Dark eyes, half-hid by the glare on his wire-frame glasses, and a bristly white mustache. A treacly smile. Tufts of white hair stuck out beneath his grey suede fedora. Only a stray palm leaf in the background added a splash of color to the otherwise pale artist photo on Maybank’s site — Sid Maybank, they’d discovered, after only a short series of web searches.
“That’s him,” Devin’s finger tapped her laptop screen. “We did it.”
Lamar nodded over her shoulder, and sighed.
She had asked him today, the very next morning after their coffee date, to drive over to her place, a rental house on the south edge of town with white-painted brick, dark green shutters, and the stilted bend of a live oak arching over the roof. It was a couple blocks east from an old church, for which the nearby creek was named — the same creek Lamar’s apartment was near to, though Devin lived nowhere near as close to the city as he did.
Sunlight caught in the sheer teal drapes to their right, making Lamar feel dazed as he watched her work. Outside a wren was canting a frenzied song.
“Hey, do you want some water or something? Tea, soda?”
“Naw,” he waved his hand.
She scrolled over Maybank’s website. Skimmed the gallery of sample works. As if Maybank himself were taunting her, the last painting was an oil on linen view of a creek at high tide, three dolphin fins breaking the surface of pink waters reflecting daybreak.
“He has to know something about the thing we saw,” Devin said, not for the first time. “He painted it, after all.”
“Uh huh,” Lamar intoned.
“We should call him. Look, there’s a phone number at the bottom here. ‘For inquiries.’ Well, I think I’ve got an inquiry for him.”
“Hell no,” Lamar said flatly. “I ain’t calling no creepy old white dude, fellow painter or not.”
“Creepy?” She turned in her desk chair to face him. “What makes you think that? He seems pretty harmless.”
His brow rose. “You call him, then.”
“Okay, well, how about we email him.”
She clicked the contact link and wrote a short message, polite enough to hopefully catch his attention, and vague enough to not scare him off altogether. Lamar watched as she typed. “We have…a question…about one of your pieces…we saw in a diner…in town,” she read aloud as she finished. “There. How’s that sound?”
He nodded. She pressed send.
Immediately her inbox lit up with a reply. They stared for a long moment. Finally Devin clicked it, finger shaking over her mouse.
It was empty. Not a single word in the message body; not even the quoted original message. Even the subject line was blank. Yet sure enough, the from field read Sid Maybank.
“Yeah,” said Lamar. “Creepy.”
Devin wasn’t sure what to say. It was weird, but hardly sinister. Probably just a bad email address and a faulty bounce-back message, nothing more. But they were running out of options.
“What about this?” she pointed to a little banner at the side. “‘Sid Maybank is a proud supporter of the Friends of Simmonds Creek Project.’ Maybe we should look into it.”
Lamar frowned but nodded. “All right,” he said. “We can do that.”
* * *
Their first glimpse of Simmonds Creek was two weeks after. It was tinier than Lamar had imagined, running along the road for a single block, then bending and flowing in a channel he might have thought was a ditch if he weren’t looking closely. But he could see it was no mere ditch. Beneath the ranks of spartina grass there was dark pluff mud marked with visible tracks: a heron, maybe, or an egret. The tide was low. Large sprays of sea ox-eye, beaming yellow like miniature suns, bloomed near the road at the field’s edge where he had met Devin and the other volunteers.
“All right,” one of the group’s leaders called out. “Everyone grab a bag and let’s get going! Shane will stay here with me and sort the recyclables from the non when you start bringing stuff back. There’s almost forty of us here today, so it shouldn’t take longer than an hour or so. Let me know if you have any questions! Hope y’all brought your gloves and your boots!”
Lamar grabbed two of the burlap sacks that a local coffee shop had donated and handed one to Devin.
“How did you rope me into this again?” he quipped.
“We’re here to find Sid Maybank. And it’s a good cause.”
“I know, I know,” he shook his head, only half put-out. She was right. It was a good cause, one he didn’t mind donating a morning to. He’d been drawn to the creek ever since reading about the project online: this push to save one of the last remaining tidal creeks on the peninsula from development. In fact, it had been his own idea to volunteer. Though he knew Devin would want to try to meet Maybank, to Lamar the chance to help out and do some tangible good was the real pull. Of course, he wasn’t going to tell her that.
