A night in early March in the town of Wequaquet, the ceaseless cold sailing in from the bay, the last stubborn mounds of snow on the ground, absurd hope and optimism running through the veins of the town, and Sam Caudwell was feeling giddy, childish, somewhat queasy even, as he pulled up to the old Cape cottage that had been converted into a real estate office, the one his friend Murph owned and operated. The one he had stood in front of for a photograph taken by Murph’s wife, Melissa—of himself, Murph, Porter, and Jenkins—when the four of them had gone into business together twelve years ago.
Caudwell had to roll down the window of his Ford Taurus and open his door from the outside. When he got out of the car, the sensor lights lit up the cottage, and he saw a kid hanging out the window. Caudwell lunged and grabbed the kid’s ankle just as he was about to get into the office. The kid bucked and kicked back, but he was puny and light, and Caudwell was able to drag him down through the rhododendron bushes and onto the lawn in front of the office. He had holes in his ears filled with black plugs, and three thick dreadlocks hanging from one side of his head otherwise shaved head.
“What’s wrong with you?” Caudwell said. “Don’t you know this is a private building? There’s nothing worth stealing here anyway, unless you’re in the market for some office supplies.”
The kid was balled up in the grass like a snail.
“Get up will you. I’m not going to hurt you.”
The kid stood up. He had dirt on his face from the fall. His hands shook ever so slightly and he quickly put them in his pockets.
“You live around here?”
“Are you on those pills?”
The kid laughed and snorted. He couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred twenty pounds.
“How old are you?
“Are you going to give me some money or not?”
“I asked you a question.”
“Why do you care?”
Caudwell took out his wallet, inspected the bills under the light, folded two fives and handed them to the kid.
The kid took the money, looked at it, and stuffed it in his pocket.
“I’d get more for a stapler,” he said.
“You want me to call the police?”
The kid lunged at Caudwell, and grabbed hold of his coat and Caudwell twisted and flung the kid to the ground, then picked him up by the shirt collar and pushed him away. The kid spit on the ground.
“It’s sad, you know,” Caudwell said. “I feel really sad right now.”
“Poor you,” the kid said.
Caudwell let him go, and the kid scurried across the lawn like a spider, then darted down the street, disappearing through a trail in the woods.
Once the kid was out of sight, Caudwell looked to see if anyone else was around. With half his work already done, he pushed up the window a bit more to fit his heavy frame inside, pulled himself up, and tumbled into the office.
All four partners had struggled in the early years—the best years, Caudwell thought—when after long days full of cold calls and rejections, they would go up to Kerrigan’s on the harbor, get plastered, and bitch about their wives. They’d close out the bar, and, on occasion, in the summer, bring back a few college girls to the office. Then, Murph convinced the rest of the clover to throw in all the money they had left to buy up land down Route 132. The land was cheap, and thought worthless because it was so far from the ocean. But Murph saw something no one else did. He saw malls and movie theaters and themed, all-you-can-eat buffets. He saw the common tourist, who had planned the perfect Cape getaway for his family, waking in his motel room to the sound of wind and rain, wondering what the hell he was going to do with the kids now? Arcades, ice-rinks, pet shops, indoor mini-golf, musical dinner shows.
But Caudwell didn’t like the idea. He believed in selling homes. If it was up to him, there’d be no commercial property anywhere in Wequaquet. What they had here was a unique town, with old, sturdy buildings and a glorious seascape and three small restaurants that served fresh cod with cracker crumbs sprinkled on top. Caudwell backed out. He took his savings and started his own firm, working from home.
Murph, Porter, and Jenkins made a fortune. They drove black, European two-seaters, moved into the gated section of Oyster Harbor Point, weighed their wives down with gold and silver. When they went to Kerrigan’s on the harbor now they bought a bottle and sat on the deck with their boat shoes off and smoked cigars and laughed so loud no one inside could hear each other talk. Once in a while, Caudwell would be there with his wife, Anna, and Murph would come by and say hello, but with an air of righteousness that sickened Caudwell to the point he couldn’t even touch his baked cod.
Caudwell did okay for a while, until the housing crash, when only people with enough capital were able to survive, people like Murph, who started buying up and renovating foreclosed properties, and selling them cheap. Wequaquet soon became home to a questionable sort of people, the kind who parked their cars on their lawns and erected above ground pools.
