Riders to the Sea by Maria Flook

BOMB 43 Spring 1993
043 Spring 1993

Bell was fighting a sex hangover as he fixed a fried egg sandwich. He was feeling unsettled and wanted to line his stomach before he resumed his evening schedule at the Narragansett. He scored the egg with a spatula; the gold pillow wobbled then steadied, its lacy albumen white as a doily.

His knees turned hollow and tensed back each time he remembered the CVS girl from the other night. They parked the car at the Cliff Walk. He let her out of the passenger side and she came right along with just her fingertips alert in the palm of his hand. Her jeans had zippers at the ankles and she ripped each tag, one cuff then the other. The twilight lingered reflected on the sea. She made him acknowledge his first view of her, the labia’s pink crest, sudden, symmetrical as a tiny valentine. Then he looked away. He felt it in the small of his back, in his legs, he felt the sting in the arches of his feet.

He adjusted the toaster. The electric twists glowed. Then a neighbor kid ran past the window, notching left and right and screaming in crimped bleats. Bell snapped the dial on the stove and went outside. Some neighbors had stepped onto their lawns to see whose boy was having the trouble. Bell looked down the string of white clapboard houses which ended on First Beach; nothing had changed much since he was small. He tucked the spatula inside the mailbox and followed the people down to the water. A group had assembled at the edge of the sea; a few men waded in ankle-deep. Thirty feet out, a wind-surfer tacked back and forth in silent, accurate swipes.

The woman was face-down, her chestnut hair filtered forward then pleated back in the calm water. The waves came in like clear rolls of Saran before puddling on shore. The sea hardly tugged her. A wreath of suds, pearly as BBs, surrounded the body and tagged the rocks. He couldn’t see her face or guess her exact age. She was wearing a cocktail dress stitched with fancy beadwork. Sewn in undulating lines over her hips, the beads reflected the sun in shifting gradations of light like the contrasting whorls in polished marble. This marble effect made her look like something which had toppled from a pedestal. The woman rode back and forth in six inch increments over the pebble sheet. Bell saw it was the agitation of the brine, the brine forced through the cores of the miniature beads on the woman’s dress which had created the foamy scud on the surface of the water.

 

Bell was living at home again with his mother and his sister Christine, coming back to Newport after three months in a Navy brig at Portsmouth, Virginia. He had hoped to wrangle some duty in his home town. He asked for the Construction Battalion Unit where he could do his hitch building piers or grouting the swimming pools on base. Instead, he had been assigned to the Naval Supply Center in Norfolk. He never shipped out. He never looked down at the chop from deck or followed sea birds until they disappeared on the horizon line. He worked on a terminal in the bowels of a warehouse, cataloguing dry goods and food supplies for the carriers. He couldn’t tell the weather, what clouds stumbled overhead, tinting the sea. All day, he was under the fluorescents.

He began to do some wagering, and some simple pilfering. It wasn’t much, just what he could get into Eric’s Plymouth once or twice over weekends. Mostly, it was cases of cigarettes which they sold to Richmond Vending. After his time in the brig, he wasn’t surprised by the General Discharge. Its abrupt language was stinging even without being accusatory. He accepted that. In just two lines of print it was all over.

He tried to adjust to hours in his mother’s house—scents from the kitchen, yeast cakes soaking, knotted rolls swelling like broken knuckles, the floor always gritty with cinnamon sugar. He hated to hear the same low thump of the radiator building with steam, the pipes knocking room to room, and then subsiding. The vision of the drowned woman was a refreshing surge, washing through the catalogue of family accessories in his childhood house. Even the public landmarks of the town, which he had always respected, added a cloying poignancy to his return. All of his old haunts flipped before his eyes like lantern slides or stereoscopic pictures: the old Viking Look Out Tower, the Mt. Hope Bridge with its green lanterns, then the Providence skyline, the State House with its needle spire injecting the horizon.

 

The crowd on the beach had adjusted to the visual impact and had started vocalizing. A man questioned the idea of an actual drowning, the woman could have been dumped. They said she must be a Boston whore down for the weekend. There were always illicit odd jobs during the off season when summer boutiques fell back on drug trafficking. Motel bars hired girls to do some modeling; they arranged elevated runways by just lining up three or four billiard tables. There were one or two video pioneers manufacturing hard core. They were working out of the Sheraton, and the same up at the Ramada. Bell’s stomach was still empty, but he wasn’t hungry. He felt weighted, almost sleepy; the abrasive slushing of the waves over the beaded dress was hypnotic. Because the woman had washed ashore so close to his house, he couldn’t resist thinking it might be a commentary on his arrival. He studied her body. Bell saw she had a little mole half way up her thigh, just at the hem of her short dress. He saw it, then flicked his gaze farther out. It was restful to study the horizon, letting it snag and scurry. Then he looked back at the woman.

An Emergency vehicle drove up the beach. The paramedics flipped her over and tried to revive her, by rote theory, before lifting her onto a gurney. The wheels of the gurney left tiny furrows in the sand, but the tide was coming in, erasing wide crescents. Bell was impressed, but he couldn’t figure out what left him astonished. He envied the woman’s anonymity. Her suspended identity enriched a ballooning awareness, a raw knowledge—that nothing has meaning.

