joined the team?” Sharon asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “The fellows would have been all for it, I know that. But this was years ago, remember. Before you were born. Coach had a rule against four-legged showers.”
“Four-legged showers?” Sharon said. “So, is this a four-legged shower we’re having?”
Sharon giggled. “A four-legged shower,” she said. “I like that. That’s pretty funny.”
“Coach thought so,” said Munro.
After Christmas the real winter, the leaden New York winter, took enduring hold, grimly, like a sentence you had to serve, like long, hard time you had to do, day after day after day. The cloud and fog and dirt and noise hung low over the avenues, and along them the lights of the shop windows poured a wet, dripping sheen over the streets and over the traffic in the streets so that Sharon, making her way to work every day from Kew Gardens, felt as though she were going down a mine.
She got to the St. John around five.
“You’re wet,” said Duncan Munro.
“Yeah, I’m wet,” said Sharon. “It’s pouring. You didn’t notice? It’s been raining for two days.”
“I haven’t been out.”
“You haven’t been out? You work in here?”
“Where did you think?”
“I don’t know,” said Sharon. “In an office? An office, I guess. People work in offices.”
“You don’t work in an office.”
“No,” said Sharon. “My work, you’re sometimes better off without an office.”
“Mine, too,” said Munro.
Sharon took off her damp coat and hung it in the closet. When she turned to Munro, he nodded toward their massage table. “That’s for you,” he said.
On the table, a paper parcel waited. Sharon picked it up. Inside were a pair of plastic sandals from the drugstore and a narrow box about a foot long, covered in black velvet.
“What’s this?” Sharon asked.
Sharon opened the box and found herself looking down at a string of pearls, not big pearls, not small. She hooked them around her finger and lifted them carefully from their box.
“Are these real?” she asked Munro.
“They’d better be,” said Munro.
“I can’t take these.”
“Sure, you can,” said Munro.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Say, thank you, Duncan.”
Sharon picked up the sandals.
“Flip-flops,” she said.
“They’re real, too,” said Munro.
“I don’t get it,” said Sharon.
“You’ll need them,” said Munro. “Where we’re going.”
“South of where?”
“South of here,” said Munro. “A long way south. Out of town. Out of the winter. Into the sun, the heat, the light. You know? A few days of sun? A few days of folly?”
“Folly?” Sharon asked.
“Folly. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t like that.”
“I’d like it,” said Sharon. “Sure, I’d like it. Where would we go? Florida?”
“Not Florida,” said Munro. “South.”
“The islands? Barbados? I’ve been to Barbados.”
“Not Barbados. Keep going south. Another island. Smaller. A small island I know down there.”
“So, like a resort?” said Sharon.
“Something like that.”
“When you say ‘folly’? We’re talking about your basic beach-bar-bed vacation, is that right?”
“There’s no bar,” said Munro.
Later they lay together in the suite’s enormous bed. Munro lay on his back with his eyes closed. Sharon rose on her elbow beside him. She put her hand on his chest. Munro opened his eyes.
“What if I can’t make it?” Sharon asked him.
“Why wouldn’t you be able to make it?” Munro asked.
“I might be busy.”
“Yeah. Busy. I might have a boyfriend. I might have a husband.”
“You might,” said Munro. He took her hand. He examined it, turned it over, kissed the palm. “Beautiful hands,” he said. Sharon waited.
“You might have a husband,” said Munro at last. “You might. I don’t know. I haven’t asked. I might have a wife. You don’t know. You haven’t asked. You don’t ask. What do I do? Why am I here? You haven’t asked. You’ve wondered, but you haven’t asked.”
“Why would I ask?” said Sharon.
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because,” Sharon said, “look: if I asked you whether you have a wife and you said yes, I’d feel bad about that.”
“And if I said no?”
“I wouldn’t believe you.”
“I see what you mean.”
“Do I see what you mean?”
“Do you have a wife?”
They flew from a little airport on Long Island to Miami, then to San Juan, then on down. The plane looked to Sharon like a model plane, like a kind of miniature, until she climbed aboard. Inside was a long cabin with leather chairs on steel pedestals instead of airline seats, a bank seat like a sofa, and a bar. Patrick was with them. He rode forward with the pilots. There was another man, too, a boy, really, with brown skin and a white jacket, who waited at the bar and served them meals.
