As the Judge climbs into the kayak beneath a bright morning sky, a slow and clumsy process that takes him almost five minutes, he reflects that an old man’s body is nothing but a sack filled with aches and indignities. Eighty years ago, when he was ten, he jumped into a wooden canoe and cast off, with no bulky life jacket, no worries, and certainly with no pee dribbling into his underwear. Every trip out to the little unnamed island began with a great and uneasy excitement. Now there is only unease. And pain that seems centred deep in his guts and radiates everywhere. But he still makes the trip. Many things have lost their allure in these shadowy later years – most things, really – but not the dune on the far side of the island. Never the dune.
In the early days of his exploration, he expected the dune to be gone after every big storm, and following the 1944 hurricane that sank the USS Raleigh off Siesta Key, he was sure it would be. But when the skies cleared, the island was still there. So was the dune, although the hundred-mile-an-hour winds should have blown all the sand away, leaving only the bare rocks. Over the years he has debated back and forth about whether the magic is in him or in the dune. Perhaps it’s both, but surely most of it is in the dune.
Since 1932, he has crossed this short stretch of water thousands of times. Usually there’s nothing but rocks and bushes and sand; sometimes there is something else.
Settled in the kayak at last, he paddles slowly from the beach to the island, his frizz of white hair blowing around his mostly bald skull. A few turkey buzzards wheel overhead, making their ugly conversation. Once he was the son of the richest man on the Florida Gulf coast, then he was a lawyer, then he was a judge on the Pinellas County Circuit, then he was appointed to the State Supreme Court. There was talk, during the Reagan years, of a nomination to the United States Supreme Court, but that never happened, and a week after the idiot Clinton became president, Judge Harvey Beecher – just Judge to his many acquaintances (he has no real friends) in Sarasota, Osprey, Nokomis and Venice – retired. Hell, he never liked Tallahassee, anyway. It’s cold up there.
Also, it’s too far from the island, and its peculiar dune. On these early-morning kayak trips, paddling the short distance on smooth water, he’s willing to admit that he’s addicted to it. But who wouldn’t be addicted to a thing like this?
On the rocky east side, a gnarled bush juts from the split in a guano-splattered rock. This is where he ties up, and he’s always careful with the knot. It wouldn’t do to be stranded out here. His father’s estate (that’s how he still thinks of it, although the elder Beecher has been gone for forty years now) covers almost two miles of prime Gulf-front property, the main house is far inland, on the Sarasota Bay side, and there would be no one to hear him yelling. Tommy Curtis, the caretaker, might notice him gone and come looking; more likely, he would just assume the Judge was locked up in his study, where he often spends whole days, supposedly working on his memoirs.
Once upon a time Mrs Riley might have become nervous if he didn’t come out of the study for lunch, but now he hardly ever eats at noon (she calls him ‘nothing but a stuffed string’, but never to his face). There’s no other staff, and both Curtis and Riley know he can be cross when he’s interrupted. Not that there’s really much to interrupt; he hasn’t added so much as a line to the memoirs in two years, and in his heart he knows they will never be finished. The unfinished recollections of a Florida judge? No great loss there. The one story he could write is the one he never will. The Judge wants no talk at his funeral about how, in his last years, a previously fine intellect was corrupted by senility.
He’s even slower getting out of the kayak than he was getting in, and turns turtle once, wetting his shirt and trousers in the little waves that run up the gravelly shingle. Beecher is not discommoded. It isn’t the first time he’s fallen, and there’s no one to see him. He supposes it’s unwise to continue these trips at his age, even though the island is so close to the mainland, but stopping isn’t an option. An addict is an addict is an addict.
Beecher struggles to his feet and clutches his belly until the last of the pain subsides. He brushes sand and shells from his trousers, double-checks his mooring rope, then spots one of the turkey buzzards perched on the island’s largest rock, peering down at him.
