by Kevin R. Doyle
“There she is. See her? Right over there, heading down to the pier.”
I looked in the direction Matt pointed and could just barely make out, about halfway down the slope, a faint, shadowy form. It moved steadily towards the lone dock jutting out from the bend in the shoreline.
“All I see is a blob,” I said.
“Keep looking. Your eyes got to adjust.”
So I kept looking. Every several feet, the blob seemed to stop, hesitate, then start moving again. Then, as my eyes adjusted, I could make out one blob pushing a second, shorter one.
“That thing in front’s the shopping cart,” Matt said. He chuckled, softly, so that we wouldn’t be overheard. “You got to hand it to the old gal. I don’t know if I’d have enough strength to push a shopping cart all the way down the shore, through all that sand.”
I didn’t say anything, just continued watching as the blobs progressed down the shore. Eventually, they stopped right at the head of the pier, and after several motionless minutes seemed to disappear underneath it.
“Give it a few minutes,” Matt said, “then we’ll go down there.”
“Why? For God’s sakes, cuz, what’s the point of . . .”
“Just wait. You’ll see.”
We actually waited over ten minutes, near as I could figure, before Matt stood up and dusted sand off his knees.
“Let’s go,” he said, an unusual tightness in his tone, “I want to introduce you to Driftwood Annie.”
As we headed out, half a dozen questions whirled through my head. Not the least of which was, what the hell was I doing out here?
In this climate, in the middle of August, even the nights were hot and sticky. This late at night, down here on the shoreline didn’t feel a whole lot cooler than inland.
“Introduce me to who?”
“Driftwood Annie,” Matt replied. “That’s what we call the old bag.”
“You call who that?” I asked.
Matt slowed down and gratefully, with shin splints beginning to kick in from the sand, I did too.
“Well,” he said, “I’m not sure exactly who gave her the full name. One of the guys, I guess. From somewhere, we got the idea her name was Annie.”
By this point, we were only about sixty feet away from the pier.
“What about the ‘Driftwood’ part?” I asked.
Matt turned to me, and I saw the same sly, kind of wolfish grin that I’d seen on his face more than once over the years, usually when he had some really nasty business in mind. As young kids, I’d seen it right before he used a Cherry Bomb to blow a frog up. I’d noticed the smirk at around fifteen or so, when I’d tagged along with Matt and some of his buddies when they went to the closest thing this hick burg had for a gay bar to roll some queeros. And he wore it the evening he’d taken Cory Wallace’s sister out on a date.
‘Course, since those days I’d left all that childish thug stuff behind. But this summer, visiting back home after nearly five years away, it seemed like Matt hadn’t changed much at all.
Turned out he was so zoned in on grinning at me that he’d forgotten to answer the question.
“Hey, man. So tell me. Why do you call her Driftwood?”
“Simple. No matter how many times we’ve rolled her off this beach, the bitch keeps coming back. Just like a piece of damned driftwood.”
At the moment a thunderous incoming breaker made it difficult for me to be sure I’d heard my friend correctly.
“Rolled?” I asked.
“Yeah.” Matt stopped and bent down to massage his shins. He never did keep himself in very good shape, and since we’d left high school he seemed to have really gone downhill. I stopped alongside of him, feeling kind of winded myself.
“Yeah,” he repeated, “we keep rolling her and she keeps coming back.”
I looked down to the shoreline, where the vague form huddled under the pier. I knew that Matt had never been the most morally upright of people, but this was really pushing it.
“You telling me,” I said, “that you come out here and shove some helpless old woman around, knocking her around, just to get her off the beach?”
“Sure, well. Me and the guys.”
Naturally. For as long as I’d known Matt, all the way back to sixth grade when my family had moved out here, he’d never done anything on his own. There’d always been some bunch of “guys” around to back him up.
I grimaced at the thought that once, before I’d gotten away, I’d been one of his guys.
He straightened up.
“Come on. I’ll introduce you.”
As we made our way closer, the hunched form seemed to have settled down in the sand. I glanced over at Matt.
Even this late at night, he still had on the grease-stained uniform shirt from his garage job. Between that and the smell of his breath, I could pretty much guess that he’d gone straight from work to one of the bars that populated the coast in order to work up his liquid courage before calling me.