At San Juan they landed beside a harbor full of the biggest ships Sharon had ever seen, all gray, unmoving: floating gray mountains. Sharon watched from her window as Patrick and another man, perhaps one of the pilots, left the plane and were met by two men in uniform. All four climbed into a Jeep and drove a short distance to a metal building.
“Where’s Patrick going?” Sharon asked Munro.
“He won’t be long,” said Munro. “It’s the Navy, down here. They make you dance around a little. It won’t take long.”
Patrick and the pilot returned, and they took off again. Now the sun was strong in the cabin. The pale walls, the pale carpet, the metal fixtures, the windows, all blazed together. They had been served some kind of rum cocktails after leaving San Juan, and the cocktails and the sun made Sharon sleepy. She lay on the bank seat with her sandals off and her head in Munro’s lap. He stroked her hair. She slept.
“Here we are,” Munro was saying. “Well, almost.”
Sharon sat up. They were on the ground. Out the window was the runway and beyond it a low scrubby flat with a dull green tree line and low buildings, pink, yellow, white. Taller buildings in the distance.
“Where are we?” Sharon asked.
“Port of Spain,” said Munro.
“Where’s Port of Spain?”
Munro smiled. “You know,” he said, “I’m not really sure. We’ll ask Patrick.”
Two men came on board, and they and Patrick collected the luggage and carried it down from the plane, with Sharon and Munro behind them. The air was hot and heavy, and full of the smell of diesel. The sky was a milky blue overcast, but there was no coolness in it. Sharon could feel the heat of the tarmac through her sandals. She followed Munro.
“Is this the island?” she asked him.
“Next stop,” said Munro. He pointed ahead.
A helicopter with a fishbowl front compartment, like a traffic helicopter, sat on the runway before them. Patrick and the other men had put their bags into the machine and now climbed into the front. Munro and Sharon went in behind them.
“Ever been in one of these before?” Munro asked her.
Sharon shook her head.
“You’ll love it,” said Munro.
She did love it. Just at first, when they lifted abruptly up and off, Sharon shrieked and laughed, because the sudden rise made her feel she was falling. But when they banked and turned and took up their course, she loved being able to see. You could see everything. They left the overcast, and the sun flashed on the bright water that passed beneath them, seemingly only feet below. Overhead the sky, light blue, then darker blue, then purple at its top, and at the horizon, low clouds like a cotton lining that surrounded a great sapphire in a jewel box: the world on all sides and above and below clear and bright to the farthest limit.
“This is pretty great,” Sharon told Munro. But he couldn’t hear her for the noise of the engine and the rotors. He was looking off to the left.
“This is really great!” Sharon said again, more loudly. But Munro still didn’t hear. She touched his knee and he turned to her, smiling and shaking his head. Sharon smiled back at him, but she didn’t try to speak to him again.
Now the water went turquoise and a line of surf appeared where the sea broke on a bar or reef. Then land sped beneath them, an island that looked like the round eye of a bird: dark inside a ring of white beach. There wasn’t much to the island. From the air, it looked to be the size of a tennis court; even as they descended, Sharon saw it must be very small. The helicopter landed on the beach: dark ragged palms inland, their tops bent gently by the wind. Under the palms, set back, a low square building, and a group of three people coming from the building toward the beach, two pushing hand carts. The rotors stopped turning, and the pilot and Patrick opened their doors.
“Here we are, miss,” Patrick said to Sharon.
Sharon stepped from the cabin and down onto the soft sand of the beach. She bent to remove her sandals so she could feel the sand barefoot. Munro climbed down from the machine and stood beside her. The wind in her face was strong. It blew her dress against her legs. It blew her hair across her eyes.
“What’s the name of this place?” Sharon asked Munro.
“I don’t know if it has a name,” said Munro. “We’ll ask Patrick.”
The three with the carts had loaded their bags and were taking them back up the beach toward the building in the palms. Sharon and Munro started walking behind them when Patrick said, “Best put your shoes back on, miss. There are sharp bits off the beach.”