‘Hi!’ he shouts in the voice he now hates – cracked and wavering, the voice of a fishwife. ‘Hi, you bugger! Get on about your business.’
After a brief rustle of its raggedy wings, the turkey buzzard sits right where it is. Its beady eyes seem to say, But, Judge – today you are my business.
Beecher stoops, picks up a larger shell and shies it at the bird. This time it does fly away, the sound of its wings like rippling cloth. It soars across the short stretch of water and lands on his dock. Still, the Judge thinks, a bad omen. He remembers a fellow on the Florida State Patrol telling him once that turkey buzzards didn’t just know where carrion was; they also knew where carrion would be.
‘I can’t tell you,’ the patrolman said, ‘how many times I’ve seen those ugly bastards circling a spot on the Tamiami where there’s a fatal wreck a day or two later. Sounds crazy, I know, but just about any Florida road cop will tell you the same.’
There are almost always turkey buzzards out here on the little no-name island. He supposes it smells like death to them, and why not? What else?
The Judge sets off on the little path he has beaten over the years. He will check the dune on the other side, where the sand is beach-fine instead of stony and shelly, and then he will return to the kayak and drink his little jug of cold tea. He may doze awhile in the morning sun (he dozes often these days, supposes most nonagenarians do), and when he wakes (if he wakes), he’ll make the return trip. He tells himself that the dune will be just a smooth blank upslope of sand, as it is most days, but he knows better.
That damned buzzard knew better, too.
He spends a long time on the sandy side, with his age-warped fingers clasped in a knot behind him. His back aches, his shoulders ache, his hips ache, his knees ache; most of all, his gut aches. But he pays these things no mind. Perhaps later, but not now.
He looks at the dune, and what is written there.
Anthony Wayland arrives at Beecher’s Pelican Point estate bang on 7 p.m., just as promised. One thing the Judge has always appreciated – both in the courtroom and out of it – is punctuality, and the boy is punctual. He reminds himself never to call Wayland boy to his face (although, this being the South, son is OK). Wayland wouldn’t understand that, when you’re ninety, any fellow under the age of forty looks like a boy.
‘Thank you for coming,’ the Judge says, ushering Wayland into his study. It’s just the two of them; Curtis and Mrs Riley have long since gone to their homes in Nokomis Village. ‘You brought the necessary document?’
‘Yes, indeed, Judge,’ Wayland says. He opens his attorney’s briefcase and removes a thick document bound by a large steel clip. The pages aren’t vellum, as they would have been in the old days, but they are rich and heavy just the same. At the top of the first, in forbidding Gothic type (what the Judge has always thought of as graveyard type), are the words Last Will and Testament of Harvey L. Beecher.
‘You know, I’m kind of surprised you didn’t draft this document yourself. You’ve probably forgotten more Florida probate law than I’ve ever learned.’
‘That might be true,’ the Judge says in his driest tone. ‘At my age, folks tend to forget a great deal.’
Wayland flushes to the roots of his hair. ‘I didn’t mean–’
‘I know what you mean, son,’ the Judge says. ‘No offence taken. Not a mite. But since you ask . . . you know that old saying about how a man who serves as his own lawyer has a fool for a client?’
Wayland grins. ‘Heard it and used it plenty of times when I’m wearing my public defender hat and some sad-sack wife-abuser or hit-and-runner tells me he’s going to go the DIY route in court.’
‘I’m sure you have, but here’s the other half: a lawyer who serves as his own lawyer has a great fool for a client. Goes for criminal, civil and probate law. So, shall we get down to business? Time is short.’ This is something he means in more ways than one.
They get down to business. Mrs Riley has left decaf coffee, which Wayland rejects in favour of a Co’-Cola. He makes copious notes as the Judge dictates the changes in his dry courtroom voice, adjusting old bequests and adding new ones. The major new one – four million dollars – is to the Sarasota County Beach and Wildlife Preservation Society. In order to qualify, they must successfully petition the State Legislature to have a certain island just off the coast of Pelican Point declared forever wild.
