The Longboat

Photo: © S. Bertrand. All rights reserved.

Mary stood as close as she could to the water’s edge without getting her feet wet. She palmed a pebble, as fat and as smooth as a fruit, and rasped into it with a smaller, sharper stone. The concentric lines revealed by her efforts spiraled in a pale whorl, as if a giantess had pressed her thumb there. Satisfied, Mary slipped the pebble into her pocket and bent low over the beach to select another. This one was white and the lines Mary carved appeared as light and shadow on the smooth stone, which had a pleasing pink blush, like quartz. She was thinking of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a work that she and Graham had visited five years before at Great Salt Lake in Utah. They’d travelled for miles over a washboard road to reach the spectacle with its saline smell and a salty grittiness that coated their skin. The lake had receded since Smithson constructed his work, and his jetty appeared to float on a white palimpsest that, from a distance, seemed as if it might crack if they stepped onto it. In fact, the salty film covered reliable land. Any appearance of fragile iciness was an illusion.

They’d spent the night in a hotel in Salt Lake City, and Mary had woken to find Graham, usually so modest, standing naked at the window. The curtains were open and his body glowed in whatever pale light shone from outside. Although his muscles were lean and still well-defined, he was thinner than he’d ever been and his nudity contributed to a vulnerability she didn’t recognize.

“Graham?”

He turned at the sound of her voice and she was unnerved by a flicker of bewilderment in his eyes.

“There’s something outside.” He stabbed at the window with his right forefinger. His left hand splayed against the glass where condensation formed like a whisper around his palm.

Mary untangled herself from the sheets and shifted to the edge of the bed. She tapped her phone screen and it glowed to reveal 4 a.m. Fumbling with her glasses, she crossed the carpet to her husband.

“Did you hear something?”

“No, I saw it.”

Mary peered into the dawn. Their hotel window overlooked landscaped gardens with rolling lawns enhanced by spot lights directed up the trunks of white firs and maple trees. With a hand high on her back, Graham steered her gaze toward the left. Something about his behavior reminded her of their son, Simon when he was little and woke scared during a storm or after a bad dream. Graham didn’t seem curious about what he’d seen, nor annoyed to be woken so early, but genuinely afraid. His fingertips dug into the soft flesh of her upper arm. She shook him off.

“You’re hurting me.”

“There! There it is. See?” Graham grabbed her elbow and pulled her in front of him. It was unclear whether he did it to give her the better view, or if he wanted to hide behind her.

“Look.”

A shimmering line travelled across the lawn in a thin arc. It appeared to be anchored at one end, and from that fixed point moved in an even trajectory, paused, then changed direction with a familiar buzz and swish.

“That’s a sprinkler, Graham.”

“A what?” He still clutched her elbow.

Mary eased his fingers off her arm and faced him. His eyes darted from the window, to her face and back to the window. Again, Mary was reminded of Simon as a boy and how, when he was upset or preoccupied, she’d have to catch his eye, kneeling in front of him to draw him out of his inner world. She placed her hands on Graham’s shoulders.

“The hotel must have an irrigation system. I guess it runs at night.”

Graham’s eyes calmed, as if something wild and loose had settled.

“The sprinkler,” he said.

They stood shoulder to shoulder as the benign stream swung across the lawn. With the clarity of realization, the silver line was so obviously water that for Graham to mistake it for anything sinister seemed almost ridiculous. But, Mary had rationalized, in the confusion of a sudden waking in an unfamiliar room, a coat hung on a chair could transform into the threatening dimensions of a stranger. A branch shuddering in the wind might suggest a gnarled hand scratching to get in.

The spray retreated and the nozzle clipped into the soil.

Graham sat on the edge of the bed with his palms on his knees. His backbone knuckled beneath his skin. He seemed older than sixty-nine.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Maybe I should have my eyes checked.” He dug in the knot of sheets for his pajama bottoms, pulled them on and lay back against the hotel pillows with his eyes closed. “I’m sorry I woke you.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine. I’m just…,” he rotated his hand in the air as if wafting toward himself the ideal word to explain to both of them what had just happened.

“Confused?” Mary suggested.

“Tired,” Graham said. “I’m just tired.”

