Spring Green

This is the seventh anniversary of Spring Green, another one of my favorites, another story that revolves around France and sailing and that little marina in Paris. I wrote this story while in Wisconsin, attending a conference on, of all things, Frank Lloyd Wright, and in the tiny village of Spring Green. His Taliesen (East) is located there, as is his School of Architecture. Fascinating place, and if into architecture, or building in general, it’s worth going for a visit.

Going over this story recently I found so many indecipherable run-on sentences I grew embarrassed, so decided on a re-write, and this one from ‘top to bottom.’ A few minor plot changes here and there, but Spring Green is mostly as she was, just out for a stroll with a fresh new coat over her shoulders. Most of the story vis-a-vis the WWII encounter in Dole comes from long talks with a friend of my fathers, a B-17 pilot who was shot down in the region during the last year of the war, and who was taken in by partisans. He went to France several times a year to visit ‘friends’ until he passed. Certain elements of the ‘Ham’ part of the story are from his life, too. C’est la vie, Gus.

Such a beautiful life. What a friend. Anyway, here she is…

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Spring Green

Things are never what they seem

Let a star be just a star

And a woman – just a dream.

Dreams Are Best | Robert Service

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Oh yes, life is change…because as Yeats’ said – ‘things fall apart,’ and the fall can be brutal and direct – or – such change may arrive softly, with the coming of a breeze. Sometimes change arrives on vast columns of marching men playing dark anthems, yet too, there are those few times when change comes as gently as the night, in the form of a woman, perhaps, if you’re lucky. Our own cycles of life remind us – or they try to, anyway – that ‘nothing lasts forever,’ that we are here but for an instant and life will move-on dry-eyed without us after we leave. Still, for some people the very idea of change is foreign, the idea isn’t welcome; it takes a while for the idea of change to take root and grow. Call these people slow learners if you like. And while you’re at it, you’d better lump me in this last category. Slow, as in: it took me quite a while to figure out what was going on, and what it all meant.

So, to begin a recounting of these events – something unexpected comes along and bang: you’re in the middle of a big life crisis? Okay, like that’s gonna make headlines? Hold the presses? Film at eleven?

Not a chance. No, the change I’m thinking of resides in memory so deep you might think of it as, well, almost a genetic thing. This kind of change is easy to miss because the process is so incremental – change is small, slow, almost undetectable over a lifetime – and it almost always happens out of sight. This kind of change doesn’t jump out at you, rather it’s faintest outlines begin to emerge in memory. And although this is my story to tell, I couldn’t begin to do so without tracing a few of the faint outlines of my own ‘genetic’ memory. I’m hoping you might see parts of a greater story this way, because maybe, just maybe there are echoes of greater memories at play in the night, evidence of some larger process at work.

And I’ll have to begin this story by describing the most unlikely hero imaginable. I want to paint a picture of an older man, a man getting on in years but not yet so withered and worn down by change that he has stopped wondering about time, and the meaning of it all. I’d have you picture a tall man, say around six feet tall, and stocky in a muscular way that reminds you of youth. He had hair on his head once upon a time, but now all that remains is a thinning silver fringe around the sides, and when you see this man in your mind’s eye the one thing that will stand out most is his eyes. Cool and grayish-blue, the whites clear, they feel distant in a way but the closer you get the more you feel a certain penetrating warmth: you feel a contentedness in his eyes, perhaps an echo of this in his easy smile. You might see eyeglasses on the man as he reads a newspaper, but let’s visit him in our memory as he was before our last trip together. Let’s visit him in his office.

You’ll see him wearing an expensive, well-tailored suit, clothing that seems a natural extension of his body. He stands behind a large mahogany desk; beyond him is a wall of glass and far below, the lights of a large city shimmer in golden glory. This man should be, in your eyes at least, the very picture of success. He is Homo-Americanus and quite proud of the fact, and though he is but mortal flesh, in his own way he is unchanging, unyielding – immortal.

This man happens to be my Uncle Chuck, or Charles Wentworth Addington, Jr., and I use the word ‘unchanging’ advisedly, because for Charles change meant nothing at all unless he was the one in charge of it. Unless he’d massaged and shaped change – and beat the ever loving crap out of it when it didn’t perform as expected. Any other change was trivial, mundane, something to be dealt with by associates down in the Minor Bullshit Department. The type of change I’ve been alluding to, all that genetic hooey, tends to make a mess of things – and Uncle Chuck didn’t do messy – at least not that I was aware of. That kind of change is unpredictable, and Charles Wentworth Addington, Jr. just wasn’t an unpredictable, or even a spontaneous man. Spontaneous is combustion, often shocking, energetic and – always messy. Uncle Chuck was the polar opposite; he was glacial, as cool as they come — and as stonily deliberate and predictable as any glacier you’ve ever walked on.

Maybe he was too cool for his own good, because in the end he didn’t embrace change. Very few do, especially men like Uncle Chuck. Change, like time, is a predator. Change is patient, steady, waiting and ready to line you up in it’s sights – and pull the trigger – whether you happen to be ready, or not. Maybe that’s why, I think, he tried to hide from change. Because unlike most of the things I associate with life, change rarely misses it’s targets. Not even when men like Uncle Chuck get in the way, or protect the people they love from change.

But now’s the time to get a few other details out of the bag and right up front: this story isn’t altogether about Uncle Chuck, and it’s not just about change, though maybe I should make that Change with a capital C right about now. No, this story is, in it’s own roundabout way, a love story. Maybe love stories, as a matter of fact, layer upon layer of love, the kind that – as long as there is memory – never fades away. Falling in love is often a messy, unpredictable, and spontaneous affair, and falling in love often generates a little combustion of it’s own, leaves a little black soot on your sleeves that’s hard to wash off. I’m sure you get the picture, but if you don’t, well, just remember as events unfold that things Change, and Change almost always comes along when you least expect it, whether you’re ready for it or not.

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Uncle Chuck, it seemed to me, lived out most of his life in an office on the forty-eighth floor of what was at one time the tallest building in Boston, Massachusetts. Forty-eight was of course the top floor, and Chuck’s office was the biggest one up there. Real nose-bleed territory, or so my father called it. And to give you proper context let’s add that Chuck owned the building, and the bank in it, the land the building was on and a lot of the land around it. Chuck was rich in so many ways. So many ways no one understood. Not even Chuck.

He had one son, to whom he was devoted completely, my cousin Ham, or Charles Wentworth Addington, III. He was called Ham because he had fat cheeks – that looked exactly like a hamster’s. The image that often comes to mind when I think of hamsters is that they run endlessly in little stainless steel cages, in the corner of your bedroom, perhaps, when you were a kid. I don’t like to say this now, because I find it odd even now, but that’s about all I remember of Ham. He was a hamster in a little cage, running and running and never getting anywhere. If you think about the clicking of a hamster’s little claws as it runs on it’s treadmill, well, that is, it seemed to me, the little creature’s life’s work. That was Ham, always running and never getting anywhere. Something else, too; I remember thinking all those years ago that the hamster he kept in his room was much happier than he was, but I guess some people make their own treadmills no matter where they go, no matter the circumstance.

But, and this is important, more than anything else in the world, Uncle Chuck loved his wife Ruth. She was the light of his life, and while, perhaps, his love for her was just another manifestation of his desire to hold Time in his hands – there was never any to doubt of his absolute love for her. She was beautiful, yes, but so much more than simple beauty shone through; her soul was of a timeless sort, one might even be tempted to call her’s an unchanging beauty, and when I speak of Chuck as we move along you need remember her presence was always in the air about him, even if she wasn’t physically with him. Let me add something in case I’ve confused you: what made her so staggeringly beautiful was the simple fact her beauty was so much more than skin deep. She was beyond nice. She’d come from old money yet she studied sociology, worked in soup kitchens and could always be found on Tuesdays volunteering at a hospital for crippled and burned children. Beautiful, and timelessly so, in so many ways. She was as beautiful on the occasion of Chuck’s fifty seventh birthday, the day she passed away, as on any other day I knew her. Everyone at the party said so, right up until she suffered the stroke that felled her – while she whirled about the room – as ever the perfect hostess. She was his partner, in the best and truest sense of the word.

That was 1969, which I remember vividly as the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius (enter Chorus, stage left – ‘let the sun shine in’). Is it just me? Because I remember thinking the very air that we breathed was alive with change.

Or was 1969, as I now suspect, a vast opera that felt very much like Change – but was instead a shimmering – chimera? Some might call 1969 a period of manifest change, even Hegelian change, but now, after seeing where it all led I’m content to call it a False Spring. The long winter of our discontent has yet to lift, or so it sometimes seems, and the bleak streets of winter linger on.

Anyway, Aunt Ruth passed away that year, but our 1969 was about all kinds of Change: Nixon  lying and Cambodia burning, hippies tripping and Led Zeppelin screaming about a Communications Breakdown ( – it’s always the same – ), Barbie and Ken dolls and Kent State falling – and something even happened on the moon, but who cares these days about stuff like that. Music defined my life back then, maybe it still does, but the song that plays in my heart now, as it did that summer, was called Yesterday and Today, by a group called Yes. I can’t think of Chuck and Ruth and Ham without hearing that music passing by one more time.

And 1969 was also the year Ham left us, to fly helicopters in Vietnam. He returned, a decorated war hero – in a flag-draped coffin – a few weeks before Chuck’s 57th birthday, a few weeks before Ruth passed. I think that was Uncle Chuck’s first real experience with the spontaneous combustion Change can release. There was more change coming, of course, more than any of us knew, as it turns out, but let me say that Uncle Chuck came undone in the weeks before that birthday. So too did Ruth, and yet they seemed to be pulling out of that free-fall when…

But let me take another tack just now, show you a few other pieces of this puzzle before we get to the meat of the matter.

Ah, yes, my father, the missing part of this equation. My dad was the exact opposite of Chuck, his polar opposite. Chuck was Beacon Hill; Dad was The Cape. Chuck was Wharton; Dad dropped out of Harvard to go to Paris because it sounded like the thing to do. Chuck met Ruth at Penn and married her after a brief courtship; Dad was painting hookers on the Boulevard de Clichy one morning when an English girl happened by and, admiring his work, asked if he’d like to join her for tea at the Crillon. They married later that afternoon, or so the story goes, a large quantity of Pernod rumored to be a factor in their well-considered decision to tie the knot. But more on my mother in a moment; I need to talk about the dynamic between Chuck and my father just now.

These two brothers, it turned out, were more than just a study in contrasts: they were, rather, poised as mortal enemies, opposite particles of matter and anti-matter held apart by all the forces nature could muster. Their parents failed at the enterprise completely, by the way. I’ll spare you the details. But, and this might be important, the root of the idea of genetic memory I alluded to earlier was buried deep within this fertile soil. What grew between them blossomed and reached for the sky, then as suddenly withered and died – only to be reborn again and again, as though this cycle of hope and despair was the product of vast and inexorable influences between the moon and her tides. Once I asked my father about the difference between hate and love; he had no answer, and I think that summed up those two men.

My mom, on the other hand, has always been a rather contrary creature in and unto herself, a study in contradictions in her own right, so much so that her mere presence unsettles even the most well-adjusted people and, on more than one occasion, she was known to make Uncle Chuck consider a swan-dive from the top of his building – just to get away from her. I’m not going to waltz into the DSM-IV and say she’s bi-polar or has Multiple Personality Disorder; I will say that right up to this very day she’s doing her very best to keep half the psychiatrists in London quite busy. Mad as a balloon, as Douglas Adams said more than once, but lovely nevertheless. She seems intent on living forever too, and as she believes this possible I won’t be in the least surprised if she pulls it off.

Dad, on the other hand, punched out early. He’d had his fill of life by the time he was thirty, or so he told us one and all during one of his regular periods of self-examination; regardless, he was a free-spirit and died in his own free-spirited way, skiing in Chamonix. He was 59 at the time, and by then a decent if not very serious architect; when he passed I was in college and he’d just received word of Ham’s death in Vietnam. Mom was, God bless her, still at his side. He soldiered on into the great void with a smile on his face even if he did cry a little. He was wondering, Mom told us later, if they served Pernod in heaven, and was apparently quite put out when she said she wasn’t sure.

Dad’s main vice, aside from my mother, was the sea, and that pure love of the sea was the one thing both my father and Uncle Chuck had in common. They both reveled in the mere idea of being at sea, they breathed the sea and I’m sure salt water ran in their veins, but there was a perverse quality to their lust. On reflection it took perhaps twenty years of passive observation to figure out exactly what had so distorted their sea-fever. And yes, it has something to do with genes and memory and yes, change. And this is where I came to play a small, supporting role in the unfolding drama of their lives.

As it turned out, they both enjoyed racing sailboats, and they seemed to enjoy racing against one another. When they were both out on the water, which was often, and when they were in reasonable proximity to one another, it was like watching Athenians and Persians at the Battle of Salamis. Splinters and shouted insults between boats, shaking fists and trembling lips, and then – me. The little kid huddled just out of sight – taking it all in. I was, it turned out, the last witness to their continuing war, to the unending, everlasting fratricide that defined our family’s life. In the end, Dad stopped racing his own boat because he couldn’t get insurance anymore, and that was the end – for a time – of my life on the water. I’m certain this was all a prudent choice on the insurers’ part, as apparently sailing was just another venue for their little war, for them to tear each other to shreds, yet their tactical inexactitudes were not what the underwriters had in mind; still, while I was impressed at the time, you shouldn’t be. Destroying sailboats in random displays of filial hatred is a game best left to addled children, and, who knows, maybe all this was just another genetic issue working it’s way to the surface.

But even all that Death there was more Change in store for Chuck and myself; the sea kept calling us and eventually I returned to sailing, for you see, I too loved the water.

After Dad passed my sailing fires slowly burned down to embers, yet it was about that time Uncle Chuck caught the cruising bug; I would – on the other hand and in short order – become interested in girls – and cars. Yet the sea was always there, and I soon found myself thinking about Dad and his boats. Soon I wanted to sail again, sail all the time, and Chuck provided both the means and, unexpectedly, the end.

And I think our coming together again was as inevitable as it was unavoidable, and Uncle Chuck and I discovered we both missed my dad far too much to let go of one another. Soon I discovered Chuck’s ‘hatred’ had simply evaporated, and I have to admit it never dawned on me that what they had endured all their lives was a peculiar form of love.

Because frankly, I didn’t know Chuck very well, had not the slightest idea what made the guy tick. Dad had always painted an impressionist’s landscape of his brother: like a Seurat it made a peculiar sense from a distance – but the closer you got all form dissolved into blurry chaos – and while clearly in the noise there was color of a sort, in my vision of Chuck the truth was not so easily discovered – without a little distance, anyway. Yet I accepted this landscape without question, and accepted these distortions as our collective Truth.

I had so much to learn, and the world’s worst teacher as my guide.

After college I took a year off and wandered through France, my grandfather’s homeland – and I did so on foot mostly, but spent a few weeks on a canal barge – and while I might have been following Dad on his Parisian idyll, there were deep familial roots in France’s ancient soil, and I had yet to feel them before that trip. After father’s death I understood I needed to feel these roots, these connections. And I say ‘need’ intentionally, like we need air to breathe, like without exposure to these influences we might as well shuffle off this mortal coil. Anyway, call France an ‘Elective Affinity’ on my part; Goethe wouldn’t give a damn and it’s as close to the truth as words can take us. Besides, I found after graduation I had this complete and inexplicable desire to paint landscapes and eat snails drenched in garlic-butter. Boston offered little to satisfy these urgings and Mom decided to move back to England as well – so off I went.

But I note here that Chuck wanted very much that I come work in the bank, follow in his footsteps, and oddly enough it was this impulse more than any other that set me off on my wanderings. There is, you see, a certain gravity to the footsteps we follow. Uncle Chuck was a little miffed and I’m sure Dad was laughing his ass off while arm wrestling Toulouse Lautrec over a bottle of absinthe in the Parisian whorehouse that must surely be his heaven.

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I had been around enough docks and boats by that time to know that families are like tides. There’s an ebb and flood to our anguish and joy, dangerous currents swirl around the rough edges of their need. But there’s a sort of inevitableness within these cycles, change is predictable within a certain range of movement. A family’s pain is often most apparent after a bad storm – but time heals all wounds, doesn’t it? – even if, after all is said and done, a little pain remains. I suppose it’s just our nature to go with the flow, so in time Chuck got past the desire to control everything and accepted my departure. You might say he was learning to accept change. Or perhaps the gravity of which I spoke flowed more deeply through our veins than even I suspected.

When I came back from France I started at The Fletcher School, at Tufts, and was taken with the grand idea that I might turn out to be a decent diplomat. So, I set my sights on working for the State Department, and Uncle saw this as well within a range of acceptable outcomes and gave up on the idea of my working on the 48th floor; soon he was inviting me, and an endless if stately progression of girlfriends, out for a spin on the Bay on his old racing boat, and then almost every weekend, too. Then it was every weekend. On Thursday evenings in the summer it was soon a given I’d crew during the informal races that took place in the waters off downtown. We soon developed, you see, a little gravity of our own, for I needed him as much as he did me.

He was a careful sailor, prudent, as unlike my father as he could be. Before casting off lines for even a quick sail out to the rocks and ledges around Flying Place, the tanks would be filled and the larder stocked, his battered Plath sextant ever ready to take a quick sight, or even a bearing-off if needed. He explained it to me thus one crisp autumn afternoon: suppose, he said, you’re out on Mass Bay, maybe headed out to look at whales or cross over to P’town – and the rudder breaks. Just snaps off. Soon you find yourself drifting off toward the Gulf Stream and your next landfall might be Ireland, or more fun still, Greenland. “Would you,” he said, “rather make the trip with a little food and water on board, or make do for six weeks on a six-pack of Dr Pepper and that bag of Doritos?”

An interesting philosophy of life, don’t you think?

So, he was Prudent. The laces on his boat shoes were always double-knotted – “No need to trip and fall overboard, is there!” So complete was my upbringing I didn’t even know there were people who double-knotted their shoes – until Chuck pointed this out.

While Dad didn’t mind somersaulting down the road less traveled, Chuck wasn’t about to go any such place with stopping by the auto club first. “Always keep your charts up to date! It’s a pain in the ass but keep up with your Notices to Mariners!” Always do your homework, in other words. Right, got it!

My dad had always been too busy hurling the middle finger at his brother to teach me a thing about sailing; now, at last I had a teacher, and a damn fine one, too. I paid attention. And soon he was looking over the girls I brought along, sizing them up. “Now that’s a damn fine woman,” he’d confide while we tied off the boat beyond earshot, or “Goddamnit, you can do better than that knock-kneed imbecile!” He was patient, steady, cool, and I was coming to feel quite at home with him. And anyway, he was usually right about the girls.

We started going out to dinner a couple of times a week, usually to talk about world events but sometimes to talk about football or – yes – sailing away to parts unknown someday soon.

He talked a lot about crossing the Atlantic someday, maybe cruising slowly through the canals of France in search of the perfect loaf of bread, that perfect bottle of wine he just knew was out there waiting – for those willing to look, anyway. I tried to get him to loosen up, to try to be spontaneous from time to time, to live his dreams. No such luck, he wouldn’t have it.

Those dreams were beyond the range of his tides, weren’t they?

But come August every year we looked forward to the boat show in Newport, and it was always a fine day when we loaded up in his ancient Land Rover and headed south down 95 to look at the newest boats and gadgets. We called it Dreamville. Odd, now that I think of it.

One year we went down and looked over a bunch of cruising sailboats: “Just the thing, you know, for a week in Maine!” or “Hell, you never know, I might just get an itch and have to do the Bermuda Race next June.” But there was a darker undercurrent inside his dreaminess: “Son, I’m getting too old to handle a big racing boat anymore.” I began to hear this more frequently, at dinner sometimes, and then after one particular boat show, when I had to drive the Land Rover back to Boston. And while his thinking was methodical, logically methodical, he kept his dreams within that precious range of the comfortable.

My last year of school, when we went to the show in Newport, I paused and listened when he talked to a couple of boat-builders about the best boats capable of crossing the Atlantic, about this or that feature, and though I heard him say “that’s just a damn fine idea” more than a few times, I could see he had his eye on one boat in particular. “What do you think of her?” he kept asking me, and “I like the lines of her, don’t you?” We kept coming back to that boat over and over, and we crawled below time and again; there had been a nasty recession on for a couple of years and the builder looked hopeful each time Chuck came by – and despondent each time he walked away. Late that final afternoon of the show, as folks were shutting down their booths for the year, Chuck ambled over to the builder and pulled out his checkbook. I thought the builder, a spry man from Maine, was going to have a heart attack right there. A Merry Christmas was, I’m sure, had by one and all that year.

But – had Chuck been Spontaneous? I wasn’t sure – maybe a glimmer, just maybe.

Graduation rolled around that next May and I was slated to head off to Virginia a few weeks later; Uncle was in a little bit of a funk, and hell, I was too. An important chapter in our lives was drawing to a close and we knew it; things would be Different. Our lives were going to Change, one more time. What was interesting about that brief interlude, as I look back on things from forty years on, was how much I had changed during those few brief years. The impulsiveness my father had posited in me had slowly, inexorably given way to more the more immediate gravity of his brother; I had become a little less spontaneous, a little more cool and reserved, definitely better suited to the life Chuck had made of his world.

I was driving down 95 through New Jersey on that first trip south when I pulled off the road to grab some coffee. I looked down and noticed my old boat shoes were double-knotted.

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I didn’t see Chuck for a few years; I instead spent two years trapped in D.C. behind a desk, always preparing for another exam, and rarely had two consecutive days off. I did have one three-day weekend after my first year, so made it up to Boston for Chuck’s birthday, and that was also the first year I’d spent without seeing the ocean, let alone sailing on it. Mom got sick after that time and I landed a temporary posting to the Embassy in London; Chuck came over more than once to lend a hand and I kept him posted as best I could on changes in my life – but you could say at best those were brief conversations, short talks with plenty of time to spare for rambling discussions of the weather.

The temporary posting turned into a semi-permanent position and I took a flat near Paddington Station, an area teeming with Indian restaurants and short-posted diplomats; I proceeded to eat curry three times a day and soon developed all sorts of interesting gastrointestinal disorders. ‘The shape of things to come?’ I wondered. Mom got better – a relative term, I know, and I learned more about her family – and my own – and time passed gently by. Uneventfully might be a better word.

A year later I had a three week stretch of vacation lined-up for the coming summer and I called Chuck, let him know I was free; he had decided to do the Bermuda Race and had wanted to invite me along – but didn’t want to intrude – “In case you have other plans.”

Right.

Other plans?

“Well, you never know!” And I can still hear his voice. He was happy with the new boat and looking forward to sailing her, and sailing her hard. He reminded me of Dad when I heard the same deeply resonant, discontented happiness in his voice. “Doing an ocean race like this is a big deal,” he went on. “Grand memories are made on trips like this, William,” he told me time and again.

How true, how true. And how very much like my father he sounded on those brief, flooding tides.

I started relearning how to shoot noon-sights with a sextant and use sight reduction tables to sort out the math for Altair; I started exercising and going to a Japanese place near the Embassy to clean the curry from my system, and I even managed to find a couple of Brits with Admiral’s Cup boats who wanted a semi-seasoned navigator. I was in training! I started to run again, lift weights. Change was in the air!

About that time I had a semi-serious affair with a girl I’d met while out jogging one day. Sweet kid, really lovely – if a bit mad. When I looked at Angela West I got weak in the knees. Her clock was ticking, however, and I seem to remember all she had on her mind was making babies. And her taking me out to the family farm for a look-see one sunny April afternoon. She didn’t want me to go sailing; no, she wanted to go off on holiday and stay with her family in Devonshire. Let’s see…three weeks of up-tight cream teas or a mad ocean race with Uncle Chuck and three of his best, most disreputable friends.

Still, breaking up with Angela seemed to hit very hard. I can still see her face. She simply couldn’t believe anyone would walk away from the wonders of Devonshire and clotted cream.

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I flew into Logan in late May, helped get the boat ready to race; Chuck took time to acquaint me with her updated electrical systems and the minor idiosyncrasies in the updated Nav setup. All this while we provisioned and got ready for the start off Newport. The Race Committee came by to inspect all the boats and their systems, and especially the safety gear. Seminars were held on the dynamics of the Gulf Stream and it’s atmospheric interactions; radio procedures for emergencies were detailed and our responsibilities thereto spelled-out. The whole affair was all very well organized, and the entire process seemed to enliven the physicians Chuck had invited to come along as crew. We were getting stoked; Chuck was flat-out beside himself with excitement. He’d never raced his own boat to Bermuda and he was all raging testosterone, almost like a predator sprinting in for the kill.

And really, the point I’m trying to make is this. The race was a big deal, certainly, but wasn’t it all about having fun? Still, whatever “fun” I found seemed to have gotten lost in Chuck’s free-flowing testosterone; as I looked around at the men in these pre-race seminars I saw more than a few hyper-competitive risk-takers among the people gathered, bankers and stockbrokers and lawyers, all well-heeled and prosperous I’m sure, movers and shakers each and every one of them. But were they having fun? Or were they just exporting their fierce competitiveness from the boardroom to the sea. Looking at Chuck was all I needed to know the answer to that question.

I would say happy, yes; maybe even having fun – of a sort. Maybe in the same way engineering the hostile takeover of a rival business can be fun. “Oh yes, George, sorry to have snuffed out your life’s work and put you on the street, but hey, it’s nothing personal. I’m sure you understand…” Maybe I understood, maybe I didn’t, but while I watched these men strutting about like peacocks in their plaid trousers and Polo shirts I began to feel a little uneasy. Maybe just a little out of my element. I think my father had been uneasy with these sorts, and all his life, too. Maybe he’d just taken to fighting the wars he could, fought the battles he thought he might have a chance at winning, or at least walking away not too badly injured.

I think I began to look at Chuck a little differently after that. If this was his idea of fun then we’d soon part company. I was, after all, my father’s son.

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I don’t want to dwell on the race; it isn’t important. We knifed through the Gulf Stream with ease and negotiated the reefs around the north side of Bermuda with no problem. We finished second in our class, a respectable showing for a 42 foot cruising boat, and Uncle was pleased as punch. I flew back to London, Chuck and his doctor-buddies sailed on to Nova Scotia and worked their way back down the coast back to Boston; I heard later they ate a bunch of lobster, drank too much scotch and had a grand time. End of story.

Mom was much better by then, and good thing, too. Soon after my return the head of section called me to his office and told me to get my things in order and pack for a hot climate. He detailed my new posting and I groaned. I bitched. I hesitated – right there in his office. Thoughts of quitting and returning to Boston danced in my mind, of maybe moving up to the 48th floor and putting my recent experience to use in more profitable undertakings; all sorts of crap flashed through my mind – and then I remembered those strutting peacocks in their plaid trousers.

“Out of my element,” I said softly as memory washed away anger, revealing the cold stone walls of that other world.

“What’s that, Bill?”

I shook myself physically away from thoughts of Boston, returned to my flat and packed my things. A few days later I was on my way to Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon.

The assignment of my dreams.

Yes. My thoughts exactly. I spent the next few years of my life there, and saw Uncle Chuck only rarely. Sailing was soon little more than a fond, if distant memory, and I seem to recall my shoelaces came undone from time to time.

◊◊◊◊◊

So the years passed with little said between us, and I really didn’t know what was going on with him during that period. He had tried to forget about Ruth, he wrote once, by sailing up and down the east coast, but that had been a bust. Then one day another letter came. He had taken-up riding, was cruising all over the country on a motorcycle. I sat up when I read that letter, if only because a motorcycle was a symptom of something deep and dark. Something he didn’t want to tell me.

I asked the ambassador for vacation and got a month, then called Chuck and told him I was on my way.

“Good,” I heard him say through the scratchy connection, “we’ve got some unfinished business we need to get out of the way.”

◊◊◊◊◊

He met me at Logan, and yes, in the same old slate blue Land Rover he’d had since forever, and we drove over to his slate blue-hulled boat. He had The Baby Ruth completely provisioned and cleaned-up, by the way, and she shone like a diamond. Her teak freshly varnished and all the chrome glittering to a sharply faceted brilliance under that moist April sun, we jumped on board and I stood-to and cast off lines like I had so many times before – with him – and with my father. Chuck brought Ruth into the wind while I raised the main and unfurled the staysail, then the high-clewed yankee. Full sail set, we close-reached out the inner harbor channel, right under the final approach to Logan as jets screamed by just overhead, and as he pointed up a bit into the wind the cutter bit into the breeze and danced her way across the harbor. We quickly made our way out into Massachusetts Bay, onto waters so familiar they seemed like home to me.

We’d hardly said a word to one another through all this, and I wondered why that felt so natural. Had we really so little to say to one another? Or in the end, had we done this so many times we no longer had need for words? I watched him as he sat behind the wheel, his grey eyes focused on the pulling sails, his ruddy cheeks turned a little into the wind, to better feel each molecule hitting his skin. He made course corrections with each little change in the wind, and he made them gently, intuitively, and I wondered why other kinds of change had been so difficult for him. Was it that he didn’t know how to react to things he didn’t feel on his skin? Was the wind truly his only real companion?

Then I thought about Ham, his boy, his son, and all that had rained down on Chuck over the years after his son’s death. Had he handled that grief so badly? What would I have done that he hadn’t, I wondered: follow in my father’s footsteps – paint whores in Paris? Or…had all Chuck’s steely resolve been an act? Had he pushed change aside to provide stability and comfort for the woman he loved? Hell, hadn’t he done that for my benefit too? Had Chuck been trying to provide stability for his kid brother and in the end resented my father? Because within their own peculiar gravity, hadn’t my father always been so exuberantly, maliciously unappreciative? There had never been any doubt about Ruth’s love, had there? Or Ham’s. But what about my love for the old guy?

And what did it say about me that I had to ask that of myself? Had I been as relentlessly unappreciative as my father? I told myself I loved the old fart, but really, was love beyond my understanding too? Why hadn’t I fallen in love with Angela? With any woman?

I felt walled off from love, alone, adrift where love was concerned, but where had this wall come from? Would it take the raging winds of a storm to push me past the edges of understanding?

Just what would it take to come to terms with love?

◊◊◊◊◊

“I don’t want to dwell on the reasons,” he said, “but there are a few things I need to go over with you, that you need to know.” He seemed unnaturally calm as he sat there in the boat, calm even for him. We’d just dropped the hook in the bay beside the Kennedy Library; he had of course already loaded sandwiches and soda before I arrived, probably enough to feed an army for three weeks. Surprise, my what a surprise! After eating in silence, the sun on our necks and a fresh breeze rippling through the remnants of our hair, this odd turn of phrase felt more than a little ominous. I noticed his shoelaces then – single knotted and one was coming undone.

“Is everything alright, Chuck?”

“Probably not.” He looked lost. “Maybe. Who knows?” He proceeded to tell me that over the past year he’d been treated for a mass behind his right knee.

“A mass?” I said — but I felt like the world had just dropped out from under me. “What is it?”

“It’s malignant, Bill! What difference does it make what the goddamn thing is.”

“Is or was? You said it is malignant?”

“Yeah, it is, and it’s not responding. Remission’s always a possibility, I guess. But look, that’s not what I want to talk about,” he turned away, turned to face the sea.

“Okay Chuck, let’s have it.” Why did it suddenly feel like I was the father, and he the son? What did he feel right now? Did he feel like he was talking to his son? Or to his brother? What about me? Did he feel like he was talking to a nephew, or was I suddenly something more – or less?

“We’ve got some papers to go over. Family stuff. While you’re here.” Now he was speaking in staccato bursts, like he had ‘change’ in his sights – just before the helicopter Ham piloted spun out of control and fell into the Mekong. “I’ve got a Will ready. There’s family I’ll need you to look after, William. Here, in Boston, and elsewhere.”

That was news to me. I struggled with the math: let’s see, there was Ruth — but I doubted she’d figure prominently in his will at this point. He had me, my mother. There was some distant family in France that I’d heard mention of once or twice in passing. But no one else – Oh! That I was aware of – I felt – Confused – A little – Upset – By the direction – This conversation – Was taking.

Something was – Changing – Something big – Unexpected – Out of – Character.

He was watching me, gauging my response. I remember my left eyelid twitching, my mouth dry as fields of cotton.

“My secretary,” he said – so softly. “Judy Masterson. You remember her?”

I did. And maybe I nodded my remembrance, and maybe I didn’t. I was shaking inside. Earthquakes tore at the foundations of my understanding of the universe.

“I have a daughter, William.”

“Indeed? Bravo!”

“You know, Bill, you sound a little, well, like I imagine I used to sound. Disapproving. Pompous.”

“You left out incredulous. And maybe anger, too. Did Ruth know?”

He shook his head, looked away. “No,” he whispered.

“You have a daughter, you’ve provided for her for – what? For how long, Chuck?”

“She’s twenty one, well, she will be, this summer.”

“Twenty? She’s twenty years old? This has been going on for twenty years?” I was blown away, and certain I was beginning to sound more than a little hysterical.

He nodded his suddenly leonine head, but he looked tired as that moment drew near and passed us by. The tired and lonely of an old lion, I remember thinking. The head of his pride and no longer as quick as he used to be.

“Her name is Madison.”

“Madison Masterson?” I chuckled. “Isn’t that a little over the top?”

He shook his head again. “Madison Addington. I adopted her some time ago. I’ve called her Maddie for years.”

“That was thoughtful. Have you married, what’s her name? Judy?”

I think he was about to cry just then, but I don’t remember. Maybe I was. Then: “She passed away, oh, a few years before Ruth.”

“I see. Who raised her, Chuck? Did you hire someone, uh, to take care of that, too?”

“Bill?”

“Yes, Chuck?”

“Fuck you, Bill.”

I looked away. I’d never heard him so much as whisper anything remotely resembling that word in all my life, and anyway, having been locked away within the inner sanctums of the diplomatic world for a few years his was an unforgivable breech of etiquette. My feathers were ruffled.

But maybe I deserved it. Every bit of it. I had cornered the market on assholes that afternoon, of that much I was sure.

“Alright, Chuck,” I said as I watched him, “what do you need me to do?”

He turned, looked at me with all the intensity an old lion can muster: “Cross the Atlantic. The three of us. I want the three of us to cross together.”

My world grew fuzzy and dim and I wondered why, then I heard myself laughing, laughing so hard I almost fell overboard. But maybe I was crying a little, too. Hard to tell, in a moment like that.

Things got a little quiet after that. We had trouble pulling the anchor up from the deep muddy bottom, and even the jets roaring over as we motored past the airport seemed unnaturally quiet. I found myself holding my breath from time to time, and I think I even wondered why once or twice.

◊◊◊◊◊

We made our way to The Chart House for dinner, after we’d tucked the boat in for the evening; going there with Uncle Chuck had been a tradition for years, and it would be nice, I thought, to be on neutral ground. A safe harbor, you know, as in – any port in a storm? He did his scotch and water thing, and I had my usual Mai-Tai, you know, one of those drinks with a little yellow umbrella sticking out the slab of pineapple. Well, I take that back; I had six of ‘em – in the first half hour. I was well on my way to a full blown diabetic coma when Chuck told the cocktail waitress I’d had my limit for the evening.

Oh! Did I mention Madison was going to join us for dinner? The cousin I’d not known about until about two-thirty that afternoon?

Had the trap been perfectly set, or what?

She was, he told me, ‘somewhat-kinda-sorta’ bright. She was at Harvard finishing up her BS in biology – in three years, mind you – and going to medical school at Columbia in the Fall – at the age of 20 – well, 21. He was understandably quite proud of the girl, this daughter of his. He loved her, and after spending a half hour with her I understood why. She was just about the nicest human being I’d ever met and, Chuck advised, she was one helluva sailor on top everything else. She was smart as hell, sure, but she was nimble and quick-witted as well. I saw she’d come prepared to do battle with me that evening, but visibly relaxed when she saw she’d only have to match wits with a quite well-toasted, patently blithering idiot. She came with her boyfriend, by the way – whom Chuck quite naturally disapproved of. The hapless kid had majored in philosophy and wanted to go into the Peace Corps.

“Bad move, fella,” I slurred, “better take up Mai-Tais before your light fades from the universe.”

Yes, I was that charming.

But Chuck had already told Madison about his idea of slogging across the Atlantic – together, the three of us. She was all for it, head over heels infatuated with the idea – as a matter of fact. Yes, a nice little trap had been set. And I’d walked right into it.

“So when,” I tried to say as I picked at the salad that had, somehow, quite mysteriously appeared on the table before me, “do you plan on embarking on this little adventure?” I’m not sure, but I think I was drooling on my lap by that point.

“That depends,” Uncle said.

“On what, may I ask, does this jolly journey depend?” By the way, I talk funny when I’m inebriated, and it’s one of the few things I learned from father. I’ve taken to it quite naturally, or so I’ve been told.

“You, William.”

“Me? Moi?” I launched into a grand soliloquy in my very best French, no accent, about how they were quite foolish to make this enterprise contingent upon myself; of course Madison came back in her very best French, no accent, that I couldn’t possibly be so selfish as to deny our beloved Chuck the chance to make this once in a lifetime crossing – the chance to make his dream come true. ‘True,’ I said in defeat. She had marshaled her arguments, was ready for me. Poor me, she said; I had come to the battlefield unarmed. Who knew a grown man could be so stupid?

“Moi? Stupide? Allez et laissez-moi en paix!”

“Oui, stupide, et vous sentez mal, aussi!”

Chuck, scotch in hand, watched the two of us going at it with his nicest, most paternal smile just barely out of sight. I had just met someone as stubborn and obstinate as myself. A good sailor, too.

The Bastard! He knew she had me, too.

I never had a chance. Not a prayer, even.

◊◊◊◊◊

Which is how, three weeks later, I found myself sitting at the chart table starting our plot as we set a northeasterly course off the northern tip of Cape Cod. And here I need to digress.

Most people who make an eastward crossing of the Atlantic in small sailboats do so by heading for Bermuda, there stopping for fuel and a brief sanity check, and then, once insanity has been confirmed, by heading on to the Azores, and perhaps on to Portugal or the English Channel. Assuming, of course, they make it to the Azores in the first place.

Then there is another group, another type of sailor. Let’s call members of this group the ‘well-and-truly crazy’ crowd. Mad as a balloon does nicely, too. Fucked-up works, as well.

Those people whose insanity has never really been at issue, the ‘well-and-truly-crazy’ who walk among us, make their crossing by sailing along the western edge of the Gulf Stream, north and east past Nova Scotia, with an eye to skirting icebergs along a northern route that just misses Greenland and Iceland. Basically, the same track the Titanic took, only back-asswards. This route is cold, prone to sudden storms from both the north and south, and I’ll not forget to remind you that in mid-May icebergs are still present in rather alarming numbers. By the way, this is the route that ‘macho’ sailors take, those that are racing or trying to beat some sort of record. Or, as mentioned, the plain crazy among us.

Cruisers in small sailboats just don’t take this route unless they absolutely, positively need to. As we weren’t at the moment fleeing religious persecution I thought it safe to mention to Chuck that this necessity was in the instant case notably absent, that any decision to take the northern route was flawed, dangerous even.

I think my first hint that things were destined to be ‘interesting’ was when – on hearing the word ‘dangerous’ – Chuck and Madison smiled and nodded their heads vigorously.

C’est la vie. Il ya, mais pour la grace de Dieu je aller.

But the weather was glorious that first day. Even the first few days, as it turned out, and as I began to lay out our plot on chart after chart, the fresh sea air and abundant sunshine all too apparent, I had the audacity to think that our crossing might just be uneventful, and that we’d arrive in Ireland sometime in late-June with deep suntans and grand memories to share over pints of Guinness.

Like I said; C’est la vie. Je peux etre assez stupide.

◊◊◊◊◊

I think, looking back on it all, the third day out we should have taken stock of things and turned back. I would have, anyway, given the choice.

Sometime after sunrise Madison and I were in the cockpit, the windvane was steering and I was feeling pretty good about the world when we heard an ungodly booming-smashing sound and the boat lurched sideways off a wave. Chuck was up the hatch a nanosecond later; in time, anyway, to see the nice bright blue and very nearly submerged shipping container that we had just slammed into. This metal colossus had struck us a glancing blow and was now gurgling away in our wake, in seconds it disappeared completely from view. Our target had been one of those box-car size iron boxes they stack about ten-high on large “container ships”; while Madison and I shook in our sea-boots Chuck told us that every year thousands of these things get washed off ships and float around like land-mines for years, hitting ships and submarines and, occasionally, sinking small yachts.

Oh gee, what fun! If I’d only known!

And we were, I knew, lucky. Had we nailed the thing dead-on our bow – instead of taking that glancing blow to the side – we’d have, I think it safe to say, very probably gone down in less than a minute. The ocean felt very big those first few hours after impact, and the boat very small indeed. That the hull was deeply gouged and had not fractured was testimony that Uncle had indeed chosen the very best quality boat he could have; I remembered the grateful old builder quite fondly from that moment on – and do to this day. ‘You get what you pay for’ had never been proven more aptly true.

For the next few days the weather remained fairly benign: cool and growing cooler by the hour, yes, but storms had so far passed well ahead of us, or developed so far behind that they posed no threat.

In the middle of my watch on our sixth afternoon I was alone in the cockpit, scanning the horizon for ships – or, yes, shipping containers! – when I saw our first iceberg. Humbling sight, really. I called out “Iceberg, Ho!” just like the lookouts on the Titanic, too. I assume the words had the appropriate effect, as Chuck and Maddie came dashing up, Nikons in hand and motor-drives firing away; then Uncle suggested we close on the berg and photograph the thing in earnest.

And so we did. Slowly, I might add, and carefully, too, the way one circles a rattlesnake on a cool morning, not sure of the chilled creature’s striking distance. We came within a quarter mile of the berg, and it was huge, or so it felt, and the water around the base of it glowed with an ethereal silvery-blue-green sheen, radiantly so. Uncle decided to inflate the Zodiac and we lowered him away; he buzzed off and took photos of the boat next to the iceberg – an image that still gives me the shivers to this day.

Yet within a few hours icebergs were no longer a novelty, and we altered our course south a little to clear the pack-ice that lined the northern route that year. An awe-inspiring sight, to see the moon rise over vast ranges of glowing mountains – adrift below an infinite sea of stars.

And yet need I mention it got really cold after we hit the ice, and that with May poised to become June. And I’m not saying it was cool out, not even chilly – it was cold, and interestingly enough I’d been living in equatorial Africa for quite a while. When the temp just barely made it up into the forties one afternoon I grew a little panicked; when I sat my watch that night, when it fell well below freezing under those same eternal stars, I became stoically resolved that death was imminent – and I didn’t give a shit.

Yet the experience was primal. It was immediately apparent to me that the boundary between atmosphere and space is immaterial; that we exist within this faint layer of gases between an unknowing earth and the vast infinity of our universe – that had never been more obvious to me and I found the experience humbling. I felt small out there, yet never had my life felt more precious.

Maybe that’s what Chuck had been searching for – some sense of himself beyond the stony persona he’d cultivated all his life, some sense of place beyond the constructs of the 48th floor. I remember him out there under those stars bundled up in his bright yellow parka, and with a musty old wool beanie pulled down smartly over his ears, looking up at the sky – the way a kid looks up at a Christmas tree. There was hope in his huddled form, hope that life went on somehow, but I think more than that, there was the simple aura of heartfelt gratitude blazing from his failing body.

◊◊◊◊◊

Every voyage has its storm, just as each life comes face to face with events that define our strengths, and our weaknesses. Our voyage happened upon one doozy of a storm, but it found us well prepared and as ready as we could be emotionally. We had cleared Greenland and were in the gap between her vast mountains and Iceland, though both were still well north of our track, when a huge low-pressure system formed in the vast arctic north and barreled down on us. We had weatherfax on-board so had more than ample warning, yet sometimes warning induces more worry than is warranted. I can attest to that.

Gray clouds like mackerels’ scales drifted down from the north the afternoon before the storm hit; there was a large halo around the sun just before it disappeared – behind towering walls of storm cloud we saw charging down from the northwest. Seas built slowly with each increasing gust, and I waited – and watched – as each new fax came in. I plotted the center of the low on our chart, and I think I just managed to force a sense of control over myself, over my fear. The center of the low seemed to be tracking a little north of us and it soon looked as though we might escape being in the dangerous northeast quadrant of the storm, but as it always is, most things in life are relative. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor and all that; what Chuck found exhilarating I found terrifying. While I was struggled to master my fear, Maddie became short-tempered and withdrawn. No one ate a damn thing for two days, yet I will never underestimate the nutritive powers of Gatorade ever again, though it tastes just as bad coming up as it does going down.

But whatever the nascent sense of control I’d fashioned from my efforts, it soon came undone as the center of the low approached. We were running before the storm under bare poles – just the storm’s momentum pushed us onward as we’d lowered all sail by that point – but mercifully the seas didn’t become unmanageable and the temperature actually increased into the fifties and (gasp!) sixties. Waves of maybe twenty, twenty five feet, winds in the forties with an occasional gust in the high fifties; not a hurricane certainly but enough to get your adrenaline going. Mine, anyway.

And yet, there was Chuck, tethered to the boat in his safety harness, smiling like the high school quarterback who’d just thrown that nifty touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to beat an old nemesis. He was in his element and happy as hell, happy to be alive and to be with two people he cherished. He never once felt like we were in any danger so I guess Maddie and I came to feel that way too. Chuck was the strength we tapped into, and his was a sustaining strength, a soul nourishing strength. If fear is contagious, so too can sustenance be found in a smile. Thank you, Chuck, wherever you are. Thank you for that smile.

◊◊◊◊◊

Waves towering, winds howling, then scattered, scudding clouds, gentle warmth in the air. Maddie down below making fresh bread and some kind of stew that tasted better than anything I’d ever had before – or since. The bloody miracle of seeing a shadow! And what was that in the air? Earth? Tilled soil? Green hills on the horizon? I refined our position with fixes from all manner of bearings, and two days later we slip into the Irish Sea. Time ebbs slowly now, but soon the Isle of Man is ahead to port, Dublin not two days ahead. We could smell the Guinness from two hundred miles out and were intoxicated with the joy of our arrival.

◊◊◊◊◊

It turned out we made good time; I had tentatively planned to leave Chuck and Maddie in Ireland and make my way back to Africa via London but now the thought of leaving before making a final landfall in France seemed obscene. I called Washington. I twisted arms. I begged. I got two more weeks so had three to go before I had to be high-tailing it back to Africa. It would be just enough, we reasoned, so we ‘re-provisioned’ and took to the sea together – one more time.

And yes, that finality was something new in our air: this would be our last journey together. It was unspoken now, but we all knew it.

Chuck’s plan was to take the boat up the Seine to Paris then wander the French canals for as long as he could. It was his life’s ambition, he’d told me more than once, to while away his last days on a slow boat as he drifted between limestone cliffs and vineyards bursting with life. Not a bad way to go, I remember thinking at the time.

We had another 700 or so miles to fetch Le Havre, where the mast would be un-stepped and stored, so with time and a bit of luck permitting, I’d stay with Chuck and Maddie all the way to Paris.

But the Irish Sea is a harsh mistress. She often has other plans.

Cold currents funnel down this stretch from deep beneath arctic seas; they collide with a weakening Gulf Stream as she deposits the last of her vast energy into the English Channel and North Sea. Cold air masses arc down over arctic waters and slam into warmer masses that have crossed the Atlantic with the Stream; when collisions occur between these air masses the results can be stupendous. The Fastnet Race is held in these waters, and in 1979 such a storm formed with little notice. Of the 306 yachts that started the race more than 69 dropped out, 23 were lost or abandoned, fifteen souls were dead and gone when the reckoning was complete. Clearly the area is not chanced upon lightly; the prudent skipper keeps his eye on the weather. Like a hawk.

These thoughts weighed heavily on my mind as we motored between Land’s End and The Isles of Scilly on a mirror flat sea; it was so calm and hot on this last leg of the journey that I’d have cheerfully gone naked had Maddie not been aboard. The deck broiled the bottoms of our feet and the refrigerator chose this most opportune time to give up the ghost. No storms threatened, the only thing standing in our way during this last passage was the heavy shipping that floods in and out of the Channel day and night, and while one does not cross this shipping lane without due care, radar reduces the stress of the exercise to modest levels.

So we made Le Havre with sunburned shoulders and blistered feet; checked into a decent hotel while the mast was removed and the balky fridge fixed, then after a few days standing under cool showers, we motored up the Seine. Calm this stretch of river is not; it comprises industrial wastelands punctuated by idyllic scenes of pastoral beauty, all underscored by heavy commercial barge traffic that roars by in a never-ending parade – yet the river was enchanting. I could see why Chuck wanted to experience this ancient beauty for himself, and make this a parting gift to us – and to not keep the magic to himself.

We made Paris in a couple of days and found moorage in the marina by the Bastille, then in a remarkable act of symmetry we took rooms at the Crillon – where my parents went for tea and Pernod the day they met. We spent a few days together wandering Paris; neither Maddie nor Chuck had ever spent any real time in the city, and both were fascinated, as well as good students. We even managed to look over the shoulder of a rather talented young fellow painting hookers on the Boulevard de Clichy.

When I left a week later Maddie remained for a time, they spent the summer together wandering canals and following their noses, I’m sure, to each new bakery, into each new alluring vineyard.

I remember turning and looking at him as I left; he was alone in the cockpit tinkering with a disassembled winch when he looked up and saw me watching. He smiled, gave me a little salute and smiled that gentle smile of his, and waved before I turned away.

It was the last time I ever saw him.

◊◊◊◊◊

I took her call one day in April, not quite a year later. He was gone, Maddie told me, after a last brief struggle with his own wayward cells. Those cells had, I think, intended to impose change from within and Chuck simply wasn’t going to have it. Rather than submit to their prevarications I imagined him just giving them the finger one more time, deciding it was time to move on and find something more productive to do with his time. What was Death to a man like him?

I thought about Uncle off and on during the flight from Nairobi to France. I thought about sailing to Bermuda and crossing the Atlantic even as Africa slipped by miles below, and the thought hit me: were all those journeys little more than metaphors? What did they represent to Chuck? To me?

And, what of me? I’d been working at State for too many years. I could quit now without feeling remorse. I was young enough to start a second career, yet old enough to realize that was out of the question. I had so much of my father’s impulsive wanderlust thrown in with Uncle’s resolute curiosity, all my father’s antipathy for corporate nonsense and absolutely none of Chuck’s will to dominate that world; any business sense I had came from monitoring economic developments in faltering banana republics. So what? That and a dime, right? I could remain at State simply by giving in to inertia; my life would pass comfortably and predictably into – what? Memory? In truth, I had no one beside Maddie now; mother was falling into a fierce dementia and was beyond my physical ability to care for – she hardly knew what planet she was on half the time. I had no wife, no children, no prospects at all along those lines. And I was tired. Tired of an encroaching sense of pointlessness that lurked behind everything I thought I might try to do.