He thought of a bar trick he liked to perform for the girls. He could do it all night with just a pack of Salems and a 65 cent Krazy Wand bottle. He takes a drag and fills a giant, erotic bubble with exhaled smoke. It drifts into the tables of ladies. The mirrory circle swirls, quivers eye level, like the taut lining of a ream, the same dream, until it erupts and the smoke disperses.

 

When he returned to the house, his mother was in the kitchen stirring a pot, her hand making a figure eight, then tapping, then twisting. The spoon on the enamel rim resonated on the spinal nerves and Bell walked over and took the spoon out of his mother’s hand. She took it back. Divorced from his father for years, she was still upset if she sometimes saw him on the street. She told Bell that she had met his father at one of the rotaries and they had to steer around the circle together for a few moments, jockeying for position. Bell told her to pretend that his father doesn’t exist. She reminded Bell that they lived on an island, after all, and they couldn’t always avoid one another, could they?

Then he heard his sister, Christine, drive up the oyster shells with her boyfriend Miller. Christine worked days at Raytheon. She seemed different since he’d last seen her. It wasn’t anything he could put his finger on. Her face was a peculiar contradiction; she looked both expectant and sullied. As if expectancy itself was what tainted her. Bell didn’t imagine she could have changed too much since high school. She maintained a serious, collegiate aura although she didn’t go on to college. She had a habit of biting her lower lip, organizing her thoughts with her teeth clamped down on the same red swell. In Bell’s absence, she had joined the local Latin League, going to monthly pot lucks with some steeped-in-culture oldsters and scholarly kids interested in the Roman lifestyle. She tried to explain to Bell about the saturnalia. Then, she was a new member of the Newport Community Theater where she had been asked to star in a one act play. She showed Bell the flyers advertising the production. ‘Kristine Bellamy in Riders to the Sea, by Irish playwright J.M. Synge.’

Her name had been spelled incorrectly with a “K.” Bell approved of the change, telling her he never liked the “christ” in her name. He saw that she carried a spinning wheel back and forth to the rehearsals. The first night he was home, he watched his sister leave the house with the little wooden contraption, a wheel and a spindle. It gave him a start. Yet, she was still wearing her David Bowie tour jacket, scuffed leather, scabby at the elbows, a relic of the ’70s. The spinning wheel lost its clout against the rock ‘n’ roll souvenir and the contrast pleased Bell.

Christine introduced Bell to her new boyfriend, Miller, who she had met at the Community Theater. Miller explained to Bell how he changed the colored spots and moved the flats back and forth with a crew of aspiring teen-aged actors who didn’t always get the parts they wanted. “Idle brats,” Miller called them. Miller came often to the house to prompt Christine and help her rehearse her lines for Riders to the Sea. Bell wasn’t pleased to have Miller around when he wanted to settle in with his mother and sister.

Bell described the drowned woman on First Beach and waited for the women’s reactions. Christine looked at him and saw he was evaluating her, so she didn’t say anything. His mother asked him one question: Did we know the girl? Then she went next door to discuss the news with her neighbor who had signaled to her through the facing kitchen window.

When it was just the three of them, Miller admitted he wished he had seen the drowned woman. “Nothing like a body in the surf,” Miller said.

“What do you mean, nothing like it? Are you crazy?” Christine asked.

Bell squinted at Miller, trying to see where this was going and he pushed it along. “Miller’s right about that. It’s a seventh wonder.”

“An impressive sight, isn’t it?” Miller asked. “More lyrical than a body on dry land. Like a message in a bottle. There’s a mysterious connection, a romantic spell, like a tryst between the victim and the person who finds her. Who found the woman?”

“A kid.”

Miller said, “Yeah, well, but you were down there. You had a part.”

“I felt that,” Bell said, “like I’m initiated.”

“Exactly! It’s a tingle,” Miller said.

“She was like some dish from Atlantis,” Bell went on, teasing his sister.

Miller discussed local catastrophes, boats going down, a couple of notable shootings, Sunny von Bulow, and the six or seven yearly leaps from bridges.

“Hey, who writes the Crime Report, is it you?” Christine rolled her script into a tight tube and pointed to Miller who had seated himself at the kitchen table.

Miller talked all that time but never looked directly at Bell. He talked about the drowned woman as if he was teaching a class on it. And Miller looked too old for Christine. He had stiff ashy hair which formed three or four stalactites across his shoulders. He smiled at Christine, showing teeth which were harnessed in clear plastic fencing, some kind of invisible orthodontics to correct an overbite. A progressive decision for a man his age, he told Bell. Miller slouched with his legs extended deep under the kitchen table, a posture, Bell believed, which should be reserved for family members only.

When Miller stretched his arms over his head, Bell glimpsed a peculiar device belted at his waist. He wore some kind of hospital gizmo. It was a tiny box, the size of a pack of Winston Kings. A small display screen shimmered while an emerald dot was pulsing to prove its battery pack was A-okay or to provide some other light-coded information. Bell was trying to remember what he knew about modern medical technology when Christine told Bell that the box was Miller’s “Insulin Infusion Pump.” The pump regulated a steady feed of insulin through a little tube taped to Miller’s abdomen. The idea disturbed Bell; he wasn’t alarmed about the man’s problem, but he realized Christine had been privy to this tube inserted in Miller’s belly. Bell saw that this high-tech malady might be an attraction for Christine. Christine had always suffered from the moral surges of someone like Clara Barton. Her lovers seemed to have chronic maladies, a skin condition or a joint replacement. Then, she dated new arrivals, Cuban boys and Cape Verdeans with English as a second language; there was always some obstacle she enjoyed tackling.