The five years since that night weighed on Mary with as much presence and determination as the stone in her hand. She dug her toes into the sand and water followed into the tiny holes she made. The sting of cold and the sharpness beneath her bare feet connected her with the earth as she questioned, for the thousandth time, how much Graham had understood in those early days about his growing confusion. He must have realized that the blank moments of forgetting a word, or a friend’s name, or his failure to recognize an everyday item were more ominous than just old age. It was either pride or fear that kept him from confiding in her, and a combination of denial and ignorance that prevented her from asking him if he was noticing, as she was, the changes in his behavior, his moods, his orientation with the world. What a terrible waste of precious time their terminal politeness had been. Mary dug into the pebble with the sharp edge of the stone. As the disease progressed, the man she loved regressed. He lost his glasses, his ability to drive, his sense of humor and finally, his bearings. Until, abruptly, it was too late and at the time of their lives when Simon had left home and they should have been charting their course into renewed independence, they’d been coupled to the trajectory of Graham’s Alzheimer’s.

It was either pride or fear that kept him from confiding in her, and a combination of denial and ignorance that prevented her from asking him if he was noticing, as she was, the changes in his behavior, his moods, his orientation with the world.

Mary blew the dust from her scraping off the face of the stone and ran her thumb around the coil she’d carved. Stone seemed permanent and yet, with enough time, wind or water, it was ultimately changeable. A material that could hold up temples, then shatter with a carefully directed blow. Across the Sound, the distant shape of Long Island unsettled the horizon. After traveling all the way to the middle of America to see Smithson’s work, she’d never confessed to Graham that she’d been disappointed. The photos she’d seen of the jetty depicted a grand, ambitious piece that enhanced the surrounding landscape, but it turned out that was down to the angle and presentation of the photographs. In truth, the jetty was dwarfed by its environment. Like the pale salt that covered the lake floor, it was an illusion.

Mary dropped the found tool with a light click of impact on the rocky beach, pocketed the marked pebble and rubbed her hands together. It was already very cold. Just that morning, towns further north had had their first snow of the season and Mary felt its bite in the air. Apart from Graham sitting alone on a bench, the gritty strip of beach was empty. The cafe was closed, and the lifeguard towers and riptide-warning flags had been stored for the season. She glanced over her shoulder. Graham sat where she’d left him, holding the coffee she’d stopped to buy en route to the beach. He wouldn’t drink it. He’d let the contents cool and she’d toss it away. Yet she bought it anyway, every morning. A double shot with cream, just as he’d always liked it. Carried by the wind, a handful of leaves tumbled like children in the summer over the dark beach and onto the water. What a relief it would be to float out into the infinite beyond, she thought. Like a Viking longboat, sailing silently from this world to the next.

Mary pushed her fists into her coat pockets and made her way up the beach to Graham. The sharp shape of his knees was apparent through the wool trousers she’d dressed him in this morning. He had grown so thin, but looked smart in his navy coat and red scarf. The effect was spoiled by the bright white sneakers he insisted on wearing. At least they were clean. She cared what he wore even if he didn’t, and this morning in particular, it was important that he look presentable. Like the man he was. The man he had been. Not simply another patient to be checked in and checked off a list. She glanced at her watch. Simon had left the house with them this morning but while the two of them had made the stop at the beach, he’d gone ahead in his own car to the care home with Graham’s things. He would unpack his father’s clothes and arrange the few personal things she’d sent in Graham’s room. A photo, framed, of the three of them on holiday in North Carolina when Simon was about fifteen, Graham’s bedside clock, a copy of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, that Graham had been reading and rereading for months. They would meet there at noon, in time for lunch and Graham’s immediate absorption into the routine of his new home.

A scud of clouds appeared on the horizon. Mary sat next to Graham, and as if on cue, a parade of seabirds strutted past the bench.

“Oystercatcher, Seagull, Seagull, Plover,” Graham listed the birds in order.

Mary wove her fingers through Graham’s like the skeleton hull of a shipwreck. She pressed the carved pebble into his palm and directed his fingers across the shallow spiral, tightening into the centre and then flaring out again.

“Sometimes I drift off for a few minutes and I don’t know where I’ve been,” he said.

“You’re here now.”

“Are you my Mary?”

“Yes,” she said.

They’d met on this beach, years ago. It had been summertime and they had been young and beautiful. Graham drove a red convertible and Mary had assumed he’d be bold and flash like his car but instead, she’d discovered a quiet, private man, a stranger she felt she’d always known. They’d left the beach together and driven to a diner with the roof down. Graham’s elbow resting on the open window, a cigarette dangling carelessly between his beautiful fingers. Those same fingers traced over and around the spiral on the pebble and Mary cupped Graham’s hands with hers to feel his bones and muscles shift tectonically beneath his skin. When Mary was pregnant with Simon, the two of them had watched with amazement the liquid creature they’d created roll beneath her flesh. They’d push back in reply to a tiny heel or tiny fist outlined beneath her skin, in mutual awe of its concentrated strength. Graham was her partner, her lover, a man she’d learned from the inside out, a labyrinth she’d found her way into, a maze she’d solved. For years he’d been her map, her navigator, and now to complete their turn together on this earth, he’d become a stranger again.

