Part II (Click here for Part I)
by J. Scott Hardin
Aaron stared at the receiver in disbelief. She was so irrational, there was almost no dealing with it. Still, he had to. He had resolved that he would stand by his son, no matter the price
So he noticed that on the ground by his feet, the package had become an army of ants. He instinctively kicked at it, but the damage had obviously been done. He picked it up by two half-open ends and shook it with a quick, frightened violence. A fair amount of the contents flung to the four winds, yet he kept a thumb on some of it. One or two of the cheeses, some dampened bread, and a fat piece of sausage survived the storm, and Aaron blew and brushed off the tiny invaders until he had made a complete mess of his hands and his food.
In the end, he was too creeped out by the insects to enjoy his pyrrhic victory. He threw the whole thing down in disgust. He wiped his greasy, sodden hands over his damp shirt, trying to shake away any fugitive bugs along with the now endemic wetness.
Coin. Coin. Coin.
It rang long. He steeled himself until she finally picked up.
“What, you didn’t hear me, Aaron? I said,” and the words were carefully enunciated, “Fuck. You.”
His gaze wandered down to the container of olive salad, still preserved in its plastic shell. He was pretty sure he was not going to like olive salad. Still, he picked it up.
His resolve had never been firmer. He would make it up to her later, in the peace of nightfall. He would find a quiet place and speak more softly. And his wife and son would make their flight in nine days.
Later, he could regain his composure, but at the moment, his heart was racing, and his body felt like a hot sponge of sink water that needed to be wrung out and left to dry somewhere. The early afternoon had become stinging hot, and Aaron took a personal offense to it. As he wiped himself off, smearing around wet human grit, he imagined this Hell’s breath to be a killer seeking him out.
He picked up the salad and got back into the car. To his surprise, the waft of pent up air was even more stinging. His felt an almost palpable danger assaulting him from all sides.
When he arrived home, after several false starts and wrong turns, he immediately put his head under the kitchen faucet. The water was lukewarm at best, but he let it run for a long time as he stooped and sipped from the estuaries that passed over his lips. Gradually, the surface of his head and neck quiesced, and he began to breathe more easily.
This respite allowed him to remember that he was in the heart of a brand new city. When he turned on the window air-conditioning unit and bent forward in front of it, he imagined little icicles forming on the follicles of his head, and all was well. His sense of adventure returned.
Quashing some time in the name of responsibility, he put together his son’s crib and fashioned the basics of the baby’s room. He hung spinning, colorful decorations from the ceiling at judicious intervals. He shuffled a couple of small bookshelves around and set out children’s books and stuffed animals on them. After some digging, he found a clean blanket for the crib and then moved all the extra debris from the room. In the end, he made a great mess of things in an effort to find the nightlight that he had bought for his son during the pregnancy. It was a grey and white sea bird he had picked up at some chintzy secondhand store. Afterwards, he had always called the boy his “little sandpiper”.
The light worked, so he went to the kitchen to eat his olive salad. It was miserable, and he ended up stirring it listlessly for a while. When he thought to look outside, the sunlight had dimmed a little. After a lukewarm shower, he decided the day was too shot for a trip to the ocean. At the very least, he would see the University.
It turned out to be less than three miles from where he lived, arrived at by way of a spacious and verdant roadway that revealed stately homes and periodic bells of charming streetcars. Across from the main building lay an enormous expanse of grasses, waterborne fountains, and weeping willows.
The sun hung low in the sky and, though Aaron began to perspire, the sting had at least been removed from the hot air. Evening cicadas began to stir in hesitant clumps of activity, and the young scholar traversed the environs of his new school.
With every breath, he drew in the old, stonewalls, the crawl of the plants that stuck to them, and the august civility of the place. Wandering through the myriad buildings, including one made of a neat but faded salmon brick, which he knew to be his own department, he wondered what he might make of himself. The point was to use this place as a kind of lighthouse.
But to what purpose?
In the distance, stepping in and out of the shadows beneath an awning across the square, he saw a young girl. He sat on an ancient wood bench and watched her for a minute. She moved slowly, staring at the walls of the far side of the Norton J. Downing School of Psychology building.