‘They won’t have a problem getting that done,’ the Judge says. ‘You can handle the legal for them yourself. I’d prefer pro bono, but of course that’s up to you. One trip to Tallahassee should do it. It’s a little spit of a thing, nothing growing there but a few bushes. Governor Scott and his Tea Party cronies will be delighted.’
‘Why’s that, Judge?’
‘Because the next time Beach and Preservation comes to them, begging money, they can say, “Didn’t old Judge Beecher just give you four million? Get out of here, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out!”’
Wayland agrees that this is probably just how it will go – Scott and his friends are all for giving if they’re not the ones doing it – and the two men move on to the smaller bequests.
‘Once I get a clean draft, we’ll need two witnesses and a notary,’ Wayland says when they’ve finished.
‘I’ll get all that done with this draft here, just to be safe,’ the Judge says. ‘If anything happens to me in the interim, it should stand up. There’s no one to contest it; I’ve outlived them all.’
‘A wise precaution, Judge. It would be good to take care of it tonight. I don’t suppose your caretaker and housekeeper –’
‘Won’t be back until eight tomorrow,’ Beecher says. ‘But I’ll make it the first order of business. Harry Staines on Vamo Road’s a notary and he’ll be glad to come over before he goes in to his office. He owes me a favour or six. You give that document to me, son. I’ll lock it in my safe.’
‘I ought to at least make a . . .’ Wayland looks at the gnarled, outstretched hand and trails off. When a State Supreme Court judge (even a retired one) holds out his hand, demurrals must cease. What the hell, it’s only an annotated draft, anyway, soon to be replaced by a clean version. He passes the unsigned will over and watches as Beecher rises (painfully) and swings a picture of the Florida Everglades out on a hidden hinge. The Judge enters the correct combination, making no attempt to hide the touchpad from view, and deposits the will on top of what looks to Wayland like a large and untidy heap of cash. Yikes.
‘There!’ Beecher says. ‘All done and buttoned up! Except for the signing part, that is. How about a drink to celebrate? I have some fine single malt Scotch.’
‘Well . . . I guess one wouldn’t hurt.’
‘It never hurt me when I was your age, although it does now, so you’ll have to pardon me for not joining you. Decaf coffee and a little sweet tea are the strongest drinks I take these days. Ice?’
Wayland holds up two fingers, and Beecher adds two cubes to the drink with the slow ceremony of old age. Wayland takes a sip and high colour immediately dashes into his cheeks. It is the flush, Judge Beecher thinks, of a man who enjoys his tipple. As Wayland sets his glass down he says, ‘Do you mind if I ask what the hurry is? You’re all right, I take it?’
The Judge doubts if young Wayland takes it that way at all. He’s not blind.
‘A-country fair,’ he says, see-sawing one hand in the air and sitting down with a grunt and a wince. Then, after consideration, he says, ‘Do you really want to know what the hurry is?’
Wayland considers the question, and Beecher likes him for that. Then he nods.
‘It has to do with that island we took care of just now. Probably never even noticed it, have you?’
‘Can’t say that I have.’
‘Most people don’t. It barely sticks out of the water. The sea turtles don’t even bother with that old island. Yet it’s special. Did you know my grandfather fought in the Spanish-American War?’
‘No, sir, I did not.’ Wayland speaks with exaggerated respect, and Beecher knows the boy believes his mind is wandering. The boy is wrong. Beecher’s mind has never been clearer, and now that he’s begun, he finds that he wants to tell this story at least once, before . . .
‘Yes. There’s a photograph of him standing on top of San Juan Hill. It’s around here someplace. Grampy claimed to have fought in the Civil War as well, but my research – for my memoirs, you understand – proved conclusively that he couldn’t have. He would have been a mere child, if born at all. But he was quite the fanciful gentleman, and he had a way of making me believe the wildest tales. Why would I not? I was only a child, not long from believing in Kris Kringle and the tooth fairy.’