After almost half a century together she and Graham would live apart. So this is how it ends. A life shared, a son raised, homes bought and sold, holidays enjoyed, plans laid for the future, all reduced to a single suitcase, a few final arrangements, a cold cup of coffee and a quick stop at the beach for old time’s sake. Where were the fireworks? Where was the fanfare and drama? Mary hoped for more from this day that was just like any other. She wasn’t even clear if what she felt was sadness or a deep tiredness in her bones. It was unbearable, heartbreaking and banal.

A month ago, Graham, wearing his slippers on opposite feet, had stumbled and Mary—stupidly—had tried to catch him. They’d landed on the open door of the dishwasher, snapping it off and crashing to the floor in a clatter of metal and cutlery and old limbs and bones. After that, Simon had insisted on the move. “You aren’t equipped for the level of care he needs, Mom,” he had argued. “It’s becoming dangerous, for both of you.”

Mary was used to the rearranged furniture, the stands broken off the backs of their photo frames, the sofa cushions stacked like zen stones in a corner of the living room. She protected Simon from the time Graham, confusing her for a stranger, had pushed her over. Or when he’d refused to get out of the shower and had gripped her arms so hard that purple marks had stormed across her skin. Or when he’d yelled at her for not allowing him to leave the house. He had grown resentful of her care. She was a constant reminder that he needed it.

Graham’s nose was running in the cold wind and phlegm had pooled in the wool of his new scarf. Using a crumpled tissue from her pocket, Mary wiped his nose and upper lip, lifting the sticky mess off the red wool. She suppressed the urge to gag. There wasn’t a part of this man’s body she hadn’t seen, held or touched. Yet there was something repulsive about the systems of biology that maintained his body so functionally, even after all the best of him had been strangled out. She carried the wet tissue to the trashcan. A car drew into the parking lot and a couple stepped out, animated in conversation. They seemed to be about the same age as Graham and Mary and the woman leaned in close to her male companion, speaking and waving her hands as he listened and occasionally, nodded. Mary hurried back to the bench to sit next to Graham and linked her arm through his. From a distance they would appear like any other couple spending time together at the beach, and she wanted these strangers to see them in this way. She readied herself to lift a hand in a cheerful wave as they passed by, but the new arrivals headed directly toward them. Mary faltered.

The woman reached them first.

“Excuse me.” Her voice pitched unpleasantly. “Is that your car? The blue Ford?”

“Yes,” Mary said. Her car was as she’d left it. Only one of the two now parked in the otherwise empty lot.

“Are you aware that you’re parked in the disabled spot?” The woman’s stance, leaning forward from the waist, hands on her hips, was challenging.

With no other cars around, Mary hadn’t paid any attention to where she’d parked that morning. “No, but there wasn’t…” she began.

“My son is disabled,” the woman said.

“But, it’s empty.” Mary gestured toward the parking lot.

“That’s not the point,” the woman said. “It’s thoughtless. What if someone arrived who needed the space?”

“There’s no one else here.” Mary’s voice rose to an almost shout as an abrupt flare of defensiveness expanded through her chest and buzzed in her temples. How dare this woman, this stranger, confront her like this, so unfairly on an already difficult day. She turned to Graham for his support just as he began to hum and rock back and forth beside her. The pebble dropped from his hand and landed on the soft, soundless sand between his feet.

The woman’s eyes flicked down to the stone and up to Graham’s face and a slow understanding dawned across her features. She straightened and took a few steps back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.” She took her companion’s arm, turned him and hurried down the beach.

Mary’s hands shook with the adrenalin of confrontation and the shame of the stranger’s pity, and at her exposure as a fraud; posing as if she and Graham were a couple like any other. A normal couple. She tried to soothe him, but her voice broke, so instead she whispered a steady shhh sound and patted his knee until the rocking stopped, although he continued to hum. Behind the privacy of her dark glasses, Mary watched the couple as they made their way along the beach, huddled together, no doubt whispering about her. This was supposed to be her special time with Graham. Time to say goodbye, but that woman’s rudeness had spoiled it for them. It was she who was thoughtless. Graham would never confront a stranger like that. “It is better to be happy than right,” he often said. He was a good person. It was all so unjust.

“Bitch,” she said.

“Bitch,” Graham repeated.