At first, Aaron thought she might have been slyly turning over her shoulder to have a glance at him, but he decided that had the makings of an optimistic fiction. It seemed more plausible that she was conscious of being discovered. He watched on as she perched up on her tippy-toes and peered into a classroom window, her appropriate-length skirt suddenly appearing a little less appropriate.
She looked into that window for what seemed to him a long time before lowering herself to peak across at him again. He lit a cigarette and watched more. Peering and backing down, strain and repose, legs taught and again at rest – when she had finished her dance, she looked around openly. Finally, she made her way to the bench and sat down beside him.
The girl looked off into the dusk as though he wasn’t there, and he made certain not to break the silence. It was a beautiful, burnt sunset.
“Have you got another cigarette?”
It was a husky voice, cracked where it should have been higher pitched. He pulled out a spare and clicked the flame. It didn’t catch, and she took up the lighter for herself.
Delicate brush of fingertips.
“Thanks, I forgot mine,” she said.
“Sure. You can’t explore a whole campus without something.”
The young woman nodded and averted her eyes. Up close, Aaron could see that she was almost in tears, and her hands trembled. She was short and slightly bony, with one of those kinds of bodies that could be taken for an adolescent’s. Her black hair was straight and covered most of her bare shoulders. Only the blades poked through.
“I haven’t seen the whole campus. Barely anything. It’s my first time here.”
That last, she spoke with an exaggerated passion. Her dark eyes returned furtively to the Downing building and darted back again to the ground in front of the bench. Aaron noticed a little color had swelled up on her faintly freckled cheeks.
“But I think you’ve seen about as much as can be expected of that Psychology building, at least from the outside.”
They both smiled.
“Oh, you noticed that. You must think I’m a real freak, hmm?”
Her laugh was embarrassed.
“No way,” he added quickly. “It’s my first time here, too. I’ve been wandering around myself. I’m Aaron.”
He held out his hand, and this seemed to startle her for a second. He thought of withdrawing it, but she grasped on and shook it awkwardly. He looked at her in curiosity.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Renee! My name is Renee.” She pulled her hand back quickly. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “It’s just . . .”
Her thoughts trailed off, and she stared at her shoes.
“Look, I’m sorry. I guess I just feel a bit lost.”
She was about to continue, but started fidgeting with her hair instead. Some of the red polish had chipped here and there, he noticed, as her fingers emerged between the twists.
Now it was Aaron’s turn to feel his cheeks flush. Just then, she looked up at him, the white parts of her eyes glistening and almost watery.
He looked into them without hesitation, deciding.
A brush of nerves coursed through his body. She was so beautiful and scared and curious. Her movements struck him as precocious and sweet. And he wanted her. He tried to block that out, but it was visceral and only brought him a shiver.
“I can understand,” he replied calmly. “It’s a huge place. You could almost forget how to get back.”
The first year with his wife had been happy enough, but the last two amounted to a great, obnoxiously loud tragedy. Squanderous of his tolerance at first, he had shrunk inside as a horde of incensed pricks eventually turned into panic, and then into hatred – not of her, precisely, but of being around the yelling. This hatred had welled itself up inside him until he winced at all manner of abrasive noises. Drums, car horns, and cheering had become intractable foes.
“Do you think we could maybe get a cup of coffee?” she asked.
The words were as soft as wind, softer even when mixed with her wide-open gaze.
“I wish I could,” Aaron heard himself say. It was a hollow sound. “I really have to get going. It’s getting late.”
A hollow grave.
Are you sure? He thought on her behalf.Don’t you want me?
He tried to make his version of Renee stop, while he assumed a kindly but professorial tone in his description of the doctoral program to which he had recently been made a fellow, his plans for research, and even some conventional platitudes about the sorry state of American education.
She seemed eager to swallow it all, tolerating his pontifications and giving him a gracious smile whenever he paused.
Indeed, he used up all the time he had with her with his authoritative and paternal explications of vast nothingness in an effort to keep her there, in the moment. He refused to commit himself to something wrong, but he still kept the tension for as long as he could – while she was there, he could still change his mind.
The possibility lingered.
Don’t let me go. I’m so scared.
“I suppose I should get going,” she said eventually. “I’ve still got about a million things to do before school starts.”