The current thing, a diabetic stage technician. For someone suffering a condition, Miller appeared self-assured and arrogant. Thin and sallow, he looked utterly confident, svelte even, in his underweight condition. His smile, reinforced with plastic brackets, had a sinister depth. He had Christine up against the GE, kissing her, the buzz of the Freon increasing. Bell took the keys to the car and looked back once, hoping his sister had disentangled, but she wasn’t rushing for his sake.

He drove his mother’s car the full perimeter of the island. He went up West Main Road watching the late sun touch long ribbons on the bay, wakes from tankers and little frothy bows behind pleasure boats. He came back on East Main, seeking blue splints of the Sakonnet all the way down. He drove out Ocean Drive where breakers crashed against the jetties in bright crescents, glassy as chandeliers. He loved the spectacle of the sea, the ornament of its lighted spray against notches of granite. After seeing something like that, he sought the smeary ambiance of a tavern. It was the tiled bar at The Narragansett, black and white inches of cracked ceramics like a littered shoreline and stale spills puddled around the table legs.

 

They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me.” Christine was just coming in the door, home from Raytheon. She was in character, the keening voice of an Irish matron whose sons have all been drowned. Her authority always surprised Bell. She took the spinning wheel from the closet and went into the living room. Bell watched as she placed it on the floor and the wheel revolved slowly. It was like something he might see at the helm of a small ketch. She wanted to rehearse while spinning a snag of yarn and she asked him if he would read the lines and cue her.

“This play is in Irish?” he asked her.

She told him, “Don’t be stupid, of course it’s English, but it lilts. I’ll show you.” She recited a phrase, an insistent querying dirge. “Everything sounds like a question,” she told him. “The words go up at the end, the sentences just keep ascending like climbing switchbacks.”

“No kidding?” he said.

There’s someone-in after crying out by the seashor-ir,” she recited. The words were echo-y, lifting at the final syllables.

“Okay,” he said.

He’s gone now, and when the black night is falling I’ll have no son left me in the whar-ald,” her voice climbed and faltered, climbed again.

Bell read from the script like a mechanic running his eyes over a Parts and Service ledger in the Metric System, rubbing his chin with the back of his wrist. Christine enjoyed his shyness and she let him founder.

Riders to the Sea is supposed to be a tragic play,” she told him. She wanted to share the winey taste of the lines, and she told him the words should feel exciting on the tongue like capers or wild mushrooms.

He asked her, “Why are they doing this one? Why not the usual West Side Story? What about Hair?

“This is a real play,” she told him. “You know, there are just two themes in life. No musical soundtracks necessary.”

“What themes?”

“Love and death.”

“When did you decide this?” he asked her.

“We’re all born with the secret,” she told him.

Christine wasn’t just teasing. Her remark emerged whisper-smooth, the way a U-2 rises all glossy and serene in the middle of a giant swell.

“Real drama,” she told him, “is pain kept brewing all the weeks before the curtain goes up so that no one can misinterpret pain as performance. It’s supposed to be pain alive.”

He wanted to get out of the house. Christine was tilting something. She looked pale and eerie, but maybe this was from working deep in the windowless complex at Raytheon.

He cued her lines. It was a depressing story. All the men drown and the women are left weeping before a rough-hewn coffin. “This is a little hard to swallow,” he told her. He told her that he was happy she was just practicing at it when sooner or later it gets dark on its own. “Don’t ask me what I saw in jail. Not just the crowd on the inside, I’m talking about the families who come to visit. Talk about the sad truth.”

Christine nodded, she was trying to picture the unhappy relations queuing up outside the prison doors. “I would have visited you Bell if it wasn’t Virginia. Didn’t I come to see you all the time at the Training School?”

“I’m not complaining,” he told her. He was wondering. Maybe acting in a tragic one act play can make a girl responsible and wary. “This Miller dude,” Bell told her, “what’s the story with him?”

Christine turned her face to the window to secret her grin. The beach light touched her profile as it reached into the house, splicing through glass curtain pulls and lifting the grain on the woodwork. Bell saw Christine was pleased that he worried about her, or perhaps she was pleased, simply, when she thought of Miller. She began again. This time her voice was too high, the singsong of leprechauns. She halted mid-sentence and started over. Finding the right pitch, she recited a long passage and tried her best to keen at an appropriate octave, with the complexity of a vibrating cello string, the way her director had explained it should sound.

 

He was in the first booth at the Narragansett Tavern. He liked to watch the door sweep open and ratchet slowly back. He glimpsed the harbor outside, a dense stand of masts like a glaring aluminum atrium. The girl from the CVS drug store was rolling a ball point over the curve of his knee, inking a burning dot on the stiff denim of his line-dried jeans. The other week, he had found her sorting the magazines in the front of the store. Stacking the older issues on a trolley. He asked her what she did with the old issues. Do they get recycled? He took a heavy issue of Computer Shopper out of her hands, thick as a phone book. She didn’t say anything as the weight was transferred. She looked back in a steady, instinctive perusal of his face the way a bird and its worm exchange a moment of awakening.