“Oh,” said Sharon. She was carrying her sandals. She stopped, leaned on Munro’s arm, and put them back on her feet. Then she and Munro, following Patrick, walked toward the trees. Behind them, the pilot had climbed back aboard the helicopter and started the engine, and before they had left the beach, he had lifted off.
Duncan Munro had stopped when the helicopter took off. He had turned to watch it rise, pause, and make off the way they had come. He had watched it out of sight. Then he turned and caught up with Sharon. He took her around the waist.
“Now, then,” said Duncan Munro.
Sometime the next day it occurred to Sharon that Duncan Munro was not a visitor to the island where they were staying, but its owner. She had slept fitfully. The house they were in was barely a house at all. It was low, made of some soft stone, with deep verandas, screened windows, and louvered doors. The wind blew through the house all night, stirring the curtains, hurrying through the rooms. Sharon started awake, then slept, then started again. Beside her Munro slept deeply. She put her arm around him and lay close along his back. Then she slept for a time, but soon the many sounds the wind made woke her again, and she turned from him and tried to settle herself another way. In the morning when she woke, the wind was gone and so was Munro. She was alone in the bed.
Sharon got out of bed, put on a robe, and left the house by French doors in the bedroom that let out onto a courtyard in the rear of the building: quarters like theirs on three sides with a gallery all around, enclosing a kind of rock garden that had a fountain in the center, a dry fountain. On the open side of the courtyard, a sandy path went out of sight into the trees and low growth.
It was near nine, and the sun was high, but the courtyard was empty, and nobody seemed to be around in the rooms or in the gallery. Sharon looked for the other guests, she looked for housekeepers and serving staff going about their work. She saw none. She went up and down the gallery, peering into the windows of the other rooms. Some were furnished like theirs with beds, chairs, dressers, but showed no sign of being occupied. Some were quite empty. One was boarded up: wooden panels had been screwed down over the windows and over the slats in the door.
Sharon started back the way she had come, but then she heard voices coming from the shut-up room. She returned to the door, looked up and down the gallery, and leaned toward the plywood panel that covered the louvers. It wasn’t voices she heard, but a single voice, Patrick’s. He must have been talking on the telephone.
“Yes,” said Patrick. “Last night.” . . .
“No.” . . .
“She’s the same one, yes.” . . .
“Nothing.” . . .
“Nothing at all.” . . .
“Of course not.” . . .
“He does. He must, mustn’t he?” . . .
“All you’ve got.” . . .
“As soon as may be.” . . .
“No.” . . .
“That’s too long.” . . .
“That’s far too long.” . . .
“Well, he isn’t going anywhere, is he?” . . .
“All right.” . . .
“I will.” . . .
“All right, then.”
Sharon turned and walked quickly back around the gallery to their room. She went through the room and out onto the veranda in front. Munro was waiting for her, sitting in a chair. He got to his feet when Sharon came onto the veranda. He took her in his arms.
“Where have you been?” Munro asked her.
“What do you think?”
“It’s really quiet.”
“It’s meant to be quiet.”
“So, where are the other guests?”
“This is your island, isn’t it?” Sharon asked. “It belongs to you.”
“You might say that,” said Munro.
“I might say that? What would you say? If it isn’t yours, whose is it, would you say?”
“I’d say it was ours.”
“Yours and mine,” said Munro. “For the time being. For the present. For what it’s worth.”
Sharon sat beside Munro on the beach. They sat on low canvas chairs. At noon the wind had come back. It was an onshore wind; it blew into their faces, stiffening. Sharon wore a wide straw sun hat, and she had to keep putting her hand up to hold onto it. She turned to Munro. “Do you want to go indoors?” she asked.
Munro didn’t answer. He looked out over the water to the surf breaking on the bar a hundred yards offshore. He hadn’t heard her. He hadn’t heard her on the helicopter, and now here. Sharon wondered if Munro might not be a little hard of hearing. She hadn’t noticed it before, but it was possible. He wasn’t a kid. She reached across and touched his arm where it lay on the arm of his chair. Munro turned to her.
