My parents must have been geographical record setters of a sort, and certainly the first Nantucket couple to retire to Lubbock, Texas.
He wouldn’t admit as much, but I’m pretty sure this had to do with my dad’s love of Buddy Holly. From the time I was five or six on, it was “Words of Love” this, “Peggy Sue” that, like life’s trials could be explained away, or solved, with the right reference to a Buddy Holly 45.
But when my parents told me they were ditching our long time Scuttlers Ave. Cape house and lighting off to the birth place of the guy my father maintained was rock and roll’s most underrated musician, I was, in one sense, baffled. And in another, I just didn’t care.
“That’s all you have to say?”
My dad was one of those conversational fishermen—after all, some component of our family had been on the Cape for more than 100 years—who equated a paucity of words with you having a particularly big problem to hold back.
That’s when you knew it was getting dicey if my dad was calling me just B. He had named me for his father’s father’s favorite pitcher, Big Hoss Radbourn, who pitched back in the 1800s, my great grandfather being a baseball historian, hence my name B.H.
“Come on, dad. Not now. I have enough going on as it…”
I was out of options with the Red Sox, and it looked like my playing career was over. It was tough to argue with myself any more that I could hack it at the big league level—not that any club claimed me off waivers—and I was just mediocre in the minors. My dad tended not to look at life as a series of wins and losses, but rather as a challenge to find more opportunities to win.
“Bull. It seems to me that you have a select number of options. You can piss your life away whining about shit you can’t control in that apartment of yours two blocks down the road from Fenway. Or you can pull your arm out of your ass and come out here after we’re gone and figure out what’s next. You’re a young man, there’s so much more you could do, if only you'd…”
“Get my arm out of my ass.”
“It’s a metaphor.”
“And if it turns out you want to sell the house after we’re gone, move the house. But spend some time in it first. Let it do for you what it’s done for me and your mom all of these years.”
I honestly thought he was warming up to a Buddy Holly joke. But it was nine o'clock at night, which meant, naturally, that I was already two coffee cups deep into a bottle of this sludgy rum I used to buy from a barback at the old Rathskeller club for a couple bucks and a forged Dwight Evans or Carl Yastrzemski autograph. I wasn’t exactly burnishing up my CV for heaven back then.
“Rave on then, dad?”
“No B.H. You know exactly what I mean.” I did, mostly. Find something else. The next game, but one that was less of one. “And B.H.?”
“Make sure you don’t drive tonight.”
* * *
You do your best to find a routine. That was my mantra when I left Kenmore Square behind for Nantucket. It was about a week before Halloween, which is the last time you’ll see anyone on the island—save the regulars, with their penchant for, well, alcoholism, you might say—until spring comes around again.
My parents were leaving for Lubbock that same day. My dad wasn’t a big fanfare fan. That was more my mother’s thing. She kept getting out of the car under the ruse of offering some final reminder about not using the cheap garbage bags because of the coyotes, but really to give me another hug as my dad sat contentedly, bopping his head to some rare Buddy Holly demo playing on the car stereo.
Hugs would have been lost on me at the time. About anything would have been lost on me. Because I was pretty busy rationalizing with myself, something I tend to do when I need a plan in life, and I don’t have one.
I knew I wasn’t like my fellow ballplayers. I had studied cultural anthropology and archeology in school, and I always thought I’d have some job inspecting the bric-a-brac of past societies, their clay cups, say, that I’d write recondite books about. The only book my teammates, at every level of pro ball, seemed to read was Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, which was more about a player’s life off the field than on it, with groups of guys looking in hotel windows for a sight of what my best ever catcher, Gabe Hallows, called “the fruit of the field,” which I chose to interpret as the thing you most need to find at that exact moment of your life.
Gabe was a country boy from Texarkana, which sounded as strange to me as any talk of my Nantucket boyhood sounded to him. “What do you mean they’re called cherry stones,” for instance. “I thought they were called clams?” Sex tended to be the common ground for ballplayers, though, the game aside, so whenever Gabe asked me—as he must have 100 times—what I thought he meant when he said a hot girl was like a field, I’d have to say I don’t know, so he could respond by telling me “because she’s fit to be plowed.”
It was weird thinking about Gabe like that, walking around the grounds of Sankaty Lighthouse trying to convince myself that maybe my lack of a good curveball was for the best, money aside. I mean, I wasn’t going to join Big Hoss in the Hall of Fame, and what, really, does a ten year Major League career as a middle reliever mean, anyway, in the end? Probably not a ton. Lots of free meals and drinks in Boston, where you’re a king if you were ever on the Red Sox long enough for people to remember you.