“We send them back on the truck,” she said after a while. She looked pretty young. But youth is a pie with many slices. She told Bell, “I can punch out for an hour at about 7:30. Come get me if you want. Or do you just want one of these periodicals?”

“I’ll be back,” he had told her. He was smiling. He liked the way she had said “periodicals,” as if she was some kind of librarian. No names were exchanged. He didn’t tell her his name was Bellamy, Bell for short, and she seemed just as happy to stand, unidentified, in the center aisle surrounded by waist-high stacks of glossies.

She was finished writing her telephone number along his inside seam and he told her, “You could have spared my mother the annoyance. Besides, I have a photographic memory.”

“Really? Well, what’s my number then?” she said. She flattened her palm against his eyes.

He recited the telephone number.

“God, that’s scary,” she said. She didn’t look scared.

“Lucky try,” Bell said. It was easy to please this girl. He didn’t have to encourage her. She sat next to him pushing her cuticles back as if her fingertips were a key to everything. She wasn’t like Christine who might get bored without conversation. Christine might demand to play cards or challenge him to match historical data from the last three decades of rock ‘n’ roll. Christine once asked him, “Who was the first truly androgynous star?”

“Mick Jagger,” he said.

“Oh come on, he imitated Little Richard.”

“Are we talking about eyebrow pencil? Patent leather?”

“No, you know, it’s like they could be singing to boys or girls.”

“James Brown.”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “He goes almost in drag, he’s got that cape. But that’s not what I’m talking about.”

“You’re right, James Brown is too athletic. Slides across the stage on his knees. You mean someone like Bowie.” He thought this was what she was leading up to. Her idol.

“A chiffon scarf can say so many things. Around someone’s neck, it’s innocence. But chiffon tied around the waist, you know, drifting there, it’s so decadent!”

“Christine—”

“God,” she said, laughing, “the roots are deep, really. It goes back to ancient culture, like the saturnalia.”

When he was in the company of a thriving slut like the CVS girl, why was he dragging his sister into it, trying to nestle her image against the drug store clerk? The CVS girl already failed to intrigue him beyond his first inspiration which was never a thrill if left entirely to its own design. He might go with the CVS girl again. For a couple of hours, park on a side street near the Cliff Walk. Relief, without an immediate rekindling of tension, is often a disappointment.

Never calling it forth, still he saw the dark fleck on the drowned woman’s thigh. Its tiny circumference seemed to recur in his vision like a vitreous floater or a snag in the retina. He faced his companion. She wet her lips and waited. He spoke and her eyes squeezed shut in tight winces of approval. She agreed. It didn’t matter what he was saying.

 

His father was standing in the kitchen holding a heavy paper bag. The bag was leaking from its bottom folds and Bell could see from its dripping mass that it must be some two-pounders. His mother had the big speckled kettle whining on the stove. Christine was peeling the wax paper from a pound of butter. She put the pale block in a saucepan and adjusted the gas until the flame steadied. She set the burner very low, using her expertise so that each flame kept separate lifting from the jets, like the beads of a blue necklace. The butter started to slide in the pan.

“To celebrate,” his father announced.

Bell looked at his mother, but she didn’t seem put out by the intrusion. She accepted his father’s presence in her kitchen now and again the way she was tolerant of plumbers, electricians, painters, anyone she had to incorporate into her household for small allotments of time until maintenance was complete, a repair job finished. She showed no familiarity, yet she tried to stand at ease, without knotting her apron too tight as she might do in moments of distress.

“Supper is a surprise,” she said.

“Are you staying to eat, then?” Bell asked his father.

“Oh, no. I just brought these over for you and Chrissie. Your mother’s got one there, if she desires.”

Bell lifted a heavy lobster out of the paper sack. “This one’s mine,” Bell said, trying to keep the talk going. “And for you, Christine?” Bell reached into the bag and pulled another one forth. “This one’s seen it all.” Bell held the lobster high so everyone could admire it.

“His big claw looks funny,” Christine said, seeing the lobster’s aggressive, thumping arms, its large, palsied claw.

“It’s a fighter,” his father said, looking back and forth between his son and daughter. “Vinnie Pazienza.”

“The Paz.” Bell was smiling.

“12th round,” Christine said, “Ding.” She lifted the lid off the big pot.

The lobsters went in the kettle and the water stilled for a moment before churning back. Bell’s father said his goodbyes. Bell walked him out to the street and drummed the trunk of the car as he drove away. When he went back in the house, Christine was arranging newspaper over the kitchen table, opening the sections and layering the wide sheets. “Look at that,” she said to Bell, her fingertip touched the newsprint. It was a picture of the drowned woman at First Beach. The photo was from Con-Temp, a temporary office pool where she had been on the roster for a year. The woman’s name was Kelly Primiano, from Medford.

“Irish Italian,” Bell’s mother said. “Where was her luck that day?”

“If she’s half Italian that cancels out the luck factor right there,” Bell said.

“Says here she wasn’t drunk. No bones broken.” Christine read the print. “Her parents say she was a good swimmer. They taught her in Marblehead every summer.”

