Lamar’s Rio slid into the lot of a dive on the edge of town, some three or four miles up Sixty-one. Daylight had long since fled. Beyond the dim light leaking from shaded windows, only the neon sign outside, missing letters, lit the place. It flickered as they pushed the heavy wood door open, the warm red glow hiding the cinderblock building’s dull yellow hue.
Inside, the place looked bigger than it had from the lot. A bar, arrays of tables, a wide concrete floor. Though smoking had been banned in restaurants the past year or two, the scent still drenched the place, acrid and stale. Lead Belly’s voice poured over Devin’s ears through a tinny speaker overhead. Behind the bar, a cook stood huddled over a flat-top stove, but there seemed no other staff on hand.
“Guess we seat ourselves?” she asked. Lamar shrugged.
They took a booth by the wall, away from the door, where they could sit and watch the rest of the diner and its patrons — at the moment, not many. The dingy wood table was scattered with unwiped crumbs, which Lamar brushed quickly off.
“Interesting choice,” Devin said as they sat. “Never even noticed this place before.”
“I’m not surprised. Not exactly a tourist destination, you know?”
She laughed and nodded.
“Actually…if I’m honest?” Lamar frowned. “I’ve never actually been in here before. Just kind of spur of the moment, it popped into mind tonight. Just felt exciting.”
Her eyebrow raised. He leaned forward.
“When I was a kid, you know, my folks never set foot near this place. My daddy always said I should steer clear if I wanted to live.”
Her eyes widened. “That’s weird. I wonder why?”
He shook his head. “Always thought it was some kind of juke joint, the way he talked, but all this kitsch? Looks more like some old cracker owns it.”
They both smiled. Devin looked him over more closely, taking in his features in the dim light. In the marsh, when they had first met, she’d been too filled with dread to take in more than a broad view of him. On the board her back had been to him, and on Holbrooke’s deck she was distracted by Taurus, parched and hungry in that kennel.
Now, for the first time, they were face to face without distractions. Now she could study the kind, searching eyes, the short triangular nose. His tight fade rising to long, twisted locks, the peach-fuzz of his short goatee. The round acetate glasses, tortoiseshell patterns of honey and bourbon. It caught her breath again, seeing how each part of him made up the stranger she’d glimpsed in the marsh, the vision that had elated her as he’d first turned the bend in that creek.
Two menus slid down in front of them, and they flinched, looking up to see the thick-built man they hadn’t noticed shuffling over to their booth. He looked tired, but his jaw clenched tight when he spotted Lamar. The man stared at him a long moment before he spoke.
“You know who I am?” he asked.
Lamar shook his head, then glanced at the plastic nametag pinned to his grease-stained apron. “Shem?”
Shem frowned, wiped the sheen of sweat from his brow. “Your daddy know you’re here?”
Lamar scowled. “It’s been a minute since he had any business knowing that. Why—you know him?”
The cook grunted. He clutched the other hand, which Devin noted was smaller than the one he’d carried the menus in, and rubbed his knuckles. “Good,” he said. “Why don’t we let it stay that way. What it be tonight?”
They ordered and the man left their booth, ducking behind the bar to start their ticket. A minute later a young blonde woman sat down two bottles, a Red Stripe and a Yuengling.
“What was that about?” Devin asked.
“I don’t know,” said Lamar. “Never seen that man in my life.”
“Yeah…huh.” He cracked a perplexed smile.
“So.” Devin took a long drink. “What do you think that thing was?”
“Wow,” Lamar leaned backward. “Straight to the point, huh? I assume you mean back in the marsh? Yeah, I don’t know. That is way beyond me. That’s like…like nothing I ever seen in a creek before.”
“You paddle there often?”
“There, wherever I can find water access. Which is not as easy as you’d think, even around here. All the good docks are private. Shorelines around here used to be food sources for families like mine, fishing and oystering, you know, but now you got to own property on the water to do that.” He grinned. “What were you doing out there?”
“I’m a photographer,” she said, tapping the bag she’d stowed her camera in. “I have a business already, but…it hasn’t really taken off.”
“Really?” his brows shot up. “What do you do? Portraits, landscapes? Architecture?”
“Mostly weddings. That’s where the money is around here. But today I was there for dolphins — a little side project I have. I’ve been trying to catch them strand feeding.”
“Wow. Huh. I guess I did notice the camera, but — Hey, this is great. I paint! We should…I don’t know, compare notes, do a plein air session together, something.”
Devin raised a brow and smiled. “Yeah, wow. Definitely, maybe.”