“Do you want to go in now? The wind?”
“I like it,” said Munro. He turned his arm over and she took his hand.
“Let’s stay a minute more, all right?” Munro asked.
“Sure,” said Sharon.
They held hands. Sharon hung onto her hat with her other hand. They were silent together. She thought of Neil. The year before, Neil had taken her to Barbados for a long weekend. Somebody he knew from the bank had a place there. The heat, the beach, the air, the sea had worked on Neil, all right. Normally he wasn’t what you’d call a lot of fun, but down there he came over Sharon like a buck rabbit on his honeymoon. They barely left the cabana, they barely ate.
Munro was the opposite. He’d been more of a lover in New York, in his peculiar hotel. Since their coming to the island, he’d hardly touched her. That suited Sharon. She didn’t have to be screwing all the time. And Munro was by no means cold, he was by no means inattentive. He wanted her with him. He was easy with her, but in a new way, a way new to her. He was as though they’d known each other for years; he was familiar, he was bantering, he was more like an older brother than a lover. And Sharon began to feel the same way, which was odd, because, of himself, of his affairs, his life, of the long-accreted soil in which ease and familiarity must grow—of these Munro continued to give her nothing at all.
Again, the difference from Neil. Neil never talked about anything but himself, and he never shut up. His boss, his accounts, his assistant, his landlord, his sisters, his accountant, his dry cleaner, what he’d said to them, what they’d said to him, and on and on. Wanda couldn’t stand him.
“Neil?” said Wanda. “Don’t give me no Neil. I don’t know what you see in him.”
“He’s nice,” said Sharon.
“Get out of here,” said Wanda. “He’s like a fourteen-year-old boy.”
“He is not,” said Sharon.
“He’s like a fourteen-year-old boy with good credit,” said Wanda.
“What a meatball,” said Wanda.
Maybe Munro’s silence was part of the thing of his being older, and part of the thing of his having money and position. He didn’t have to talk about what he didn’t want to, and if he didn’t want to talk about himself, well, maybe he’s bored with his own stuff, after all this time, Sharon said. After most of a lifetime. Maybe you got that way. Maybe Sharon herself was getting that way, prematurely. Maybe that was related to the next thing.
Munro was by years the oldest man Sharon had been with. She didn’t make a practice of flying down to the islands with men of any age, certainly not with clients. She’d done it twice, counting now, and going to Barbados with Neil wasn’t the same, as they had practically been engaged. But she hadn’t seen or talked to Neil in—what—four months? Six? So when the next thing came along in the form of Duncan Munro, Sharon had been ready, she guessed, and that was all there was to it.
The next thing. You may not do the smart thing, Wanda said. You may not do the best thing. You may not do the right thing. But you will do the next thing.
Sharon turned her head. Two men were on the beach with them, one down the sand to their right, one to their left. Each of them stood perhaps a hundred feet from Sharon and Munro. The men weren’t swimmers. They wore khaki trousers, and they wore leather shoes. Their shirts were untucked and hung loosely. They walked around on the beach from time to time, to the water and back, but they didn’t leave, and they didn’t come closer to Sharon and Munro.
“Who are they?” Sharon asked.
“Them,” Sharon said. “Those two. Can’t you see them?”
Munro leaned forward in his chair. He narrowed his eyes and looked where Sharon pointed.
“Oh, yes,” he said.
“Couldn’t you see them?”
“Not at first. I forgot my glasses.”
“You don’t wear glasses.”
“Maybe I’d better start.”
“Maybe you’d better. Who are they, though?”
“We’ll ask Patrick,” said Munro.
A few minutes later they left their chairs and made their way over the sand toward the trees and the house. Munro went slowly, painfully. His knee had begun to hurt him again, he said. He leaned on Sharon, and she took him around the waist, at first helping him, then practically holding him up. As they came up the path, Patrick left the house and came to meet them. He supported Munro’s other side, and he and Sharon together got him onto the veranda and into a comfortable chair. Patrick went to make them drinks.
“That’s better,” said Munro. “That’s much better. You see why I like younger women, now, don’t you, Patrick? If you can’t walk, they can pick you up and carry you. Women our age can’t do that anymore.”