The house—as clean and crisp a Nantucket Cape as you could have on the outside—was a disaster on the inside. My dad collected everything: early tobacco baseball cards, swing era 78s, clamshell geodes, stuffed local fish, plastic Hartland statues of Old West TV figures like Matt Dillon and Cheyenne, British naval buttons from the War of 1812. And, of course, coins.
Willow Tree Three Pences, Connecticut Coppers, Walking Liberty Half Dollars, a Washington Success Token. I always wanted to get them professionally graded, so I could see what the financial ramifications of this treasure were, and rather than drifting off to bed with the radio tucked under my pillow, needing to see if the Sox pulled it out in the end, I thought about things like, “what if that Fugio Copper netted a grade of Mint State 70? Damn. Wouldn’t that be something.” You couldn’t have a higher grade, in numismatics, than Mint State 70. And I thought we had a shot, but my father wanted nothing to do with it.
“You’ll learn, as you get older, B.H. you don’t need a label on something for you to know what it’s worth. It’s simply enough for it to be what it is to you, even if it’s not that to anyone else. And besides—anything that has a limit to it can only be so good anyway, right? Why not Mint State 80 then? That’s what you should be interested in. And all of the numbers after that. The things you chase for, not the things you stamp on.”
You reach points in life where you’re incapable of taking even the soundest advice. It can circle through your brain, and you can imagine how you’ll craft your own version of it someday to say to someone else, but you’re left wandering, aimlessly, all the same.
That’s what I did this first few days back in Nantucket, smelling the backyard brush fires that mixed with the salt in the air and made me love this often desolate place. There was one street I wanted to avoid, though, lest it disappoint me, and that was Cavendash Avenue.
Nantucket’s most famous house—so far as kids went, anyway—was the one home that made up its shortest, stoutest street, a dead end knotted with beach plums and shadbush, with dark clumps of switch grass that looked like they’d been dyed in the darker waters around Ciasco Beach, where the ocean seemed to throw a fit of pique and make itself purple. This was a weird house from a certain standpoint, in that it was said to be home to a long line of morticians who had a monopoly on the island’s dead.
This was a matter you dare not ask your parents about, because they could well tell you if it was true, and that would make other elements of the house—elements you liked—unsavory.
For instance, there was the Christmas tree in the front bay window, below the makeshift widow’s walk that was lit up all year. All bloody year. My dad told me that people had been studying that site at 86 Cavendash for an age. There had been, for instance, the discovery of a Scottish whetstone that was alleged to have been from the mid-fifteenth century, thus giving the lie to Columbus making it here first, but nothing, of course, was ever ascertained definitively. Some odd, half-mammal, half-reptile fossils had supposedly been dug up there as well, and there was even a report in the Cape Cod Times about some letters from Robert Scott’s doomed Arctic expedition that had made it out of the South Pole and ended up in a mortician’s collection in Nantucket.
With so much of what I thought of as my life having come undone, I wanted that Christmas tree to still be on. I was down to my last bottle of that blackened rum I’d gotten back at the Rathskeller, and since I promised myself I wasn’t going to make my recon mission without a bit of Boston still in my pocket, I dumped what was left of the bottle in my sister’s old Jetsons thermos that my dad had used for all of those years when he went ice fishing, and started out, at two in the morning, drunk probably, to see if the old tree was still lit up.
I was thirty yards away and I could see the light playing off the shadbushes, almost like a wall of fireflies had focused their efforts on a particular form of flora. And sure enough, there it was, the tree, doing its out-of-season thing.
When you reach for your camera at two in the morning, in a place where the only thing you can hear is your footsteps and the waves breaking a quarter of a mile off, you don’t expect someone to start talking to you. Then again, I didn’t expect to be out of baseball at twenty-four, and you start to realize that expectations count for very little in this life.
“What are you doing? Not that it’s a problem. Just curious, really.”
The voice was young, confident, Irish. Not brogue Irish, but just enough to mark it as from far away.
“I was just going to take a photo. If that’s okay. I’m from here. I was from here. I haven’t been home in a while. Was wondering if it was still lit up. It is.”
“It’s always been lit up.”
The voice was above me, up on the widow’s walk. I squinted, and could make out someone in a chair, looking out to the horizon.
“Photos are free.”
I took my photo and didn’t have a clue what to do then, really, with this guy staring down at me, in the middle of the night. So I just blurted out the first thing that came to mind in my drunken state.
