A Nice Day at The Beach

It’s a beautiful summer morning when you arrive at the beach. You thought you would get here early for some Me-time, just you and the sand and the water and the sun. And your companion, of course. But the beach is already beginning to fill with its daily allotment of sun worshippers.

You find just that right spot in the sand. Not too close to the water and not too far away. You throw your towel down and raise your umbrella for some protection from the heat. You turn to your partner and ask them to glop some SPF 50 on your back. Don’t want to get a burn, just a nice tan, so you can prove to your friends that you spent a day at the beach.

Your partner rubs you down like some greased pig, ready for a luau. You laugh at the thought and ask, “Where’s the pineapple?” Your companion gives you that look they always give you when they haven’t a clue as to what is going on in your head. It’s good to give them a little mystery. Makes life interesting on a boring kind of day.

Last time you were here, you spread out on the sand like some cowboy in an old Western the Comanche staked out for ant bait. You were sun bait and you didn’t bake nicely. You burned like a piece of toast left too long in the toaster. No amount of butter would save that toast and no amount of lotion soothed that burn. You’re not about to let that happen again. No, you’ve come prepared. You have your SPF 50 and you have your umbrella. It’s going to be a nice day at the beach.

Now it is your partner’s turn to be greased. You squirt some of the fluid on your hands. It’s got a nice cool feel to it. You rub their back and admire their lean physique as you do, how straight their back is, the muscles in their arms. Makes you happy that you don’t have to be ashamed of the person you’re with. Makes you feel like others can look at you with envy, their minds whispering, “Gee, why can’t I be so lucky?” When you finish, your companion leans over and gives you a thank-you kiss. Then they head out for the sea.

You look out at the water, glistening from the light rippling across the small waves that come in from the sea. It makes you feel that there is magic in the world. That water reaching out toward the end of the world where the unknown exists.

What great liners have followed that highway? The great ones like the Titanic and the Queen Mary. What ships have taken boys off to war on foreign shores? What explorers have followed the stars to discover exotic lands. What chanties the sailors have sung to pass their time in the rigging, searching, hoping for a South Sea island and some Polynesian girl to seduce? What sail boats have gone out to sea, freeing their captains of the troubles that all landlubbers face, giving them a sense of the grandeur and the awesomeness of nature?

The surfers are beginning to climb onto their boards and head for a distant wave. The swimmers splash and yell. Your companion returns and urges you to come on into the water. It’s such a beautiful day for a swim. But you’re enjoying things just the way they are, not a trouble in the world. You’re here on the beach and that’s enough as the morning makes its drift toward noontime.

You turn and see the lifeguard on his perch behind you. He is like some eagle, searching for his prey, waiting for his chance to prove his bravery. He turns his glasses slowly up and down the beach, like some doll on a carousel. His motions are like the movement of the music of a slow waltz.

Just what is he searching for? That woman with the large breasts he can meet and convince that he is her knight in shining armor? That girl who’ll be off to college soon? That opportunity to yell at a swimmer that they have gone too far? To return to the shore so he won’t have to come and get them and ban them from the beach? Does his eyes search for the fin of that shark that is readying for its attack?

Or maybe he too is dreaming of the tall ships that went far into the world and never returned. Of pirates that haunted the seven seas, searching for their bounty. Maybe he is thinking of Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian and Tahiti. Maybe he is building a story of ships that search the stars. Maybe he isn’t a dreamer at all. Just some boy trying to make enough money to save for the fall. Then he will be able to eat through the next year of college. Or maybe all of these things run through the eagle’s mind.

Or maybe he is thinking, “God, when do I get a break? I gotta go pee. I gotta go pee bad.”

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn; They Shall Be Comforted

Gaby got home around six. Opened her box and took out the mail. Climbed the stairs to her third floor apartment, dog-tired from a day standing before her sixth-grade classes, trying to teach them a piece of music they did not want to learn. Everything her students wanted to learn was out on the streets and not in her classroom.

Rifling through her mail, she found the special letter she had expected for the last few weeks. The one from Carl. She dropped her other mail on the table without looking at it. She lifted Carl’s envelope to her nostrils and smelled it. It had his scent.

She decided she would save it for a treat later. Besides she knew what it contained. A ticket to join him in L. A. She laid it lovingly on the coffee table. Then made herself a cup of tea and concentrated on the work ahead. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to crank it out.

Taking her tea and scone over to the computer, she booted it up. It was Friday night and time for her to respond to the email from her editor. His email contained three letters asking relationship advice. Her editor expected a response from “Aunty Jabberwocky” by Saturday afternoon.