“You can be an excellent swimmer, but if it’s too far to swim, you might as well not know how,” Bell said.

“Are you saying she tried to swim the cove?”

“Maybe she was pushed off a skiff,” Bell said. “Anything—”

Christine read some more, “There wasn’t any fluid in her lungs.”

Bell dropped his face down to the sheet of newsprint. “Shit. She didn’t drown, then. See what I’m saying?”

“She wasn’t dressed for the beach; it must have been something awful. Maybe she just slipped and hit her head on the rocks,” Christine said.

Bell looked at the face in the newspaper. Her hair was twisted in two elegant braids high over her forehead as if she was going to the opera. He thought she looked Lace Curtain but must have crossed the tracks at some point in time.

“Says here, she was engaged,” Christine said.

Bell said, “Is that so? Who was the lucky guy? Davey Jones? Man ‘O’ War in her trousseau. Honeymoon cruise on the Titanic.”

He listed the possibilities until his mother set the lobsters in the center of the table. Bright shells steaming, long red whiskers tilted at odd angles like sweep second hands on a nightmare clock.

 

Bell discovered a Navy friend had been reassigned to the Naval Underwater Systems Center in Newport, a good job in combat research and electromagnetics. The assignment came with a nice duplex in re-landscaped Naval Housing. Bell left messages for his friend, teasing him about his fat job, but none were returned. He thought he would drive over there and he decided to take Christine and Miller. Maybe they would be sandblasting a destroyer at Pier I and Christine could take a look at that. He drove his mother’s Buick and Christine pounded the center arm rest closed so that they could all sit in front. Cracker crumbs and stale cookies sifted over the vinyl, and Bell wondered why his mother’s world was always defined by bread stuffs, a branny litter of sweets and biscuits.

Miller complained about the sweets and he teased Christine, accusing her of trying to tempt him.

“You can’t eat a cookie?” Bell asked Miller.

“It isn’t the best thing for Miller,” Christine said.

There we are, Bell was thinking, Clara Barton. Then Christine was taking it even farther, suggesting that Miller’s desires didn’t reside in cup cakes and candies. Christine seemed electrified, giggling each time Bell turned the wheel and his elbow knocked her. Women love to be centered between two men. It makes them feel on top of the world. Now and again, even with the motor humming, Bell heard a blip from Miller’s tummy pack.

He turned into Gate 17, but there were some MPs checking decals and stickers. They weren’t letting vehicles come on base. An official Bronco tugged around the Buick and headed down the road leading to Coddington Cove, but Bell was directed to turn his car around.

Slow flushes bloomed and receded, bloomed again at Bell’s throat and over his cheekbones. He didn’t give the fellow his name or rank, or bother with explanations about his past connections with the Navy. He turned the car around and drove away. Christine cleared her throat. She tried one small apologetic cough to relieve a general indignant feeling, but it didn’t help.

Miller said, “Anyone drives on base, what’s the problem Bellamy?”

Of course it had nothing to do with Bell’s General Discharge. There was probably some reason why they were sending people away. They might have the pot-sniffing dogs going around, or maybe they were spraying grass seed on the lots or painting the curbs. Bell told them, “Do we care? Do we need this crap?”

“Let’s forget it,” Christine said.

Miller said, “I don’t understand. Since when do they send people away?”

Christine tried to shush him, but he stopped on his own and fiddled with the lapels of her blouse. Bell tried to ignore it. It was jokey and innocent, but it irritated him when it went on for too long. He drove through town and stopped in the Almacs parking lot. He got out of the car and walked across to the CVS. He came back with the girl. She trotted behind him removing her grey smock. She looked bewildered but pleased, shaking her head, letting her curls flop side to side. She scanned the parking lot to see who might acknowledge her. She knew she was leaving her job for this impulsive, hotted-up guy and it must look interesting. Imagine, a man coming in the store, tearing her free from her maddening job? She told them she had been collecting the expired Easter cards from their plexi glass bins then sorting and inserting new cards for Mother’s Day.

She started right in. “I hate working the card display. It takes me forever. I have paper cuts, see these poor fingers? You know, the envelopes—like fucking razors!”

Christine and Miller shifted to the back seat. The CVS girl took her place beside Bell. Bell revved the engine and thumbed the radio dial as everyone settled in. He turned out of the parking lot onto Bellevue Avenue. “Well, what do you want to do?” he said, but he was just being polite.

“What about the Green Animals?” Christine said.

“Christine, how many years have you been going to see Green Animals? Every single year of your life, am I right?” Bell said.

“It’s beautiful there,” she told him.

The CVS girl said, “Are you talking about those sculpted bushes? I’ve never been up there to see those.”

“Forget it,” Bell said.

They drove past the famous mansions, most of them acquired by the state. Bell slowed the car as they approached the driveway where an heiress had steered a sedan over her chauffeur as he opened a gate. It was an old love story but it afforded new remarks as they rolled past the spot. The murder location gave them a giddy surge as they left Bellevue’s heavy arbor and the street jogged onto Ocean Drive. They were out of the proper town and snaking up the shoreline. The sea’s white light washed through the windshield.