He teased out some detail on a few of the million. That was only going to last for so long though. The possibility was waning. He could feel its enchantments flicker and steal away into the darkness, and there was nothing he could do about it. Was he to keep her there listening all night?
The end came pathetically.
“It was so nice meeting you. It’s good to see a friendly face.”
She smiled again and said goodnight.
Are you sure you don’t want to?
He closed his eyes and let her go.
When he opened them again, the sun had set, and she was gone. The weeping willows broke apart the night sky like a photograph negative. Their dark limbs made pitch-black fireworks against the grey of early night. He watched their morose forms until the sky was one color and he could make out nothing at all.
While he sat, he didn’t see a soul. He sat a long time alone before walking back to the car. As he meandered listlessly, he found a booth and made the olive branch call to his wife. It worked.
Eventually, he drove home. He found his coat and slept on the bed. One might have supposed that Aaron would have slept better without his father there. That supposition would be wrong. His night consisted of a viscous mixture of sweat and tortured dreams. He faded in and out of these, giving himself a start whenever the apparitions came on too strong.
His father always watched him critically, with a cold and dissatisfied frown as first his wife appeared screaming something unintelligible and accompanied by blaring trumpets, then rabid monkeys swung from trees yelling “Where you at?” while an old white man pounded beneath them with a stick. A baby floated before him, smiling, then was taken away into the recesses of dark grey clouds by black tendrils.
Aaron stayed awake for a while trembling. Then Renee walked by, and he drifted off again into a deeper sleep. They talked about knowledge and laughed, and it was about something important, though later he could not possibly remember what.
He realized he was definitely awake only when he found himself staring once again at the slips of light from beneath the floorboards of his room. It took him several minutes to consider that he had seen the same thing the morning before.
The feeling of déjà vu irked him instantly, and he nearly jumped out of his bed. Had that entire day been a waste?
He found his pants and pulled everything out onto the kitchen table. Forty-five dollars and three cents. Damn it. And the tank was under a quarter to boot.
He drew a breath. He would drive out along the Gulf Coast as far as he could, and back.
He found a diner and ate thoroughly, stopped at J.B.’s Grocery, and filled up at a station outside the city. The heat was pumping, but he refused to let it swamp him out of a second day.
He drove across Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest bridge in the world. It spanned over twenty miles, and was built so low to the water in places that Aaron felt he was piloting a speedboat. A few inches more of lake, and there would be no more bridge. The structure was impressive, but he did not see how it could possibly last. The city itself nestled below sea level, but everyone knew that the floods would be kept at bay by powerful levies and pumps. The Causeway seemed like a ribbon of Scotch tape stretched out over the water, and about as flimsy.
By the time he reached Mississippi, the A/C had made Aaron almost civil. He rolled down his window, blending the hot and cold, pleased with himself. Dense thickets of vegetation surrounded the interstate and permeated all his senses, a barrage of exotic greens and fungal smells.
He paused to peruse the waterfront at Gulfport, disappointed by the seedy pawnshops and their feeders, the stately casino ships. He could maybe hawk his car and press buttons on the sexy, cash cow slot machines all night and hitchhike home. If only he had hitchhiked even once in his life, or if he had ever had the gambler’s spirit, then Gulfport might have been enough.
As the signs portended the arrival of Biloxi, Aaron became panicky. For one thing, the gas gauge was already drifting around midway. He turned off the air conditioning. He put down all the windows and steeped himself in the sticky coastal air.
Too bad.Deal with it.
He wanted more than Biloxi. He had never been to Mississippi before, but to his mind that wasn’t good enough. A bit more, and he could reach out and touch Mobile. He stopped in Biloxi and put the last of his bills down for more gas.
He had a small amount of change in the ashtray, perhaps more wedged between and under the seats, but that was strictly for an emergency. It was there in case of a minor miscalculation. Aaron had no intention of abandoning the car ten miles from home for a long walk in the jungle. He would only concede to that if it was absolutely necessary. For now, he felt giddy with every click of the old-style gasoline pump. He guessed he would make it.
Ever since he could remember, Aaron had always greeted new states with the relish of Columbus. As a kid, he instinctively maintained that a state did not actually exist until he had personally set foot on it. This childish profundity had tempered with age, but Aaron still felt a residue of its romance swell inside him as he pressed on further.
