Updated: Jan 6
Here's a preview of my oldest/newest WIP.
The journey of a secondary character who peels off from the central plot's action when things get too hot for him. Read and enjoy! No spoilers here for the main story.
The Isabella Queen
Llewellyn didn’t know what The Isabella Queen was, but it sounded like a ship. The idea grew quickly in his mind. Now that he had a destination, he was ready to go on the long bus ride towards the coast. From a place called Ellington, he made his way to Santa Rita, and from there, even closer to the beach, Calderon Park. He hoped the sea would be his cure.
The area was lonely and crushingly banal, but the promise of feeling his bare feet in the sand spurred him on. He found in this stark, uninhabited environment something that affected the trouble within, numbing it. The thing he didn’t know what to call or cope with. Blind. Blind in many senses, but he kept on, and the landscape didn’t change for miles and miles. It was highway, palms and salt air, devoid of people or interest, although he felt the sky was speaking to him.
With head held up, he watched it and learned to conjugate the slow, billowy language of airy subjects and predicates, simple, compound, and complex. He fancied he was following the streaming succession of the clouds’ far-reaching arguments and conclusions, and he accepted the wispy interpretations offered as to the way things should proceed.
The silence was pleasing. He passed farm and field, thumbing an occasional ride. I’ll go clean now, he thought to himself as he walked along the road. The stash was just about gone, so that decision would be put to the test in a matter of a day or two. He’d done it before; he could do it again.
There were signs of life, but it was not what he was used to. The pinnacle of civilization in these parts were the shopping centers, and he’d been passing quite a few of these. When he wanted to stop, he found a small bar & grill with an adjacent motor inn where he could rest. It was empty. The bartender brought him his plate and an icy cold soft drink. It was the kind of place he liked, old and cluttered with the owner’s personal memorabilia.
There were a slew of postcards, but one caught his attention in particular. It had a photograph of a smooth, white lighthouse perched on a hill. Llewellyn signaled to the bartender and asked, “Hey, is that from around here?” The bartender followed Llewellyn’s index finger to the postcard tacked up on the edge of the shelf over the register.
“That? Sure! That’s the lighthouse at Point Isabel! It’s not far from here,” he said with a friendly smile.
Llewellyn was thunderstruck. “Really!”
“Sure, over near Port Isabel! That lighthouse is quite an attraction. There are even people who say it’s haunted!”
Llewellyn felt as if his instincts were leading him infallibly towards the place he needed to find. “No kidding! By what?” he asked, unable to blot out his own ghost, Angela.
“They hear loud cries sometimes, a woman’s cries. Sometimes they hear screams. The wind blows hard around here. People let it get the better of them, I think.”
“I’d like to go there,” said Llewellyn. “And do you know The Isabella Queen?”
The bartender looked at him, perplexed, and said, “You mean the Queen Isabella Causeway?”
It wasn't exactly what Angela was always saying, but close enough. Llewellyn didn’t understand that the bartender was talking about a bridge.
“Yeah, that’s it. How do I get there?”
“I can tell you right quick. Just follow East Ocean Boulevard. You headed to South Padre?”
Llewellyn had no idea where or what that was, but he said, yeah.
Eyeing the sax case, the bartender said, “I see you play horn! The festival’s coming. South Padre’s loaded with musicians. You’re almost there. Just follow the Five-ten till it becomes Santa Isabel Boulevard, and when it merges with Route one hundred, you’ll see it. It’s about twenty miles from here.”
“Twenty miles!” Llewellyn's feet already hurt from the march he'd done. No way he could go there until the next day.
A grizzled old guy with a shock of white hair sitting just a few bar stools away piped up, “I’m going that way tomorrow afternoon.” He introduced himself, “Oscar Dancy,” extending his hand. Llewellyn shook it and said, “James Llewellyn.” Coming from a big city, the friendliness surprised him.
“I’m going to be on the island for a few hours tomorrow. I’d be glad to give you a ride.”
Llewellyn said, “That’s very kind, but it’s okay. Thanks, anyway.”