‘Was he a lawyer, like you and your father?’
‘No, son, he was a thief. The original Light-Finger Harry. Anything that wasn’t nailed down. Only like most thieves who don’t get caught – our current governor might be a case in point – he called himself a businessman. His chief business – and chief thievery – was land. He bought bug- and gator-infested Florida acreage cheap and sold it dear to folks who must have been as gullible as I was as a child. Balzac once said, “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime.” That’s certainly true of the Beecher family, and please remember that you’re my lawyer. Anything I say to you must be held in confidence.’
‘Yes, Judge.’ Wayland takes another sip of his drink. It is by far the finest Scotch he has ever drunk.
‘Grampy Beecher was the one who pointed that island out to me. I was ten. He had care of me for the day, and I suppose he wanted some peace and quiet. Or maybe what he wanted was a bit noisier. There was a pretty housemaid, and he may have been in hopes of investigating beneath her petticoats. So he told me that Edward Teach – better known as Blackbeard – had supposedly buried a great treasure out there. “Nobody’s ever found it, Havie,” he said – Havie’s what he called me – “but you might be the one. A fortune in jewels and gold doubloons.” You’ll know what I did next.’
‘I suppose you went out there and left your grandfather to cheer up the maid.’
The Judge nods, smiling. ‘I took the old wooden canoe we had tied up to the dock. Went like my hair was on fire and my tail feathers were catching. Didn’t take but five minutes to paddle out there. Takes me three times as long these days, and that’s if the water’s smooth. The island’s all rock and brush on the landward side, but there’s a dune of fine beach sand on the Gulf side. It never goes away. In the eighty years I’ve been going out there, it never seems to change. At least not geographically.’
‘Didn’t find any treasure, I suppose?’
‘I did, in a way, but it wasn’t jewels and gold. It was a name, written in the sand of that dune. As if with a stick, you know, only I didn’t see any stick. The letters were drawn deep, and the sun struck shadows into them, making them stand out. Almost as if they were floating.’
‘What was the name, Judge?’
‘I think you have to see it written to understand.’
The Judge takes a sheet of paper from the top drawer of his desk, prints carefully, then turns the paper around so Wayland can read it: robie ladoosh.
‘All right . . .’ Wayland says cautiously.
‘On any other day, I would have gone treasure-hunting with this very boy, because he was my best friend, and you know how boys are when they’re best friends.’
‘Joined at the hip,’ Wayland says, smiling.
‘Tight as a new key in a new lock,’ Wayland agrees. ‘But it was summer and he’d gone off with his parents to visit his mama’s people in Virginia or Maryland or some such northern clime. So I was on my own. But attend me closely, counsellor. The boy’s actual name was Robert LaDoucette.’
Again Wayland says, ‘All right . . .’ The Judge thinks that sort of leading drawl could become annoying over time, but it isn’t a thing he’ll ever have to actually find out, so he lets it go.
‘He was my best friend and I was his, but there was a whole gang of boys we ran around with, and everyone called him Robbie LaDoosh. You follow?’
‘I guess,’ Wayland says, but the Judge can see he doesn’t. That’s understandable; Beecher has had a lot more time to think about these things. Often on sleepless nights.
‘Remember that I was ten. If I had been asked to spell my friend’s nickname, I would have done it just this way.’ He taps robie ladoosh. Speaking almost to himself, he adds: ‘So some of the magic comes from me. It must come from me. The question is, how much?’
‘You’re saying you didn’t write that name in the sand?’
‘No. I thought I made that clear.’
‘One of your other friends, then?’
‘They were all from Nokomis Village, and didn’t even know about that island. We never would have paddled out to such an uninteresting little rock on our own. Robbie knew it was there, he was also from the Point, but he was hundreds of miles north.’
‘All right . . .’
‘My chum Robbie never came back from that vacation. We got word a week or so later that he’d taken a fall while out horseback riding. He broke his neck. Killed instantly. His parents were heartbroken. So was I, of course.’
There is silence while Wayland considers this. While they both consider it. Somewhere far off, a helicopter beats at the sky over the Gulf. The DEA looking for drug runners, the Judge supposes. He hears them every night. It’s the modern age, and in some ways – in many – he’ll be glad to be shed of it.
At last Wayland says, ‘Are you saying what I think you’re saying?’
‘Well, I don’t know,’ the Judge says. ‘What do you think I’m saying?’
But Anthony Wayland is a lawyer, and refusing to be drawn in is an ingrained habit with him. ‘Did you tell your grandfather?’
‘On the day the telegram about Robbie came, he wasn’t there to tell. He never stayed in one place for long. We didn’t see him again for six months or more. No, I kept it to myself. And like Mary after she gave birth to Jesus, I considered these things in my heart.’
‘And what conclusion did you draw?’
‘I kept canoeing out to that island to look at the dune, and that should answer your question. There was nothing . . . and nothing . . . and nothing. I guess I was on the verge of forgetting all about it, but then I went out one afternoon after school and there was another name written in the sand. Printed in the sand, to be courtroom-exact. No sign of a stick that time, either, although I suppose a stick could have been thrown into the water. This time the name was Peter Alderson. It meant nothing to me until a few days later. It was my chore to go out to the end of the road and get the paper, and it was my habit to scan the front page while I walked back up the drive – which, as you know from driving it yourself, is a good quarter-mile long. In the summer I’d also check on how the Washington Senators had done, because back then they were as close to a Southern team as we had.
‘This particular day, a headline on the bottom of the front page caught my eye: window washer killed in tragic fall. The poor guy was doing the third-floor windows of the Sarasota Public Library when the scaffolding he was standing on gave way. His name was Peter Alderson.’
The Judge can see from Wayland’s face that he believes this is either a prank or some sort of elaborate fantasy the Judge is spinning out. He can also see that Wayland is enjoying his drink, and when the Judge moves to top it up, Wayland doesn’t say no. And, really, the young man’s belief or disbelief is beside the point. It’s just such a luxury to tell it.
‘Maybe you see why I go back and forth in my mind about where the magic lies,’ Beecher says. ‘I knew Robbie, and the misspelling of his name was my misspelling. But I didn’t know this window washer from Adam. In any case, that’s when the dune really started to get a hold on me. I began going out every day when I was here, a habit that’s continued into my very old age. I respect the place, I fear the place, but most of all, I’m addicted to the place.
‘Over the years, many names have appeared on that dune, and the people the names belong to always die. Sometimes it’s within the week, sometimes it’s two, but it’s never more than a month. Some have been people I knew, and if it’s by a nickname I knew them, it’s the nickname I see. One day in 1940 I paddled out there and saw grampy beecher drawn into the sand. He died in Key West three days later. Heart attack.’
With the air of someone humouring a man who is mentally unbalanced but not actually dangerous, Wayland asks, ‘Did you never try to interfere with this . . . this process? Call your grandfather, for instance, and tell him to see a doctor?’
Beecher shakes his head. ‘I didn’t know it was a heart attack until we got word from the Monroe County medical examiner, did I? It could have been an accident, or even a murder. Certainly there were people who had reasons to hate my grandfather; his dealings were not of the purest sort.’
‘Still . . . he was your grandfather and all . . .’
‘The truth, counsellor, is that I was afraid. I felt – I still feel – as if there on that island, there’s a hatch that’s come ajar. On this side is what we’re pleased to call “the real world”. On the other is all the machinery of the universe, running at top speed. Only a fool would stick his hand into such machinery in an attempt to stop it.’
