Bob Munroe woke up on his face. He had rolled over in the night and now his arms were pinned beneath him. They were numb and rubbery and, in that dark, cloudy time between sleep and waking, Bob wondered if someone hadn't come along and stolen his arms in the night. The thought registered dimly, as if it were someone else thinking it someplace far from here. To have no arms would be a bad thing, surely, but it would not be the worst thing. Bob would get along.
Of more immediate concern were the little bits of cracker that had worked their way beneath the waistband of Bob's underpants. He had come in late, his back hurting from the long bus ride down, and had stretched out on the floor with a brick of saltines. He must have crushed the saltines while he slept because the crumbs were all over him, up his shirt, stuck in the creases of his skin. He could feel a big piece of cracker sitting in the crack of his ass, and this was a feeling worse than the prickly sensation returning to his fingers, worse than the ache in his jaw from sleeping on it wrong. He could almost see that crumb, porous and obdurate and pointed on one end like a valentine. Yet his arms were slow in responding.
He couldn't get his brain to make his body work, couldn't reach down there with a half-dead hand and fetch that crumb out of there. Waking up for the first time in this empty house, Bob felt the hot white morning congealing on him. His heart beat hard against the floor, and he sensed that not far below, not too far down in the sandy soil, death was reaching up for him.
Outside the kitchen door was the patio Bob was supposed to be down here rectifying. Pale, leggy plants stuck through the holes in the bricks. The roots of pine and palm trees had found their way beneath the patio and fouled things up, pulled the bricks out of true, made it so the lawn chairs wouldn't sit right.
This house had once been the joint property of his father and his uncle Randall, who was wasting no time putting it on the market now that Bob's father was dead. It was an investment his father had been railroaded into sight unseen, and Bob couldn't recall his father coming down here more than once or twice. The way the deed worked out, ownership conveyed exclusively to Randall, and Bob wondered whether he hadn't been banking on this turn of events all along.
Randall lived where Bob lived, several hours north. When Bob's father was dying, Randall had made a promise that he would do what he could to make sure things turned out all right for Bob. In the weeks after the funeral, Randall had made a point of stopping by frequently to condole with him, though his sympathies usually took the form of showing up around dinnertime and staying long enough to finish off whatever beers Bob had in the fridge. There was something disquieting about his uncle, how his oiled hair always showed the furrows of a recent combing and how he wore braces on his teeth, though he was well into his middle years.
Bob had not been close with his father, so it was puzzling for Bob and also for his wife, Vicky, when his father's death touched off in him an angry lassitude that seemed to curdle Bob's enthusiasm for work and married life. He had fallen into a bad condition and, in addition to several minor miscalculations, had made three major fuckups that would be a long time in smoothing over. He had reported to work under the influence of alcohol, committed a calamitous oversight on a house he'd been helping to build and was dismissed soon after. One week after that, he'd rear-ended a local real-estate developer, who as a result of the collision developed a dicking in his jaw and sued away Bob's lean inheritance.
Worst of all, he had tried to blunt oncoming feelings of hopelessness by trysting with a lonely woman he'd met in traffic school. Even at the time, it had seemed like a pointless enterprise: the two of them dry-mouthed and distracted, their joyless minstrations only making things worse.
Then one day, when they were driving into town, Vicky looked up and saw the phantom outline of a woman's footprint on the windshield over the glove box. She slipped her sandal off, saw that the print did not match her own and told Bob that he was no longer welcome in their home.
Bob spent two months on Randall's couch before Randall got the idea to send him south. “Hole up at the beach house for a while,” Randall had said. “This damn thing's just a bump in die road. You need a little time to recombobulate is all.”
Bob did not want to go. Vicky was already beginning to soften on her demands for a divorce, and he was sure that with time she'd open her door to him again. But Vicky encouraged him to leave and, things being how they were, he thought it best not to be contrary. Anyway, it was a generous offer on Randall's part, though Bob was not surprised that when Randall dropped him off at the bus station he handed him a list of jobs already written out.