“Nice to meet you, B.H. I’m Lorcan.”
“You don’t come from a long line of morticians, do you? I mean, when I was a kid…”
Some people have an easy way of laughing. A way that let’s you know you didn’t just make a fool of yourself. Maybe that’s how it is with the people you know right away that you’re going to be friends with.
“My grandfather was. Comfort. Comfort Weatherbie. Just him though. He’s the reason for the tree. Had a stroke, and was never able to trust himself that he had found his own house, so my grandmother put the tree in the window, and that solved that. You want to come in for a coffee?”
I didn’t want anyone seeing me in the state I was in. The darkness, I figured, was useful that way, even if I could feel the glow of the lights from the tree on my face.
“I should be getting back. But if you ever have some time to kill, I’m over on Scuttlers. The purplish house on the corner. Just me on my own. New directions and all.” I sounded like an ass.
In the silence I could feel him looking at me. I’ve never been good at clever exit lines.
“Been working on some new directions of my own. Going to drink a lot of beer and pass out now. Haven’t been sleeping lately. Wouldn’t recommend it though.”
“Of course not.”
I turned to leave, and then spun back, feeling dizzy as I did so. I got up close to the window with the tree, so that I could make out some individual strands of tinsel.
“Here,” I said, tossing the thermos up into the darkness, fairly confident it wouldn’t plummet down and hit me on the head.
“Cheers, mate. Smells a bit like embalmer’s fluid, to be honest. But it’ll work.”
* * *
I’ve seen people taken—as in awed—by all of my father’s stuff, but no one like this guy, who surprised the hell out of me by turning up the next day. He looked like all of him had been neatly ironed and pressed, turned out to face the world in the most dapper fashion. He was my age, clean shaven, with bright eyes that jumped about, alighting for a few seconds on what I gathered was of special importance to him.
“Couldn’t finish that rum. Was nasty. Poured it out on the beach this morning. Some sand fleas jumped into the splotch it made and died. Seemed fitting.”
The eyes kept going in every direction, as I gave him the tour of the house, my head throbbing. It was almost like he was casing the place.
“How is your grandfather from here if you’re from Ireland? Your accent and everything I mean.”
“Complex set of adoptive elements. Not my biological grandfather. Neither of them, that is. Lost my parents when I was young. My father had been friends with these Americans who stayed with us every year. Stuff lead to stuff and I acquired another grandfather, legally-speaking. Your father has quite a coin collection. Do you collect yourself?”
“I did. I do. I don’t get as much stuff as I used to. I was pitching. Or trying to anyway. For the Sox. We’d be out on the road though and I’d be reading the coin magazines while everyone else was swapping Hustlers. Eventually I had to start reading Hustlers. Like attracts like and all. Tough if you don’t fit in at the workplace.”
He had my father’s one Saint-Gaudens double eagle coin in his hands, and was holding it up to the light, inspecting the edges, which, for some reason, chip so easily on that coin.
“This is nice. I’ve about twenty of them, myself. The result of some recent business. Used to have a mail order operation. Europeans can’t get enough of vintage American coinage, it seems.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was just glad to have someone to pal around with—kill a bunch of days that I might have spent drinking—who not only shared my interests, but was into things that I now wanted to be interested in.
I had been hesitant about going back to Boston, thinking the mere sight of the skyline would be a trigger for me for all of those bad feelings about my aborted career. But soon I started to become more and more optimistic about my future, for reasons I couldn’t properly have sussed out at the time, thanks to this strange Irishman who insisted on going to every coin show from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Amherst, MA out in the Berkshires, to Cambridge, Boston, Ipswich, Springfield, Rockport, and everywhere in between, with me with him.
Lorcan would speak in conciliatory whispers to one dealer after another, with the occasional envelope passing hands, very furtively, like coin people necessarily operated as one imagines drug dealers do, but slightly more out in the open. I wouldn’t really buy much—some Ben Franklin half dollars here, a few Mercury dimes there—but I learned a lot about the business, the risks involved, and, curiously enough, about whisky, which was, to hear him tell it, Lorcan’s real passion, and why Nantucket appealed to him so much. “As a base.”
I’ll never forget how he used that word. Base. Not like the bases I knew, which you rounded if you were a runner, or tried to keep batters off of if you were a pitcher. But something hermetically sealed, cut off from the world, more like a sanctuary. A place where you found protection.
