JANUARY 2009

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East End
By Ronald Fink, Nov 14, 2008

I was sitting at noon one day with my back against the big boulder near the dune when a fellow I know approached with a camera. The boulder showed up, so to speak, earlier this spring after an absence Iíd guess of almost a decade. Having brought in a ton of sand one winter, the sea had taken it out years later, burying and unburying the large rock while no one noticed. The stone slants upward from west to east in stripes of salmon and black that get lost when the sun is high enough, as they did while I sat against it in my jeans and sweatshirt and finished my third beer and fourth cigarette since Iíd arrived an hour earlier. I kept track because my daughter tells me Iím addicted to both, bless her heart, whenever she comes out from the city with my granddaughter for a weekís vacation. Never visits any time but summer, of course, which I can understand. No one but the fishermen and a few other diehards do.

You should see how lonely it gets out here in November, after you turn the clock back and the dark descends so early you wish for snow to magnify the moon and stars and you start talking to yourself in a matter of days. Then there are the strange sounds within the house, the creaks in the floorboard or ceiling or moans in the door hinge, sounds you mistake at times for ghosts or some other type of demon when itís just the wind or your own weight at work. But I donít mind all that much, not that I have any choice after all these years. Social Security and shelf stocking at the marina keep me going now that I canít work on the boats anymore because the doctor says the sunís so bad for me and itís all the more intense out on the water. Medical bills havenít been a problem, so far, at least, since Kay died five years ago this month, and I can always go to the VA. Still, with the house paid off, my costs at the moment are pretty much limited to food, gas, electric, cable, and of course beer and cigarettes. I myself donít fish much anymore, not since the knee and shoulder went from bad to worse. But that helps keep my expenses down, what with the cost of tackle these days, and I still come down to the beach from the house every day itís warm enough so I can watch the sea while I have a sip and a smoke or three. I have the place mostly to myself until the stockbrokers and the rest of those types whoíve built big houses around me start to show up. And I guess that makes me one of the last swamp Yankees out here on the East End. But thatís the way it is, as Walter Cronkite used to say.

The beach that day was empty except for a few folks walking along the shore in twos or threes every quarter mile or so. The sea had also brought in the trunks of dead trees from who knows where, pieces of driftwood as large as Boston whalers. The trunks sat high on the beach, stranded near the dune, still dark from the water, and from my angle resembled a row of planets made of coal. By mid-July, they will have turned light gray and faded into the backdrop. But the sun wasnít high enough for that, and they outnumbered the walkers at this point in the season, as did the gulls. It was just too early for most people. Of course they still have all summer ahead of them, and the fact is the waterís cold here even in late June, which is why the locals make all their money in July and August.

Eventually, one of the people on the beach came close enough for me to recognize him as a fellow acquaintance of my neighbor Jim. He happened to be carrying a big camera around his neck, the silver and black thing bouncing and swaying from its strap like an antic pendulum. I donít know his name, though we nod to each other and say hello when our paths cross, which is usually when heís with Jim, the two of them sitting and reading or just taking the sun on the beach. Only Jim himself wasnít around. I hadnít seen him all spring, as a matter of fact, and that made me wonder if something had happened to him. Good guy, Jim, though I would have never expected to say that about a long-haired hippy almost my own age, a regular pot smoking love child of the Sixties who served as a translator for the army during Vietnam after enlisting in OTS when he was about to be drafted and then refusing to carry a weapon. Talk about chutzpah. The guy betted correctly that the army would find other work for him that he was willing to do rather than put him in jail, though he told me he was prepared for either outcome. What Iím saying is I wouldnít always have considered what he did a brave act, or a virtuous one, even if those interrogations werenít as rough as they are now. Still, people sometimes change with the times, and that goes for me as well after Bobby died. Anyway, Jim managed in his quiet, friendly way to explain it all to me, along with the trouble he got into for refusing to pay the IRS because he didnít want to fund any more unnecessary wars, while he and I were sitting out on the beach one September afternoon after the tourists had gone home for the year. Rolled his own cigarettes, he did, and they werenít bad at all, judging from the several heíd offered me. Called himself a minimalist, and I guess that makes me one as well. But seeing his friend here made me wonder again why I hadnít seen Jim as well since the previous November.

The fellow approached with the camera at his eye, apparently sizing up the rock for a photo or two, taking the imageís measure in his mind before bringing the camera back to rest against his chest. Heís a lean but barrel-chested guy from the city, and I have no idea what he does for a living. Maybe itís photography, though Iíve never noticed him with a camera before. Anyway, the fellowís nice enough, and Iíve seen him drive around with a Van Staal on the rod on top of his truck, which means heís serious about fishing, not like so many other guys, all of them tourists, essentially. Of course the stockbrokers can buy those fancy reels like they were a dime a dozen, and they do. But unlike them, this fellow doesnít look like he just stepped out of an Orvis catalog and he doesnít talk about his exploits, or much else about himself for that matter. Not that he isnít friendly. Iíve seen him smile a fair amount when he talks to Jim.

Once he got close, he asked if I minded if he snapped a couple of pictures. I said sure, go ahead, but asked if he wanted me to leave.

No, he said, that was okay and he raised the camera to his eye again, while I looked away. There was a soft click of a shutter signaling that a photo had been snapped, if thatís still the right word, though it wasnít the metallic sound I was used to but instead a sibilant electronic whirr. And when he was finished, I asked him what he was up to.