So, yeah. Change my life, and yet I had, for all my life, failed to understand one basic element of change. Change all too often is spontaneous, messy, combustive and unplanned for. It happens. Shit happens. When you least expect it perhaps, and whether you want it to or not, Change – like a leopard – finds you unawares and springs for your throat.

You don’t plan on that, do you? You can’t just go out there and change, can you?

I arrived at Paris/Orly in the middle of a hazy afternoon in April, and I made my way pensively into the old city. Maddie and her current beau met me at the Crillon and we raised a quiet toast to Uncle, wished him a ‘bon voyage’ at dinner that evening, but in the end we were not sad.

I think we settled on the idea that is was inappropriate to be sad about a life so well-lived. We missed him, as I suppose we’ll all be missed, one way or another, after we’re gone. Still, I felt him in that evening, alive, watching over us. Maybe having a good laugh, too.

The three of us walked along the Seine, from the gardens all the way to the Ilse St Louis, then across the little bridge that carried us across to the little marina by the Bastille. I wanted to go there once again and see the boat nestled in her slip, find Chuck stripping that winch and re-greasing it. I wanted to hear him cuss in his own unique way, like when he barked his shin coming up the companionway ladder. A particularly hard blow would elicit an ‘Oh, Fudge!’ but more often than not you’d catch an errant ‘Piffle!’ – or perhaps the ever deadly ‘Fark!’ might slip unawares from his lips. I remember him saying ‘Shit!’ only once, and when he turned and saw he’d been caught red-handed he turned red and then slunk off to hide somewhere. No kidding, he was that kind of guy. Anachronism doesn’t even begin to cover what he was; he wasn’t born in the wrong era – I think he ended up on the wrong planet and was just as confused as any of us might be when he figured that one out.

But as with everything he else he did with his time, he made all our lives better just by being here.

Eventually he found an end to his journey in a small city southeast of Paris, a charming medieval university town with the singularly discordant name of Dole. The boat was there now, too; tied up and getting filthy – I supposed. I could just see her gleaming teak now weathered and dull, bird crap an inch deep all over everything, and I wondered what to do about it.

So, you may now. if you’d like, think that it is of endings that I write, but I’d beg to differ with you. You might think our story had quite naturally found its way to an end, but in truth it was only just beginning. My understanding of Chuck was just beginning, and Maddie was as clueless as I.

Things are rarely as simple as they seem, at least not until you clear away the bird shit.

Change happens, I think I remember telling you some time back; and change happens whether you’re ready for it – or not. While change all too often marks an end to things, I was beyond any and all doubt unprepared for the beginnings that lay just ahead. No one was. There’s no way you can prepare for an emotional holocaust, just as there is little you can do to prepare yourself for a miracle. I think I was clueless about love, real love, and would need to learn how to accept love when it came my way. Even if I was completely unprepared.

◊◊◊◊◊

21 April 1987

My next journey with Maddie, and her new boyfriend Stephen, began a little after seven the next morning when an unlikely looking train of abbreviated proportions pulled out of the Bercy-Gare de Lyon bound for Dijon, then Dole, a trip of about four hours if all went well. The countryside seemed to be just waking from a hard winter’s sleep, and yet just now we looked at pale traceries of spring’s green budding were everywhere we looked.

Villages began their working day as amber sunlight slanted through puffy clouds onto lanes that meandered like gently bubbling streams deep within their sheltering valleys. Little farms nestled sleepily into rolling hills; tractors smoked and bounced, were poised to till rich black soil – and so, yes, we looked out over a passage of renewal. As the little train creaked to stops in villages along the way, I looked at little snippets of the medieval world clinging to life in the late 20th-century, yet I thought about the contrasts between life here and the brutal existence that people clung to in equatorial Africa. Having now spend years in the region, I could see that life in much of Africa was much as it had been in medieval times, but people in the rural African villages I’d visited lived-on in that manner unknowingly, and usually, involuntarily. On this spring morning, when I looked out my window I saw villagers tending a usable past, stone walled sanctuaries where people manicured and watered their medievalism, nurtured and harvested their traditions. In some villages it was obvious this tradition was a cash crop, in others it looked like a cherished way of life – and these people looked ready to fight to the death to preserve their past.

Chuck had, apparently, spent a good deal of time in Dole on his last journey. Maddie told me, as the train rumbled across that waking landscape, that Chuck had made a lasting impression with the people there. Chuck had never, however, mentioned anything to us about the people in Dole, or his experience of the place, and yet she’d talked to him only a few days before he passed. She had, however, told these people our itinerary. Someone would be, she had been assured, on hand to meet us, and take us to The Baby Ruth.

It was, then, with no small amount of curiosity in our hearts that we took-in waving banners with our names on them as our train pulled into the station. There was an official looking delegation waiting on the platform, these men and women flanked by a small band playing The Star Spangled Banner. We saw a few old men in uniform on the platform, soldiers and airmen mostly. As the train thudded to a stop I looked at Maddie and she looked at me – and everyone on the platform was looking at us and pointing excitedly.

“Fark!” Maddie said slowly.

“Piffle!” I think I managed to say.

“What’s going on?” friend Stephen howled. He looked put-out, almost scared, but then again he’d never met Chuck. He had no idea what a force of nature looked like. Now the truth of the matter was slowly dawning like this Spring Green blooming all around us: maybe Maddie and I hadn’t known a helluva lot about Chuck, either, but his life was all around us now, in full bloom. I think I felt him smiling again, too.

I know I’ve mentioned more than once I really didn’t know Uncle Chuck all that well, and nothing speaks to that better than how the whole Maddie episode caught me so completely unawares. And yet I was coming to understand that what I had learned about him over the years had been rendered through the fractured prism of my father’s version of Chuck’s life. But Maddie didn’t even have that twisted compass to steer by – who knows what was running through her mind as she took in this impossible sight.

We got our bags down from the overhead rack and walked out into the craziest day of our lives.

◊◊◊◊◊

Saturday, 21 April 1945

The day began, like so many others had for Captain Charles W Addington, U S Army Air Corps, with an early morning pre-flight mission brief. An hour later he was flying in loose formation, his squadron’s fighters high in the skies over eastern France. The day’s mission: guard a formation of B-17s lumbering towards Bavaria. Addington flew a tired but well maintained P-51D Mustang, and while not perhaps the best pilot in his group, he was certainly competent. He had three recent ‘kills’ stenciled beneath his canopy, and had flown dozens of ground support missions since D-Day. Now, with German forces scattered and in disarray, Allied air forces were mopping up the last bits of infrastructure that supported the German war effort; today’s B-17 raid was targeting ammunition caches in the mountains south of Munich.

It wasn’t a large force of B-17s, just 18 of the droning bombers were ahead and below his formation, but there were still enemy aircraft coming up to meet the threat. German fighters, now mainly older Messerschmitt 109s flown by impossibly young pilots, were still managing to shoot down a -17 every now and then, so Addington’s wing had been pulled from ground support and detailed to escort this morning’s raid. They had departed an airfield near Paris just twenty minutes before his squadron met up with the bombers, and now he was scanning the skies for any threat to the bombers.

Someone shouted. Three fighters below, ten oclock! Another large formation at three oclock, high and diving for the bombers. Addington’s section broke-off to take the three climbing from below, and he peeled away in a rolling left turn and – inverted and smiling because he thought this stuff was above all else really fun – he pulled back on the stick and dove down toward the threat.

The Messerschmitts saw Addington’s section diving and broke off; the -109s dove toward the countryside far below; Addington pushed his throttle to the stops and continued in a steep diving pursuit. The Rolls-Royce Merlin roared with unrestrained fury now; his Mustang leapt past 400 knots and the Messerschmitts, without a significant height advantage, were soon in his sights. Then the three German aircraft broke formation and scattered; Addington took the lead aircraft and followed, lined up the Messerschmitt in his sights and fired.

He could see bits of the aircraft rip and flutter away in the slipstream, could smell raw fuel misting in the air he passed through, then orange fingers of flame licking the sky ahead. A small town lay just ahead, and he could see a group of three German Tiger tanks – firing on the city – and then he could see men on the ground defending the town as he roared over – not a hundred feet below. Addington fired another burst at the German fighter, and the -109 burst into flames and fell beyond the outskirts of the little town; he pulled back viciously on the stick to climb over a wall of limestone cliffs suddenly just ahead, climbing through three thousand feet seconds later. Instead of climbing back to the B-17s, however, he rolled and reversed course, and dove back towards the German tanks.

He didn’t have bombs – but he did have six 12.7mm machine guns. He arced around the town in a sharp banking turn, looked off his left shoulder at the tanks below, saw a truck with anti-aircraft guns firing at him and pulled up sharply, then pushed the nose over and to the right. He continued his approach, decided to come in as low as possible, to use the hills and trees for cover. The mustang had literally tons of energy stored for the run; he climbed into a high banking turn then dove for the trees now five thousand feet below. He came over the last hill at well over four hundred knots and began firing at the Tigers and their support troops on the ground.

The tanks flashed by in a blur; Addington pulled back and climbed into a steep banking turn again, maneuvered to get in position for another run, this time from a different and, he hoped, a better angle. He looked at the scene below; one of the Tigers was in flames, troops were scattering in chaos.

He made his approach, decided to come in a little slower this run, came in right over the little town and began firing at the two remaining Tigers and the anti-aircraft truck. A second tank burst into flames, more troops fell; machine gun fire ripped through his right wing. Addington pulled back on the stick hard again, pissed off now and wanting some payback. The Mustang looped over and he leveled off in a steep dive – right back down onto the remaining German armor. He emptied his guns on the tank, ran out of ammunition before he could hose off the anti-aircraft guns blazing away just yards from the last burning tank. More cannon-fire ripped into the Mustang; he broke off and turned away.

But his Mustang was vibrating oddly, and as he looked at the right wing he saw smoke and flames coming out the right side of the engine, then oil splattered back and blacked-out the windscreen and canopy. The Mustang lurched and shuddered; Addington released the canopy and let it fall away, the he rolled and – now inverted and with his head pointed at the ground below – he released his harness and fell away from the Mustang, fell towards the French countryside thousands of feet below.

He pulled the ripcord, his ‘chute blossomed and jerked him upright and he settled into the yawing descent. He saw the town below, the river that ran through it, red tile roofs and narrow winding lanes. People were running, putting out fires and pulling the wounded from old stone houses that had just been shelled by the tanks. Something whizzed by his his face; he winced and turned, saw German troops across a field firing at him. About two hundred yards away, he thought; then a group of men who looked more like farmers and shopkeepers were firing at the Germans. He put his hand on his 45 as he drifted downward, reassured by the cold, steely presence under his flight-suit.

He looked down again; the town was coming up fast now, and he smiled in that moment – because now he understood how a fly –through its many-faceted eyes – might feel when it saw a flyswatter arcing-in for the kill.

Addington landed, if what he did might rightly be called a landing, on the steeply pitched roof of a four-story building; he tumbled downward among clattering roof tiles and scattering pigeons, vaulted off the roof at an odd angle, with his arms and legs flailing-away, as if trying to fly on his own, then he landed with a smacking-splash in a slime-filled canal lining the boundary of the town.

And he splashed into the canal in front of a girl who was at than moment washing her dying father’s blood from her hands; water from Addington’s splash mingled with tears on her face and she thought for all the world that tears from heaven had come to wash away her sorrow.

Then Chuck Addington sputtered to the surface a few feet in front of her, thrashing the water like a puppy on its first swim and yapping at least that much. She stumbled back against wall behind her and looked at the flailing man as she might an angel who had just fallen from heaven.

Captain Charles W Addington, U S Army Air Corps, spat slimy water from mouth and turned, saw a beautiful young girl staring at him in wide-eyed astonishment.

“Howdy-do, ma’am,” Chuck Addington said matter-of-factly. He watched as the girl’s eyes rolled back in her head and as her body crumpled like wet tissue and fell to the little tow-path along the water’s edge.

“Fudge!” he said as he swam to the edge of the canal. He pulled a clump of mossy muck from his helmet, then tried with little success to crawl up the canal’s slimy stone wall. He heard machine gun fire, felt the water erupt as a hail of bullets churned by his side. He turned in time to see a German soldier firing at him cut down, then a fat old man with a Tommy-gun ran into view and smiled, gave him a thumbs-up gesture before running off to join the fight raging on the south side of the town, leaving Chuck Addington clinging to the slippery sides of the canal – like a wet cat. Two minutes before he had been safe in his Mustang – and now this!

And to drown in a French sewer at the feet of a beautiful girl!

“Fark! Somebody?! Uh, anyone got a rope!”

Silence.

“Piffle!”

◊◊◊◊◊

21 April 1987

We stepped off the train and onto the platform – all was good-natured chaos, a carnival atmosphere prevailed. The little band, apparently prepared to play endless streams of rousing patriotic music, launched into ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home,’ little American flags waved everywhere I looked. We had, I can safely say from the perspective of passing time, stepped into another world, and while it was a world I knew nothing about, there was something vaguely reassuring about the comically riotous atmosphere.

Had this response been generated by Chuck’s coming to town a few months ago?

As the delegation approached my mind rebelled: ‘Not possible! This is not possible!’

There followed a short speech by the Mayor, where Captain Addington’s role in saving the village during the closing days of the war was recounted, and I listened mutely, tried to pick up every detail, every nuanced reference, because they were clues to this unfolding mystery. And everyone, it seemed, knew everything about us, about Maddie and I, and the whole thing was a little surreal. I remember feeling like a time-traveler I presumed might feel, or that this was what an altered state of reality felt like.

I heard a voice in the crowd say something about ‘the day Captain Addington got shot down,’ and my mind reeled. ‘He – what?!’

There had never been even one family story of Uncle Chuck getting shot down in the war, but maybe that’s because I’d never heard any stories at all of Chuck as a pilot! None at all – not ever, not even one oblique reference. Why? My dad mentioned once, I think, that Chuck went to Europe in the war’s closing hours – but, he said, nothing of consequence happened. Ooh-la-la! Remember I said my father’s impressionist landscapes of his brother were at best questionable representations of the truth? If that was so, and if Chuck had been reluctant – for whatever reason – to dwell on the past, well, there you have it! Case closed! Yet one simple fact remained: as I stood watching and listening to the town’s band and delegates I struggled to recall just one conversation with Chuck, and we’re talking more than thirty years worth of idle chatter here, where either France or flying in the war came up. Why would he be so silent? Had he never told my father about any of this? Why not talk about it? There was no reason I could see, none at all.

Yet there had to be!

Had to be!

Now, standing on the platform I felt a great ruse stood ready, and had indeed been waiting for some time, to be uncovered.

Hundreds of smiling faces, each wanting to say hello and bid us a warm welcome, waited beneath the soft medieval-blue sky. The train pulled away from the station, stranding us, leaving us no ready line of retreat, so blinking in the light we turned to confront Chuck’s past.

◊◊◊◊◊

21 April 1945

Strong-armed men reached down and pulled him dripping from the canal. He was blue, cold and shaking, machine gun fire echoed off nearby buildings, small explosions drifted through the cool air – carrying acrid smoke everywhere. The girl, the one who had fainted dead-away, had been roused by his calls for help; she had struggled to her feet and looked down at him then run away as fast as she could.

Addington looked at the men; they smiled as they pulled him up to the tow-path.

The girl must have summoned them… he’d have to find her and thank her.

“We go!” one of the men said. “Fass! Dee Chor-mans, dey comink!”

Addington understood. Dripping wet and shivering, muscles aching and his tail-end hurting, he followed them down the stone tow-path until they ducked into a building. They were in sudden darkness and he couldn’t see a thing but the men guided him to a room and led him inside. They moved a huge stack of wooden crates and another passage was revealed; a few remained behind to seal off the escape route while Addington and his escort resumed their journey through what had to be an underground warren.

“You go there,” the toothless old man said, pointing to a heavy wooden door. “Go! There!” He turned and left; Addington went to the door and opened it. The room was well-lit, a radio set hummed against one wall, several men dressed in black, their faces blacked-out as well, sat eating bread and drinking beer.

One of the men motioned to a chair: “Come. Sit and have some cheese.”

“Right.” Addington pulled up the chair and the man passed him a hunk of bread and cheese and a tankard of ale. Addington ate.

“You the pilot?” one of the men said – in decent English.

“Guilty as charged, Your Honor,” Chuck Addington replied. No one laughed.

“Good shooting. My name is Yves.” The man held out his hand and Addington took it.

“Charles the first,” Chuck replied. “King of the Mustang Pilots.”

“Well Charles, if you had not happened along I’m afraid we’d all be very dead. Thank you.”

“Just doing my job, amigo.”

“The pilot? Of the German plane? We got him out. A kid, not old enough for even a mustache! Can you believe it!” Yves shook his head in disgust. “You want to see him?”

“Not really,” Addington said. He chewed the bread and took a sip of the warm beer. “Can you get me out of here?”

“There is no need.”

“What?”

“Germans are laying down their arms all over the place now, yet a few fight on. Like these pigs this morning. There were a few hundred until you came along. Now maybe thirty or forty remain. Some British troops are on the way; they will be here soon then you can catch a ride with them.”

Addington nodded. “Good bread,” he said.

“I’m sorry we have no dry clothes for you…”

The ground shook, dust and dirt rained down from the ceiling, and Yves and the other man looked up.

Two more concussions, far away, then another almost over head, this one with shattering intensity. Men running. Shouted confusion. The door bursts open. Men explain, Yves listens, gives orders.

“I’m sorry, perhaps you’ll like to stay a while. The German has decided to counter-attack, the axis of movement is down the valley along the river. My men report several hundred men are approaching, and perhaps a dozen tanks.”

Addington nodded, smiled.

“Why do you smile like this,” Yves said.

“I guess you never know, do you? What people will do when there backs are against the wall.”

“No, I suppose not.” Yves grinned, nodded. “Indeed. Will you stay down here in the dark, or would you like to go fight some more Germans?”

Addington grinned. “I thought you’d never ask.”

◊◊◊◊◊

21 April 1987

Lunch was to take place in a reception hall at the university; we rode with the Mayor in his car.

“So, how was your journey?” the young, well dressed and, if Maddie’s non-stop sidelong glances were any indication, handsome Mayor asked. “Any delays?”

“Well, no, but this is all a bit of a surprise?” I think I managed to say.

“A surprise, yes. I understand. Charles was…” he paused, as if he was searching for just the right word. “He was a bit of a character, sometimes. Yes.”

Okay buddy, you win the understatement of the year award, hands down. “Uh-huh,” I mumbled, my mouth slow and unsure of itself.

The mayor’s car turned down the Avenue de Addington and my stomach flip-flopped; Maddie turned and looked at me, her eyes growing wider and wider.

I shrugged. What the hell else could I do?

She shrugged too.

And friend Stephen picked his nose.

“We will have some lunch with interested people,” the Mayor continued, “then we will walk down to the boat…”

“Excuse me, but is this street named after my uncle?”

The mayor looked at me like it was simply stupid of me to waste his time on the obvious: “Yes, of course.”

“Oh.”

◊◊◊◊◊

21-22 April 1945

The first firefight had been a fast, furious affair, but it had simply been a probing maneuver by advanced units of the German counter-offensive, and no one had been hurt – on either side. Now, with night coming-on Addington could hear a large column of German armor coming down the valley toward the town.

Breathless reports came in, sightings of over a hundred tanks drawing near and more massing west of Saint-Vit to join the assault, troops in division strength. The town was in peril, there was no time to lose.

No official history of the night’s action remains; it was an insignificant battle in the greater scheme of things and of importance only to those who took part in it. The real war was being fought along the Rhine far to the north and east; the Americans and British were racing for Berlin, trying to get there ahead of the Red Army. Allied forces were overrunning concentration camps and encountering the remnants of unspeakable horror as Adolph Hitler crawled down into a shadowless earth to, presumably, end his life. A great war was ending, a new era beginning; the running battle that developed along the southern bank of the river Doubs the night of 21 April was but one of the dying beast’s death spasms, a furiously ill-conceived attempt by remnants of the German General Staff to divert Allied Army units from their final objective. That the attempt ultimately failed was of little interest to those who would study the war in years to come, but of intense interest to the citizens of small towns along the river Doubs.

All that stood between the town and the massed German infantry and armor that approached along the south side of the river was a handful of bridges; to keep the Germans from taking the town these bridges had to be destroyed. A handful of resistance fighters and British commandos worked through the night to cut off this advance, the German counter-offensive stalled and Allied air forces attacked before the Germans could regroup. Bridges could and would be rebuilt; everyone knew it is much more difficult to rebuild a thousand years of history…and these were a people who justly cherished their past.

Chuck Addington was one of those men who fought that night, one of those who helped save the town, though he was one of the few who had nothing to gain and everything to lose. He wasn’t a proud son of the town or a local resistance fighter, but that didn’t matter to him, or to the people who lived and loved there; here was a people facing ruin and in need of his strength, and as all he had to give was that strength he gave it gladly, and overnight he became something of a local hero.

The details are sketchy at best. Addington and a group of local partisans took out the bridge at Brevans in the early evening, the bridge at Rochefort-sur-Nenon fell just before midnight; the German formation rushed for the town but had been kept on the far side of the river and bogged down at a natural choke point near the village of Azans. The Germans rushed engineers to the front to span the river and take the town, but resistance fighters, among them Captain Addington, harassed them all through the night with sniper fire and grenades. As the sun rose on the 22nd a formation of low-flying American B-26 bombers arrived and decimated the German formation. The battle was over before it really began.

And Captain Charles Addington remained in the town for some time – a few weeks, anyway; he had not deserted the military, he just did as the locals suggested and waited for the war to catch up to him. He waited for allied forces to secure the area, only he had no idea their arrival would not happen for three weeks, after the armistice ending the war was signed.

And it was during this three week period he met the girl he had startled when he tumbled from the rooftops, trailing a ripped and shredded parachute, and fell so ungraciously into the Canal des Tanneurs.

+++++

21 April 1987

“It was an impossible night,” Yves Bertand continued, “impossible. There were so many of them, they just kept coming and coming…at one time more than we could count.”

Though there were, I think, about a hundred people in the room having lunch with us, every one of us was focused on this old man’s retelling of events that night in 1945.

“They were shooting their tanks at us, their machine guns, and we would change our location and start shooting Germans again. On and on it went, until your uncle figures out their tactic. They were pushing us away from town, and we were all that was left protecting the river. It was your uncle who broke off from the main group, and I went with him. He was a brilliant fighter, by the way. Did you know that, William?”

“I don’t know what to say, Yves. As I’ve said, he never talked about the war…”

“But of course he wouldn’t, he was never the sort to boast. But he was the man of action, was he not? I mean, in business? He was very successful, no?”

“Yes, he was. At business.” And need I have said, at life too?

“So you see, he remained the brilliant fighter! He never changed, did he? He was not the sort to give up! No, not our Charles!”

Our Charles. Our Charles. So that was it. They had laid claim to him, at the end of his journey. Uncle Charles was a part of their history, a solid, vital part of an ongoing, evolving mythology. And no, he never did change; he remained cunning and protective, merciless and loving, for the rest of his life. Indeed, right up into the very last moment of his life – and, no doubt, beyond.

“We got back just in time, too, William. The German were firing lines across the river, big thick ropes; they were going to pull some sort of bridge across, a floating thing, very clever. Men were swimming the river – it is still very cold this time of year, too – and no doubt they would have been successful had we not returned when we did…”

“Why was that so important?” I asked, and a pall came over the room. Yves shook his head – I was the stupid student who refused to grasp the obvious.

“But don’t you see? If the Germans had taken the town, when the bombers came they would have destroyed everything! The town would be no more!” He held his hands out and waved them around the room, gestured at stonework that was probably a thousand years old. “You saw the street, yes? The street named after your uncle? At the bottom of this street, down by the river,” and he pointed toward what I assumed was the river, “that is where our Charles made his stand. From there, he and the few of us with him stopped the Germans!” The old man told the story of that night as if it had happened just hours ago. He spoke a narrative that will slip into the realm of myth, but for now held the immediacy of personal tragedy. He spoke for some time, and we listened.

“And then the bombers came?” Madison asked when Yves was at an end.

“Precisely!” the old man said quietly. “You understand the night now. What Charles did for us.”

“But why,” I interrupted, “did the Germans want to take the town? What was so important here?”

“Here? Nothing, but beyond lay the center of France, the route from Paris to Lyon. Who knows what was in the German mind? Perhaps to drive a wedge into the heart of France and force a change of strategy? It doesn’t matter though, does it? Charles stopped them from destroying our town.”

I nodded. “I had no idea. Extraordinary!”

“We must leave,” the Mayor said, standing and looking at his watch. “Time to go to the river, to the boat.”

“But! But when are you going to…” Yves protested, and the Mayor cut him off:

“When it is time!” the Mayor whispered harshly. “Not now!”

Well, I love a mystery as much as the next fellow…

+++++

22 April 1945

He slept well into the afternoon, his body spent and beyond the grip of mere exhaustion. He had come back to Yves Bertand’s house and crawled up an interminable number of stairs and flopped down on a bed made of straw and horsehair and passed out. The others in the house left him alone, let him sleep, but soon everyone was talking about what the stranger had done during the night. People came by Bertand’s house to see the man and thank him for saving the town, but still he slept and no one would even think of disturbing him.

He woke late that afternoon, as evening came to the town once again. He stood too quickly and slammed his head on the sloped ceiling of the attic room and he cursed loudly: “Piffle!” he said. “Where the fudge am I?” He found his way to the stairs and looked at them, then remembered where he was and what he’d done during the night – and his surroundings rushed inward and real focus returned to his mind. His need to use the bathroom was, however, pressing – so he galloped down the stairs.

“Yves! Hello! Anybody home?” he shouted in his New England accent.

And there had indeed been someone home, Charles Addington found as he tromped down the wooden stairs. The girl from the river was home.

She had a tray of food and coffee, stood wide-eyed looking at the giant American as he thundered down the stairs and shuddered to a stop.

“Excuse me, but I really, really need to find a bathroom!”

The girl looked at him, her apparent confusion evident. He tried to remember the little French he’d learned in school.

“Excusez-moi, ou sont les toilettes? S’il vous plait, vite!”

The girl bit her lip and stifled the little laugh she felt rising: “Venez, de cette facon!” She led him down the stairs to the ground floor and to the little room and pointed: “La bas! De la bas!”

“Merci,” Addington said as he hopped into the room, “Vous avez sauve ma vie!”

He came out a while later and the girl had laid out his ‘breakfast’ on a small yellow table in the kitchen; Yves was sitting there, drinking black coffee and rubbing his eyes when Addington walked in.

“God but I’m tired, and I feel like shit!” Bertand said. His eyes were glowing red orbs, his skin sallow, almost lifeless.

“You look it, too!” Addington sniffed the air as he took the offered chair. Cheese, some ham and bread, coffee. The food looked old and past its prime but he knew it was probably the best they had; life in Vichy France had been pleasant for the few who collaborated with Germans but very hard for everyone else. He took a little and ate. He sipped the coffee and tried not to choke; the stuff tasted like it had been made from ground acorns and squirrel shit.

“Another column of British went by an hour ago; they are chasing the German retreat back toward Saint-Vit. I think they are finished now, at least here. There are many prisoners.”

“Prisoners?” Addington gulped. “Who’s going to take care of prisoners?”

Bertand shrugged. “The British, I suppose. Not us. We have no room here.”

The girl hovered just out of range, listened and tried to understand but her English was spotty at best; Addington tried to ignore her but found he couldn’t; his eyes kept drifting to her eyes. They were lovely.

“Who’s the girl?” he asked when he could stand it no more.

“Oh! Pardon! My little sister, Marie-Claire.” Yves turned, made introductions; the girl blushed but took Charles’ offered hand. “She says she thinks you are not a very good swimmer!”

“Ah! Well, tell her I did the best I could under the circumstances. Sorry I scared you.” he turned back to Yves. “So, this is your house?”

“My family’s, yes. We have lived four hundred years here, at least.”

“In this town, you mean?”

“Yes, yes, but in this house four hundred years, that we know of. Before that, we lived on the outskirts of town. I can show you if you like. Later.”

Addington shook his head. What kind of history guided the lives of these people! Time did not simply mark the seasons of life, time was the very fabric of life. Yves was clothed in this fabric, his sister, this house; everything he saw had been woven by time into the fabric of this town until all that remained was a brilliant tapestry.

To be cherished and preserved – at all cost.

“Where are your mother and father?”

“Mother is at the market. We heard a rumor there might be some fresh carrots and she could not take a chance on missing, you understand?” The season of renewal. Spring. Winter’s crops would be coming in, an autumn harvest planted, and life would go on, the tapestry renewed.

“Yes.” He knew. And yet, Yves hadn’t mentioned his father and Addington knew not to press. So many had died during the war – it remained far better to let these things remain unsaid – and yet the girl turned away to hide her grief.

They left after a while, walked down to the river and looked across the smooth water to the smoldering carnage wrought by the bombers – and him; the air smelled of burned rubber and cooked meat and Addington wanted to turn away when he realized the full extent of what lay across the river. The ground beneath his feet was a wasteland of stone, rubble, spent shell casings – and blood; the walls of houses everywhere he looked were pockmarked, windows speckled with tiny holes striated with spidery cracks held the last of the day’s sun.

“So much waste,” he said as he looked over the battlefield.

“Oui, so many boys perished last night,” Bertand said as he waved away the spirit of death that threatened to overwhelm him. “All to quench a madman’s hate – his thirst for revenge.”

“We can be a sorry lot, can’t we?”

Bertrand turned to look at the university, at the tower: “But we are capable of great things to, when we put our minds to better use.”

Bertand looked at Addington for a long time before speaking again.

“And what of you, Charles? Will you find your way back to the war now?”

Addington shrugged. “I fought all the war I wanted last night.”

“Yes, it is a little exciting, isn’t it?” Yves turned back to the river and pointed at the wasteland of twisted iron and burned flesh: “But that is the reality of war. That is…”

“…The reality of Hell.”

“Precisely. It is best not to make a home there, in your heart, for Hell? Better to turn away from hatred? All hatred, in all it’s many forms.”

Addington stayed at the Bertand house that night and many more that followed. He grew close to Yves’ mother, her soft smile and kind eyes, the way she naturally took care of him as she took care of her own children, in spite of her grief. Yves Bertand soon became like a second brother and Addington helped the townsfolk as they cleared away rubble and debris – and more than a few bodies – from the cratered streets and collapsed buildings that scarred the town. While he worked he thought of Ruth back in the States and all they had dreamed of doing together when he returned – yet – all that seemed so far away, like fragments of a once forgotten dream or wispy memories of a life that might have been, but wasn’t.

And on the third night of his stay Marie-Claire slipped quietly up the stairs into the little attic room where Addington lay, and she did not leave until the morning skies called for her.

+++++

21 April 1987

We walked down to the river and Bertand showed me the spot where that last battle had taken place. In the new cement tow-path that lined the river, brass shell-casings had been carefully placed along the edges, perhaps as a kind of memorial. Whether officially placed there or not, these casings had become a part of the town’s fabric too, a proof that the town’s mythology was not mere fantasy. A Mustang’s wing was nearby, to remind one and all that an American had once been among them, that he had fallen from the sky in their hour of darkest need, and that this stranger stood with them shoulder to shoulder and fought to save their history from the ravages of thoughtless men.

And so Spring Green was everywhere, life was everywhere, life nurtured by the blood of patriots. The field that had been a killing ground was alive; the river was full of life, all was just as nature intended. The seasons come and go, yet there is always the spring, this one season of renewal to hold on to.

To sustain the living…

I saw the boat through budding trees and white flowers; she was warped to a jetty along the river’s edge, and she screamed at me: ‘I am life! Take me! Let us run together again.’

The area was lined with chunky white powerboats – hired out for week-long holidays, the mayor told us – and Uncle Chuck’s sleek, blue-hulled sailboat looked like a hooker in a convent.

But she gleamed. The Baby Ruth was radiant, as gorgeous as the day she was launched.

Even from a hundred yards it was apparent every square centimeter had been polished to within an inch of it’s life. Dappled, water-borne sunlight reflected off the hull, starbursts flashed from polished chrome and her freshly varnished teak. I smiled at the latent possibility coiled up in the boat, at memories she’d help fashion from the raw stone of life. She had her own mythology now, too; she was a part of the town, and she always would be.

And, there was a man standing on her deck, apparently waiting for us to arrive, and as we approached I felt more and more that he looked familiar to me. The man watched us all the way, never took his eyes from me even as I walked up to boat, then he hopped down onto the wooden quay and stood resolutely in place, as if blocking my way. It was my father! My father dead and gone for years had been reborn and given a new life to squander!

Holy shit!

Maddie of course had not the slightest clue; she’d never met my old man. The Mayor and Yves Bertand were by my side, however, and I waited for them to smash me over the head with this latest revelation.

The stranger held out his hand and I took it.

“You must be William,” he said to me, and then: “My name is Charles. Charles Bertand Addington.”

“Fudge!” Maddie said. I was tempted to say something, anything, but I was speechless. Not so long ago I had been alone in the world; now it seemed I was positively awash in relatives.

“Well, Piffle!” I think I said – eventually. “Don’t that beat all.”

For a Puritan, ole Chuck sure got around.

◊◊◊◊◊

I take it Chuck hung around Dole a few weeks after his private war, until a group of British Army Pathfinders stopped by anyway, and then he was gone as quickly as he’d come. Swooped down from the beanstalk and saved the village from a big, mean giant, then just up and ran away. That was Chuck. And ever the honorable man he returned to the woman he always knew he was destined to love. And he did, too, in the end.

And yet I thought he must have never returned to Dole during all those intervening years, and once again Chuck proved me wrong. He slipped away from time to time, Yves told us, and came back to this other world, to his other family, and none of us in Boston ever suspected a thing. Business trips, I guess, can cover a multitude of sins.

So, when all was said and done, when I thought of Chuck as this poor old man – and all alone in the world – well, little did I know.

His affinity for France? Perhaps it was a genetic predisposition, perhaps it was his life having been subtly woven into the fabric of a faraway history that called out to him from time to time, but whatever the reason, he came to die with his family, to be with those who loved him most of all, with the other woman into whose sheltering arms he had once fallen.

There is a certain gravity, you see, to the footsteps we follow.

◊◊◊◊◊

Charles had a fat envelope for me, along with instructions from Chuck to hand the package to me, and to me alone. We were sitting on the boat, in the cockpit when he gave it to me, and everyone seemed to read the storm clouds boiling over my head and moved off a discreet distance. Even Maddie, bless her heart, didn’t quite know what to do.

There was a letter on top of his Last Will and Testament, all stapled to a pile of important documents. His handwriting seemed at once so familiar, so comforting, and yet almost alien now – like it too was just another tool deployed over the years to hide his carefully maintained duplicities.

I’ll spare you the details and get to the point.

Near the end of his covering letter I came upon a couple of paragraphs that seemed so startlingly like Chuck, yet so different from the man I knew:

“I know, Bill, in your own smart-assed way you’ll find these facts hard to stomach, that you’ll struggle to reconcile what you’ve learned here today with what you thought you knew yesterday, and you’ll be tempted to say to yourself that you never really knew me. I hope you prove me wrong. I’ve tried to warn these people here, my family, my friends, that you have a dangerous side, a callous side, but I’ve asked them not to judge you too quickly, or too harshly. I think you always wanted your father to be one thing, probably more like me, and you’d have liked it if I’d been more like your father. You’ve never been an accepting person, you’ve always seemed to me to be afraid of change, afraid of anything that might upset the order you established to control your world. Now, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask something of you that will be terribly hard for you; I’m going to have to ask that today, right where you sit, that you sit up and take stock of your life. The time has come: you’re going to have to grow up. Yes, grow up, William. Accept the world as it is, not as you’d like it to be. Accept my family, William, your new family, because beyond all your posturing and intellectual bullshit, you need them. You need them more than you can imagine, more than you’ll ever know. And you just might find that they need you too.

“We made a journey together, you and I, and I loved you as much as, I believe, I would have loved my own boy – because I was able to accept you as you were. You were an important part of my life, and watching you walk away from the marina in Paris last year was the hardest moment of my life. I wanted so much to tell you everything, but I don’t think I could have gone through what I think you’d have put me through. So I’ve left you the boat and a few other things, but it is about the boat I need to talk about now. I didn’t put this in the Will, and so will have to trust you to do this for me. I know you’ll be tempted to put this letter away and not show anyone, but please William, don’t do that. Don’t end our journey together, not yet.

“When the dust settles, I want you and Charles to get the boat ready, and I want Maddie along, if that’s possible, and I want you to take the boat down to the Mediterranean through the canals, then I’d like you to take her back to America. The three of you. I want you to close the circle, William, this circle of life that was our journey together. And I want you to accept my love, and my family’s love, as a part of that journey.”

So, there you have it. The rest was about the disposition of his estate, some instructions about who to contact in the States for this and that. The sun was low in the afternoon sky and I think I might have been aware of it – but I doubt it.

Had I really been such an asshole? So unaccepting, so apparently afraid of Change? Why had he thought I’d try to get out of making the trip he suggested? What did he know about me that I, apparently, did not? Or was he simply wrong?

But Chuck had rarely been wrong, not about the important stuff, anyway.

He had been presented with an impossible dilemma, and in his indomitable way, rather than submit to the inevitable he had fashioned a compromise, and he’d done all he could to make it work. And in the process he did his level best to spare Ruth any pain, even my father. He’d fallen in love with his secretary somewhere along the way because he was a human being, because he had no illusions about human perfection, yet when what was done was done he picked up the pieces and made it as right as he could – and he spared the woman he loved – above all other considerations – the pain of his own resilient humanity.

Was he wrong? You can best decide that for yourself, but be honest with yourself.

I found it hard to do, myself.

◊◊◊◊◊

Charles, Maddie and I sat in the cockpit as the moon rose, the town by our side. I read them Chuck’s letter, the part about his wanting us to finish the circle. Maddie smiled at nothing in particular, Charles looked away, wiped a tear from his face.

“I’m in!” Maddie said without hesitation.

“What about Stephen?” Charles asked.

“I think he left earlier this afternoon,” she said. “We weren’t his cup of tea, I think he said, or words to that effect.”

“Ah,” this new cousin said as he smiled. “William? What about you?”

“What do you mean: ‘What about you?’”

“I have always heard his stories of the sea, but we never had the opportunity. Of course I will go.”

“Oh.”

“Oh? You do not like his idea, then?”

“No, Chuck, I do. I think it might be a good idea…what? Why are you smiling at me like that?”

“You called me Chuck, William. You called me Chuck.”

“So I did.”

Yes, so I did. I did because he was Chuck, just as I was Chuck, and Maddie was, too. The town was Chuck’s, and so was this night. We lived in a world of his creation, and we were all the better for it.

We went to dinner later that evening, when the moon was high in the sky, at a little place in the shadows up a narrow alley alive with flickering gas light. It was quietly gay, alive with a sense of place, of purpose. There was a waitress there, a woman about my age, a widow. Very pretty, gorgeous, really. I looked at her, and she looked at me.

“Where is Marie-Claire?” I asked, and Chuck just shook his head. What else was there to say? I wish I’d met her.

Chuck slapped me on the back when I asked about waitress. “She’s just your type, too!” he said.

“What? Moody? Pensive? A know it all?”

Maddie laughed at that, and I loved her for it.

“Maybe a little, Bill, maybe.” Then he looked at me with eyes I’d known all my life, and I knew him now. I knew who’s blood ran through his veins. “But she has a good heart, this woman. She knows how to love.”

Chuck turned out to be right about her, too, and a lot of other things. I found out all about love in the weeks and months ahead, on the journey we continued together, but that’s another story altogether.

©4/25/09-4/25/16 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, all the characters too, though some are more fictitious than others.

Hope you enjoyed this retelling…later. Aa

Edna Mayfield (conclusion)

Edna Mayfield

◊◊◊◊◊

Is it perfume from a dress 

That makes me so digress?

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – T.S. Eliot

◊◊◊◊◊

Chapter 2

18 December

Jordan Douglas ran a snubber to the anchor rode and a trip line to the cleat, then he took a hand-bearing compass and shot a couple of vectors, scribbling the results down on a notepad; Tracy Mayfield stood beside him, asking questions, taking mental notes – vitally interested in everything he was doing…

“When did you start sailing,” she asked when he looked up from his notepad.

“Oh, I don’t know exactly. Before I could walk, I feel almost certain…”

She laughed. “All your life, in other words?”

“Yup. Dad was a judge in the city. Rain or shine, every Friday afternoon we’d load up, sail out here someplace and hang out on the anchor ‘til Sunday morning.”

“Good memories, huh?”

“The best.”

“What about your mom? She didn’t like sailing?”

He stood up, looked at Fisherman’s Wharf and the marina, then at Tracy. “She passed, when I was seven,” he said as he looked at her. “I think Dad got the boat for her, she really loved it out on the Bay.”

“I’m sorry, Jordan.”

He shrugged. “Yeah? Well, okay. Anyway, when Dad passed a few years ago, and I had to decide what to do with her. I have all these memories of him, of the two of us out here…all bound up in the boat.” He paused, looked down into the water and shook his head. “I just couldn’t sell her, I guess. And I never will.”

“She’s really gorgeous, the woodwork down below is insane.”

“DownEast workmanship is still the best. The glass is almost an inch thick up here at the rail, nearly three inches at the turn of the keel. I had the gelcoat peeled two years ago, then re-glassed and awl-gripped. She’ll last another 40 years, I guess.”

Tracy turned serious, looked away for a moment – then back – looking him in the eye now. “How’d Mom react to Claire…the whole abortion thing?”

“She’s upset with Claire, but I think she understands.”

“Claire seemed strange to me yesterday, when she picked me up, and I don’t think it has to do with her pregnancy.”

“I don’t either, and neither does your mother.”

“What do you think it is?”

He shrugged. “Complicated…everything’s just complicated, Tracy. Apparently, there’s quite a history of schizophrenia on your dad’s side…”

Tracy nodded, looked away. “I know. Claire used to worry about that a lot.”

“Well, your mom thinks that’s what’s going on; that’s where she’s going to start looking. I’ve still got my folk’s place in the city, and some contacts there too. After we get you on the plane back east we’re going to get her settled, medically – and otherwise. She won’t be going back to school until she’s able.”

“Are you and mom going to – get married?”

Jordan laughed. “You are direct, aren’t you?”

“I don’t got to see her enough, Jordan. Guess time’s short when I’m around, it’s always been that way, and now there’s so much happening that…well, I tend to worry about her. After dad and all…she’s been through…”

He nodded. “Fair enough. I love her, and she says she loves me, but she worries about the two of you, how you’d react if we got married. I think it’s fair for her to feel that way, too. She had you both late in life, and she’s grounded to the reality you two will always be there for her, and I think she’s afraid she’ll lose that.”

“How do you feel?”

“Me? Well, Tracy, I wouldn’t do a thing to hurt that woman. If getting married would hurt any of you, her – or you and Claire – I just wouldn’t do it. I feel lucky just to be with her.”

“I can see it in your eyes.”

“You should feel it in here,” he said, pointing to his heart.

“Claire? And going with her to a clinic? Will you do that?”

“If that’s what she wants, I will.”

“What are your feelings about abortion?”

“Me? I’m not a woman, so it’s none of my business.”

Tracy laughed again. “True blue democrat?”

He shook his head. “Independent. Not real fond of the whole party politics thing, especially these days. If I had to declare anything, I think I’d describe myself as a Druid.”

She smiled at that. “What’d you decide to do about tenure, at the college?”

“I turned it down.”

“No shit?”

That made him laugh out loud. “Yeah, no shit. I did. I miss it here, and there are a few things I want to do that don’t involve teaching.”

“You’re going to be living here?”

“Well, in San Francisco, but yes. For a while, anyway.”

“What will you do?”

“Spend every moment I can, with your mother – if she’ll have me.”

Tracy Mayfield looked at Jordan when he said that, and felt a shiver run down her spine.

◊◊◊◊◊

“See that silver shack on the end of the pier,” Jordan said, pointing to the pier just a few hundred feet away. “There are two seafood places there. Not restaurants…I mean fresh stuff. I’m going to put on some charcoal, so Tracy, why don’t you and Claire run over and find us something interesting for dinner?”

“Mom? Are you cooking?”

“Rice and broccoli, maybe a Hollandaise – if someone asks nicely…”

“I’m asking,” Jordan smiled.

“I don’t feel like going,” Claire said, so Jordan handed the lanyard and a handful of money to Tracy, then helped her down to the Zodiac. The little Honda started on the first pull, and she puttered across to the dock and tied off, then waved as she walked up the ramp to the wharf. And Claire walked away – disappearing into the forward stateroom.

“It’s funny,” he said as he looked at Tracy, “but I don’t worry about her out here.”

“It’s always been that way. Claire’s always been fragile, Tracy was always the adventurous one, tough as nails, always there to lend a hand.”

“And very self-sufficient.”

“Like me,” Edna Mayfield said, laughing gently.

“Oh? Tired of me already?”

She looked at him and grinned. “I liked sailing last night. More fun than I thought it would be.” She was looking at the wharf, following Tracy as she walked into the market. “Bet you a nickel she comes back with salmon.”

“I’ll take that bet,” Jordan smiled knowingly.

“So, you think you’re getting to know her?”

“Tracy? Hardly. I do know what that market has this time of year.”

“Cheater. Is that why you haven’t started a fire yet?”

He nodded, then: “Have you had a chance to talk with Claire?”

“Nope. Morning sickness again.”

He smiled, shook his head. “Has she always been so good at putting things off?”

“Started about five minutes after birth.”

He chuckled. “Why am I not surprised. She does know how to pout, doesn’t she?”

“She learned that from me, too.”

“I love you,” he said, out of the blue, and she looked at him, took his hand.

“Tracy asked if we’re going to get married. Has she asked you too?”

He nodded, whispered a little ‘yup’ as he looked at her.

“And?”

“I said I’d love to, but I wanted to make sure the girls were okay with the idea.”

“Tracy will be fine. Claire won’t be.”

“I know. Then we’ll need to talk to her.”

“No,” Edna Mayfield said, “we won’t. If you love me enough to marry me, that’s all I need to know. I don’t need my daughters’ approval, I just need your love.”

“Okay.” He looked at the set of her jaw, the anger he saw in her eyes, and he wondered how much of the story he really knew nothing about. “Ah…here she comes,” he said as they watched Tracy walk back to the Zodiac – the sacks she carried were huge – and he smiled again. “We’ll probably need to put some water on to boil,” he said as he watched her get in the inflatable and start the motor. “Hope you like crab…”

When he helped Tracy back aboard and got the haul down to the galley he handed four pound of picked Dungeness crab to Edna, then four abalone steaks and a mound of cooked shrimp. Two quarts of crab chowder and cocktail sauce filled out on bag, and the second was full of fresh baked sourdough bread.

He took out a skillet and began browning butter, tossed in some garlic and a pinch of cayenne, let it simmer while he picked through the crab for stray bits of shell, then he buttered some of the sliced bread and ran it under the broiler. He skimmed fat from the butter, then added some bourbon to it and cut the flame to low before he chopped some pecan. He tossed the crab in the butter and stirred it, then added the chopped pecan and stirred some more.

By now all the girls had gathered round and were watching – and smelling – the action; he pulled the buttered toast out and sliced them into smaller squares, then took the crab and ladled nice clumps onto each piece of toast. He diced some shrimp, not all of it, then did the same thing to the next batch, adding more crab to the mix as well.

He stopped and looked at the crab and toast, tides of memory washing over him. “My dad and I used to cook this when we came down here. Just like this. We ran across a couple from the UK anchored near here, the woman showed us how to make this, only she used rum. I’ve tried it both ways…like the complexity of bourbon better…”

“If you have some rum, let’s try it that way,” Tracy said.

“Sounds to me like you’re ready to learn how to cook on a sailboat. Why don’t you go ahead…I need about a half hour to get these abalone ready to go.”

He toasted more bread, put the crab and shrimp mix on and turned the burners over to Tracy, then turned to make a wash and dredge for the abalone. It took ten minutes just to pound them out, and Edna groaned as she looked at the mess taking shape in the galley.

◊◊◊◊◊

He loaded the wood-burning fireplace after dinner was cleared away, but Claire disappeared in a cloud of silence, shut the door to her stateroom as Tracy looked after her.

“Mom, I’ve never seen her this depressed, and some of the things she’s saying worry me.”

“I’ll fix some coffee,” Jordan said. “Why don’t you two go up. The cockpit’s closed now, and it’ll warm up fast.” He put another chunk of cedar on the fire, then brewed a fresh pot, fixed three Irish coffees and took them up.

“That was some supper, Jordan,” Edna said. “My cholesterol will be 450 tomorrow, but it was worth it…”

“Tomorrow we eat salad!” Tracy said.

“Tomorrow we spend with Claire,” he said. “We get her out and about…”

“And if she doesn’t want to?” Tracy asked – having been down this road before. “Then what?”

Edna sighed. “Then we take her up to the medical center.”

“Then I take her for a drive,” Jordan said softly as he looked down at his hands.

“Do you really think that’s the answer, Jordan?” Edna said bitterly. “Killing that baby isn’t going to magically cure her.”

“I think that may be true, but a psychiatric commitment isn’t going to do her a hell of a lot of good at this point.”

“What about the aquarium? It’s just right over there,” Tracy said quickly, pointing to the far side of the harbor. “Why don’t we all go, let her walk it out in the sunshine. Maybe she’ll talk to, oh, hell, to whoever.”

Edna’s arms were crossed now, and she was looking out into the darkness, tired of Claire and ‘all her interminable bullshit.’ She turned and looked at Jordan, and Tracy, suddenly filled with hate for them both. She took a long pull on her coffee then looked out into the night.

◊◊◊◊◊

Tracy and Claire took the Zodiac over to the aquarium early the next morning, leaving Jordan alone with Edna down below. She didn’t feel sexy now, nor even desirable, yet Jordan seemed to think she was and she tried – for his sake – but she was bored with lovemaking now. After a few minutes he stopped, sat up and looked at her.

“Where are you this morning?” he asked after a minute of burning silence.

“Not here,” she said.

“Is it Claire?”

She turned and looked at the easy, earnest love in his eyes, and she didn’t know how to say what she needed to say, so she sighed, took a deep breath and jumped right in. “Jordan, what I looked forward to most, when the girls left for school, was time alone with Stanton. Then he fell ill, and soon he was gone. Then I found you – and yet here they are again, intertwining fingers, running their tentacles through my life again, commanding attention, coming between me and whatever life I have left. I’ve grown tired of Claire’s games, of poor Tracy always trying to fix everything, even of you and me.”

“They’re your children, Edna…”

“They’re children, Jordan, not a life sentence. You raise your children, then they move on. You don’t take care of them after a certain age. They have to learn to stand on their own two feet.”