The bell over the door jingled as he left the bar, got into his old hulk of a pickup, and started the ignition.
Llewellyn went back to his dinner, which he’d hardly touched. It was late, and the crowd
had thinned out. He was staring at a pewter object on the back ledge of the bar, underneath the rums. It looked to him like an urn. The bartender, named Graham Hoffman, noticed Llewellyn’s interest and volunteered, “That’s Jimmy. We used to own this place together. He asked me to leave him here on the shelf after he’d gone, and that’s what I did.”
“True story. His passing was hard. I never knew he was so sick. He certainly dint look it, and whenever I asked him why he’d lost weight, he would say he was on a weight loss program. I used to laugh at him.”
The bartender looked contrite, “but it weren’t no joke. Later, they took him to the hospital, and he fessed up.”
“You didn’t know,” said Llewellyn, trying to console an inconsolable man.
“He was my best friend,” Graham said, shaking his head. “A real stand up fella.”
"I don’t mean no disrespect, but is this the place for that?” Llewellyn pointed to the urn. He couldn’t decide whether this was morbid, over-sentimental, both or neither, until the bartender added, “My wife is on the top shelf in the closet over there.”
“She’s here, too, watching over all of us,” he said with an air of satisfaction.
The place was a roadside outpost, where the dead mixed with the living, accumulating the hours, tolerating each other’s presence, listening to the incessant murmur of what life there was. Llewellyn was just another stranger among them at the Rosalita Bar & Grill, adding his own stories and paint-chipped memories to theirs, past and present. Stories hung in the air and swirled with the smoke of countless cigarettes. He stayed until closing time, and then returned to his lodgings, although sleep would want no part of him.
In the morning, Llewellyn set out before sunrise. He slung his sax case over his shoulder and took the East Ocean Boulevard towards the bridge that connected the mainland to the long, skinny island. He would leave his gear with Graham Hoffman, but never the instrument. That went with him, no matter where he went. He’d be damned if anyone got his axe away from him. Not even his habit could change that.
The long flat road turned out to be more of a two-lane highway than a boulevard in the urban sense of the word. After the first two hours, he was kicking himself for not having taken the ride from Oscar Dancy. The road felt endless and, as usual. There was nothing but fields on either side of it, just a whole lot of nothing, broken up by billboards spaced a thousand yards apart: Burger King, followed inevitably by MacDonald’s, and then Sea Ranch Restaurant, whose logo featured a red snapper sporting Cary Grant-style glasses. There was Fit-n-Better, The Shrimp Haus and Stinson’s Training School, which was not really a school, rather, a huge shooting range. One would think that was all the education a body would need in this part of the world. When he could, he finally hitched a ride with a loud, strong-looking trucker named Cal, who helped him finish up the last twelve miles of highway.
As he approached the town, the atmosphere became less sterile and more resort-like. The kitsch abounded. There were gaudy plaster shrimp or dolphins on every other lawn, suspended on posts or painted on the sides of the buildings. Their googly eyes stared from atop the stores, together with nets, shells, wagon or ship wheels. It amused him at first, but then he felt sad again. It was all so fake; kitsch concepts, phony sentiments.
By late afternoon, he found himself on the grassy hill where the lighthouse stood. It was a real beauty, tall and white, with a black cast iron widow’s walk and cupola. There was a plaque on the lawn that said it was built in 1852 to guide ships through the Brazos Santiago Pass to Port Isabel, and where the soldiers had stood guard during the Civil War. As soon as he saw it, he wanted to go up to the top, but first he sat on the lawn and took in the land and sea around him. The sun was setting, and the wind had kicked up, making the skin on his pale arms and face tighten. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and closed his eyes against the specks in the wind.
When Llewellyn opened his eyes again, there were dark clouds gathering to one side. He blinked. His nightmarish family of ghosts filled him with anguish, only he didn’t call it that. To him, it was just the urge to pick up his horn and play. At the Acton, the acoustics had been so good he would close his eyes and let the sound cover him like a blanket of delicious dreams, a kind of narcotic he couldn't touch.