After filing for bankruptcy, Caudwell got a job managing the Outback Steakhouse on Route 132. Later that year, Anna left him for a lawyer in Boston. She took the house. She used Murph to sell it. “You’re an insufficient man,” Anna had said the day before the day she had asked for a divorce. She also said, “Do you think you could at least buy me a new pair of boots for my birthday?” That was the gift-on-its-way birthday. Not that Anna was some grand prize, he tried to tell himself. She was more like a third tier prize, a stuffed lizard or a Guns n Roses poster sitting on a shelf behind the water gun game at the county fair. When they met, she was what people describe as ‘athletically built,’ but after ten years of non-athletic activity, she was plain heavy. Still, she had that long, thick red hair and the kind of cherry spotted skin wealthy sheiks in the Middle East pay big bucks to nibble and caress, which the lawyer from Boston was probably doing right this moment.
Caudwell moved into an apartment in the Heights. Wailing children kept him up at night, until he got used to the wailing, as he got used to the smell of crusted grease, and the lonely hours of morning staring up at the wishbone crack in his bedroom ceiling.
One night, Murph and his wife, Melissa, brought the kids to the Outback Steakhouse. Caudwell leveled his pride and treated them to a bloomin’ onion. In his condescending manner, Murph offered Caudwell a job at the office.
“We could use a guy with a rational mind,” he said. “You can’t stay here forever handing out free bloomin’ onions to everyone you used to know.”
Either it was the sunglasses pinned in the collar of his polo shirt or the manner in which he waved his arm slowly across the room as if some great emperor of a kingdom of struggling peasants stuffing their faces with fried onion strips, but right then he felt a shiver of heat in his stomach, a return to the burning competiveness he once had when he was a boy.
Inside the office now, Caudwell sat at Murph’s desk, turned on the computer and waited, clicking his tongue against the back of his front teeth.
He’d started sleeping with Melissa Murphy shortly after the incident at the Outback, and from late last summer through the winter, he met her at the Hanger Motel in Wareham. She had said she knew Murph was fucking anything that looked his way, taking them to his new boat, and so it felt right to do what they were doing.
But Caudwell didn’t like her all that much. She had thin lips and a flat ass and complained about her children incessantly. She should be so lucky, Caudwell thought. Those boys were lean and fast, with blonde hair, tan skin, and perfect teeth.
“What am I doing?” she had said to herself the last time they were together at the Hanger Motel, removing the comforter and throwing the sheet she brought from her house over the mattress.
“Good question,” Caudwell said, shutting the blinds and switching off the lights.
“I keep asking myself. I mean this place.”
“I like it here,” Caudwell said, and, in his underwear and socks, got into bed.
“I guess I don’t mind it so much,” she said, moving lizard-like up his body.
Her breath smelled like a grocery store deli. Caudwell flipped her over and soon they were both out of breath.
Afterwards, she sat up in bed topless, with her own sheet wrapped around her, smoking pot from a vaporizer that looked like a pen.
“What’s the name of Jake’s boat?” Caudwell asked.
She blew out the vapor in puffy clouds.
“You always ask me the most uninteresting questions,” she said.
“Last time you wanted to know Jake’s favorite dessert.”
“Key lime pie.”
“Lacuna,” she said. “It’s Spanish, just like his whore mistress.”
Now, Caudwell sat at the computer, with great hope and anticipation, and took out his list of possible passwords: SonofSam, Redsox, Iamthewalrus, Keylime, Lacuna.
He thought of Murph, out on his boat. He was somewhere along the Spanish coast, probably, and it made a perverse sense, this dream he had shared with Caudwell one night many years ago at Kerrigan’s, of sailing the open sea with a soft-lipped woman, no thought of the past or the future.
He punched in the name of Murph’s boat, and the screen went dark, then a jetty leading out into an endless ocean appeared, along with Murph’s personal files, none of which was as important as the one in the top right corner, simply titled: POTENTIALS.