“Surely some can, sir,” said Patrick.
“Some,” said Munro. “But then, they’re apt to fall short in other ways.”
“I suppose so, sir,” said Patrick.
Sharon sat in Munro’s lap. He kissed her hair. “Poor kid,” said Munro. “Comes down here for a dirty weekend with a rich guy—not young, but still frisky. Turns out she’s signed on with Rip Van Winkle. Or, no. Not Rip Van Winkle. She’s signed on with . . . with . . . Who’s that other fellow, Patrick?”
“Dorian Gray, sir?”
“Turns out she’s signed on with Dorian Gray,” said Munro.
“Who’s Dorian Gray?” asked Sharon.
“Fellow in a book,” said Munro. “Kipling? Conan Doyle?”
“Oscar Wilde, sir,” said Patrick.
“Have a drink with us, Patrick,” said Munro.
“Thank you, sir,” said Patrick. He poured himself a glass of sparkling water and sat in a chair to Munro’s left, facing Sharon.
“We were going to ask you, Patrick,” Munro began. “We were going to ask . . . What were we going to ask Patrick?”
“The name of the island,” said Sharon.
“That was it. What is the island called, Patrick?”
“It’s called Benefit Island, I believe, sir,” said Patrick. “Or Benefit Cay. Or simply Benefit.”
“Why’s it called that, I wonder,” said Munro.
“I couldn’t say, sir.”
“And the men on the beach,” said Sharon. “Who are they?”
“Men on the beach, miss?”
“Two men on the beach just now,” said Sharon.
Patrick looked at Munro. “What about them, eh, Patrick?” asked Munro.
“They stayed apart, but they were there the whole time we were,” said Sharon.
“Keeping an eye out, I expect, miss,” said Patrick.
“Keeping an eye out?”
“Keeping an eye out, miss. Keeping a watch.”
“So they’re like security?” asked Sharon.
“Like that, miss,” said Patrick.
“Security from what?”
Patrick looked at Munro again.
“Patrick?” Munro asked.
“Well, miss,” said Patrick. “It’s a small island, you see. There’s no proper population. There are no police. It’s all by itself out here, Benefit is, isn’t it? There can be dodgy people popping in.”
“Unsavory people, miss. To do with drugs, for example, other things. It’s as well to keep an eye out.”
“So those two were guards?” asked Sharon.
“They were carrying.”
“They had guns.”
“I shouldn’t wonder if they had, miss,” said Patrick.
That same night, Sharon made Munro lie on their bed while she worked on his knee.
“Busman’s holiday for you, I’m afraid,” said Munro.
“No, it isn’t,” said Sharon.
“Sure, it is. You can’t be having much fun.”
“Yes, I am,” said Sharon. “Sure, I am. How could I not be? I’ve had my first ride in a private plane, my first ride in a helicopter. This is my first private island. Those were my first private armed guards.”
“Brave new world,” said Munro. “How do you like it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ll get to like it,” said Munro. “Planes, helicopters, islands, guards. All that. You’ll get to like it, and it won’t take long. It never does. You’d be surprised.”
“Then there’s you,” said Sharon.
“Yeah,” said Sharon. “You gave me my first real pearls. You’re my first boyfriend on Social Security.”
“Is that right?” asked Munro.
“Got your cherry, there, did I?”
“You got it,” said Sharon. “I’d been saving myself.”
“Good for you,” said Munro.
“But not anymore,” said Sharon.
“Good for me,” said Munro.
The next morning Munro stayed in their quarters to nurse his knee. Sharon went alone to the beach. But there she found the sun blazed and beat down on the sand like a torch, like a hammer. She left the beach on a path that went into the trees, a path that led away from their house and toward the center of the tiny island.
Benefit Island: it wasn’t easy for Sharon to see how the place could ever have been of much benefit to anyone. She had expected on Benefit to be surrounded by the green and flowery growth of Barbados (as much as she’d been able to glimpse of it from beneath the panting and tireless Neil); but Benefit seemed to be grown up in a dry, gray vegetation leaved in cowhide and armed with spines and hooks, which clung doggedly to the hot sandy earth. The path went under drab and rattling palms and dark, shaggy evergreens. Benefit? Maybe the island had been named by shipwrecked sailors who had floated for weeks, starving, in an open boat, to fetch up here at last, men so desperate that for them Munro’s arid, unbountiful refuge would be a benefit, in fact, the saving of their very lives.