There was no one around, and the sky was darkening fast. Chill winds blew. He thought it best to go into the lighthouse. The door that led up to the tower room was open, and he ran inside. A storm was coming.
“Hello?” he called up into the stairwell.
He could see a black cast iron spiral staircase with, according to the plaque on the wall, sixty-five steps. No one answered, so he climbed. The heels of his boots clanged against the iron winders. Perhaps there were visitors in the lantern room, but this he couldn’t see from where he was. He heard nothing but the echoes of his own steps. The smooth stone walls were thick.
He stopped and looked up. As he got closer to the top, he heard a distant foghorn. Alone in the stairwell, the urge to play seized him, to hear his horn echo in the lighthouse and blend with the lonely wind. He took out the sax and moistened the reed, closed his eyes, and played a simple phrase. Just as he had imagined, the sound was unique. Fantastic. With a deep breath, he began again, playing the same phrase, and then again three keys higher. Intense joy. He broke the phrase in two, turned one upside down, flattened it out, rolled it into another, and fanned it out with a sequence of rapid arpeggios.
The wind blew stronger now, like a shrill chorus of harrowed voices all intoning the same urgent note. By the time he made it up to the lantern room, he could see why. There was a great storm already beating down on the port, with fast-moving, steel grey clouds looming over the bay. The sea was dark, and the waves had become much more aggressive, slapping the small craft around and kicking hard against the pier. A sudden bolt of lightning turned the lantern room an icy pale green, and almost simultaneously came the sky-splintering sound of thunder. A fierce wind intimidated the trees. It was fearsome and exhilarating. Rain flooded the road.
The sudden anxiety of being trapped in the lighthouse lantern room struck Llewellyn. Perspiring and thirsty, he felt a rush surge from his feet upward to his head. Then falling. Falling. Arms caught him from behind, and he jerked his head around to see who it was.
“Don’t worry, Jimmy,” said Angela, still wearing the same dainty dress as before, with the black pumps and gloves, and bolero jacket. She pushed him back up on his feet.
“What are you doing here, Angela?” he said, sounding rather annoyed.
“Are you stalking me, woman?” Angela giggled.
“Well, not exactly, Jimmy.”
“Jimmy? Stop calling me that! The only person who ever called me Jimmy was my high school sweetheart. I never want to hear that again, and especially not from you."
“What are you doing here, Jimmy?” she said. “You’re lost! This place! You will not find your place from here. So very foolish of you. They need you! The Isabella Queen! Hurry!”
“You never told me what it is!” he shouted. “Tell me what it is! What is The Isabella Queen?”
Angela smoothed her gloves primly and said. “They won’t wait forever, you know.”
When Llewellyn came to, it was dark. His cheek was cold against the rusty metal floor. He sat up and an excruciating wave of abdominal pain and nausea hit. The sick was starting. A quick review of his situation: he was still in the lighthouse. Angela had come again. There had been a storm, and he had fainted. All was calm now, but he hadn’t got high since the morning.
There was no light coming from the stairwell. Locked in, most likely. He looked out towards the pier and saw that the town had electricity. This is where he’d be spending the night, unless he could find a way out. There was a small staircase to the service room. He tried the door that led out to the widow’s walk. It was open. Stepping out into the night air made him feel better. The sky was clear and painfully crisp, a deep and velvety indigo with a chalky white moon, full and swollen to twice its normal size. The nausea had passed for the moment, but it would be back. Oh yeah, it would be back. He walked all around the circumference of the lighthouse and saw that on the south side of it there was a house under him. It seemed close enough to yell down to.
“Hey!” Through cupped hands, Llewellyn’s voice boomed. “Is anyone there?”
An old man peered through his window and stepped out onto his porch. It was the lighthouse caretaker. Llewellyn waved his hands over his head. When the caretaker realized where the sound was coming from, he gave a start and bolted back into the house, re-emerging briskly with a bouncing flashlight. He was coming towards the entrance.