They trudged down to the creek and began to scan for trash. It wasn’t hard to find. Though it was darker here, Lamar reflected, than at Red House Creek where he and Devin had met. Shaded by trees and heavy brush on both sides. Unlike Red House, Simmonds was an inland creek. Not a part of the river, but feeding into it. He did not think the shadow thing would come here, so far from the open marsh. More than that, though, he hoped Devin wouldn’t worry too much about it.
“How you be?” he asked as he bent to grab a styrofoam to-go box and shoved it in his sack. “That foot okay?”
“My foot’s fine,” Devin said. “It’s been healed for a while now. But…I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about that thing.”
Well. There it was.
“I know,” he said. “I think we’re safe, though. Too many other people here, for one.”
It was true. He’d been surprised how many other volunteers had come. Cadets from the military school, a few elderly woman, a father and daughter. A few teenagers, a handful of hipsters and several college students, three or four families along with their children. All for the chance to clean up the creek and get a free t-shirt. Lamar had no idea what the shadow thing was, and a good part of him didn’t want to; but he did get the feeling it would shun crowds.
He winced. His own foot throbbed with pain, though he wasn’t going to tell Devin about that, either. Instead he tried to walk naturally, limping as little as he could. What would he say if she asked him about it? His face warmed. He had no good account to give for that. Just this morning he had checked it again, and not a hint of anything wrong.
At least Devin’s foot had healed. Maybe it was supposed to be this way. Maybe that oyster blade had been meant for him.
“You haven’t seen him, have you?” Devin groaned an hour later as she bent for a pile of cigarette butts. “Anyone that looks like they could be him?”
“Naw,” Lamar drawled. “Oldest guy I seen is maybe mid, late-thirties?”
“Well, it was kind of a long shot, to be honest,” he said.
“Yeah, I suppose so. I am glad we came, though.”
A hawk moth flitted on his shoulder and he jumped, brushing it away, and laughed. Lamar hefted the now nearly full burlap sack over his shoulder, and they turned back toward the lot where the organizers sorted found garbage in the bed of a beige-colored pickup truck. “Behind you,” Devin said, following after. He turned again to see if she needed help.
Lamar halted. Dark brown hair wavered above her forehead. She winced, pushing it away. Her eyes were far off, her mind elsewhere, yet her body was flush with sweat and exertion. Something about her seemed different. Or maybe he was seeing something new he hadn’t noticed yet.
“What?” she asked, eyes clearing as her thought snapped back to the present moment. They looked blue-green, lighter than normal. Was that possible? Did people’s eye color change like that?
“Nothing.” He smiled and shook his head.
In the end they had all gathered about thirty bags. Emptied beer cans, fast food wrappers, plastic bottles, a basketball, a fire extinguisher that looked about twenty years old. Even a rusted bike. One of the children had found a pottery shard, which one of the organizers had said was from when the city filled in the marshes with household waste in the ‘50s.
“That was good,” Lamar said after gulping down half of his water bottle. “I really feel like we accomplished something here, you know?”
“What now?” he asked. “Lunch?”
“No. You stink. Let’s go home.”
He laughed. It was true. They both smelled raunchy from the sweat, the trash, and the pluff mud, but her scent was underlaid with the coconut smell of her sunscreen.
They climbed into the Rio and drove off, heading west toward the river and back into town. Lamar glanced at Devin. She had that distant look again, the one that made him antsy, though he wasn’t sure why.
He could tell she needed silence, though. It was something he’d come to realize early in knowing her. She sighed, the tips of her bangs fluttering with the cold air streaming from the passenger seat vent.
If she needed silence, then that was okay. Ideas were washing over him, anyway, brimming up out of some new place at the depths of his soul. A new painting: he could nearly see it, every detail, every hue and brushstroke. He leaned back in the seat and his arm, holding the steering wheel, straightened. Sweat gleamed all the way up its inner line, light on dark waters. He breathed and waited and his heart beat.