Sharon stopped. Ahead of her a group of people came around a bend in the path and approached her. Five people. Sharon looked quickly behind her, and would have turned and gone back the way she’d come, but when she looked again, the group was almost upon her.
“Good morning to you,” called one of them. Sharon nodded. She waited for the five to come up.
A man and a woman in their fifties, and three children: two girls and a boy. The children looked about ten. The boy must have had cerebral palsy or some like condition. He lay slackly in a wheelchair pushed with difficulty by the woman over the sandy path. The girls might have been twins. Both had badly crossed eyes, as did the man. The girls, and the woman, wore long dresses of plain gray cotton that covered their arms and hung to the ground. The man and the boy wore long-sleeved shirts and black trousers.
The woman did the talking; the others were silent. She was tall and thin and had a long face and big teeth. She was very friendly and eager to converse, as though she didn’t get much chance to. She told Sharon that they were a religious community: Pentecostals from Little Rock. They lived at a derelict sugar refinery at the other end of the island. The plant had been abandoned decades since, and the community lived in a trailer on the grounds. They hoped to build a church on the site, but they awaited the arrival of more members of their congregation. At present their community was themselves. Were they a family, Sharon wondered? The man and the woman looked old to have such young children.
“Are these your kids?” Sharon asked.
“These are our gifts,” the tall woman said.
Later, when Sharon told Munro and Patrick about her meeting on the sand path, “What did you say they said they were?” asked Munro.
“Pentecostals,” said Sharon. “From Little Rock, Arkansas. What’s a Pentecostal?”
“It’s some kind of Christian,” said Munro. “Christians. This place is going to hell. How many of them did you say there were?”
“Five Christians,” said Munro. “Five of them. Can you beat it? God, how I hate a fucking Christian.”
“Oh, really, sir,” said Patrick.
“Well, Patrick?” said Munro. “Well? Don’t tell us you’re one, too.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Certainly, sir,” said Patrick. “C of E. Pater was the vicar.”
“No,” said Munro.
“Great Uncle Ronnie was the Bishop of Leicester,” said Patrick.
Munro was going down. He stayed in their rooms or on the veranda, where he sat by the hour collapsed in his chair, looking as though he’d been dropped into it from a high window. At night, now, it was Sharon who slept soundly, waking to find Munro lying beside her, not sleeping, sitting up, or standing by their window in the moonlight that came in from the courtyard. He was silent, he grew vague. His senses seemed to be more and more affected: his hearing was worse, and his vision. One morning when Sharon came out onto the veranda, to find Munro in his chair, “Who’s there?” he cried.
“It’s me, baby,” said Sharon. “Can’t you see me?”
“Oh, yes, I can see you,” said Munro. “I can see you now. You were in the shadow.”
Sharon hadn’t been in the shadow.
“What’s wrong with Duncan?” she asked Patrick.
“Wrong, miss?” asked Patrick.
“Come on, Patrick. Look at him. He can’t hear, he can’t see. He can hardly walk. He’s confused.”
“Mr. Munro isn’t a young man, miss.”
“Come on, Patrick,” said Sharon.
“And then there’s his dodgy knee,” said Patrick.
“There’s nothing wrong with his knee,” said Sharon. “There never has been.”
“I beg to differ there, miss,” said Patrick. “As you observe, the poor gentleman can hardly walk.”
“Maybe he can’t, but there’s nothing wrong with his knee,” said Sharon. “I’ve been working on him, you know. That’s what I do. He didn’t hurt his knee playing football at Princeton. He didn’t hurt it not playing football at Princeton. He didn’t hurt it any other way, either.”
“Yeah,” said Sharon. “When we first knew each other, he told me he’d hurt his knee years ago when he was going to Princeton.”
“Ah,” said Patrick. “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”
“He would? You mean he didn’t go to Princeton?”