As I began to really doubt myself a sudden gust of wind came whipping off the ocean, dowsing us with droplets of spray.
I’d wanted to think that I wasn’t anywhere near the same as my old buddy. On the one hand, he’d barely skated through high school, graduating by only the slimmest of margins before taking the first dead end job that came along, hanging on there only long enough to use it as a springboard to other, more varied dead end jobs. He’d also hopped from one braindead girl to another, and God alone knew how he’d managed to avoid having a whole flock of bastard children by now.
“There she is,” he said, by now we were only a few yards away. “The dumb bitch doesn’t even know enough to try to get away.”
By contrast, I was the one who’d made good. Decent grades, at least by junior year when I’d stopped hanging around with Matt. I’d actually left the old home town, secured a job with a decent company and begun climbing the ladder, both corporately and socially.
And in the last year, between a divorce, downsizing and a home underwater, it had al turned to ashes.
“Hey there, Annie. Some people coming to visit you.”
I noticed a weird tightness in his voice, as if he had to work to keep his vocal cords under control.
As we got closer, I noticed a shifting and shuffling of the shadows under the pier then, with a squeaking of wheels in sand, she emerged out into the night.
I couldn’t really tell her age. She had that weathered look you see so often on street people, leaving her possible age anywhere between forty and eighty. Her hair, what I could see from under a light blue cap, seemed a mixture of grey and black. She wore the traditional uniform of rags and castoffs, with the main difference being that she had fewer layers, no doubt due to the warmer weather, than you usually see on such people. And while her face had all the expected and crows feet here and there, it didn’t contain nearly the hardened look most commonly associated with vagrants.
Her eyes, though, were a different matter entirely. It’s kind of tough to explain, but I guess you could say that her eyes seemed to cringe, along with her body, as if she expected any moment to be kicked in the face.
In all, I’d never seen a more helpless, victimized person than I did that night on the beach.
“Jake, meet Annie. Annie, this is my old school buddy, Jake.” Matt accompanied the introduction with an asinine flourish of his hands. Cocky as always, but I could see his facial muscles tensed and strained.
“What you got there, Annie? Something to share?”
Matt edged towards her shopping cart, filled to overflowing with all sorts of junk, stuffed in so tightly that it looked impossible to pull anything out. I wondered just how much the damned thing weighed, and the idea that she’d pushed it all the way down the shoreline, through all that thick sand, gave me a slight quiver.
As Matt edged forward, the old woman shuffled her feet, as if uncertain what to do. I figured that common sense, if she had any, told her to get the hell out of there, but that would mean leaving her precious stuff behind, and her body language clearly showed her indecision.
I suddenly wanted to be anywhere else but where I was at that moment.
“Hey, Matt,” I said, feeling right back in high school again, “ leave her alone.”
The old woman flicked her head my way, then turned her attention back to Matt.
“Can’t do that, Jake. Like I told you, she’s like a damned piece of driftwood. You know how this kind is. Let them get a foothold in an area, and before you know it they’re overrunning the place. She’s got to go. But no matter how often we’ve chased her off, she keeps washing back up.”
By this point, Matt had walked all the way up to her cart. Grabbing hold of the edge, he yanked it out of her hands and out into the open. Annie staggered a bit before regaining her balance. She crouched halfway down, her shoulders hunched in.
“I’m telling you, Jake, the guys and I’ve chased this bitch off over and over, but she just doesn’t get the message. She must be a simpleton.”
As he started pawing through her cart, I thought I saw a gleam of something in the old woman’s eyes, but whatever I saw disappeared almost as soon as it came.
Meanwhile, Matt was yanking stuff out of her cart and scattering it around the beach. He’d already tossed out over a dozen magazines, a couple of empty Jim Beam bottles, and, of all things, a pair of cowboy boots. He paused with the boots in his hand, a look of intense concentration on his face, before tossing them aside.
“Nothing much of value here, Annie. You’re starting to slip. Surely you’ve got a stash of something valuable. Hey Jake,” he looked over my way, “would you believe some of the guys think she’s got a pile of cash tucked somewhere in this damned cart?”