More and more we hung out at the house at 86 Cavendash, where I discovered there was a generator just for the Christmas tree. Lorcan would lecture me on the finer points of whisky, a huge collection of which dominated his cellar. Some were from a couple hundred years ago. I had no clue what the dollar value would have been on a collection like that, especially when my friend informed me that fifty bottles were of special significance, given that the British embassy wasn’t pleased at all that they even existed.
“What the hell does that mean? They’re illegal?”
“No. Not strictly speaking. But they are believed—and the provenance bears this out—to have been discovered at the South Pole, having been part of Scott’s private collection. So it wasn’t just his diaries that made it out, even if he didn’t, but his whisky too.”
“And you have it all?”
“It’s here, obviously.”
“And the British government wants it back? Or wants it, anyway?”
“Something like that.”
Scott’s whisky on Nantucket. As good a place as any—especially in the off-season when there was like twenty people on the island—to squirrel something away. I’d read my fair share of James Bond novels, and while I wasn’t exactly worried about SPECTRE popping in, I was concerned that just about everyone seemed to have more going on than I did.
I wasn’t surprised when my friend suggested we start a whisky club after about a month of hanging out, with some of the locals, something to cut into the boredom of the off-season. There weren’t a lot of candidates to pick from, so we ended up with Hank Glazier and this local fisherman everyone knew simply as Denk sitting at Lorcan’s house, a weird little crew.
Hank ran The Lobster’s Revenge, the only fish shack on Nantucket that was open year round—Christmas day included—and probably the only fish shack on the Northeast coast where you couldn’t get a lobster, because Hank considered it inhumane how they were killed.
Denk, meanwhile, was also the island’s jack-of-all-trades, someone you could hire to clear out your gutters, gut your catch, or don a Scuba suit and scrub down the bottom of your boat.
“Where’d you get this shit Lorc,” he asked regarding some Laphroaig, on the third and final meeting of our would-be whisky club. “Gets you drunk fast.”
But it wasn’t Denk and his whisky ignorance, I figured, who caused Lorcan to take any offense and disappear for a week. He was one of those men who was refined in his passions and expected you to be, too, but he wouldn’t hold it against you if you couldn’t match his level. He just wasn’t around, never said he was going anywhere, nothing like that.
I actually wondered if maybe something had happened to him, because he was ordinarily so friendly. He wouldn’t answer the phone when I called, he never came by. The Christmas tree was always on but no one came to the door when I knocked. I thought about maybe paying Denk to break in, as I’m sure he did that kind of thing from time to time, but instead I just sat with him at The Lobster’s Revenge, which is where you’d go to find Denk if you wanted to hire him for something, like it was his base of operations.
“He’s just gone, I think. Poof. Just like that. We were hanging out every day.”
“Who the do you think is gone? Lorcan. The guy whose whisky you drank.”
“He’s not gone. He called today.”
Hank’s voice followed from a few feet away, behind the counter. “He did. Called asking for Denk.”
I turned back to my equally out-of-work companion.
“He called for you?” He just smiled at me. “About what?”
“He wants help moving the whisky. Some of it. Into a storage unit in Parker’s basement.” Matt Parker was another full-timer, who had a bunch of lockers in the basement of his house that fishermen would sometimes rent out to stow their gear.
“He’ll meet us there. Had business in the city.”
“Me and you.”
Hank lent Denk his truck and Denk, equipped with a key, let us into the house at Cavendash, and we started carrying out the Scott whisky bottles.
Parker’s storage space had come up in the world since I was last there, when it looked like the roof was going to come down on you. There were actually lights now in that basement, so you could watch the water from the ceiling drip down if you wanted to see what was landing on you. Denk said I was supposed to sign for the space, so I did that in Parker’s coffee-stained notebook, mini-mission complete.
Lorcan eventually turned up, looked everything over, gave Denk a swat on the shoulder, and me a handshake, and we all headed over to The Lobster’s Revenge, before Lorcan and I went back to my place to go through my dad’s coins.
I had figured my dad was going to give me the business that night on the phone—I was due—after Lorcan had gone back home to 86 Cavendash, having given me a most forceful handshake before trudging out into the falling snow, about not really doing anything, but as he told me, there was something encouraging in the way I sounded, more encouraging than I’d sounded even when I got called up to the Sox for the first time.
“There’s an old film your mother and I used to love, called I Know Where I’m Going. By Powell and Pressburger, out of England.”
“I know. I’ve seen it. I saw it with you. You made me watch it on TV one night.”
“Right. Well, you don’t sound like you know where you’re going, exactly, but that that’s okay, you’ll figure it out. And son, it’s been a long time, to be honest, since I heard you sound like you knew you were going to figure something out.”