Llewellyn held onto the rail as another wave of nausea seized him. His legs felt too shaky to support his weight. To stabilize himself, he leaned over the side of the widow’s walk. Not having eaten all day, he vomited up stomach acid. That allowed him to right himself and walked the twelve paces back to the service room's door. All the lights were on now. He grabbed his horn and started down the stairs.
“Hello?” shouted the old man from below.
“I’m here!” said Llewellyn, taking the stairs down towards the exit. They met at the twentieth step, and Llewellyn explained how he’d taken shelter in the lantern room during the storm. The old man explained apologetically how he’d closed up the lighthouse, thinking there was no one inside.
He noticed the sweat beading on Llewellyn’s forehead and said, “You alright, boy? You look a bit done in.” Having someone trapped inside the lighthouse was the most exciting thing that had happened there for a long time.
He offered Llewellyn a drink, dinner, and a bed for the night, and Llewellyn, who wanted to get off the street for a few hours, accepted all three. He’d choked down two migs of Oxycodone on the spiral staircase, just to keep up appearances. The old man put Llewellyn’s condition down to his recent ordeal in the lighthouse. They entered his home. The caretaker lived alone in the two-storey gabled cottage at the foot of the lighthouse. Llewellyn could see why he had been so keen to have him stay the night. The old man was a widower, with nothing but a radio and a skeletal old mutt to keep him company. The house smelled of pipe tobacco.
They clinked glasses and Llewellyn gulped down half of the weak lager. Not the smartest of moves. He knew drinking the beer would dangerously ramp up the effects of the oxy. When he fell into a stupor, he let the old man lead him to the little guest room, which spared him the old codger’s blathering.
Sleep was spare, however. Waking all too soon, he lay in the twin bed by an open window. Two more hours of rest would have done him good, but at about seven a.m., he tiptoed down the stairs, grabbed his sax, and made his way back to the boulevard, to the most savorless town he’d ever seen in his life, lighthouse or no. It was time to see what the newer development closer to the shore was like.
Straight over the Causeway, he walked on the side of the road, where the delivery trucks and early birds were already coming and going, and stuck out his thumb. Once on the other side of the bridge, he could see that the beachfront was full of high-rise hotels, convention centers, tennis courts, shopping malls with coffee shacks and taco stands. Not what he was looking for. On a scale of hot to cold, this was hypothermic.
He spent the day trundling from one end of the main road to the other and poking around the smaller streets. The houses were neat and uninteresting, their window eyes and front door mouths like the frozen stares of catatonic patients. Llewellyn guessed they were second homes already closed up for the summer.
He walked along the beach barefoot, just the way he wanted, but found nothing that might be The Isabella Queen. His legs cooled in the fizzing surf, and felt his arrival a hollow victory, or a mistake. There was no accounting for why he thought there could be an answer for him in this place, or why Angela’s words should be legitimate or meaningful. She was probably nothing more than a figment of his turbid imagination. There were no signs of salvation or perdition. It was all utter bullshit.
He sighed and looked over his shoulder towards the hotels and whatnot. He needed to move on, and he was out of Oxyies, but he realized he was not getting something: no place on earth is what it looks like at first sight.
No sooner had he thought it than the unmistakable scent of people getting choofed wafted past him. He followed it to an outdoor terrace with grass roof sun protectors, and saw three guys at a table, all killingly got up in their bohemian regalia. One of them was playing a pretty amazing bass line on a fretless Takamine. Their attitudes told him they were professional musicians about to do or just having just done the sound check.
“You guys gotta gig?” he asked. The one closest to him nodded. Llewellyn held out his hand and said his name.
“Trent,” replied the big guy. Llewellyn shook hands and then touched his chest. “This is Maxi, and that’s Alex,” Trent said, motioning to the other two. They also greeted Llewellyn.
“You’re a sax player,” said Maxi, pointing to the sax case.
“Yeah,” he said. He was fidgeting a bit, so he knew his sick time was not far off.
“Fuckin’ A, that’s an alto,” said Trent.
