"Hate those goddamn birds." He pointed to a cluster of sailboats and motor yachts moored in Francis Bay. St. Thomas was in the background to the left, Jost Van Dyke closer and to the right, where more boats were anchored at Great Harbor, close enough to count and more coming in, sailors getting ready to celebrate New Year's Eve at Foxy's.
He grunted. "If you studied the arrangements of the lights on those boats at night you'd see that their owners set them out to spell messages in Braille. They shit all over the place, on the walls, the railings, steal fruit right out of the kitchen if you leave the doors open."
"The boat owners?" One of two men seated on the patio with the old man raised his eyes, face twisted in confusion.
"You're pretty dumb, aren't you?" The old man said. "The birds, the damned trashies. Flying goddamn rats is what they are."
His wife came from the house. Ignoring the two men, she placed a drink in front of him. "It's nine-thirty. Here's your breakfast martini. The brown thrasher's the state bird of Georgia."
"I don't give a rat's ass if it's the state bird of Georgia, New York, South Dakota and Texas. I hate the bastards and I'm going to shoot every damned one of them." The morning quiet was broken by the clatter from a hammer drill at a construction site on Bordeaux Mountain across the valley behind them.
She looked at the two men and gave them a brief smile that never reached beyond her lips. "He's had the gun for two weeks and he hasn't even winged one."
"Braille messages?" The second of the two men pointed at the martini and looked at the old man's wife. "Got another one of those?"
She glanced at her husband who was staring at the water below, then back at the second man. He had a thin mustache above a narrow goatee and wore a tropical shirt with bright red hibiscuses and multi-colored parrots and macaws.
"No." She walked back to the house.
"Braille messages for damn sure." The old man pointed again at the boats.
The first man rubbed his eyes. "What do they say?"
"How in the hell should I know?" The old man chugged half the martini. "I don't do Braille. You really are a dummy, aren't you?"
The dummy smiled. "I can read Braille. My mother was blind."
"Probably from looking at you the day you were born," the old man said.
Goatee saw the dummy's fists clench. Touching his arm, he narrowed his eyes and barely shook his head.
"Damned trashies are smarter than you," the old man told the dummy. "They know when I'm about to shoot them and they fly off before I can do it."
"You're not going to shoot anything," Goatee said.
The old man smiled. "Maybe not now, but show your asses around here again and it'll be a different story."
"All we want to do is talk to you about the land," Goatee said.
"Like I said, it's not for sale."
"You've got eight acres here, prime land for development. You'd clear millions."
"I've got enough millions." The old man swept his hand through the air. "I like this land the way it is, flowering shrubs, flamboyant trees, lime trees, lemons; the critters, deer, wild donkeys, goats, even the birds, except for the goddamn trashies, and no houses on it except for mine. Development would clutter up my view."
"I see sixteen, maybe thirty-two lots that could be sitting here," Goatee said. "Maybe another big condo development. A hotel."
The old man finished the martini and waved the glass in the air. "Another one, Winnie," he called. "I see eight beautiful acres sitting here right now. And it's a beautiful eight acres, all mine."
"You're a fool," the dummy said.
The old man patted the stock of the .22. "And you really are a dummy, talking like that to an armed man."
Goatee snatched the gun off the table and leaned it against the patio railing out of the old man's reach. "Let's keep this civil. I wouldn't be surprised if the people I represent might be willing to come up with more money."
The old man waved his hand again. "Winnie."
His wife came out, carrying a bottle of seltzer. Nearly his age, she wore a pair of cut-off dungarees and a tee shirt from Skinny Legs bar and grill. "Drink this Harry. It's all you're going to get. I'm not getting you drunk this early in the day. You want another martini you'll have to fix your own."
Harry glanced down at the boats in Francis Bay before shifting his eyes to Goatee. "The Braille told me there'd be assholes like you wanting to screw up St. John with more development."
"I thought you couldn't read Braille," the dummy said.
Harry laughed and moved his shoulders. "The roads can't handle more traffic, and run-off from construction is silting up the bays, and there's too many goddamn people on the beaches." He paused, uncapped the seltzer bottle and took a swig. "We got at least three unfinished condos on the island that have gone belly up in the last couple of years and are nothing but scars on the landscape. How in the hell do you think another one could work?"
Goatee wiggled a hand in the air. "Who gives a damn if it works? Let it go belly up, empty land or half built. You'd have sold the land and you'll be rich. My client will re-sell it to developers being funded by a bunch of hedge fund managers who've got to run their money through here to clean drugs or Madoff type fingerprints off of it. Thing is, there's money we can make from the land, you, me, my client, hedge fund boys, government guys that have to be paid off for permits, and contractors who will overcharge for goods and services. All that being done, the money will end up as clean as the Virgin Mary's pussy. All you have to do is pass money along, taking your share off the top. That's how things work."