By the time he arrived at the outskirts of Mobile, he was desperately, almost manically, excited. By then, there was no point of attempting to dry himself off. A cloth sufficiently large for the task did not exist. He followed the coast closely and pulled off at an opportune beachfront. Not only a new state awaited him, but a new ocean.
Over the top.
He took off his shirt and left everything but his keys in the car. When he hit the beach, he knew that he was in a foreign land. For one thing, only middle class white families populated the beach, replete with enormous parasols draped over plastic coolers – the kind with built in cup holders, elaborate strollers with all-weather wheels, tanned bodies and bold-striped beach balls. Sandy blond hair was the soup du jour and bright bikinis the pièce de résistance.
Aaron avoided all eye contact, pushing through the drifts of pure, white sand to the water’s edge.
He hadn’t done what he was about to do since he was sixteen, and that attempt had been partly thwarted. He had been out swimming with several of his friends during the summer. The ocean off California was always bitter cold.They had yelled at each other and sang foolish songs and laughed as they swam. But after a while, Aaron had become separated from the group, at first only by a small distance, and later farther and farther – something drew him out to the horizon. Soon the voices dimmed, and he could not see his friends at all whenever he looked back.
All the boyish commotion had apparently caused a stir with some of the locals. The bullhorn of a small vessel of the United States Coast Guard abruptly ended his hope to swim far enough to lose sight of the shoreline. Between the blasts of the ship’s horn, a man’s voice kept repeating: “GO BACK TO SHORE. YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TRESPASS TO THIS POINT.”
It was not as if the bastards were offering a ride back or anything, much less making a rescue attempt. He wished he could defy them and just keep swimming, but he didn’t.
This time it would be different. This time, there would be no group, no conspicuous vibes for the locals to latch their boredom onto, and no singing. Most significant of all, there would not be a boy. Nearly fifteen years later, he would see how far he could go and if he actually could lose sight of land. He felt like nothing could get in his way.
Aaron stepped into the water, his eyes holding the horizon steady in their grip. As the waves broke over his legs, particularly when he was able to take a full out plunge, all his skin sent back to him a message completely unexpected: “THIS WATER IS NOT COLD”. In fact, the Gulf of Mexico was actually quite warm.Bathtub warm.
Soon, Aaron found that it was neither refreshing nor invigorating in the slightest. He discovered he could actually sweat in it, and this discouraged him. His initial, mighty effort left him breathing hard and dripping his own stink into a rolling and tepid abyss.
When he stopped to look back, he could still make out the figures of the bronzed and resplendently colored Alabamans on the glittery sand. They still existed for him as moving flecks of debris, sparkling at least as brightly as the caps of florescent froth that rose and fell with the rhythm of ages.
Working his muscles hard, he followed his plan and made steady progress out to sea. The second time he turned back, he could not make out anything on the beach, and by the third he hardly saw the coast at all.
Farther, he insisted to himself.
One of his legs began to cramp, so he idled for a bit on the surface, floating on his back and trying to massage out the pain. He was breathing heavily.
In a couple of minutes, his mind won the debate over his body, and Aaron migrated out deeper into the endless maw. At last he found he could see only the faintest trace of land, and when caught a fuzzy glimpse, it was as much guess as certainty. Any more, and only the high sun beating down on him could offer clues as to which way was home and which was afterlife.
This was far enough.
He grinned madly at his achievement, and soon broke into wild laughter. He couldn’t be absolutely sure he had saved enough of himself to get back, but he knew he was a survivor. He was here now, and triumphant.
He unfastened his shorts and allowed his member to float freely. Among the gently swaying motions of ebb and rise, Aaron pleasured himself. A wave of lethargy swept through him just as he spent himself, and he would have liked nothing so much in all the world as to stretch out and fall asleep. He may even have nodded off, but his legs had to keep treading the murky water.
He wiped off his face and saw his forearm was stained red. His nose was bleeding. He was scared. Scanning in every direction, he felt his heart beat harder and harder at the absence of any trace of land.
No shoreline. No hills. No nothing.