The letters often were several paragraphs long. For each, she gave the editor a required two hundred and fifty to three hundred word response. Most of the time she wanted to respond with “Get a life”. But she didn’t. Her editor wouldn’t like it. He wanted a positive outlook from her. Something to soothe bruised egos and help them on their way.

She opened the email and read through the letters quickly. Though they were each different, they were in many ways the same.

“I’ve been married ten years. Now my husband is cheating on me.” Gaby’s response, in a diplomatic way: “Shoot the son of a bitch.” Advice she would never have followed since she was afraid of guns.

Or “I am seventeen years old and I am so lonely. My boyfriend left me because I wouldn’t have sex with him.” Gaby’s response, in a diplomatic way: “Ask the b/f why God gave him two hands.” Advice she never followed. She had lost her virginity at fifteen, giving it to a seventeen-year-old who wouldn’t even ask her out on a date.

Or “My mother is dating a new man. She wants to know if she should accept his proposal for marriage.” Gaby’s response, in a diplomatic way: “Tell her to accept. It will be a great way to get Mom off your hands.” This too was advice Gaby would never have followed if she had known who her biological mother was.

Sometimes she wondered how she, of all people, ended up doing relationship advice. She was no damned good at relationships. All of hers fell apart.

Four years earlier, she had been looking for a way to bring in some extra money for a cruise she wanted to take. So she answered an online ad for a local newspaper. “Need advice columnist. No experience necessary but the applicant must be able to write.”

Steve, her editor, liked her honesty and hired her on the spot. He figured anyone who had done as poorly as she had in the relationship department would have some ideas on what might work for other people. He slid a couple of relationship books across the desk and ordered her to go read them, then said he would email her the first three letters the following Friday. The answers were expected by Saturday afternoon for the Sunday edition of the newspaper.

In the beginning, she went to work at the job with a gusto that surprised even her. And the relationship advice she sent out was some she got up the courage to take herself. Each new guy she dated became Mr. Possibility. That is, until he became Mr. Dud. Over the four years, she had taken on four relationships, each one looking better than the previous. The first three ended with a thud. Then finally, at forty, she met the One.

Carl had everything she was looking for in a man. He was tender. His jokes made her laugh. He was a great Mr. Fixit. There was never any putdown from him the way the others did. He seemed to be able to read her mind when he would come out with the most outlandish suggestions. If she had believed in soulmates, Carl would have been hers.

He was twenty-five. But it wasn’t a problem for him. He told her that older women always attracted him. The younger ones, the ones his age, fell flat. And he felt like he and Gaby were perfect for each other.

When they first met at a dinner party, Carl had done several small roles in avant garde plays. For the year they were together, his skill as an actor and his roles grew. A month earlier, he had gotten a role in the pilot for a new series. It was to be shot in L. A. If it panned out, he told her that he would send for her. No use for her to give up her job if the pilot was not picked up.

So here she sat at her computer, writing relationship advice, and not sure where she stood. At least, until tonight and the letter. The letter on the table.

She finished her email, then hit send and off it went to Steve for the Sunday edition. It was back to the kitchen nook for another cup of tea.

While she waited on the water to boil, she picked up the envelope with his letter and her ticket to paradise and smelled it once again. His faint odor, the odor of the earth, wind, water and sun. Just one whiff of him was enough to drive her into ecstasy. The kettle whistled. Like a train whistle, she felt the lonely would soon be long gone.

She pulled out a bag of mint tea, her favorite, and dropped it into the cup. Over the bag she poured the hot water. She waited for the bag to steep in the water. Her waiting seemed like an eternity. The cup of tea was ready. She walked it over to the coffee table, set the tea down and settled on the sofa.

Her trembling hand picked up the envelope. She sliced it open with her letter opener. Afraid to touch its contents, she shook them onto the table.

Five one-hundred-dollar bills fell out.

She shook the envelope again and nothing more. She ripped into the envelope. It was empty. No letter. No note. Nothing. The envelope had contained only the five hundred dollars Gaby had lent Carl to go off to California for his pilot.

Her body slumped deep into the sofa. She did not feel pain. She did not feel her heart break. She did not feel the loneliness.

Where once there were dreams, there was now only emptiness. Where once there was hope, there was now only a void. Where once there was a woman, there was only an old haggard body, ready for the Angel of Death to carry her off not to Paradise and not to Hell. To limbo, that gray netherworld where lost souls go to live out their forevers.