“They do. That’s true, but Claire’s in trouble. What do you propose to do now? Walk away?”

“I was thinking of taking her home, to see Dr Wilburtson.”

“Her pediatrician? Edna, she’s 22 years old, and she needs to see a psychiatrist.”

“Piffle.”

“Why don’t you let me handle it, Edna? I don’t mind.”

“That’s sweet of you, Jordan, but it’s not your responsibility.”

“What if I was the girls’ step-father? Whose responsibility would it be then?”

“You’re not, Jordan. She’s my responsibility, and mine alone.”

“Not ours?”

“No, Jordan. I appreciate the offer, really, I do, but I don’t want you to be so involved now, not yet. Maybe the time will come, but not yet.”

“I see,” he said as he sat up. “So, you want to take her home? When?”

“I think today, this evening, perhaps.”

He stood, walked to the galley and got a glass of water, then walked up to the cockpit. He heard her below, heard the shower run, then listened as she got dressed, made reservations. She came up a few minutes later and sat beside him.

“I’ve made reservations for the three of us,” she said frostily. “Could you run us ashore? I’ve got a taxi coming.”

“Of course.”

“I texted Tracy. They’re on the way now.”

“I see.” He watched her turn and go below, then helped the girls up when they motored alongside. When they had their bags ready, he ran them ashore.

And all the time Edna ignored him, did not look at him, or say goodbye.

Tracy looked hurt as he watched her get in the taxi, yet something he saw in her eyes told him she had expected something like this to happen. And maybe this wasn’t the first time…

Claire smiled. One more victory in a long line, she thought.

◊◊◊◊◊

May 17th

She sat in her garden, in the shade of a vast trellis, admiring her efforts.

Claire was in her eighth month now, the baby due in June, and Tracy was flying home tonight, home for the summer. And work on Stanton’s memoirs and correspondence was proceeding apace; at the rate she was going work would conclude by the end of summer, then she could send the work off to her publisher. She looked at the apartment over the garage from time to time, allowed herself to think about Jordan Douglas and all his impossible hopes and dreams, and she smiled at her little indiscretion. The impossibility of him…he was just a boy, after all! Still, he had been such a pleasant diversion…

Later that afternoon she drove out to the little airport and waited for Tracy’s plane; it was fifteen minutes late but there she was, walking down the concourse, trailing a little rolling carry-on. They hugged and walked to the baggage claim, then carried her two suitcases out to Edna Mayfield’s pale yellow Cadillac, and yet Edna wondered why Tracy was so quiet, so…almost somber?

“How was your term, Tracy? Grades alright?”

And Tracy looked at her mother and smiled. “I suppose so. Why?”

“You suppose?”

“Have you heard from Jordan?”

“Jordan? Why, no. Have you?”

“Not really. I texted him a few times, but never heard much from him.”

“What does ‘not really’ mean?”

And Tracy just looked at her mother and smiled. She looked out at the college, at all the familiar houses on the way to FoxWood Lane, then at the vast lawn in front of her mothers house – all the landmarks that had defined the perimeters of her existence since she came into this world.

It was remarkable, she thought, how much like a prison this town felt. And yet here she was, once again locked away in one of her mother’s air-conditioned cocoons. How much of her life had taken place, she observed, in places like this car? Elegant to a certain practiced eye, and comfortable – more than comfortable, really – this car, like her parent’s house had done nothing but set them apart. Held them above the neighbors’ kids, set them apart. The car was a statement, the house too, about the kind of life her mother wanted her to lead.

So, Harvard and Stanford, not Oregon State or even the college down the lane. Those choices had been made for them too. Again, to set them apart from the rest of the kids in town.

Her father’s gorgeous house, this symbol of their life…yet all it had ever been was a kind of living museum, a monument to her father’s wealth. And it was full of lies – all her life had been a lie.

The boarding schools since middle school, since they’d been 11 years old, and the nannies before that. She remembered one girl with affection, a twenty year old girl from Aberdeen, the one source of affection she’d been able to count on – all through childhood. Her mother, she knew, had outsourced their childhood, came around to play a parental role when it was convenient – then she shed the role like a winter coat on a summer day when she returned to the games she and her father played in Washington.

And now, to validate all the lies, her mother was grooming a successor.

‘Me,’ she said to herself.

She looked at the house – and Jordan’s room above the garage – as her mother pulled up the drive – and while she had no idea what she wanted in life she felt all this stuff here was the last thing she wanted to be around. The last way she wanted to spend her life.

She carried her bags up to the second floor, to her old room – yet it too was another little museum piece. All her things from childhood were gone, the furnishings now in keeping with the rest of the house. All neglect papered over, her mother’s museum was now a bastardized creation that wiped away the past. She put her bags on the bed, then walked down to Claire’s room…and everything felt like one big imploding lie…

When she knocked she heard a muffled ‘come-in’ over the television and opened the door. Claire had a tray pulled up to the bed, a half-eaten bag of potato chips and an empty bowl of ice cream by her side. Tracy gasped when she saw her sister – she had to weigh 250 pounds now – and she was completely unrecognizable – save the eyes – which seemed lost and full of misery.

“How’re you feeling, Claire?”

“Peachy. You?”

“Tired. Early flight.”

“Well, welcome back to Hotel Hell,” Claire said as she ran her puffy fingers into the bag of chips.

“Anything good on TV?”

“Yeah,” Claire said as she turned back to the TV. “The Love Boat.”

“Ah. Well, I’ll see you later…”

She walked back to her room, looked down at her mother in the backyard. Trimming roses, pulling weeds – doing anything and everything other than helping Claire. She’d raised dependent kids, children afraid to move away from her sphere of influence, all while telling everyone how she prized self-reliance, how she wanted her kids to follow in her footsteps.

Tracy could see it all in that moment. How her mother said one thing and meant another. And it had always been that way, hadn’t it? Lies and neglect?

And how Jordan had fallen into another one of her mother’s traps, how he’d come undone after she left him that day. And she’d seen her mother, hoping he’d fall apart. He was just getting it back together now, thinking of renting out his parent’s house, of moving onto the boat, his siren’s song, and how he planned on taking off in July. Hawaii, Polynesia, then New Zealand, he told her last week – when she called him.

And she called him again, now, and talked to him for a few minutes. When she rang off she called for a taxi, found her passport and some money and stuffed it in a little backpack, then went out front to wait for the cab.

◊◊◊◊◊

She looked out the window as the little regional jet taxied to a stop outside the tiny terminal building, and when the door opened and the stairs folded down she walked out into the cold misty fog that typically gripped the Monterrey peninsula at night. She walked into the building and saw him standing there – just like she remembered him – in shorts and a pressed white dress shirt, the same old Rolex on his wrist, the same crusty boat shoes on his feet.

She walked up to him, took his hand.

And he didn’t know what to think of her, of what was happening.

Just seeing her brought it all back. The summary dismissal, Edna never once looking back or even calling him. She’d walked out of his life as quickly as she’d walked in, leaving all his questions unanswered. And now – Tracy?

What the hell was going on?

He looked at her backpack. “Any luggage?”

“Nope.”

“Really.”

“You’ll have to excuse me, Jordan, but I just ran away from home.” He looked at her with those hard, squinting eyes of his, and she almost turned away from him.

“Do you need to call your mom?”

“I left my phone there, my clothes – everything, I guess you could say. Are you parked close?”

“I am. You want to tell me what this is all about?”

“Could we go down to the boat?”

“I’m not sure.”

“What?”

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Tracy.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know you, not really, and let’s just forget for a moment that I’m old enough to be your father…”

“Like my mother…was old enough to be your mother? Forget about that?”

“I guess I deserve that…”

“You didn’t deserve one thing she did to you, Jordan.”

“So, you’ve come to set things right?”

She shook her head. “No. I just came to the realization that I couldn’t stand to be around her one more minute. I realized I don’t have one real friend in the world, and then I thought that’s not true. I have you. You’re my friend.”

“Am I? I didn’t know that…but thanks for filling me in.” His phone chirped and he took it out of his pocket, looked at the screen. “It’s your mother,” he said as he handed the phone to her.

She declined the call and handed it back to him…then she looked at him and shook her head. “I want to go to the boat now.”

He turned and walked to his car, an ancient Land Rover, and he got in the car without opening her door – or unlocking it. He started the motor, began backing up – then he saw her there, standing open-mouthed, almost in shock, starting to cry.

He stopped, went around and opened her door, then drove into town and stopped at a local pub that happened to still be open.

“Are you even 21 yet?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. How about a burger?”

She nodded her head. “Sounds good.”

He took her in and it was, thankfully, quiet inside. When they’d found a corner booth he handed her his phone and looked at her. “If you’re grown up enough to run away from home, you’re hopefully old enough to know your mother is frantic with worry. You need to call her, tell her what you’ve done, and why. If you can’t do that, I’ll take you to a hotel, then see that you get on a flight home first thing in the morning.”

She took the phone, dialed the number.

“Mom?”

“Where are you?” The volume was so loud Jordan could hear every word.

“Monterrey. With Jordan.”

“I see. How long have you two been planning this?”

“We haven’t. When I got home and saw Claire, saw you in that stupid, goddamned garden, that was it. I had to get out of there, get away from you before you kill me, the way you’ve murdered Claire. I didn’t have anywhere to go, anyone to call, but I called Jordan, told him I was coming. He met me at the airport, and I think he was just as surprised as you are mad. But I don’t care, mom. I’m not coming back. I’m not going back to Boston. I’m done. Done with you, with your plans for me, with everything. I’ll be here with Jordan ‘til I’m not, but you’ll never hear from me again.”

She broke the connection and handed the phone back to him.

“Well said,” he sighed, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice – but failing. “Any five year old would have been proud of that speech. And rightly so.”

“I know.”

“So Tracy? What’s the plan? Move onboard with me, sail off to see the world? Maybe have a few babies along the way? Live happily ever after – somehow?”

She laughed. “Actually, that doesn’t sound half as bad as you think it does.”

“It does to me. But does that matter?”

“Why bad, I wonder?”

“Why?” he sighed. “Let’s see. I don’t know you, for openers. You’re probably here to get back at your mother. You’ve run into a dead end, and you think I’m the easy way out?”

“You forgotten a few, Jordan. Like my mother has programmed me to be her replacement after she’s gone. Like I was raised by nannies and dormitory house mothers my whole life. Like no where along this journey has anyone ever asked me what I wanted. What I might want to do with my life?”

“And did you ever bother to tell anyone? Besides your nannies and dorm mothers? Did you ever tell your father, for instance?”

“No. No, I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because he was never there.”

He looked at her then, saw between the bluff and the bravado, saw into the truth of the matter. “Okay. Well, I’m here, and I’m listening. Tell me, what does Tracy Mayfield want to do with her life?”

“I do not want to go into politics. I do not want to work for the CIA, or the NSA.” She hesitated then – and looked away, began picking at her fingers.

“Okay. That much I get. What about something you want to do.”

“You won’t laugh?”

“I promise.”

“I want to paint.”

“Paint? Houses? Monet, or perhaps Gauguin?”

“Please don’t make fun of me.”

“Okay. You’re correct and I’m sorry, but you know something? I’ve always thought artists in general, whether writers or painters, need to experience life a little before they try to record their observations. Without that, I’m not sure what’s presented beyond mere talent.”

She pulled out her iPhone and opened a file, then handed it to him. “Push play. Tell me what you think.”

He did, and a series of paintings filled the screen. Immense talent and a pure, visceral emotion pierced each image. Surreal anger, heart pounding energy, soaring beauty – everything came through inside each image. When he’d seen the twenty or so images he paused the show, handed the phone back to her.

“Impressive. You’re taking classes at Harvard?”

“You like them? Really?”

“From what I can see on that tiny screen? Yes Tracy, it’s impressive work. You have a talent.”

She nodded, leaned back in satisfaction.

“So, why don’t you go to Paris. Someplace like that?”

“Because that’s not where I want to go.”

“Okay. Where do you want to go?”

“Wherever you are. That’s where I want to be.”

Now he leaned back in his seat while he looked at her, at the seriousness in her eyes. “You don’t even know the first thing about me. Where I’ve been, what I’ve done. It strikes me as the height of immaturity to say something like that.”

“Yet I’ve been drawn to you since the first day I met you. The time I spent with you on the boat, just those few hours, was all it took. I can’t fall asleep without thinking about you, I can hardly study, or paint – without thinking of you. I don’t want to be with anyone else. I know what I want, now all I need to do is convince you I’m not an addled, simple-minded idiot.”

There was a waitress standing by the table looking at Tracy as she spoke, then she looked at Douglas. “I think she means it, mister. Now, the kitchen closes in ten minutes. Are y’all going to order something?”

They looked up and laughed, ordered a couple of burgers and onion rings, and two beers, then the woman walked away.

He looked at his phone…Edna had called three times in the last ten minutes and it was buzzing away right now. He answered it this time.

“Edna?”

“Jordan? Where’s my daughter?”

“She’s talking. I’m listening. Hope that’s not a problem.”

“She’s confused.”

“She sure the hell is.”

“May I talk with her?”

“You’d better let me handle this one tonight, Edna. I’ll call you in the morning, let you know what’s happening.”

“Jordan? Are you sure you want to get involved?”

“I am involved. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Jordan.”

He put this phone on the table as their burgers arrived.

“Where are your paintings, Tracy?”

“Boston. At a friend’s house. Why?”

“I’d like to go there in the morning and pick them up. I’m going to have a friend of mine up in the city take a look at them.”

“Go where…you mean Boston?”

“Yes – Boston,” he said in deepest professorial tones. “I want to see for myself, see if I’m correct about something. If I am, well then, you and I have some real thinking to do.”

◊◊◊◊◊

May 21st

He turned onto 17 Mile Drive, on this last stretch to his parent’s summer house, with Tracy beside him now. Firmly, as it turned out. It had been a heady two days for the girl, and she was puffed-up with self-importance, even pride, and now they looked at one another quite differently.

Yesterday had been the real turning point. On the recommendation of a friend of his in Boston, they’d carried her best works down to a gallery on Newbury Street. The proprietress had seen years and years of work come and go, had handled major works of the French Impressionists more than once, and even she was startled by Tracy’s gift. The woman had called a local collector, who’d luckily been able to come to the gallery that afternoon. When the old woman found out the artist was Stanton Mayfield’s granddaughter she’d simply pulled out her checkbook and dashed off a check with so many zeroes on it that Tracy literally swooned.

He’d gone back to Tracy’s friend’s place and called a freight company to the scene. The rest of the paintings were crated and taken to Logan, and they were on hand in San Francisco when the paintings arrived early the next morning. The same thing happened in North Beach: his friend and gallery owner was staggered by what he saw. He called two collectors he knew and four more of her works were sold that morning – and Tracy now had enough money to do whatever she wanted, for several years, anyway.

Now he turned into the driveway of his father’s hideaway. A small jewel penned by Frank Lloyd Wright, it’s airy stone and copper form perched on a rocky outcropping overlooking the sea; this was Jordan’s favorite place in the world – and he could see Tracy’s appreciation of the setting in her eyes. He took her inside, carried her little suitcase and put her stuff in one of the bedrooms well away from his own, then went back up to the kitchen. He looked at the bare cupboards and the empty ‘fridge – and groaned.

Then he felt her walk up from behind – and he turned to face her.

And she was as naked as they day she was born.

She draped her arms around his neck, pulled him close – yet he kissed her lightly on the forehead and pulled away, walked out to the living room and stood – looked out over the sea and the breaking waves below…

“It’s too cold to just sit around,” Tracy said as she walked up behind him again – and he turned to her, looked her in the eye.

“You know, for almost ten years your father was my best, my closest friend. I’ve been intimate with your mother, and those few months were the happiest of my life. And now here you are, yet what I don’t understand is this. Am I to have no close relationships with anyone but a Mayfield?”

“Jordan, are you crying?”

“Me? Oh, hell no – not me!”

She walked into his arms, placed the side of her face against his shirt – and she smiled when she felt his arms encircle her…

And here it was, he thought, all his life coming down to this one moment in time, every hope and dream he’d ever had being pulled into the frenzied orbit of this young woman, this younger version of the woman he loved. When he saw her breasts, he saw Edna’s…Tracy’s legs and arms were Edna’s…only the eyes were different…and Tracy’s were magnificent. He saw a warmth and playfulness there he’d never seen in Edna’s…

“Jordan, I love you. You. Can you understand that?”

He shook his head. “And can you understand? When I look at you I see your father, I feel your mother…and a hundred different emotions piling on top of me – like those waves down there, and not one of which has the slightest thing to do with you. It’s so unfair, Tracy. Unfair to you. Confusing, to me. And I’m afraid in the end that’s all there’ll be left of us.”

“I’m willing to take that chance, Jordan. You asked a few days ago what I wanted, and yet not one thing’s changed since then. I want you, I want to get on that boat and get as far away as we can from all this confusion. I want your life and mine to grow into one, and I don’t ever want to be away from you, not even for a minute. Whatever you might have wanted from my mother was always an impossibility – because she had nothing to offer you but the past. Jordan…I can give you a future. A future with little of the weight of our past to burden us, a future we can make our own.”

He looked at her, into her eyes. Who was she? Who’s soul did he see in those smokey blue pools. Stanton’s? Edna? This new creature, one so straight and tall and pure?

He kissed her on the forehead once again, then looked at her lips for a moment – before he fell into her warm embrace.

◊◊◊◊◊

June 21st

Edna Mayfield waited for them outside the arrivals concourse, waited a little nervously, perhaps even impatiently as she rubbed a little spiking anxiety behind her eyes. And she was regal in her imperiousness, standing like an iceberg ready to loom out of the mist and claim another passing ship.

Dressed all in pale yellow, her suit, her stockings and pumps, she seemed a part of the morning sky – and passing men by stared at her, women paused with sidelong envy written all over their hearts. She turned, looked at the arrivals board and saw Tracy’s flight had arrived, and she turned away, walked over to window that looked out over the town to the mountains beyond. This was Stanton’s town, she told herself once again. He’d brought her here one summer day to meet his parents, to tell them of his plans to get married, to make a career in Washington with her by his side.

And she remembered how he had, with hard work and good fortune, succeeded. How he’d built his resumé over the years, built his political empire after he reached the senate.

And now she thought of the cost, in purely human terms, they had paid. How neither had seen Claire or Tracy come alive on terms of their own, how they’d outsourced parenthood – and their one last chance to build a lasting love between them all. Now she saw Claire as she really was: broken, a shattered vessel born of emotional want and neglect. Schizophrenia, her psychiatrist told her, and the disease would only get worse, Edna Mayfield knew. She would spend the rest of her life tending a barren garden, spending every waking moment of her life caring for a young woman lost within kaleidoscopes of despair and delusion. And a mother’s neglect.

She saw Tracy’s reflection in the glass and turned to see –

Tracy and Jordan. Holding hands.

Then Tracy coming to her side, coming to hug her mother.

Tracy, with a wedding ring on her left hand, and there, on Jordan’s hand too.

She felt herself falling, falling apart as uncontrollable trembling came for her.

Then the pain…behind her eye now, arcing through her head like a vast summer’s thunderstorm…

She felt dizzy, light-headed as she fell to the floor, aware in these last moments of her life that nothing was as it was supposed to be, and yet, suddenly – and smiling at this last thought –  everything was now just as she’d hoped it might one day become.

©2005-2016 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, all persons and places as well.

Hope you enjoyed this revision. Am working now on the last part of the Driftwood cycle.

Later… A

Edna Mayfield

The original ‘Edna’ is a perfect example of what happens when a writer writes for a specific site’s audience. The story was one of the very first I posted at Literotica, and while I had a good idea of where I wanted the story to go, I was starting to get comments telling me that my stories weren’t ‘hot enough’ for the audience. So I read a few, took a deep breath and tried my best to make Edna get with the program.

I thought the end result was disastrous, contrived and unconvincingly plotted, yet it got a bunch of positive feedback. I reread it recently and the sex scenes made me nervous.

‘Did I really write that? Where did that come from?’

So, while I work away on post-Driftwood stuff, as well as TimeShadow, I’m pulling up some of these old stories and rewriting them. Setting the record straight, so to speak.

And so here’s Edna Mayfield one more time, only a little less off the wall and cleaned up a bit. Oh, and I’m posting in two parts, a little easier to digest that way…

+++

Edna Mayfield

◊◊◊◊◊

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – T.S. Eliot

28 August

The Mayfield house was unlike any other in the neighborhood; comfortable, perhaps, but hardly practical and certainly not in keeping with it’s more typical suburban neighbors. The house’s immaculate cypress siding, stained dark gray, hovered lightly under a copper roof, yet the sidewalk along the street had buckled in spots – an old maple tree had sent strong roots shooting under the walk to the street – lending an incongruous air to the approach. Across vast lawns, looking towards the house, linen curtains in their mullioned windows were beginning to show a certain age. Still, the house looked long and lean – almost adrift on a sea of trees – and four foot roof overhangs conspired with overarching leaves to create vast shadows in the noonday sun.

A light yellow Cadillac sat under the carport off the right side of the house; an observant neighbor might have told you that the car had not moved from that spot in weeks. If you, perhaps, stopped for a chat with this observant neighbor, you would have learned that Stanton Mayfield had passed away in May, after a short, fierce battle with pancreatic cancer. The Mayfield daughters – Tracy and Claire – had just left for college, for their second and forth years respectively, while Edna Mayfield, long considered the most beautiful woman in Springdale, lived – alone – in this, her comfortable, impractical house. Any of Edna’s neighbors might have described her as comfortable – in a way, as well as impractical – and certainly out of step with her surroundings, and anyone describing her so would have demonstrated a monumental flair for understatement.

Edna Mayfield acted now as the curator of the Mayfield house, a caretaker of memories that lined the taupe grass-clothed walls, memories of a political career that stood in regimental perfection on the legions of Stickley tables and cabinets that dotted her dove gray carpets and slate entry halls. Grey cypress beams crossed lighter gray ceilings, while immaculately varnished mahogany doors stood guard over the private spaces of Senator Stanton Mayfield’s personal library. The Senator’s private papers – and the less tangible accoutrement of 12 years in the senate – were so guarded. The Mayfield girl’s rooms remained ready to deploy on a moments notice, waiting for their return, yet they too remained under guard. Linen covers now guarded custom-made sofas and chairs that had for decades entertained Oregon’s political establishment.

What life there was remaining in the Mayfield house now existed on life-support, remnants of the memories sheltered within provided the oxygen Edna Mayfield needed to survive.

The back yard of the Mayfield estate was criss-crossed with trellised red brick walkways; in the spaces between the walks stood vast explosions of late-Summer annuals. A brace of magnolia trees lined the eastern boundary of the property, while wrought-iron fencing adorned with geometric designs the color of weathered copper defined the boundaries of the property. To the rear of the grounds, at the end of a long stone driveway, stood a huge cypress-timbered garage, and above this vast unused space was an apartment that had been constructed to house a very select few women who attended the college located just a few blocks to the north. The apartment was comfortable, impractical – and had not been occupied for years.

Early on this bright August morning, on this late summer’s day, Edna Mayfield was in the kitchen looking over the backyard to pine covered mountains standing mute in the distance. She was dressed, as she almost always was, in a dark blue gabardine skirt and white cotton blouse, her legs were sheathed in the finest silk stockings, while her feet were adorned in navy blue pumps.

She was timelessly elegant and, for her age, still devastatingly attractive.

Edna Mayfield knelt over the polished slate floor, wiping up coffee grounds that had fallen to the floor while was cleaning up after a breakfast of toast, melon and coffee, black. There was an expression of silent resignation on her face – when the telephone rang – yet her first impulse was to ignore the call.

The telephone had been busy for weeks after her husband’s passing; friends called to console Edna and, when the girls returned home for summer, a steady stream of young men called all hours of the day, and often well into the night. Still, the dreadful machine had been quiet the past few days; with the girls just off to school for the fall term the telephone had been blissfully silent.

And so, on this warm August morning, Edna Mayfield was startled by a ringing so out of time.

She walked to the desk that stood across from the island sink and picked up the olive-colored telephone’s handset. Speaking with a warm western accent, she greeted the caller, asked who was calling.

“Mrs Mayfield? This is Dorothy Fisher, the new Dean of Academic Affairs at the college, and I wanted to ask how you and your daughters are doing.”

Puzzled why one of the college’s deans would call this time of day, she hesitated before continuing, then: “Why thank you for asking, Ms Fisher, the girls are fine.” Edna Mayfield thought it best to take the upper hand by calling this new Dean by a lesser salutation, and deliberately omitted any mention of herself. Few could play a more deliberative round of chess than Edna Mayfield.

“Claire is at Stanford this year, isn’t she? I haven’t heard where Tracy is,” the voice continued.

“Tracy has gone back to Boston, Miss Fisher. To Harvard,” Edna Mayfield replied.

“Didn’t you and the Senator meet at Stanford?” continued the voice.

Well, she wants me to know she’s done her homework, so I wonder how much money they want this year? “Why yes, we did,” Edna Mayfield said, pondering her next move.

“Mrs Mayfield, excuse me, but may I call you Edna?”

“Why certainly,” Edna Mayfield said pleasantly, noncommittally.

“Edna, I hate to ask, but we have a problem I hope you can help us with. I understand you have an apartment on your property that in the past has been leased to our students.”

“We haven’t leased it in years, Miss Fisher, and Stanton had no intention of ever doing so again. Aside from that, I’m afraid it’s not in very good shape. And to speak bluntly, we had a great deal of trouble with our last student, and my husband told your predecessor we’re not prepared to tolerate that kind of behavior on our property. I thought my husband made that very clear to your housing department?”

“Yes, he certainly did, Mrs Mayfield, and I’ve been through all the relevant files this morning. But please bare with me for a moment. As I said, it’s a bit of a situation, and I do hope you’ll appreciate that I fully understand your feelings. That being said, Dr Tomlinson of the History Department has taken ill, very ill actually, and we’ve found it necessary to find a replacement for the fall term, or perhaps longer if the situation requires. We’ve found a young man with impressive experience in government, and who just received his doctorate from Stanford. He has no family, and just arrived late yesterday afternoon. We met with him last night and have decided to take him on for the term, to evaluate him. As you know, classes have been going on for almost a week now, and we have no faculty housing whatsoever available, but we’d like to do everything we can to get him settled and prepared to assume his duties. He’s told us he lives simply, and he wondered if a garage apartment might be available within walking distance of the college. The Housing Department, for some reason I’m sure I’ll never understand, still had your information on file, as well as a summary of events concerning your last occupants, and your husband’s letters to us about the matter. We were all very reluctant to involve you in this matter, but this young man’s situation is pressing, and, I have to say Mrs Mayfield, he seems a remarkably professional and polite young man, if a bit unorthodox. I do wish you’d see him.”

“Miss Fisher, I’d really like to help, but…”

“Edna, there is one other thing.”

“And that would be?” Edna Mayfield replied.

“His government service. Edna, he left the C. I. A. not long ago, and he served under your husband for a few years, when he first started with the agency.”

“I see.” Edna Mayfield began to tremble, her eyes welled with tears.

“Edna, couldn’t you at least talk to him. He doesn’t have classes until tomorrow afternoon, and I could send him to your house straight away. Edna? Edna?”

Edna Mayfield’s right fist was pulled up tightly to her face, she was biting the clinched index finger of her left hand, and trying unsuccessfully to hold back the racking sobs she knew were coming. She spoke into the telephone now in ragged breathless whispers. “All right. I’ll see you both here in an hour.”

Edna Mayfield gently replaced the handset in it’s cradle, then turned towards the door that led to the backyard – and to the sanctuary that was her trellised garden. She walked to the center of her secret space, to a sundial atop a short, geometric column. Stanton Mayfield’s ashes lay undisturbed under the base of the column, a brass plaque with an inscription was set in stone on the ground just above the buried urn. She stood for a moment in embattled silence, not sure what to say – or to do.

“A spy,” she said to herself. She felt the blood flow out of her face, felt herself growing cold and pale as memories of his time there came flooding back. “Oh-please-my-God-in-Heaven – not another goddamned spy…”

Edna Mayfield sank to her knees for the second time that August morning, and hung onto the stark, bronze column in sheer, breathless loneliness. An impossible wailing cry soon shook the comfortable, impractical air of her garden. She looked to the heavens for a moment, then her eyes fell reluctantly to the inscribed words below:

“the tide abides for, tarrieth for no man, stays no man, tide nor time tarrieth no man”

Gales of anguish overtook her. She curled up on the ground above her husband and felt the cold fury of a thousand tears scream for release. Her’s had been a silent fury – now grown vile and powerful, a force she could no longer contain.

◊◊◊◊◊

Dorothy Fisher sat in the black leather passenger seat of a 1973 Porsche 911 S Targa, her hair streaming wildly in the open air, trying her very best not to look at the man in the driver’s seat. A man who had shown up for his first and only pre-job interview yesterday afternoon dressed in oil-stained khaki shorts and an immaculately pressed white buttoned-down dress shirt. Yet his sleeves were rolled-up, for God’s sake, and the man had not worn socks under his salt-caked boat-shoes – and the stainless-steel Rolex on his left wrist was spattered with dark-red paint. The man wore the same clothing this morning, yet she was sure the shirt was freshly laundered. Looking straight ahead now, Fisher occasionally looked down and moaned at the sight of his lean, muscled legs. She more than once caught herself wanting to know this man better.

Dorothy Fisher gave the man directions to FoxWood Lane, to Edna Mayfield’s house. She felt somewhat at odds with herself: guilty at having manipulated the woman; angry at having been pulled into Edna Mayfield’s one act drama. She had voided her own best counsel, played her trump card right away. Desperate to find a home for this man, in a way – desperate to know him better, to marry him, to bare his children!

She found her way back to reality, desperate to not appear the addled fool as she guided the man through the final turns to FoxWood Lane.

They pulled into the gated drive at number Forty Three, and slowly made their way down the rather long, tree-lined driveway to the house. The man stopped the car behind a pale yellow Cadillac coupe, admiring the grey Prairie School architecture of the sprawling house. He thought the house looked vaguely familiar, like he’d seen it before somewhere.

He unfastened his seatbelt and hopped out of the car, walked around the back and opened Fisher’s door. He held out his hand and helped her out, then walked off toward the front door; she walked briskly to keep up with the man’s vigorous stride.

The front door was open wide, and Edna Mayfield stood just inside, her right hand outstretched and a bright smile on her face.

“Good morning. I’m Edna Mayfield.” the woman said, shaking the man’s hand.

“Yes, it is a beautiful day. I’m Jordan Douglas. And this is Dorothy Fisher,” the man said, moving aside, letting her come forward. He wondered if she recognized him…

“Mrs Mayfield. It’s such an honor to finally meet you.” The two women shook hands. “I’m Dorothy Fisher. I think I’ve read every book and article you’ve ever written,” she gushed. And Dorothy Fisher was shocked by the woman she saw. Mayfield was almost certainly in her 60s now, yet she looked at least twenty years younger. Her figure was perfect, and the woman’s legs would turn any other woman green with envy – and the way she was dressed? A timeless elegance that was at once understated and yet, well, frankly sexy – in an understated way all the woman’s own. As they walked into the house, Dorothy Fisher looked past the entry hall and into the living room beyond – and all at once understood what it meant to be richer than hell. She saw two Monet’s and a Picasso, and she knew from comments on campus they weren’t prints.

Edna Mayfield led her visitors through the house to her kitchen, where she turned and offered them coffee. As she passed sugar cubes and a sterling pitcher of cream, the three continued to chat aimlessly about the weather and the coming semester’s academic highlights.

Still…without any change in apparent emotion or cadence in her speaking, Edna Mayfield came to her decision.

“Well, Dr Douglas, perhaps we’d better go out back so you can look over the apartment,” she said, standing up. Concealing her hopeful confusion, Fisher stood and followed her as she made her way to the door that led out into the vast garden; Jordan followed at a slower pace, his eyes linger on Edna Mayfield. He stepped into the sunshine and followed the woman through the maze of trellised walkways that led to the garage, his eyes fixed ahead.

Edna Mayfield unlocked the door and walked up the steps just inside the door, leading them up to the apartment. She flipped on a light switch at the top of the stairs and stood aside.

Jordan Douglas and Dorothy Fisher arrived and both seemed to stagger to a halt, their eye’s moving about slowly, taking in the grandeur of Wright’s creation. The ‘apartment’ was a vast open space composed entirely of smoke-colored cypress – there was not a single expanse of sheetrock or plaster in evidence. A gently vaulted ceiling dappled with stained-glass skylights gave the air a soaring spirit; it felt almost like a cathedral – only on a slightly more human scale. The southern exposure of the room was an uninterrupted expanse of geometrically mullioned glass; beyond lay a small lake, and in the distance a range of grey-green mountains stood mutely, as if placed there to define the limits of the Mayfield’s landscape. The room was furnished sparsely with Japanese and Mission style furniture and flowed into a compact, yet perfectly equipped kitchen space. Behind them, translucent shoji screens separated the main space from the sleeping and bathing spaces. Edna Mayfield beckoned the two to make themselves at home and wander about at will, then sat down lightly in a simple cherry-wood rocking chair looking out at her mountains. Her gaze seemed focused but detached, lost to the wonder of the space even after so many years.

Jordan Douglas spoke at once. “Mrs Mayfield, this is simply an overwhelming space. It’s hardly an apartment, it’s more a museum. I hesitate to ask, but who was the architect?”

“Frank Lloyd Wright, Dr Douglas,” Mrs Mayfield said.

The man paused, then put out his hand as if to commune with the very fabric of creation. He closed his eyes, and his head listed a bit to his right. “I see,” he said. “The main house is as well, I seem to recall?” He opened his eyes and looked at Edna Mayfield, who simply gave the faintest smile – a gently nodding assent. He looked at Edna Mayfield for a long time, and she in turn did not break away from his direct gaze.

“Well, Mr Douglas, I assume it meets with your approval. Now, could you tell me, please, is this manner of attire you’ve so graciously blessed us with in any way representative of your character?”

Jordan Douglas walked over and sat next to Edna Mayfield. He paused and nodded his head. “Mrs Mayfield, I understand what you mean, and perhaps someday if we know one another better I might explain my appearance to you. But let’s be clear about two things. First, I appreciate what you have created here; I’d be honored to live here, and I would treat the space accordingly. Second, I care not a bit about the conventions of society. I wear what I choose to wear, and I will not apologize to you, or to anyone else for that matter, for the choices I make.”

Dorothy Fisher turned away to hide her surprise and dismay, then shook her head in both wonder and disapproval.

Edna Mayfield continued to look directly at Jordan Douglas, her faint smile an open question that revealed nothing of the thoughts behind the facade. Presently she stood up, moved to pat Jordan Douglas on his shoulder and said “Good for you, Jordan. And here I was, given to believe men no longer have balls.”

With that, Edna Mayfield strode to the stairwell and proceeded down. As she neared the bottom she called out for the two of them to take their time.

Edna Mayfield walked over through a gate and onto the stone drive, then walked down toward her Cadillac, and just then saw the dark green Porsche in the drive. She looked at it, then back at the garage, a million emotions colliding in her mind’s eye. She looked at the car for a moment, checked the license plate if for no other reason than to reassure herself, then fought back the tears that seemed to be an integral part of this day. She turned and walked quickly back to the main house.

Jordan Douglas and Dorothy Fisher came back into the sunlight in time to see Edna Mayfield step back into the kitchen; they walked back through the garden towards the kitchen door to catch up, but as they grew near he turned and spoke quietly to Fisher: “Perhaps I’d better talk to her alone,” he said.

“Okay.”

“I’ll see you back at the car in a minute.” He continued on to the house, alone but for his own conflicted thoughts.

He entered the kitchen to find Edna Mayfield hastily wiping tears from her face. ‘Oh, God, what have I done to this woman,’ he said to himself.

Edna Mayfield made no effort to conceal her grief any longer. She turned to the young man and said, “I’m sorry. This has been very difficult for me.”

“I understand, Mrs Mayfield. The country lost a great voice when your husband left us.”

The opaque smile returned. “Well,” she said, “the place is yours if you want it.”

“Thank you. I hate to be so crude, but could I ask how much rent I should expect to pay, with utilities and such?”

“Well, let me see, Mr Douglas,” she said, acting as though she were sizing him up. “How about you take me out to dinner once a month in that green monster out there.”

She smiled at the surprise on the young man’s face, then led him to the front door.

◊◊◊◊◊

September 7th

Jordan Douglas pulled his car up to the garage, turned off the ancient cassette player, then the ignition as he gathered his books and papers to carry up to his room. As he shut the door he heard Edna Mayfield call out: “Hey there, stranger!” and he turned to see her waving at him as she worked away in her garden. He hadn’t seen her since that first day, but had heard that she’d been off to London to give a talk at the Institute For Strategic Studies at Cambridge.

“Well! Hey there, yourself,” he called back.

“Your rent’s due. How ‘bout tonight?”

“Sounds good. What time?”

“I’m famished, starved really! I just have to wash my hands, so I’m basically ready when you are.”

Jordan Douglas thought of all the papers to be graded piling up on his desk, the lectures to prepare for next week, and he sighed, then said: “Fine, let me take this stuff upstairs. Be down in five.”

When he came down he found Edna Mayfield standing by the rear of the Porsche.

“This is a ‘73 S, I take it?” she asked.

He nodded, not really surprised by her knowledge of the model.

“You haven’t seen Stanton’s cars yet, have you?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“Well, c’mon then,” she said excitedly. Edna Mayfield grabbed Jordan Douglas by the hand and pulled him back to the garage. She entered a code on the concealed keypad, and the lone garage door rolled up and out of the way.

Jordan Douglas laughed with joy at the sight. Another huge wooden space, again completely of cypress, the geometric stained glass windows an echo of other motifs around the main house, the massive wooden beams and finally, the low indirect lighting that switched on automatically as the door finished opening. A red Ferrari Daytona Spider stood at the front of a small pack of museum quality sports cars that were crowded into the garage. A cream colored Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing popped into view, it’s blazing red interior inappropriately elegant; a silver-blue Alpha Romeo Montreal, a Maserati here, a Lotus there. And in the very back, lost in a dimly lit corner of the museum, a dark green Porsche Targa.

“That’s his 73 S,” he said wonderingly. “I remember it, you know? On campus.”

“Yup,” she replied – with a bubble of laughter lurking just under the surface. “His pride and joy.”

“This must be some kind of weird for you,” he said as he looked at her.

“Took some gettin’ used to, that’s for sure. But I did some checkin’ up on you while I was away. You’ll do.”

He turned, looked at Edna Mayfield and smiled. “I’m glad,” he said. “Honored, actually.”

“Well, okay. I’m ready for dinner,” she said.

“All right. Your choice, Taco Bell or Burger King.”

She laughed gayly. “You drive, I’ll navigate.” It was a challenge, a dare he had to accept.

Across town they pulled into a drive-in hamburger stand, one of the few remaining postwar originals, she told him after they ordered. “Best goddamn rings west of the Rockies,” she continued. The carhop walked out a few minutes later and placed a tray heaped with burgers, onion rings, and drinks on his partially rolled up window. They talked about the college and his classes, students still flirting with the professors and professors still getting caught up in sloppy romances, all the while happy as they dug into their burgers. They laughed at stupid agency tales and legends, moaned about the folly of politicians. They were, in short, very relaxed with one another, enjoying each other’s company.

“I haven’t been here in ages,” Edna Mayfield said. “This place was here when Stan and I were first dating. Tastes like they haven’t changed the grease in the fryers since then, too.”

“Yeah, but this chocolate malt is the best. I can feel my arteries clogging as we speak.”

“Next month, okay? When I feel like gaining twenty pounds.”

He laughed. “I have to wait a month?”

“You can find your way,” she said, suddenly wary.

“I meant with you.”

She sighed, looked away. “Jordan, I appreciate the compliment, I really do, but I’m old enough to be your mother.”

“I plead ulterior motives,” he grinned. “I simply wanted to be seen driving around with the prettiest gal in town.”

Edna Mayfield reached over and took Jordan Douglas’ hand in hers. “That’s very sweet, Jordan. But I’m too old for that kind of foolishness, and you’re too young.” Open conflict seemed to dance across Edna Mayfield’s characteristically unreadable eyes, and he was amused.

“Told you that first day, Mrs Mayfield, I’m not much on conventions.”

“So, salty boat shoes? You have a boat?”

“When I moved back to the Bay Area. My dad’s actually. After he passed I couldn’t think of letting her go, so I moved aboard.”

“What’s that like?”

“Not bad for a bachelor, unusual community atmosphere all around. Interesting, I think. Not your usual nine to five lifestyle.”

“You liked it, then?”

“I did, yes. I should say I still do. I liked sailing up to the delta, towards Sacramento, and I went outside a few times, sailed down to Monterrey Bay.”

“We used to drive over to Half Moon Bay, up over Skyline Drive and down to the little artichoke stands along Highway 1. Did you ever make it to Alice’s Restaurant?”

“Most every Sunday.”

Edna Mayfield smiled at that, then reclined the seat as far as it would go and looked out the car into the deep blue sky above. “Such a beautiful evening,” she whispered. “I miss him so much. Hated to see him reduced to such frailty. You just can’t imagine.”

“Yes, Edna, I can,” he whispered back.

She turned and looked at him, willing him to continue.

“We were stationed in Ecuador. I was seconded as commercial attache, Emily worked for State. Leftist guerrillas hit a diplomatic convoy headed to the airport to pick up Vance. She was killed that day, but it took her weeks to pass.”

Edna Mayfield suddenly remembered the incident. Remembered Emily Douglas and the baby she carried, the outrage in D.C. And just as suddenly she recalled Jordan Douglas, his ancient grief spread over tabloids and network newscasts.

“She was so young,” he said quietly. “Like all of us were, I guess.”

“And I am so old,” she said to herself. The words echoed around Edna Mayfield’s memories – even through the walls she had erected to keep so many of them away.

They sat in silence for a while, awash in their respective grief, and storm clouds gathered over distant mountains, then moved down the valley towards the city. Lightning lit their way on the drive home.

◊◊◊◊◊

October 21st

Jordan Douglas sat on the patio off the east side of his room, watching evening overtake the valley. He was reading, or at least trying to reread Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, preparing for a lecture on Social Darwinism in the early 20th-century. He was still far too busy with classes, and was considering the college’s offer of a tenure-track position in the wake of Olin Tomlinson’s death. Too, he had been looking after the main house after Edna Mayfield departed a few days after their brief evening out. Gone to Norway to visit relatives, or so she said. Edna Mayfield had given him the keys and the codes, hopped into a taxi and been gone in a heartbeat.

In today’s mail he’d found a letter from Norway, and he’d set it aside – for a time – when distractions would be few. After two more hours he set aside Spengler’s brooding missive, took up the letter he assumed was from Edna Mayfield and slowly knifed the envelope, carefully setting it on the table by his side.

He took in the writing on the page, its elegant, finished form awash I subtle femininity. He read Edna Mayfield’s pleasantries and banal descriptions of ancient stave churches and crystal-hued waterfalls diving through autumn foliage to the ice-blue waters of deep fjords. Still, he smiled at the imagery as he flipped to the next page.

The words on this page were from someone in deep emotional conflict, and though the handwriting on the surface was the same elegant script, the words no longer reflected the casual wanderings of an idle tourist. Edna Mayfield now described the wanderings of her heart through the barren landscapes of her husband’s life and death, the triumphs and the betrayals of their careers in public service. She described the enduring love she had for her husband, and for their children. She threw into the light of day Jordan’s oblique reference to some form of tryst with her, and here Jordan Douglas sat bolt upright in his chair, for it soon became apparent she had not dismissed the idea out of hand.

She drifted through needs to protect the memories of her marriage from meaningless diversions, the feelings of her children and their certain sense of betrayal should their mother carry-on a disreputable affair, and Jordan’s own very tenuous standing in a small-town college community. Yet she expressed an affection for him, indeed, a strong attraction. Her confidence seemed to build again as she continued, and she ended by asking him to think about her words and feelings as he might those of a close friend.

Edna added she’d be home in a few weeks, and to keep himself well until her return. Douglas set the letter aside and picked up the envelope and noted the post mark, then lifted the paper to his nose and smiled again. Her perfume suffused his senses, and whether deliberate or accidental he did not care. He closed his eyes as he felt cast adrift in so many memories, so suddenly, and he felt he was tumbling in a ragged surf when he pictured her in his mind.

He thought of Stanton, his friend and mentor, and the times he’d seen them together in D.C. He thought of Ecuador and his own loss, and now her’s. Stanton had belonged to her, yet the old man had been a part of his moral universe too, and he found it difficult to separate the two. He thought of the mornings he and Stanton played squash or tennis, and the mornings over the past several weeks when he saw Edna coming back from an early morning run… How alike they were, how attuned to one another they must have been. How remarkable it would be to cut through time – like an arrow – with someone like her by your side.

Social conventions aside, he wondered if she was ready for her own second verse.

“And what about me?” he wondered. “Am I ready for her, and everything she is?”

◊◊◊◊◊

He’d felt light-headed for days, almost giddy with adolescent anticipation as the assumed days of Edna Mayfield’s return came – and went, and it was already late in the evening when he accepted defeat, knew this was not to be the day. He rubbed his eyes as he looked at the pile of ungraded papers on his desk, then jumped at the sudden knocking on the door below. He flew down the stairs and opened the door to see Edna Mayfield standing there, silhouetted by the bright lights of a taxi in the driveway.

“Jordan! I’m so glad you’re home! I don’t suppose you have any small change about? All I have are some traveler’s checks and a handful of Krone.” Jordan walked out to the old yellow cab and paid off the cabbie, then picked up Edna Mayfield’s bags and carried them towards the main house.

“Oh, put them down, Jordan! I’m starved!” she said, a sudden smile flashing across her face. Jordan took out his house keys and placed the bags inside the door and returned to the driveway. As the taxi backed out the drive he walked over to Edna.

“So, how are you? What would you like to eat?” he said as he hugged her.

Edna Mayfield stood looking at Jordan Douglas in the receding light. Her eyes bore into his with feral intensity, and she took both his hands in hers.

“I feel a great need for a chocolate malt and onion rings,” Edna Mayfield said as she grinned. “I’ve been thinking about that for at least a day.”

He grinned, felt in his pockets and found his keys as they walked to his car, and they drove in silence to the old drive-in. After they ordered she reclined the seat and looked up at the coming stars – and she reached over, took his hand in hers.

He let her drift, let her set the agenda, but the feel of her skin on his was unimaginably full of nether currents. He held her to his own – all the while wanting desperately to hold her, the pull she exerted now absolute. They picked at their food when it came, still in silence, then she turned to him, asked him to take her home.

And still they sat in silence, her hair lifting in the slipstream. Stopped at a light, he looked at her, at her upturned face, her closed eyes, and he took her hand and carried her fingers to his lips.

They turned into the drive, the headlights of his old Porsche lighting the stone, and her pale yellow Cadillac, on his way back to the garage. When he stopped, when he’d switched off the ignition and the lights, he felt her eyes on him and he turned to meet them.

“Thanks,” she said lightly, gently.

He smiled as gently. “You betcha…would hate to fall behind on my rent.”

“You received my letter?” she asked.

“I did.”

“And?”

“I’ve been counting the minutes ever since.”

“I feel like a teenager,” she grinned. “All addled by the silliest hopes and dreams…”

“I know.”

“Yes. I thought you, off all people, might understand. You know, I miss Stanton so, but I think he’d understand, perhaps even approve.”

“I think he’d be jealous as hell,” he said, smiling. “I’ve never seen a more pure love than his for you.”

She turned to him, looked into his eyes after this unexpected thrust. He does understand, everything, she thought. “And yet,” she breathed, “I’d love nothing more than to fall in love with you.”

And with that, she led him to the garage, to the stairs that led to his room. She seemed to float up the stairs, leading Jordan in casual flight among clouds of their own creation – within the heady glow of forgotten anticipation. He looked at her as she drifted up the currents of their finding, took in the sweet elegance of her every move, the subtly restrained sexuality of her movements. Cast adrift by her off-white suit, the bone colored blouse, stockings, and pumps, the random twinkling of jewelry, the soft cloud of Chanel he drifted within, he followed her now – in a trance of her making.

As they reached the deep glow within her vaulting space, she flipped off the lights and turned on Jordan Douglas. There was nothing forced or hesitant about their lovemaking; he thought it more an acknowledgment of the obvious, a part of who they might become.

“Penny for your thoughts,” she said as they lay together after, her smile demure, full of understanding. Yet her soul radiated curiosity, questions about the why and the what of things to come…

Yet he hesitated. “Until I saw you again, until we went on that first drive, I thought my life incomplete, somehow wanting of a conclusion. I think I’d given up on the idea of ever finding someone like you.”

“Someone like me?”

“Yes. Like you, and only you.”

“What does that mean, Jordan?”

“When I look at you, think about you, my world turns upside down. Everything is chaos until I think of you by my side – and then everything falls into place, makes perfect sense.”

She lay on her side, propped her face on her hand as she looked at him. “Perfect sense? How? Symmetry – between the past and the present?”

“I suppose, but after I read your letter, all that evening I drifted among memories of Stanton and Emily, and then of course, you. What hit me hardest, I suppose, was that we wouldn’t be here – you and I, together – right this minute, without our universe unfolding just the way that it has…and yet, despite all the odds against that happening – here we are. I don’t like resorting to cliché, but right now it feels like everything before this moment happened for a reason; everything’s that’s happened has led us right here, right now. And I feel this moment is the most important of my life.”

“Important? Why do you say that?”

“Because when I read your letter I felt joy again, in my heart, but not from a purely selfish point of view.”

“Selfish?” she wondered aloud.

“I think I fell in love with you again the moment I saw you, when you were standing in the door waiting to show me this room,” he started. “Of course I knew who you were. Of course I was reluctant to get you involved. I just couldn’t imagine violating your need for privacy, being interrupted by a reminder of Stanton’s past, yet I felt a certain joy then because, I think, I could see a circle rejoined.”

She didn’t blink an eye, she just continued to look at Jordan’s face, the weight of loneliness falling from her spirit as he spoke. “You loved him too, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I suspect I did, perhaps in the way a son loves his father. He always seemed such a wise soul, careful to avoid the excesses and abuses of power. He was a rancher, and he was a philosopher, and – I think he always believed in the promise of this country.”

“Wait a minute! Did you say you fell in love with me – again?”

“Edna, every red-blooded heterosexual male in Washington D.C. was in love with you. I just got with the program and fell in line with everyone else.”

“Oh, piffle,” she said, smirking. “All that bullshit about ‘brains and beauty’, like someone’s sexuality is their single most defining trait…”

“That’s what’s so stunning about you, Edna. It’s always been that way, too.”

She looked away, feeling almost disappointed now.