In his self-indulgence, Aaron had clearly lost his orientation. He had been on the very edge and gone one step too far. Anxiety rushed over him, and he took his best guess at direction from the sun.
The cramp in his leg would not go away. He disregarded it. He waited for a swell to come and peeked out over it for any sign.
He tried to take advantage of his body’s buoyancy, but this only served to hurt his leg still more. He kept brushing away the blood and blinking out the salt.
Don’t ever turn your back on the ocean, boy.
Aaron’s heart sank. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been warned.
He found an energy-conserving posture and tried to calm himself. He was headed the wrong way, obviously, so he would spend a few minutes studying the midday sun again.
You turned your back, didn’t you, boy? And now look at you. You’re gonna die.
He tried to block out the voice, but his fear was an unreliable guardian. He ended up trying several directions, and each time he bobbed his head up for a look, no land.
Turned your back, boy.
Not for the first time in his life – Aaron had always been at his best in the clutch – he closed his eyes and shut out everything. No water, no pain, and no past. Most of all, there was neither life nor death in his mind. Freedom and responsibility dissolved into the ethers of abstraction and then winked out of existence altogether.
He swam for a while this way, eyes closed and feeling nothing. Eventually he came out of his trance and opened them, calmly surveying, then finding the hazy border of Alabama. The blood had crusted over part of his mouth and across the left side of his face. The leg screamed at him faithlessly. Aching muscles from head to toe joined in to make a harmony of pain.
Aaron was going to live, it turned out. And now the real work began. He angled the currents with the determination of mighty strokes, and when his body was sapped of its last strength, he let the flow carry him northwesterly. Each leg of the zigzag pattern of force and repose brought him a little closer to shore.
By the time he could identify the movements of people along the beach, he was unable to feel even a whiff of celebration. A kind of grim acknowledgment that a progress had been made was the only, fleeting reflection.
Back and forth. Force and repose.
At one point, Aaron thought he had heard voices and stopped. It was only the hah of gulls passing over his head. Or were they sandpipers?
He was making less progress than he needed to. He was letting the current carry him more than struggling against it. His right leg was becoming a useless spectator, just along for the ride. He tried to fight against the tides, tried to make headway with the right angle, but he started drifting more and more.
He wretched violently and made himself dizzy. In the midst of a bout with vertigo, he realized he could not have been conscious the whole time. Features along the beach kept changing. Everyone kept undressing themselves when he wasn’t looking, then putting back on different swimsuits in an attempt to confuse him. Each time he studied them, the colors had been altered.
It’s not the clothes, mighty scholar. It’s the people. You’re drifting . . .
You turned your back, boy.
Where you at? Whachugon’do?
Don’t let me go. I’m so scared, Aaron.
Why don’t you go talk to your faggot boyfriend?
When the voices finally subsided, Aaron found himself on his hands and knees on the wet sand. He was holding himself up and staring at the warm water lapping over his forearms. His body was shaking with a mild tremor, and he crawled out of the Gulf. Almost in tears, he felt the sand, hot and dry.
And then he collapsed onto his side, unable to move any further. His breathing slowed. He was too tired to feel anything and, left with his thoughts, he wondered if the fantastical whiteness of the sand might not be Heaven.
The sight before him held a majesty he could never have imagined. The glaring brilliance of it would have stunned his eyes if his eyes were capable any longer of being stung.
A red and blue beach ball landed near him, and he blinked away the mirage. A young boy, perhaps ten years old, walked towards the ball and gave him an uncomfortable look.
Aaron thought about telling him not to turn his back on the ocean, but he couldn’t speak. Instead, he flicked the ball toward him with his fingertips. The boy came closer to pick it up.
Their eyes met, and the boy’s face became fascinated and then disgusted by what he saw. Aaron smiled weakly, but that only made it worse. If he could see what the boy saw – the blood-stained face, the matted grimy hair, the grotesque expression – he might not even have recognized the sprawling hulk of battered and stinking flesh as a man.
The boy ran away as fast as his trim legs could carry him.
J. Scott Hardin is Senior Editor at The Houston Literary Review and a regular contributor with Ragazine. His work has appeared at Journal of Truth and Consequence, Danse Macabre, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Final Draft and elsewhere. Readers are invited to read more at www.jscotthardin.com.