Suddenly wondering something, I took a step forward.
Annie looked my way for an instant, then turned her stare back to focus on Matt
“Matt,” I asked, “who are these guys you keep mentioning?”
“Huh?” He glanced up at me, then went back to digging in the cart.
“The guys,” I repeated, “the ones who’ve been coming out here with you. Who are they?”
“What the . . .” He reared up, his hand clutching several of the plastic binders used to hook six-packs together. No cans, just the binders themselves. “What the hell she think she’s going to do with these?”
He tossed the binders onto the sand.
Annie started to move forward, but slunk back the next instant. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard a low sob come from that trembling frame.
“Who are they?” I asked again.
“Oh you know, just some fellas. Couple of them you don’t know. They came to live here after you left. But you remember Roy Harris?”
Oh yeah. I definitely remembered Roy Harris. A big, hulking, guy with greasy, dish-water blond hair. Even in our junior year, his muscle had already begun turning to fat, and I could only imagine what he looked like now. In temperament, he’d been almost a soul brother to Matt.
“Sure, I remember Roy.”
Matt looked up from the cart, Annie still hadn’t moved at all, and turned back to me.
“What’s your point, guy? Why you asking about them?”
“I was just wondering. Why aren’t they here tonight? Why’d you call me to come out here?”
In the gloom, I saw an uneasy grimace cross Matt’s face. I noticed that this whole time he’d been keeping his attention focused mainly on the old woman, and he’d never lost that tense, shadowy look.
“I haven’t seen the others for a while. Maybe they got bored with rolling this bitch.”
As the treasures from her cart began to pile up on the sand, she sank all the way down, a slight moan coming from her.
Matt continued digging into the cart.
“Come on, Annie. Where is it ? Where’s your money?”
Just then he seemed to freeze, half crouched over the cart. He glanced sideways at Annie, and I swear I’ve never before seen such raw, instant hatred. But even as his face reddened and his hands trembled, he seemed to be holding himself in check. I wondered why. The Matt I’d known in earlier years had never hesitated to throw a punch whenever he felt like it.
“You bitch,” he bit out. “You no good, lousy, sewer-scum bitch. Where the hell’d you get this?”
He lifted his hands, holding some sort of cloth, up out of the cart.
Annie snarled then, the first clear sound I’d heard out of her, and lunged towards her cart. Matt, without even seeming to think about it, turned slightly sideways and backhanded her. I flinched at the thwack of his knuckles into her face.
The homeless woman spun half around and fell to her knees.
“Hey,” I yelled out.
He turned all the way around then, and tossed the cloth at me.
I snatched it out of the air. It was dark blue, or black, with red stripes. It looked familiar even before I saw the white oval patch with red lettering.
It was a shirt, the same type of shirt as Matt, who hadn’t gone home from work before calling me, was wearing.
“Roy,” he spit out. “I helped him get a job at the garage about a month back. And he hasn’t been around for nearly two weeks.”
“Yeah,” he snarled as he reached down and grabbed hold of Annie’s shoulder. Yanking her to her feet, slammed her against the shopping cart. She didn’t make a sound, merely took the punishment almost like a dumb, mute animal.
“And two weeks ago,” Matt snarled, “just happened to be the last time that Roy and I were down here dealing with this lush.”
He lashed out with his foot, but the miserable creature managed to squirm out of the way.
The miss seemed to make him even angrier, so much so that, literally spitting, he tried to kick her again.
I grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
“Matt, calm down dammit.”
He turned snarling at me. “I won’t calm down, buddy. There were four of us. Me, Roy and two others. Lately now, seems there’s just me.”
Dropping his arm, I stepped back.
He glanced at Annie, who still lay huddled on the sand, one hand massaging her face.
“All four of us. Me, Roy and these other two guys. We were down here getting drunk, a few months back. Then this tramp shows up. So we thought, what the hell, let’s have a little fun.”
“What’d you do?”
“Nothing. Just knocked her around a bit, rifled through her stuff there. Then one of the dudes, big tall guy, got a little too drunk and kicked in some of her ribs.”