Across the room and on a bookcase, she spotted a black case. She tried to pull herself together but she could not. Her body sunk deeper into the cushion. She pushed herself off the sofa and onto the floor. If she could reach the case, everything might be better. Her hands pulled her dead body closer and closer to the bookcase. Finally she reached it. She raised her arm, her hand barely touching the case. She strained and managed to make the case fall onto the floor, almost hitting her in the head. She pulled her body up against the wall and unsnapped the black case.

In the case was a trumpet. She lifted it out of the case. She took the Yamaha 14B4 mouthpiece, spat into it, then rubbed it dry on her dress. She inserted it into the trumpet.

She managed to get herself into a standing position. The trumpet somehow gave her the energy to make her way to the window. The world of the city stood before her, and a lightly lit street below. A drunk stumbled out of a bar and into a dark alley.

Gaby lifted the trumpet to her lips. At first, nothing came out of the brass instrument. Then a little peep. Pretty soon she had that trumpet making a sound, and then more sound.

The sound she played filled her body, each breath giving the trumpet more sound. Soon it went to that deep secret part of herself that she had shared with no one, not even Carl. She became the sound and the sound became her, a requiem rising toward the heavens, mourning for what had been, a grief for what never was.

She breathed into that trumpet the way God must have breathed into the first man. The music became a living thing. She was in the deep water of the sound she played, heading further and further out to sea.

Her neighbors, who were prone to complain about any noise, did not complain. For some, the music sounded as if it was announcing the Second Coming. For others, it reminded them of all the loses they had ever had. For still others, it was the most beautiful noise. The music reached down into each of their souls and made them feel as if they had never felt before.

The music ascended like incense rising into the heavens, and the angels wept. It was that kind of noise.

A Case of the Pauls

They were like bookends, the two Pauls. One on each end of my block.

Paul A. was a sixteen-year-old kid who lived with his single mother, Phyllis, in the red brick, two-bedroom house. This Paul never smiled. He wore a sullen look on his face like it was a suit of armor, his clothes rumpled as if no one in the house knew how to care for clothes. Not him. Not his mother. Most of the time he seemed angry. I called him Dark Paul.

Paul S. was at the other end of the block. He lived with both his parents and his three sisters in a two-story white house with a well trimmed lawn and a white picket fence. A curly blonde-haired kid, always smiling, eyes bluer than the sky on a clear blue sky day. A yes-sir or no-sir when I threw a question at him. Like playing catch with the kid, only with questions. Real polite, and likeable as the day is long. I referred to him as Light Paul.

Needless to say, the two Pauls did not run with each other. Paul A. was as much of a loner as anybody I have known in my seventy years. Only a couple of times did I see him with some boys. They had thug written all over them. Paul S. lived in a world where everybody was his friend.

Now the Good Book says, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” I try to follow that old saw best I can. It was hard though. If Paul A. passed my house, I would give the boy a smile and a good day. All he did was grunt and move on in a hurry like he had someplace to go. When Paul S. went by, he had a howdy for me and a song on his lips about how wonderful the world was.

It was a hot summer day. An August day I believe. My air conditioner had gone out early that morning. It would be the next afternoon before a technician came over to check it out. It was ninety degrees outside, eighty-five inside and getting hotter. I had the windows open for what there was of a breeze and sat in my living room with the overhead fan on.

I went out to the kitchen and stuck my head in the freezer to cool off. How refreshing that was. I was giving a good amount of thought to running myself a cold bath and soaking. Then I thought that maybe I should drive down to the senior citizens’ center. Thing was that they closed at six and I would have to come back to the house and sweat.

Oh, what the hey. I’d gotten way to use to living with all these modern conveniences. Why when I was a kid, we had no air conditioner. And there’d been times when the weather was hotter than this. So what was it with this doing without. “C’mon, man up,” I said to myself. “You’ve gotten too too soft.”

I walked out on the back porch and grabbed the cat’s water bowl. Friskers was thirsty so I took it inside and filled it, then back to the porch. I looked out in the back yard. Not a bird in sight. Even the birds were not happy about the heat.

There was a breeze on the back porch. Looked like we had some rain on its way. Then we’d get more humidity and that would make the heat sticky. For the moment I settled into my lawn chair with a glass of ice tea. Before I knew it, I was dozing off.

I woke to a crash. Coming from inside the house. Had I let Friskers inside? Sneaky cat. He always got past me. I headed inside.

“Friskers, what are you in to now?”

I walked into the living room. Before me stood one of Paul A’s thuggish friends.

“Now hold on here,” I challenged him. “What are you doing in my house?” He was bringing out the former cop in me. How dare this punk come into my house uninvited.

I turned and made for the kitchen. Before I could get to the drawer and my .38, this punk had his arms wrapped around me in a bear hug. He threw me to the ground and said, “Oh, no you don’t.”

Another beefier thug came out from my bedroom, rifling through my wallet. “Just a few bucks in here,” he said to his partner.

“You bastards,” I yelled, crumpled up on the floor. “Get the hell out of my house.”

The bear hugger kicked me in the gut. I went fetal, grasping my stomach.

“Find anything else?” hugger asked.

“Just a couple of rings and some credit cards.”

“Take them and let’s get out of here before this old codger recuperates.” Hugger kicked me again. It felt like he had broken my arm.

Beefy headed for the door. But he didn’t go no further. Before him stood Light Paul. “What the hell are you guys doing?” he demanded. Then he came through the door like he was a bull running down its prey. He hit the hugger in the gut with his fist and went to do it again. Beefy’s fist came down hard on his head.

Both Beefy and Hugger went through the front door, then I heard a noise like a two-by-four splitting. “I told you no. Leave Mr. Williams alone. But you didn’t listen.” It was the dark Paul’s voice.

Light Paul picked himself up. Dark Paul yelled, “Call the cops.”

When the police arrived, Dark Paul had scooted away, melting into the night as if he had never been there. Light Paul told them what had happened, took credit for my rescue. As the paramedics loaded me into the ambulance, he said to me, “Paul told me not to tell about him and so I’m not.”

Several days later, the nurse brought me home. As she walked me out of the car and into the house, I saw the two Pauls. watching from across the street, smiling. It seemed that the light Paul was now a little darker and the dark Paul a little lighter.

Read a Good Story Lately?

I am a sucker for short stories. Short stories by such amazing writers as Anton Chekhov, Ray Bradbury, Alice Munro, Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Lorrie Moore, Tim O’Brien and Kevin Brockmeier often blow me away. For my money though, the Irish writer William Trevor is one of the best, a real master of the craft. If you love short stories the way I do, you’ll enjoy his Selected Stories.

There’s nothing like a good start to a story. Here’s the opening sentence from Trevor’s “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”: Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man, Belle married him when he was old. When a story gets off to a good start like that, I know I am in for a treat.

The story, “A Friendship”, opens with a practical joke two brothers play on their father. But soon the tale turns into the story of a slowly dissipating marriage. As is true for many of Trevor’s stories, it doesn’t take you where you thought you were going. When I finished the story, I could see the influence Trevor may have had on another writer, Alice Munro, and her “Runaway”. In his “Child’s Play”, there is the story of two children. They use their imagination to create dramas to help them overcome the pain of separation from their divorced parents.

If you think Trevor only creates tragic stories, think again. For instance, there’s “A Bit of Business”. Two thieves see an ideal opportunity for burglary on the day the Pope visits Dublin. They’ve done their business for the day. It’s been a successful business. Then, on a whim, they decide to do one more house. One more house. That will always get you into trouble.

Trevor’s endings can be just as stunning as his beginnings. Such is the masterpiece of a story called “After Rain”. A woman entering her thirties finds herself ditched by her boyfriend. She returns to the Italian hotel where her parents took her when she was a girl.

It concludes with this: She sees again the brown-and-green striped tie of the old man who talked about being on your own, and the freckles that are blotches on the forehead. She sees herself walking in the morning heat past the graveyard and the rusted petrol pumps. She sees herself seeking the shade of the chestnut trees in the park, and crossing the piazza to the trattoria when the first raindrops fell. She hears the swish of the cleaner’s mop in the church of Santa Fabiola, she hears the tourists’ whisper. The fingers of the praying woman flutter on her beads, the candles flare. The story of Santa Fabiola is lost in the shadows that were once the people of her life, the family tomb reeks odourlessly of death. Rain has sweetened the breathless air, the angel comes mysteriously also. These closing lines remind me of another Irish master of the short story, James Joyce, and the end of his most famous story, “The Dead”.

Trevor’s stories often have echoes of other great predecessors of the short story, most of all Anton Chekhov. Trevor does for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia. He explores the landscape of a country and its people, giving each character her dignity. With a rich, lush language, he is as likely to offer the life of a woman as he is a man, of a Catholic or a Protestant, and to burrow in deep to find out what that character carries in his or her heart.