“I couldn’t say, miss.”
“Yes, you could,” said Sharon. “Yes, you could, Patrick.”
“It’s you, isn’t it?” said Sharon. “You’re the boss. It’s not Duncan. It’s you. You’re the boss down here.”
“Not I, miss,” said Patrick.
Sharon glared at him. She shook her head. She went to the veranda and looked over the beach. She looked up and down.
“Where is he, anyway?” Sharon asked. “I thought he was in the shower, but he’s not.”
“I couldn’t say, miss.”
“He’s not in our room. He’s not in back. I wish I knew where he’s gotten to.”
“That’s what many people wish,” said Patrick.
“What does that mean?” Sharon asked him.
“Things are not what they seem, miss,” said Patrick.
“No shit, Patrick,” said Sharon.
No shit. Sharon didn’t need Patrick, she didn’t need an Etonian, she didn’t need the great-nephew of the Bishop of Leicester, to tell her things were not what they seem. So what if they weren’t? Sharon didn’t care. Sharon said she was doing the next thing. She didn’t need to know how things really were. Not knowing was, even, part of the thing of doing the next thing. She didn’t care about knowing how things really were. But she wouldn’t have minded knowing how things were not. She knew Munro and the rest weren’t what they seemed to be. But what did they seem to be? What was she, however falsely, supposed to believe? She didn’t even know that. And nobody seemed to care. Was she, then, not even important enough to fool?
“Where were you?” she asked Munro when he came along the gallery to their room. He walked between two men who were helping him, the same men—or men who looked like the men—Sharon had seen on the beach. They didn’t speak. They helped Munro to his chair on the veranda and left. Munro sat heavily in the chair. Sharon knelt before him and looked up at him where he sat.
“Where were you?” she asked.
“Had some calls to make,” said Munro.
“Calls? You mean telephone?”
“Like a telephone,” said Munro. “There’s no real telephone here.”
“Where did you go?”
“Down there,” Munro waved his arm toward the gallery. “Patrick’s set up for it.”
“Who were those guys?”
“They’re Patrick’s guys.”
“Well,” said Munro, “one of them’s a doctor.”
“That’s right,” said Munro. He reached to her and touched the side of her face. “In fact,” he said, “I might have to cut it short down here.”
“Cut it short? You mean go home?”
“You mean, to a hospital?”
“Well, sure,” said Sharon. “Fine. When do we go?”
“Well,” said Munro, “the best thing might be if you went on ahead.”
“You mean by myself?”
“That’s it,” said Munro.
“Leave you here?”
“No,” said Sharon.
“No? Why not?”
“I don’t know,” said Sharon. “I’m here. I came here. I came with you.”
“So you did. Why?”
“Because you asked me to.”
“So I did. Now I’m asking you to go.”
“No,” said Sharon. “I’m with you. I’ll leave when you leave.”
Munro smiled at her. He put his hand on her knee and patted her. He leaned forward, bent his head, and kissed her bare knee.
“You’re a good kid,” said Munro.
“When are we leaving?”
“We’ll ask Patrick.”
Sharon woke in the dark. She was alone in their bed. Patrick stood beside the bed, speaking softly, not much more than whispering, trying to wake her. He didn’t touch her. Sharon sat up and covered herself with the sheet. Where was Munro?
“Quickly, miss,” said Patrick. “Quickly, now, if you please.”
She got out of bed and dressed. She heard voices on the veranda. Whose voices? Not Munro’s. She didn’t hear what they said.
“What time is it?” she asked Patrick.
“Past time, miss,” said Patrick. “Quickly, now.”
He hurried her out of the room, across the courtyard, and down the path that led among the trees. The night was black dark. Once Sharon tripped and fell to her knees, but Patrick picked her up and practically carried her to a vehicle she hadn’t seen before, hadn’t realized was on the island: a kind of Jeep or Land Rover, with open seats and no top. Patrick got her into it and started the engine, and they bucketed along the road away from their quarters, then turned off onto a sandy track. When Patrick stopped and shut off the engine, Sharon could see the surf in the distance, and a beach, and she could see, closer, a tower rising dark against the sky ahead.