Even though I was hearing it second hand, the story made me a little nauseous. Probably from remembering when, as a young and stupid kid, I took part in such things.
“So we ran her off, and made it clear that she should stay run off.”
Through Matt’s recital, Driftwood Annie had stayed splayed out on the sand, as if offering herself for more abuse. In the moonlight, her limbs literally trembled, like she would, if she could, have crawled away.
“But she didn’t stay gone,” I said, not really asking.
“Naw. A week or so later Roy and I were down here with one of the other two guys, just minding our own business, getting good and plastered. Then guess who shows up but this stupid broad, too dumb to know what’s good for her.”
“Well, after all – wait a minute. You, Roy and one of the others?”
“Yeah,” he said, and a certain expression floated over his face. I knew from experience how tough and dull-witted Matt was, but he sure was acting jittery and uncertain on this night.
“The two other guys were friends of Roy’s. He knew them from that time he moved downstate after school.”
“But just one of them came down here with you that second night?”
“Right. And so when Driftwood here showed up, we figured she hadn’t quite learned her lesson that first time. And hell, we probably were a bit more wasted than we should have been. So we lit into her again. Really put it to her that time.”
“But the one guy. The one that didn’t show up that second time?”
“Probably just left town ahead of some bill collectors or something. At least that’s what we thought at the time.” He turned a venomous glare at Annie. “But you know better don’t you, you vengeful little bitch?”
He looked for a minute like he wanted to kick her again, but instead turned back to me.
“The first guy, whathisname, had always worn these fancy brown cowboy boots. Didn’t seem to matter that the rest of his clothing looked like shit. Anytime I saw him he had these rich-looking boots on.
“And that second time, practically as soon as Roy tipped her cart over, those damned boots came flopping out.”
The old woman had gotten to her knees by now, crippled and bent with arthritis as they probably were. You couldn’t really tell, what with all that ragged clothing, but she sure acted frail and helpless. And she still hadn’t said anything.
“So what happened?” I asked, not really sure if I wanted the answer.
“What you think? We beat on her. Again. Well, Roy and this other guy did. I mainly sat back and watched out for anyone coming along. But even so she never did say where she got those boots from. But I’ll tell you this, by the time they were finished she knew damned good and well to never come back this way again.”
I looked down at the shirt still clutched in my hand, Roy’s shirt, only just then taking a closer look at those red stripes against the dark background. Peering closer, I got the feeling that not all of those red lines were part of the natural fabric of the shirt.
“You made sure she wouldn’t come back?” I mimicked Matt’s last words.
“And yet here she is.”
He scowled, an entirely new level of ugliness in his eyes.
“Yeah. Thing about these street morons. They’re sneakier than you’d think. A few weeks later, Roy and I came out here and saw her hanging around again. Didn’t we, Annie?”
Another vicious kick, this one connecting with her sides. I’m not sure, because the tide was coming in rather hard and loud at that moment, but I’m pretty sure I heard some ribs snapping on that one. The grimace in her face, along with the look of instantaneous pain that seemed to jerk her entire body, pretty much confirmed it.
Driftwood Annie made an odd, mewling sound and started to crawl away, but just as she did Matt reached out and grabbing her by the collar, smashed her backwards into her shopping cart.
The cart tumbled over, Annie sprawled on top of it, and scattered what was left of its contents across the sand.
“Dammit, man. Stop that!” I cried out.
Matt stood over the sprawled woman, his arms at his sides, fists rhythmically clenching and unclenching.
“Roy and I did it right that last time.. Just beat the living hell out of her. Yet no matter what, she just doesn’t seem to get the message.”
“Matt,” I said, wishing I had the guts to just take off, but he cut me off. I wondered about then if he even knew who he was talking to.
“And that last time, Roy and I went through all of her trash, and what do you think we found?”
I waited, still unsure if he was talking to me, the pitiful victim on the ground, or maybe himself.
“We found this baseball cap that Roy’s friend always wore. Some no-name beer company you never heard of. According to Roy the guy was never without it and after he splits, here it is in Annie’s cart.” He finally turned and looked at me. “So how do you explain that, Jake?”
I looked down at the shirt I still held.
“Matt,” I said, “where’s Roy?”
