from Body

by Anna Marie Wheeler

To give a body is to say here is my body, look and see. Arms and legs, like almost every body, and hands and feet, and a belly that is soft and white and pale breasts that lay bare beneath breath and paler hair. Nothing is sacred nor is anything profane.

Once my body was not mine. I did not own it. I did not have the strength to keep it. Me beneath him and he held it. I didn’t fight him with it. Just then I had never owned it so I didn’t even think to fight for it. Just then when it was his not mine I hardly knew I had it. I think I would have never known it had I not known so much how I could feel it and that those things that I could feel were mine forever no matter what became of me.

That moment I was gone. I was not where he was but in another world where what he did was beautiful. He did it to me because he was God’s accomplice. I was not flesh. I was spirit. He was not wrong. He had been called upon. The place where I went was white with blue rain that did not fall but hung in the sky, long heaven-reaching streams that did not collide with earth or anything. The rain did not hurt me and the white was not blinding. All around me I could only hear the way that I had chosen to be this naked, and to lay in this bed naked and breathing. The rain was the sweat that leaked out of him and over me, and the wet wrung out of my eyes and filled my mouth. I spit it out.

I brought it on myself, and nobody needed to tell me that. Everything that came after was only more of what I had coming. But before that, before Dominique and the murder and Diamond, before anything else, there was still that day always there to remind me of what I had wanted, but I had gotten, had begged for even before the begging. Me and that man and what we did that day. I never think about it, except how I had it coming. I asked for it just like this:

My brother Jesse ran a boat off Norriego Point. We called the place where he docked his boat The Fishman’s Wharf, because that was the bar that stood up like a lighthouse above where the boats came in. This particular night I sat on the docks below the Wharf dangling my feet so that they hung just above the water, and I watched while the ebb was especially slow just before dusk, before the boats came crashing through it and left their violent wake to wreck the quiet dusk-calm. I was a boat-washer, and so I sat with my pail of blue bleach and waited.

Before I came down to Destin, to that sparkling fisherman’s village where the beaches were whiter than the clouds and the water bluer than the sky, I had been going to college in the North. I had been very smart in college and convinced many people of my potential. My professors talked to me about all the things I could do with my life. They saw, of course, what people see when what they want is what’s on the surface and nothing underneath. Underneath was where I had hated college and wanted none of it ever again and never again to see their faces. So when Jesse had said, “Come down to Destin,” I imagined the corral reef that he talked about, the amber rock jetties and the blue water even bluer than the sky. Jesse was right. It was beautiful. It sparkled in the sun, every part of it, every road and rooftop and grain of sand that ran for miles so that you couldn’t even strain your neck and see a place where it wasn’t stunningly beautiful. “I don’t have any money,” I had said. So Jesse said, “Don’t worry about it. You can be a waitress, or whatever. I’ll get you a job. You can work on the boats.” “On the boats?” “There’s always something to do on the boats. You like to clean? You can clean the boats.”

Cleaning the boats wasn’t easy. I liked that about it. I liked that it took all your strength and everything else you had. At first you were cool in the evening breeze so you worked in your old shorts and some old t-shirt. You scrubbed the rim around the outside where the guts from the fish had splattered earlier in the day and dried stiff in the sun. By evening the guts were so stiff you had to straddle the stern and reach over with both arms and scour them off with bleach and salt water. Sometimes there were lost hooks hung up in the glue of the fish’s guts and you had to be careful not to run your hands into them or catch your foot on a snag. By the time you had scrubbed the hull clean of guts and hooks you were sweating, even in the evening breeze, so you’d take off your shirt and start spraying down the deck. The hose was heavy and the deck got slippery. Soon you were hot all over and your blood was running so fast all through you and you got down on your hands and knees to scrub the deck floor with your pail of bleach. After you scrubbed it, then you mopped up loose dirt and more loose guts that had cooked and dried in the afternoon sun. You scrubbed the deck and the upper deck if there was one, then you mopped it all up and sprayed it all down again. By this time you were spraying yourself with the hose, too, and it was heaven, after all that scrubbing and blood running through you, to hold the hose over your head and spray the salt water so it soaked your skin and cooled your bones. Then, after you had cleaned out the cabin and taken out the trash and scrubbed and cleaned out the bucket at the bow where they kept the day’s baitfish, and after you had sprayed everything one last time, then the boat was clean and you were done.

It took hours to clean a boat. Two hours at least, sometimes three or four hours, depending on how big it was and what kind of fishing it had done. I cleaned three and sometimes four boats in a night, so that usually it was dawn or almost dawn by the time I sat down to smoke a cigarette. I turned over my pail and sat and smoked and waited for the sun to come. I watched it rise, coming out of an eastern yellow haze and getting bolder until it hung just above the ocean, just bright and bold enough to wake the Gulf of Mexico.

Some nights I came ahead of the boats so that I could watch them come in, and before they came I watched the sea. The sea was an inexhaustible thing. I always thought that it could see me back when I saw it. It’s impossible, I think, once so close to it, to ever break free of your love for it. It does something to you—it makes you want it long after it’s gone. The first thing I loved about the ocean was the way it could heal things like bruises and scars. It washed away what was rough and crude. But it could heal inside, too. It could soothe, with its languid, irretractable breadth of sympathy, being full of things that had died or were still dying. It was a good drink for a dry spirit.

You didn’t look out to the sea passively. That was a bad way to be, and the fishermen who had done it for so long accidentally would tell you where long impressionable lingering takes you out on the sea. Still there was a time when I didn’t think it mattered, the wind on the water and whatever, watching it without expecting any consequence to come from it. Everything breads something. The ocean knows that.

I came to Destin in late Spring, alongside the seasonal onrush of vacationers. They came every day in droves, and for miles east and west the beaches were overrun with thousands of shiny bodies. All day long they could be heard laughing from their balconies, twenty stories high, and their thousands of hotel windows flickered on and off throughout the night.

Before, I had only imagined this kind of place, a place where beauty was not antique and delicate, to be touched slightly. This place was made of the vibrant kind, a hot beauty that crashed in the waves. You could find it in bright new dawns and new pulsing sunsets. Even the sky in Destin was different, and hung lower to the earth, and meant more, somehow. I ached to be full of it and to forget the things that had come before it, all kinds of pasts I was happy to let go. It wasn’t because I couldn’t hold things, but because of the way that things seemed to try to hold me, to keep me down or out of the brightness and loudness. But Destin gave me new desires. It lit me up.

It was September, and I was alone on the dock, when a fish-head named Bennie sulked over. Like lots of the fisherboys, Bennie was dark and leathery. He had wild dark hair that he tied back with a dirty and sun-bleached bandanna. Bennie had no business with me except that he knew Jesse from the docks and was always up drinking at the Wharf summer nights after hot long days on the water. He had that wind-beaten face and those violent eyes that had not been told about staring out at the ocean before it was too late.

“What’d’ya got going on?” Bennie said.

“Nothing.” I said. “Waiting on the boats.”

“I never seen you sitting here waiting on my boat.” Bennie was drunk. He must have had a morning run and gotten in early. Either that or his boat hadn’t gone. But that was unlikely. The boats always go.

“Well I don’t wash your boat,” I said.

” You ought to though! You wanna?”

“I’d take the work. Who does it now?”

“Does what?” Bennie said.

“Washes your boat, man. Who washes your boat?”

“Shit. Not me.”

“Then who?” I said.

Bennie shifted every time the wind shifted, moving in a way that let you know he needed something. “Some fucking bitch,” he said. “That skanky bitch always bringing her kid around.”

He was talking about Wendy, a muscled girl who was already unfriendly. Word on the dock was she had a bad habit, and her little girl was mean like a beaten dog.

“Scowly bitch,” said Bennie.

“She needs the work. She’s got a kid.”

“She’s trouble, though. I like you better, you know? You’re sweeter.”

“Watch it,” I said. “Jesse won’t have that talk.”

Bennie laughed a madman’s laugh. “I ain’t worried about Jesse. He’s my greenie. I taught him everything he knows.”

“You didn’t,” I said. “I know who taught him.”

“Who taught him?”

“Andrew taught him. That’s why I wash Andrew’s boat.”