‘Judge Beecher, if you want your paperwork to sail through probate, I’d keep quiet about all this. You might think there’s no one to contest your will, but when large amounts of money are at stake, third and fourth cousins have a way of coming out of the woodwork. And you know the criterion: “Being of sound mind and body.”’
‘I’ve kept it to myself for eighty years,’ Beecher says, and in his voice Wayland can hear objection overruled. ‘Never a word until now. And I’m sure you won’t talk.’
‘Of course not,’ Wayland says.
‘I was always excited on days when names appeared in the sand – unhealthily excited, I’m sure – but terrified of the phenomenon only once. That single time I was deeply terrified, and fled back to the Point in my canoe as if devils were after me. Shall I tell you?’
‘Please.’ Wayland lifts his drink and sips. Why not? Billable hours are, after all, billable hours.
‘It was 1959. I was still on the Point. I’ve always lived here except for the years in Tallahassee, and it’s better not to speak of them . . . although I now think part of the hate I felt for that provincial backwater of a town, perhaps even most of it, was simply a masked longing for the island, and the dune. I kept wondering what I was missing, you see. Who I was missing. Being able to read obituaries in advance gives a man an extraordinary sense of power. Perhaps you find that unlovely. The truth often is.
‘So. 1959. Harvey Beecher lawyering in Sarasota and living at Pelican Point. If it wasn’t pouring down rain when I got home, I’d always change into old clothes and paddle out to the island for a look-see before supper. On this particular day I’d been kept at the office late, and by the time I’d gotten out to the island, tied up, and walked over to the dune side, the sun was going down big and red, as it so often does over the Gulf. What I saw stunned me. I literally could not move.
‘There wasn’t just one name written in the sand that evening but many, and in that red sunset light they looked as if they had been written in blood. They were crammed together, they wove in and out, they were written over and above and up and down. The whole length and breadth of the dune was covered with a tapestry of names. The ones down by the water had been half erased.’
Wayland looks awed in spite of his core disbelief.
‘I think I screamed. I can’t remember for sure, but yes, I think so. What I do remember is breaking the paralysis and running away as fast as I could, down the path to where my canoe was tied up. It seemed to take me forever to unpluck the knot, and when I did, I pushed the canoe out into the water before I climbed in. I was soaked from head to toe, and it’s a wonder I didn’t tip over. Although in those days I could have easily swum to shore, pushing the canoe ahead of me. Not these days; if I tipped my kayak over now, that would be all, she wrote.’
‘Then I suggest you stay onshore, at least until your will is signed, witnessed and notarized.’
Judge Beecher gives the young man a wintry smile. ‘You needn’t worry about that, son,’ he says. He looks toward the window, and the Gulf beyond. His face is long and thoughtful. ‘Those names . . . I can see them yet, jostling each other for place on that blood-red dune. Two days later, a TWA plane on its way to Miami crashed in the Glades. All one hundred and nineteen souls on board were killed. The passenger list was in the paper. I recognized some of the names. I recognized many of them.’
‘You saw this. You saw those names.’
‘Yes. For several months after that I stayed away from the island, and I promised myself I would stay away for good. I suppose drug addicts make the same promises to themselves about their dope, don’t they? And like them, I eventually weakened and resumed my old habit. Now, counsellor: do you understand why I called you out here to finish the work on my will, and why it had to be tonight?’
Wayland doesn’t believe a word of it, but like many fantasies, this one has its own internal logic. It’s easy enough to follow. The Judge is ninety, his once ruddy complexion has gone the colour of clay, his formerly firm step has become shuffling and tentative. He’s clearly in pain, and he’s lost weight he can’t afford to lose.
‘I suppose that today you saw your name in the sand,’ Wayland says.
Judge Beecher looks momentarily startled, and then he smiles. It is a terrible smile, transforming his narrow, pallid face into a death’s-head grin.
‘Oh no,’ he says. ‘Not mine.’
Artwork © Eleanor Taylor