They both laughed.
“So…” Devin drew another sip. “So. The thing.”
“Yeah. The thing.” Lamar looked away. His eyes grew vague. “Like a shadow. And those blurry flashes of color… Almost like the hues in a shimmer of oil.”
“Color?” Devin shook her head. “No. It was just a shadow. Just…dark. Just…black. Empty.”
She drew her arms around her chest. Lamar studied her, confused, finger tapping the coaster beneath his beer. Wrapped in the diffused neon light from the sign above their booth, his dark skin glowed almost blue.
Soon their food arrived. Neither spoke for a moment, taking in the sight and smells, the hot steam vanishing over their plates. Lamar reached for his po’ boy, and she noticed a tattoo just above his wrist: It doesn’t have to be this way. She thought about that for a while before taking a spoonful of okra soup.
“Not the best shrimp I ever had,” he mused. “But definitely not the worst.”
“This is actually pretty good,” she nodded, mouth still half full.
“Kind of surprised you didn’t order oysters.”
She stared at him. “You’re kidding.”
Lamar held a straight face, then broke into a wide grin. He laughed, and she did, too.
When they were both finished, he left her at the booth to use the diner’s single restroom, which looked, from where she sat, little bigger than a broom closet. She surveyed the diner, taking in its ambiance, the curious way its emptiness differed from the doctor’s house. Ed’s Diner was empty, but not lonely. Lived in, maybe, was a better way to say it. Holbrooke’s presence had seemed itself an absence, highlighting what should have been there in his house, but wasn’t. Shem, the cook, was no longer behind the bar, but even his absence felt like a presence. It all did. The smell of grease and spices, the warmth of the food she’d just eaten. The dingy magazine clippings that looked decades old, pinned to the walls — reviews of the place cut from some long-defunct publication, maybe.
Lamar slapped his hand on the table, sunk into the booth, and stared with hollow eyes at her. She hadn’t noticed his return, but she locked into his gaze now, wide-eyed and shaken. “What?”
“Come on,” he breathed. “You gotta see it.”
She followed him to the front of the diner. They hadn’t noticed coming in, nor was it conspicuous now, either, among the rest of the gaudy décor — beer signs, thrift store art, scuffed up stickers half peeled from the walls, aged photos and perfunctory American flags. She wouldn’t have given a second glance had he not pointed straight at it as if revealing some fateful omen: a small oil painting in a shadowbox frame, eight by eight in size, maybe. The painting showed a typical Lowcountry view: a marsh with a treeline behind, lives oaks and palmettos. It was an autumn scene, the marsh grass gold in the afternoon sun, crisp and dry.
But over the marsh, straight and narrow, yet bent two thirds of the way toward the treeline: a shadow.
It looked like a crooked finger reaching toward the trees. As if mocking Lamar somehow, whose finger still pointed at the canvas. And just as he had said, there were faint, filmy colors amidst the shape’s darkness.
“What—what the hell?” she stammered. Her voice shook.
“I don’t know,” Lamar said, “but I think whoever painted this…he seen it, too.”
“There’s no signature.”
“Here.” Lamar took the painting off the wall and flipped it over. Devin glanced over her shoulder, checking that no one was watching them. “There.” He tapped on the lower left corner, where a painted scrawl could be seen in the same golden hue used for the marsh grass. “Look.”
“S. Maybank — I think. A local artist?”
“Has to be.” He shuddered. “Man, this is too weird.”
They paid the waitress then trudged outside, both too deep in thought to talk. Nor did they speak much on the drive back to Devin’s car, not until Lamar pulled up just behind it.
“Here.” She reached for his phone, sitting in the cup holder and plugged into the charger, streaming mellow music through the car stereo. She saved her number in it and flashed a half smile, one he returned with a wide grin.
“Guess I’ll see you, then,” she said.
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess you will.”
The Rio pulled away and she watched it vanish into the dark.
Devin climbed in her Prius, its silver almost black beneath the stars. She had parked far from any streetlight, which now felt oddly comforting — more private somehow, just her and the summer night. It was the time of year she loved the best: the rising summer, when the Lowcountry really put on its own skin. When the heat deepened, pressed over her body till it felt like a part of her. It was harder, though by no means impossible, to feel lonely like that.
Now there was something new in the heavy summer night, something she didn’t understand. A new project to think about. Her stomach clenched and her heart weighed solid as gold in her chest.
She waited, savoring the darkness a few minutes before turning the key and driving away home.