“Well? How many times have we driven out here? Only a zillion times,” Christine said to Bell, but her remark drifted. They were looking at the first glimpse of the sea at the turn-around at Bailey’s Beach. There was a strong, sweet scent coming in through the open window. It was the narcotic spell of early plankton blooming. Bell understood that the plankton bloom was a biological phenomenon having to do with chlorophyll and photosynthesis. It was a simple process impelled by the sun, but he felt indirectly involved. As if by some collective subconscious, the sea’s “self” and Bell’s dreamy stasis culminated in this deep rejuvenation. He argued that anyone born and raised beside the sea must suffer. He felt his lust grow razor-y, his daydreams intensify, wavering through harsh stages of melancholy.

 

“A sign of spring,” Bell said, trying to subdue an explosive coronary rhythm which started to crush the breath from him. The scent was so luscious, he rubbed his hand over his face as if dusting sugar from his lips.

“It intoxicates me,” Christine admitted to Miller. “You never think of the sea as a kind of garden, all floral like this.”

“It’s peaking,” Bell said, “like a thousand water lilies—”

“I don’t see lilies. Where?” the CVS girl said. Miller leaned over the front seat and tapped her shoulder. She turned and shrugged in benign agreement. She wrinkled her nose once, puffed in and out trying to track the scent that Bell was describing. “Everything smells like Giorgio to me,” she told them. “A lady was spritzing it on herself at the counter.”

They parked the car in the empty lot at The Beach Club, a private string of pastel cabanas, still boarded up for the winter. There was a stiff wind, but the sun felt strong, falling in broad plackets of peachy light. The sand was extraordinarily hot for a day in mid spring, and the heat rose to shin-level. They walked four abreast, the women in the middle.

“He basically kidnapped me!” the CVS girl told Christine.

“God, what did your boss say?”

“What was she going to say? Bell looked intense,” the girl said. “I didn’t think we were going for a walk on the beach! I would have stayed where I was. I make $4.75. That’s an hour,” she confided to Christine, but she punched her small fist into Bell’s side, digging her thumbnail into his ribs and cranking it a quarter turn.

“Here.” Bell told them. He climbed onto a grouping of boulders and granite formations which made a natural breakwater into the sea. Giant ledges of rusty shale ascended like drunken stairways right and left. The surf sliced over the misshapen pillars and sloshed into its hollows dragging ropes of effervescent foam. Sudsy lines extended far out. The water was so aerated, the place smelled of extra oxygen. A central configuration of rocks formed irregular bleachers around a deep chamber where the sea crashed inward, doubled its pressure and shot upwards through a narrow fissure. The small opening was like a whale’s breathing hole. The place was called Spouting Rock, a local perch for teens who used its unpredictable force for threats and dares.

Christine sat down beside the blow hole. She rubbed her fingertips over its stony lip, inserting her pointer to the second knuckle. She looked distracted by something far out on the water as she fingered the blue-black opening. Her fingers probed and swirled over the slick rock until the men couldn’t hide their discomfort.

The CVS girl pulled her jersey over her head to feel the sun. She was wearing an underwire bra, and its ribs rode up until her breasts were sliced across, making four even lumps out of two. She tugged the bra back in place and threw her shirt at Bell. He caught the jersey before it fell into the water. Christine looked at Miller to gauge his reaction, or she was trying to find her own response. She unbuttoned her top button and lifted her shirt off. Bell thought she was just trying to keep up.

He didn’t want to stare at her and he studied the water. A large bank of waves was coming in and it would cause some action at Spouting Rock. It was so utterly familiar, these procedures. He saw the undertow pull back and the surface flatten. For a few seconds, nothing. The swell ascended in frothy notches, wobbled and shuddered in a dead halt before beginning its advance. Building a high curl, its wall looked green and corrugated as a carport awning. Bell thought of the drowned woman, her beaded dress, variegated and marbled like the rocks, as if she herself might have broken off this reef and washed onto First Beach.

“Here comes,” Bell shouted out, pulling his sister to her feet. The sea crashed into the trough, smacking the planes of rock like pistol shots. The level ascended, rising up until the full force of the wave exploded from the crevice where Christine had been seated. The spray shot up twelve feet, feathered left and right in different tugs of wind. The girls squealed and the men yanked them out of its circle. Miller touched his hip to see if his insulin pump was wet. It had been spared. The CVS girl saw it; she recognized the box. “Hey, I’ve seen one of those at work,” she told Miller. “Is that one of those electronic blood pressure kits, is that it? Have you got hypertension?”

Miller started to explain to the girl. He walked her over to the craggy shale ladders. He put his arm around her bare neck, letting his wrist swivel on her shoulder as he talked. He strummed her hair away from her eyes and pulled her close, into his medical confession.

“He’s telling her his symptoms,” Christine said.

“What are his symptoms?”

“Weakness, blurred vision. He could go blind, you know?”

“He just looks lovesick, if you ask me,” Bell said.

Christine watched her boyfriend with the other girl. Christine was smiling. Bell admired this. He didn’t feel like walking over there to claim the CVS girl for himself or to get Miller back on her account. Christine walked out a tiny natural bridge to another huge boulder. Bell followed her out. She was reciting lines when he came up beside her. The wind erased her words and she turned around in the other direction. She faced her brother.