“Cool. We’re going to do a couple of sets tonight, real laid back since it’s Tuesday. We’re the house band,” said Maxi.
He jerked his thumb towards the back entrance of the club, and Llewellyn read the sign that said "Marcello’s".
“Season’s almost over,” added the one named Alex. Trent offered Llewellyn the spliff going around. "We'll stick around for the festival and then back to San Diego."
“Hey, any of you guys know a place called 'The Isabella Queen'?” Llewellyn asked.
They all said no.
“Ask Chris the bartender. He lives here all year round,” said Trent.
“Lemme hear that fat thing you were just playing,” Llewellyn said to the bass player. He smiled as he took the horn out of its case and blew a whispery phrase into the air. It spooned with Maxi’s bass line in such a way that Trent laughed out loud.
The sparks were flying out of Llewellyn’s horn. Trent swung with it and beat out the percussion with his entire kit of plosives until Maxi said, “What the hell are we doing out here?”
They unlocked the back door and got up on stage. The bass player put away the acoustic and took out a Fender Geddy Lee that he played with a lot of bottom and crunch.
Llewellyn said, “Now you’re talking.” Trent on drums, Alex on keyboards. It was only six pm. The club wouldn’t open for another two hours. There was enough time to jam and then go for ribs afterwards.
They played while the rest of the club’s staff filed in. One server arrived for his shift and gave them an approving smirk and raised thumb. They never got around to the ribs. It was time to start the show. They begged Llewellyn to stay put. They didn’t even play their regular repertoire. The house was only half full, but they played as if they were in front of a crowd of thirty thousand. As the hour passed, the club filled up. Cell phones had been chiming: You’ve got to see this.
At the end of the first set, they took their break, and Llewellyn wanted nothing more than a coke and a fix. By now, he wasn’t feeling so good. He remembered what Trent had said about the bartender. When he could, he pulled him over and asked, “Hey man, do you know a place called The Isabella Queen?”
The bartender thought for a moment and said, “Sorry, no. What is it, a bar?”
He looked Llewellyn in the eye, and his expression changed. He’d had a habit himself some years back and figured that The Isabella Queen was where Llewellyn thought he’d be getting his next fix.
“You looking to score?” he asked under his breath.
The crisscrossing of subjects nonplussed Llewellyn, but he just said, “Well, yeah, that was going to be my next question. You wouldn’t have any Oxy layin’ around, would ya?”
“Contin?” said the bartender.
“No, but that’d do nicely,” said Llewellyn.
Forty-five minutes later, he was back up on the stage. It turned out to be a pretty long night. When they finished, it was after hours and the place was half empty again, like it had been in the beginning. There had been encores, cheers, more drinking, more playing.
The band asked him to stay with them and gig for the rest of the week. He wasn’t unhappy with this arrangement at all, even if it meant not following through for a while with his other business. It was a great stroke of luck, and he had no intention of passing it by. Besides this, he was having fun for the first time in a long while.
Throughout the show, a figure had perched on a stool to his extreme left, but Llewellyn never looked into the audience when he was playing. Afterwards, he was examining his reed, which seemed to be warping, when a voice from near the bar said, “Those are some chops you got on you.”
If voices could have physical color, this one was a tawny voice, like aged bourbon, female register, Southern, very sexy. He looked up.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Can I buy you a drink?” she asked.
The way her lips pursed on the word ‘you’ fascinated him. The stage lights illuminated the blue of her eyes, turning them the same color blue he’d been staring at all day on the oceanfront.
“I’d like that,” he said with a grin.
She seemed soft but fiery. By turns, sinewy, redolent, musky, dangerous and vulnerable. She was frank. The conversation was great. She was opening to him. He could feel her breath on his cheek as he came close to compensate for the background noise of the bar. His eyes danced over her blonde hair, her soft chin and broad mouth—her skin. At that moment, he wanted to waive everything, suspend everything, postpone or cancel everything, because nothing else existed.
“What’s your name?” he asked her after a good while.
“Isabella,” she said.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED