Low tide retreated out so it seemed like you could walk all the way to Boston. Zeb meandered in a different direction than Mike and Sean and they were now a hundred yards away, unsuccessfully stalking clam beds. Their behavior was exaggerated, a pantomime of something and Zeb figured they were laughing, and he wished he could hear it, the strong and slightly derisive laugh of young men, but the wind blew so strongly that he couldn’t hear a sound. This was the first time he had ever been on a beach like this, at ebb tide and he was content to miss a joke and wander alone. He turned and looked back at the cottage, now small in the distance and his wife sitting on the porch.
The sun felt warm on his sunburned shoulders. There were no clouds for the wind to blow around and the sky was blue and very bright. The horizon was a tenuous thing; it hurt to look up or focus on the mirage pools of water or the rolls of damp sand or the vents of ascending heat. He scuffed along, close to fascinated, making some informal scientific observations in an alien environment. Zeb was struck by the firmness of the ground beneath his feet, for some unfounded reason believing that what was in effect ocean floor, should not be so solid. A large gull standing up ahead, fixed a black bead of an eye on him, guaging his direction, more irritated than threatened. Zeb had given up on turning over shells with his toe in hopes of finding something. His survey had turned up enough empties to dissuade him from thinking that they were scraps from the birds. He did notice another small dead crab, like others he had found before. He bent over and picked it up. It was a pinkish color, speckled in camouflage and he almost expected it to start moving as he held it in his hand. Although the legs seemed about to pull away from the body, it’s anatomy was still intact. He tapped at the brittle armor of the shell, turned it over gingerly and examined the mouth and the claws, tried to identify the eyes and tested how easily the soft meat pulled away from the shell. It seemed strange that such a meal should have avioded the scavengers, and a little odd too, that all these crabs should be dead. He first guessedas that it was probably the result of pollution or something else humans had done, but in truth he had no idea. He knew nothing about this place. He held the crab in a cupped hand and walked on.
A large black dog was galloping across the sand up ahead, chasing at any of the resting gulls, forcing them to fly. He watched the dog for a while, but it was so bright that his eyes began to hurt and he actually became dizzy. He was sweating and a little uncomfortable from the drinking he had done the night before. He was struck with vague dread about the previous evening, but he resisted impulse to dwell on it. Catherine was quite possibly irritated with him for going out with the two boys, but he no longer had the energy or the interest in distinguishing between specific and general unhappiness. He turned and looked at the house again. She was so small as to be barely distinguishable, white clothes against a white house in the bright daylight. Besides, the strange associative responses that are given to a nervous system fighting alcohol abuse were, all other things being equal, something he just didn’t do anymore. The unique, wacky thoughts, that mimic real creativity, were something in which he liked to indulge.
The dog shagged another gull, leaping at it’s tail as the bird took off. It came down and trotted, chuckling, as it searched for the next closest bird. Zeb looked around for Mike and Sean and they were farther away now, almost out of sight and sinking behind a rise in the sand. The number and strength of the sensations, the wind, the sun, the newness of this scene were such that he felt a pang of reminisce without having a grasp of what vague memory prompted the yearning. And then, as if prompted, his mind’s eye flashed a visual image of a forest in Germany, near Nuremberg. He could suddenly remember with great clarity a specific day. He was sporting some alcoholic withdrawal then, too, as he walked through woods, the day after his friends left him to go back to the States. He decided to stay and tramp Europe indefinitely and was disappointed when none of them joined him. That was when they, himself, Catherine and five other friends were artists, not painters, or musicians or writers, but rather that they were making art of their lives and the living of it. And over the months, tramping across the continent, they had developed their own private joy, their own code of behavior, so that any act, no matter how incongruous, strange, obnoxious, or enmbarassing, could be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulder and a quote from Oscar Wilde, or whatever hero du jour. So when they opted to finally go back to life in the States, he thought he been betrayed and told them so after many farewell drinks in the bier stube.
He found himself alone then, there in the forest, the next morning awakening in his clothes, very confused for a moment but standing and stretching, he felt a residual defiance in his muscle.
He was a little heart broken about Catherine leaving, but only she had the somewhat legitimate excuse of school and he feared he would ever see her again; the others were cowards. They had talked of going to India, but it was only talk. He took off his shoes and walked through the dewy grass. The drinking and arguing and departure he imagined, were ritual purification. He felt fierce in his independence and began to think about it in his own bombastic way. He was now free, a bird of the forest. The spinning in his head was a surge of his geist. He did not need them nor anybody nor god, he would be the first man, he would take nourishment from the forest, know all that neededto be known, he was to become the prophet of the human existence and destroy religion and its lies, and on and on. It was all very funny looking back, Neitszche and a hangover. But that was the kind of feeling this morning reminded him of, of a day when he had so many plans.
Yet his lack of equilibrium fairly begged for some outlet. You can’t force yourself to be funny and plus there was no one for him to play to. That was the worst thing about life with Catherine. She didn’t find him funny anymore. Or she would no longer laugh at the things he said. He liked the audience and it seemed like a way for her to punish him. He looked back again and she had gone inside. He tried to organize his thoughts, that maybe there was something to learn from the sensations, but found a kind of instead impediment, something that wanted to negate. This took Zeb by surprise.The feeling grew stronger than just hesitancy, it was more like dread. He wrote it off as another another quirky association and he began thinking about the night before.
Upon returning from several taverns with the boys, Sean and Mike, Zeb ended up out on the back porch. Thomas, Sean’s father and Zeb’s boss, who was renting the cottage that summer, had already gone to bed, as had Catherine and Edie, Thomas’ wife. They had tried to walk quietly through the house, giggling conspiratorially as they took beer out of the refrigerator, drunkenly stumbling over furniture.
Mike got outside first.
“Jesus, look at all the stars!”
“Shhh! You’re going to wake them.” Sean glared at Mike,
who laughed at him. Sean smiled and fell into a chair.
Mike and Zeb stared up, leaning on the porch rail. The smell of the ocean drifted up across the beach. When they were quiet they could hear the sound of the surf. The air was still.
“I forgot that the sky could look like this.” Zeb said,very taken with the scene.
“The only time you get to see it this way is when you come out here.”
“Yeah, it doesn’t seem likely but even in small towns you get a lot of light pollution and…” Mike interrupted Zeb.
“Can you pick out any of the constellations?”
Zeb shrugged “I used to be able to.”
“I can’t even find the big dipper.”
“At the very top is a bright star. That’s the north star.
Follow the line of stars. It angles there, turns there and turns
there and goes back up. That’s the little dipper. It runs
almost perpindicular to the big dipper, which sits up like that.
Can you see it?”
He felt momentarily conscious of the precision with which he pointed out the stars. His hands seemed too thin and fragile, soft and uncalloused. He remembered shaking Mike’s coarse beefy hands when they met earlier that day. He continued.
“Um… What else uh.. okay that would be cassiopea, that
whole mess over there and those two lines there are, is gemini
and somewhere around there is orion, I think. I really don’t
“That’s pretty good.” Mike said, after a pause, with a flat
tone of admiration, “You remember that from school?”
“I dont know, maybe the boy scouts or something.”
“It’s still pretty good.” He turned around. “Sean’s sleeping.”
“Out like a light. Don’t blame him, though. That’s a long drive.”
“Yeah, I’m getting tired myself.” Zeb said flatly even though he wasn’t. He stared at the stars wondering and numb, past
drunk but clinging to the sensation of the night This was the
first time he’d spoke to Mike alone. Mike was a friend of Sean’s. The two had shown up more or less unexpectedly. In fact, nothing planned for that weekend was working out. Originally, it was to be just Catherine and him for the weekend, borrowing the house as Thomas had offered, hoping they could spend some quiet time to work some things out. Speaking to one another, for instance. They made arrangements to leave Ronnie with her parents, fly into Boston and rent a car for the drive out. Catherine wanted to cancel when Thomas called at the last minute and announced that they would join them, but Zeb could see no way out and convinced her that they were obligated. Even if the bastard hadn’t given him apiece of the business as promised, he couldn’t just not show. And to be honest, he was relieved to have them there and even happier when Sean and Mike showed up. His wife wanted to talk and while he knew they were becoming more and more distant, he liked the bargain of making an effort to address things without actually doing so.
“I saw this science program once that said the light from the stars that we see now was transmitted millions of years ago.”
Mike spoke very slowly now, as did Zeb, with long pauses in between.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before, before homo sapiens appeared on earth.” Zeb thought for a second, “…and right now a star could be going out or blowing up and it’s so far away that the earth won’t know about it for a million years.”
“It’s a big place.” They both smirked.
“How does that happen?” Mike asked.
“Why do they go out?”
“Jesus Mike, I don’t know.” His voice dragged, but after a moment he added, “It’s got to do with nuclear fusion. The spent fuel builds up, and because the fused atoms are increasingly heavy elements, the whole thing collpases. I think they theorize
that a yellow dwarf, dwarf? I think so, uh… like the sun lasts
about five billion years.”
“I can’t believe you know all this stuff.”
“I can’t believe I remember it. I must have been drunk when
I learned it. Alcohol can do that, you know. Preserves certain memories. Pickles them, I guess.”
Mike sipped his beer.
“So in five bil we’re history.”
“That’d get you to believe in god.”
“What do you mean “no”?”
“I don’t believe in god.” Zeb felt a little anxious about saying this, wondering how Mike would react, but he showed only a languid curiousity.
“Hm. No kidding. Were you brought up that way?”
“No. Catholic.” He took a long drink from his bottle. “Shit, at one point when I was a kid they thought I’d be a priest. But the more I learned about religion, all religion and the more I learned about life, the less I could but any of it. stopped believing. Too many flaws in logic. Too much bullshit.”
Mike was about nineteen, Zeb figured, about five years older than Ronnie. He wondered if he would ever be outside, drunk on a porch, talking about the stars or religion or anything. Ronnie was a bright kid and would probably hold his own now in such conversation, but it seemed like it wouldn’t happen. As a father, he was lousy and getting worse. And, more and more, outside of his small office or bed, he felt like a stranger. It was Catherine’s and Ronnie’s house.
“I mean, I’m not real religious or anything, but I don’t think that I could believe in just nothing.”
“Oh, Atheists believe in lots things. I just don’t think that there’s some kind of cosmic big cheese controlling things or
Mike laughed, “Okay, so how did we get here?”
“Some random chemical combinations involving carbon and oxygen and a few million years of natural selection.”
“No kidding. What about.. you don’t think there’s a meaning of life?”
“I think it’s the wrong question. I think you can have a meaningful life, through the way you live it, how you love, and are loved, through your relationships with people, your family, by the things you accomplish and create. In any case it’s a silly conversation for two drunks to be having.”
There was a long pause. Zeb wondered if he blamed Ronnie for ruining his relationship with Catherine. Her devotion to Zeb ended the day their son was born. He considered whether this was the way women loved, that perhaps it was inevitable.
“You want another beer.” Mike headed for the house.
Zeb leaned farther over the railing as Mike went into the
house. He realized that his small speech was just like a few dozen he had had in college. He caught a slight breeze and, for the first time all night, he began to feel tired. He thought to call out and tell Mike not to bring the beer but caught himself before he woke the others.
“Did you open it?”
“Never mind. I was going to take a pass but I’ll take it.”
They drank quietly for a few moments. Zeb sensed that he had put a distance between himself and asked Mike a question.
“You said you work construction right?”
“I did that a couple summers when I was in college. I liked doing it.”
“It’s a good job.”
“I mean it was hard work but I liked when we finished. It was allright. You could see the finished product. The feeling was that there was a little bit of myself in the house.”
“You did residential?”
“Commercial. Mostly office buildings.”
“That’s got to be a great when you finish one of those. It’s
really an acheievement, something permanent, and sometimes they’re a work of art. And you had a part in completing it. It’s something that will last for generations.”
Mike laughed, “They won’t really last that long. It just looks like it.” Zeb thought about his wife sleeping inside. The form melted from her body in increments, at night, as she slept, with a thin nasal snore and a light sweat. She was becoming undefined, becoming something he didn’t want to think about. There was a real bitterness in his silence and distance. Ronnie was mobile and temporary and would be gone soon, off to life. Maybe the affection would return then, but it was unlikely. It was her who wanted to get married and to have a baby, not his, at least, not when they did, but he acceeded to her wishes.
Mike was still looking up, “No, they won’t last that long. Nothing like the stars. 75 years. At best. Nothing.”
Zeb threw the dead crab away and waited for a bird to come
and scoop it up. None did. The heat pressed in on him and his throat was very dry. The beer would taste very good now. He began walking towards the others. He knew they would be ready to drink.