They’re carrying a thing among them and there’s water dripping out of it and leaving a track by the big stones.”

“Don’t you know your lines by now?” Bell had to yell.

Leaving a track by the big stones,” Christine repeated. “Must you always—”

She was laughing. “The big stones—just like these,” she said. She toed the granite with the tip of her sneaker.

He watched her profile, the wind lifted her weft of blond hair until it flared level. “What are we doing here with these people?” Bell asked her. “These geeks? What are we doing here? With them?”

“Oh, Christ,” she said, looking out at the water. She was trying not to listen.

He squared before her. He put his arms around her waist, crossing his fists at the small of her back. He cinched his wrists tighter and held her without the imprint of his hands. She was beneath his chin. “What are we doing?” he said.

“Meaning?” she said. Her eyes looked startled, the pupils swirled open but she kept her face level, steadied. The slight translucent down at her hairline was electrified by the sun; her eyelashes blazed like tiny welders arcs.

She bent her knees and crawled out from under his arms. She laid her palms flat against his biceps and shoved him lightly across the rock. She told him, “You’re just getting adjusted to home. Shit. Everything’s a Three-Ring, that’s what you used to say.”

Miller was calling to them. He was having some sort of panic spasms and his arms windmilled in two directions.

Bell went down to where he was standing.

“She’s fucking with me, man,” Miller said. “She’s took my insulin pump and won’t let me have it.”

Christine descended carefully from the boulder. She reached under her shorts and tugged the elastic leg of her panties, letting it snap.

“So you took it off? Are you supposed to take it off? What happens to your blood?” she said.

“I was showing it to her,” Miller said.

Christine said, “Since when do you disconnect it?”

“Wake up, Chrissie,” Bell said.

“What do you mean, wake up?” She looked at her brother and back to Miller. She saw Miller was wearing his Nike sweats inside out.

Miller said, “It was nothing, Christine. Just nothing.”

“Not worth the effort?” Bell said.

Miller didn’t protest the assumption.

“Since when do you take it off for that?” Christine said.

Bell examined his sister. Then he looked for the CVS girl and saw her leaning against the car in the beach parking lot. Her arms were crossed tightly at her bosom, the way girls fold their arm when they’re ready to go home.

“Is that your gizmo? Right there?” Bell pointed to a rocky ledge where the girl had propped the insulin pump. He lifted it off the granite niche and tossed it to Miller. It fell in a weightless arc and landed in the water. The little box drifted back and forth in one of the frothy gullies between land and sea.

“Nice,” Miller said. “That’s just wonderful. Just what am I dealing with here? Do you have the hard cash to replace something like that? That’s what I’m asking—”

“Did we ask you to get undressed?” Bell told him.

Christine looked over at the CVS girl and waved. The girl knew it was a snub; she shifted her legs and looked in the other direction.

“Maybe you can get the box.”

“That’s crazy. I’ve got the insurance. Let’s just travel. I’m ready,” Miller told them.

“Tell you what. I’ll race you for the cost of that thing. Swim out, touch the mooring at Bailey’s, turn around, get back. Ten minutes. If you win, I pay for the machine. Even-Steven. Time us Christine.” He pulled his jersey over his head and the wind snapped it until he wadded it down.

Miller turned to Christine but her eyes were squinting and unreceptive. Her face showed a refined acknowledgment of something. Miller said, “Does your brother want me to race him to that mooring? Is he serious?” he said.

“That’s the request,” Bell said.

“Sorry, my friend,” Miller said. He tried to edge past Bell.

Bell put his arm out. He grabbed Miller’s throat, half-serious, pinching the windpipe with his thumb and middle finger. Bell wiggled the ribbed cartilage left and right, like a toilet paper tube, until Miller started coughing. Bell might be reaching his maximum capacity for self-control and the other man recognized that Bell was nearing this boundary.

Miller pushed his sweats down and stepped out of them. He marched around the ledge of rock, searching for a way down into the trough. The water was rough. He turned back. “Fuck you,” he told Bell but he was looking at Christine. “I’m not going in that Mix-master to please you.”

“What about Christine? Here’s your chance to make it up,” Bell said. He was marching Miller backwards on the ledge.

“You want me to jump in that icy water?”

“Does he have to?” Christine said.

“It’s a free world,” Bell said. “Do whatever you want.” He turned away from Miller and let the two of them discuss it.

A retired couple, exercising their dog, arrived at Spouting Rock. The dog climbed the boulders, its nose brushing side to side for mollusk scents. The couple were surprised to see Miller without his clothes.

“The Polar Bear Club, are you?” the man asked Bell. He had to shout over the surf.

“That’s right,” Bell told him. “The initiation stage. It’s a closed session, try not to gawk.”

The man stopped coming when he heard Bell’s tone. He watched from a distance. Bell’s grave, no-nonsense dementia was beginning to show. He was shifting his legs, stepping in place. He clenched his fists at intervals and some surface veins had engorged along his pectoral ledge, his dark nipples flared. The stranger steered his wife by her elbow and they walked off. The dog raced ahead.

Christine found her shirt and slipped it over her head. Bell looked at his sister’s lover; his penis was screwed close inside the scrotum, his teeth were clacking, an inaudible chatter of strikes and pauses as he pulled the fleecy side of his sweatpants right side out.

