Dora Lee in Love

(excerpted from Dora Lee, a novel in progress)


Janet Campbell Hale

One morning in late summer, Dora Lee walked along the beach enjoying the fresh sea air, the sun sparkling on the water, the deep, warm blue of the sky.

Suddenly she came upon a man lying on the beach all wrapped in long, tangled seaweed tentacles. Gift wrapped it seemed, then washed ashore.A few little fish, caught in the vegetation, flipped about wildly. He wore a red and black checkered flannel shirt, blue jeans, and red suspenders; his black hair plastered itself to his forehead and face.

A dead body, she thought. A dead body? It didn't look dead though. What do I do now? Call the Coast Guard. But what if he washes back to sea while I'm gone? Better pull him away from the water where no waves can reach him. But, as she considered what to do, the body, very much alive, let out a long, loud snore.

Now she really didn't know what to do. He drew in a long breath and held it longer than seemed humanly possible before letting out another long, loud snore.

Dora Lee knelt in the sand and pulled the seaweed that wrapped around the man until she managed to free the four fish. They no longer flipped wildly about; they gasped and writhed just a little, their sleek, silvery bodies caked with dry sand. Dora Lee picked them up one by one and threw them back into the sea. She looked at the man lying at her feet and thought (though not seriously) Maybe I should throw him back, too.

In the years to come she would remember that moment and that fleeting thought-"throw him back, too." How easy it would have been to just drag him far enough so that the waves could not wash him back out again, then go home and call the Coast Guard or the police or some other authority and tell them there's an unconscious man lying on the beach. Or to have just stepped over him and gone on her way. But she felt her destiny, and who was she to resist destiny?

The man was not a pretty sight. He reeked of, besides the smells of the sea, something alcoholic. Something that reminds one of the smell of blueberries. Probably he fell out of a boat somewhere not far from shore. Or maybe someone who wanted him dead got him drunk and threw him into the ocean. Or maybe he'd washed ashore someplace else last night but hadn't come to and the waves came and carried him back into the sea and shortly after washed him ashore again, this time on Dora Lee's beach.

Dora Lee, who was very strong in her youth, disentangled and then lifted him, her arms under his arms, hands clasped together in front of his chest, and, walking backwards, dragged him down the beach until her house was in sight.

Two barefoot teen-aged boys and a dog walked towards her on the damp, firm sand.. They kept throwing a stick for the dog to go fetch, sometimes throwing it out so far the dog would have to swim out to get it. She knew these boys. The mother of one worked as a waitress down at the cafe.

"Hi, Dora," one of them said. "What you got there?"

"I found this guy washed ashore."

"Gonna keep him, then, eh?"

"I don't know. We'll see."

"Need some help? Let us give you a hand."

"Okay. Good. Thank you."

One of the boys lifted him by his feet, the other by his arms, and they carried him all the way down to Dora Lee's house. There they stopped and rested a moment.

"Man!" one of the boys said. "This guy weighs a lot for such a little squirt." Carrying him up the long flight of outdoor steps was trickier and took some time. They about dropped him several times and had to stop.

Dora Lee had gone ahead and opened the door. She'd put a pillow on the sofa, and when they carried her man inside, she told them to deposit him there. Then she covered him with a blanket from her own bed.

"Thank you very much, boys. Getting him up here by myself would have been hard. Thank you." She gave them each a bottle of Coke, which they seemed happy to have.

When the boys left, she uncovered the snoring, passed-out or sleeping man, and took his wet clothes off of him. She wanted, very much, to see what the man's face looked like under that three or four days' growth of stubble. Dora Lee lathered up the passed-out man's face and shaved it clean except for the little mustache, which she left as it was. She did nick him, but just once, just a little nick. He didn't wake. Then she combed his freshly shampooed hair back, and though she thought he badly needed a haircut, she resisted the urge, as she resisted the urge to give him a manicure. Then she stood up, stepped back, and admired her handiwork. His age was hard to tell, but he had no grey hair and his brown skin was smooth. She guessed he had to be young or early middle-aged (he would tell her when he woke he was twenty-nine, a little younger than herself). A little round man with a round face. Not at all unpleasant looking. Not bad. Not half-bad.

He slept all day and into the night. Dora Lee made some clam chowder with clams she'd dug herself. She knew he'd be hungry when he came to. Then she sat in a rocking chair beside the sofa and read a few pages of a book she'd borrowed from the library that was about the life of the famous psychic Edgar Cayce. She dozed off.

"Your name must be 'Angel'," he said, rousing her from her sleep. She opened her eyes. Her found man, who was stark naked, knelt beside her. His eyes, large, so dark a shade of brown as to appear black, fringed with long black eyelashes, were the most beautiful she'd ever seen. "You look like an angel," he said. He needs glasses, she thought. His voice was deep, rich, the voice of a radio announcer. "I'm going to call you Angel," he said. "Did you save me, Angel?" She nodded. "Did you dive off the boat and rescue me?" She shook her head no. She sure didn't and she wouldn't have either had she been there. She did not swim.