“I think I understand how you feel,” he continued – as seriousness clouded her eyes. “The miracle of you, your curse too, I suppose, has always been your beauty, yet how it complement’s your intellect. Men have always been drawn to you, but often to your beauty, and yet you used that attraction to draw men closer, to draw people to your arguments. Even so, I assume you could never be sure what was left after those encounters. Did men take you seriously because of the positions you advanced, or because they were drawn to your beauty – and didn’t really give a damn?”

She lay on her back just then, looked up at the ceiling. “Stanton and I talked about this all the time, the very same thing. It feels like you and I are replaying conversations we had…”

“I’m sorry, perhaps I…”

“No, no. I love it that you see into me the way he did, that you know me the way he did.”

“As I know you understand my feelings for Emily, and all that came before. Yet what I’ve thought about most since we met, since we sat eating onion rings and burgers, is that life now is for the living. I don’t think I’ve thought of much else, really. And yes, though you are a little older, all that means is time is precious now – to both of us now. It’s not the simple commodity we used to take for granted when we were kids.”

“No, I suppose not,” she said, smiling as a thought ran through her mind.

“Sorry you asked?” he replied.

Edna Mayfield took his hand in hers and kissed it, all the while feeling a tenderness well up in her soul. She turned, rested her face on his chest, listening to his heart beating away, still smiling gently at random thoughts running through her mind’s eye.

“So,” he continued, “things seem pretty clear to me. I hope my feelings are clear, but then again I’m usually fairly transparent.”

“Oh, did I hear a statement of feelings in there, somewhere along the line?” Edna Mayfield asked coyly.

“Wasn’t there? Why, Mrs Mayfield, I love you.”

“Oh, I see,” she said in mock seriousness, then her cares seemed to fall away. “I never expected to feel this way again, not ever. I think I’ve been dead ever since Stanton passed, actually.” He felt her move closer now, her body conforming to his. She held him close, breathed in deeply. “Thank you,” she said at last, “for helping me find my life once again.”

She fell asleep on his chest, listening to the quiet, steady beat of his heart.

◊◊◊◊◊

November 21st

Edna Mayfield waved excitedly as her youngest daughter, Tracy, bounded out of the arrivals concourse. Tracy ran up to her mother, fell into her embrace, yet Edna was shocked at the change she saw in her daughter. Older now, more mature in an unexpected way. Something had happened, changed, yet she was happy.

Tracy remained her secret favorite; Tracy the romantic, the poet at heart, her soul always attuned to other people’s feelings. And she had Edna’s looks, too: not quite as tall, slim but well-proportioned, and the same long, flowing copper colored hair that revealed her Nordic-Scottish ancestry. Academically, Tracy had always been something of an enigma to her parents; rarely performing to expectation but making almost perfect scores on the SATs and ACTs. She’d applied to Stanford, but from an early age wanted to get away from the west, to go back east. Harvard took her, so did Dartmouth, but the small town girl went to Cambridge to live in the heart of a big city. Though she had yet to declare a major, she’d been interested in history for many years, just like her father, yet she loved to paint – like her mother.

Now here she was, dressed in typical Tracy fashion; gray cardigan sweater over white blouse, grey flannel skirt, black tights and tasseled loafers. Boarding school garb, always the same – like coming of age at that school in New Hampshire would always define her life. She was home for Thanksgiving vacation, just like high school – again, yet Claire wouldn’t be home this time.

How would she react to Jordan? ‘Thank God,’ Edna Mayfield said to herself as she thought of their meeting, ‘I don’t think I could handle all of them together this time.’

“So Mom, what’s new with you,” Tracy asked, and yet just then she could hear Stanton’s penetrating questions in her voice.

“Oh, not too much, sweetie. I’ve had to make appearances at a couple of seminars, some campaign appearances for Senator Daniels, but not much else. I went to Norway in September to visit family. And, oh, don’t go wandering up into the garage apartment; we’ve got a boarder up there.”

“Oh, really?” Tracy said, now very curious. The last girl they’d had up there had been really bad news. Drugs and all night parties, and her father had been furious at the damage done to the place. “What’s she like?” she asked.

“Not a she, sweetie. He’s a very nice young man,” Edna Mayfield said, not wanting to walk this minefield so early in her vacation.

“That’s a pretty good trick for a girl’s college, don’t you think, mom?”

“He’s a replacement they brought in, after Olin had his heart attack. You know, he actually worked for your father for a while at the agency,” she continued.

“That’s pretty wild, huh? What’s he like, how old is he?” she said as they made their way through the little terminal to the parking lot, and she was looking closely at her mother now, looking at all the tell-tale signs glowing on her face.

“You know, sweetie, I’m not real sure. I’ve been away so much this fall I just haven’t had a chance to get to know him as well as I’d have liked.”

Yet, as Tracy Mayfield got in the car she saw her mother blushing, and now red flags started popping-up all over the place. Still, she moved on, not wanting to upset her mother, also thinking the right guy might be good for her.

As they pulled into the driveway Tracy commented that the house looked good. Her mother pulled through the carport and headed back to the garage.

“Wow, mom, are you driving Dad’s Porsche?”

“Hmm? Oh, no sweetie, that’s Jordan’s.”

“Jordan’s?” Tracy asked, a telltale arched eyebrow the giveaway.

“Dr Douglas, dear. Jordan Douglas. I guess he’s home now. Oh, I forgot, they only had classes scheduled for half a day.”

Tracy Mayfield knew all she needed to know for now. Her analyst’s mind was the natural by-product of being raised by two spooks – one in the C.I.A., the other from the N.S.A. ‘Ok,’ she said to herself, ‘the facts so far: first name basis; knows his schedule; blushes when talking about him. This could be an interesting vacation after all…’

She carried her small bag into the house while her mother went into the kitchen to work on her stuffing. She made her way quickly into her parent’s bathroom and took a quick look around – and it didn’t take long to make her inventory.

There, around the sink, is that brown hair? Ah-ha, razor stubble there, and on the shower floor, and TWO damp towels. She went back to her bedroom and got out her cell phone, pulled up her contacts and speed dialed her sister’s number.

“Claire? It’s Trace. I think you’d better come home tonight. What? Are you feeling okay? Yeah, I know, but I think it’s that important. Yeah, but listen…I think something’s up with Mom, there might be a boyfriend thing going on. Yeah, I know, but get me the flight time as soon as you can, and call me on the Boston cell. Right. Bye.”

She went back down to the kitchen, looked at her mother working away in her apron, her real, bonafide kitchen warfare uniform, making homemade biscuits for her stuffing, an old family recipe called out only for the most important occasions.

‘She hasn’t made this in years, has she?’

Bingo!

“Can I help out, mom?”

“I was thinking it might be nice to call Dr Douglas and invite him over for a drink. Would you mind doing that?”

“Can’t I go over and ask him? Seems silly to call.”

“I think calling’s the polite thing to do, Tracy. He might have company.”

She smiled – thinking of tangled webs – then called the number to the back house. “Hello, Jordan? It’s Tracy, Tracy Mayfield. Mom and I would love it if you’d come over for a drink. Five minutes? Sounds good. Bye!”

Edna Mayfield’s eyes were wide open.

‘Jordan?’ – then she thought of Tracy’s best poker voice on the phone, when she had a bad report card to discuss. ‘OK. She’s never been a fool, and if she hasn’t figured it out already, she will in about ten minutes. Time to set my own snare…’

Jordan walked up to the kitchen door and knocked, and when Edna was through with her stuffing and she set it in the ‘fridge, Jordan fixed drinks and they all went to sit in the living room.

“So, you’re teaching at the college?” Tracy asked, wanting to break through the ice quickly.

He smiled at her, wondered what form her game would take. “Yes, that’s about the size of it.”

“What department?”

“History.”

Tracy’s eyes lit up. “I just declared my major. History, but I may minor in philosophy…”

“You are so your father’s daughter,” Edna said, grinning. “When did you decide?”

“A few weeks ago. So, where’d you do your PhD, Jordan?”

“Stanford. On FDR’s pre-war efforts to mobilize industry, for what he considered an inevitable war.”

“What are you teaching now?”

“Oh, a couple of intro survey courses, and one 400 level seminar, 20th-century social structures. What are your interests?”

“The medieval church, oddly enough, and Rome.”

“Tracy, Jordan’s been living on a sailboat, on San Francisco Bay. That’s interesting, don’t you think?” Of course, Edna tossed that one into the ring knowing Tracy lived to go sailing…

And her eyes went wide hearing that. “Really? What kind of boat?”

“Oh, a real oldie, an Alden Boothbay Challenger; it was my father’s.”

“That’s a Maine boat, wasn’t it? How big is she?”

“Yes, only fourteen of ‘em built. 58 feet, draws a little over five with the boards up. She was the light in my dad’s eye.”

“What’s her name?”

“Siren Song.”

“I love it!”

He grinned. “Three staterooms, maybe we can all go out on her sometime…”

“Gosh…I’d love that…I know Claire would too…” Tracy said as she looked at her mother. “Maybe we could, huh?”

Edna looked at Tracy, then at Jordan – and she smiled…

And then Tracy’s phone chirped – and she dashed outside to take the call. “Yeah, it’s me. There’s a boarder in the back house, a new prof at the college. Former spook, worked for Dad too, apparently. Oh, yeah, confirmed; evidence all over her bathroom. Uh, huh. Yeah, he seems like a nice guy, did his doc at Stanford so maybe you can do some research. So yeah, really interesting in a beach bum sorta way, lived on a sailboat around there somewhere. Okay, got it. Flight 481. 2315 hours. I’ll get out of here somehow, meet you at the baggage claim.”

As she walked back in she thought about how best to make an excuse to get the car keys. Bet her mom would fall for it, give her time to be with her beau anyway, she thought with a smile. Mom’s are so easy to fool…

As she came back inside she saw her mother on the telephone, heard her thanking the party on the other end, saying good night.

Mother turned to daughter, a knowing smile on her face.

“So. I guess you’ll be wanting the car tonight? Say around ten or so? You did write down her flight number, didn’t you? 481, is it?”

“Well, fuck,” Tracy muttered under her breath. When your mother was retired from the NSA, you couldn’t get away with dick.

“I know,” Edna Mayfield said, seeing the frustration in her daughter’s eyes. “Let’s go out to dinner now, shall we? We can pick her up after…”

Jordan Douglas looked at mother and daughter and wondered just what the hell had happened.

◊◊◊◊◊

Claire Mayfield came into the arrivals concourse only to see a dejected Tracy standing next to her mother – and a nice looking man who stood about a half head taller than their mother.

‘OK, cover now thoroughly blown,’ as her Dad would’ve said at a time like this, ‘it’s time for Plan B.’

“Hi, Mom. Tracy thought it would be nice to surprise you for Thanksgiving.”

Edna Mayfield hugged her oldest daughter, gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Well, Claire, you know how it goes,” her mother said. “Hard to keep a secret in a house full of women.” She smiled, trying her best to keep her sense of irony in check.

“And I’m Jordan Douglas,” the man next to her mother said, holding out his hand.

Claire Mayfield turned and looked into the man’s penetrating eyes, yet she sensed little guile, and an unassuming intelligence. And anyone with an IQ over 70 could see that he was head over heels in love with her mother. She gave Trace a sidelong glance and noted the ‘she beat us again’ grin on her face, and knew it was all over now. Oh, well. Someday. Someday, they’d pull one over on her.

Claire Mayfield turned and walked out the terminal, holding her mother’s hand for a while, and she tried not to stare at the man she instinctively knew was about to change all their lives – forever. And she wasn’t too surprised when her mother let Jordan Douglas drive the car, nor the way they surreptitiously held hands in the front seat of her pale yellow Cadillac.

◊◊◊◊◊

December 17th

Tracy Mayfield walked out into the massive arrivals concourse, her arms fully loaded with holiday packages and a single carry-on. She looked around for her mother, or even Jordan, but no one was there, no one waiting with open arms…

Then she saw Claire – walking her way – an uneasy smile on her face. They hugged, and Claire took some of the load off her sister’s hands, then they started for the car.

“Mom and Jordan? Where are they?”

“On the boat.”

“Have you seen it yet?”

“Yeah. It’s nice, I guess, very cozy down below, but it’s as old as he is, built forty something years ago. You can tell he’s put a lot into her, though. Anyway, bet you’re glad to get out of Beantown…supposed to be a monster blizzard coming in.”

“It’s there. It was ten below when I got to Logan this morning, and already about a foot on the ground. I was never so happy as when those wheels came up…”

“Yeah? It’s been like 80 degrees here, for the last three months. I’d almost like to see some snow.”

“I don’t know…it feels pretty nice out here to me…” They were on the upper parking deck now, walking to Claire’s Honda in the sunlight. “Where’s the boat, anyway?”

“Pier 39,” Claire said, “downtown. Nice spot, if you can handle tourists gawking at you all day long.”

“I can’t believe we’re doing Christmas here. This is the first time we’ve ever not been at home.”

“I think a lot of things are changing, Tracy. Kind of – ‘right before our eyes.’ She’s 21 years older, you know? I’m not sure I think it’s right.”

“It’s her life, Claire.”

“It’s our life, too,” Claire said as she unlocked the doors. “We don’t know him, who he is, or what he wants from her. Maybe he tried to get a job at the college, maybe he’s trying to get closer to mom. Maybe all he wants is her money. Did you think of that?”

Tracy looked at her sister, not really sure what she was hearing. Paranoia was one thing, but Claire sounded almost delusional. “Well, I’m sure we’ll find out a lot about what’s going on over the next few days. Why don’t we just sit back and watch ‘em for a while.”

“Tracy, you should read his dissertation. It reads like he worships FDR and the New Deal.”

“So did Dad, Claire.”

“He did not!”

“Claire, he was a democrat.”

“He was not!”

“Claire, what’s the name of that place by campus…the one with the pastrami sandwiches Dad always took us to?”

“The Oasis?”

“Yeah, The O. Have you been lately?”

“No, too many memories. I didn’t go to any football games this year. Dad will kill me,” Claire said.

And Tracy looked at her sister just then, at the faraway look in her eyes. “I’m real hungry. Suppose we could drive down there? I’d like to see the place one more time…”

“It’s not the same anymore.”

Tracy listened to the voice. Flat, lifeless – and very depressed. “Okay, well, let’s go on up to the city…” Something was wrong, something had drastically changed since Thanksgiving. “Have you stayed on the boat yet? Been around them?”

Claire pulled up to the gate to pay, then got on the 101 – heading north into San Francisco in a silent fugue – then she pulled onto the Embarcadero and drove into North Beach. Parking was always a nightmare down here, Claire said absent-mindedly as she passed a vacant space, then another – finally settling on a space far from the marina. They walked down to the pier and to the marina, and Claire entered a code and led Tracy down to the Siren Song.

Jordan was up the mast in a bosun’s chair – setting a radar reflector below the spreader – as the girls walked up, and when he saw them approaching he lowered himself down to the broad teak decks and slipped out of the chair, then hopped over to the boarding gate and took the packages from Tracy’s hands, helped her up.

“How are you?” he said, smiling as he helped Claire up. Tracy gave him a hug while Claire walked by in a silent rage, went to the cockpit and sat down in a heaping pile.

“Doing fine. You?” She looked at him, expressing caution as she looked at Claire, but he gave her a knowing nod.

“I could use a hand,” he said as he turned and walked back to the mast. He tied-off lines from the reflector, handed her a line and asked her to shackle it off. He watched her, looked how she handled the line, then walked forward to the bow pulpit. “How was she?” he asked.

“What’s happened to her?”

He shrugged. “You mom started getting bills last October, from student health services. Her report card is all incompletes, she’s put 13,000 miles on the car since August.”

“That’s all you know?” she said as she smiled. “What do the health service notices say?”

“HIPA, confidential, won’t tell us anything, just a bunch of bills and co-pays.”

“What’s Mom think?”

“She’s worried.”

“Okay. When are we headed out?”

Jordan looked at his watch. “About an hour, as soon as the tide turns.”

“I’d better go say ‘hi’ to Mom, then get changed.”

“She’s aft, working on some emails. When you come back up we’ll head out.”

She looked at him again, smiled. “I’m glad you’re here, Jordan. With her, I mean,” then she turned and walked aft.

He watched her as she walked away. How like her mother she was, and in a way, like Stanton, too. And there was Claire, looking at him from the cockpit, the complete opposite of Tracy. Claire, who seemed to be a composite of all those traits Stanton struggled with. Brilliant, insecure when on unfamiliar turf, easily unsettled by challenges to his authority. All the things he had relied on Edna to keep in check…and now, those had settled on Claire. Who would be there to hold her together? She was fading so fast, who would come to her rescue?

◊◊◊◊◊

Once the main was set, Siren Song pulled into the wind on her own, and while Tracy steered Jordan rolled out the genoa, then hopped aft and shut down the engine. The afternoon breeze was flowing in the Golden Gate so they tacked towards Sausalito, dodging fishing trawlers and a nuclear submarine as they crossed the bay. A quarter mile shy of The Needles, Siren Song tacked to port and sailed close-hauled under the Golden Gate, keeping well off Baker Beach on her way to Mile Rock. Once five miles offshore Tracy steadied up on a heading to carry them down the peninsula, their next turn seventy miles ahead.

The mid-afternoon sun beat down on the deck, and it was warm for a December day, even by California standards. A steady onshore wind keep Siren Song’s sails pulling; Claire walked up to the bow and straddled the pulpit, let her legs dangle off the bow while Tracy steered and Jordan walked around checking lines and gear.

Presently, Edna Mayfield came up from below and sat beside her youngest, looking at her – so immersed and in her element – as she held fast to wheel and compass. She looked forward, saw Claire sitting on the bow – isolating herself, drowning in self-inflicted despair, then she turned and saw Jordan on the aft rail, looking up at the mast, measuring angles in the rigging. He had a tension gauge in his hand and went forward, tweaked one of the shrouds then walked aft again, checking the angle one more time. When he was satisfied he slipped into the cockpit and sat between Edna and Tracy, looking from one to the other – and startled once again by the almost complete similarity between them. Tracy’s nose was different, and her skin lighter, but that was about it. Looking at Edna was like looking at a Tracy that might exist in forty years – and here he was, in age straddling the two of them.

“Well,” he said, “here I am, sitting between the two most gorgeous women in the world, and what I want to know is which one of you is going to fix lunch?”

Edna Mayfield pushed her sunglasses down to the tip of her nose and looked at Jordan.

“Are you saying Tracy is as pretty as I am?” she said in a deadpan, her eyes boring into his.

“Oh, no,” Jordan replied, just as seriously. “She’s much prettier than you are.”

That made Edna Mayfield smile. “Who wants a Coke?” Edna smiled as she went below to the galley. A few minutes later she came up with chicken salad sandwiches, chips and cokes, and Edna called Claire out of the sun.

“There are a lot of sharks out here,” Claire said as she slipped into the shaded cockpit, and Edna looked at her carefully.

“Oh? What did you see?”

“I don’t know what kind, but I’ve seen two really big ones, like that one,” she said, pointing.

Jordan looked, saw the large scything tail of a White about 50 meters to port – and Edna’s eyes went wide. “What is it, Jordan?” Edna asked.

“A White. There are a lot of them in the area this time of year, especially out at the Farallon Islands. Humpback whales, too.”

“Could we go out there?” Claire asked, her voice clear, yet sounding almost mesmerized.

Jordan looked at Edna, who gently shook her head. “This is the wrong time of year, Claire. Winter is when the Whites gather out there, a breeding and hunting season, and it’s off-limits to everyone but a handful of researchers, even passing boats are required to stay well away.”

“They’re pretty,” she said. “Dangerous, but pretty.”

“From a distance,” Jordan said, “I suppose they are. In a few months they’ll disappear, head out into deep water between here and Maui. It’s thought they give birth out there, then return here in winter.”

Claire looked at the animal as it swam along. “God…how lonely she must be. Out there adrift in the blue, to give birth – then lose even that companionship…”

Tracy looked at her mother – who looked back and smiled, then Claire turned to them, to Jordan, really.

“I’m pregnant, Jordan, and I need your help.”

Edna sat very still, not sure where Claire was coming from, or where she was going…

Jordan, however, smiled gently as he turned to her. “Oh?”

“I’ve decided to have an abortion, and I want you to go with me when I have it done.”

“I see. Why me, not the child’s father?”

“I don’t know who he is.”

“Whatever do you mean, Claire?” Edna said.

“I was at a party…and I woke up on a bed, naked. I may have been raped, but I don’t even know that much. I went to the health services clinic last week and they confirmed it, and I’ve found a place that does them. Abortions, I mean. I don’t want to go alone.”

Jordan reached for her hand and she moved away.

“Claire,” he said as he looked into her eyes, “please don’t pull away from me.”

“I’ve made up my mind, and I don’t want you to try to talk me out of this.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said as he willed her to come back to his side.

She looked at him, then slid across the cockpit seat until she was next to him. He looked in her eyes, saw her fighting to hold back tears, the trembling lips, the shaking hands…

Then he took her in his arms and pulled her close, let her come to terms with the idea he was there for her – then he felt her relax, felt her arms encircle his, felt her whole body shaking. “I’m sorry your father isn’t here to help you now, but I’ll be there for you, okay?”

He felt her nod on his chest, felt her silent tears moisten his chest as he looked at Edna, then to Tracy. They all seemed to understand Something Important had just happened, perhaps Jordan most of all that some final barrier had been breeched, then he felt her go from relaxed to almost limp – and he leaned back a bit and he heard her snoring…

He leaned back and cradled her head in his hands and held her close; Edna watched stunned by Claire’s sudden release – then her shattering news – and not least of all by her proximate clinging to Jordan. She’d never seen her let go in front of her father, nor even her for that matter, yet Tracy seemed most unsettled by it all.

And why was that? Edna Mayfield asked herself. Tracy looked at Jordan almost possessively now, and from time to time she watched something take shape in her youngest’s eyes that was troublingly more than possessiveness. Still, that wasn’t what troubled her now.

Here was Jordan, now thrust into an impossible series of emotional hurricanes. His love for her, Tracy’s budding infatuation – and now, Claire’s implosion. They’d seen parts of the unfolding drama arrive in the mail, but now everything was out in the open. Most important of all now, Claire’s terrifying emotional ordeal was out in the open – and she’d reached out to – Jordan? Not to her? Why? Or…why not?

Of course she had no way of knowing, but the exact same thought was running through Jordan’s mind as he held on to Claire…

‘Why me, and why not Edna? What’s going on here? And why is Tracy looking at me like that?’

©2005-2016 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | So ends the first part of this rewrite. Look for the conclusion in a few days.

 

Still Life in Shadow

This was one of those stories that tried to write itself, but, I think,  got lost along the way. A few weeks after posting I had second thoughts about the ending, even the very nature of the resolution, but somehow never got around to finishing a rewrite. Still, I’ve tinkered with it over the years, and recently hammered away at it. I think she’s pretty close to where I wanted her originally, but I’ll let you decide whether it’s better than the original.

+++

Still Life In Shadow

or: The Order of the Universe, In a Smile

◊◊◊◊◊

She presented herself as a simple woman, and it had been said of her – for as long as anyone on the island could remember – that she had been unassuming, almost plain – even when she was young. Before she left for Zurich.

But that was so long ago.

She had always been considered brilliant, even before the first day she first walked to the island school. She was different, and though not everyone understood her peculiar gift, that doesn’t really account for what happened in our time together.

Maria Louisa D’Alessandro was her name. She was Portuguese, but after finishing medical studies in Switzerland she had unaccountably returned to her family’s home near Horta, on the island of Faial in the Azores, and she had been practicing medicine there for almost thirty years – when I stumbled along and became a part of her story.

She was a surgeon at the only hospital on the island, and she ran an inter-island clinic for off-islanders as well, and she had come to be regarded as something of a saint by almost every inhabitant of the island chain. She was an oddity within the medical profession, too. She had trained in cardiovascular surgery but had simply picked up and left that high-pressure world – the bustle of Zurich, the certain promise of a celebrated career – and returned to this last outpost of the Portuguese empire, to this end of the line. Who can say, really, why. Did she return to get as far away from that fast-paced world as she could?

Again, no one knew her reasons, not really. Those who spend their lives worrying about such things often said a man was involved, but her return wasn’t really an open mystery anymore. The who and the why of it had, over the years, simply faded away. Gone too were the days, just after her return, when the young physician was looked on with lingering suspicion; she was brilliant, and she belonged to them – and so what if she returned? The men who once tried to win her heart stopped trying, left to make homes with other women, or they had gone to the sea, fishing perhaps – and on to their final rests.

Yes, that early part of her life was now little more than a memory; mysteries of uncertain unions, too, were now all of that untested past. Maria Louisa D’Alessandro watched all these mysteries play out in remotest seclusion, ignored the gossip as she watched the gossipers come and go, and she did so with kindness in her heart for everyone, for she possessed, in word and deed, a kind soul.

A Saint, if you really must know the truth of it.

Maria lived in her family’s house, a small whitewashed stone cottage on the south side of the island, in a little village outside of Horta known as Pasteleiro. Her house, like many others on the island, sat just back from a cliff that looked out over the Atlantic Ocean, yet it was in her south-facing garden – a world apart full of gardenia and azalea blossoms most of the year – that Maria found what real peace there was to be had in this life. When not seeing patients in her clinic, or at the hospital in it’s one operating room, Maria would inevitably be found on her knees, in her garden, slowly, perhaps even lovingly – working on the petals of her God’s creation.

Almost without exception, Maria would each day make dinner for herself at home. When the weather was stormy she would sit inside by the house’s old, stone fireplace. Max would be there with her – right by her side. Max, her soulfully faithful and very old Bernese Mountain Dog, a massive black mound of fur – with copper and white accents on his face and belly. They had, on their many stormy evenings together, looked out over mad, storm-tossed seas and wondered what furies danced in the heavens to create such majestic anarchy. Max would sit closely by her side on those nights, warm her feet and watch her with all the love and affection of any loving husband, and he was happy in this world, happy with his life, and happy with Maria – in the one and only way dogs know and understand our world.

In the normal, sun-drenched evenings of her island home, Maria would sit in her garden as the sun set and have a light salad, and perhaps some cheese with her wine, and invariably, no matter what the weather, she would sit in the afterglow of another day and read the works of Donne and Goethe and Yeats. She often read aloud to Max, and he would sit by the wall of her garden with the last of the day’s sun on his neck, and he looked at her with what surely must have been curiosity on his face, because he alone – of the all souls in this world –  truly listened to her.

Some might read these words and think about such an existence, find the routines of her life mundane, perhaps even boring. Yet there are few people who know the meaning of peace, or the myriad ways the souls of men can be ripped asunder, not in the way Maria Louisa D’Alessandro understood these things. Maria was an expert at recognizing a soul’s dis-ease, you see, because hers had been dead for such a very long time.

At least she told me that was the truth of the matter, long after events relayed in this little tale passed into memory.

I assumed over time that she thought of her place in life, when she bothered to think of herself at all, as a vast emptiness, devoid of human love. She relied on Max the way the blind rely on their dogs; he helped her avoid the worst consequences of her own peculiar sightlessness. But was Max was old when I met him, already concerned more about the next life than he knew, and Maria Louisa D’Alessandro had yet to grasp what his failing eyesight really meant.

◊◊◊◊◊

I first heard David Latham’s voice over the radio, and he sounded very stressed-out, very…I don’t know…maybe weak is the right word?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, let me take you back, back to a blustery May day a few months before we met, to an afternoon a few years ago, when I was en-route from the United States to the Mediterranean – via Bermuda and the Azores – and on an old friend’s new sailboat. I had done some sailing before but this was my first long ocean passage, yet I had been – and let’s keep this simple – hesitant to make the trip. But Harry Stinson, my oldest and most loyal friend, had begged and pleaded with me to make the trip with him, and in the end he simply hammered away at my resolve long enough – until I gave up and said something noxious and brave like: ‘Okay, let’s do it!’ Enthusiasm? I wouldn’t go that far…

Harry was bringing along his wife and twenty four year old daughter, and he said they wanted someone with a strong back for the Atlantic crossing, which they rightly considered the hardest part of their journey to Italy. My wife, bless her black little heart, simply refused to join us, as she refused to do anything not her own choosing – and that might crack a fingernail. Yes, my wife and I were at odds with one another, two fighters in the ring sitting warily in their respective corners, tending to our cuts bruises while friends huddled in front of us, urging us back into the ring for one more round. The fact she had turned into a bi-polar shrew had nothing to do with any of this, in fact, if anything, she had with age corrupted within the cask. She was vinegar now, bitter, sour, and only good on salads.

We, the Stinson’s and myself, departed Mystic, Connecticut and sprinted for Bermuda, arriving a leisurely five days later. I will always remember the first 48 hours of this first leg with uncertain fondness in my heart, the number of hours we spent on our knees – hurling the contents of our stomachs into the sea. When I think of those first few days at sea I could write volumes on the subtle forms human misery can take, yet when I think about the nausea that hit that first night at sea, and the avalanche that followed, words fail me. Despair comes to mind, but inadequately fails to convey the totality, the Gesamtkunstwerk that is ocean sailing at night, in a gale.

Suffice to say, as Bermuda appeared behind wind-driven veils of rain and her rocky reefs hove into view, I swore I’d jump ship and never set foot on another sailboat again – for as long as I lived.

That is, until I found out what a same-day purchase, one-way ticket back to Boston would cost.

I am at heart a frugal sort – my wife would say downright cheap – but what does she know? In the end, that’s why I – allegedly – remained onboard and agreed to finish the trip – at least as far as Gibraltar. The other reason I refuse to talk about publicly, but if it must be known, it was because I really enjoyed myself the last four days of that trip in so many ways I can’t even begin to relate them all to you. I had never known such peace, or had such fun. Let’s just say that Harry’s daughter had a lot to do with my decision to remain on board.

Could we just leave it at that?

◊◊◊◊◊

We left Bermuda in the middle of May and began the 2100 mile slog across the Atlantic to the Azores. Ten days out and as the sun was rising, we saw a sailboat a few miles ahead of ours; not a few minutes later the young man on this boat hailed us on his VHF radio.

“Hello, sailing vessel near three-eight-zero-three North by three-eight-five-eight West, this is the Sailing Vessel Bolero, over. Sailing vessel near three-eight-zero-three North by three-eight-five-eight West, this is the Bolero, over.”

“Bolero, this is the Circe. What can we do for you?” Harry said.

“Uh, Circe, I think I’m sick, and I could sure use a hand over here.”

That’s when Harry sent his wife below to wake me, for you see, I too am a physician. That’s also when Harry’s wife found me seriously ensconced in their daughter. It was an ugly scene for a couple of minutes, but the exigencies of the moment prevailed.

Circe, Circe, this is Bolero. You still with me?”

“Ten four, Bolero, stand by one, we have a doctor on board.”

“Oh thank God!” came the young man’s reply. “I’m going to drop sail; can you head towards my location?”

“Roger, Bolero, we’ll be with you in a half hour or so.”

◊◊◊◊◊

Jennifer Stinson, Harry’s daughter, was banished to the forepeak while Harry and Trina ripped me apart back in the cockpit. I had violated a very basic trust, Trina yelled, and Harry looked at me with barely concealed contempt in his eyes. I’d earned that look and knew it; still, Jennifer was one in a million. After almost three weeks together I knew I was in love with her. I was willing to forgo everything I had to be with her, forever. I wanted to run away with her, journey to the far ends of the earth with her hand in mine, forever and ever.

I had, in short, completely lost my mind.

I’d been around to see her – what she was two days old. We’d all gone to Disney World – when she was in second grade. I’d helped her with her chemistry homework in high school, and when she chose a major in college I was right there, helping her make the choice.

Oh, it was philosophy, by the way. And let’s not talk about irony for a while yet, please.

So, I’d known her for almost twenty five years, but now she was anything but a little baby, and I was no longer prudently married. I was married to the untamed shrew, my life a charade. Miserable didn’t begin to paint the picture, and the thought of returning home filled me with dread.

So, no. I have no excuse. What I did was wrong, very wrong, yet I’d never been as happy as I was those few days at sea before our own little dangerous liaison was, well, uncovered.

With these facts firmly in mind, it was with no small amount of regret that, as we drew close to the Bolero, I realized my time on the Circe was coming to an end. An unhappy, unplanned for end. When we pulled alongside Bolero, I could see an emaciated young man almost wallowing in pain the cockpit, and I could see that he was indeed very, very ill.

Despite the fact Harry’s a lawyer, and a good one too, he still has a few bits of compassion left in his heart, and he immediately took over responsibility for the lad in Bolero. “Pete, get your medical bag up here, then jump across; we’ll stand by while you figure out what we need to do.”

A few minutes later and I was on Bolero’s deck; I thank God to this day that the water was calm enough to make the jump without incident. In rough seas we might never have made the transfer, and the closer we got to the Azores the more sharks we’d been seeing. In any event, Bolero was tiny in comparison to the Circe, and the little boat was rolling heavily with her sails down, so I hoisted the staysail and she steadied up a bit, and began tracking again to the east.

I remember looking at David Latham that first time. He was a sturdy looking fellow: sun-bleached hair, very tall, muscular and lean, and in his late twenties, but he was sweaty and obviously in a great deal of pain.

“What seems to be the problem,” I asked as I started in on his vitals.

“What kind of doctor are you,” he asked me. “Not a shrink, anything like that?”

“No, I’m an anesthesiologist. A gas-passer, I guess you’d say.”

“Oh? You fart for a living?” he joked. Always a good sign.

“So, what’s wrong, David?”

“My nuts hurt.”

“I suppose you’ve tried jacking off?”

“No, it’s not that. One of ‘em hurts real bad, and it’s as hard as a rock.”

“That been going on long?”

“Been a lot of pain down there for a couple of weeks; some shooting pains down there for a, well, several months.”

Step back with me here, will you? Imagine this conversation in your mind. Imagine a doctor’s office, clean walls, antiseptic smell, a nurse waiting in the hall to draw blood or set up an ultrasound. Everything seems nice and orderly in your mind when you think about the conversation David and I were having. Only problem was we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and I was standing in the cockpit of his 34 foot sailboat. I had no nurse with me, no tests to offer, and to make matters even more inconclusive, I wasn’t a urologist. What he was describing to me sounded just like testicular cancer, and if he’d been symptomatic for months – time was of the essence. Fact of the matter is, even then I remember thinking it could very well be too late for the kid.

I hated to do it, but asked if I could feel the offending nut. Often times a testis can get wrapped in it’s cord and swell up, causing immense pain; this usually results in loss of the testis but typically isn’t a fatal event. Some penetrating hernia can flair up and cause pain in the region, but typically these cases don’t present as an enlarged testis. In order to confirm my suspicions, I really needed to, well, get a handle on things.

Anyway, David dropped his drawers and I felt the offending nut. One was normal, soft and pliable, and it’s cord was soft, too. The other was larger than a golf ball and at least as hard. I could feel the cord – stiff and barely flexible as far up as I could feel – and I knew right then this kid was in deep shit. I took his temperature while I continued my history: he hadn’t been able to hold food down for two days and was febrile, so I took him below and made him comfortable, then got on the radio when I got back up in the cockpit.

“Harry?”

“What is it, you son of a bitch?”

“This kid’s sick, Harry. I mean real sick. Cancer is my guess, and we need to get him to a hospital as soon as we can.”

The change in Harry’s voice was immediate, and I loved him again, he was my friend again. “OK, Pete,” he said gently. “What can we do to help on this end?”

“I’m going to need to start an IV and get some pain meds in him, so I’m going to need an extra set of hands over here for the ship, and to help out getting him secured. You might want to see if we can get a hold of someone in the Azores, alert them to the situation.”

“OK, buddy. I’ll send Trina over as soon as she gets the stuff together.”

I know I haven’t mentioned that Trina and I dated a long time ago. She’d been a nurse when I was an intern at Mass General, before she worked to put Harry through law school at Tufts. She knew the drill, anyway. Now it was just a matter of her not killing me when I wasn’t looking…

◊◊◊◊◊

By mid-afternoon Harry had talked with Radio Azores on his single-side-band radio, and while we were out of helicopter range they advised that we call them the next day and relay David’s condition. If he was deteriorating, they would come pick him up; if not, they would have medical attention standing by for our arrival at Horta.

Trina and I got an IV working on David, and I slipped him a small dose of morphine when it was apparent to both of us that lesser medications weren’t doing the job. As the sun went down I could tell that the kid would have to be airlifted out of here as soon as possible; he was slipping into a deep fever and doubtless had some kind of septicemia working in the area of his groin or thighs, which were now hot and growing rigid. We ran a bolus of antibiotics and crossed our fingers.

Circe sailed alongside during the night, and at first light Harry called Azores Radio and apprised them of the situation. An hour and fifty minutes later we heard a helicopter approaching, and we made ready to transfer Latham to the aircraft.

When the chopper settled in overhead, I was surprised to see a man in orange coveralls descending on the rescue hoist. He discharged static electricity from the rotors while he dropped, than helped us put Latham in the gurney they lowered. The man, who spoke in thickly accented English, then told me he would sail the boat into Horta, and that I was to accompany Latham on the helicopter back to the island.

Conveying this to Harry by radio, we said our goodbyes to one another out there in the middle of nowhere, and he advised they would see me in Horta – most likely the day after tomorrow. I was then hooked up in the hoist and raised into the hovering helicopter. I sat by Latham while he writhed in pain during the ninety minute flight back to Horta.

He kept looking up at me during those tense minutes, thanking me with his eyes. I held his hands from time to time – when his eyes were open – then I saw the islands slip into view. It would be more than fair to say I was entranced by these islands timeless, volcanic beauty as we got closer, which might also explain some of what happened over the next few months.

The helicopter slipped over the northeast corner of the island and began it’s descent into Horta, and we touched down at a Coast Guard pad near the hospital. We loaded Latham into a waiting ambulance and drove the few short blocks to the Hospital da Horta.

A tall, dark eyed woman was standing there, waiting for us when we turned onto the hospital grounds, and that was my first memory of Maria Louisa D’Alessandro. A tall woman, dressed in a white lab coat over a long black dress; her huge black eyes standing in wild contrast to her alabaster skin, her expression almost unreadable at first. She stood in the quiet shadow of the hospital building, looking at us as we arrived that morning. I, of course, mistook her quiet, contemplative manner as a look of contempt.

I was wrong about so many things that summer, but I never saw her coming.

◊◊◊◊◊

She spoke English, of course, and better than I did. She moved to Latham’s side as we pulled his gurney from the ambulance, and she quickly checked his vitals out there on the driveway while I filled her in on my observations?

“You are the physician?” she asked me as I spoke.

“Yes, doctor, I’m an anesthesiologist, at Brigham and Women’s in Boston, and I teach at Harvard.”

“Excellent. Our anesthetist is in Lisbon this week. We can put you to work!”

Nothing like a working vacation, I always say.

We walked inside and directly to a radiology room, and a nurse with ultrasound equipment in hand was waiting for us. Maria took the hand unit as the nurse doused the area over Latham’s groin and upper thighs with surgical jelly. When the machine was ready, Maria ran the wand over the area several times, looking at the screen as she did and nodding from time to time. When she was finished, she ordered an AFP test and called the operating room nurse to get the room ready. She told them that there was an anesthetist on the grounds now, and I heard her tell them that ‘she would ask.’

“Ask what?” I said.

“There are about ten cases in need right now, but they are on hold until Doctor Avilas returns. They have asked if you would consent to help out while you are here.”

“Well, whatever I can do to help. What about legalities, licensing and the like.”

“Ah, yes, You are an American. I forgot. Don’t worry about that. We practice medicine here to cure the sick, not to profit some corportate enterprise. And the lawyer on the other boat? He is a friend?”

I smiled, nodded understanding, but hated the implicit condemnation of America in her words.

◊◊◊◊◊

We scrubbed and went into the operating room. Most of the equipment was, by current standards at least, somewhat antiquated, but the procedures used weren’t unfamiliar to me. I put Latham under, and after the nurse shaved away his pubic hair, Maria made a four inch long incision just above his penis on the wall of his belly. She retracted the skin and felt for the cord, then pulled the affected testis out of Latham’s groin and felt along the cord. She held the swollen gland in her hand and turned it over in the light; theoretically, if it wasn’t cancerous she could pop it back in and sow him up and after a few miserable days he would be free to resume a normal life. I looked at the white lesions that covered the orb and knew as well as she did: Latham had a vicious cancer…seminoma, teratoma, who could say?

“It is hard all the way up,” she said to the room. “I was afraid of this.” She snipped the cord and clamped it off, then put the shining pink orb into a shallow stainless steel bowl and walked it out of the operating room. It’s standard procedure to do this, by the by. She was carrying it to the lab, where a waiting pathologist would cold section the testis and the cord to identify the cell types and classify the cancer, and therefore determine how far up the cord it had spread. With that information, a post-op treatment plan could be formulated.

She returned a half hour later.

“All three. Seminoma, teratoma, and granuloma. I’m sure it has spread into the lymph, but without a CT scan there’s no way to measure the involvement. I suspect we should wake him and let him regain his strength for a few days. With more information we can decide how to proceed.” She nodded to her nurse, “Okay. Let’s close now.”

I brought Latham out of the ether a little later, when he’d been moved to the hospital’s little post-op ward, and I was there when he popped out of his fog.

“Howya doin’, shipmate?” I said to him when it was apparent he could talk.

“So. How’d it go?”

“Well, David, you’re alive. I’ll let the doc tell you what she found.”

“Not good, is it?’”

“No, not really, but I don’t know the extent of it. She can better fill you in on your options. Right now, you get some rest.”

“Am I gonna die, doc?”

“David, we’re all going to die. Right now, we’re all going to concentrate on getting you better. That’s all. That’s what you’ve got to concentrate on.”

I smiled at him as he drifted back to sleep…

“Doctor Patterson? Doctor Patterson?…”

I woke with a start, saw Maria was standing over me.

“Yo!” I felt like I resident again, pulling forty-eight hour shifts in the emergency room.

“We have a critical cardiac case flying in right now; can you look over the equipment and see if you have everything you need?”

“Do you have a nurse that speaks English?” I asked hopefully.

“Sister Magdalena is on her way.”

I shook myself awake and walked from the Doctor’s lounge to the operating room and found the Sister waiting for me. She walked me through the hospitals best equipment – it was surprisingly up to date – and we set about getting the room ready for the arrival of our next patient.

A few minutes later I heard the helicopter beating the air over the town, and our patient came in a few minutes later, followed by Maria Louisa.

“What’s the procedure? I asked. “And who’s doing it?”

“I am,” Maria said.

“Oh, come on! What kind of doc are you, anyway?” I asked incredulously.

“I was trained in Zurich, in cardiovascular surgery. I came to Horta afterwards.”

“Alrighty, then,” I said as I looked at her to see if she was serious. It wasn’t unheard of, really. A top gun who opted out of the bright lights and the big city to get away from – what? “So, what’s the story with this guy?”

“His mitral valve is failing. We’re going to replace it.”

“No kidding! Who’s going to assist?” I asked, knowing this was a grueling procedure for two well trained heart surgeons.

“You are, Doctor Patterson.”

You know the feeling, I know you do. It’s like when you were a kid and you knew better than to argue with your mother. You knew there was no way you were going to get out of whatever it was she wanted you to do.

I looked at Maria Louisa D’Alessandro and hoped to God this woman was the best heart surgeon in the world, because she sure as hell wasn’t my mother…

◊◊◊◊◊

Well, four hours later and I was just about convinced Maria could walk on water. If the situation warranted, she could have given Jesus water-skiing lessons. And then, after finishing the heart we scrubbed again, then took out the appendix of a nine year old girl who was screaming in agony when her father carried her into the hospital in the middle of the afternoon. Exhausted, I went to the lounge to get some coffee and put my feet up for a minute, and was just dozing off when Maria came back in.

“We have a laryngeal growth to remove next. You are ready?” She was looking at me like I was the village idiot, and a lazy one, at that.

“Uh, listen doc, I was up all night sailing a boat and trying to take care of that kid,” I said, pointing to the little post-op ward down the hall. “I’m a little tired.”

“Alright, doctor. I’ll go explain to Mr Vasquez that we can’t operate on him today because you’re tired.” She turned to leave and I got up to follow. She walked right into the scrub room and started in on her hands, and I stood next to her while we scrubbed in. I think, but I’m not quite sure, she was smiling at me, measuring me – for a coffin, I think.

◊◊◊◊◊

I might have slept in the Doctor’s lounge that night, but wouldn’t swear to it. I woke up curled up on a little vinyl covered sofa the next morning, but that’s all I can say with any degree of certainty. I had been wearing the same shorts and t-shirt now for four days, and I was pretty sure I reeked – like a pile of dead fish out in the sun. I sat up and took a tentative whiff of my armpits.

Yes.

Dead fish.

Time for a shower.

But all my clothes were still on Circe.

On the table in the middle of the lounge was a neat stack of green surgical scrubs and a couple of towels, along with a bar of nondescript soap. Wasn’t that cute? There was a little map pinned to the towel indicating where I could take a shower, and a reminder that there were about ten cases lined up for the day.

I stood in the shower and let the water beat down on the back of my neck; I thought about Harry and Trina, and of course, the problem with Jennifer that I’d created.

Was I just middle-aged-crazy, just another balding cliché living out his fantasies?

Granted, I was married to one of the world’s meanest women, and yes, granted, we’d been talking about divorce for more than a few years. The simple fact remained: I was married, and I had screwed my best friend’s daughter.

Let’s just ignore, for the moment, that I had really enjoyed the experience, and wanted to continue the relationship.

Circe and Bolero would arrive today, unless something untoward came of them, and with their arrival there would be a showdown. Another gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Harry was just too parochial to let this slip, and Trina was just too flaming mad to let me live another day without giving me a really nice piece of her mind.

Maybe what I needed was to bury myself in the O.R. and forget about all this crap for a few days.

Yeah, that was what I needed!

Escape!

◊◊◊◊◊

We finished the third case, a tonsillectomy on a six year old boy, right before lunch. Maria and I walked to the cafeteria and had a bowl of seafood soup that was simply wondrous. Not American hospital food, that much was certain. I could see the breakwater and the harbor down at the bottom of the hill, and tied up down there I could just make out the – Circe.

“What’s wrong?” Maria asked.

“Hmm? What makes you say that?”

“Your jaw is clenching, and your eyes hardened.”

“Ah! My friends arrived. The boat is tied up down there.”

“Oh? Which one is she?”

“There,” I said, pointing to a black-hulled ketch along the middle of the breakwater. “That big black monstrosity there, by the flag pole.”

“I can’t see anyone down there; do you?”

“No.”

“So, why are you so tense.”

“Because it’s my best friends’ boat, and his wife and daughter are on-board. I, ah, was indiscreet, with his daughter.”

“Yes, I suppose that would make me tense, too. Do you need to go and clear the air before we begin our afternoon’s work?”

“No,” I sighed. “I suspect it’ll wait.”

“I suppose so. But might that not be inadvisable? You need a clear mind, do you not?”

“I haven’t had one of those in years, Maria.” I looked at her; she was looking me directly in the eye. She knew me, I could see it in her eyes. She knew exactly what I’d done, and why.

“You know, Pete, we each make our own prison, yet we alone hold the key to our release. It is such a simple thing to tell the truth, is it not?”

“I suppose…”

She reached out and put her hand on mine. “You told me the truth, Pete, just now. And the pain in your eyes left you for a moment.”

She squeezed my hand once, then stood and took her tray to the waste bin and left the room.

And I could still feel where her hand had rested on mine. My skin burned with electric impulses, as if I’d been touched by fire.

“So, what the hell was that all about?”

I looked down at the harbor, saw Harry and Trina sitting in the cockpit, and suddenly I knew. Knew what I had to do. I left the cafeteria and walked out the front door of the hospital and made my way down to the harbor. I saw Harry and Trina looking at me from a long way off.

They were ready for me. Ready and waiting by the time I arrived.

◊◊◊◊◊

I walked up to Circe and looked at my friend, and he looked – tensely – at me.

“Well, come on if you’re comin’!” I hopped onto the deck and stepped into the cockpit.

“How was the sail in?” I asked, wanting to ease into this slowly.

“Oh, fine, fine. How’s the boy?”

“Cancer, a bad one.” They nodded their heads and looked sad for a moment, then Trina looked at me.

“You want to get your stuff off now?” she asked.

“I’ve been, ah, they’ve had me working round the clock since I got here. Done about ten surgeries since yesterday. Haven’t had time to get a place to stay yet.”

No reaction to that, but Harry began again:

“Well, we’ve got your stuff all packed up,” he said. “Why don’t you take it with you now.” He was having a hard time looking at me, acting like this wasn’t really his decision, but that didn’t matter now. Almost thirty years of friendship down the drain. It hurt, but I should have thought of that before I let my hormones run away with me like that. Yet I thought, somehow, our friendship had been stronger than that. Oh well, that was – as they say – too bad. Water beneath the bridge. I went below and got my bags and walked off the boat. I never looked back, never said goodbye. They remained silent as I walked away.

I have to admit the whole thing hurt. Badly. No one walked away unscathed.

◊◊◊◊◊

I dumped my duffels in the lounge and went to scrub in for the next case. I was on automatic pilot now; when I hurt inside I usually just bury myself in work, do the next case, keep on keeping on ‘til I can’t.

Maria came in and started in on the next case, a hysterectomy, and she talked to the scrub nurse in Portuguese while I monitored the woman’s vitals.

“So, how did your visit go?” she asked me – out of the blue.

“Oh, it went.”

“Well, I’m sorry for you. Wish it would have worked out better.”

“I’m gonna need a place to stay, and need to find a way back to the States.”

“That’s not a problem,” she said. “We can take care of that after we finish up this afternoon.”

Later that afternoon she walked me up to a nice little hotel and I checked in –  and Maria insisted they give me a hospital discount – and after dropping off my bags in the room she told them I would be working at the hospital for a few days. We walked out and down to a little travel agency, which was closed, and thence up hill to the town library, where I could check my e-mail.

Trina had, bless her heart, already communicated all my sins to Sara, my wife, and the message in my in-box from her indicated that she would be forthwith filing for our too-long postponed divorce. Another note from a colleague at work telling me that news of my affair was all over town, and there was talk of suspending my privileges at the hospital.

Oh, this was just too good to be true.

Maria came over and sat next to me at this point.

“Must be bad news,” she said. “I swear your face just turned scarlet.”

“Oh, let’s see. My wife, she’s filing for divorce, the people at the hospital are going to dump my privileges, and that’s just the first two emails.”

“Are you sure you want to go back?” she said with a chuckle.

“Not sure where else I could go.” I opened up the next email, from my bank. All my accounts were frozen. Well, I had some travelers checks with me, enough to get by for several months at these prices, but until I challenged this I was not liquid at all. I could see Maria reading my email over my shoulder, then saw her shaking her head out of the corner of my eye.

“Would you like me to see about getting you on staff here?” she asked. “The pay isn’t the best, but you’re a very talented physician, and we could use you. I see no issue getting around the legal obstacles.”