“Pants on, pants off. Can’t decide what to do with it?” Bell said.

“You’re sick!” Miller said, shivering in large, convulsive shrugs as he dressed. Bell looked out at the sea. A tanker was coming in by Brenton Reef; it was carrying a full load and rested flat as a domino. Closer in, there was something in the water. A pale form rolled on the waves, taupe-colored, like a raincoat. Bell watched the waves fill the fabric in fleshy billows before shooting past. He remembered the way the drowned girl filled his thinking, devoured that entire morning when he found her and kept eating into his mind, even now, days later. The garment surged forward on a swell, it took the curve of a hip, then flattened as the wave eased underneath.

“What is that?” Miller said.

“Something or somebody?” Christine said.

“It’s just a sailcover. A tarp, I guess. It’s trash. This is becoming a nautical waste heap. Jesus—what comes and goes in the water. Things wash up and you don’t always need dental records to figure it out,” Bell said. He studied the ragged sheet as it opened and folded, accenting the voluptuous depths which carried it forward. He was taking his shoes off, toeing one heel loose then the other. He pushed his jeans down.

“What are you doing? You can’t swim today,” Christine told her brother. “The water’s too cold.”

Miller said, “Oh, but it was okay for me—”

“I’m going in.” Bell removed his jockeys and dove from the rocks into the sea. Christine picked up his briefs and collected them in her right hand. She walked to the end of the jetty to keep sight of him. He was swimming towards the mooring, but he swam right past its rusty sphere and shifted in another direction. He headed towards the mysterious cloth. He swam in smooth aggressive strokes as if he could swim a long time, perhaps he could swim far beyond any return to land. He wasn’t trying to worry his sister, but he knew she waited. He felt her longing like a vibration in the water. It seemed to help his rhythm; his kicking was silky and powerful although he was getting tired.

The scrap was a loose-weave sheet used to repair dragger nets, something makeshift and discarded. Its grommets were knotted with nylon wire that feathered in the surf like a colossal hydra. Bell circled the torn square as if it was marker for a particular disaster in a man’s life. Its ghost outlines flowered, palpitated and contracted in mockery of the living. He tried to sink it. Free it from its endless float. He shimmied onto the netting, but it disappeared under his weight, retreated to the deep like a frightened pneuma. It wrapped his ankle as he kicked, fanned out behind him like a train, then swirled to the surface again.

The Irish girl floated, lofted in his retina’s mirror-y sea. Seeing that kind of thing once was plenty. Her body, its helpless curve against the shore, everything, even the tiny decals on her fingernails. Glossy as a photograph. Her body washed in, it conformed to a few general expectations, but her spirit collected or dispersed, where? He couldn’t imagine. He had no imagination for that. Ordinary silver nitrate could never etch a picture of heaven. He preferred to think of the live girl, her summers at Marblehead. What was her line of work? Was she in the profession? Did her innocence cease-up, suddenly, or was it a gradual decline?

Bell tried to gather the unmanageable netting and tow it into shore. Despite its transparency, its coarse knots, the sheet was too difficult to maneuver and he had to leave it. He worked to get back to the rocks. The rip current made swimming hard. When he pulled himself out of the water his flesh was pink from the effort, he felt a tingle of sweat beneath the crystallizing salt scum. He picked up his jeans and put them on, forgetting his underwear. Christine twirled the waistband on her pointer finger and let them sail. Miller tried to lead Christine back to the car. Her dramatic handling of her brother’s briefs made Miller question out loud his luck with women. Why did Christine have to insult him with such inventive gestures? Miller told Christine, “I’m going. Now. Fish or cut bait.” She waited for Bell to lace his shoes.

Christine looked at her brother and smiled. She started to recite her lines, her voice silky and true to her role. “There does be a power of young men floating around in the sea—”

Miller touched his forehead with the back of his knuckles. “You’re a sad story. The two of you. You’re both really sad.”

At the car, the CVS girl climbed in the back seat with Miller and Christine rode in front. The girl wanted to return to her job and Bell let her off at the drug store. He drove down Memorial Boulevard. He watched his sister’s profile and bounced the heel of his hand on her knee. “Christine. Green animals?”

“The topiary? You want to go there? You’re not just being nice?”

Bell told her he was giving it another chance.

She smiled and watched the other way. “Look, there’s Pop,” she said, pointing to a car in the next lane. She started to wave but her father didn’t see her. “In his own world,” she said.

“It’s the same world,” Bell said.

Miller jumped out at the next intersection and he left the car door swinging. Bell watched the light change, then he shoved the gas pedal just-so until the door came back and the lock caught.

Family Night, Maria Flook’s first novel is just out from Pantheon. She has published three other books: Reckless Wedding (poems), Dancing With My Sister Jane (stories), and Sea Room (poems).

Maria Flook's My Sister Life by Amy Hempel
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Originally published in

BOMB 43, Spring 1993

Featuring interviews with Tony Kushner, Ousmane Sembene, Jeanette Winterson, Andres Serrano, Faye Myenne Ng, Vernon Reid, Gillian Armstrong, Andrew MacNair, Laurie Carlos, Srinivas Krishna, Mira Schor, and Barbara Hammer.

Read the issue
043 Spring 1993