“I don’t know. He hasn’t shown up to work for over a week. Boss can’t get hold of him. When I go by his place, nobody’s there. So I don’t have a clue where he is.” He turned a nasty, baleful look on the woman on the ground. “But you know, don’t you Driftwood? You know what happened to Roy, don’t you? Don’t you?”
He nearly screamed the last words at the same moment he flung himself on her. With the old woman on her back in the sand, Roy straddled her and began punching away. After one short, whimpering protest, Annie curled up into a ball in order to protect herself from his flailing blows.
I’d never in my life seen someone so helpless and frail. How Matt could even possibly think this fragile, probably deficient old woman had done anything to a couple of strong, young guys, was beyond me.
I tossed the shirt away and jumped into the scuffle. It took everything I had but I finally managed to pull him off of her and fling him aside. Instantly, he was on his feet again and lunging, and to this day I don’t know how I managed to get between them and push him away.
“Cool it, dammit. If you’re not careful you’ll kill her.”
“Goddamned right I’m going to kill her. But not before she tells me what happened to Roy and the others.”
“Dude, listen to what you’re saying. You actually think this weirdo lady had anything to do with those guys taking off?”
“What else?” he asked. “Every time she shows up she has something of theirs, tucked away in that stupid basket.” He lashed a kick at the cart, knocking it onto its other side.
I grabbed him again and pushed him backwards. He stumbled for a couple of steps before getting his balance.
“Take off, man. Go home.”
“Like hell. And leave that trampy slut to . . .”
“I’ll talk to her. Find out what happened to your buddies. But if you don’t dial it down, you’re gonna end up killing her, and then we’ll both be in for it.”
“She did something to Roy. She did something to . . .”
“Maybe,” I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Annie climbing to her knees. “But hell, you know Roy. He always was fly by night. Even back in school. For all you know, he got some skank knocked up and decided to take off for a while. Anything could have happened.”
“But the boots, the cap, Roy’s shirt.”
“Don’t worry, guy. I’ll get it out of her. But you need to back off.”
I really wasn’t interested in his delusions. I only knew that, with his jitterinness, if I didn’t get him away from there he’d end up killing the old lady. And while I wasn’t too concerned about the state of her health, as such, I sure didn’t want to go down as some kind of an accomplice.
Matt took a step back and looked away from me. Off to the side, I saw Driftwood Annie crawling around on the sand, maybe sobbing a bit, and as I turned back she seemed to shake a little bit, as if from shock.
“Okay,” he finally said. “I’m going down to the bar. You get it out of her. But get it all out, and make sure she knows that this time, it’s for keeps. If I ever see her around this beach, or even around town, again I’m not going to hold myself back.”
For a minute there, Matt sounded like the typical high school bully who, when someone finally stands up to him, begs all his buddies to “hold him back” before he does any real damage. Despite his bluster his face, even in the moonlight, looked pale and shiny.
“Alright dude. Just make sure you get home, get some supper in you, and I’ll be around later to fill you in.”
With one final disdainful snort, Matt started to turn away, but he couldn’t help himself, and before walking off he made a kind of fake out move to the old woman. She flinched, covering her face with her hands. At the moment, I couldn’t remember ever seeing anything more pathetic and sad in my life. It was beyond me how Matt saw something dangerous and deadly in her.
I waited until he was well and truly gone, off the shore and over the catwalk that ran alongside the beach and the taillights of his car fading away from the parking lot.
Then I turned back to the old woman.
She had moved a little and now crouched over her up-ended cart.
“You okay?” I asked.
She didn’t say anything, merely looked at me with those dull, empty eyes.
“You okay?” I repeated.
Instead of replying, she tilted her cart right side up and began gathering up her belongings. I bent down to help her. Every now and then she stopped and stared at me. I wondered if the woman was a mute of some kind. For damned sure she wasn’t normal, not living the way she did.
At one point, with the cart almost full again, she reached out for Roy’s shirt, still lying where I’d thrown it earlier. I got to it ahead of her.
“Where’d you get this?” I asked.
“Did you get it from one of the men who hurt you?”
She reached out for the shirt and, feeling a little squeamish, I pulled it out of her reach.