“Hmm,” I said, now very clearly distracted, “what did you say?”

“Stay here, Pete. Work here, work – where you’re needed. That’s why I returned; the world back there didn’t need one more high-priced chest surgeon, but I was needed here. So I stayed, I came back to my roots, but I came back because I was needed.”

“Okay, yeah. Might as well,” I said, but I was in a funk now, felt like I was drifting into clouds of unreality.

“Come on,” Maria said after she looked at me for a while. “Let’s go get some dinner.”

◊◊◊◊◊

We walked away from the library up a long hill, winding through narrow winding streets as we climbed, then we took off down another long, narrow road that led to a small village in the distance. We walked for about a half hour, and I looked at the sun as it sped toward the western horizon. The sun even looked lonely to me. All alone up there, no one to talk to, no one to love.

She opened an old wooden gate and a dog about the size of the house came bounding up and stood on his hind legs and licked Maria once on the cheek, then noticed me and dropped back to the ground. He looked at me with his head cocked to one side, like he was taking my measure, and after a moment he came over to me and sat in front of me, blocking my way. He sniffed my legs, and I felt his cold nose on my hands as he sniffed there, too. He circled me, sniffed at my feet, then moved away as Maria led me into her house.

I sat where she told me and watched the sunset as she moved off to start a fire, then into the kitchen to prepare dinner. I sat quietly, and Max, her dog, sat between me and the kitchen. I was clearly an unknown to him, and he didn’t, apparently, like unknowns in his house.

“That’s okay, Max,” I said as I looked at him sitting there on the floor. “If I was in your shoes, I wouldn’t like me.”

◊◊◊◊◊

I walked back to town after dinner, and I was pretty certain I could find my way back to the hotel on my own. It was very cool out, and the sky was clear. I looked up, could see Saturn overhead and the smoky band of the milky way rising out of the eastern sky. Huge volcanos rose into the sky, standing there, judging me.

What did I want? What punishment was just?

Did I want to go back, back to seething seas of innuendo and endless recriminations? Was money so important to me now? I looked around as I walked into the village, and darkness was complete as the sea came into view. From here I could look down to the harbor below; the lights of the village gave the scene a fairy-tale quality, almost of luminous expectancy, and I could still see a huge volcano across the water, on the next island. I could see the twinkling of lights of another small village, there, across the water.

This was a simple world. A simple life. A life for people like Maria and, perhaps, for people like me.

But did these people really need me? Someone like me? Could I really settle here, leave the complexities of that other world behind? I felt like I had damaged my world beyond repair, and felt totally helpless as I turned a corner and my tiny hotel came into view.

But someone was sitting on the front steps of the building, under the pale yellow glow of a streetlight near the doorway. I walked toward the building, toward the light, and saw a girl sitting there, quietly, almost lost in the shadows.

She looked like someone in a painting I had seen once, the painting of a sea witch on her throne. She looked like a still life in shadow, all fury pent up and lost.

As I walked closer, as the hotel grew steadily closer to me, I could see Jennifer sitting there in the cool night air. I could see her there, gently crying, and I could see a duffel bag by her side.

She heard my footsteps, I guess, because she looked up, then stood and ran to me.

“Oh, Pete, I love you. Don’t let them take me from you. I want to stay with you forever.”

I felt her tears on my chest.

Or were they mine?

A simple life, indeed.

◊◊◊◊◊

She was in her outlook a simple woman, and it had been said of her for as long as anyone on the island could remember that she had never shown an interest in men. Perhaps if I’d known that I would have been surprised by the attentions I presumed Maria Louisa paid me that first night with her. Or perhaps I would have thrown off my depression and acted on those simple gestures. As I walked back to my new ‘home’ that night, as I walked along under the stars, I thought about Maria and her simple life, but I had – when I considered the notion – no context for these thoughts. Maria Louisa was a mystery to me, and, as I would soon learn, she remained so to most people on the island. I didn’t know that night she was regarded by everyone in the Azores as a Saint. She could just as easily have been – so little did I know her then – an alcoholic pedophile, or the proverbial axe murderer. I simply did not know her, understand her. She was a terrific surgeon; that I knew, that much was obvious. She was full of compassion for the sick, and people took comfort from her simple presence when she walked into their hospital room.

Of more relevance to me that night, I hadn’t thought of Jennifer Stinson in several days, and when I saw her on the steps outside my little hotel, I was suddenly, overwhelmingly, filled with hope.

Hope? Why hope? Wasn’t that an odd response to one who had been at the center of so much discord? But that wasn’t fair, was it? Kind of let me off the hook, you think?

When I look back on that moment now, I suspect when I saw Jennifer in the still night air, I saw her as a link to my immediate past, and that past had come unravelled in the cool light of day. I suppose I felt hopeful that she would somehow ground me to that past, shield me from the discontinuity I felt. When she ran to me, when she threw her arms around me, I felt an overwhelming release of tension inside, and I kissed her hard on the mouth and held her to my chest while she cried. I wasn’t aware of my own tears for quite a while.

So, how are the mighty fallen?

Portugal is a conservative nation, a Catholic nation, and the Azores are no different from their motherland. I suspect the Innkeeper had a hard time keeping her mouth shut when I walked into the hotel with a girl half my age crying on my shoulder. I could see an icy contempt replace the genial acceptance she had shown me earlier that day, and in an instant I could perceive the reality I would face if I did in fact decide to settle here. It was an unsettling reality, one I had never experienced, and it left me feeling hollow inside – very unsure of my footing.

I walked Jennifer up the stairs to my room, and let us in the room. It was a small space, but it looked out over the harbor, and of course I could see Circe down there moored to the breakwater. A tree was right outside the closed window, and I opened it and leaned out to pick a blossom from an offered limb and handed it to Jennifer, then I kissed her again. I couldn’t feel guilty about this attachment I had to her, despite all of the entangling barbs that surrounded us. She wasn’t an innocent; despite her years she’d had many meaningless affairs with men old and young by the time she graduated college I thought – used to think – that she was something of a slut. But that wasn’t true, and I knew it.

That was before I came to understand the competitive nature of the new world women faced today, trying to compete in a man’s world, in a manner of speaking. I saw that Jennifer had, like so many of her generation, become hyper-sexualized. Sex becomes a means of expressing competitiveness and, increasingly, insecurity within this milieu – and I was clueless. Our affair was, I thought glibly, an end in and of itself – not a means to an end. And hadn’t men been doing the very same thing for eons? As women moved into the workplace and competed with men for choice promotions, why couldn’t they stake out their turf in the very same way men did? It was unsettling, perhaps, to be pursued by a young woman, but in the end why was that so different from men my age chasing down young secretaries and nailing them in what was, apparently, little more than a rite of conquest, another means to an end.

But maybe I was wrong about what happened. Maybe we had forgotten what it means to really love someone.

In all fairness to Jennifer, I had in the beginning thought that perhaps she was just expressing independence from her parents. A little rebellion, perhaps. Hell, I’d seen ‘Blame It On Rio’ more than once and I thought I knew the score, but what had at first started as a little peccadillo rapidly blossomed into a full-fledged emotional experience of the most import to me. Let’s be adventurous and call it love. Sailing, I’ve heard, does that – the shared experience of the journey, the perils, the emotional highs – all of these contributed to the experience, I’m sure, but something more developed between us, something quite intense flowered in the belly of that sea witch.

So, let’s not mention that I’d been living with the ‘Ice Queen’ for the past twenty five years, and that it had been more than ten years since my loving wife expressed even a mild interest in me. And come to think of it, learning from friends that she wasn’t having any trouble making it with the tennis pro at the country club didn’t predispose me to heightened sexual discretion on this trip, did it? The thought took me back to an old Burt Lancaster movie called The Running Man. Life is full of so many painful ironies and all doctor’s wives aren’t simply clichés, but mine was.

How many middle-aged men start off an indiscretion with words to the effect of: “my wife just doesn’t understand me?” Yes, it’s a cliché, and a ponderously bad one at that. But how many indiscretions begin with the daughter of a best friend, with a young woman who has seen your marriage unfolding in all of it’s worthless glory? How many such affairs begin in an exultation of narcissistic rage, only to move forward as a sigh would accompany the inevitable hands of release? To people full of dull pain that have come to claim their rightful place in the world?

◊◊◊◊◊

I don’t know why, but Jennifer and I didn’t make love that night.

We talked.

How very strange it is to just talk – when lust has heretofore been your language of choice.

Harry and Trina had laid into her viciously after my departure, and Jennifer as much as told them that the entire affair had been her doing. I couldn’t believe she said that; it wasn’t even close to the truth, but I guess she wanted to protect me, protect my friendship with her father. We had, after all, been two of the three constants in her life – for all of her life.

As these trajectories came into conflict during the day, Jennifer finally exploded – at her mother, then gathered her belongings and left the boat. No one had followed her, her father and mother simply let her go, and in her confusion she had at one point in the afternoon felt like taking her own life. She eventually made her way to the hospital, found out where I was staying, and had been sitting outside the hotel ever since.

She was broken. Alone, lost, confused. And she said she loved me.

After an hour I went downstairs and got a separate room for Jennifer – which seemed to mollify the proprietress somewhat – and I helped Jennifer into her room and got her tucked in for the night. We looked at one another for a while in the dim light, and I knew I loved this girl, loved her in ways I never had my wife, and I thought I must take care of her until she was ready to break free of her past – and fly away.

◊◊◊◊◊

I walked up the street to the hospital and scrubbed in at little after five the next morning; Maria was looking at CT scans of an aortic aneurysm with a general surgeon who flown in to assist her with the repair, and we got to it. The case lasted ‘til noon, then Maria and I walked to a nearby café for lunch. The afternoon was free, and after we finished she decided to take me on a walking tour of the town of Horta.

We walked down to the waterfront and out to the breakwater. I was alarmed to find that the Circe was nowhere to be seen; not tied up along the breakwater, not moored out in the harbor, and I explained to Maria that Jennifer had jumped ship and had come to the hotel last night.

Then I tried to explain, as best I could, my feelings for Jennifer.

“So, you feel responsible for this girl? Tell me. Did she seduce you?”

“Probably, but I’m sure I didn’t put up much of a fight.”

“So, what would you do? Marry her?”

“I, ah, I don’t think that would be in the cards. She’ll get over this, get over me in a few weeks and move on. She’s just now moving out into the world, and she has a lot to learn, a lot to experience for the first time.”

Maria was looking at me dubiously, like I was stupid, so stupid that I didn’t even know the limitless bounds of my own stupidity. “And what if she attaches herself to you? If she is to fall in with love you, then what? Would that be a problem?”

I looked at Maria, and I knew the answer.

“Yes.”

“Then you owe it to the girl to tell her that. Today. Right now. Before this goes any further.”

“I think her parent’s are gone,” I said as I looked over the harbor one more time.

“They do not sound like good people to me.”

“Before today, Maria, I might have disagreed with you. I don’t know anymore.”

“Come. Let us find her. She can move out to my house, stay with me for a while, at least until this affair of yours is settled. No good can come of her living with you in town.”

◊◊◊◊◊

We found Jennifer in her room at the hotel, and we told her of our plans to move her out to Maria’s house. She seemed hesitant at first, but the longer the three of us talked, the easier she became with the decision. I told her that the Circe was gone, and she said that she knew, said that her father had been by to see her earlier.

“What did he say, Jenn?” I asked, now full of dread.

“That he and Mom were moving on. He’d keep in touch by email and let me know where they were headed, and that I’d be welcome to rejoin them. He left me some money, too, so I guess I’ll be alright for a while.”

“Well, come on then,” Maria said. “Let’s get your things and move them up to my house. But first, I need to stop by the clinic and check on with Mr Latham.”

“Who?” Jennifer asked.

“You know, David Latham, from the Bolero,” I added. “He’s still here.”

We walked the few blocks to the hospital and Maria stopped by the lab. I waited in the hallway outside with Jennifer, and we small-talked about events at sea and the excitement of the helicopter rescue. Jenn had never met Latham; she had, perhaps at best seen him from a few dozen yards away. Yet now she seemed curious about him.

“Did he have cancer?” she asked.

“Well, you know, Jenn, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but that’s kinda private. Anyway,” I added, seeing the hurt expression hit her face like a cold slap, “it’s kinda between Maria and David now. I’m not in the loop anymore.”

Maria came out looking very grim indeed. “I need to go talk with David,” she said. “Pete, you’re welcome to tag along, you too, Jennifer, if you’d like.”

Jennifer looked at the two horns growing from my head with barely concealed glee. I think she was looking for my pitchfork as we marched off towards David’s room.

◊◊◊◊◊

“David,” Maria began, “it looks like there are tumor markers all over the place. I would say the cancer has spread all over the lining of your gut, through the lymph too, most likely. There is one procedure, only one really, to contemplate, but I must tell you it is extreme and the recovery is long. It is called retroperitoneal dissection, and would be followed by chemotherapy, radiation – all of it. What this means, David, is that we would go in through your belly and remove all of the lymph nodes in your lower body cavity, perhaps up into your chest if involvement was found there. Most likely you would never be able to have sex again, at least in the normal way, and it is quite possible that you’d become incontinent.”

“Does that mean what I think it means?” he said as he looked back and forth from me to Maria in what I could only describe as wide-eyed horror.

“You’d need to wear diapers, sport,” I chimed in. “But you would be alive. You gotta look at both sides of the equation, you know.”

He smiled. “Yeah. I guess. Chemotherapy too? Is that what you said?”

“Yes, David. And radiation therapy, depending on what we find, and where. And there is another complication. You are an American citizen. This is the EU.”

“Uh, I don’t have insurance in the states, no medical insurance.”

“I see,” Maria said thoughtfully. “Well, if we can certify you as unable to be transported, you’ll have to stay and we can take care of you here. Let me look into this.” I tried to hide the shame I felt about the dismal state of medical care back in the States. People here just didn’t have to worry about such things. Maria walked from the ward and off towards an office down the hall; this was just one more problem to be solved by her.

The Saint, indeed.

I looked down at David; he looked shook up and disoriented. I could only imagine what was running through his head… One day you’re out sailing, having the time of your life, and the next day you’re in some weird Portuguese hospital with a couple of loopy doctors telling you they’re going to basically rip your guts out in order to save your life, and, oh yeah, you’ll never be able to screw again and you’re going to have to wear diapers whenever you go out, but hey, you know, no big deal, cause, you know, you’ll still be alive. Kinda. Maybe.

But life’s a one way ticket, baby, and you’ve got to dance with the one who brung ya…

◊◊◊◊◊

Maria and Jennifer walked up the lane toward Maria’s house, yet I opted to remain with David that evening and shoot the shit with him. He seemed most interested in talking about what would happen if he refused treatment and just took off on his boat. Questions like ‘how long will I live?’ and ‘how much pain would there be?’ – those kinds of questions.

The kid didn’t have family except for an aunt somewhere in Oregon that he hadn’t spoken to in ten years, and he seemed adrift in life, content to blow where the winds took him. It was an odd career choice.

Or was it?

“So David, why’d you decide to take to the sea?”

“Hmm? Oh, I was just tired, Pete. Tired of selling my soul to write a few more lines of code. Stuck in a cubicle, watching life walk by out my window.”

“Where did you work?”

“Seattle.”

“Nice up there?”

“Yeah, but place doesn’t really matter, you know? It’s what you do. I think you can be happy anywhere, and there’s no place too far away for trouble. I just wanted to taste the world, you know? Not some Discovery Channel three week all-inclusive trip to paradise. I made enough money to buy Bolero and leave me with a comfortable nest-egg to live on for ten years, so I thought why not, why not do it while I’m young?” I could see the irony hit him, and he seemed to curl up inside and wither away from his words, but they chased him into this new private hell, wouldn’t let him be.

“So, you think you really might just bail out of here, not do the surgery?”

He came back when my words registered.

“Yeah. I can’t help but think no matter what you guys do, well, you won’t get it all and I’ll end up in here dying in pieces. You know, cut little pieces off one bit at a time; just linger away into meaninglessness…”

“Well, without the surgery you might make it six months, maybe a year if you got real lucky, but the pain would get surreal. Not the course I would choose, but then again, I’m sure we have different priorities.”

“Really? Why’s that? I mean, what is it about life that makes the end so hard to face? It seems to me like we’re all in this race to see who can live the longest, like the one who lives longest wins a blue ribbon. What happened to living those years out as we were supposed to, active and engaged with life, not just passive observers. That’s what I hated about writing code. I was, in a sense, enabling this brave new voyeurs world. People living vicariously through their computers, learning more, maybe, but not really experiencing the world as we’re supposed to. With our hands in the dirt, I guess I’m trying to say.”

“I’m not so sure there’s a way we’re supposed to live, David. Our technology is forcing us to accept new ways of experiencing life . . .”

“Forcing us? Did you say forcing us?”

“I guess that sounds bad, doesn’t it?”

“I think this cancer came from the life I led. It’s a symptom of that life. Maybe if I just go, maybe I’ll live, maybe I’ll die, but at least while I’m still here I’ll be living.”

◊◊◊◊◊

I sat in my room in the hotel that night and thought about Latham and his choice. I looked down on the little harbor below my room, looked at the handful of voyaging sailboats down there, and wondered if that’s what all those souls were up to. Living life out there on the edge, trying to feel life not as a vicarious experience but as a living, breathing challenge to an insane existence. Was Latham on to something I’d missed. Had Harry and Trina stumbled onto something vital? Were they searching for something beyond suburbia and the comfortable routines of modern life.

Or maybe it was all a little like ‘A Clockwork Orange’; everyone was jumping out into the world trying to amp up their experience portfolio before they punched out at the end of the line.

◊◊◊◊◊

I didn’t work the next day; I spent the day with Jennifer. We rented a couple of bicycles and pedaled off down a country lane with a picnic basket until we came to a little cliffside lookout, and we ate olives and cheese and bread under the warm sun while we looked out over the infinite blue of the sea around the island.

I’ve always marveled at the way a sea breeze feels when it lifts through the hair. There’s something about it that makes me feel so alive, and it worked it’s magic again on me that afternoon. I looked at Jennifer not as the little girl I had known all her life but as the young woman who had awakened me from a long, cold sleep. I thought about my conversation with Maria – about my feelings for Jennifer, about the denial of love in my heart I knew to be so true. I felt utterly confused until I felt the breeze rifling through my hair, and with this not so subtle reminder that nature always prevails, I had a sort of epiphany.

Nature’s music is given to us – we are born with it in our soul. The cadence of the surf below us that afternoon was not unlike the life sustaining rhythm of the heartbeat that surrounds us in our wombs. Life had, I felt, choked this music out of us, torn it from our outstretched arms just as surely as life – in time – rips the child from every mother’s arms. We ignore this music as we grow older, we ignore beauty all around us until our lives are diminished within our growing ignorance.

Of course Kant argued that one’s ability to appreciate beauty is related to one’s ability to make moral judgments. What then, truly, had I lost in my middle age? Not unlike the simple breeze passing through my hair, had life stripped me of the ability to feel the beauty of Jennifer’s simple truth? Too many layers of technology, of politics, of impending doom from terrorists or global climate collapse – these elements force their tortured will on us all, and too soon our ability to appreciate beauty grows withered, subsumed by exigent forces intent on stripping us of our most basic humanity. I wondered if anyone could appreciate just what it is we’ve lost. Can we, in our blindness, no longer see even the outlines of moral problems?

Truth, beauty – where do they go when all is madness?

I looked across at Jennifer, at the wind playing through her auburn hair, at the way her nose wrinkled when the sun danced across her freckled brow, and I felt once again life in all of it’s infinite capacity to inspire. How could I let this go? What was I missing? What had I been blinded to? Blinded, blind, darkness.

Nothingness.

Latham. David Latham.

Maybe the fact I was 55, and she would turn twenty five in just three weeks time. Maybe the fact that I had stood by her father at her christening, that I had cheered her on while she played soccer in middle school, or that I had watched as she graduated from high school not so many years ago. That perhaps my life would soon all be in the past, while so much of hers remained yet to unfold.

She was a friend, I wanted to say, and I wanted to ignore her past, my past, the past that said she was still a child in so many ways. I wanted to cling to the woman I saw before me, to love the life I had never known, perhaps never could know, without her.

She was so beautiful out there under the sun.

Was I really so blind?

◊◊◊◊◊

Latham was sick, sicker than we knew. He had decided to leave, to return to the Bolero and return to the sea from which he had just come, to resume the journey he had decided to make years ago, back in Seattle. I couldn’t help but admire his choice, though I understood all too well the personal implications he faced.

Could I, I wondered, face the prospect of dying alone on a little boat at sea? In pain, with no one to help me, no one to console me?

Was that the only choice available to him?

I went to Maria, went to talk about David’s choice.

“I suspect most of us confront this choice,” she said, “though perhaps not in such extreme terms as this.”

“Well, I wonder about what happens when he gets out there, and the pain gets really bad. Then what? Does he call for help again? Do people run to his rescue, perhaps get hurt trying to get to him, or worse? I keep wondering if there isn’t an alternative.”

“Such as?”

“Hell, he could stay here. Sail around here, visit the islands, come back here when he gets too weak to continue.”

Maria seemed to consider this for a while. “Well, as long as the boat is his residence, he can stay here for eighteen months without any problem. I don’t think time’s going to be an issue. Have you talked to him about this?”

“No, not really.”

“Do you want to, or would you think it better if we both talked to him?”

“Why don’t we talk to him tonight?”

And so we did.

◊◊◊◊◊

David decided to remain in the Azores, and he decided to live on his boat down in the harbor. He seemed content with his choice, and managed to get by on the regimen of mild pain killers that Maria prescribed. He cleaned up his little boat, then started stripping the teak down to bare wood. He began to varnish the wood. Everyday I walked down to the harbor I found him hunched over the wood, babying it, coaxing all the beauty out of the wood he could find. At first Bolero looked simply gorgeous, but as the summer days grew shorter the boat began to glow. Visitors to Horta arriving by ferry walked by her and stopped and stared at the boat, and at David as he worked away on her. He could often be heard down below, an electric sander whining in the confined space, and occasionally he would pop up through the companionway, his face and hair covered with honey-colored dust before walking away for lunch or dinner. Soon it became apparent what he was doing.

He had no child to leave behind, no lasting works to bequeath to the world, save his little Bolero. He had decided to turn her into a work of art, into something so beautiful that all who came upon her would stop and marvel at her beauty, and perhaps, wonder about the man who had tendered such a gift with his passing.

As September came, I too decided to remain in the Azores. I didn’t contest my wife’s divorce, and I signed everything I owned over to her, left her all of my money. I simply wanted to be done with her, done with her evil intentions, done with the sickness she had given my soul. The hospital managed to take me on permanently, Jennifer continued to reside with Maria, and the inevitable happened.

I fell in love again. With life.

◊◊◊◊◊

Perhaps it would have been a simple tale after all, had I told Jennifer that she would grow out of her love for me, that as she experienced the world – out from under the sheltering wings of her father and mother – she would soon take to the world again, begin a journey of her own.

It was not to be. This was not to be such a simple tale.

I came to Maria’s house one afternoon and saw them through an open window, in the bathroom. Maria was brushing Jennifer’s hair, and their was tenderness in her eyes. Perhaps affection would be a better word. They both looked at me in the mirror, and our eyes held on to the moment for an eternity. I shook inside at the thought, the thought that Maria and Jennifer were lovers, and that was when tall, staid Maria took Jennifer by the hand and led her to the nearby bed.

So that was why she had left Switzerland, why she had left the bright lights.

I watched as Maria lay my Jennifer down on her bed and parted her thighs. I watched as Maria’s face disappeared between Jennifer’s outstretched legs, and as Jennifer held Maria’s face to her need.

Had I truly been so blind to everything unfolding around me?

I was shaking. I wasn’t angry; I was simply overcome. The end of a marriage, coming to terms with my love for Jennifer, yet I had no words for the emotion that pulsed through me as I watched these two women making love before me. Jennifer, her auburn hair strewn across white sheets, her face rocking from side to side, her legs arcing magnificently in the charged air, her feet on Maria’s back. Lust. Lust filled the air, and I didn’t know how to respond. This was unknown territory to me.

My world, the world I had known all my life and taken for granted, was dissolving in the air above my eyes.

But I saw Jennifer smile, and I saw the order of the universe there. And I didn’t belong.

◊◊◊◊◊

She was in her outlook a simple woman, and it had been said of her for as long as anyone on the island could remember that she had never shown an interest in love. And how could they have known, how could they have known that their Saint had chosen to live in the shadows, that her life had been stillborn so many years ago in Zurich’s staid halls of medicine. She had chosen the silence of a life in exile, in the shadows, and her fires had lain dormant, smoldering, waiting for the catalyst of release.

And now, Maria Louisa D’Alessandro was a raging inferno, a fire banked down far too long, and now, breathing in the first faint tendrils of release, she was intoxicated.

She’d found her oxygen, her fuel in Jennifer, and soon they were burning along the razor’s edge of desire, all fire beyond control. But now they waited. Waited to see my reaction. There’s was a Dance Macabre, their final act would be my immolation. Only then would the razor cut so deeply…

I don’t suppose I will ever forget seeing them that afternoon, the two of them, together. All of the uncertainty of the past few months was but fuel for my fire. All of the anger I felt towards my soon to be ex-wife was little more than fuel for this. Everywhere I looked, every bit of my past seemed to linger in the air around me, it became a volatile fuel, and in the flames released there was a transfiguration. There was a fusion. The three of us, me on the outside looking in, became one consummate ball of interwoven rejection. We caught fire, the three of us, and we burned oh so brightly.

◊◊◊◊◊

I took to taking Max, Maria’s patiently faithful old Bernese Mountain Dog, on long walks. He came to love Saturdays, as did I, for on that day of the week, come rain or shine Max and I would take off on long, often excruciatingly long walks. Ten miles was a short walk, and we usually walked west along the coast roads, to Atalaia and Feteira, and more than once past Castelo Branco and all the way to western shore. Max became my faithful friend, his boundless love of life easily shouldered on his broad, black shoulders. We walked and I tossed sticks, we walked ever onward, across wet, rolling hills, through tall pines alive with whispering winds, and we would pause and listen to the shifting voices as they darted through the limbs overhead, our minds lost in ancient music that was as familiar as it was strange.

I always carried lunch for us. A sandwich for me, some pieces of chicken and cheese – and his favorite, slices of apple – for Max, and a flagon of cool water to share in the shade. These Saturdays were for Max and I, just as this day was for Jennifer and Maria, alone.

I knew what was going on, and I knew they knew, and still, I just let it be, then I’d look at him sitting there, looking at me with those big brown eyes, and I’d look at him like he was my best friend in all the world – because he was.

“Everything’s going to be okay, isn’t it, Max?” I would say to the passing wind, and he’d look up at the trees and smile.

“Yeah, I knew you’d say that.”

◊◊◊◊◊

One Saturday Max and I walked into Horta, down to the breakwater, down to David Latham working on his Bolero. I could see his cancer taking a toll on him now, and it seemed to grow in direct proportion to the beauty that now claimed Bolero. Every piece of the boat seemed to glow from inside with some unknown form of energy. The exterior wood was a blisteringly bright honied-bronze, and all the topside metal was so meticulously polished that I could watch the reflections of passers-by and make out even the smallest detail.

On this Saturday as we approached Bolero I saw David half way up the fifty foot tall mast. He was lacing up the spreaders on the mast, adorning them with brilliant white twine to keep the sails from chafing when close-hauled. It was so odd watching him, knowing that imminent death stalked him every moment of every day, yet he seemed to be at peace with his future, at peace with the beauty he had promised the rest of his life to. I was taken for a moment back to Fahrenheit 451, to those lives dedicated to preserving one work of literature, and I could feel those same forces working in Latham. He was making the Bolero his life’s work, preserving her for the future.

Max sat on the breakwater looking up at David, his head cocked to one side and his tail brushing the concrete; I was sure Max must have been totally confused by most things we humans did, but seeing Latham dangling from the mast must have really gotten to him. Every now and then Max would whimper or moan as David pushed-off to lace-up the farthest reaches of the spreader, and after one of these outbursts David looked down and saw us on the breakwater.

“Come on aboard,” he called out. “I’ll be down in a minute. Go pour a couple of lemonades!”

“I don’t know, David. Max’s claws might tear up this varnish.”

“Screw that! Come aboard; I wanna hear about these rumors.”

I hopped on Bolero it had been a long time since I’d been aboard – and she was transformed. The last time a helicopter had taken me off, but now this was a totally different boat. Max seemed to understand the dilemma his claws presented, and hopped gingerly aboard and launched himself across the cockpit, coming to a rest on a cushion. He curled up into a ball to ward off the chilly October air and watched David as he lowered himself down the mast. I could tell the old boy was relieved when David’s feet hit the deck – hell, so was I!

I poured a couple of drinks and returned to the cockpit. Now up close, I could see David’s skin was now turning pasty gray, and his eyes were a little sunken and rimmed with dark circles.

“How’s it going? You look in your element up there.”

He knew where this was going, I think, so jumped right in. “Oh, I’m doing good. Some days are better than others, but all in all, you know, it’s not as bad as I expected. Maybe it’s the meds, I don’t know.”

“You keeping up with the lab work?”

“No, not really. I mean, what’s the point?”

I nodded understanding, but I really couldn’t understand his attitude.

“How’s the boat coming along?” I knew I was going to have to come up with better questions soon, or I’d wear out my welcome.

“So,” Latham volleyed back at me, “what’s all this stuff I’m hearing about Maria and Jennifer.”

“What stuff?” I asked.

“Everyone’s talking about them up at the bar.”

“Really?”

“One of the old men, a gardener I think, saw some stuff. Lots of talk about it now. Pretty weird stuff, Pete.”

“Weird?”

“So, what’s going on? Are they in love?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

“Sounds pretty heavy, dude. For a small place like this.”

“Could I give you some advice?”

“Sure, man. Fire away.”

“Get up to the clinic and get some blood-work done, would you?”

“Sure, Doc, sure.” He reached over and gave Max a scratch under his chin, and I could see the old boys eyes roll as he gave in. It’s so simple. Receive pleasure, relax, and all is right with the world. It was only when human morality enters the equation that things got sticky.

“So. You ever gonna take this tub out again?”

“Tub? Did you say tub?” He grinned – but looked ready to cover me in varnish…

“Hell yes, Dave. Tubs sit around in the water. Boats, you know, get out there, on the ocean. It’s what they’re for.”

“Shit, Pete, I didn’t know you was a philosopher. Gosh dawg! Ain’t that somethin’.”

“Shut up and answer the question?” I smiled at him, wanted to challenge him a little.

“Maybe next weekend. Want to go?”

“Shit yeah. Can Max come along?”

“Shit yeah. Why not. You think you can keep from getting sea-sick?”

“Fuck you, Latham,” I said as I laughed, counting one more story to live down…

“And the horse you rode in on, Pete.”

“See ya next week.” I started to walk off, leave David to his work, but Max went over and sat by him. He put his graying muzzle up in Latham’s lap and let out a long, contented sigh. This was a first as far as I knew, and David scratched the old boy behind his ears for a while. Max’s fluffy black tail swept the cockpit seat, and David looked down into Max’s eyes.

“You okay, buddy?” he said gently.

Max licked his hand then got up and walked off the boat, on down the seawall. I looked back at David. There was a little tear falling down his cheek.

Dogs are like that, you know. They’re smarter than we are about most things. All the important stuff, anyway.

I knew David was itching to get back to work on Bolero, but I also knew something extraordinary had just happened.

I turned to walk after Max. I didn’t know if the girls had had enough time alone yet, didn’t want to bust up there time together.

Pretty weird stuff, yes indeed.

◊◊◊◊◊

When I got back to the house I could tell by the sounds I heard coming from inside that things were still pretty hot and heavy in the bedroom. I went to the faucet by the garden and filled Max’s bowl, then I drifted down to the bluff overlooking the rocky beach below.

And something about it all left me feeling hollow inside. I felt unclean, like I was part of a conspiracy of silence. Like my soul was hurting, and I didn’t want to be around this anymore.

I saw Max by my side, his tail wagging, his eyes warm with expectation. The two of us headed out again, and this time out we walked west along the bluff overlooking the sea.

We walked for a long time that day, and we had a nice talk.

◊◊◊◊◊

I was, during these weeks and months, still living at the same little hotel, only now, more often than not, Max was my roommate. We returned to the hotel that night and I gave him a bowl of kibble, then I showered and went to bed. I found in short order that I couldn’t sleep. All I could see was Maria’s latent hostility all around the room.

I knew. I knew about her life in the shadows.

There was something profoundly wrong with everything happening here. Something that in my confusion I had ignored, something that had gone terribly amiss between Jennifer and myself. Their relationship wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t about my future, or Jennifer’s. It was Maria’s design, her plan, her needs working themselves free from bondage after so many years pent up in repressed angst. Jenn and I had happened along at just the right time, and I had provided cover for Maria’s design to take shape.

She had asked me about my future with Jennifer, but I’d been vague, hadn’t I? So, what was my role in all this? Had I inadvertently set her plans in motion?

And now, what about Jenn? Was she truly in love with this woman, or was she just lost in her newest infatuation, to the attention paid her by a Saint?

I think by then I instinctively knew the answer to that question.

I was no longer necessary to either of them. I had written myself out of their equation.

And it hurt. It hurt more than I could say as I stared at the dark walls of my little room.

Max slept with his head on my shoulder, looking up at me every now – and then moaning.

◊◊◊◊◊

We all walked down to David’s boat next Saturday. All of us. The girls and Max walked ahead of me out the breakwater, yet I was conscious of people all over town looking at us. Who knows, maybe they were looking at Maria and Jennifer more than me; I couldn’t tell, but I could feel people’s eyes burning away in the back of my neck as I walked out there.

And Latham was ready and waiting. Bolero gleamed.

Once aboard, he cast off his lines pushed us free, and we drifted out into the little sheltered harbor inside the inner breakwater – then Latham hoisted the main. Bolero caught the breeze and slipped into the outer harbor and he raised the high-clewed yankee up front and the boat bit into the wind and heeled over, began dancing through the light chop within the little bay. As seagulls flitted along behind us, I felt wonder at how much like flying it feels to sail.

Latham tacked and Bolero came up on a northeast heading; we sailed past the light on the end of the outer mole and out into the straight between Faial and Pico. The distant volcano stood in stark relief that day, a clear reminder dancing under the sun, and I remembered thinking that we – Jenn, Maria and I – were all dancing on a volcano. There was no telling when it would blow, yet I knew we – one way or another – were all going to be burned.

Maria had packed a little picnic lunch and of course brought along some Sangria, and as Bolero settled into a groove and danced along the waves she brought out the food and we sat in the sun, lost in our thoughts as the boat sliced through the morning. We picked at our food as we watched the sea and the mountains, then…

…a bottle-nosed dolphin broached alongside; Max stood in the cockpit and looked at the gray form sliding through the water, and he jumped back – lost his footing – when the dolphin jumped high into the air off the right side of the boat. We all laughed as Max regained his composure, and within moments the single dolphin was joined by dozens more, and we were soon bouncing off the waves while this huge pod of dolphins danced and turned in the sea everywhere around Bolero. Max and I slid up to the bow and lay side by side along the rail, watching as dolphins came close and played in the bow wave, and Max eventually moaned in frustration. He wanted to join them, and I know he did because I did too. I reached down and slapped the side of the hull, and one of the dolphins came very close to me, and as I reached out for it…

…the thought of sliding into the deep blue below my hand and swimming quietly away was suddenly irresistibly appealing. Why was human life so complex, I thought, so full of complications? And why when had the desire to drift away from problems become so overwhelming? Were we really so out of our element now we couldn’t see what we were doing to ourselves?

We continued to sail away from Horta on a northeast heading, and the sun continued to pour down on us, even after the dolphins left. Max looked around at the water occasionally; it was soon apparent he had enjoyed the experience as much as we had, and he missed his new aquatic buddies.

Just after we squared away the remains of lunch, one of the dolphins reappeared, and this one jumped out of the water alongside us and began to chatter excitedly at us. And moments later the sun disappeared.

So intent had we been to work the wind, to carry our journey forward, we had simply not checked the horizon behind us. There behind Horta was a wall of black cloud, and two white snakes writhed in the air, uniting cloud and sea. David ducked below and turned on his VHF; there were now gale warnings being broadcast in Portuguese and English, and we all looked aft at the boiling gray clouds and the malicious waterspouts.

Max looked at the dolphin, and I swear as they looked at each other they were communicating. The dolphin was warning us, warning us of the coming danger. And Max was picking up on the things…he looked at the clouds and started barking – not at the clouds, rather, at David.

“Looks like we race the storm back to Horta, or we run for Pico. But Pico’s a lee shore; I’d rather not risk that,” Latham said as he looked around, measuring his surroundings – then he made his decision. He jibed Bolero smartly and we began to beat back toward the little harbor at Horta, now about seven miles away. We were sailing hard into the wind now, and as we hit the first big swell great waves arced off the bow as we smashed through, and as gusts hit Bolero she began to heel-over even more as she aggressively bit into the wind.

Of all the people out on Bolero that afternoon, Maria alone had absolutely no sailing experience, and I could clearly see that as she looked at the black wall of clouds – and the dancing waterspouts advancing toward us – she was growing terrified. Not scared…terrified.

Jenn, a more than experienced sailor, was busy working the jib-sheet, helping Latham squeeze every ounce of speed out of Bolero they could. I took Maria down below and hooked up a sea-berth in the forward cabin and wrapped her in the cabin with Max, and then, as a vicious gust tore into the boat, I ran up and helped Latham tie a deep reef in the main while Jenn steered. We slipped forward and doused the working jib, hoisting a little storm jib that was lashed up there – ready to deploy, then David and I worked our way back to the cockpit.

There were now four snakes dancing in the sky just ahead, with one not so far off our course towards Horta. Then, just as things looked as if they would get truly exciting, the radio came alive:

“All vessels approaching Faial, be advised the airport has recorded wind gusts over 75 knots. Please take cover immediately from this rapidly developing storm. Cyclonic winds approaching Monte de Guia. Take cover.”

Latham looked at the waterspouts, then back over his shoulder toward Pico, across the straights. Horta was now tantalizingly close, maybe three miles, perhaps a bit less, and I could see the gears turning over in his head. The knot meter claimed we were making almost seven knots through the water; that made it 25-30 minutes before we made the breakwater.

We were going to get slammed if we continued for Horta. If we turned and ran, we would probably get slammed out in the middle of the channel between Faial and Pico. I watched as Latham nodded to himself; he added a little west to his course, cheated to close the island just in case, and we all kept our eyes on the waterspouts, though they were still on the south side of the island.

One of the spouts hit the ridge on the west side of Monte de Guia and came down the gently sloping grassland toward the sea, and now it started to march across the water – towards us. The waterspout danced a little, made a zig-zag to the north, toward us, then back to the east, and so we pushed-on closer to the shore. We could just make out the tree-lined soccer field on the north side of town as we cleared the final point – and had just cut hard to starboard to make directly for the harbor entrance when the squall line hit.

A white wall of rain came between us and the town – now only a few hundred yards ahead – and the red-roofed white buildings behind the stone breakwater suddenly blinked out of view. Bolero heeled over drastically, the rail on the right side of the boat slipped under water, and Latham threw the helm hard over to help her claw her way back upright. I saw Jenn sliding off her seat toward the water and held out my hand to her; she grabbed it just as the cockpit reached an almost vertical orientation relative to the surface of the sea. I held on to the life-lines, now above my head, with my left hand, and Jenn with my right, as I looked down at her little bare feet flailing to gain footing. I could feel her fingernails digging into the flesh of my wrist, yet I knew I would never let go of her.

I would never let go of her. Never.

Bolero clawed her way through the deafening wind and rain, and precious moments later we could just see the outlines of the breakwater ahead, and the village of Horta all around us. Bolero stood back up and pushed into the howling gale.

Ten minutes later we were tied up at the dock. Moments later we heard rumbling down below, then Maria came up into the shimmering air and walked off the boat without saying a word. Max stayed with David and I. So too, did Jennifer.

◊◊◊◊◊

Later that week I walked down to the docks to check in on David and Max.

Yes, Max.

Apparently something quite untoward had happened down below in the storm, and Max now resolutely refused to go back up the hill to Maria’s; in fact, he didn’t want to leave David’s side at all now. I walked to Bolero, above them now on a falling tide, and Max’s tail began to thump when he saw me. David turned at the sound and looked up at me after seeing the tail wiping the cockpit.

“She want her dog back yet?”

“She hasn’t said anything to me about it, David.”

“Where’s Jennifer?”

“She’s been staying with me this week. She’s kind of confused.”

“Ah.”

I’d never realized how many syllables are in the word ‘Ah’ – at least I’d never heard it rendered in such subtle shades of understanding. Or how so much meaning can be packed into one sound.

“So, what are you up to? See you got the boat put back together.” Actually, there hadn’t been much to do but check the rigging for unseen damage caused by the knockdown. Latham just shrugged his shoulders, took on a faraway look. “You doing okay?” I asked a moment later.

“No, not really. Got lab results back. White counts are haywire, the AFP is off the charts, and now the prostate has gotten in on the act.”

I nodded my head. He was reaching the terminal phase now. He might last a month, maybe, if the pain didn’t take him out first.

“Did you talk to Maria about things?”

“Yup.”

Max whimpered and licked his front paw while I looked at David. This was it, and we all knew the score. Max walked over to David and licked his chin, then sat down with his face on David’s lap. His eyes were full of sadness, and he looked tired. Pure empathy, I thought as I looked at both of them. David scratched Max’s ears, knew where and how to comfort his friend, and Max knew what David needed, too.

“So, what’s the plan, David?”

“Huh?”

“What have you done to settle your affairs? Have you thought about it?”

“A little.”

“And? Anything I can do?”

“I’ll let you know, Pete.” He rubbed Max’s belly for a while, then looked up at me. “Pete? There’s a lump in here. In Max’s gut.”

I hopped down onto deck and sat across from David and Max, then reached out to feel Max’s belly. He turned toward my hand and his upper lip quivered, and he let out a low growl.

I withdrew my hand.

David talked to Max in low, gentle tones, then asked me to check the area again. This time Max didn’t move, didn’t resist at all, and I palpated where David indicated.

It was a broad, hard mass, and I could feel nodes around the site that were already hard and distended. Max licked my hand now that his secret was blown, and he looked up at me with those soft brown eyes – while I started to cry.

“This just isn’t fair,” I said out loud. “I’ve got two friends in the world, and you’re both gonna die on me.”

“Hey, anything I can do to help, let me know.” Latham smiled again, now that I had to eat my own patronizing words.

Don’t you just hate smart-asses. Even the ironic ones are hard to take.

◊◊◊◊◊

Maria and I took Max to the island’s only veterinarian, and he just shook his head when he examined Max.

“Nothing to do,” the old man said to me through his thickly accented English, and Maria just nodded her head.

They talked for a while in Portuguese, which I was still learning, and I could make out nice little phrases like ‘put him down’ and ‘keep him comfortable’, and I suddenly felt very sick to my stomach. I was used to people dying, but not dogs. Max would be my first.

I looked at Max and thought of a world without him in it and I felt really cold and lonely inside. Like a kid again, after the first time you grapple with the idea that mom or dad will one day not be there anymore, and suddenly the world feels like a very lonely place after all. Like all the toys and candy were there to hide a few plain facts mom and dad didn’t want to talk about. Maybe that’s why I went to med school. And why I had fallen in love with Jennifer.

Maybe after all was said and done I was simply running from death, trying to cheat death every chance I could, trying to pile experience into this empty vessel called life so that in the end I could say I had lived a ‘full’ life.

I looked at Max, and suddenly it felt like I had wasted a lot of time.

◊◊◊◊◊

I think its safe to say that over the next few weeks Jennifer and I had a tough time.

She had gone to Maria’s in search of peace and solace from the upheaval we’d each just been through, and instead she found herself in the middle of one of the most confusing affairs of her life. She had never before, she told me later, once had any inclination to have a relationship with another woman, yet the ease with which she had slipped into the affair – when she looked back at it – shook her up. All of the assumptions she had taken for granted in her early life had been directly challenged, upended, and she didn’t have any answers.

And it was odd; she didn’t feel used or taken advantage of. In fact, when I asked her about her feelings for Maria she said bluntly that she loved her, that she was sure she always would love the woman. She felt like she had been split in two; one life she could acknowledge in the full light of day.

And the other, she said, would remain a still life in shadow.

So maybe we were all running from death, even a living death. The problem with doing that, I knew, was simple.

Sometimes when we run and run, we forget how to live any other way.

And sometimes all we can do is run, even if it’s into the shadows.

◊◊◊◊◊

She was in her outlook a simple woman, and it had been said of her for as long as anyone could remember that she maintained a cool distance between herself and everyone else. Perhaps that’s why she had come undone. She’d lost that cool distance from another human being when she began her campaign to take Jennifer; perhaps it was her soul’s last great attempt to connect with another while she still could. Or perhaps she had just grown too hard inside to feel any but the most intense contact. Whatever it was, a profound change had come over Maria Louisa D’Alessandro, and no one was happy with the change. Especially not Max.

Something had happened on Bolero, during that brief storm when they had been below together. With Maria and Max tucked safely down below, I had thought they would weather the storm with no lasting effect, but I was wrong. I couldn’t get Maria to talk about it, and of course Max was, in his none too subtle way, also somewhat reticent to discuss the matter.

Dogs. Stubborn like nothing else in the world.

Max was, as I’ve mentioned, a Bernese Mountain Dog. If you’ve never seen one, think of a St Bernard, only black with a little splotches of copper here and there, his belly white – and his snout a narrow plain of brightest white, crested with copper eyebrows. Their stock is a mountain rescue breed as well, so coming to people’s aid was about as natural for Max as breathing is for lesser mortals. He wanted to help, he wanted to be involved. In fact, you couldn’t keep Max from getting involved. It was genetically impossible, and you could see it in his eyes.

And of course, dogs are true empaths, some more than others. They can look in someone’s eyes and read the contours of that person’s soul, they can see pain, feel melancholy, and share those brief moments of happiness that punctuate the human life like a shooting star. They can rest a chin on your thigh and suddenly you know, really know, that all will be right with the world – if you just give it a chance. And you can rest your soul in theirs – knowing that you will be a better person in the sharing.

Max had one of those souls.

Which made Maria’s apparent rejection all the more telling – and disturbing.

Max had seen something. He had discovered a real truth about Maria, and she knew it. When Max looked at her now, all his years of devotion to her came down like broken glass on cold stone, and for a while he seemed to give up as his cancer began to eat away at him. He took to spending a night every now and then with Jenn and myself in the hotel, but by and large he spent most most of his time down on the breakwater, with David – and their Bolero.

Those two had so much in common. Least of all their looming encounter with death.

◊◊◊◊◊

While Bolero gleamed in the sun, it was fair to say that now David Latham, who was then in his early thirties, looked like an old man. His yellow-gray skin hung in loose folds over his tall, gaunt frame, and his blue-gray eyes shone like sapphires against dark circles around his eyes. Whenever he moved now he groaned at unseen spirits lurking just under his skin, waiting, waiting to remind him of their advance through his body. And yet Latham approached life each day not as a stoic; rather he greeted the world with a smile, grateful I suppose, that he had another day to tackle the unexpected, another problem to solve.

Grateful, I’m certain, for another day with Max.

Max and David lived on Bolero now, each in their way helping sustain the other, and it amazed not only Jenn and I but everyone in town how the two were struggling together, keeping each other’s spirits up. While each was positively heroic in their resolve to soldier on, together they came to represent something much greater. They came to represent hope to a town that often held that commodity in short supply.

After the storm, David resumed work on Bolero, resumed turning his home into a monument to his love for her. People in town noticed. On a Monday, perhaps, a new gallon of varnish would appear on the breakwater above Bolero. Maybe the next day some metal polish and a fresh bundle of new line would appear. Women carried down bowls of soup to Bolero when they heard David was having a rough day, and someone would come and take Max for a short walk along the breakwater so he could do his business.

In this way, the town united in their love and admiration for David and Max. I’d never seen anything quite like it before.

And perhaps it was just one more cruel irony that Maria Louisa D’Alessandro had once again been relegated to the shadowlands. Men looked at her as she walked to and from work with a subtle leer, while women in the village looked at her with unmitigated contempt.

Whatever it was that Maria had run from in Zurich, well, it had found her now. Whatever force it was that sustained love for David and Max with the townsfolk, it had found it’s antithesis in their feelings for Maria. And to an extent, Jennifer and I both shared in this oppressive realization, we both felt it’s scorn. In a very real sense, the town’s reaction to the affair made it very clear to all of us we couldn’t stay on the island. We were visitors, even Maria was now, and inevitably we had worn out our welcome.

◊◊◊◊◊

If Maria was guilty of burying her anger and sorrow in work, I was guilty, too, of the same crime. I walked to the hospital before the sun came up, and walked home after sunset. We hardly ever talked; we had quickly grown so embittered with each other we couldn’t even make eye contact anymore. She became prickly in the operating room, and nurses began avoiding her. People talked behind her back incessantly, and the whole affair soon came to be an abject lesson in religious and social hypocrisy. When people came to the hospital, they wanted her to take care of their ills. When she saw the same people out on the streets, they shunned her.

One afternoon she asked me and Jenn to come out to her house after work. She needed, she said, to talk to us.

I told her that we would come as soon as I could drop by the hotel and pick Jennifer up.

That wasn’t an altogether bright thing to have done, but you can never tell about these things.

◊◊◊◊◊

She met us at the door; the sun was just setting on her little garden, and I couldn’t help but reflect that this was apparent in more ways than one. She welcomed us, offered us drinks, but I could see a tiredness about her person that I’d never seen before, and she didn’t look familiar to me at all. I knew my feelings for this woman were complex; not long ago I’d felt something akin to love for her. She seemed to be, like Max, empathetic and compassionate, and I had felt comfortable around her. Now I didn’t trust her, at least not like I had, and Jenn seemed ill-at-ease too.

She’d already had dinner so offered us Port, and we each took a glass and sat in the living room and looked down at the sea as the last of the day’s sun drifted below the far horizon.

“I’m going to leave the island,” she said after a while. I could understand the impulse, but I thought her reaction too hasty.

“This will blow over, Maria. Give it time.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. It does not matter in the least. I miss Zurich, and intend to return there as soon as possible. I wanted to ask if either of you wanted to buy the house.”

I think I was a little shocked by that. “I don’t know, Maria. To tell you the truth, Jenn and I were thinking of moving on ourselves.” It seemed a somewhat territorial statement to make, but I wanted to delineate the recent past from any possible future Maria might have in mind. I was staking my claim, so to speak, and Maria bristled at the implications in my words.

“Pete, have I acted in any way less than honorable to you?” she stared at me while this question penetrated the air around us. It looked like she wanted to stir something up and hoped I would back down, that I would avoid a scene at any cost. Did she want to humiliate me here, on her turf, so to speak.

