Asbury Park         




                        Loomis pulled the Chevy into a diagonal slot behind the ancient merry-go-round.  By the time he finished braking it to a stop the engine had died.  He thumped the dash affectionately and the glove compartment fell open.  He sat listening to the frantic drumming of the rain and thinking about the $1500 Jackie said it would take to make the Chevy road-worthy again.  For some reason the merry-go-round was spinning, even though the Jersey Shore was pretty much shut down for the winter.

                        Loomis was a sandy colored man with an open, goofy face.  His hair was blond and tended to fashion itself into ringlets.  He was a tall man, who when he reached six foot two, decided that was the height he liked and stayed there despite several more inches of growth.  He managed this without slouching by folding himself slightly in the middle and pushing the bottom of his spine further and further forward.  Depending on the clothes he was wearing this made him look like a lounge lizard, a math nurd or a complete simpleton.  This was not a disadvantage in his work.  He was always just slightly overweight and had that wanton cherub look that stayed the same from the age of nineteen to around forty.  He was thirty-two.  His eyes were blue and intelligent, but not always focused on the matter at hand.  At the moment they were focused on himself, sometime next summer on a brilliant warm day, blasting down Route 35 with the top down and Martha under his right arm.  He set it in his mind in perfect detail and then withdrew himself from the daydream and looked around.

                        Through the window to his left he had an uninterrupted view of Lucky Longo's Putt-em-up Miniature Golf.  Lucky had taken a summer-long bath and wasn't going to be opening back up in the spring.

                        Through the passenger window the merry-go-round and its green glass shed faded in and out of the thickening curtains of rain.  The honking, static gaiety of the calliope was similarly overmatched.

                        Straight ahead was the old girl herself.  They kept the boards replaced and the pilings in good repair.  Every few years they threw some paint at the Pavilion and Convention Hall and they would dance like a dog for you if that's what it took to get you to open up a business, any business.  But they couldn't stop the beach from sliding south and no bond issue in the world could make it 1925 again.  Asbury Park wasn't coming back this year.

                        Loomis wasn't seeing who he wanted to see on the first bench out of the Pavilion, but then, it only made sense that the guy was waiting out the rain inside.  Loomis was late, but only a minute or two.  He inserted a Merle Haggard tape into the deck, lit a Lucky, shifted the seat back, stretched and smiled.

                        Jackie obviously thought he was nuts to even consider throwing money into the Chevy, but in another hour he was going to pull into Jackie's garage, hand him $1500 in cash and turn him loose.  Then he would give him another $450 in cash and tell him to go ahead with the paint job.  Chinese red.  That ought to make him really crazy.  Loomis stopped the tape and fast forwarded past I Wish I Was Thirty Again as usual and noticed the rain had slacked off.  There was also someone sauntering casually up to the bench on the boardwalk so he pulled the envelope from under the seat, tucked it into his jacket and pulled his Pittsburgh Pirate cap down till the bill almost touched his nose.

                        He stood on the third step up to the boardwalk, his eyes about level with the deck to check the guy out.  Even though there was still rain coming off the water into his face and even though the guy was standing by the bench with his back to Loomis he started getting that bad feeling.  He climbed the steps and crossed the deck feeling worse every second.  He walked up and stood next to the guy.  He spent a few moments trying to spot where the iron-grey sky met the horizon, gave up and turned to him.

                        "You're fired," he said.

                        The guy shrugged and started to move off.

                        "Wait a minute, asshole.  Where is he?  Did you see him?"

                        The guy looked at Loomis and shrugged again.  "I don't work for you."

                        "You had one instruction.  Only one.  'Don't let the guy see you.'  Where was I meeting him?"

                        "Loomis . . ."

                        "At the bench, right?  This bench.  The one I got my hand on, am I right?  Now, if I'm meeting him here, and you're standing there, what do you think the chances are that he's eventually going to spot you?"

                        "Loomis . . ."

                        "I don't think you're cut out for this work, Marty.  I really don't.  You know why?  Because you're a moron, that's why.  'Don't let the guy see you.'  That's all I said."

                        "He didn't see me."

                        "Oh?  Is that right?  And how do we know that?"

                        Marty turned away from the ocean and lifted his chin.  Loomis followed it over to Lucky's and the windmill hazard on seven.  There was the guy, the real guy.  The guy that was supposed to pay him $2,550.  His head was poking out from one end of the windmill and his feet from the other.  Loomis wanted him to be taking a nap.  Marty shrugged again.

                        "No hole-in-one on seven today."

                        Loomis nodded.  No paint job for the Chevy, either.