He remembered drinking in a bar near the ferry landing on the mainland. When the bartender refused to serve him any more drinks, he went outside and got in his car and drove to where cars had begun to line up. He parked his car in line behind a brown pickup truck with American plates that had a bumper sticker that said: "You Want It? Get It Like I Did! Work For It!" He remembered thinking it amusing. The truck owner must have a very high opinion of his vehicle, imagining other drivers coveted it. He took his whiskey flask from the glove compartment and continued to drink. On board the ferry he began feeling sick and ran out to the deck. The last thing he remembered was hanging his head over the side of the boat and vomiting. Sick as a damned dog! He was going to stop drinking. That was all there was to it.

"I found you on the beach. You're on Vancouver Island. Washed ashore."

"Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for bringing me to your home." The squatting man took Dora Lee's hand and raised it to his lips and kissed it.

"Are you married, Angel? Will you marry me? I know I probably don't look it sitting here naked like this, but I'm a rich man. I can take care of you. You'll never want for anything again." Dora Lee, in spite of herself, was charmed. That night was the first night they made love. It was the first time Dora Lee ever made love. His name was Jean-Paul and she was amazed to find, weeks later, after he'd fully recovered, that he had spoken the truth: he was, indeed a rich man. He had never held a job of any kind. His parents had owned land, lots of it, and when they died and left everything to Jean-Paul when he was just nineteen, he invested in more real estate and began to play the stock market, which he no longer did. He lived in his family's fine big house on the beach at White Rock, which was a small resort city right on the U.S.-Canada border. He owned a lot of beach-front property there. White people took out hundred-year leases and built expensive houses on Jean-Paul's property and paid him very well. Jean-Paul owned some timberland, too. He'd not sold any timber in a long while because the price was so low. He would just hang on to it until lumber prices went up again. One of his cars, his main car, was a banana-yellow Jaguar. Jean-Paul was not well-educated or well-bred. He was, however, rich. Dora Lee was in love and it wouldn't have mattered to her were he poor. She would have continued to work at the cafe and supported him if need be. Even though she would have loved him poor, would have loved him no matter what, his wealth absolutely thrilled her.

Jean-Paul and Dora Lee took a cruise to Puerta Vallarta. At sea they stood in the moonlight looking at the water and sky. Dora Lee wore an expensive red shawl of hand-woven wool and had just had her hair cut and styled that day at the ship's salon. "Do you like it, Jean-Paul?" she'd asked. He'd said he loved her long hair. Most women, he'd said, overdo the make-up and perm stuff. Natural is better. Now, when she timidly asked if he liked her new, very short, stylish haircut, he said, "It makes you look eighteen!" and took her in his arms, drew her close, and kissed her. She felt eighteen. That very night, after they'd made love several times and dawn was about to break, Jean-Paul proposed: "Dora Lee, my angel, will you marry me?" "Of course I will," she answered, "of course I will." Jean-Paul took the diamond ring from his coat pocket and slipped it on her finger. Even in the pale moonlight it sparkled.

They married in Puerta Vallarta and stayed there two weeks, letting their ship sail without them. Dora Lee, who never cared to drink, drank champagne and got a little drunk not one night but two. They made love standing on the balcony of their hotel room and one night in the life guard's chair on the beach. They danced. They swam. They made a lot of love. When the time came to leave, they flew back to British Columbia first class. There I was, she thought, a poor, lonely short-order cook who had never had a date in my life, and now here I am, a happily married woman no longer alone and no longer poor. The first three or four months of their marriage was, at least to Dora Lee, an enchanted time of sheer bliss. Then, one afternoon Jean-Paul went into their bedroom and a few minutes later called his wife.

"Dora Lee! Dora Lee! Get your fat butt in here!" "What is that?!" He was pointing at a large tumbler with a little water in it on the floor beside the bed. Jean-Paul had made himself some iced tea the night before and sipped it while he lay watching TV. The glass was where he had left it. What enraged him was it was still there.

"Why didn't you pick that glass up, carry it into the kitchen, and wash it Dora Lee? Do you think you're too good to wash dishes, is that it? You're my wife, Dora Lee, and," Jean-Paul, for emphasis, kicked the glass against the woodwork breaking it into a thousand pieces, "A wife, in case you don't know it, Miss High-and-Mighty, is supposed to keep house! Get your lazy fat butt into gear and clean up this mess!"

She cleaned it up working slowly so as not to cut her fingers on the shards of broken glass while he stood over her, arms crossed in front of his chest. She was utterly bewildered. This was not the gentle man she knew. Maybe, she hoped, this was a freak thing the likes of which would never happen again.

But Jean-Paul had shown his true colors, or the rest of his true colors though he would remain the man she fell in love with, the one who sang love songs to her, told her stories and jokes, was happy, too. But now Dora Lee came to know the mean, violent, crazy Jean-Paul who was inseparable from the other. . Dora Lee, when she first found her love, imagined God had washed Jean-Paul ashore that fateful day, that he was God's gift to her. In time, though, she came to believe he had been put before her not by God but by Lucifer himself.

From Dora Lee in Love (excerpted from Dora Lee, a novel in progress), to appear in Women on the Run, University of Idaho Press, forthcoming 1999, by Janet Campbell Hale

© 1999 Janet Campbell Hale

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