“I beg your pardon?” I tossed back at her. “Are you seriously asking me that?”

“I am.”

“Seducing my girlfriend. Wasn’t that enough, to, well – ah – strike you as something less than honorable?”

“Your girlfriend? But you had told me you weren’t interested in a long-term relationship with Jennifer. Isn’t that so?”

I could feel Jenn looking at me now, and I knew this was dangerous ground indeed.

“Not quite, Maria. I said I had no intention of marrying her right now. I said she needed time to get over the dispute with her parents, and to get her bearings. I never said I wanted to end our relationship. I think, perhaps, you heard what you wanted to hear. I think I understand your present difficulties. Why you came back, why you returned to Horta. And I think you understood only too well the difficulties Jenn and I faced when we first got here. And – and now maybe I’m off base here – but I think you took advantage of that.”

Yes. I actually said that, and…

Her eyes turned gray and lifeless before me, and I could see her anger and hatred falling away for a moment to reveal the tortured soul within. I didn’t want to feel sorry for the woman, yet I did. She had faced her demons long ago, mastered them in her way, but they had stalked her over the years just as certainly as any disease might, and when those demons struck they took her in a moment of weakness.

“Well,” she said to Jenn now, “I wish you the best. I love you, dear girl, and I always will.”

Jenn nodded her head, but I could tell she was trying to hold back tears of her own.

We stood to leave, but Maria remained seated. We let ourselves out, and I felt the lights in the room go out, and I turned to look at Maria as she sat in sudden shadow.

Jenn and I walked back to town, we walked under the stars. I held her hand now like I would never let it go again, and we listened to the gathering silence around us. The sound of the sea could just be felt through the hum of the town below us, and as we crested the hill we could look down on the harbor spread out below – like a black hole surrounded by amber-hued diamonds.

On the breakwater we could just make out the flashing lights of an ambulance.

Men were jumping on and off a boat moored there.

It was, we could see, the Bolero.

◊◊◊◊◊

“Dave?”

“Yeah? Hey, Pete,” came his faint voice through the growing fog.

“I sent Jenn down to the boat to check on Max. Is there anything I can do?”

“Get me out of here, Pete. I don’t want to die in here. Get me back to the boat, okay?”

“Alright, Dave. Hang in there; I’ll be back in a minute.”

Jenn filled me in on the details later: Someone had been walking along the breakwater and looked down at Max, who had seemed agitated, and they had seen Latham laying face down in the cockpit. They had called the Guardia, and the firemen had come for him. Now Jenn was down on the boat taking care of Max and straightening up the forepeak berth. We carried a bag of ice down to Bolero, and some fruit juice in case David felt like drinking something, then walked back up to the hospital and arranged to have him brought back down to the docks.

Some firemen and I loaded him up and rolled him out to their ambulance, and we drove down to the dock and got him moved back aboard. Jenn and I got him to the forward cabin, and she helped him into his bunk. I opened up the hatch over his head, and a sharp, early winter’s breeze filled the space. The breeze tussled our hair on it’s way through the boat, awakening memory in it’s passage.

“You want some juice, or some ice to chew on?”

“Maybe some ice. Got cottonmouth. Where’s Max?”

But Max was having his own troubles that night. He was moving slowly, and it was obvious to me that he too was in a lot of pain, but when her heard David say his name he ambled forward and sat down on the teak next to David’s berth. His tail thumping, he looked up at me expectantly; I leaned over and helped him up on the bunk and he scooted over and settled-in next to David, his chin resting on Latham’s shoulder. Those big brown eyes went from me to David and back again, over and over, like he didn’t know whether his allegiance belonged to the living or the dying, but after a few minutes of this he settled down and looked at David with a smile on his face. He seemed so full of love as he lay there.

“Orion.”

“What’s that, David?”

“Up there, through the hatch. It’s Orion.” I craned my neck and looked up into the night sky. Almost directly overhead I could make out the Hunter’s stars: Betelgeuse, Rigel, the belt stars and the short dagger with the fuzzy patch around the middle star, the Orion nebula. “That’s my favorite night sight,” he said. “I wish I could’ve gone there.”

“Maybe you will.”

He smiled. “Fairy tales, Pete. All just fairy tales for scared children, afraid of the dark.”

“Could be. Here, open up.” I put some crushed ice in his mouth and he smiled. I little runner dripped down his chin and Max licked it off, and David smiled deeply as that familiar grace interrupted his journey through the stars.

“Pete? There’s an envelope in the chart table addressed to you. Instructions, you know, for later.”

“Sure thing, Dave. Don’t worry about that now.”

“If…I…ah, take care of Max…would you?”

“Count on it, my friend.” I watched as he swallowed hard, as he struggled to keep his eyes on Orion, but he gave up and looked down at Max, and he started to cry softly.

“Bye, buddy. Such a good friend…”

He tried to swallow again, but gave up. He breathed one last time as he reached up to rub Max’s ear, then he grew very still.

I put my hand on his, felt the last moments of life in him, then wished him a good journey.

I looked at Max, and he too seemed very still now. His eyes were closed, and he seemed to be at peace with this world, but his tail was motionless now, and so it would forever remain.

After a few minutes I moved away from David and Max to sit with Jennifer, and though the world seemed suddenly a very cold and lonely place, I knew the love I held in my heart for those two souls would sustain me the rest of my life.

◊◊◊◊◊

Life goes on. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say?

Time to get on with it. Get your chin up. Get on with living.

Don’t you get it?

I read through Latham’s last wishes as I sat at Bolero’s chart table, and it was all I could do not to laugh. I looked around at the masterpiece he’d created, at the honey-warm teak and the soothing brass oil lamps giving the space it’s unnatural glow, and I just shook my head in wonder at his insight.

He’d thought of everything. He’d planned what he wanted done, sought approval from the necessary bureaucracies, and left me contact information for what needed to be done to settle his affairs back in the States.

Max was an unforeseen complication, but it turned out nobody cared what happened to his body.

But I cared. It mattered to me. And I knew it mattered to David, too. But most of all, I knew what Max would have wanted, knew what he would have wanted me to do, and in the end he was my friend, too. Maybe the best friend I ever had.

I just had to pull it off, somehow.

And everyone in the town looked at me expectantly that last evening, as we all walked out to Bolero one last time.

◊◊◊◊◊

David was down below on his bunk, and Max was still nestled-up on his shoulder, though now they were wrapped up in one of Bolero’s working jibs. I was alone in the cockpit, sailing Bolero out past the light at the end of the breakwater, out to the open sea. I little patrol boat from the Coast Guard trolled along beside Bolero, and I looked back at the town as it receded into evening. Most everyone on the island had assembled on the breakwater, and the people there began to light candles. The town’s priest was talking to the people, and though I was too far away to hear anything, I think I knew what was said.

They were, I suppose, being told that David Latham was a kind soul, one who had come to their village in a time of great personal need, and that he had touched all of their lives in profound ways during his passage through their lives. Just as they had touched his.

It seemed that, in the end, Latham turned out to be one of those so-called Microsoft millionaires, and that he left this earth with a ton of money in the bank. His instructions were simple: upgrade the hospital; the town library, the church and the schools were to be repaired or modernized. He left detailed plans on how he wanted some of his money used for local public works projects, and he wanted a statue of Max commissioned and placed on one of the headlands north of town that looked out over the sea. When the townspeople learned of Latham’s gift, it was as though a miracle passed through the air all these people breathed. They knew their lives had been touched by Latham in small, personal ways, but they had never really understood what that meant, never got the bigger picture. Now they did, and now they stood on the breakwater, bathed in the glow of a thousand candles, and many of the people watching cried as he left the way he had come. By way of the sea…

I set up the self-steering wind-vane and balanced the helm, and Bolero bit into the wind and began to dance again in the waves once again. I fell into that trance again; that place I go when the wind streams through my hair and I feel so connected to life on this planet, and I felt the water as it hummed through the wheel, it’s vibration settling into my senses. I stood with the wind in my face now, the last of the days light falling off and the sky around me a deep purple streaked with orange, and I felt tears rolling down my face – only to be whisked away by the wind and carried back to the sea.

A dolphin broke the surface next to us, and I looked down into it’s black eye.

There might have been an infinity between us, but we were brothers in this instant of time, and I think even that dolphin knew what was coming…

The cabin below was awash in gasoline. I took Bolero’s flare pistol and cocked the hammer, then called for the little Coast Guard ship to come alongside. I moved forward, moved to look at David and Max one last time, then held the pistol out and pulled the trigger. The fire started slowly, but once the elements were united in combustion they began to dance with all the fury of creation long denied.

We saw a transfiguration, I suppose, dancing in those flames.

I jumped across to the waiting boat and we moved off, though I turned and watched Bolero as we headed back in.

Bolero continued to sail perfectly away to the northeast, her interior at first trailing black smoke. Then a fierce glow could be seen down below, followed by naked flames dancing in the air around her topsides. The fire grew, in hunger as yet unsated, waiting to absolve all sin with it’s passing, and Bolero gave way to this passage. Flames consumed the deck and jumped into the drawing sails and moved skyward, toward the heavens, and I wondered, as I guess we all do, what awaits us on the other side of the night.

◊◊◊◊◊

I made it back to the hotel later after midnight, and I finished packing my bags. Jennifer’s bags were packed and stacked neatly in the corner of the room, and she was sitting in a chair – looking out the window at the sea – and beyond.

We talked about maybe staying, buying Maria Louisa’s little cottage, but no – there were too many memories bound up inside those walls. Still, we loved this island, we loved the life, the people. Maybe we could make it work. Maybe I had to, because of David. He wanted me to see his wishes carried out, and I needed to be here to make that happen.

But the first thing we had to do was find her parents, my friends, and we had to make that world right again. We talked through the night about what we might say, how we might repair all our burned bridges then, as the sun lightened the sky we went down for a last walk around town.

Maria Louisa D’Alessandro was walking along the road, on her way to the hospital for her first surgery of the day, and I looked at her as she approached us.

We stopped when we met, and she looked at me.

“You’ll be late for surgery if you’re not careful,” she said – and at first I thought she was joking. Then I saw the questions in her eyes, the longing for resolution.

An end to the running, they beseeched.

And I nodded my head, looked at my watch, then I looked at Jennifer. My Jennifer, our Jennifer, then they looked at me and sighed.

And Jennie nodded to the inevitable. Perhaps there was a cottage on the north side still on the market?

I looked down at the harbor, thought of David and Max and wondered where on their journey they might be just now. I could see Max’s big brown eyes, that huge pink tongue wagging as fast as his tail, and Latham hanging from the mast, working to make his home as beautiful as it could ever be. I could feel them with me as I stood there. I could feel Max’s hot breath on my thigh as we walked, and Latham’s contented laugh as he smiled and shook his hands at death.

Yes. We the living have our ghosts, but where would we be without them?

And the sun was so strong and warm. So full of hope. All I could do was smile at the absurdity of life, at our own gently beckoning mortality.

‘Everything’s going to be okay, isn’t it, Max?’ I said to the passing wind.

He was sitting there looking up at me again, his eyes all bright and alive, his love the one constant in an ever changing universe.

‘Yeah, I knew you’d say that.’

© 2007-2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw

The Dividing Line

This is another one of those stories…

More than a little memory tied up in this one. The McCarley character is based on a training officer of mine during my rookie year. I spent three months with this guy on ‘deep nights’ – midnight to eight in the morning. Learned a lot from him. The very opposite of the ‘mean cop’ you might have stuck in your mind, too.

Yes, he met a girl quite like Sara Wood, similar circumstances, too. The odd thing about them? They did get married, but they didn’t sail away. She got her GED, then an AA in Criminal Justice, and she went to work for the department, first as a dispatcher and eventually as a patrolman. She responded to an armed robbery one summer afternoon and was getting out of her squad car when the ‘suspects’ pulled out of a parking space and deliberately ran her down. Crushed her pelvis, but not her spirit. She’s still in a wheelchair, still the same fierce spirit I knew. Last time I saw her was at his funeral. She was there with their daughter. She still looks like Sissy Spacek, too. Maybe only cuter.

+++

Stuff like this happens all to frequently ‘out there’ – and cops are usually the first ones on the scene. They get to pick up the pieces, make sense of it all, even if there’s no sense to it.

Here’s a ‘war story’ for you – one of those ‘this really happened to me’ stories, one that makes no sense in a just world. Another runaway, another girl who slipped through the cracks…

I was on motors, working traffic on a Harley in the middle of the day. A call came out for a district patrol unit to investigate the sighting of a girl who had just ‘escaped’ from a local ER. She was described as, well, essentially a paranoid schizophrenic, violent, delusional, and (most importantly) HIV positive. She’d just been seen by the clerk in a ‘Stop-n-Rob’ near the hospital, and the patrolman checked en route. I, on the other hand, was about a hundred yards away from the location, and could see the girl.

I reported this to dispatch, and the responding patrolman arrived in short order. We coordinated, decided to ‘box her in’ – but as soon as the girl saw the patrol car she turned and ran. Straight at me, as it turned out. When she saw me standing beside my bike, she came to a dead stop. She had something in her hands, but I couldn’t make it out. Turns out it was one of those small ‘ejector-blade’ razor blade dispensers, small little single edge razor blades, and she had a handful of them.

When she saw me she started hacking away at her left wrist, and doing a lot of damage. I used a ‘night-stick’ only once in my brief career as a cop, and this was the day. As she was hacking away I used the stick and hit her right arm, the upper arm, and her hand fell away. But her left hand was full of these tiny ejector blades, and she popped them into her mouth and began chewing.

I’d never seen so much blood in my life. Paramedics were just arriving and they ran over to lend a hand – and they too stopped dead in their tracks.

I took her down while the other officer cleared her hand, and then I forced her mouth open. I still had on my leather motorcycle gloves, so quite stupidly began to clear the blades from her mouth. Still, a couple were embedded in the roof of her mouth, and one towards the back of her mouth, behind the tonsils. The paramedics wouldn’t touch her, the whole HIV thing back in the 80s being similar to the Black Death, but one of them gave me some hemostats and I got them out, stuffed a wad of gauze back there and applied pressure while we hand carried her to the ambulance.

I rode with her to the ER, holding pressure all the way. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was covered in her blood. Face, arms, all over my uniform. I hate needles, but got checked every few weeks for the next year. I was lucky that day, I suppose, but that’s the job.

Anyway, I recently took out The Dividing Line and looked it over, brushed it off and brought the two chapters together. Here’s Eddie and Sara’s story again, and thanks, Elvis, or whatever your name was. You were the man.

+++++

The Dividing Line

May 7th

Sara Wood lived in darkest shadowlands, and she kept to her shadows – lived to blend in, to disappear; if caught in light of day, she simply faded away into the pale warrens of the city. Sara Wood was an expert in the fine art of disappearance, of camouflage, of falling through cracks in the few systems left to deal with girls of her sort: homeless, nameless…faceless girls used to life in the darkness. There was ‘no place like home’ for Sara Wood, there never had been. No Auntie Em, no Toto, and never a Wizard of Oz waiting to carry her back to Kansas. No, there had been foster homes. Homes where spectacled, fat-thumbed men tried to introduce Sara Wood to the rituals of oral sex – when she was nine years old, and finally, shelters. Where wild-eyed women pushed her down to her knees – Bible in hand – forcing her to repent for sins she had never committed. There had never been, in Sara Wood’s life, a fridge in the kitchen to feed her empty belly, no television in the den to fill her empty time, nor were there chat rooms or the ‘net late at night in a darkened bedroom were she could learn about the carefree, empty lives of teenagers spread over the American landscape – like a thin coat of white paint.

So, Sara Wood kept to the shadows of the city, although there were times when it felt like the city did it’s very best to keep her in the dark light of day. Out of sight, she knew, was out of mind. What little comfort in this world she could buy, she paid for in the currency of her soul; earned on her knees in alleys, or with her legs spread in back seats of suburban minivans. She was paid for taking short, smelly cocks in her mouth, or for taking a reedy, whiskey-soaked tongue up her vagina. She didn’t use drugs; the thought had never occurred to her because she couldn’t afford them. Dealers and pimps didn’t hook her and sell her; the market was glutted with teenaged boys and girls who sold their cocks and cunts and mouths for almost nothing, just enough money to, perhaps, buy a burger and a coke. Sara Wood couldn’t rock the boat – because there was no boat to rock. She couldn’t beat the system – because the system was gone.

So, in Sara Wood’s shadowlands, she knelt on the altar of poverty, and of justice for all. On any given day, like today perhaps, her face poised before urine tinged khaki trousers, she sucking the three inch dick of a fat, smelly man named Bob, whose plastic name tag identified him as an employee of the New Life Christian Family Bookstore. Bob had Sara Wood’s hair grasped tightly in his hands, and he was pulling on it roughly, calling her a dirty little whore, telling her to suck his cock, to eat his cum. His half-hard dick, Sara Wood thought, was about the size of her little finger and she had been sucking on it for what felt like an hour. Bob would not – or could not – cum, and the more apparent this became to Bob the harder he pulled on Sara Wood’s hair. Bob looked down at Sara Wood’s face and noticed tears in her eyes when he pulled her hair especially hard, and Bob liked that. He liked that a lot.

Bob gave Sara Wood’s hair a vicious tug, and she cried out, tried to pull away. Bob liked that even more, and could feel his dick get hard and twitch in response to her discomfort and attempt to flee, and he told her to hold still, that he was going to cum. He held her head forcefully to his groin and tried to pump away, but Sara Wood was now in a fair amount of pain, getting afraid, and was in fact trying to pull away from Bob with a fair amount of effort. Bob both liked and disliked her struggling. Bob liked the fact that he could frighten and hurt someone; this was something very rare in his experience. Bob disliked the fact that he was probably not going to be able to cum in this girls mouth, which, too was a very rare experience in Bob’s life, one that he had paid good money – five bucks – for. Determined to prevent her spoiling the moment, Bob decided to shut her up, and with his fist he swung down with his not considerable strength – and hit her smartly on the top of her head.

Bob’s cock was, at just that moment, seated rather deeply – and deeply for a three inch penis is of course a relative term – in Sara Wood’s mouth. At that moment, as well, Bob still had a hold of Sara Wood’s hair and he was holding her tightly in place with his grasping fingers, pulling her tight against his right knee, which he had lifted to brace Sara Wood against, to keep her from pulling away. As Bob’s hammer blow connected – driving Sara Wood’s head downward as a result – her lower jaw, now supported against Bob’s right knee, was in effect driven up. Unfortunately for Bob, Sara Wood still had all of her teeth, and they were in pretty good shape.

Bob screamed and reached for his groin as he fell back in agony, his groin now on fire. He fell in a thrashing heap, and as he tried to come to grips with what had happened he reached for his groin, felt the bloody stump of his cock, and brought his hands to his face. Bob’s ensuing scream was reportedly heard five blocks away, and over city-traffic, at that. Bob tossed and twisted on the grimy asphalt; unfortunately Bob was losing a lot of blood just then, and his gyrations slowed to a fetal crawl as shock set in.

Sara Wood had, at the time Bob dropped, fallen to the ground under the impact of his clutched fist, fallen in a completely unconscious pile of ragged disarray. There was now, in fact, a large raw patch on the side of her head where a substantial handful of hair had been pulled out – when Bob’s penis had come into full contact with Sara Wood’s teeth. Bob’s penis was, by the way, lodged under Sara Wood’s tongue. The only visible evidence of this was the small trickle of blood that leaked out of the corner of her mouth down onto the grimy asphalt of the potholed alley.

In due course an ambulance arrived, and a squad car from the police department was not far behind. Bob was stabilized by the fire department’s paramedics; firemen who responded with the paramedics searched they alley and the nearby garbage cans and potholes for the remnants of Bob’s penis. The street-waif had been ignored by the medics as just another piece of garbage; they had concentrated their attentions on the man who was bleeding profusely, and who was now, in fact, in very serious condition.

The first police officer on the scene was Paul Edward McCarley, a twenty one year veteran of the department. McCarley’s glacial demeanor stood in stark contradiction to his open, friendly face; his slow movements and quick eyes belied careful observations, endlessly analytical observations. He was the first official to move to Sara Wood’s side, to see the blood and the raw patch on the side of her head. He looked across at the man on the ground and saw hair twisted in his hands. He felt inside her pockets, found a grimy, sweat-soaked five dollar bill inside, and shook his head knowingly. He felt a twisting churn in his stomach as he took a silver Cross pen out of his shirt pocket, and pried open her mouth.

“Get me some saline and a baggie…I got the penis right here,” McCarley said quietly. A couple of firemen came over, and of course these firemen all had something quick and clever to say about the penis in the young girl’s mouth. McCarley just grimaced as he put on his latex crime scene gloves, pried open the little mouth, and swept the penis clear of the girls mouth with his gloved finger.

An ammonia stick was produced and cracked open, waved under the girls nose. She stirred, her eyes fluttered, and she sat up in startled confusion. She looked around – wildly, then coughed and wretched when she recognized the taste of blood in her mouth. She sat holding her knees to her chest, breathing in shallow fear – because she wasn’t in the shadows just then. Then, as Sara Wood regained awareness of her surroundings, the first thing she noticed was, and this was a very dangerous thing in Sara Wood’s world, a police officer kneeling beside her. It didn’t matter that this man was speaking gently to her, holding her shoulder with kind, steadying hands. What Sara Wood saw was a navy blue uniform, a badge, a black leather belt, a holster, a gun, a nightstick and radio, and most dangerous of all, handcuffs. She saw a system that could hurt her, had ignored her, and here was a man in uniform that represented a system. A system that had always been manifestly unjust to her, even as it’s adherents swore to uphold justice.

The policeman asked what her name was, where she lived. He wanted to know what had happened. She was non-responsive, a deaf-mute, a shadow-girl. She didn’t exist; she knew that this man would know that one simple fact of her life better than anyone else in this alley. He told her he didn’t want to take her to jail, that he thought he knew what had happened. If he guessed right, would she tell him he was right, he asked gently. He talked to her, told her what he thought had happened, told her about her missing hair, why her head hurt, what the taste in her mouth was – where that bloody taste had come from.

Sara Wood turned away from the man in the uniform and wretched, would have vomited all her stomach held but for the simple fact her stomach was empty. She didn’t even have what little nourishment there would have been in Bob’s cum. She lay on the earth and felt the world spinning beyond reach. She lay on her side and drew her knees up to her chest and cried like a baby, cried like the baby she had never had the chance to be.

+++++

June 14th

Ed McCarley sat in his squad car writing a police report on his battered aluminum clipboard, listened to calls on the car’s radio – to respond if anyone needed back-up – and checked his watch. Ten minutes until he could check out for lunch, so he turned his attention to the report, wanting to finish it now in case calls backed up later in the afternoon.

“Hey there!” A girl’s voice, out of the blue.

Lost in paperwork – a rookie’s mistake – Ed McCarley jumped in his seat. His head jerked to the left, quickly assessing his surroundings, analyzing threats as he reached for his holster. What he saw was a girl, one that looked like a ghost from one of those concentration camp survivor photos. He looked in her eyes and it took a moment or two – but he recognized her. Her eyes.

“Sara Wood, right?” he said

“Yeah. Howya doing?”

“Good,” he said as he scanned her, gauging the threat. “What’s going on with you?”

“Nothin’ much,” she said. “Actually, I just wanted to thank you for what you said to those D.A. people. They told me if you hadn’t done your job right I’d be spending a long time in jail.”

Ed McCarley looked down; he never knew how to take a compliment, or even a simple expression of gratitude. He just nodded.

The girl took his silence as rejection, stepped back, and started for the nearest shadow.

“So,” Ed McCarley asked, “how are you doing?”

She stopped. Something in his voice. “Oh, you know.”

All Ed McCarley had to do was look at this girl to know how she was doing. “Hey, I’m going to check out for lunch in a minute. Care to join me?” He could see the conflict roll across her face. Trust. Fear. Trust. Fear.

“Yeah, I guess,” she said.

He thought he could see her salivating. He picked up the microphone hanging from the side of the squad car’s radio. “2141, 25 code baker kilo 114” In that jargon, he checked out for lunch at the Burger King in his district: southwest. He rolled up the window, got out of the car and locked the door. “O.K., let’s go!” he said with forced enthusiasm.

Inside he ordered, and asked her what she wanted.

“Guess a glass of water,” she said, looking down at her shoes.

“Sara, I’m buying. What’ll it be? Come on, sky’s the limit!” Sara Wood ordered two Whoppers with cheese, a large order of fries, a large Coke – and a small chocolate shake. The girl behind the counter repeated the order, called it out over the system and shook her head. They got a table and waited for the order to be called, and McCarley carried it back to the table when the surly girl slid it to him over the counter.

Ed McCarley sat back and watched the show as Sara Wood tore into the food. It was almost painful to watch, and he was sure that, as shrunken down as her belly was it would be very painful to see in an hour or two. He didn’t say a word, didn’t want to interrupt Sara Wood as she piled the food down, which took about three minutes. “Still hungry?” he asked.

Sara Wood made a laughing noise that came out her nose, her mouth was so full of food. She nodded her head and got out, “Double Whopper?”

“Comin’ right up.” He walked up to the counter and placed the order. He waited until surly-face slid it over to him, then took it back to Sara Wood. He put it on the table in front of her and smiled. “Well, bottoms-up!” he said, and only then did he start on his grilled chicken sandwich, and he sipped his iced tea while he looked at Sara Wood’s face – as if for the first time – and as he did he flinched. As he looked at the pale blue eyes, the weathered skin and the scabs on her shoulders, he recognized something lost and even lovable in her abandoned, forsaken eyes. Whatever that something was, the feeling tore at his sense of humanity.

‘Fuck, I’m getting old,’ he thought. “So, filling up?” he said, forcing another smile.

Her mouth full, she nodded, managed to say, “Yeah, this is really good!”

He smiled at her. “Alright!” he replied.

After they had both finished eating, she asked him where he worked, and he told her at Central Division, and gave her one of his cards. “You can call me at the station if you need me; if I’m not in they’ll know how to get in touch with me.” he said. ‘Now just why the hell did I do that,’ he thought.

Sara Wood took his card as if someone had just given her a burning stick of dynamite, or a one pound bar of gold. The conflict she felt was instant and extreme. She looked at the card intently for a moment, then stuck it in her pants.

The radio on Ed McCarley’s belt came to life: “2141.” He slipped the radio free of it’s holster and brought it to his mouth. “2141, go ahead.”

“2141. 17B Main and Oaklawn, possible fatalities.”

“2141, 10/4,” he said into the radio, and he turned to Sara Wood: “Sorry, gotta go. Really. If you need me, call me!” And he was gone, trotting out the door.

She watched him as he got into the car; the red and blue lights turned on, then he pulled out into traffic as the siren came on. She watched his car as it sped away, went to the window and watched the blue and red lights until they disappeared. She didn’t realize it just then, but she was standing on her tip-toes, biting her lip, afraid for him.

She was afraid of all the unknown dangers she knew were waiting out there on the streets, waiting out there for Ed McCarley.

+++++

June 21st

It was Friday afternoon, and Sara Wood looked across the street at the Central Division sub-station, still standing in the shadows. She had been hiding there, waiting, watching until she saw Ed McCarley’s car pull into the parking lot, until she had seen him walk across the lot into the station. And still she remained, waiting now to see if Ed McCarley would walk out of the front door. She just wanted to see his face, know he was alright, maybe even talk to him. About twenty minutes later he did walk out, dressed in jeans and a white shirt, wearing sneakers, and he carried an orange canvas gym bag. She looked as he walked to the sidewalk, and wondered where his car was parked. He stopped to talk with a couple of other – she guessed – cops, then he crossed the street in front of her and headed down Grant. After two blocks, he turned left on 21st. She followed him, but stayed well behind him, always in the shadows. After a couple more blocks, on a street lined with narrow two-story apartment buildings, he turned out of view at a grey brick apartment building, his retreating form hidden by a wooden fence and a thick row of hedges. She darted forward to catch up, to see which apartment was his, and as she got up to the fence she flew around the corner and ran into – Ed McCarley!

As she ran into him he caught her in his arms and brought her gently to a stop. “Whoa, there, kiddo,” he said. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to follow a cop?”

Sara Wood just stood in Ed McCarley’s hands, mute.

A couple of moments passed, his face awash in a befuddled grin as he scanned his surroundings, then he sighed. “Well, c’mon. Let’s get you upstairs out of this heat, maybe get you a Coke.” He led off toward an apartment house one block over and back towards the station. Sara Wood figured it out right then and there. He knew he was being followed, probably from the time he crossed the street in front of the station.

He walked up one flight of stairs, took out a key and opened the door to Number 7, then walked in. He turned the thermostat on the air conditioner down, way down. He put his gym bag on a table by the door, then went into the kitchen. He poured two Cokes over ice and went back out into the entry. McCarley knew he lived in a modest apartment, but when he looked at Sara’s face it looked as though she was gawking at the White House. He walked and handed her the Coke, and right then the smell hit. Pure, rank, unadulterated stink. He looked at her skin and saw that the dirt he had thought was on her skin – was in her skin – ground into the pores of her skin. Her hair was greasy. The fabric on the Salvation Army jeans and t-shirt was thin and foul with dirt and body odor. He thought the worst would be the shoes, but he had no intention of finding out. One thing was for sure, he had to get her cleaned up before the neighbors complained! Cleaned up, and maybe out to a shelter.

“Well, sit you down, Sara Wood, and tell me a story!”

She looked at him quizzically; she still hadn’t spoken since he’d caught her following him. “What kind of story?” she said.

“Well, maybe your story, Sara. Like maybe what you’re doing following me home.”

“I was scared. I wanted to see you was O.K.”

“What were you afraid of, Sara?”

“Afraid of you gettin’ hurt.”

“Don’t you have any family, or friends?” Sara Wood shook her head. “Well, Sara, how old are you?”

She shrugged her shoulders, shook her head. “Nineteen, I think, maybe twenty. Nobody’s sure. Maybe twenty, I guess. ”

“Where did you go to school?”

“Didn’t go to school.”

“Where do you stay?” he asked, not wanting to hear the answer. She just shrugged. “Well, O.K., you got any other clothes?” She shook her head. “When’s the last time you took a shower, or a bath?”

“At the jail, when you took me.” He remembered now, the case of the missing dick! That’s where he knew her from. Street girl, sucking dicks for food money. His stomach turned. “Do I stink?” she asked.

“Well, honey, uh-Sara, you sure do.”

“You can call me honey if you want. I like it when you say it.”

Ed McCarley looked down at the carpet, embarrassed.

“It makes me feel like you ain’t gonna hurt me.” McCarley looked away, hurting inside for this poor human being. When he looked at her again he wanted to cry.

“Well, O.K. then. Let’s get you cleaned up” He stood and took her Coke into the kitchen. She followed him like a puppy, almost thoughtless devotion, he thought, maybe more like a child. He felt intensely uncomfortable as he went into the apartment’s only bathroom and turned on the shower in the bathtub, and he adjusted the water to warm. “Alright, Sara, you come on in and get cleaned up. There’s soap and shampoo in the shower. You take your clothes off and put them in that hamper,” he said, pointing at the white plastic basket next to the sink. “I might have something to fit you in my kids’ room.”

“You got kids?”

“Yeah, well, they live with their mother up in Oregon. I see ‘em twice a year now, but I have some of their stuff here; I’ll bet I can find something for you to wear. Now come on and get yourself cleaned up.”

He closed the door behind her, went to his kid’s room and found some generic sweat-pants and a couple of t-shirts. Socks wouldn’t be a problem, but shoes might be. He pulled out a couple pairs from the closet that looked like a ‘maybe’ and gathered them up and put them just outside the bathroom door. He called out to her, told her where to find the clothes and she answered “Okay!” He looked at his watch, phoned the D.A.s office, got shuffled around, then asked a clerk to look up some information on a Sara Wood, unknown DOB possibly 19 to 20 years old, arrested in May, he thought. When he was informed she was twenty he breathed a little easier. Not much, but a little. He asked if they had done any blood work, wanted to know if he’d been exposed to anything, then hung up the phone.

He sat in the living room, turned on the evening news which was, as always, full of news about terrorists and the Kardashians. He heard the water cut off, the shower door sliding open; a few minutes later he heard the bathroom door open and close as Sara grabbed the clothes he’d set out. “Can I use your brush?” she called out.

“Yeah, go ahead. Oh, yeah. There are some new toothbrushes in the medicine cabinet over the sink. Help yourself.”

About five minutes later she came out. There must have been a pair of gym shorts stuck between the t-shirts, because she came out wearing navy colored shorts, a white t-shirt emblazoned with an L.A. Laker’s logo, some white gym socks and an almost new pair of black suede Pumas.

Ed McCarley’s blood pressure went through the roof. The girl that walked out of the bathroom that day looked hotter than a firecracker on the fourth of July. Her hair was reddish-blond once the dirt and grime of the city had been rinsed away; it struck him in that moment she looked like a very thin Sissy Spacek. Suddenly his voice was shaking – and he looked away. “Well, how’d that feel?” He felt his face flushing – and very uneasy.

Sara Wood walked into the room and sat on the couch next to Ed McCarley; she obviously knew enough about the world, and the baser instincts of men, to understand the effect she was having on him. “That felt really nice,” she said with a smile, leaving him to drift in silence. She found herself looking at his forehead, and the wrinkles over his eyes, at his receding hairline, and his left eyebrow was twitching!

But Ed McCarley stood up and walked away, headed toward the bathroom. “If ya don’t mind, I’m gonna take a quick shower, then I’ll take you out to dinner. How’s that sound?” ‘And it’s gonna be a cold fuckin’ shower, too,’ Ed McCarley thought as he peeled off his jeans.

Sara Wood sat on he sofa, smiling. ‘So, he isn’t like the rest of them,’ she said to herself. ‘And he blushed! I hope he loves me as much as I love him!’

In Sara Wood’s world people either used you or killed you. But what about love? While Sara Wood knew what it felt like to be used, she was pretty certain she had no idea what love was supposed to feel like, because she was certain that in her entire life not one soul had ever loved her. And she had never loved anyone.

But something deep in her belly was connecting to a primal scream that crawled through her being now, seeking connection, desiring release. Sara Wood knew this was what love was supposed to feel like. When she saw him, that’s all she felt, and it felt good because that feeling didn’t want to hide in the shadows.

She got up from the sofa after Ed walked into the bathroom and closed the door. She heard the water turn on and walked around the apartment, curious what he was like. She walked into his bedroom, around the bed, looked out the window. As she turned to go back to the living room she saw some magazines under the bed, and bent down to look at them. She couldn’t read the words on the covers, but there were women on them, women with very few clothes on. She picked one up and opened it up; there were men sticking their things into women, women sucking on men’s things, women sucking on women – which she thought looked really funny, and laughed at – and all of the women were wearing weird stuff. She had never seen anything like what these women had on; not anywhere, anytime. She picked up another magazine, and another, and they were all filled with pictures like the first one, and all the women were dressed up in these silly looking costumes.

Ed McCarley finished drying himself off and cursed when he realized he’d left his change of clothes in his bedroom. He wrapped the towel around his waist, prepared to dash across the hall into his bedroom. This he adroitly did, only to screech to a halt as he saw Sara Wood sitting on his bed giggling at pictures in his stash of magazines. Like a deer caught in headlights, Ed McCarley froze.

But Ed McCarley had failed to appreciate the innocence harbored within this girl; she turned another page, completely focused on the new images, giving an appreciative ooh here and a stifled giggle there. At some point she became aware of Ed McCarley; she turned around to him and said, “Look at this!”

Ed McCarley, so rarely at a loss for words, was now speechless. He shook his head to clear his mind after a few more moments in the headlights, and as nonchalantly as he possibly could, asked Sara Wood if he could have some privacy while he got dressed. She grabbed a handful of the magazines and headed out of the room with them toward the sofa with the look of happily sated curiosity on her face! ‘Oh, brother,’ McCarley said to himself, closing the bedroom door behind her and wiping the band of sweat that had suddenly erupted on his forehead.

Soon they were headed back down the steps and out into the parking lot. He went up to a car covered with a heavy tan cloth and pulled the fabric away from the vehicle, revealing a tangerine colored Triumph TR6 convertible; Sara Wood squealed and clapped her hands as she looked at the car.

“C’mon, help me put the top down,” McCarley said, pointing to hooks and levers, giving her directions. They folded the top down, and he pulled a vinyl-canvas cover out of the space behind the seats and snapped it into place. He opened her door and showed her how to put on the rather complicated manual seatbelt, and shut the door behind her.

“Oh, this is so cool,” she said, happily drumming the dashboard in front of her. McCarley turned the ignition and the Weber carburetors feeding the little six cylinder engine kicked the beast awake. He studied the gauges while the engine warmed, doing his best to ignore her thighs all the while.

“Nothin’ like an old British roadster,” McCarley said as the car sputtered and burbled to life. “So,” he added, “you want dinner and a movie, or dinner and shopping at the mall?”

Sara Wood’s eyes went round as saucers. “The mall?” she exclaimed. “Could we…I’ve never bought stuff at the mall before.” When McCarley simply said, “Answers that question!” she just squealed again, and bounced up and down in her seat.

Ed McCarley backed the little roadster up and pulled out onto the street, heading toward a gathering of restaurants clustered around the mall nearest to his apartment. “Whatcha feel like eating?” he asked. He looked across at Sara Wood, her long hair dancing in the slipstream, whipping around in her face as she laughed at the experience of bouncing down an urban street in a roadster.

“I don’t know. Can you pick something out?”

They had dinner at a local steakhouse. He delighted in watching her fiddle with a ‘bloomin’ onion,’ and he ordered her – again at her request – a filet mignon, fully dressed baked potato, and a heaping bowl of creamed spinach. She wolfed the food down and McCarley was certain he could see a little color return to her cheeks. After they finished he told her they would get dessert at the mall, and she again clapped her hands and bounced in her seat.

He took her to The Gap, and she picked out some – to Ed McCarley – wild low-cut jeans and some equally “interesting” shirts to go with them. He also got her some khaki shorts and a white cotton polo shirt. They went to one of the athletic shoe stores, and she picked out some tennis shoes and some hot pink Converse All Stars, which she found especially “cool” and asked to wear from the store. They made their way down to the food court, where she ordered some pineapple sherbet in a small sugar cone, and Ed ordered the same thing. They gathered her packages from the counter and went to sit by a fountain under a huge skylight in the center of the food court.

Ed McCarley watched Sara Wood lick the soft sherbet in the cone, watched as her small clean tongue licked at it white cream, and he saw his penis under her tongue in a flash that was as suddenly, and disturbingly gone. He shook his head and bit through his cone, yet in his mind’s eye he was licking a chaste vagina. Again, he shook the vision from his mind. He looked at her and he saw abuse and neglect and a society that turned it’s back on people like Sara Wood, and all too often took a perverse pleasure in the pain and suffering caused.

He struggled to reconcile the two visions of her…

He saw the Sunday school hypocrites in his mind one moment, the one’s that complain about the tax burdens of helping the poor – as they dive past starving families on their way to a Sunday buffet at the country club. The he saw her in that alley.

And after twenty years on the force, he had seen it all a hundred times before. The incremental murders that suburban johns inflict on downtown runaways, and just then he realized he had seen them over so many years he too had grown numb.

He thought of fucking Sara Wood and it made him feel sick to his stomach; not that she was ugly or a turn-off, far from it. He looked at her open, guileless – and very cute face – then the thought of being the next cock in a long line of nameless cocks to be shoved down this poor unwitting girls throat left him dry inside.

If ever their was a victim of society’s hypocrisy and overt neglect, Ed McCarley told himself, here she is, sitting right next to me.

Sitting here in this mall, here sat one Sara Wood, poster child of the new American dream.

“Can we go look at more stuff,” she asked. The childlike aspect of her voice was in full bloom now, as if the prospect of having something to call her very own could erase the facts of the last twenty years of her life – hit the rewind button, and start recording all over again – and let her start her life all over again.

Given the morality-free void that she had obviously grown up in, perhaps it was remarkable she had the capacity to feel good about herself on any level, or anyone. But, more to the point, she now had a huge grin on her face, and she was happy in a way very much like his own children once had been. Her’s was an innocent happiness, a ‘for the first time in my life I’m happy’ expression of wonder.

They took off and walked down a wing of the mall they hadn’t seen yet, and she saw things she had never heard of – it was an infinitely bewildering progression of ‘stuff’ that most kids in this mall took for granted.

And she didn’t know how to ask for things, she had no experience with asking anyone for anything. She’d never had anyone in her life to give her anything; she had never been spoiled by a doting father or a caring mother.

He saw that it wasn’t just that things were out of reach; no, it was that there had never been anyone there to teach her how to reach.

She saw shiny iPods and had no idea what they were; the purpose of a laptop computer was a mystery to her. She saw posters of popular teen idols, and had no idea who they were, or why they were on a poster. The corridors of wealth were a mystery to her, simply beyond comprehension.

But as they walked along they came to a store that had mannequins in the windows dressed like the women in the magazines she had seen at his home. She stopped and looked at them; Ed McCarley looked embarrassed as he stopped beside her, noticed the locus of her attention. She ran inside, he looked up and groaned.

She ran up to a figure that was outfitted all in white, kind of like what McCarley thought might be Hugh Hefner’s idea of a bridal lingerie-slut outfit. “Can I get it?!” she exclaimed. A salesgirl came over and looked at Sara Wood, then at Ed McCarley – and she gave him a knowing smirk. Ed nodded at the salesgirl, sent Sara Wood off to be measured. She looked at another outfit that was very pale lavender and said, “Oooh, ain’t this pretty!?” Ed again nodded to the salesgirl, who solicitously added, “Would you like to see some shoes, Miss?” When Ed McCarley walked out of the trashy lingerie store she was outfitted with the whole regalia; garters, stockings, pumps, bras, panties, ‘you name it,’ Ed thought, ‘I bought it.’ He shouldered the load and carried her loot to the car. They made their way to the Triumph and stashed her clothes in the trunk, and headed back to Ed’s apartment as the sun set.

He carried her packages up the stairs, into his apartment. He paused, thinking about what had been bothering him all evening long, and made a decision. He took her packages into his kid’s room and put them on the top bunk, then went back out to Sara, who was standing in the doorway. “Do you live somewhere I can take you?” he asked.

She shrugged her shoulders, looked uneasy.

“Listen, Sara,” Ed McCarley said, looking her in the eye. “If it’s none of my business just say so, or if you feel I should just shut-up, just – tell me, Okay? My kid’s only come here for Christmas and Easter; their room is empty the rest of the time. If you want to live here, with me – in their room – for awhile, until you can figure out what you want to do, well, it’s yours if you want it. You won’t have to worry about eating, or getting new clothes, or having a place to sleep. Okay? I just have a couple of rules.”

Sara Wood was looking at the floor, because she didn’t have the words for what was streaming through her mind.

“No drugs, no booze, no friends hanging out in here when I’m not around. Clear? You keep yourself clean, and your room picked up, and I’m going to figure out how to get you into school…”

Ed McCarley was cut off when Sara Wood ran into his arms at full speed, he put his arms around her as she started trembling, then crying. He kept his arms around are and stroked her hair, saying little things like ‘shhh, it’s going to be all right’ and ‘it’s okay baby, it’s okay.’ He held her until she was spent, until he could feel her relaxing in his arms. She looked up at him, he looked down into her very tear-streaked face and kissed her on her forehead. “It’s okay baby, you’re home now,” he whispered. “You don’t ever have to worry about falling down again, because I’m gonna be here to catch you.” He held her face in his hands and wiped away her tears with his thumbs.

“Can I ask you something?” she said.

“Yeah, sure.”

“What’s your name?”

A blank look came over Ed McCarley’s face as he thought back to that day. ‘I gave her my card – oh, God, of course, she can’t read…’ He shook his head and laughed. “Yeah, darlin’, I guess you should know my name. Ed, call me Eddie, okay?”

“Okay, Eddie.”

“Now, let’s get those teeth brushed, and get you off to bed.”

After he had her tucked into the bottom bunk in his kids’ room, he flipped out the light and closed the door. He went into the living room with a rum and coke, and sat down with his feet up on the coffee table. He reviewed the decisions he had made in his mind, which was a problem, because he had made the big one with his heart. He thought about Sunday School hypocrites; he thought about Sara Wood lying curled up and unconscious in an alley with a beer soaked bloody cock in her mouth. He thought of the dividing line between right and wrong, the gray area – the no man’s land caught between absolutes of good and evil – where his feelings for this girl lay.

He leaned forward and put his head into his hands and cried, and Officer Ed McCarley cried for a very, very long time.

She was a child…

No, she’s not…she’s a woman…

You’re just taking advantage of her…

So, maybe she’s taking advantage of me…

And finally…

How will she grow past this if I treat her life a child. She needs to be treated like an adult…

He was lying in his bed a couple of hours later – on his back, eyes wide shut. There was no way he was going to get to sleep, he thought, glad for the three day weekend he had. He tossed, turned, struggled with his emotions, then…

Suddenly, quietly, the door to his room opened. He saw Sara Wood silhouetted in the doorway, her long straight hair falling over the t-shirt she had gone to bed in. She walked in slowly, and sat on the bed, looking at Ed McCarley’s face.

“Eddie?”

“Yes, Sara.”

“I don’t want to be your kid.” She was speaking with a tremor in her voice. “Ya know what I mean, Eddie?” When he was silent for a moment, she went on. “I want to be in here with you, Eddie. You said you wanted to take care of me; well, I want to take care of you, too.”

“Eddie, say something, please?”

He sat up in bed, pushed himself up on his arms and flinched as an old shoulder wound bit into the present, and he cried out.

“What is it, Eddie?” she said, plainly scared at his reaction.

“It’s nothing. I got shot once, and some nights it hurts me.”

“Can I see?” she asked. She slid forward on the bed until she was close to McCarley at the head of the bed. She reached out to touch his shoulder and he flinched, slid away from her.

“Please,” she pleaded, “don’t run away from me, Eddie.” She reached out again, touched his shoulder. She rubbed her fingers on his skin, probing and stroking. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she continued. “Promise, okay?”

Ed McCarley felt an electric tremor pass from her fingers to his skin as she touched him; he felt this tremor on his shoulder, and he felt it boiling up from his groin, into the small of his back, up his spine. He tried to look away, close his eyes, but he felt that the worst thing he could do right now, do to the very fragile Sara Wood, was reject her, hurt her again in some new, unexpected way. But he knew he had to control the situation; all of his training commanded that he control the situation.

Sara Wood felt the fragility of her own sense of control, and his, too. Yet from the moment she ran her fingernails over Ed McCarley’s shoulder, then across to the back of his neck, she knew she could control the music of his heart.

“Turn over, Eddie, turn over and lay on your stomach for me.” Ed McCarley slipped back down into his bed, turned over onto his stomach.

‘A good, safe position,’ he thought.

She continued to scratch his shoulder lightly, running her fingernails in little circles, moving over to his neck, running her fingers through his hair, scratching and rubbing his head gently. He felt her moving, felt her move to sit on him, sit on the backs of his thighs. He felt her pubic hair on his skin then, felt warm dampness spread on his skin. He felt her lean forward, put her hands on his back between his shoulder blades, begin to rub his back with the open palms of her hands. She put strength into her movements, rubbing from the middle of his back with both hands, moving up to his neck and out along his shoulders. After a few minutes of this he let out a deep sigh. She retreated down the same slope with her fingernails, current flowing down his back as she moved, and he saw the feeling as a brook meandering through sun-dappled fields.

Sara Wood kept rubbing his back, his shoulders and neck, for what felt like hours. Every now and then Ed McCarley sighed “Oh, God, this is heaven,” and “That feels great,” until he once said, “Oh God, you feel so good.” With that said, with that opening, Sara Wood leaned forward and slid her arms under Ed McCarley’s arms and cradled his soul in hers, put the side of her head on his back, just below his head, and she nuzzled her face on his back. She then kissed his back, moving her tongue up and down his spine, ran her hands over his outstretched arms, tracing little eddies in the flow of her currents. She then sat back up, and slid down until she was sitting on the backs of his thighs again. She scratched his back as she slid, scratched where she had been sitting, scratched the warm-moist slick where her vagina had rubbed against his back. She lightly ran her fingernails over his buttocks, felt him tense in the ticklishness of the silvery motion, then she rubbed his butt coarsely, soothing the currents out and away into the charged atmosphere of her intentions.

Ed McCarley felt Sara Wood as she moved down his back, felt the weight of her need, and he felt the weight of his desire for her growing with each stroke of her hand, each warm breath of her’s on his back. With the tension that melted from his knotted muscles, with each pulse of her beating desire, he felt his resistance to her withering within the ever-slowing heartbeats of time. He moved from the world of his training, his profession, into the dim gray world of the dividing line.

And then she asked him to turn over.

Ed McCarley felt the conflict between his head and his heart. He saw his ex-wife looking at him, fellow officers in the department shaming him, store clerks and fast food cashiers casting little sidelong glances; all of them looking at him, judging him.

She lifted from his thighs as she felt him beginning to turn.

He turned his body under hers, struggling to make sense of this new world.

She straddled his belly now, just below his chest. She reached behind, reached for Ed McCarley’s groin, ran her fingers through his pubic hair, moved her hand purposely towards his need.

Ed McCarley’s entire body stiffened as her hand made contact with his belly. He felt her hand as it moved down, as she encircled him.

Sara Wood held him and stroked away his fear. She continued to look intently into Ed McCarley’s eyes. She saw the smile on his face, an echo of her own, perhaps.

Ed McCarley felt her sliding away from his face, away from his chest. She was sliding down through time, down to infinity. He felt her pubic hairs as they traced faint electric contours on the charged surface of his need.

She still had him in hand as her vagina hovered, wraith-like, pulsing, above his groin. She lowered herself slowly, gently, until she felt the head just grazing the petals of her lips. She reached with her fingers and spread them apart, leaving a faint pink opening that seemed to reach of it’s own volition for the straining loneliness below.

Ed McCarley felt the heat of her folds radiating throughout his body, and he arced to meet the vast, oceanic pull. He felt his skin and her lips, felt her lips parting in supplication, conforming to the shape of their need. He moaned as her warmth penetrated the darkness, as the wetness of the moment flowed across the fabric of time.

She felt the head of his cock as it’s rim slipped past the rings of her vagina, and rise into the waiting arms of her womb. The muscled walls of her vagina gripped his cock in rippling waves., and she fell down, ever downward, onto the base of his cock, thrusting back, driving her clit into his groin. She was daring time to interfere with this moment.

He drove his cock into her as she sank down on it, felt her contractions as the tightness of her vagina defined his progress through her womb. She began to lift, the speed of her rise not tentative, clamping down on his cock as she climbed to the light of heaven.