"I made my money," Harry said. "I built my company with machines and molds. I made stuff that people wanted, and I bought what I wanted, eight acres of tropical paradise. I love my eight acres. Winnie and I built this place ourselves, cleared the land, hauled the stones, mixed the cement and installed the solar panels. I'm not about to sell it to a bunch of greed-heads who don't give a good goddamn about anything or anyplace except using them to rake up money by not doing anything worthwhile."
"Money's worthwhile all in itself," Goatee said.
Winnie walked across the patio, a martini in her hand. She set it in front of Harry who ticked the side of the glass with his fingernails. "I changed my mind. You deserve this for putting up with these assholes. Consider it an early lunch. You can have dinner anytime you want it." She picked up the .22 and put it back on the table by Harry's right hand.
"You can leave now," she told Goatee.
He sighed. Palms face down on the table he leaned over, face even with Harry's, and smiled with his teeth. "You're a stubborn old man, principled, and that may have been fine once, but the world has changed. No one gives a rat's ass about principles anymore." He stood. "I'll be back. I've got time and patience and I'll do whatever it takes to wear you down, make you see the sense of what I'm offering."
Harry snorted at him. "There's no sense to it."
"You got kids?" The dummy asked.
"Three. Two girls and a boy." Harry said.
"You die and they'll sell the land in a heartbeat," the dummy said. "Be a lot of money to split among three people."
"You threatening me?"
Goatee shook his head. "He's just stating the obvious. How old are you, Harry?"
"Eighty-one, eighty-two in August, and I could still pound the shit out of the dummy here and probably out of you as well."
Goatee looked over at Winnie. "And her? How old is she?"
"I'll be eighty next week," Winnie said.
"Long timers," Goatee said. "You should be planning your exits, making rational financial choices for your heirs instead of leaving them to deal with splitting this up after you're gone."
Harry picked up the .22 and stood, waving it at Goatee and the dummy who took several steps backward.
"No offense," Goatee said. "No threats. Just talking turkey."
"Talking trashie is more like it," Harry said. "I shoot trashies and my land's not for sale."
"Our land," Winnie said.
Harry smiled. "Our land's not for sale and our kids like it here as much as we do, so their land won't be for sale either." He pointed toward the path leading to the driveway. "Don't let the gate hit your asses on the way out."
Waving the .22, Harry watched them step from the patio to the brick walkway leading to the driveway where their Jeep was parked. Winnie stood next to him, holding his arm with both hands.
Goatee stopped outside the gate. "As soon as I get where there's cell reception, I'll call my client. Maybe he'll up the ante." He started the Jeep, turned it around and headed down the drive.
"I hate the way they make those Wranglers look like Hummers now. For crissakes, GM stopped making those abominations and now Chrysler wants their Jeeps to look like them. George Carlin was right: we're circling the drain."
"Harry, you've turned into one cranky old man."
"I was a cranky young man."
"Cranky young men are sexier than cranky old ones."
"Fuck you." Harry reached over with his free left hand and patted her wrist.
"Fuck you too." Kissing his cheek, Winnie took the martini from his hand and drank. "How much more do you think they'll come up with?"
"Double what they just proposed."
"Tempting, that much money."
Harry nodded. "And that's just their second offer. There'll be more. It's prime land with a view from St. Thomas to Virgin Gorda, including all of Tortola. People like them, they trash everything."
"Everything gets trashed anyway." Winnie looked over at Jost, Great Harbor filling with more boats. "Going to be one hell of a New Year's Eve at Foxy's." Harry slipped an arm around her waist. "Some good times we had there, right babe?"
"Great times. Remember that New Year's when those people from Philly came in with six Choy Lees and rafted them together?"
Harry laughed. "They had one boat just to carry all the booze."
Winnie's eyes drifted toward the boats in Francis Bay. "What was that about seeing Braille writing in the lights at night down there?"
"I saw it."
Harry returned to his seat on the patio. "I saw the Braille last night. I just couldn't decipher it."
Carrying the martini, Winnie sat next to him, took another sip and passed the glass to him. "There's no Braille in the lights at Francis."
Harry nodded, his face twisted in a moue. "I know there isn't, but I did see it."
"Like last month when you saw messages in the termite trails on the cistern wall."
"That was in my head."
Winnie took the martini back and drank the rest of it. "So is this, dear."