She pictured herself at the steering wheel of her Ford, ramming their car from behind. She fantasized about the impact. The scream and smoke and smell of rubber. The fold and whine of crushed metal as she pushed the resisting vehicle up the curb and onto the beach. She held her breath with the visceral pleasure of the imagined destructive, satisfying justice and was shocked to find that she was sneering, her lips pulled back, her teeth revealed. She leaned across her lap to retrieve the pebble that Graham had dropped and resisted the urge to throw it after them. She slipped it into her coat pocket with the other one.

“Bitch,” Graham repeated.

Mary laughed without joy; a short bark of irony at his unknowingly accurate use of the insult.

“Why didn’t you say something?”

The question was futile, but she wanted an answer. She wanted to shake him, wanted him to say something, to do something. Anything. Defend her. Express an opinion. Ask her how she felt. Take a sip of his coffee and tell her what it was like: Too hot? Too strong? Not strong enough? She stood and grabbed the disposable cup from his hand.

“If you’re not going to drink this, I might as well throw it away.”

In one movement Mary threw the coffee into the trash. It hit the side hard. The impact knocked the plastic lid off and splashed cold coffee onto her neck and chin. She gasped and spun around.

The couple was watching her. They looked away.

Breathing hard, Mary stepped onto the deck of the closed café and pretended to read the posters in the window. A fading homage to the promise of a summer past: sandcastles built and judged, sandwiches made and eaten, an open-air movie watched. She positioned herself so that she could see the couple reflected in the window. They were walking down the beach, occasionally glancing back at her and Graham sitting on the bench. Oppressed by their presence, Mary’s breath left her in a high, keening whimper.

She’d spent yesterday labelling Graham’s shirts and trousers, his underwear and his socks with his initials. Writing with black sharpie just as she’d once labelled Simon’s soccer kit and school bags, his swimming towel and bathing suit when he went away to camp. Etching an L and an R onto the tops of Graham’s slippers and the soles of his shoes. When she’d packed his toiletries into his black vanity bag earlier that morning, she’d depressed a quick squirt of his favorite aftershave onto her wrist. She lifted it to her nose to breathe in the notes of the familiar fragrance; the comforting smell of her husband, warm after a shower, his freshly shaved cheek smooth against hers.

The low autumn light cast on the glass shifted and the reflection of the now distant couple was replaced with Mary’s own features. She was surprised at how normal she appeared, just like her usual self. Her hair had been recently styled in the short cut she preferred. Her black coat was a few seasons out of date, but still in good condition and her sunglasses were quite stylish, at least. She was even wearing her favorite earrings—a gift from Graham when Simon was born—although she couldn’t remember putting them on this morning. She lifted her fingers to her cheek and sighed at this carefully maintained illusion of a previous version of herself. Her true self curled within, deformed with disappointment and twisted in loneliness, pressed against the inside of her skin.

She shifted her focus again as Graham’s reflection stood and made its slow way down the beach in the direction the couple had gone. In this reflected world, he too looked like his old self. Tall and, she could almost pretend, healthy. No one would know. The sight of his broad shoulders and full head of white hair still excited a quick flush of desire in her that filled her with a sweet warmth. A vivid memory of him visiting her in the studio where she’d taught a ceramics class lit in her mind. She had been wafting a plastic sheet over her students’ projects, the creamy clay still wet and pliable, when Graham had arrived to pick her up. He’d slipped his hands under her skirt and kissed her long and deep like a soldier who had been away from home for years. He made her feel irresistible. The visit had led to a quick, powerful encounter in her classroom, her whole body alive to his attentions, and alert to approaching footsteps.

Mary hands were red-raw in the cold air. It had been years since she’d sculpted anything. Her gold wedding band was trapped behind the swollen knuckle of her ring finger. Graham was her first love and had been her only lover. It was impossible to wonder what things might have been like with anyone else. Or if she’d have made a different choice, had she been offered insight into the dark potential that crouched in his brain.

Graham reached the water line. The sun lit the tips of the gentle wake which, as he shuffled forward, lapped over the toes of his white sneakers.

“Graham,” Mary tutted as she stepped down onto the sand. “Your shoes.”

She checked her watch. There was no time to go home and change. Leaving this morning had been hard enough. His final departure down their driveway, ceremonially on a carpet of red and gold leaves, would lead to her own return, alone. Graham continued farther into the sea, now ankle deep. The new wool trousers would be ruined. She had a brief image of him in the shrunken pants, his pale, bony ankles revealed, the white sneakers obscenely oversized at the end of his legs.

“Graham!” She lifted her voice above the wind and the water and the screech of the gulls, and sped up to an awkward fast walk, trying to remember the last time she’d run anywhere. She was making progress, but he was, too. For every step she took, Graham took another, taking him farther from the shoreline. Soon, he was up to his knees, staring toward the horizon.