That was probably the best compliment my dad ever gave me. Even though I knew I was still floundering. And if I ended up becoming a Nantucket full-timer—at least for the foreseeable future—I’d need a job, because that bonus money wasn’t going to last forever.
I expected it to be awkward, but we really were true friends in my view, so I had resolved to ask Lorcan the next day if maybe he’d have need to take someone else on with any of his business ventures, little though I knew about them, save that he must have been fairly successful. He had mentioned to me that he had another home in Castlebar, in Ireland, and a cottage in Sligo, too.
But when I got to 86 Cavendash the following morning, there was no Lorcan, as I was informed right away. By an officer of the law, of which there were several. Not the regular Nantucket guys, who tended to be pretty lax, back then, if you happened to have a couple pops too many and were swerving all over the road.
“Are you B.H. Dales?”
“Do you know the man who has been staying here?”
“Of course. Where is he? What’s happened?”
No one answered me as I stood there, looking at my own breath come uselessly out of my mouth. The Fed guys huddled, before turning back to me.
“You’re going to need to come with us.”
“That was quite clear, sir.”
They brought me all the way into Boston, to the JFK Building. You try to come up with a plan—with contingencies—in the backseat of a state police car, I realized, because you don’t know what the hell is about to happen to you. Anything feels possible. In a bad way.
I remembered what my mother had once told me about being scared, how it made you feel more alive than just about anything else did. She was talking about a Bela Lugosi film, though, not police questioning.
Of course, I concluded that this had to do with the business regarding the Scott whisky bottles, and maybe Lorcan hadn’t been totally forthright with me, and there was more of an issue—like some black market thing—than he wanted me to believe. My prints were all over the bottles, of course, but I only knew so much. I also knew I didn’t want to rat out a friend. Maybe you just meet the people who mean the most to your life and get to know them for a finite period of time, like the universe sets in motion some design to gift you something that someone else possesses. Then and there. Nothing sustained. Something you couldn’t cap at the same time. My dad talked a lot of nonsense, but he was right about something: Mint State 70, so far as your life went, was never going to be enough. Not if you were doing it right.
There were a lot of questions I didn’t have answers to. Was I familiar with Lorcan’s associates? Had Lorcan revealed anything to me about his activities in Ireland? They showed me films, too. Of Lorcan and me at various coin conventions. I knew there were security cameras and all at those things, but that we were being studied blew my mind. Just as the footage of Lorcan at the Museum of Fine Arts did. Not that I was surprised to see him there, but that he went so often, six days in a row, over that week he had gone missing.
“So he goes to the MFA? Big deal. I went there for a fifth grade field trip. Everyone around here goes to the MFA at some point.”
The Feds weren’t having it.
“Maybe. But not everyone goes to the MFA repeatedly the week $75,000 in coins go missing.”
They brought in Denk, and, sure enough, he told them about the storage unit at Parker’s, and how it was in my name. Lorcan, apparently, was long gone. There was basically no sign that he had ever been at 86 Cavendash Avenue.
Denk was blabbering like a mental patient the entire ride, which the two Feds, feeling bad for him, I think, and how scared he was, seemed to tolerate. They even dropped him off at The Lobster’s Revenge, having got whatever they wanted from him.
“Okay, big boy. Let’s see this operation of yours.”
They let me sit outside in the hallway of Parker’s basement, pretty confident, I guess, that I wouldn’t do a legger. I didn’t have one in me.
The bigger Fed guy went in first. Probably the way they always did it. Then the smaller guy. They just left me out there. I heard some swearing, then an order to get myself in there. The room was empty, save for me, the two Fed guys, and, lo, the Christmas tree from 86 Cavendash, plugged in, lit up.
It’s weird to say, but it was like we were all relieved, even if everyone had a reason for hoping to find something else. Obviously the case being made against Lorcan would go on, but this wasn’t the score of evidence the Feds wanted. The guys even dropped me off at home. There was a bottle of that cheap Rathskeller rum on the front table, which was odd, as I was almost certain I had gotten rid of the last of it. I picked up the bottle, nearly launching it over my shoulder as I did so, because it was empty. There was a wadded up envelop under where the bottle had been, stuffed with ten thousand dollar bills and a note. “B: It was never going to be enough. The next thing will be. Make it so. MC, L.”
I assumed MC was for Merry Christmas, but as my dad would say, it’s hard to quantify these things, and you never want to cap them.