                                            *       *       *       *       *


                        Cap'n Fishbein had called a week earlier.  He explained that he was the owner of a party boat operating out of Point Pleasant.  Loomis had been on one of these once.  For forty dollars a head it took a dozen or so guys out a mile or two into the ocean, following the blues or stripers or whatever was running.  You catch a few fish, you drink all day, you lie and bullshit and act like an idiot and you come back sunburned, drunk and exhausted.  The outing, which had actually been his girlfriend Martha's idea, had not been a success and had not been repeated.  He wasn't going to hold this against Cap'n Fishbein, however, so he asked what was on his mind.  It turns out he needed some help with his divorce and wanted to know if Loomis was available.  Loomis was available, but Fishbein didn't want to talk about what kind of help he needed on the phone so they arranged to meet at the OB Diner in Point Pleasant.  They met.  They shook hands and ordered coffee.

                        "My wife's divorcing me," said Fishbein.

                        "I'm sorry."

                        Cap'n Larry Fishbein was probably in his mid-fifties and his years on the ocean had left him with a coloring that had less of the hearty bloom of the salt and more of the sordid stain of the machinist.  He dyed his hair an improbable black.  Directly below the hairline were massive black hornrims and hung from these was a long, furrowed, dyspeptic face.  His ears were like large, fuzzy mushrooms.  The only features to give away his calling were his thick hands and beefy forearms.  Otherwise you would take him for a weatherbeaten chemistry teacher. 

                        "It's not entirely unexpected.  We both have . . . outside interests."

                        "Mr. Fishbein . . . Cap'n Fishbein, let me tell you how this works best.  Anything you tell me I can be made to testify about in court, if it comes to that.  We do not have a privileged relationship if you hire me.  By outside interests I assume you mean you have a girlfriend and she has a boyfriend.  How much more complicated this gets, I don't know, but it may be necessary for me to know a good deal about your private affairs in order for me to help you.  My advice is to get your lawyer to hire me.  That gives us privilege."

                        His eyes had drifted from Loomis during this speech and his face had deepened into an expression of gloom and distaste.  He shook his head impatiently.

                        "It's not like that, Mr. Loomis.  I don't dislike my wife at all.  She's a good woman.  We built this business together over the past twenty-five years.  I expect this to be settled equitably."

                        Loomis spread his hands.

                        "Then what are we doing here?"

                        "We have the boat, the house and two cars.  We have a little money put away.  She can have the house, whichever car she wants and most of the money."

                        "She wants the boat."

                        Fishbein nodded.  "I want her to get what's fair.  I want her to be happy.  I want this to be settled amicably.  But most of all I want the boat."

                        "How am I going to help you get it?"

                        Fishbein studied his blunt, grimy paws and began speaking out of the center of his mouth.  He wasn't enjoying this at all.

                        "As I mentioned, each of us has a partner.  It's not something we discuss, but it's understood.  I really don't think it would be possible for her to prove my relationship in court.  I want to be able to prove hers."

                        "I see.  Is this your lawyer's advice?"

                        He hesitated a moment, not evasively, but as if clearing an unexpected thought from his mind, and then answered simply, "Yes."

                        "You want pictures?"

                        "Yes," he said, barely moving his lips.

                        Loomis began tracing a coffee stain on the countertop with the retracted tip of his pen.  He spoke gently and soothingly, as if to a dog he wasn't quite sure of.

                        "Cap'n Fishbein, there are two kinds of pictures we could be talking about."

                        "They needn't be explicit.  Merely compromising."  His expression was now flat-out revulsion.  Loomis became all business, snapping open his notebook and punching out the tip of his pen.

                        "Good.  I get $150 a day and expenses, which shouldn't amount to much for this.  I need three days up front."

                        Fishbein was writing the check before Loomis was finished talking.

                        "Thank you.  Now.  Who's your lawyer?"

                        "It won't be necessary for you to be in contact."  He pulled a card and a photo from his breast pocket.  The card pictured a half-tone cartoon angler holding up a striper a little larger than himself.  The copy read "!!!Sportsmen!!! 'The Carousel' out of Point Pleasant.  Cap'n Larry Fishbein.  Parties, Charters.  Hostess on-board.  Monday-Saturday at 7:30 am."  And the address and phone number.  The picture was a snapshot of a large, friendly-looking woman with her arm draped over Cap'n Fishbein's shoulders like a rugby player.  It was taken on a dock with the Carousel in the background.

                        "As you can see, I've crossed out the phone number so you won't be tempted to call me there.  You may leave a message at the number I've written on the back.  Don't call unless absolutely necessary."

                        He stood and threw some money on the counter.  He looked like the air was getting very bad very fast.  Loomis held up his hand.

                        "Cap'n Fishbein.  Give me some help here.  Do you know where they meet?"


                        "Ah.  Do you know how often?"

                        "No.  Look, this is very simple.  Follow her.  Find them together.  Take a picture.  I'll call you within a week."

                        "I see.  Cap'n Fishbein, you do know who the party is, don't you?"

                        Cap'n Fishbein was staring past Loomis, out the window, past the parking lot, way, way off in the direction of the bay.  He was looking more like Ahab every second.

                        "It's my mate.  Elroy Keever."

                        "Your mate?  You mean your assistant . . . guy on the boat?"

                        Cap'n Fishbein nodded, rolled his eyes and was gone.