In his stories, there are priests, wives, businessmen, tramps, blind piano tuners, farmers, children, burglars, auto mechanics and dressmakers, people from many of the nooks and crannies of Irish society. And there is love, or the desire for love no matter the consequences. Trevor shows us that it’s the little things, the quiet moments that matter in a life, and that a life can mean so much.

His particular way of saying things often makes me stop in awe and question how I might write like that. Lines that soar. Lines that are more than lines. There never is fairness when vengeance is evoked or Their own way of life was so much debris all around them or This no-man’s land was where Gerard and Rebecca played their game of marriage and divorce or All the love there had been, all the love there still was–love that might have nourished Ellie’s child, that might have warmed her–was the deprivation the child suffered or gratitude was always expressed around this table. It’s a great writer working his magic and I am never disappointed with that magic. He always leaves me wanting more.

The Water and the Sea

Tally did not know his fore from his aft, his port from his starboard. Not that it mattered that he know something of ships. That was for others to know. He was not a sea man, and he wasn’t a sailor.

He came on the cruise to please his wife. Mara thought it would do him good to get away from everybody, including herself. “A good oceangoing voyage might just be the thing,” she said. It would break the melancholies he wore like a suit of clothes. Since the death of his friend, Breaker, they had their way with him. It was his way of coping.

So he chose to return from Breaker’s funeral in London by ship. It had been an uneventful voyage so far. Three days of moping around the decks, then sitting on deck and watching the tides in an easy rise and fall. Rising and falling like Breaker himself.

He had first met Breaker in his freshman year of college. Breaker showed up at every party Tally attended. What would be a boring affair suddenly became a blow-out. When Tally was a sophomore, Breaker was a junior, and his roommate. They had become close. Breaker would share all  his dreams. Until Tally met Breaker, he never had many dreams for his future. He’d picked the path of least resistance. He was going to be a cpa. “That’s no life,” Breaker sai. Of course, he was right.

So Tally followed Breaker into the Peace Corps. When Tally finished his time with the Corp, Breaker was already a war correspondent for CBS. Tally decided wars were not for him. Instead he went off to Africa and started a safari business. There he met Mara just about the time Breaker married his English wife, Pamela. Next thin g he knew Breaker was off to Israel. He and his wife were in kubutz.

Mara was pregnant, so Tally sold the business and took his wife and new baby back to the states. That was when he got in on the internet craze and sold his new software company for several million dollars. It seemed that Tally had found that he had a knack for making money. Every so often Tally would hear a new story of his hero. Breaker was always in some place new doing something Tally would never think about doing. Breaker had become something of a legend in Tally’s family.

Then, at forty, a phone call came from London. It was Pamela. “Breaker’s dead,” she said.

“How?” Tally asked, tears in his eyes.

“Suicide. Can you fly over? He wanted you at the funeral.”

“Sure,” Tally said and took the next plane over to England. Tally had been surprised at how well Pamela held up at the funeral. Afterward she gave him a big hug and went back to her apartment for her own private grief.

On the voyage back to the states, Tally took in all that had happened since he first met Breaker. He would not be the man he was if not for Breaker. He would not have believed that he could have a life that was not dull and ordinary. He would not have Mara and the kids. He would not have the friends he had, and the adventures he had lived. Now that Breaker was gone, what was he to do. He was forty. Now suddenly he had no future.

Sitting in a deck chair, he closed his eyes and slipped off to sleep. Everywhere there was water. No sky or land, just water. He opened his eyes.

He walked over to the edge. The sea before him was like glass. Possibly he might walk on the sea. He gazed out at the sea and sky. A dark blue with light only from the ship. And the quietness. He listened and all he heard was the humming of the ship’s engine. What if he stepped off the deck of the ship and onto the sea? Now that would be a happy thing.

A hand reached from behind him. “Don’t,” a voice said. Tally turned and there was no one there.

“What the hey?” Tally asked.

He went back to his deck chair. Where there was only dark blue sky a few moments ago, now there were stars. He didn’t count but he estimated a million and seven. Why a million and seven? Just because.

Then he saw Mara’s face. Not in the stars, not in his imagination. She looked out at him from where she was. She was crying, her face pleading with him. All through the last couple of weeks he had forgotten her. He had only been thinking about Breaker. And his loss. Now there she was and what he was thinking really hurt Mara.

Right then and there he discovered he had a future. It was Mara.