Patrick got her out of the car and led her through a clearing, past the tower, which she now saw must be some kind of smokestack, past a couple of vacant iron buildings, toward the shore. The tall woman from the other day, the Christian woman, was waiting for them there. She had a rubber raft pulled up on the beach. She held it by a rope, but when she saw Sharon and Patrick coming, she pushed the raft into the surf, splashing into the water after it. Her long dress was soaked to the waist.
“Go, go, go!” the woman said.
Then Sharon and Patrick were in the raft on the water. She sat at one end, looking back at the island behind them. Patrick rowed. They were heading out into a little bay. Benefit Island lay like a long shadow on the water behind them. There were no lights on it that Sharon could see. Not one.
Patrick quit rowing. They were nowhere. They were between the bay and the open sea. The island might have been half a mile off. Sharon sat in the raft. She was barely awake. She had promised to stay with Munro, and here she was in a rowboat in the middle of the sea, without him. Patrick had plucked her from her bed and pushed her right off the island, and she hadn’t fought him to stay. She hadn’t pushed back. They had given her nothing to push back against.
Now she saw ahead a little float or buoy, the size and shape of a champagne bottle, bobbing on the low swell, with a blinking green light on its end.
“Where’s Duncan?” she asked Patrick.
“Mr. Munro’s not ticketed for this trip, miss,” said Patrick.
“What’s going to happen to him?”
“It’s already happened.”
“We haven’t much time, miss,” Patrick said. “You’ll be all right. They’ll want to have a word with you at the other end, but there won’t be anything to it. You’ll soon be on your way.”
“What about you?” Sharon asked Patrick. “Are you going back? Are you going back for Duncan?”
“Go home, miss,” said Patrick. “Go right on back home and pick up where you left off. Carry on. Forget what happened down here, or if you can’t forget it, at least don’t talk about it. Not ever, miss, not to anyone. Do you think you can do that? Ah.”
“Ah,” Patrick said. They heard, overhead, the heavy thumping of a helicopter approaching quickly. It came from the sea, flying very low, circled the blinker buoy once, then again, then settled on the water at a little distance from them. It showed no lights. Patrick rowed them to it. A door in the helicopter opened, and Patrick helped Sharon step from the raft onto one of the helicopter’s pontoons. An arm reached for her there, took her hand, and pulled her into the cabin. The door closed. Sharon turned to look out a little window. She saw Patrick begin to row away, toward the island. When he passed the marker buoy, he reached for it, cut its line, raised it from the water, and laid it down in the raft.
The helicopter’s rotors began to turn. When it rose into the dark sky and began to make off, Sharon could see, on the far side of the island, a row of lights, running lights, in fact two rows, three, advancing toward the beach. Many running lights, coming in to the beach.
Sharon wishes that the police in Miami—if police is what they were—could have simply put the question. She wishes that some one of them could have taken a minute, only a minute, could have laid down his pencil and brought her a cup of coffee, or a drink, and sat down beside her and simply asked, What in the world was going on down there? She couldn’t have told him, but she would have liked to have been asked.
She’s back home now, back in the city, back at work. But things aren’t quite as they were. When she’d been back a couple of days, Sharon walked down the block past the St. John. The place looked dead, it was dark, and when Sharon went up the steps nobody swung the door open for her. The door was locked.
She called Wanda; Wanda had at least known Duncan Munro. But Wanda’s number was no longer in service. Sharon even called Neil. Why? Neil hadn’t known Munro. But he’d known Sharon. She called him one evening. A woman answered, and Sharon told her she’d called the wrong number and hung up.
Then one day in the spring Sharon was waiting for the light on 76th Street on her way to a client when she saw Patrick getting out of a taxi on Madison Avenue in front of the Carlyle. It was Patrick, all right. His hair was a little longer, he wore a blue suit and carried a briefcase, but it was Patrick. Did Sharon call out to him, did she catch up with him and say hello? Did they have a cup of coffee together and talk things over? What do you think? She stayed where she was. She watched him, though. She watched Patrick as he shut the taxi’s door, paid the driver, turned, and went into the old hotel.