She’s a Sweet Old Thing
Cory Coffin stands a proud four feet and eleven inches tall, provided there’s a bit of a slope between her and the yardstick. She has dark hair with faint streaks of grey — just enough to prove that she doesn’t dye her hair at age fifty-three — and she has battleship grey eyes that stare through your retinas and straight back into everything you’ve ever done wrong. There’s a rumor that she smiled once, when she was young, but I doubt it’s true.
She’s the Grand Dame of Grand Seal Island, and she knows it. Her handshake will make you left-handed, her rapid-fire walk will make you breathless and clumsy just trying to keep up, and her slash-and-burn approach to driving will make you glad you’re not a pedestrian on the streets of GSI. She swears in the same way that old men chew tobacco, with a kind of a sneering spit that dares you to change expression. I’ll always remember her first words to me: “Dumbass ferry’s late. Cory Coffin. Nice to meet you. Grab your bags and follow me.” Even the “nice to meet you” sounded like an order.
I threw my knapsack in the back of Cory’s baby-blue Ford Bronco, the old square kind that looks like it could take a rhino in the side without denting, and climbed into the passenger seat. Cory sprang from a fifty-three-year-old crouch and landed in the driver’s seat — starting the engine, closing the door, and shifting into first gear all in the same blaze of motion. She looked at me, checking to see whether I was impressed, and then stomped on the gas. I was impressed enough to fasten my seat belt. At twenty-three years old, I’m just beginning to sense that earthly life is not eternal.
Cory blasted through town like a shark around blood, thrashing around corners and spewing gravel, grass, and lawn ornaments out from under the wheels. Strangely, none of the pedestrians seemed to worry too much. They’d hold back a little when they saw the Baby Blue Cyclone hurling toward them, but they seemed to know that Cory wasn’t going to hit them. She’d come close — maybe leave a little Turtle Wax on somebody’s backside — but she wouldn’t make contact too directly.
We got to her house, maybe half a mile away, at precisely the same moment that we left the dock. I sat in the passenger’s seat for a few seconds, waiting for my life forces and half my vital organs to catch up with me, and then I climbed out. Cory was already entering the building.
The Coffin house is divided into two parts, with two front doors sharing a long porch. The right-hand side is where the Coffins live. The left-hand side is known as The Larboard, the only bed-and-breakfast inn on Grand Seal Island. The island, for the record, has no hotels. If you aren’t family, you stay at The Larboard. Cory led me up the stairs and pointed to the first door on the right.
“That’s yours,” she said. “Bathroom down the hall. No other guests right now, so you don’t have to worry — but if we start filling up, don’t take too long on the john. I confiscate the magazines in there once all the rooms are occupied. And if we get real full, we assign someone to the other bed in your room. Most likely’d be some foul-smelling old sailor, but I’ll try to give you the best-looking one.” She laughed loudly without smiling. “Aren’t any keys. Not much point. Hardly any crime on the island, and I’m a pretty good shot.”
Then she turned and stomped down the stairs. When she reached the bottom, she yelled up, “Breakfast is at eight. You can use the phone jack in the pub to send your little newspaper articles.”
The door to my room was painted a slate blue, with the number “1” painted in gold in the middle. I pushed the door open and entered “my” room.
Four walls, whitish. Brown painted floor. White ceiling. Narrow, metal-frame bed to the left. Another to the right. Two nightstands between them, doubling as dressers. No closet, but some hooks along the walls. A small table next to the door that sported a television set so old it must run on kerosene. No chairs. One window that looked out at the neighbor’s house.
I chose the bed to the left, because the door opened in such a way that the bed to the right is the first one you see. I figured that if a smelly old sailor were to stagger in while I was asleep, he’d probably take the first bed he saw whether it was occupied or not. When it comes to sharing bed space, intelligence beats convenience every time. I put my luggage at the foot of my bed and flicked on the TV. Nothing but static. No surprise.
My plan is to stay at The Larboard for a few days until I find some other living arrangement. I think I’ll ask around for a family that has an attic or garage they might let me rent. The Larboard isn’t expensive, but still, I’ll get to know people better if I shift from a tourist to a resident mode of living. Besides, I’d like a place where the magazines stay by the can.
The Larboard is also a pub, so I went downstairs for a drink and some conversation. Before I headed down, I pulled a book out of my duffel, just in case the pub was as bustling as the guest floor.
Just my luck — the only person in the pub was Cory. There were four tables around the small, dark room, and there were three tall stools at the bar. I sat on a stool and asked Cory for a beer.
“Glass?” she commanded, boring her eyes into my skull.
“No, thanks. Bottle is fine.” Quick thinking on my part, I thought. Only mainland, tree-hugging sissies ask for glasses for their beer.
She snorted. “Bottle?” she said. “I don’t bring in anything that breaks that easy. You’ll drink it out of the can.”
Damn. I’d been doing so well.
She dropped an open can of beer onto the bar from a height of twelve inches, causing an eight-inch whale geyser to shoot up out of the opening and plop neatly back in. She’s been practicing that her entire life, I’m sure. Still, it’s impressive. I might ask her to show me how it’s done some time, after I’m convinced that she really doesn’t want to kill me.
“Drink it fast,” she said. “I’ll show you the island. Not much to see after dark, unless you hang out in The Village. I could slow down the sun a bit, but I don’t like to show off for strangers.”
I sucked my beer down in one huge, macho gulp. Cory finished three beers in the same span of time.
“Let’s go,” she said, and she struck out for her Bronco with a steady step.
—Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment—Gemstone: I think The Larboard is charming. All the nonsense that you get in overpriced hotels—mints on the pillows, three hundred channels on the television, room service on silver platters, hair dryers mounted on the walls, telephones in the bathrooms—who needs it all? I’d rather have a clean room with good light and a nice view. ’Tis the gift to be simple.
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