After he printed out nearly twenty pages of names and numbers and addresses, stapled and stuffed them into a folder, Caudwell sat back in Murph’s smooth, leather office chair with his feet crossed on the oak desk. Now all he had to do to get back on his feet was pick up the phone and start dialing. He’d undercut Murph’s commission by two percent and close enough deals to get out of that first floor basement apartment with one, dirty, rectangular window, and move into a house with big, clean windows, and a dining room table he bought at a store and not from a yard sale, and once a week he’d hire a maid to clean the dust off the table, along with the dust on the windowsills. Maybe he’d suggest to the maid she take a break from her dusting. Maybe they’d have a few drinks, and while drinking and sneezing from the dust, go upstairs and make love. Then, once he had his boat, she could travel with him. They’d dock in Baja and ride horses to her cement block house in the countryside and eat pozole, and he’d listen to the sad stories of her people with sympathetic eyes.
He shut off the computer and grabbed the stapler and pushed in the office chair, then picked up a paperweight made of thick, blown glass with an ace of spades in the center—most likely an uninspired birthday present from one of Murph’s sons—and threw it through the computer screen. Then he pushed the computer off the desk and flung the family photographs. On the set of cherry wood file cabinets opposite Murph’s desk was a Louisville Slugger signed by Wade Boggs. A talking piece. Always you wanted to have a talking piece in case a customer was on the fence. Caudwell had had a shark’s fin on his desk, which he’d bought from an old man who ran an antique store in Buzzard’s Bay. The old man told him the story of his having caught the shark on his own, having battled the shark for days. Caudwell felt he was paying not only for the fin but the story, too. Murph told clients that at Fenway, Wade Boggs had lost the handle on his bat after a wild swing and the bat sailed into the stands and smacked Murph in the head. He still had a scar beneath his lush, graying hair. Boggs had sent a bat boy over to retrieve the bat and had signed it and given it to a security guard to bring to Murph under the rafters where the park’s nurse was stitching up his head.
Caudwell took the bat off its stand and swung wildly at the copier machine. Bits of plastic flew in all directions. He took a few more swings at the copier and then went out to the lobby and broke the frames on the 19th century map of Cape Cod and then the one with the sunrise over Wequaquet Beach. He kicked over the water cooler and bashed in the secretary’s phone and hard drive. He took a peppermint from her jar of hard candy and then smashed the jar.
Caudwell put the key back under the pot, clutched the folder under his arm and walked to his car, feeling high with power and possibility.
How should he celebrate? But, no, too soon to celebrate. That was his problem; he never played the whole thing out.
A night jogger passed by, a red light blinking from his waist. Caudwell could smell the chilled sweat on the man’s skin. He should get in shape, he thought. Things were going to change. He had a plan now, a purpose. And a new stapler. He would jog at night, too. He wouldn’t be so frightened. People who jogged at night had control of their fears.
On his way home, Caudwell passed the Foxhole Tavern, slowed down, then doubled back. He felt that the least he could do was share his good fortune by buying a round for the shitheels at the bar, and if they asked what he was smiling about, he’d keep it to himself, let them wallow in their self-pity, tell them he won a hundred bucks on a scratch off.
He walked down the short flight of stairs to the airless barroom with its oak tables and paintings of men in red coats riding horses through dense woods. He sat at the bar and waited for the bartender to notice him. After a while he took some cash out of his wallet and held it between his fingers with his elbow propped up.
“What’ll you have?” the bartender asked.
Caudwell looked around the bar. Everyone seemed downtrodden and out of luck. They didn’t seem worth the bother to a man like him.
“Scotch,” he said. “And a Budweiser.”
The bartender turned around and inspected the bottles.
“You want the good scotch?” he said over his shoulder.
“What do I look like?” Caudwell said.
A couple hours later, Caudwell stumbled out of the Foxhole, blurry-eyed and broke. A woman with dirty blond hair was sitting on a bench by the door, smoking a cigarette. She was pretty, in that single-mom-with-sordid-past kind of way. Caudwell put his hands in his pockets and stuck out his chest.
“Hey beautiful,” he said.
“What?” she said.
“I called you beautiful.”
“That’s a compliment.”
“Oh, sorry, you mean I’m supposed to blush and fan my face and push up my bra and pout my lips, right? Or did you just want me to go down on you?”