The arc of time stands still, looking down on two lovers. Time does not judge, does not weigh motive or intent. If the infinity of time can be measured between two beating hearts, when two lost souls collide and dance in molecular fury, this was the moment of time’s choosing.

Time fused in the heat of love’s release, bathed in the light of this new passion’s uncertain wisdom, and time laughed with them – if only for a while.

+++++

October 7th

Ed McCarley, sitting in the watch commander’s office, Central Division sub-station; there are knots in his burning stomach, a acrid-tight sensation boiling deep within his gut, spreading to his chest. The watch commander, an old captain named Thomas Hardy sits opposite; Hardy has been in the department more than thirty years, has been at the job even longer than MacCarley. His close-cropped hair is silver, his stomach still flat as a board. Both men look very careworn; there is a large bottle of antacid tablets on the watch commander’s desk, next to a cluster of photographs of a woman and several children. On the watch commanders lapel is a small gold pin that states clearly, in bold letters: “Try God.”

The watch commander has a file folder open in front of him on the chipped plastic-laminate desktop; a cigar smolders away in an gleaming amber ashtray off his left hand. He continues reading the documents in the file, occasionally back-tracking to a previous page to double check a fact or relate to some other bit of information. There are moments when he stops reading to rub the bridge of his nose, then his closed eyes.

The files detail an incident that had happened the day before. McCarley had responded to a call in an affluent neighborhood to back up a unit on a suspicious persons call. He had arrived just moments after the first responding office, an old friend named Alan Simpson. He had seen three very sweaty, and very dirty, Latin American men standing by the street, their hands in the air. Simpson had his Sig-Sauer P-226 drawn, and he was yelling at the mute and visibly very cowed men. It was obvious to McCarley that the men were mowing a nearby lawn, yet Simpson was treating the men as if they were subjects of a felony drug bust. There were also several women standing in the doorways to their houses, looking on with barely sated curiosity. McCarley was still off balance as he watched Simpson; he must have missed something, maybe some resistance before he arrived, but what? His training explicitly told him to back up his fellow officer, no questions asked. But McCarley was concerned that the level of force on display was getting excessive, even out-of-hand.

Simpson holstered his weapon, but he swung the night stick out of the loop on his belt with his left hand and moved toward one of the men.

McCarley now acted instantly. He jumped between Simpson and the man, who by that time had backed down and was cowering on the ground, crossing himself and crying “Madre de Dios” over and over. McCarley looked into Simpson’s eyes and saw blind rage: it looked like the depths of hell had boiled to the surface of some private inferno, that Simpson was getting ready to beat the man to death.

In a guttural whisper McCarley said, “Simpson, get it together.”

Simpson tried to push McCarley aside…

“Alan! Get the fuck out of here. Now!”

Something caused Alan Simpson to pull back from the edge; he shook his head, cleared the fog, and walked back to his squad car. Simpson tore away from the scene in a hail of flying gravel and exhaust fumes, leaving McCarley and the Mexicans standing in the street.

MacCarley checked with a few witnesses – the women in their doorways were more than ready to talk – then let the men resume mowing lawns and picking weeds. No suspicious people found, no burgled houses reported or observed. He had called the watch commander on the telephone a few minutes after he cleared the scene, told him what had happened. The commander told him to come down to the station and write up a detailed summary of the event. That had been yesterday afternoon.

Now he was back in the W/Cs office.

“Anything you wanna add to this, Ed?” the watch commander asked.

“No, sir. I think that about covers it.”

“Well, this is a goddamned mess. Lots of civilian witnesses came down to fill out complaints. Even so, it’s probably going to have to go to the DA, civil rights violation alleged, no probable cause. It’s good you came to me with this stuff when you did. If you hadn’t, you’d burn to.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You know there’s gong to be some pretty heavy fallout headed your way. Lotta the guys aren’t going to like you doing this, not at all. Don’t get me wrong, Ed, it was the right thing to do. Just watch your back, okay?”

“Yes, sir.” He knew this would happen; it always did. You break ranks, you pay, so Ed MacCarley stood to leave. “Thanks, Tommy.” They had been friends a long time.

“Yeah, okay Eddie. I mean it, watch your back.”

+++++

It was a little after eight in the morning. A trace of cool just edged into the air, stirring faint echoes of autumn into the still city air. Ed MacCarley walked around his squad car giving it a once over, checking for any overt exterior damage, then he checked the Remington 870 shotgun, first to see that rounds were up the tube – and that there was a round in the chamber. There was another much younger officer walking around the black and white Chevrolet behind him, looking as though he was taking mental notes and not just a little perplexed. The young man with Ed McCarley was that most dangerous of all creatures on Earth, a rookie police officer – one just out of academy.

Ed continued to point out things in the car to check for, like the correct functioning of the lights and siren, spare rounds for the shotgun in the glove box, the proper operation of the radio. Tire pressures, fuel gauge, cones and flares for accidents scenes. Ed asked the rookie if he had his clipboard and enough report forms to get through the day. And of course the rookie didn’t have squat, and had to be sent back into the station to retrieve everything he’d forgetton.

McCarley shook his head, opened his briefcase, took out a bottle of antacid tablets and unscrewed the lid. As a training officer it was his job to get the rookie up to speed fast enough to be useful, but not so fast the rookie would be more dangerous then he already was. The long favored method for breaking-in rookies was ridicule and derision, then build them back up after breaking through the ‘macho he-man gotta badge and a gun’ mentality. He brought the bottle of antacids to his mouth and poured several tablets into his mouth and started chewing. ‘Ah, breakfast…’ he thought as he crushed the cherry flavored chalk with his teeth.

Ed strapped himself into the passenger seat and started getting settled in for the days work. He turned on the radio and set the frequency to the division primary, checked the tactical and intercity frequencies for normal function. He logged into the computer, checked the secure computer-to-radio hookup. He picked up the radio’s microphone from the console, and pushed the transmit button on the upper side of the mic.

“2141, radio check,” he said into the microphone.

“2141, you’re five by five. 2141, are you in service yet?”

Ed looked around, saw the rookie headed out of the station back to the squad car. He wondered what the rookie would forget next. “2141, 10/4.”

“2141 10/8 at 0817 hours. 2141, signal 4b, 3601 Hollandale, see the resident.”

“2141, en route.”

“2141 en route 0818 hours.”

MacCarley scribbled notes on his DAR, his Daily Activity Report, then yelled out the window to the rookie, “C’mon, Meathead.” Rookies were really a pathetic life-form, he thought. “Let’s try to hit the streets sometime today, OK?”

The rookie got into the car. “What, we got a report already?” When he saw his training officer nod his head he said, “Aw shit, man, that sucks.”

To which MacCarley replied, “Well, Meathead, when you live in a sewer, you’d better get used to the stink.”

“C’mon, Ed. Do ya have to call me Meathead?”

“No, Meathead, I don’t. But you don’t want to deprive me of one of this job’s few pleasures, do you?” MacCarley turned his head and smiled at the vacant stare hanging in the air. “And I’ll tell you something else, Meat. You call me Ed one more time today and we’ll have to get you to county, and fast, to get my boot out of your stupid ass.”

“Yessir,” Meathead replied, now as if at attention.

“So, 3601 Hollandale, sig 4b. Remember what a 4b is, Meathead?”

“4b? That’s a rape?”

“No, Meathead, but you’re getting closer. A barking dog complaint, Meathead. Quick, hit the lights and siren!” As the rookie reached to switch on the lights and siren, MacCarley swatted the kids hand away from the console, shaking his head as he growled. ‘Pathetic,’ McCarley thought to himself. “Well, okay, sometime today would be nice. And I don’t feel the need to run code 3 to a barking dog call, OK?” He paused, let the sarcasm sink in. “Hollandale. Well, Meat? Think you can find it?”

The rookie started the squad car and swung it out of the station’s lot northbound onto Grand Avenue. MacCarley sat in silence. Hollandale was south and west of the station. ‘Oh God,’ he thought, ‘it’s going to be one long mother-fuckin’ day.’

+++++

A little after five thirty that afternoon McCarley and the rookie walked back into the station and turned their day’s reports over to the evening shift sergeant. He sat with the rookie while the sergeant checked the reports for errors, then, after the final ‘okay’ was given, they headed back to the locker room. McCarley felt the chill in the briefing room, and as he walked to his locker; there was a piece of paper taped to his locker door; “Pig Fucker!” was written across the note in big red letters – and there were several – apparently used – condoms stapled to it. McCarley left the note taped to the locker door as he changed out of his uniform and into his jeans. He put his gun belt in the old academy gym bag he’d been using for almost twenty-five years, and zipped it shut, then walked out of the station and headed to his apartment. He never looked back at the rookie; the kid sat dumbfounded in front of his own open locker, looking at the stapled rubbers like they were a dead dog hanging from his training officer’s locker door.

+++++

Ed McCarley climbed the steps up to his apartment, and went to door number seven and slipped the key into the lock. He turned the doorknob quietly and opened it, walked into his apartment, the apartment which until so recently had been such a dim, lonely place. As he turned toward the living room he heard, then felt Sara running at him, saw her leaping through the air for his arms. He turned in time to catch her, gave way a little bit under the momentum of her impact. He felt her legs wrapping around his hips, her arms around his shoulders, her hands in his hair. He turned and pinned her body between his and the wall, put his arms around her waist, and their faces met in an explosion of hot breath and wet kisses.

It had been almost the same every day since that first weekend in June. Ed McCarley had thought that the force of her love for him would diminish, but it hadn’t. He had felt that her thirst for intimacy would diminish, but it did not. And Ed McCarley had for a while lived in fear that this miracle of God named Sara Wood would simply vanish, that the whole miracle of her smile and laughter would turn into a empty dream. Yet it had not. Every minute of every day that he spent with her was a gift, a priceless bestowal of time. Such is the nature of destiny, the measure of love’s hold on the human heart, that Ed McCarley had committed himself to this dramatic course of action and never once looked back.

Ed McCarley ran his hands down Sara Wood’s lithe body, and he smiled inwardly as he felt the lingerie and the stocking tops with his starving fingertips. He kissed her with even more passion, felt the room around him dissolving into sweat-filled mists of open mouths and healing hearts. He fell under the weight of their combined need, the burden of her escape from poverty by now a cold memory. She played her heart’s strings only when he was gone from her, and when he walked in that door he fell under the weight of destiny’s undeniable call to love Sara Wood, and he fell slowly to the floor as he cradled her in his arms. He fell weightless, through mists of hope and fear, came to rest on top of her, between her legs. They seemed to kiss for eternity, his hands moving over her body with practiced ease now, finding her hands, holding them as if they were the forge of his redemption.

She rolled on top of him, laughing with a child’s joy at the conjoined mystery of his need and the salvation of his offering. She felt him growing under her frail weight through the rough fabric of his jeans and reached down to release him. As she fumbled with his jeans Sara laughed and kissed his face; she grew more aroused and in love with each breath she took. She was so hungry for Ed McCarley’s love that food had become unnecessary when she was with him.

And then in that sudden silence all her own, she was poised above him. Poised above the arrow of his need, her lips brushing the tip of his cock as she slid lightly back and forth, teasing the head with each grazing stroke. She kept her hands flat on his chest, her eyes languidly locked on his. As she danced above his need she could feel the warmth releasing from deep inside her belly and spread slowly within her loins. The heat and the wetness coated the walls of her womb, rolled down to the straining cock below. She lowered herself gently on each successive stroke, controlled his entry with her descent.

He could feel the warmth, the fury of her impending need, as she lowered herself on him, and he took her hips in hand and began to guide her motions. Forward, back, and twisting; he moved her from front to back in motive bursts. Sara began to gather speed, her up and down stride stormed toward the full fury of release. Soon two bodies were fused in the consuming rhythm of their heat, each building to single release, their unique fusion of fear and desire always carrying them higher.

After they were spent and lay quietly in each others arms, only then would all her vast uncertainties come to the surface. The call of her past was still a vast shadowland, a huge swath of fear and loathing that still came unexpectedly from time to time, though not as often. Sara Wood lost focus on the present in those moments, lost her grip on the here and now, and when they found her she was soon confronting images of other men in her mind’s eye, other tongues probing warped desires. Today she wilted, she looked at Ed MacCarley and knew she was not worthy of him. With peaks of ecstasy receding in an instant, she felt implosively exposed and began to cry.

She found her shadowlands again, and fell into the darkness.

McCarley felt her unravel in his hands, and he met the extremity of her need with insight born of years on the street.

He held her.

He let her go to the darkness and despair, visit it, touch it for a moment.

And just as quickly he pulled her back, let her feel only the vague outlines of her fear. Now he kept it from consuming her. He pulled her closer to him, held her tightly, told her that he was with her, and would be with her for as long as she wanted him. He felt her relax.

“Want you!?!” she cried. “All I want is you. I die every morning when you leave, Eddie. Want you? I get so afraid…”

“Tell me what you’re afraid of, baby. Tell me again.

“That you won’t come back. That one day I’ll be alone again. I don’t want…I can’t…” and she to the music of her private symphony of despair.

“You’ll never go back there, darlin’,” Ed said in velvet soft whispers of reassurance. “You don’t have to worry about that anymore. I’ve taken care of all of that, Sara. If I die tomorrow, I’ll still be able to keep you from going back there. But, now listen to me honey, I’m not going to die tomorrow. I’m not even going to work tomorrow. As a matter of fact, darlin’, I’ve got a pretty big surprise for you tomorrow. But part of that surprise? I’m not going to work for almost three weeks; you and I are going to be together all that time, and I’m not going to leave your side for one second. Not even when you take a shower. And guess what, that’s where we’re going, right this red hot minute.”

She climbed from the shadows, the shadowlands of her past.

She looked at him, true wonder in her eyes, wanting his words to be true.

Hoping they would become, not merely be, and she looked back into the shadows and wondered…

Does the future cast a shadow all it’s own?

And might a very certain past cast a shadow so dark, so unambiguously deep, that no future can break free of it?

+++++

October 14th

Ed’s tangerine roadster bounced down the interstate, top down and sun shining, Sara’s light red hair streaming out over the trunk as the engine hummed along. Ed McCarley held the steering wheel in his left hand and Sara’s hand in his right. She would sit quietly for long stretches, looking out at cows in fenced pastures or at an airplane flying overhead. Then she would turn her eyes to Ed.

“Thanks, Eddie.”

“For what, Darlin’?”

“For all this,” she said, waving at the sky. She began to tear up and laugh. “This is such a nice way to live. So far away from…”

Ed could, even after so many weeks together, just barely imagine what her life had been like, and a part of him wanted to shut that part of her past away forever. But that wouldn’t be true to her grief, to her understanding of the world, or to the world he wanted to make for her. To help her hide from that past would only cause her to feel shame, shame for a life that had not been her fault. Running away from her wounds would build a wall between his love for her and her acceptance of his love, would root their relationship in a lie. In Ed McCarley’s world, his world of streets and alleys, lies were everywhere, the fount of hatred and violence, of recrimination and accusation. Love couldn’t live in those shadows.

“You know I love you, don’t you, Sara?”

She nodded her head as she looked at him. “Eddie, I’ve thought about this a lot, what I feel for you, what I think you feel for me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt these things before, Eddie, so I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like. But I know how I feel when I’m with you. I know that when I’m with you I feel like the world is going to be alright, that I am going to be OK. I feel all warm inside, Eddie. Does that make sense?”

He nodded his head. Yes, it did very much.

“If you feel anything like that, then I know you love me,” she said as she squeezed his hand and looked away, not wanting him to see her tears again.

Always ashamed. Always afraid. He was an answered prayer, but the shadows were so deep.

+++++

They crossed a very high, very long bridge, and in the distance, off the left side of the car, Ed pointed out the ocean. Sara’s eyes went wide with astonishment, almost fear. There had been many unknowns in Sara Wood’s life, and she had been pretty good at confronting them when she was physically able, but she wasn’t prepared for the blue-green infinity that defined this new horizon.

The little Triumph exited the highway and turned to the ocean, and Ed steered the car toward a forest of white trees that lined the ocean just ahead of the car. Sara had never seen anything like it. Shiny white trees! Ed pulled into the parking lot, a forest of cars – then she saw the trees again, beyond restaurants and colorful buildings. They put the top up – “in case it rains,” Ed grinned, then he got out and went around to help Sara out of the car. He wanted her to feel that way, that someone should and would go out of their way to do little things for her. He wanted her to appreciate other people who were nice to her for no reason. Life needn’t always be a calculation between fight or flight, that love meant the little things, too.

They went into the restaurant, and it smelled like nothing she had ever experienced. They were taken to a table on an outside deck that overlooked – not trees, but boats! Sara looked out over a vast island of sailboats, their white and blue hulls gleaming under a clear, bright sun. She heard the sounds of a working marina for the first time in her life; the slapping of halyards against masts, seagulls wheeling through the air, looking for food. She looked at families coming and going up and down the docks, mothers and fathers and children who, by and large, looked happy and carefree. She took in the scene with a sense of jealousy and sorrow, but also with wonder in her heart.

“I would give anything…” she started to say, but her voice trailed off. She pushed down the anxiety, the flood that lived in her shadows, waiting. “Eddie, this is so nice…” yet her voice drifted away, again.

“Hey darlin’. Let’s eat first, then maybe we’ll take a walk, go down to the water and see what we can see.”

“Would you order for me, Eddie?”

“Do you want to try fish?”

“Had tuna fish before, a sandwich. Will it taste like that?”

“No, probably not, at least if we’re lucky it won’t. Leave it to me, darlin’.”

Sara watched boats putting up sails and catching the wind, heeling over, and soaring out over the water like magic birds. There were a handful of boats running off to distant horizons, and  these Ed McCarley watched intently.

+++++

After lunch Ed took Sara down to the marina, and they meandered slowly along, drifting in their own currents among the rich and the not so rich, the pretenders and the old salts. Ed pointed out this type of boat and that type of rig; he knew it meant nothing to Sara, but he wanted to fill the silence that had enveloped her; keep her mind focused on the present.

The piers that went out to the boats were behind locked gates. Sara wanted to look at some of the boats, pointed to one every now and then, saying they were pretty or cool or “wouldn’t that be nice…” and Ed just held her hand as she rambled, then he would tell her what kind of boat that one was, read the name on the transom aloud. Sometimes he would have to explain what a name meant; and there were the names he didn’t understand. They came to a spot where they could look down at a pier, and Ed pointed out a nearby white sailboat that had a deep green stripe along the top of the hull. There was gleaming teak all over the boat, and it had teak decks that made it look like a little ship, brass portlights in sleek oval shapes, and green canvas over the sails and on the cushions in the cockpit.

“What do you think of that one, Sara?” Ed MacCarley asked.

Sara Wood stared at the little ship, at all the gleaming brass and chrome and the glowing teak that accented the lines of the boat and covered the deck. “Ooh, Eddie, ain’t it pretty. What’s it called?”

“Well, lets look at it for a second. You see the letters on the side, near the back? See if you can say them along with me. A- W- A – K – E – N. That spells Awaken, which means to wake up after sleeping, or to be reborn – out of an insane existence. Kind of a neat name for a boat, huh?”

“Ooh, I wish we could see it inside. I wonder what looks like inside.”

“Well, let’s go and see if we can take a look.” He walked down the ramp toward the gate and took out his keys; then he opened the gate. Sara Wood looked truly lost as she followed Ed down the ramp.

“What are you doin’, Eddie? You’re not, you didn’t pick the lock, did you?” Eddie was holding the gate open for her, and he motioned her through. They walked to the boat; it was the first one on the pier, and he stood there looking at her, a quiet smile of private amusement on his face.

Ed walked over along the side of the boat until he came to a gap in the lifelines; he un-clipped the line blocking the way and let it fall.

“Eddie, Jesus, what are you doin’? We’re gonna get in trouble.”

Ed McCarley stepped on board. He held out his hand to Sara.

“No way, Eddie. I ain’t going to jail.”

He just kept his hand out, enjoying this little moment completely. “Come on, honey,”

Sara Wood looked at Ed McCarley, then suddenly, she got it. She flew across across time and  space and into his arms.

“Welcome to my home, Sara Wood. Our home.” He held her trembling waif-like frame in his arms and accepted the gales of kisses that flew into his soul at the speed of a sigh. He whispered, “Oh, God, Sara, I love you so much, so much…” into her ear over and over. The young woman in his arms went very quiet and still after a moment, then looked up at him.

“I love you to, Paul Edward McCarley.”

“Then spend your life with me, Sara Wood. Marry me.”

Sara Wood recoiled from the shock she felt. Ed just held her, caressed her face, watched in awe as a tear formed in her eye, watched the tear swell and roll down her cheek. He moved his face to hers and kissed away the tear, held her face in his hands, smiled into her eyes.

He took a little light blue box out of his pocket and opened it up, showed her the simple white gold wedding band he had chosen for her. “Marry me, Sara Wood. You’d make me the happiest man that ever lived.”

“I…I’m not…good enough…for you…Eddie,” she said as a wave of tears engulfed her.

He continued to hold her face in his hands, stroking her cheeks and her tears with his thumbs. He looked at her with a different expression, spoke in a different voice, “Sara. Listen to me, listen very carefully. When two people say they will marry one another, it’s a solemn promise before God that they will protect one another, that they won’t run away from one another, or do anything to hurt the other. That’s what I’m promising to you, Sara. That I’ll always be here by your side. That I’ll never leave you. That I’ll love you as much twenty years from now as I do right this very moment. And one last thing.”

Ed was visibly shaking now. “There is one thing in the world that I am afraid of, Sara. That’s the thought that I might wake up some day and find that you’ve gone, that you’ve left me. When I think of that, Sara, it feels like I can’t breathe. If you leave me, I think I’ll die. My love, you are the most important person in the world to me. I love you with all my heart.”

And Ed McCarley was crying now.

Sara Wood clung to this man through gales of passion, felt him tremble as he came to blows with his own doubts and fears. “Oh Eddie, oh Eddie,” she said as she felt with her own awakening sense of wonder the power of love to rule the human heart. “Eddie, I love you too. I do. You’ve been my savior, my…”

Ed pulled away from Sara Wood, pulled back far enough to look into her eyes. “Oh, Sara, I don’t know how to tell you this…I’m not your savior. You are my savior…you saved me from…” He fell to his knees, hugged her thighs, his face buried in her hips. He felt the release that comes from understanding a critical event in life, of moving beyond the pressure of doubt. “Oh, please, God. Sara, don’t ever leave me.”

She felt this hold on her heart and she embraced it. She knelt beside him, cradled him, rocked him in the sway of her body. “Oh, Eddie.” She kissed the top of his head. “I’ll never leave you, Eddie. If you really want me…Oh, Eddie, I Love you and I’ll marry you and I promise I’ll never leave you.” She felt his shaking sobs throughout her body.

‘How did I save him?’ she thought to herself, lost in the terms of an equation she didn’t understand. ‘That doesn’t make any sense at all…’

They sat in the cockpit of the little sailboat for hours, holding each other tightly. As evening returned the man held his woman to his breast, cradled her in the warmth of his need – and his passion. As darkness enveloped them, he opened the companionway that led down into the little boat, into their home.

+++++

October 17th

Awaken motored out from behind the stone breakwater and turned into the breeze. Ed MacCarley quickly hoisted the big main sail above the cockpit and cleated it off. He turned off of the wind a bit as he shut down the engine, and Awaken bit into the wind, heeled ever so slightly to the gentle breath of the Earth. Ed next unfurled the big sail, the genoa, on the forward part of the boat, and just as suddenly Awaken bolted as if she had been spurred in her flanks. She heeled dramatically and tore into the wind. Ed dashed back to the wheel and took the helm.

Sara Wood was huddled in a calm corner of the cockpit, wrapped in a cocoon of sweatshirts and fleece pants. Her arms were outstretched, holding onto grab-rails, but she was laughing with the sudden exhilaration of flying. She stood up, holding on to the railings which seemed to be everywhere, and stuck her face squarely into the full force of the breeze. Her red hair stood straight out from her head, parallel with the surface of the sea, her eyes began to swell with tears, not from anguish or joy, but from the simple force of the wind. Awaken dove down into a trough between waves and threw a huge wall of spray into the air.

Sara watched the airborne water arcing through the air as with outstretched arms, daring it to find her. This was not, however, a particularly wise move, as the wall found Sara with little problem. Ed heard her squeal as the water cascaded down onto her, into her clothing, drenching her almost completely. Ed laughed as she turned around; she looked both surprised and happy, like a wet, floppy-eared puppy. He bore off the wind a bit, eased the sails out, calmed the motion of the boat. He switched on the autopilot and dashed below to grab Sara a towel and a fleece lined wind-breaker.

Sara toweled her hair as best she could, wrapped the towel around her neck. She sat back again, looked out over the rear of the boat as it danced away from the shoreline. Ed kept the autopilot engaged, magically produced a mug of hot chocolate and handed it to her. She took a sip, surprised at the heat of the liquid.

“What is this?” she asked.

Ed hid his surprise – but caught himself. “Special sailor’s brew, darlin’. Secret recipe. We call it hot chocolate.”

“It’s a secret? Why, Eddie?”

“‘Cause every body would want to drink it all the time, darlin’. But don’t worry, we got plenty.” He remained at a loss sometimes, at her vulnerability to humor and the other things he took for granted; what might be funny in one set of circumstances to one person could be painfully uncomfortable for her, bring on a set of reactions that would unsettle her, send her reeling into the shadows. He despised the paternalism of his little lie, tried to will away his own shame within veils of innocent humor.

Sara sipped the hot chocolate, lost in the complexity of the brew – and the world around her. It was all so unreal. One day slipping from the shadows, taking care to remain out of sight as she dug through garbage cans looking for food, or some useable piece of clothing. She remembered that day, the day the pissy-smelling guy had hit her, the guy whose shrimpy little dick had stuck in her mouth as she fell. She had gone to the hospital, then to jail. Then she was back on the streets, and all she knew was that an Officer McCarley had kept her from going to prison.

She had walked from police station to police station looking for him, but had never found him. She had slipped back into the shadows by then, slipped back down into the world of hunger and dumpsters and the prison of the shadowlands.

And how all of a sudden he had been there, right in front of her, and then he had taken her to lunch. Oh, sweet Jesus, she thought. How could she ever explain to him that she been searching for him all over the city, walking, looking, hoping. She had felt his caring embrace as she wretched and heaved her guts in that alley, felt him pick her up and carry her to the ambulance, how he followed her to the hospital, saw to it that people helped her. He had cared. Cared – for me?! So, that’s what it feels like! She thought of sleeping on the streets on summer nights, how she would look up at street lights, watch bugs circle pale yellow glows in the sky.

That’s what being cared for feels like. And once you feel it – you’re drawn to it – just like those bugs up there.

She looked at him sitting beside her in the little world of his sailboat, felt her love for him, saw his love for her in his every gesture, in every thing he did. He had tried to explain to her last night, but she couldn’t understand, really, why he thought of her as his savior. What had he meant when he said he had lost his humanity, that he had lived in a sewer too long, and that he would have fallen into darkness had she not come to pull him back into the world of the living. It hadn’t made sense, but she believed him. Then he had made love to her so tenderly, with such soft reverence, she had felt her soul glowing, she had felt her body dissolve. In the warm glow of Awaken’s belly she had felt the ropes of her own insane existence fall away. She had felt some new being emerge from within, felt an awakening.

“Eddie?”

“Hmm?”

“Why did you name the boat Awaken?”

He thought about the question for a while, then turned to her. “You like music?”

“I guess.”

Awaken is the name of a song, a pretty old song I guess, from the 70s, by a group called Yes.”

“Why that song? Why not, like, a Beatles song, or, well, I don’t know too many music groups. One of the foster homes I lived in, the mother played Beatles songs all the time. I remember a song called The Long and Winding Road, she played that one all the time. I can still hear the music, too, and the words.”

“Oh, I’m not sure I can explain the feeling, Sara. There was a time when I believed in the goodness of men, and that song seemed to explain all of the infinite possibilities of what our world could be if people embraced love, explored the connections we share with everything in the universe. Anyway, the song lasts forever, and most people lose interest in a song after a couple of minutes. But Awaken was, to me, like a sailboat; the music drifts along through currents of time, and then it builds into this explosion, pulls all of the various themes within the song back together, makes it whole. I kinda hoped this boat would be that song for me, that she would help me pull all of the pieces of my life together, make it whole again.”

Sara thought a minute. “I understand that, Eddie, and you know, sometimes when you talk to me about things like this, well, it sounds like you’re trying to protect me from something. You don’t have to, you know. I’m pretty strong.”

“Yes, you are. And I love you so much.”

She smiled, kissed him again, then looked into his eyes. “Could we listen? To the song?”

“Yeah, I’ll play it tonight. Sometimes the words are kinda hard to understand, and you need to be in a quiet place.” He just smiled.

+++++

They sat in the cockpit, watching the sun set through a wall of distant purple thunderheads. Awaken sat at anchor in a small, secluded bay; there was only one other boat sharing the little hideaway. Ed had made a dish he called spaghetti carbonara, made with egg yolks and bacon, and lot’s of cheese, and she liked it – but thought it was weird. She sipped her first glass of wine, a sweet wine from Germany. They sat after dinner playing with their wine, taking small bites of apples and cheese. Soon Sara leaned back, leaned so that she was using Ed as a chair. He enfolded her within his arms, and they sat in silence as the sun crept down to the sea, as the air grew cool. Little darts of lightning shot across the distant clouds.

Ed and Sara had come to that special place lovers share where words lack the capacity to convey the specificity of meaning within a sigh – but the soul understands perfectly. They had found the place where you go when you lean against your lover’s back and feel their heart beating through your chest, feel the pulse of life beating through the airs of time, and their beating heart is yours, too.

Oh, just in silence, silent waves curled through time, so precious was their love.

Ed pulled a blanket over her dreamlike form, felt her breathing slow as soft darkness made it’s way into this heaven sent air. He felt her relax, then fall, fall deeply into sleep.

He felt the tears building in his heart, felt his prayer reaching from the depths of his soul to the heavens. ‘Thank you, God. Thank you for bringing her to me.”

A little before midnight she stirred, woke up. She looked up into the night and gasped out loud, waking Ed from his light cop’s sleep.

“What is it, honey?” he said, his voice full of sleepy concern.

“What are…are those stars?”

Ed sat up and looked at the dome of the heavens. It was totally clear; the distant thunderstorms had evaporated with the setting sun. High in the October sky, the Orion constellation blazed in distant fury, Betelgeuse and Rigel like fiery beacons reflecting off the still waters of their little secluded bay.

“Yeah, darlin’. Those are stars. And a couple of planets, too.”

“Really!?”

He started pointing out the night sky, took her to Jupiter and Mars, showed her the big dipper and Polaris. Finally he guided her back to Orion, to his belt, and he described the sword that hung from it. He pointed out the huge fuzzy patch in the middle of the sword, and described the violent birth of hundreds of stars that was happening right before their eyes, deep within the Orion Nebula.

“How far away is it, Eddie?”

“Real far, darlin’. It would take billions of years to get there if we walked! If we could move as fast as light moves, it would take 1,500 years, maybe more.”

“It must be cold out there,” she said.

“Uh-huh. Until you get close to a star.”

“But I sure feel warm right here with you, so I guess you’re my star.” She turned around on the narrow cockpit seat and kissed him. They sat huddled together cheek to cheek, occasionally kissing, for several minutes. “Eddie?”

“What is it, sweetie?”

“Could we listen to the song now, then would you make love to me?”

They moved below, within the cloudy nebula of Awaken’s belly, her wooden interior barely glowing from the single oil lamp that burned in gentle refrain. Sara Wood sat inside Ed McCarley’s warm arms, the side of her face resting on his shoulder.

She jumped as a burst of piano music shattered the darkness, then felt her body relax into the gentle voice that sang of the sun, of being, and just as suddenly the music dissolved into chaos, music from a different time, a different place. The music was jarring, unsettling, like a storm tossed dream – full of anger and confusion. Like how she felt when she ran and ran and ran…

The music rolled through valleys of touch, crashed in sudden shifts within the dream, then the music seemed to be at an end, only to be reborn, and build again in other distant dreams. Soft interludes lapped at the shores of the song-dream, then folding in on themselves, they gave way to more violent spasms of, what, a nightmare?

But the music kept moving toward light, building towards its awakening, and exploded like an orgasm as light and fury poured into her imagination, only to once again fall into the soft gentle voice…

‘High vibration go on

to the sun, oh let my heart dreaming

past a mortal as me

where can I be…

Wish the sun to stand still

reaching out to touch our own being

past all mortal as we

here we can be

we can be here…

Sara could feel Ed’s tears on the side of her face, could feel him, lost within the words, swaying in the currents of his music. As if time had given way to the music, she felt her body join with his, in the afterglow of a dream.

“You were standing close to me, weren’t you, Eddie? When you found me, I mean.”

“Yes, I was, darlin’. Because we were always meant to be together.”

+++++

October 28th

It has always been a simple fact of life that the better you know who you are, the more you know what you want.

For Ed MacCarley, he knew after spending two weeks on Awaken with Sara, he was a wanderer, that he felt destined to wander the byways of his heart and soul with her, but further, that he could no longer face life on the street. He knew the realities of convention too, knew the scorn a man his age would reap with a 20 year old girl as his wife. He knew what would happen if he tried to blend into to the social world of his fellow officers.

And a funny thing happened.

He wasn’t ashamed of his decision to love Sara, that he could never be ashamed of her. He felt sorrow, for people who would condemn her, and him, without understanding either his capacity to see through walls of shame, or Sara’s infinite capacity to forgive. He felt shame when he thought of those same self-righteous people driving past all the other ‘Sara Woods’ hiding in the shadows – without even once noticing or trying to understand all the pain and suffering around them. Where was human compassion? Where had the ability to simply care for fellow human beings gone? Tax cuts were all that seemed to matter these days. A bigger house, a bigger car, a bigger black hole where the human heart used to live. He had been in churches recently where preachers castigated their flocks for not earning enough money, equating one’s earning power with one’s godliness. Ed had watched with utter astonishment as people wrote out checks for hundreds of dollars to this con-man, and then the con-man preacher had driven away after the service in an S-class Mercedes Benz!

That’s Love? That’s Christianity?

No, what concerned McCarley most was Sara would be unjustly branded with shame by these self-serving jackals, that she would feel pain – simply because she didn’t understand their world better. There was, McCarley knew, no better victim for this society to attack than a truly innocent victim. Especially if the victim was helpless.

So until she could make these distinctions on her own, Ed felt comfortable with the paternalism of his choice to protect her. She was a primitive in her way, certainly not by choice, but a blank slate, nonetheless. And while he felt confident in his ability to lead her to a place where she could stand on her own, he was not at all sure of her ability to stand up to people who would only too gladly shove her back down into the darkness of their apathy.

And so, on the way back to the city, MacCarley was facing the music of choice, choices that were the consequence of his actions – but shaped by his understanding of society’s aboriginal hypocrisy. When you stripped away the veneer of civilization, what grew visible within the grizzled flesh of humanity was a truly vast and horrible capacity to inflict pain. Defy conventions and suffer. Suffer, and you will be crushed. The further you fall, the harder they try to end you.

In this juxtaposed, and angry, frame of mind, he sat lost in thought as clouds gathered and rain started to fall, yet he was very much aware of the gentle-fragile being next to him. Every protective instinct Ed had was focused on her survival, and the role he would play in her rebirth. Her awakening. All his years on the street had left that vision sharp and clear.

He guided his little Triumph through heavy traffic on rain-slick streets until he reached the apartment, but as he turned into the parking lot he felt something wasn’t quite right; instinct alive now, warning flags started popping left and right.

Ed unzipped his gym bag as he parked the car, picked up the little stainless Walther PPK/s he carried as a backup, leaving his holstered revolver inside the bag. He looked around, noticed a car out of place, a man walking in the bushes. “Stay in the car, Sara,” he said as he opened the door.

He stepped out into the drizzle.

Almost immediately she heard an angry man’s voice yelling, yelling at Ed McCarley, and she saw another man step out of the bushes. She saw the gun rising in the man’s hand . . . saw the drunk hatred oozing from his eyes…heard him yelling “They fired me, you mother fucker” as he pulled the trigger. Sara Wood saw flame barking from the man’s pistol.

Ed McCarley had seen his old friend Alan Simpson emerge from the bushes, and had momentarily relaxed. In that infinite moment of uncertainty – the moment when uncertainty averts it’s eyes to betrayal – Ed MacCarley lost his edge. He hesitated.

He heard Simpson’s anger, but could not understand the words – time had slowed so dramatically in the milliseconds of dawning awareness that only instinct had time to command reaction. His little Walther rose to meet the challenge.

Ed MacCarley could see Simpson’s pistol recoiling, see the flame as it boiled out of the barrel in slow motion. He could see the bullet spiraling towards his chest. Days later, it seemed, he could feel the burn spreading out across his left shoulder as the bullet tore through flesh, could feel his body spinning under and away from the devastating impact. He felt his head bouncing off the pavement, could see the vibration of the world as his head came to rest.

Ed McCarley watched as his friend Alan Simpson walked to him, watched him as he lifted the gun up, up towards his head. He tried to say hello, but he felt light-headed, sick to his stomach. He watched, fascinated, as his friend continued to yell at him. ‘I wonder what he’s saying?’ McCarley thought as brightness settled in all around him.

Alan Simpson knew his friend was dead when the first bullet struck, but he wanted to finish the job properly. As he walked over to Ed MacCarley, he was focused on the revenge he had been planning for days. He did not see the young girl in the car, did not see her digging around on the floor in front of her seat. He did not see her as she flew out of her door, or as she leveled the huge Smith & Wesson 44 magnum at his head. He never heard the hammer as it arced back under the pull of Sara Wood’s finger, or as it slammed home, igniting the cartridge in the cylinder. It is doubtful he ever heard the roar of the gun, or felt the silver-tipped hollow-point bullet as it tore into the left side of his neck.

Maybe he heard a fragmented voice off in the distance, heard the fury of the girl’s words. Heard her calling him a mother fucker again and again. By the time the girl fired the remaining five bullets into pulpy mess of the man’s head, there was no Alan Simpson left to hear or see or feel or hate or love.

There was no sun.

There was only darkness.

Sara Wood dropped the gun and flew to Ed’s side, cradled his motionless head in her lap. She looked up at the sky and screamed. She was screaming as the ambulance arrived. Screaming as paramedics ran to Ed’s side.

She screamed as they pushed her out of the way, back into the shadows.

She screamed as hundreds, thousands, millions of police cars and ambulances arrived.

She was frantic. She tried to remember the words.

‘High vibration go on…’ 

‘And you were standing next to me’

She watched as the men over Eddie tore away his shirt. One of the men stuck a huge needle in his arm.

‘And you were standing next to me’

She stared in mute horror as another man took a knife and stabbed Eddie in the chest, then stuck a pair of funny looking scissors in the hole he had made, leaving a long rubber tube dangling from his chest. Another man was putting a mask on Eddies face as blood oozed from the tube…onto the pavement…

‘And you were standing next to me’

“And you were standing next to me,” Sara Wood yelled. “Eddie! I’m here! I will never leave you.”

She ran after him as they lifted him into a helicopter that had just landed in the street, and she watched in horror as the machine lifted into the sky, leaving her there, silent as the world raged around her.

+++++

November 7th

The department Chaplain stood outside Ed McCarley’s hospital room with Thomas Hardy, Ed’s friend and watch commander. They talked quietly about the old days, about honor and duty and the things most important to their world. About life and death, about all the funerals for officers and friends they had been to. And funerals yet to come.

Ed sat up in the hospital bed, a tangled mass of tubes and leads sprouting from every arm and leg, from his penis, and all over his chest. His eyes were half open, and he breathed on his own today, after seven days on a respirator.

Sara Wood sat in a chair next to the bed, asleep, her head almost face down on the bed, next to Ed’s hand. The last words she had heard from him were to ‘stay in the car’. That now felt like a lifetime ago, an echo from another world.

She had been sitting in the chair next to him since he had come out of surgery, which had lasted almost fourteen hours. At some point in time over the last few days she had stopped crying. She had held his unresponsive hand in hers for so long it had started to cramp, and a nurse had rubbed the cramps away for her. Hardy brought her a little machine that played music, and he had shown her how to play songs on it. She had learned quickly, and learned how to use the uncomfortable things over her ears, as well.

She only listened to one song. Day in and day out.

“Oh, Eddie. Come back to me,” she whispered. “I’m here, Eddie.”

She felt his fingers lift off the bed, find her hair.

She froze, wanting to believe what she had felt, afraid to find that she had imagined it.

Distant fingers rose like the sun to her hair, drawn close by the infinity of chance.

He felt…what? Her hair? He felt her hair, knew the texture of it in his heart.

What is that smell?!

God, my mouth is dry.

It’s too bright, can’t see.

He felt the world move, and then she was there. She was looking at him.

“It’s O.K. Eddie, I’m right here. You’ve been fighting real hard, but you’re gonna make it.”

“Hey, partner!”

Is that Tommy? What are you doing here?

“Man, buddy, you’ve given us one hell of a scare. But you’re doing better, ya know, its gonna get better every day.”

It’s okay, Tommy, just relax, willya?

“I’m going to leave you two together now, partner. But I hope you know she saved you, Ed. She’s just been an angel. Now, get some rest, I’ll bring some of the guys down tomorrow, okay? And, hey, Meathead sends his love.”

He looked up at Tommy as he left.

He drifted in and out of currents of time, afloat as a leaf down a gentle stream.

He felt something slip over his ears, something warm.

He felt his soul come alive as the piano burst into his ears, heard the voice.

As involuntarily as he now breathed, he felt tears of remembrance dance across his eyes.

Sara Wood watched as the music played across his face, watched as he drifted into that place he went. She watched the music of his life play across the love in her eyes, and she understood now that with love comes pain.

But maybe it’s through both love and pain that we grow.

Ed McCarley drifted through the music of that other world, soared between peaks of human experience, gliding through sun-swept airs of sweet sleep on the gentlest of wings. He held himself to the warmth of her love, to the light in Sara’s eyes. He could hear the music of her smile, feel the touch of her skin on his soul. He felt the dream yield to the rush of music, felt the moment of his birth among the stars.

He felt the moment of his awakening. To her.

It was when I saw you there, curled up on your side, in that alley.

He looked up into her eyes. They glowed in amber light.

How did you know I needed to be saved?

And, I would never have guessed you were an angel. Oh, my love.

+++++

December 21st

A little airliner touched down in Las Vegas on sunny morning, and two souls, once upon a time two lost souls, walked through the terminal and out to the street. They walked to a huge, flaming pink Cadillac and crawled through the parted front seat into the back. The two souls talked to the man and the woman in the front seat as they headed off into the city.

They came to a little chapel. The two souls and the man and the woman walked into the chapel, down the aisle as music payed. They came to the end of this road as two, and stood before the Man of God, waiting to be united.

The Man of God was wearing a huge-collared white leather suit, his big, black hair slicked back, standing there in outrageous sunglasses and platform shoes.

The Elvis-God read the words of passage, and the two souls repeated the words, looking into each others eyes, looking to the eternal innocence of pure love as their salvation. They kissed, they looked at the man and woman, their friends in this life.

“Thanks for doing this, Tommy,” Ed McCarley said to his friend.

“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world, Ed.”

The two men shook hands, hugged one another. The women hugged for what seemed a long time, and the older woman kissed the younger woman on the cheek, told her to “take care of that man.”

Two souls – now one. Lost in time’s embrace, setting out on the next journey, together.

Hand in hand, they walked away from what had been. They walked now to what might be.

“Wait, Eddie, I wanted to thank that preacher,” Sara McCarley said.

Ed looked over his shoulder. “Well, that ain’t gonna be happening, darlin.”

“Why not, Eddie?”

“Well, because, darlin’,” Ed McCarley said, “Elvis has left the building.”

©2005-2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw

+++

As always, thanks for coming along, and yes, this story is the nucleus around which my first attempt at writing a novel is built.

The Closest Thing to Heaven

This is the first short story I wrote, ever; it’s a memory about a little gal I met one afternoon in Hanover, NH. She was a sweet thing, the best ‘best friend’ one could ever have. Ten times smarter than myself, she could sit under a tree and fire off complete passages from Milton’s Paradise Lost, so of course she became a physician – after finishing law school. Stage 4 breast cancer. I found it, too, and she started writing poetry again. Saying goodbye was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My dad passed a few months later, then my second Springer; by that time I was a total wreck. Writing became my way back.

+++

The Closest Thing to Heaven

‘I remember most the way you walked, the soft swing of your hips, the confidence in your eyes. And your hair, too, so brown it was almost black – until the sun danced there, just so. Then, I don’t know, the reds and golds of autumn lived there for a moment, shielding your face as you walked along. I first saw you one October afternoon as you walked from the old red brick classroom building, the one by the library, through the trees to your dorm. That awful thing that looked like a fortress, to keep out the boys, I reckon. You remember your freshman year, when you were in your black phase? The old black cable knit sweater that hung down to your thighs, the dark olive corduroy skirt, the black tights. That sweater’s still in our closet, but I guess you know that. Why keep it all these years, unless? Did you know, did I ever tell you I fell in love with you that afternoon? I used to keep an eye out for you – for your legs, really – as we walked from class to class. I hoped I’d get to see you in the cafeteria or the library, and it was a bad day when I didn’t, darlin’.

‘I know I’ve told you this story a hundred times, but that day after psych class, you remember, when we’d gotten that silly assignment to interview other students about their reactions to pictures from magazine advertisements? I remember walking out of class behind you and asking you to wait up. I’d been looking at you – well, daydreaming about you – for an hour. I remember asking you if you wanted to work on the project together. I remember exactly how you said ‘yes,’ the feeling of elation. Then how we’d talked in the library for hours about the assignment, what kind of pictures we’d use, how to write the best questions – to draw out the most depth. I felt that we were coming together, not just for that assignment. I’d look down at your crossed legs as you were looking through magazines, at the fabric of those black tights, how it stretched over your knees, let your skin peek through. I felt so human when I looked at your skin, and I don’t know how to say this, but I felt my humanity for the very first time.

‘I’ve wondered ever since if you felt me looking at you. I’d wanted to be close to you, because – I knew you were the closest thing to heaven even then.

‘Do you remember our first date? That old white M-G convertible, the one with leaky top? I can still smell that pizza place in the village, where we talked so many nights away. I know you do to, but even so…sitting in that booth in the back where everyone had carved their initials on the walls? The hearts and the arrows, all of us shooting through time. I wonder if our hearts are still there, in the wood? God, how we laughed and licked frozen rims on icy mugs of root beer, then you leaned over and kissed me. I can still feel my face burning, turning as red as those tablecloths. I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach as we drove back to campus, how I tried to find a spot in the parking lot where no one would see us. When I turned out the lights and we just sat there for a minute, when we were not sure what to do but absolutely certain we knew what was going to happen, the anticipation – you remember, too? I thought my skin caught fire when you took my face in your hands. And as our faces were drawn together, the things that we said. Remember how steamed up the windows got, inside that little car? We must have kissed  for hours, but it wasn’t long enough. Never was…

‘I can still feel the knot in my stomach, the night I got that funky old room in that motel on the highway out of town. How you snuck in later, after I’d already gone in, and how both felt so tense, unsure of ourselves. Boy, we sure fooled the world, didn’t we? Funny, but I think we felt like kids pretending to be grown-ups, don’t you? What I remember most was when you sat on the edge of the bed and took off your sweater, how my lower lip startled to tremble when I saw your skin in the dim light of that room. The bra you wore, oh my God, how I wanted you. I watched you as your little skirt dropped to the floor, how you flipped your shoes off and left your tights on because the room was a little cold, isn’t that what you said? I remember how silly-shy I felt as you asked me to come and lie down next to you, how I wanted to crack a joke or say something to relieve the tension between us.

‘But I remember how you guided me that night. How you guided me into your embrace, guided my hand along your clothes. How I could rub you and feel the silky hair under the clean white cotton that covered your legs, and how you moaned when I discovered the contours of your passion. How very hot and wet everything became – so suddenly.

‘It felt strange leaning above you, my penis in your hand. Leaning into you, into your deep embrace. Feeling the warmth of your breath on my face as I got closer to you, as you got ready for me. I will never forget the feeling, when I first touched your moist folds, how the world opened up to me, how we so easily joined. I remember how it felt when your legs and feet first encircled me, pulling me closer, pulling me deeper into you. You know, it feels like that night happened the day before yesterday, but I guess eternity feels like that.

‘And oh, that first release. Oh, my love, how our hearts joined that night. It’s seems funny-sad to me that people these days, well, they must be different from us. I think we both knew that night – yes, right then and there – from that moment on we would always be together. I always felt that, after that night, we weren’t two people anymore.

‘Somehow we became one.

‘I guess that sounds silly, but there you go.

‘It seemed to me that for months I’d get sick if I wasn’t holding your hand – or at least talking to you on the telephone. Yeah, darlin’, I know it’s silly, but sometimes, when I was away for awhile all I could see when I closed my eyes was you – waiting for me. I’d get lost as I thought of your legs parting, feeling your breath on the side of my face. But it’s funny now, when I think back I really just wanted to lie beside you, look into your eyes. Yeah, I know it’s goofy. But it’s a simple truth, the truth that bound us together.

The old man seemed to draw into himself, as if a cool rain was falling and the air was closing in. He hadn’t talked to his wife about these memories in years.He looked at her, knew it had been too long, knew they’d both spent too much time chasing tomorrow. So much to lose, he sighed, when we forget to talk about the honest, easy love we have.

‘Remember, just before the wedding? How my brother slipped me a nip of whiskey from his flask – because I was so jumpy? How we danced that through the night, always so close? What I remember most is how excited we were when we got to the hotel, so excited we talked through night. Too jazzed for sex, until you saw the sun rise? Yeah, I know, it was all just little stuff, but they were our dreams, weren’t they?

‘You know, it’s funny and I know I never told you this before, but I think I remember the exact moment we made Elizabeth. You remember that night, don’t you? The wind was howling and trees were brushing against the side of that old house on Davis Street, rubbing against the windows? It was like the earth wanted to get inside with us, take a part in her creation. I guess we both wanted her so much she knew it, she must have heard us calling out to her all the way from heaven.

God, how you screamed as she came out of you, I thought you were going to break my hand into a million pieces, and there I was, camera in hand shooting away. It was either that or pass out. God, how strong you are. How much I loved you while I watched you fight through it all.

‘I remember you always wanted a boy. I know, darlin’, me too, but we were lucky that God didn’t call you home that night. I never wanted you to be sad, but we got through it all, didn’t we? It just makes Lizzie that much more special. And you’ve got to admit, we must have done something right. I don’t think there’s ever been a sweeter, prettier girl. Well, of course, not counting you, darlin’.

The old man stood beside his wife, holding her hand in his; there were tubes and leads attached to her, machines that had until just minutes ago connected her breathing life to his, to the life they shared. She lay in the sterile bed, silent now, and motionless. She still looked up at the old man with quiet, content eyes. Presently a woman dressed in green came into the room and began to disconnect lines and tubes from the woman, his wife, moving around the bed, attending to the realities of her passage. 