He said he was just taking pictures, and the rock would make for a good one.

I told him he ought to see it in the late afternoon, when it starts to glow in the light. And then I asked him if heíd seen Jim.

He just looked down at the sand, and my stomach started to feel funny, like there was a hole at the bottom or something.

And then he said he had bad news. He hesitated again and then told me that Jim had died of cancer about three weeks earlier. The doctors had discovered it only a few months earlier after he complained of back pain, when they did an MRI and found a tumor in his kidney that was pressing in on his spine, and then they also found it in his lungs and brain as well. They did radiation and were about to start chemo when he died. His nephew was up at the house and said he went quickly, so he might not have been in a lot of pain. He said that at least was what he liked to think.

Iím not sure what I said at that point, something about having a feeling something was wrong when I didnít see him come out in April like he always did.

Jimís friend then said that the family was planning a memorial on the beach in October, that heíd let me know when exactly if I wanted, and that he knew where I lived.

I thanked him and remarked that Jim was the only person around here that I could talk to these days.

He nodded and asked what my name was.

I told him and he told me his was Daniel, that it was good to meet me after all this time and that heíd see me around.

I said same here or something like that and then he asked if I wanted copies of the photos he took if they turned out.

Sure, I said, and he asked for my email, and when I told him I did not have one, he asked for my last name and mailing address. Then he waved, walked away, and five minutes later was hardly distinguishable in the distance, while white caps began to run before a westerly that seemed to have picked up speed out of nowhere, along with side-drifting swells, brown with sand near shore but blue green further out, no birds visible, not that Iíd have gone out later in neoprene with rod and reel if I saw them working. I used to fish the coves near the point every evening, wading out through the surf though it would knock you down and soak you and climbing onto those rocks in studded soles tied to your boots and secured with duct tape and then standing on them and casting and reeling for hours at a time even with the waves crashing all around and sometimes on top of you, taking you with them into the surf so you had to get out somehow, seawater filling your surf bag and waders, and start all over again if you managed not to drown. There was not another person in sight most of the time, while the fish, of course, were also nowhere to be seen except on those rare occasions when they broke or ran in schools that boiled the surface. And thatís what made it special, a fish hitting your plug after no indication but maybe a sneaking suspicion about their presence that turned out to be wrong all but once in a completely unpredictable while. So youíd catch your breath at any splash you imagined you detected that wasnít just the surf breaking over a rock, especially when the tide started to move.

Iím not talking so much about the blitzes, when the feeding frenzies turned every googen and his brother into sharpies for all of a moment and a half, and the guys would be elbow to elbow along the shore, or even on neighboring rocks, some actually holding their rods upside down and reeling ass backwards for godís sake. No, I lived for those when the hit came out of nowhere when you were all alone, rewarding your endless patience, sometimes when you were just about to give up because youíd spent two hours casting a plug or buck-tail after nothing whatsoever except a hope against hope or a figment of your feverish imagination. But then without warning thereíd be a sudden and different splash at the surface, sometimes almost an explosion, or a violent tug below. And a moment later your rod was bent in half and youíd reel and reel against the weight in the depths below until something dark and whole would emerge, dorsal first, spread wide so you could see its flesh between the spines grow bright and translucent when the sun was right behind it. It was beautiful to bring so rare a sight from the netherworld to light and have it look you right in your eyes alone before you freed it to return to those depths except for perhaps the one every season or so that was big enough to keep. A bass on the line, pulling and thrashing against your efforts, black stripes against silver z-ing through the clear water, could make you happy just to be alive, if not restore any faith youíd lost, at least for a while.

I still feel that way at times when I sit here against the boulder and watch the sea, enough so I donít care what the doc says about the spots that have appeared on my cheek and forehead, figuring long pants and sleeves and a hooded sweatshirt and baseball cap are enough for now, and that the cigarettes will get me first anyway, just like they did Jim.

Bobby played on the rock so many summers ago I can barely remember which one it was exactly, though he couldnít have been more than four years old at the time, and I can still see his strong little body climbing its slanted slope toward its square peak and then jumping off the side that drops suddenly back down to the sand, the side I sat against when I heard the news from Daniel. Over and over again that summer, I helped Bobby climb on and jump off until he could do it on his own, and when he did his future seemed bright and endless, even without me and maybe especially then, which any father would find reassuring, especially when his only son comes late in life. So when the boulder reappeared, impassive and imperturbable, it was like heíd come back, too, and that made me feel better about the fact that he died before me and that Iíll die knowing that. An IED, they called the damn thing, somewhere outside Baghdad.

A week or so later, I received a large envelope in the mail from Daniel, and when I opened it found an eight-by-ten photograph of the rock glowing like Iíd said it would in the late afternoon light, tall and right angled to the sand at its eastern end where Bobby would make one leap after another. The shadow there helped give the rock more bulk than it would have had if the sun had been higher and its reflections washed the surface, turning it pale and indistinct. And as the rest of the boulder slanted toward the setting sun, its black and pink striations became clearer with the fading of the day. In the distance the dark ends of the tree trunks were lined up along the beach as if in dying orbit, and I was nowhere to be seen. But for a while at least, the rockís substance would be visible even if it were buried again.

Ronald Finkís stories have been published in such magazines as Global City Review, Tampa Review, Sanskrit, The Sun, and North American Review. He is a journalist as well as a fiction writer, and currently serves as executive editor of Financial Week, a corporate finance newspaper published by Crain Communications.

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