“Geez, forget I said anything,” Caudwell said, then turned toward the parking lot.
“Fuck you, fat boy,” the woman said, and flicked the burning butt toward his heels.
Caudwell took out his keys and clicked the buttons until he heard the beep from his car and saw the red brake lights flash. He sat in the driver’s seat and looked at the folder of potentials through watery eyes.
“Land,” his father once told him when he was a boy. “It’s the only thing worth owning in this entire world.”
What a pitch, Caudwell thought. Even if it wasn’t true. Even if what was worth owning had more to do with the kind of life you wanted to live.
There was a knock on the window. Caudwell looked up, straight into the circle of light, which, when it suddenly shifted, Caudwell squinted his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, until the cop came into focus. He knew the cop from high school. His name was Bruce Bagley. Everyone called him Bagel. He was round and angry and stupid. He was the same way now, knocking the windowpane with the end of his flashlight for Caudwell to step out of the car.
“Do you plan on driving home tonight, Sam?” he asked.
Caudwell thought about the question longer than was necessary. He noticed three cuts on Bagel’s neck from a bad morning shave.
“No,” he said.
“Good,” Bagel said. “Because if you had put those keys in the ignition you’d have spent the next six months carrying them around in your pocket.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s right, Sporto. This isn’t high school anymore.”
“I never got whatever I wanted in high school.”
“You got Anna Dansberry.”
“She left me.”
Officer Bagel chuckled at this.
“What’s so funny?”
“The chickens really do come home to roast.”
“Roast or roost?”
“Can I go now? I’ll walk home.”
“Sure,” Bagel said, still puzzled. “Get lost.”
Caudwell ambled down to the sidewalk and across the street. He felt heavy as he walked. The next day he would wake up with purpose and vigor. Because he had calls to make, boats to consider, the night to jog in.
With his keys and wallet in his right pocket, and, in his left, the stapler, he felt unprepared to do battle in the dark suburban streets of Wequaquet. Cortez had an army of men. Caudwell an army of staples. But there was little to fear on these quiet main roads, in these neighborhoods well-guarded by volunteer watchmen, through the ball fields lit up at night by the ugly, futuristic wind turbine.
He walked across the soccer field behind the elementary school to the playground shaped like a giant ship, and hopped up onto the plastic vessel and stood at the helm with his hands on the ship’s wheel, looking over the sea of dead grass. A hard crosswind shook the boat and he turned the wheel left, then back to center, battling the raging waters, alone, under the eye of the moon.
As the wind died down, he heard someone coughing and saw through the trees the kid from earlier, curled up on a torn mattress in the pit behind the school.
He turned on his phone for light and scuttled down the slick, well-worn trail, holding onto thin branches and roots.
He looked at the kid, sick and defenseless, barely registering Caudwell’s presence. How could Caudwell explain that he was not so different, that things would get better, that they always did at the point when it seemed they couldn’t get any worse? Bring him home, clean him up, and then train him in the art of the sale. Make him fall in love again with whatever it was he once loved.
He knelt beside the kid and reached out his hand and snatched it back. No, he thought. If you’re going to conquer, you need to lay to waste the wasted.
The kid rolled over and looked at Caudwell with dope sick eyes.
“Oh, hell,” Caudwell said. “I’ve tried to be good. It doesn’t work. You can’t get ahead. You understand what I’m saying, right? How else can you make it these days?”
He stood up and took off his jacket and covered the kid’s bony legs. Then he followed the trail back up through the trees to the playground and sat on a swing and rocked back and forth. All the years lost trying to be good, he thought, when it was so easy to be bad, and even harder to be both. But he still had time. This was just the start.
After a while, still sitting on the swing, Caudwell took out his cell phone, dialed the police station, and reported the break-in. The man on the other end asked what he saw.
“Some kid,” Caudwell said. “He was crawling out the window of that real estate office on East Main. I didn’t want to get close. He had something in his hand. He ran off toward the elementary school. I don’t know what this town is coming to.”
“We’re sending someone out a-sap,” the man said.
Caudwell hung up, put his phone in his pocket, and started back toward his car. As the sirens screamed down the street, and the blue lights flashed through the trees, he felt undaunted, and optimistic, and not so cold without his coat.