“Graham!” She waved her arms above her head. “Graham!”

Up to his thighs, Graham stopped. Mary slowed, breathing hard and held up her flat palm in the universal sign for halt, “Stay there!”

He swayed in the rise and fall of the water’s motion, turned in her direction and waved. His mouth was moving, but Mary couldn’t hear him over the noise of the sea, and the birds, and the wind.

“I’m coming. Wait for me there.”

She disturbed a clutch of sea birds who rose as one in a burst of feathers and objections. Closer, she heard Graham calling.

“Oystercatcher, Seagull, Seagull, Plover.”

A couple of seagulls dipped around his head. He lifted his hands toward them, like an infant reaching for a mobile. Clouds had begun to thicken on the horizon. Graham took a few more steps and Mary felt the absence of the lifeguard towers, knowing how this stretch of beach dipped over a deep shelf. She began to run, more easily in the shallows, but soon, still barefoot and gasping at the cold and the sharp stones underfoot, she struggled through the deeper water as if she were pushing through seaweed. She reached him when he was up to his waist and grabbed his arm, as much for support as to arrest his progress.

“Graham. Stop.”

“The tide goes in and the tide goes out.” He directed his voice at the seagulls circling above.

“Graham, we must go back.” She tried to twist him around to face the land.

“Goodbye!” He waved up at the birds.

“Goodbye, birds. Turn around, Graham. We need to go.”

Her words were gulps against the cold and the exertion. Using her husband as leverage, Mary pulled herself until her body pressed to his, her head beneath his chin. Steel-grey liquid circled her waist and leeched through her clothes. She held on to his wrist with her right hand and dug her bare feet into the sea bed. Gripping with her toes, Mary leaned back with all her strength, but he dragged her with him as he advanced into the Sound.

“Graham, please.”

Despite his mental frailty, Graham was as physically strong as any grown man, and certainly far stronger than she. Mary threaded her arm tightly through the crook of his elbow to weave them together, twisting her fingers into the wool of his sweater. She grabbed his belt and turned her body to the shore, then pushed her bare foot up against his sneaker and with every ounce of strength she could muster gave a tremendous tug.

They hit the water together. Graham landed on top of her in a knot of limbs weighted by their winter clothes. It was so cold, that after the first shock of submersion, the water seemed to burn; searing Mary’s scalp, her hands, her thighs, her belly and her feet. Her muscles jolted and twitched, then rested, and for a splinter of time, beneath the roiling surface—in a place where the waves, the gulls, and the wind were muted, and the water exerted a loving pressure around her body—Mary drifted in peaceful suspension. She allowed her mind to flow toward the temptation not to struggle, to simply wrap her arms and legs around her husband’s long body and float with the man she loved, silently out to sea. Above them, in the murky water, the two ends of Graham’s red scarf reached for the pale light of the sky.

They bounced off the seabed and Mary’s throat contracted and coughed, and her nose filled with salt water. She lurched with Graham in her arms and began to struggle. They arrived at the surface in an explosion of water and limbs. Graham found his feet and stood with a violent urgency that wrenched Mary up, hard. With her hand still trapped in the wet fabric of his sweater, something in her shoulder popped and slackened and she was slapped with a pain so overwhelming that for a moment everything blurred. She came to a second later, dragging behind her husband who crawled on all fours up the beach where he collapsed. Her disconnected arm slipped onto the sand, where her fingertips rested on grains shaped by an eternity of water rolling onto the shore. Seagulls dipped and glided on the air currents above them.

Mary turned her head. The parking lot couple ran towards them. The woman called out with her companion beside her. A cell phone cast its green glow against his cheek.

Mary closed her eyes. So this is how it ends. Here are the fireworks. The fanfare that concludes the mourning for a man who is not dead. This was the end of searching for a spark in the shade. The end of being haunted by the lucid moments that offered a cruel glimpse of the kind, clever man she loved. Now, she could let go of hope and remember him as a young man, driving his first car. His shirt sleeves rolled up, his arm resting on the open window. A cigarette draped carelessly between his beautiful fingers.

She slipped her hand into her pocket and felt for the pebbles that were there. The hard shapes were familiar and reassuring.

“Goodbye,” Mary whispered. “Goodbye, goodbye.”

Sam Keller is a fiction writer who moved from South Africa to England and now lives in Connecticut, USA, where she recently earned her MFA at Fairfield University. Sam’s fiction has been published in Narrative and Permafrost, and she is a couple of chapters away from completing her first novel.

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