“No, you can’t have it. I don’t know how you ended up with it, or the other stuff, but you can’t have it back.”
I turned my back, walked a ways out into the water and tossed the striped cloth as far as I could. It’s hard to be positive, with the surf booming in my ear, but I thought I heard her crying behind me.
When I turned back, Annie was standing and grasping the handles of her cart, now completely loaded up again.
“You need to get to a doctor,” I said.
She shook her head and started turning the cart around.
“Hey,” I said, “He hit you pretty hard. You need treatment.”
She stood hunched in place, her shoulders shaking a bit and then, for the first time, she actually spoke.
“Been done worse,” she said, her voice gravelly and almost indecipherable. “Never been to a doctor yet.”
Grasping the handles, she began shoving the cart through the sand.
Running, I got in front of her and, pressing down on the front, stopped her progress.
“Listen to me,” I said, “don’t come back here. I’ll talk to Matt tomorrow, once he’s calmed down.”
“And say what?” Again, the voice sounded as if loaded with pebbles, as if she hadn’t spoken in a long time and her vocal chords were rusty from disuse.
“I don’t know. But I’ll say something. Something to get him off your back. But listen,” and I leaned forward to emphasize my point, “you can’t come around here again. I don’t know where or how you got that stuff, but if Matt ever sees you again, he’ll kill you. “
”Maybe,” she said.
“Look,” I reached into my pocket and pulled out what little money I had on me. “Here’s thirty bucks. Just take it and go. I’ll talk to Matt, tell him something, but don’t ever come around here again. Okay?”
She held out her hand and took the money, looking it over as if it was some sort of foreign currency. Then she gave the slightest of shrugs and stuffed the bills somewhere in her layers of clothing.
As she turned and began moving off, I tried one last time.
“You’re not coming back, right?”
Maybe she said something in reply, maybe not. Right about then another massive booming of the tide drowned out any possible reply on her part.
Rather than pushing it, I just decided to assume she’d gotten the point. I kept watching until she turned a bend in the shoreline, then took off for home.
I didn’t stop to see Matt that night. Figuring it wouldn’t hurt to give him time to cool off, I waited until the next day. About noon I stopped by the garage, thinking we’d go to lunch and I could give him my spiel.
Except he wasn’t there. Stan, his boss, had tried to call him three times with no luck, and had already placed an ad in the next day’s paper for a new mechanic.
I went by Matt’s place, but it was all locked up. I saw his car in the drive, but when I grabbed an extra key from a hiding place of his I knew about, he wasn’t anywhere in the house.
His place looked about as cluttered and dirty as you would expect, with clothes and crap lying around all over the place. If my old buddy had made use of his closets or drawers, it sure hadn’t been recently.
Locking his place up and turning to leave, an weird thought popped into my head. As messy as the place was, if anything of his was missing how would anyone ever know?
I spent the rest of the day calling up anyone I could think of and going anywhere that came to mind looking for Matt.
Strike out all around.
By about eight o’clock, after making a third complete round of all the bars in town, I finally did the only thing I could think of and headed out to the shore.
It’s been three weeks now, and no matter where I’ve looked, still no sign of Matt. Every night I’ve staked out the beach till early morning, but old Driftwood Annie hasn’t shown up either.
Of course, I’ve got no proof that something weird happened to my friend. After all, he didn’t lead the most stable of lives. But considering that he’s the fourth one of his little group to go missing after an encounter with the crazy woman on the beach, it seems to be stretching things a bit.
Actually, when I take the time to let my imagination really run wild, I’m kind of surprised that I’m still around and okay. Then again, while I was there the last time Annie was attacked, I didn’t actually take any part in it, and I sure as hell wasn’t part of the original group that did a number on her.
So with nothing else to do, I spend my days waiting to hear from Matt and my nights patrolling the shore, looking for a crazy lady pushing a junky shopping cart through the sand.
The thing is, I don’t have a clue what I’ll do if and when she ever shows up.
One thing I am sure of though. Although I can’t really explain it all, I’m positive that if I ever do come across Driftwood Annie again, somewhere in that dented-up shopping cart of hers I’ll find something of Matt’s.
And if I do, all bets are off.