“Fuck Andrew. You need some work or not?”

“No way. I’ll get thrown over. I’m not taking any of Wendy’s boats.”

“I know. She’s a scary bitch. What I was gonna say though, was, I got some other work for you, maybe.” The wind was blowing and Bennie was shifting, rocking his torso and his legs over the dock and holding his feet flat over the water, and they went the way the water went, left or right when the breeze blew.

I knew him about as well as I knew anybody in that town, by the way the sun tugged on his skin and tried to get in through his dark, salt-filled pores but couldn’t. “What kind of work? And is it good money?”

“It’s good money. It’s good money. This buddy of mine and me, you know, we do this thing, for a little extra money. He does it mostly, I mean. Sometimes I just help or whatever.”

“What’s this thing?” I said.

“It’s good money, though,” Bennie said, squinting at the sun was coming on harder.

“So, what is it?”

“You just gotta let him take a few pictures. Not a lot, you know. Just about an hour. He’ll give you a couple hundred, maybe three hundred dollars.”

The sun was coming on harder but the breeze was cooler, the air all around brought in the salt while the moon brought in the tide. Looking South, out toward the open Gulf at that hour, you were looking right into the sun. It was hot and it made the water look hot, but like the wind the water was getting cooler and you knew it. The breeze blew in and went back out before I said anything.

“So you make porn or whatever? On the side?”

“It’s nothing real dirty, you know, just some pictures.”

“Yeah, I get it.” I said. “I’ll do it. Where?”

For the first time since he’d sat down Bennie turned his whole torso to look at me. All that time the ocean had had him, but then I had him and his eyes didn’t refocus, like they should if you turn to look at something close up after looking out toward something far away.

“Well, it’s a buddy of mine,” he said. “Works on engines back in Bluepoint Bay.”

“Bennie,” I said. “Jesse ever hears anything about this and we’re both dead. You know that, right? You know that. And I mean I may be dead, but you are definitely fucking dead.”

Bennie shrugged a little and he was thinking it over, thinking how it might be a bad idea. I wondered why he thought it was even worth it, the risk of it. But those fisherboys were all just crazy. They were always just out to catch something. Bennie was no better than anybody.

“Nah,” he said after he’d finished thinking. “Nah. He’ll never know.”

Bluepoint Bay was in Sandestin, inland and to the north. In the moonlight the place was eerie and romantic. Its gates enclosed a private yacht club and a row of million-dollar condominiums that sat in shady groves above the golf course. The Bay wasn’t a place for fishing boats; it was lined with luxury yachts and cruisers, and now and then there was gossip in Destin about which celebrities had floated in to Bluepoint. Even the docks seemed elegant, and I half expected to see an old man, sharply dressed in a butler’s suit, maybe, sanding and polishing the planks, one by one until they shone like marble. And the sound of my step when my heel hit the wood sounded somehow faintly like the clink of crystal glasses.

I heard it and I stopped. The white-topped waves stretched to the opposite shoreline, and they seemed to whisper when they rolled, as if to not wake the boats by the shore. It was dark, and there was no one anywhere in sight. I felt a chill, and remembered what I was there for, and I had no shame. The clink of the crystal was the sound of something beautiful, and I told myself that if Jesse could have understood what it was I really wanted, I think maybe he wouldn’t have wanted to kill anybody, and maybe he would have waved me on.

Of course, I was wrong about that. I guess the crystal did mean something, but it wasn’t the something I’d hoped was coming. And now that it’s over I can’t help but think that every time I have walked into despair I have heard my own footsteps taking me there always sounding like the clink of crystal glasses and I have been deceived.

So that’s how I asked for it from Bennie’s buddy. The boats came in that evening and I got out of the way while they came, one by one, pulling in backwards and docking. Hordes rushed the docks, a slew of tourists seasick and sunburned who made big teethy grins in front of the day’s catch, freshly dead fish hung up on the racks through their eye sockets. The captain stood with them while a deckhand took pictures. When the crowds came off I went on and scrubbed down the decks long into the night.

ANNA MARIE WHEELER is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and the MFA Writing Program at UNC Greensboro. She currently lives in Asheville, NC, where she is completing her first novel.