Harry ran his hands through his hair and said nothing. A brown thrasher sat nearby on the wide top rail. Its yellow cocked eyes staring at him, the bird crapped, a large brown and purple splotch staining the white paint. He picked up the .22, aimed and fired. The bird flew to the top of a tree, disappearing in the foliage. "Missed the bastard."
Winnie smiled, silent.
"There wasn't any Braille?"
"Couldn't it have been there?"
After a long quiet moment he shook his head. "I'm losing it, babe."
She reached over, taking the .22 from his hands. "Maybe you should stop drinking martinis for breakfast lunch and dinner."
"It's not the booze."
"Booze doesn't help."
"But it's not booze that's making me see patterns where there aren't any."
"It's what people do; see patterns where there aren't any. We create order out of chaos, order reality."
"I'm disordering reality when I see patterns no one else can see. It's my brain. Totally screwed up. I'm circling the drain."
"We all are."
"Not like me."
She was about to reply when the phone rang. She went inside.
"Damn you, trashie," Harry shot at the brown thrasher and laughed at the absurdity of his action and the words describing it. The thrasher flew down, alit again on the railing and squawked. "You trying to tell me something, trashie?"
"Sell the land, asshole," the bird said. "We don't want you here. Can't you read Braille and termite trails? They're telling you to get your wrinkled ugly old man's butt off St. John and let people do something worthwhile with the land you've sat on for forty years. There ain't no place for you here no more."
"You've got terrible grammar, bird, like one of those old Yankees I grew up with in New Hampshire."
The phone rang again.
"You should go back to New Hampshire, freeze your repulsive white ass off and die," the bird said.
"The land's not for sale," Harry said. "It wasn't and it isn't, no matter what you and your friend with the goatee and the dummy and your buddies with the Braille boats have to say."
Winnie came from the house, carrying the phone. "Who are you talking to?"
Harry laughed. "The bird and I were trash talking. Who called?"
She gave him a sad look. "It's that man with the goatee. He's got another offer from his client. I told him to shove it up where the sun doesn't shine and hung up. The sexist bastard called right back and says he's got to hear it from you."
"What kind of offer?" He raised his hands, as if in defense. "Not that he's got to hear it from me once you've told him where to stuff it."
"Triple what he first said."
Harry whistled and looked at the thrasher. "What do you think of that, bird?"
The thrasher flew away.
"And you told him what to do, right?"
"He doesn't need to hear it from me then."
"Tell him. If I do it he'll just call right back and ask for you."
Harry took the phone. "What do you want, you sexist piece of shit?" He held the receiver, listening but not responding before pushing the disconnect button. The phone rang again almost immediately, but he let it sit on the table.
"Aren't you going to answer it?" Winnie said.
Harry shook his head. "It'll just be some bird talking in Braille."
Winnie plopped next to him, tears in her eyes.
"That was a joke, babe, just a joke."
Harry nodded. "I know."
"What do you know?" She asked.
"That I'm circling the drain. The dummy's probably smarter than I am."
"Not smarter, just not as crazy."
"You think I'm crazy?"
"I think you need to see a doctor."
"There's no doctor who can do diddlysquat for me."
Her tears flowing faster and heavier, Winnie gave him a brief salty kiss on the lips and went to their bedroom, shutting the door behind her. Harry tried calling Goatee back, fumbling with the telephone's keypad for what seemed to be a long time before finally giving up. The brown thrasher flew down from its perch and, sitting on the table just across from him, crapped again.
"You're good for nothing, old man," it said. "Soon you're not even going to have a bird brain left in your head."
It sat still as Harry picked up the gun as slowly as possible, being careful not to spook the trashie, moving perhaps less than a quarter of an inch an hour, he figured. When he at last had the bird in his sights he pulled the trigger. It seemed to have taken two minutes for the action to release the hammer and another minute for the hammer to hit the cartridge rim and fire the bullet. It hit the thrasher in the neck. Without a sound, it fell back and landed on the tiled patio, its dead yellow eyes open, facing Harry. He picked the bird up by its legs and tossed it over the fence.
"You can't get rid of me that easily, old man," the thrasher said as its body hit the ground. "Sell the land and go back to New Hampshire. Your time here is finished, done, over, kaput."
Harry uncapped the seltzer and drank. He sat down, resting his head on the back of the chair.
"Old man," the dead bird cried, but its voice was fading and soon he could not hear it over the voices of other birds, bananquits, Elenas, bullfinches, all scolding him, some speaking in English, others in tongues he did not recognize. He looked at the sky, dark clouds gathering as a front began to move in. There seemed to be a message in their motion.