‘Well, darlin’. I want you to go and rest now. I know you didn’t want to go, that you didn’t want to leave us, but I’ve got to stay here a while longer, see that our little girl will be alright. Yeah, darlin’, don’t you worry, you go on – I’ll be along shortly.’

The old man held his wife’s hand in both of his. He bent down, with effort, to kiss her hand with all the love a lifetime could remember. A younger woman stood by his side, holding his arm in her hands, her tear-streaked face a mask of fear and despair.

“Daddy,” she said, “we can stay, as long as you want.” She was silent for a long time, looking down at this woman, her mother. She still cried, quietly, restrained, and then – as a memory came for her, openly, more freely. “Oh, Daddy! Did she believe in heaven?”

“Oh, Lizzie, I wouldn’t worry about that,” a father said to his daughter. “Your mother was the closest thing to heaven that ever lived. I reckon if she doesn’t go to heaven, well then, heaven will just have to come to her.”

‘And wherever it is you’re off to, darlin’, don’t you worry. We’ll be together again.

©2005-2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw

Dockside

Been thinking of this story for a while, first posted on Literotica almost nine years ago. Consolidated, revised, tweaked here and there, this is another one of my favorites.

Dockside

+++

Birdie, rest a little longer,

‘Til little wings are stronger,

So she rests a little longer,

Before she flies away.

Tennyson, Sea Dreams

+++

Not far from the Tower of London, a few hundred yards at most and flanking the old city, there is a small marina, and actually, as marinas go, it’s a decent one. A bit of a chore to get to – fighting mad tides up the Thames and all – but I’d heard it was worth the effort. Anyway, with winter coming on fast I needed to find a place to sit-out the cold, and, not speaking Dutch and my French ludicrously unused for decades, London seemed an interesting, even a safe choice.

I was wrapping up my summer sailing through the Baltic – alone, as had been my choice of late; after crossing the Atlantic in June I spent my first week in Scotland, crossing west to east through the Caledonian Canal, then crossed the North Sea to Denmark. From Copenhagen I sailed up the east coast of Sweden, and near Stockholm entered the Gota Canal, where we (that is, the boat and I) sailed through pine forests and fairy-tale villages for a ten days before emerging on the southwest coast of Sweden north of Gothenburg, and quite near the Norwegian border. We found time to drift westward, to Oslo, but as our days grew shorter and the breezes cooler it was becoming apparent that the time to head south was upon us. I considered Norway but soon knew that was out of the question. Shoveling snow off the deck just to climb down to an ice covered dock, then marching off through knee-deep snow in order to pay two hundred grand for a beer? No; Oslo was nice, but not that nice.

All that needed be done, really, was to make a simple decision: London, Paris, or Amsterdam. So? Flip a coin? Nope. Draw straws? I didn’t like the odds. How about pure self-centered fear of being lost on a subway at three in the morning, and having to rely on language skills last seriously exercised when LBJ was in office?

Fear wins every time. So yeah, three cheers for intestinal fortitude.

With that decision out of the way, I found myself motoring up the Thames in late September and locking up St Katherine’s into a marina that was not yet – thank you, God – full; I signed a six month lease and set about cleaning up the boat. This meant getting her ready for winter, and being in the middle of London without a car promised to make this thrilling endeavor a royal pain in the ass.

You take a lot for granted when you live shore-side. Water, electricity, fuel for heating and cooking – these things are all handy, indeed readily available and right there whenever you need them: you’re either hooked into the grid or these things are delivered right to your door, and you rarely question their availability. Not so when you live on a sailboat. Not so at all, even on a good day.

So, yeah, life is radically different once you cut the industrial umbilical, and just to spice-up your life a bit, once you leave North America you find you can no longer simply plug into the nearest outlet and charge up the batteries. No, the electrical systems overseas are totally and destructively incompatible with our own. Alterations and modifications need to be made, and these take time, and, well, cold weather is always in the back of your mind – and all this time money makes this whooshing sound as it’s sucked out of your jeans. But it’s little things like this that makes cruising such an interesting pain in the ass, and therefore, or so I’ve been told, worth the effort. Everyday is full of unexpected surprises. Some are even more surprising than others.

The marina in old London is almost completely surrounded – and closely so, I have to add – by large buildings, not to mention the aforementioned Tower of London, which is, as I’ve added, literally just a stone’s throw away. Apartments, restaurants, businesses of every kind – all a big city’s amenities just a stone’s throw away, and right there outside your companionway. If you’ve thought of living aboard as an exercise in nomadic isolation, well, no. I suppose it can be once you leave a city behind, but life in a big-city marina is often the exact opposite of isolation. And September marked one full year living aboard, so I was (somewhat) used to this conditional definition of privacy. Let me explain.

While making the boat ready for her Atlantic crossing, I spent a couple of months living right under the patio/deck of a Hooter’s restaurant; and this restaurant was about a quarter of a mile from the end of the local airport’s runway. A typical Friday evening was interesting, to say the least, and in any number of oddly amusing ways – not least of which was the constant noise that accompanies large numbers of drunk men pursuing large-breasted waitresses dressed in shiny spandex leggings. Jet’s are always coming and going too, their whining roar coming in waves every two minutes, typically accompanied by Madonna belting out ‘Like A Virgin’ over and over and over again, and all week long, too. But of Friday evenings there were about fourteen hundred stockbrokers and construction workers up there, all tossing down Budweisers and chicken wings on the terrace – just above my boat. And all of them, each and every one of them, trying to talk their waitress – that cheerfully harrassed girl with the gazangas just marginally smaller than the pointy end of the Hindenburg – into a quick trip to the head…for a quick lesson in sword swallowing.

So, if you would, please, try to play this out in your head: jet approaching, engine noise building to a roar as the aircraft passes just overhead – and, oh yes, for an extra-added thrill, imagine a 757 passing about forty feet above the top of your boat’s mast – then the noise fading, fading, and then – ‘Like a virgin…ooh…for the very first time…ooh…ooh…’; the testosterone on the terrace is sloshing all over the place while reaching critical mass (think: China Syndrome, industrial reactor accidents, etc.), so with beer bottles clinking, chicken wings flying (over the rail and onto the deck of your boat), and all just in time for the next jet to come roaring just overhead, you’re sitting in your bunk at midnight, too pissed off to even think about spanking the monkey, when a half eaten chicken wing makes it’s down the overhead hatch – and lands right on your face.

Say what? You know how you’d feel right about then, right?

Unfortunately, I’d signed a three month lease, and so to this day whenever I hear ‘Like A Virgin,’ I instinctively duck behind the nearest large fixed object or simply run like hell, knowing an incoming barrage of chicken wings can’t be far off.

London, I assumed, is not Florida.

No, London is louder.

And the people talk funny.

And this came as something of a surprise to me. I’d visited before, so thought Londoners (all toughened by the blitz and having watched Margaret Thatcher on television for a decade) were still a rather placid lot. You know, gray-faced men wearing bowlers, carrying umbrellas and briefcases down to The Tube, riding with stoic faces out to anonymous red brick houses in towns with names like Last Farthing and Clinched Buttock, all quiet and orderly and pleasant.

So sorry, Mr Yeats. Things fell apart. The center did not hold.

When I first arrived in London and turned into the marina, I saw a Hooters and instinctively ducked. Fortunately, however, I was assigned a space well away from that august establishment. As I tied off in my slip, I could barely hear Madonna.

I was safe. Or so I thought.

+++++

As it turned out, I was now downwind and in the flight-path of a new, rather upscale French bistro. Nice Mediterranean terrace, nice menu, nice tables on a nice stone patio overlooking my nice slip in the nice marina, nice big umbrellas shaded the patio on sunny days while really nice candlelight cast cool shadows on everything at night; an undoubtedly nice string quartet played sumptuously nice music somewhere distantly in the shadows. A very Nice establishment, if you get my drift. You could buy a nice new Volvo for the price of a nice dinner up there, or so I soon heard.

So, my first night in London I was confronted with either Hooters or the Nice Place. The thought of eating wings again weighing heavily on my mind, and being a modestly adventurous sort, I thought the French place was more my kind of place. Perhaps in time I’d be pelted with snails swimming in garlic butter, but so what. Garlic, I assumed, had to be better than Tabasco.

That’s how life goes when you jump out of your routine and into the fire. How do we get used to choosing between bad and the unknown. And how do we grow comfortable with such lousy points of view.

Well, enough philosophy.

No, let’s talk physics for a moment.

Yes, Physics. You remember, of course, that heat rises? Well, odors don’t rise, as a rule, they sink like a stone and spread like lava, and I assume garlic simmering in white wine and butter has a specific gravity somewhat heavier than plutonium. Quail turds in a tartly amusing glaze of delicately expressed panty-liners with pommes et raw sewage? Nope, that’s heavy too, sinks like a real big stone.

And the point I’m trying to make here is…?

Well, the French place I was so innocently close to cooked all night long, and everything coming out of that kitchen smelled divine. Really great, as a matter of fact, and trust me on this. But, ah, physics! All those heavenly smells, all that garlic and wine and butter – and all so delicate and rich and of so immensely heavy – was destined to fall. Fall into whatever lay below. Which in the instant case was right into my boat. And not to labor a point here, but the odors sank right onto my bunk in the forward cabin. And even more directly to the point, right down onto my shiny bald head and up my twice-broken but still imminently functional nose.

Which wasn’t really such a bad thing that first night, and perhaps not even for the first week after my arrival. I got used to flaming goose turds ala orange, and even the linguini in a delicate limburger cheese sauce. No, really; I did. Then one night the garlic, the fennel, the basil – all of it swarmed and attacked like a herd of mad penguins and in pure panic and desperation I sought out some hippie hideaway off Piccadilly Circus and stocked up on incense.

Patchouli, sandalwood, essence of camel crotch – anything, really, to fight the nonstop wave of nouvelle cuisine that was bombarding me all evening, every evening – save Monday. Big sign out front: Closed Monday. Thank God. They were, however, open for lunch weekends. Life here should have been grand, yet here I was, drowning in a white wine and garlic cream sauce. I walked down sidewalks and labrador retrievers started in on my ankles, and when I rode on the tube people started sniffing the air, wondering just who or what the hell had crawled on board.

And you’d think the food, rather the stench of this place, would have been enough torment, but oh no, not on your life. This place had so much more to offer. On the pleasant, rather too warmish Indian summer nights the south of England was enjoying that year, everyone, it seemed, wanted to sit outside on that nice stone patio. And who could blame ‘em, really. Not me, certainly. It was – dare I say it – very Nice out. So all these Nice people have been working all day, go to their Nice homes in the evening and change into Nice clothes, dump on liberal quantities of Penhaligon and Chanel or, for all I know, a little Eau de Muskrat, and head out for a Nice dinner – right over my bunk.

Know what?

Perfume, cologne, eau de whatever? It sinks. Sinks like the bird-turd in a martini.

Sautéed snails testicles and l’eau de muskrat; from five to midnight — the only reprieve coming from passing thunderstorms and the odd cold front. No way to escape the fumes without shutting down the hatches and port-lights and turning on the a/c, and that was where the incompatible electrical system bugaboo came into play. It was going to take time to get all the pieces of the puzzle sorted out and functional, so come 1700 hours it was either close down and steam in a patchouli-soaked mist – or go for a stroll. A nice, seven hour stroll.

London’s a fun city, especially after a year sailing, for taking a stroll. Let’s just say I enjoyed those little walks a lot and leave it at that, and every time I walked by that bistro I cast little sidelong death-rays as I walked by.

+++++

I’d come in early from one such stroll, and though there was a huge party in progress inside the restaurant, a storm was in the offing and the winds were picking up. By the time I made it to my slip all the boats were rolling and the party up above was in high gear. A halyard had worked its way loose on a neighbor’s boat and its shackle was playing “Ina-Gadda-Da-Vida” on it’s metal mast, so I went over and tidied lines up – and then mine came loose. A hard gust shook the marina, and boats rolled and clanged while I dashed back to my boat. I was up by the mast lashing down lines and making fast loose ends when I heard someone on the terrace up above saying something I assumed was cute and sarcastic, and I don’t know why but I looked up, expecting at any moment to have a sherry poured down my shirt, or be pelted with goat’s testicles.

There was, instead, a well dressed man standing by the railing; looking rather like James Bond, as a matter of fact. One ankle crossed in front of the other, casually leaning on the rail with martini in hand (though probably stirred), by the look of his (unmoving, even in this wind) salt and pepper hair, and he appeared to be about fifty – and I don’t know why but he looked filthy rich. Maybe it was the diamond-encrusted gold Rolex that gave him away. Anyway, he was looking at me.

“Sorry,” I said over the wind. “What was that?”

“Quite a blow tonight,” the man said.

“I’ve heard that rumor. Yes.”

“We’re having a party up here. Come on up.”

I looked down at my mangy boat-shoes and salt-encrusted shorts. “I’m not really dressed for it. Besides, I wasn’t invited.”

“I’m inviting you. Come on up.”

“Pardon me, but who are you?”

“Ted. I own the place. The party’s going to go on hours, so you might as well join us. Besides, there are some fun people here.”

“Right.” Pardon my French, but I’ve heard that one before. “Thanks, I be up in a minute.”

+++++

The place was full of all the right people, I’m sure. A cool jazz quartet in a far corner and two open bars, tables of food and the conversation – oddly enough – not too loud. An interesting crowd in a woolen-tweedy way, very academic looking sorts; older men, obviously pretty well off by the looks of things, younger women, obviously well endowed in a physical sense, more than a few single and on the prowl.

Odd.

Very few older women, very few rings on fingers.

A couple of the women gave me an appraising – and dismissive – glance before turning their attentions back to the assembled men while I wandered around in a fog, and then ‘Ted’ found me.

“Ted Sunderland,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’ve got to introduce you ‘round the place. What’s your story?”

“Lloyd Jones,” I said. “Architect, Chicago, on the run.”

His left eyebrow shot up quizzically: “Really? Smashing! What or who on earth from?”

“My wife.”

“Oh, right! Well, you’ve come to the right place. What about the boat?”

“My escape vehicle.”

“Super! This is getting better by the minute! Terrence! Come here!”

Terrence was on older gent accompanied by a woman who might have been his great granddaughter – in other, less amusing circumstances. The girl was dressed in black leather and looked as though she wanted to do nothing more than put Terrence over her knee and spank his ass. She licked her lips when she saw me; I had the distinct impression she was considering whether to have me served rare, or medium-well.

“Terrence, this is Lloyd. Lloyd is a hit man for the mafia and on the run from the FBI.” I put my hand out. “Lloyd, this is Terrence. Terrence is a member of the House of Lords.”

“Shut up, Ted,” Terrence said angrily, for quite obviously he was an MP of some sort.

“Terrence, Lloyd is staying on a yacht out there. I thought you two might have some things in common.” With that, Ted drifted off to another group and Terrence and his Arm Candy went back to their corner. Perhaps they were discussing some sort of anti-terror legislation, or what size dildo she was going to work him over with as soon as he could get her the hell out of here. They were so sweet looking together. Really.

Ted was off with another couple, laughing at some quip and grabbing a tidbit from a passing waitress, so – as I was actually quite hungry — I made my way over to the buffet and took a plate. The food really looked quite impressive, so I grabbed a couple pieces of fish and retired to a dark corner. After a couple of bites I was quite sure the chef out back was some sort of culinary genius and, right on cue, she came out a moment later carrying a plate of sashimi to set out on the table.

She set the plate down and looked my way; I waved, she smiled at me then walked back into the kitchen. I, of course, made my way over to the sashimi. I am not modest when it comes to raw fish, or so I’ve been told.

Ted had looked at the chef as she returned to the kitchen, then wandered over to a dark corner and put his arms around a sweet young thing and kissed her. I mean really kissed her. It was one of those big, lingering, open-mouthed kisses one finds in movies with leading ladies named Dixie or Saber – a real ‘one hand-on-butt the other on-breast’ kind of kiss. Ted seemed to be quite the ladies man. And I suppose he still is, bless his heart.

I watched these goings-on for a while, and saw that Ted was like a hummingbird; buzzing from group to group, hovering with one man, laughing with another girl, making his way back to the far corner where ‘his girl’ waited – and making out for a moment before making his circuit again. I finished on plate of salmon and tuna then went back for another, and picked up some mineral water as well, before retiring to my corner.

The chef came out again, refreshed a platter and made an inventory of what needed to be looked after, then she looked up at me and walked over.

“Good evening,” she said, and she spoke with a heavy French accent. “Are you enjoying yourself?”

“Ah, well, I suppose so. The food is excellent, at any rate.”

“Oh, thank you. You must be the only one eating. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”

“No. That fellow over there,” I said, pointing at Ted — who was now chatting with Terrence and his dominatrix, “invited me up a few minutes ago. I’m on my boat, in the marina.”

“Ooh,” she said. “And what is your name?”

“Lloyd. Lloyd Jones.” I put my hand out and she took it.

“Michelle,” she said. “I am Ted’s wife.”

I turned red while Ted looked our way; he walked over a moment later and kissed his wife lightly on the cheek, then slipped his arm casually around her shoulder. “Darling, this is…”

“Yes, we’ve met,” she said cooly. “How are you doing tonight?”

“Well,” Ted said, “splendid, actually. Did he tell you he lives on a boat in the marina?”

“Yes, he did,” she said as she stepped out of his grasp. “And now, if you will excuse me, I have things to attend in the kitchen.” She said this to me — politely, then turned and walked back into, I had to assume, the kitchen.

“She can be a, well, something of a bitch sometimes,” Ted said as he watched his wife depart. “But, hey, I forgot, you know what I mean, don’t you? Running from your wife, didn’t you say?”

“I did indeed, because I am.”

“Not a chef, I take it?” he said, laughing at the thought.

“Investment banker, lawyer.”

“Sounds more my type!” Ted said as he guffawed, obviously thinking the idea amusing.

“Really? Not mine; at least not in a long time.”

“Ah, well. I hope you’re enjoying yourself this evening. Is the food up to par?”

“Excellent, really. You should be proud…”

“I found her in France a couple of years ago. Avignon. She was famous there, quite popular. I simply had to have her. In fact, I opened this restaurant, just for her.”

“Very considerate of you.”

“Quite. Well, stay as long as you like. If I don’t see you again, do drop in some time.” He turned and fled to the girl in the corner, kissed her fiercely and then left the restaurant with her, tossing off departing goodbyes as he fled.

I stood and watched in a kind of mild shock while all this happened and was getting ready to leave when the chef, Michelle, came out. She looked around the restaurant, then at me, before she walked over to my corner.

“Did he leave?”

“Hm-m? Oh, Ted, you mean? Yes, I believe so.”

It was odd. She was neither angry nor sad, more resigned, really, to a simple fact of life. I couldn’t imagine what she felt. Humiliation, perhaps, but how angry I would feel? There was really no way I could imagine suppressing so much anger, at such a blatantly public and brutal act of betrayal.

But did I see a bit of a tear welling up in her eye? No?

“Well, perhaps I’d best be getting along,” I said somewhat uneasily.

“So, you live on your boat? In the marina?”

“Yes. Yes I do, right below that window,” I said, pointing.

“I have never been on a boat. Is it nice?”

“I, well yes, it can be. And what do you mean, you’ve never been on a boat. Never?”

“No, never. I can not even swim. I grew up away from the sea.”

“Ah.”

“Perhaps I could come by some day and you could show me? Your boat?”

“Yes, sure. I’ll be here, ‘til March, as a matter of fact. Drop by any time.”

She held out her hand and I took it: “Well, it was nice to meet you, but I must now settle the kitchen.”

“Good night,” I said. I watched her as she turned, and it was as if I could feel her misery in the air all around the room. It was complete, total, the kind of desolation you feel when you’ve made a wrong choice and know it; when you’ve screwed yourself and you know there’s no way to make things right. It was sad, and as I watched her walk away I felt I was watching a nasty tide turn – and roll in unannounced.

Yet she looked dark, cold, and dangerous, and I was not unhappy to walk out into this dark and stormy night.

+++++

An electrician was due to arrive first thing the next morning, but by ten he was a no-show. I had been puttering around the dock cleaning up after the storm, and had a long green garden hose strung out to a tap, and was up on deck filling the water tanks. I heard footsteps, then I heard her voice dockside.

“Hello.”

I turned, saw Michelle standing not five feet away. “Hi there.”

“Quite a storm, I think?”

“Ah. Yes, a rough one.”

“Nice looking. This boat.”

“Ah.” I was, as you can plainly tell, giving her my best imitation of an erudite, loquacious imbecile. Comes naturally, or so I’m told. Ask my wife.

“So? Is it alright? I see it now?”

“Ah, yes, indeed.”

If she’d just pardon me while I pulled my head out of my ass.

I climbed over the deck, gave her my hand and helped her up, then led the way back to the cockpit and gave her my hand again while she clambered down to the wheel. Already her eyes were already round as saucers. I was just guessing here, but had I forgot deodorant that morning? Mouthwash? Forgotten underwear that morning, perhaps, and my zipper was down?

“And you have never been on a boat before?”

“Me? No? I think I told you, I cannot even swim.”

“Ah, yes.”

“How many people does it takes to sails a boat like thees?”

“Oh, it’s usually just me out there.”

She looked at me like I was mad. Hell, she was probably right on that score.

“Why?” she said. “Not how. Why?”

“When I figure that one out, I’ll let you know.” I gave her my best ‘I’m a tough guy’ grin, sure now that there wasn’t a body odor issue.

She smiled, but she wasn’t buying it. Her eyes were clouded by another, less pleasant thought. “Sounds lonely,” she said quite softly.

“It has moments of that, yes.” I looked at her for an awkward moment, not really sure what to say. “So. Down below, is it?” I led off down the companionway and she followed; when she got below she looked around at all the wood and brass and the rows of instruments and screens over the chart table and she just shook her head.

“It looks complicated,” she said as she crossed to the chart table. “Is all this stuff for finding your way?”

“Ideally, yes. When I remember how it works. I think, however, the main purpose is to impress visitors. How are they doing, by the way?”

She smiled again. “You are something like a — oh, what is this word — like a smart-ass, no?”

“Yes indeed, but only on the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.”

“I see,” she said. She had a nice laugh. Honest, sweet. “So I have found you on your day, then, yes?”

It was my turn to laugh, and hell, maybe I did, but I was so nervous I could hardly talk. Beautiful women do that to me.

“So, you will show me around?”

“Ah.” I looked around like I was a stranger here myself. “Yes, well, this is the galley…”

“The what? Isn’t this the keetchen?”

“Yes indeed, my mistake.” I walked forward a bit. “This area is called the saloon . . .”

“You mean, like Dodge City? Cowboy type saloon?”

“Same word, yes, only no cowboys. No room for horses.” Further forward was my part of the boat. Big berth on the right, cabinets all along the left side of the hull, a big head and shower forward. “This is my bunk. Where I sleep.”

Her eyes were wide again. “Not bad. Wow.”

“Wow. Yes. That’s exactly what I said when I first saw it. Wow.”

She poked her way into the head. “A shower!” She almost squealed. It was kinda cute, really, the way she made little noises.

“There’s another one aft – uh, back this way.”

I led her back to the keetchen. Opposite was a door that led into another head and stateroom; I opened the door and now she almost pushed her way past; she went in and I heard her shout: “No way! Font-tast-eek! This is so cool!”

I was – meanwhile – doing what all middle aged men do when confronted by the backside of a cute woman half their age. I was checking out her superstructure and landing gear and, frankly, admiring the view. And of course she turned around right then. I think at that point my eyes were burning holes I her ankles.

I think, too, this was perhaps the moment she began to feel more than a little self-conscious. Alone, on a stranger’s boat, checking out the bedrooms.

Blushing like a fire hydrant, I turned away. “Can I fix you something to drink,” I said.

“Maybe I cause you too much trouble. I should go now. Thanks for the tour.”

I helped her off the boat and she took off.

Didn’t turn back, either.

“Ah,” I said.

The electrician turned up around noon.

+++++

My brother-in-law and his wife called and told me they were coming for a visit later that week, just as I was settling into marina life, London-style. Pete had always been close to his sister, too close for comfort, actually, and I think he kept in touch with his anger for her by staying in touch with me. Claire and I weren’t separated, not in a legal sense anyway; we’d finally just gone our separate ways after I’d found out she was enjoying herself with someone else for about the third time in as many months, and that was that. Both our families were having a difficult time with our looming dissolution, but none more so than Pete. I had to be careful, keep an eye on the Jack Daniels when he was around, and an even closer eye on the little Bible that always seemed to be stashed in a coat pocket. When he got to wallowing in bourbon and musing about things of an animal nature, Pete could get out of hand in a hurry. Start baptizing strangers in parking lots, real Elmer Gantry stuff – a one man revival meeting. As a consequence of this endearing behavior, I always looked forward to seeing him, and just the thought of him with Bible in hand still makes my hemorrhoids twitch.

Anyway, I’d planned to take them ‘round to a few museums, maybe on a couple of day trips out to Bath and up to Cambridge, take in a show or two – the usual tourist routine, I suppose. On the day of their arrival I took the Underground over to Paddington and met them when they came-in on the Heathrow Express, and we took a cab back to the marina. I’d wanted them to stay on-board but Thank The Lord they wouldn’t have it, so I’d found them a room in the Tower Hotel overlooking the marina. I dropped them off and told them how to get to the boat, then left to give them time to get over their jet-lag.

They came over for a late lunch; I had promised to make Pete my Vermont cheddar cheese soup, which, for some odd reason he thinks is the best thing in the world, and was just serving soup to them when there came a knock on the hull.

I went up to see which mechanic was showing up late, and there she was. Michelle.

She was holding a couple of flowers in a little bud vase, and she handed it up to me.

“Sorry,” she said, “for being such a prude.” She was looking down, then I guess she heard Pete come up. I suspect when she saw his scowling face she decided to catch the next train to Leeds or something, ‘cause she took right off.

I turned and shrugged; hell, even I wanted to run when I saw the puritanical scowl on his face – like God in one of those Charlton Heston movies. All shaking and red-faced, trembling like a kettle on full boil. I’m not sure about this, you understand, but in my experience when someone shakes like that it has something to do with hemorrhoids and too much red pepper.

“Who was that?” Pete had on his best, most fierce Grand Inquisitor look, and was using his well practiced Chief Prosecutor’s voice to full effect.

“You know, Pete, I don’t have the slightest fucking idea.”

Man, can that son-of-a-bitch scowl.

+++++

So. As you might imagine, lunch went well.

Becky or Peggy or whatever this wife’s name was (she is/was, if I remember correctly, number five on what is, let me just say for the record, a rather long and as yet undistinguished list) thought it very odd that I’d accept flowers from a girl — yes, a young girl! — whose name I didn’t even know! That just isn’t done, this airhead told me reprovingly, then they launched into an hour long diatribe about keeping true to my marriage despite circumstances, and how shocking it was for them to learn I was whoring around all over Europe. Did I mention that Pete is a Deacon in his church, one of those Suthren Baptist type institutions so well known for their Christian tolerance and charity?

Can you feel the Love?

I’d had about enough of both of them by this point, and was getting a little annoyed. But would they stop? No. So I jumped in, tried to tell them how I’d met this girl…

“And you don’t even know her name?!” Becky/Peggy asked/scolded after I finished my tale, finishing with showing the poor woman around the boat.

Sinner! The implication hung in the air like a lead balloon.

And I was getting, well, mad.

“Hm-m, you know what, if she’d hung around here a little longer, I think I might have been able get a blow job from her. But the poor thing had the good sense to leave. Sorry.”

I have never been accused of being well-mannered towards the overly religious, at least not knowingly so. And, well, even my dear wife had never been able to tolerate sanctimonious assholes, and she’d long considered Pete to be among the worst.

So, when Pete said: “Now see here!” in his booming, preachy voice, then “How dare you speak to Becky/Peggy in that tone of voice!”…

…I found it ever so easy, in a much kinder, gentler way, to say: “Ya know, Becky/Peggy, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to drill you right up that sweet little ass of yours…”

I’m just guessing here, but I think my words elicited the intended response: “Harumph! Come on Becky/Peggy, let’s get out of here — NOW!”

“What?” I said as they grumbled up the companionway, “You’re not staying for dessert?”

Pete whacked his head on the boom when he stood up. He was still cussing when they disappeared into the hotel. Life is good, ya know.

My week was suddenly wide open, and it felt, I don’t know – nice?

I might even stoop to saying I felt like Martin Luther King: Lawdy, Lawdy! Gawd Almighty! Free At Last!

Oh, Happy Days!

+++++

I was up in the cockpit working on a corroded LPG fitting later that afternoon when, of course, Pete came by acting all apologetic, and he told me they had no right to judge me after what I’d been through with his sister, they had no cause to say what they’d said. He seemed awfully sorry.

“You’re right, Pete. You didn’t. As a matter of fact, even if I’d had wet, sloppy sex with that woman, it wouldn’t be anybody’s business but mine, and, well, hers – I guess, but as things stand right now, nothing, nothing at all has happened.”

“I know, I know…”

“But the fact of the matter is, Pete, I’ve been lusting after the poor creature ever since I first laid eyes on her. My wife fucked around on me, not me on her. I didn’t, not once. Is that clear? You’re family, Pete, always will be as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t want to see your face the rest of the day. Alright?”

Perhaps because I’m ten years older than Pete, or perhaps because I could still knock him off his flat feet any day of the week, whatever, he seemed chastened. I gave him tickets to the theater I’d already purchased and bid them a good evening, and he walked off with his tail between his legs.

I felt better, and I felt like shit.

+++++

My head and chest were down in the lazarette — my legs and butt sticking straight up toward high noon – when I heard her voice again, maybe an hour later.

“Hello. Are you busy?”

Let’s be clear here: upside down in a dark hole, wrench in one hand, flashlight in the other, screwdriver in mouth, sweat in eyes…does that qualify as busy, or not?

“M-m-g-g-mmmph-nn-ploowee,” I said in my usual, sophisticated manner.

“What?”

Sound of screwdriver falling from mouth, then: “Oh, Lord no, not at all. What can I do for you?”

“Can we talk?” She sounded quite unsure of herself. Then: “Is that man gone?”

I might have said something witty and dry, but it was rapidly dawning on me that I was seriously stuck. Head down in hole, ass waving around like a flag in the breeze stuck. “Uh. Ah, I. Well, I. Uh, could you give me a hand up here?”

“What?”

“Uh. I think I’m stuck. Could you give me a hand?”

She was, it turned out, remarkably sure-footed, and quite strong too. I think within fifteen seconds she was beside me and I had yanked me up and out of the hatch. I was gasping in shock, too. From the sunlight, yes, and from the fact I wasn’t going to die with my ass hanging out so everyone in the marina could have a nice laugh while heading out for a curry.

“Now I know what the rabbit feels like,” I managed to say.

“Pardon?” (I just love the way that sounds. Really. When the French say it, it sounds like par-doe, but there’s usually a hint of either real confusion or withering scorn in the mix, too. Fascinating. Really.)

“When the magician pulls the rabbit out of the hat. By the ears.”

“Oh, oui, yes. You had me concerned.”

“You were concerned? Really? You should have been down in the hole with me. That was concern…”

She chuckled. “What were youz doing downs in zair?”

“Loose hose-clamp.”

“What is this, this clamp?”

I explained what it was, and she understood.

“Where is dees thing?”

I pointed down in the pit with my flashlight. She looked at the offending item, then at me — as if measuring me for a suit: “You are too tall to go down in there. Let me do eet.”

She slipped in the hatch feet first and disappeared before I could say ‘be my guest’. Then: “Where ees dees screwdriver?”

“Dropped it.”

“Can I haves you flashlight, please?”

I passed it down, heard her moving about, then: “I tightened all of dem, but one of dem ees preetty roosty.”

I think some men are threatened by a woman who knows how to use a screwdriver. I might have been, once upon a time, but now I was finding this whole thing sexy as hell.

“If you can, would you take it off?”

She ignored my unintended meaning and passed the rusty clamp up a moment later, and I went down into my spares locker and found a replacement. I passed it down to her and she had it on in about three point four seconds, and I thought I was going to orgasm right there in the cockpit.

She popped up from the hole and climbed into the cockpit.

“Easy!” she said.

“Easy for you to say,” I replied, and she laughed again. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“Sure. Yes, please.”

“Coke or Dr Pepper?”

“Pardon? Dr who?” (It’s just too cool how that word sounds…)

“Dr Pepper. National Beverage of Texas. Ever had one?”

She shook her head.

“Right. Two Dr Peppers, comin’ right up.”

She took a sip, smiled. “Pretty good,” she said. “Very sweet, though.”

“Damn straight.”

“You must be from Texas.”

“Every bit of me, except my underwear. I think they’re from Mexico.”

“Who was that man.” She rolled her eyes now. “The man with the mean eyes.”

“Brother in law. Very religious, in an American sort of way.”

“Oh. You are married to his sister?”

“Yes. In a roundabout way.”

“Ah. You were divorced from his sister?”

“Not yet. It’s kind of a work-in-progress.”

“Oh,” she said, “I see.”

“He’s still very conservative about things like marriage and – things like that, I suppose.”

“Yes, yes, I understand.”

I could only imagine. “Do you?”

“Sure. He is visiting, then, to communicate between your wife and you?”

“Yeah, I suppose so. They’ll be here for a week.”

“Oh, do you have to go now.”

“No. I got time off for good behavior. Free as a bird tonight.”

She seemed to drift for a while, thinking of something else to say. Then: “Is that why you got thees boat? You are runnings away?”

“Probably, but don’t tell anyone. It’s supposed to be a secret.”

“You makes a lot of laughs about dees tings. Why?”

“Jokes,” I said. “I make jokes, then you laugh. Hopefully.”

“And you are good at changing subjects, too.”

“Good? Hell, I’m a real pro, lady.”

“So, why do you run so, and make the jokes?”

“Better than crying, don’t you think?”

“That depends.”

“Oh? On what?”

“Do you ever want to cry? When your wife causes all dees pains?”

I looked away, really, because I really didn’t want to go there – with this woman.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to . . .”

“It’s okay. So. You wanted to talk?”

“We are, I think.”

“Ah.” I looked at her now, closely. “Why? Why with me?”

“I think at first I was curious: what makes someone lives on boat. Why do it? A lot of people do, from home, from France, but I never understand. I wanted to see a boat such as this, so I could understand maybe better. I see your boat and I understand. But then I see you and I am curious still.”

“Oh?”

“It is beautiful, no? This life you have chosen. You travel, where you want to go, yes, and you take your home with you. So many freedoms. And you use no petrol, correct?”

“Very little.”

“See, this is a good thing. I would like to travel someday, maybe not like dees, but when I’ve made some money of my own.”

“Oh? Where would you go first?”

“Tahiti, Polynesia,” she answered quickly.

I smiled, nodded.

“Have you been?” She looked expectant, interested.

“No, not yet.”

“You will go?”

“If I don’t wear out first. Yeah, I’ll go.”

“You see; you are free. That is the best kind of running.”

I nodded. “Running with the wind. Yes, it can be.”

“Exactly. Where will you go next?”

“Probably to the market. I need some things for dinner.”

She slapped my knee. Playfully, almost intimately. “You are the, what did you say, the joker-ass one more time?”

“Smart Ass. Always. Just so.” I looked down at my hands; hell, who knows, maybe I smiled.

“Will you let me cook you dinner?”

“What? After you tightened all my hose-clamps? Doesn’t seem fair to me.”

She took my hand then, and it was an innocent gesture. Nothing intimate about it at all, just friendly — in the best possible sense of the word – and suddenly everything about her felt very familiar, the gesture so natural.

“Come; let’s go ups to zee markets and get somes things, then we weel decide what to do for deenair.” Like we’d done exactly that a thousand times before.

“Ah.”

Everything felt like an echo. Feelings once upon a time I’d associated with another life, another woman, another lover’s hands; these feelings washed through me and left me in a numb silence. Her words swirled around us, crowded thoughts pushed through, then pushed all her words aside. In the end all I could feel was her hand on mine.

That moment, when we touch.

Do we ever change? Is that first galvanic-exchange centered with such focused primacy for the rest of our lives? Do we ever get over the intensity of that moment?

Yeah, right. Perhaps that’s why I felt so goddamn guilty.

+++++

I came to know Michelle Cluny-Sunderland pretty well over the next few weeks.

We did go up to the market, we did walk around and look at fish and flowers and those hundred other things they always show in floppy rom-com movies (and you know the scene, too; the montage of happy smiling lovers looking over cucumbers accompanied by 10cc singing ‘I’m Not In Love’), but in the end we made our way out to Brick Lane and ate curry so fiery hot we dripped sweat (and I mean sweat, here, not perspire; one does not perspire into two liter buckets – and fill them. One sweats – like a pig) and gasped in shock – that anything even remotely considered ‘food’ could render one so completely speechless, and do so quickly.

She took another line on the Underground home from there, so we said goodbye at the turnstiles.

I spent the rest of that week with Pete and whats-her-name; we did amble out to Bath and take in the Abbey and the Roman ruins, and they opted for Salisbury and Stonehenge over Cambridge (of course), so we did that, too. We ate on-board a couple of times, and they remarked more than once how grand the scents of delicate cooking were in the marina (really, it’s true; I didn’t know what to say). I put them on the Heathrow Express a few days later and heaved a great sigh of relief.

They promised to write, too. And I knew just what that meant.

Michelle had dropped by once or twice on her way to the restaurant that week; she was charming and sweet as she drifted by – but that was it. A couple of days after Pete left, the following Monday, in fact, she came by and rapped on the side of the hull. She had a little canvas shopping bag in hand, a couple of baguettes slanting up among stalks of celery and a bottle of wine.

“Howdy-do, Ma’am,” I said in my best West Texas Rancher accent.

“Pardon?” (Love it, I just love it!)

“Ah. Hello.”

“Really? Howdy-do means hello?”

“In some parts of the world, yes.”

“Oh. Texas, right?”

“That’s a fact, Ma’am.”

“Have you had lunch yet?”

“Lunch? I haven’t had breakfast yet?” She shook her head, frowned that such an unjust  creator would allow such a thing to happen.

“You must take better care of yourself.”

“I’m an American. I don’t know how.”

“Then I will make us lunch. You will see how we eat lunch in France.”

“I will?”

“Shut up and give me a hand.”

I helped her up and she bounded down into the gall, uh, dee keetchin, and there she proceeded to do things with whisks and knives that in other circumstances I would have found truly scary.

“Do you have any beer?” she asked at one point, when it was apparent to me that the performance was drawing to a close.

I opened up the fridge and pulled out a Bud longneck and held it up proudly.

She of course rolled her eyes and made a sweet little noise that sounded a little like someone coughing in a tuberculosis ward. Very endearing, actually. I assumed, too, that it would be best if I kept my secret stash of Tabasco flavored Doritos well hidden, at least until the knives were safely back in their drawers. There’s no telling what a French chef might do when confronted with a bag of Doritos.

And it really was the most amazing sandwich I’d ever eaten. Hell, every single thing about this woman was memorably amazing.

She’d come, she told me that afternoon, to London with Ted from Avignon. He had been looking for a chef ‘of the new French style’ when he found her, and after a brief, exciting affair she’d left Avignon; Ted was delighted to get a wife for himself and a celebrated chef for his new bistro. That had been about a year ago, but it had all gone downhill from the moment she arrived in London.

Within a month Ted fell madly in love with one of the waitresses at the bistro, and a few weeks later he was caught with the wife of a close friend – in a very compromising position. His relationships tended to last about two weeks, yet most just an evening, and she’d come to understand that was simply the way he was wired. She didn’t complain, she said, and neither did she berate him. He couldn’t help it, she knew; he was just addicted to the feeling of falling in love. The high, the rush, the endorphins — whatever. She had instead worked her tail off and made the bistro one of the most popular spots in London. So, there’d been happy endings all ‘round.

Except I could see that she was miserable, homesick, and yearning for home. France, in other words.

I cleared dishes while she talked, and while I washed them and put them away I told her a little about Claire and her infidelities, but really, what was the point. Water under the bridge. Not worth the breath to dwell on the morally inept and the childish.

She was, she finally confided, thinking about going back home. There were a couple of upscale places in and around Avignon that wanted her, she said, and she’d had about enough of London. And Ted.

Have you, I asked her, taken any day trips out into the country? No, she said, not one. You want to? I asked her. Sure, she said. Next Monday? I offered. Sounds good, she countered. Fine, I said. Good, she said. Then: can I have another one of these Budweiser’s? They’re really quite nice. Refreshing. Yes, I know, I said. You ought to try a Lone Star sometime. And some three alarm chili.

The sun was gong down and it was getting cool out, and pretty soon she left, but not before planting a little kiss on my cheek.

I could hardly sleep that night, and I found a playlist with a few old 10cc tracks on it, and slipped on the headphones.

+++++

We’d arranged to meet early Monday morning at Paddington and we hopped an express out to Bath, then took a bus to Wells. Amazing village, best cathedral around, and she was as impressed as someone who’d grown up around some of the most beautiful sacred architecture in the world could be, but that’s not why I’d hauled her out to Somerset.

No, we were going on to the Cheddar Gorge, just down a little lane from Wells. They invented the cheese there, once upon a time, like a thousand years ago or something silly like that, and you can still buy some of the best in the world in the village, an unpasteurized variety made at the Gorge Cheese Company. So, as she was a cheese junky I’d thought she might enjoy this little hole in the wall. It had not slipped my mind that one or two people in France still make cheese, it was more that I hated the idea she might take off one day soon and return to Avignon. Surely, I hoped, the simple fact they still made cheese in England would convince her to stay. That seemed a logical assumption at the time, anyway. Selfish motives, I know.

Well, we bought some cheese and walked along the pretty little stream that runs through the village and flat out missed the last bus back to anywhere, so we ate dinner in a little place overlooking the stream then took a cab to Weston-super-something and managed to catch a late nighter to Bristol and thence on to Paddington. It was later than late when we finally rolled into London.

We took a cab to her house; the lights were off and she didn’t want to go inside. I told the cabbie to head for the marina.

“There’s a decent hotel there,” I said.

“I don’t want to sleep in a hotel,” she said.

“Well, I’m open to any and all suggestions.” That was a clever bit, eh?

“Any room on the boat?” she just managed to say. Her voice had, it seems, suddenly grown sort of full and constricted.

“I reckon so,” I said enthusiastically, for my trousers had suddenly grown rather full and constricted.

(The cabbie, poor man, rolled his eyes.)

She decided that night to stay in London a bit longer. France could wait.

It had been, all in all, a good day.

+++++

I don’t know if Ted knew about that night, and didn’t really care.

The weather remained unseasonably warm into November and I, in a flash of inspiration, decided to sail across the channel to Honfleur. I took a place along the wall in the old port and a few days later Michelle joined me, and so began what was without a doubt one of the happiest times of my life.

We walked around the village and she taught me a thing or two about cooking that left me feeling clean and healthy. Odd, I know, but their was something in her love of cooking that reminded me of what it had felt like to actually love designing buildings – once upon a time. So it evolved that we embarked on a slow journey across France in a quiet quest for culinary perfection. We found one of those daffy looking Smart Cars on a used car lot and I bought the thing, then I broke down and bought a camera, because I had become interested in beautiful buildings again, and I wanted to take pictures of them. Then I started taking pictures of Michelle, and I found I much preferred doing that.

We cruised across Normandy, stopped in little villages that had little known but impeccably authentic bistros and hideaways and we ate and ate until we felt obnoxious and silly, then we checked into little inns and made love all afternoon, until the light turned just so, then we dashed out and shot cathedrals and cows and doors, and always, Michelle’s face in the evening light. I assume we would have gained a hundred pounds that first week if not for all the exercise we got.

This time with Michelle was not simply fun; indeed, I felt this time a slice of life as it could be, really, as it ought to be. I assume most people would say this sounds a bit trite; be that as it may, I came to understand time was a gift, that all time was worth cherishing. As the days passed, I came to realize this was a life I had never known, and that my soul had suffered in this wanting.

We came to, one foggy evening, a tiny village by the sea. There was an inn just outside the town, an old castle, really, and it looked quite fine. We took a room that overlooked the sea, opened the windows and listened to the surf as it washed against the shore, and we made love to that music.  We made our way down to the little dining room as day drifting to the night’s embrace, drawn by magic in the air, perhaps, because whoever was at work in the kitchen was a magician.

The room was small, just a few tables, really, and there was only one other couple there, and they seemed ancient. We asked for wine whatever the chef was working on, and while we waited we talked of fog and the sea and the wonder of life in all it’s most elemental forms, and this line of thought seemed to intrigue the old couple across the room, for once – when I had just made comment about the impossibility of life in general and the chaos of our own lives the past few years – the old fellow turned to me and asked me a question I shall never forget. A trite cliché, perhaps, but not that evening.

“It’s your life, young man,” he said. “Are you happy with the way it’s turned out so far?”

I think the directness of the stranger’s question stunned me more than anything else, but I looked at him, and it was as if I’d known him all my life, and perhaps that’s the way it is with two ships passing in the night. Simple honestly borne of fleeting acquaintance, and nothing more, rendered meaningless all barriers to our understanding one another.

“There have been times, yes,” I said to the man, “but now they seem few and far between.”

“Are you happy right now?” he asked. “In this very moment?”

“Yes. Very.”

“Then why would you change the way you are now?”

And here, you see, was the crux of the matter. Here was the question:

“What could possibly keep a man from finding happiness in life?”

I looked at him for some time.

“Well?” he finally said.

“Life is complicated,” I began, but he cut me off.

“Ah, but no, it isn’t. Not really.” he said, “And that’s the only point I’d like to make. Life is only as complicated as you make it. Once you accept that premise you’ll understand that the only thing keeping you from happiness is yourself. It’s all in the choices you make, but once you compromise your dreams, well, you’ve already lost sight of the truth, and you won’t understand that simple fact of life until the last breath leaves your body.”

“I see.”

“Really? Why do I doubt that you do?”

I didn’t know what to say, but Michelle spoke up now.

“I don’t know how you can say life can be so clear…” she said.

“Oh? Well, because it is.”

The old woman spoke now. “It is most simple, really. The only difficulty is in understanding what most provides you with happiness, and that is difficult only because so few people listen to what their heart has to say.”

“Precisely,” the old man said. “People think too much. They try to objectify the subjective, rationalize the irrational, manipulate the truth within their own soul until there is no way they can recognize happiness anymore, and then they wonder why they are unhappy. That person soon compromises his principles every day of his life, until one day he wonders why he has no more principles? And then he is surprised when he finds he has acted in an unprincipled manner? And this is a good life? This is a philosophy of happiness? How so, exactly?”

“You must excuse us for this interruption,” the old woman said, “but the room is small.” She shrugged and laughed a little, then returned to her food.

The old man returned to his dinner at that point, and I looked at Michelle, but the old fellow apparently had one more thing to say…

“One thing to keep in mind,” he said now, his fork waving away in the air like an orchestra conductor’s baton, “and this is important, so listen, if you please.”

He looked at me, his eyes seemed ancient and wise, most compellingly so.

“You will never find happiness through another person. Not ever. You can not place such a burden on another. Your happiness must always come from within, it must be of yourself, and not be conditional on some other person’s happiness. What is important here is that you are with a person with whom you may share happiness, and who can embrace their own happiness in such a way, as well.”

He looked at Michelle for a moment, then at me.

“Do not burden one another with the upkeep of your own soul. There is no time for such foolishness. Cherish that happiness which is your own, and share that joy with each other.” His eyes seemed to grow distant, and tired – as if he had been surveying a vast, impenetrable landscape for too long. “That is, of course, but one measure of love, but it makes a good place to start.” He smiled, looked at the skin on his hands. “Time is not to be wasted. Not ever. That is the greatest sin. Turn away from anything that would keep you from attaining happiness. To fail in that is to embrace delusion. You will find only madness and bitterness down that road.”

They finished their meal and left a few minutes later, and it was interesting to me that they both seemed oddly content with their lot in life. I’d be hard pressed to say they seemed happy or unhappy, because that had not been, as far as I could tell, the point of this exchange. The point the old man was driving home, that looking for validation in others was to negate the very essence of the self, stayed me as I watched them leave the room. So, my observation of their state of happiness was simply a delusion, one I might force onto my construct of the world for my own benefit. Such observations and delusions would have nothing to do with reality, and was, therefore, simply a waste of time. If only because delusions keep one from gaining true happiness.

“Interesting,” I think I managed to say.

Michelle was looking down at her hands just then, lost in thought. She didn’t look very happy, and I hate to say it, but that bothered me. I felt unhappy too.

Claire would have been so proud.

+++++

It was cold out, and a stiff breeze was cutting through the night when we stepped outside after dinner. We wanted to take a walk by the sea and found a path in the scattered moonlight; we walked along the edge of a cliff that rose up before us and disappeared into the darkness; lightning danced along the far horizon. When we reached the summit of this small peak we found a monument, the inscription on its side impossible to make out in the darkness, but in the night a blackened statue rose over us. It looked like an angel to me, its wings spread protectively around a boat on a storm-tossed sea. Perhaps this was a monument to lost mariners? That seemed likely, and hardly surprising, given our location on the Bay of Biscay. In fact, even in the wind from the top of this little peak we could hear the sea, now far below, crashing onto the rocks in spent, hissing fury. Beaches have always fascinated me, and now I walked close to the edge, wanting to feel this spent fury again and again.

I had been so close to the edge, and for so long, I thought, that the thought of falling hundreds of feet onto the rocks below no longer bothered me. It was only in the past few weeks that I had even remotely begun to feel happy again, and at root I had no idea why, really. In this darkness, Michelle felt like a resolution to me, the resolution to another problem, an old problem, and not a new beginning. Just as suddenly I knew in my heart this wasn’t true.

I wasn’t happy now because of Michelle; rather, she had unlocked whatever door was keeping me from whatever happiness I still held inside myself. Whatever the old man said or thought at dinner, however, I knew I could not see my way to happiness in life without her by my side. Standing with her in the fading light of my life these past few days had convinced me of that.

So, what was the resolution? Could there ever be any with such dependence pressing in?

I felt her rejoin me in this darkness, felt her cool arm slipping inside my coat as she worked her way into what warmth I yet harbored. Her hair streamed by my face, held there in the breeze, and my world felt as if it longed to come undone.

There would be no life for me, no love, no happiness, without this woman by my side.

It was, I knew, time to return to London.

There was a storm coming, and it was time to prepare.

+++++

Within that last night on the Bay of Biscay, as storm clouds gathered along horizons unknown and distant, I dreamt of two paths in the woods. Perhaps only an affirmation of Frost’s “two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” this was – I knew within my dream — where my life stood now; but ‘perhaps not’ always lingered – a thought just out of reach. In this dream I saw two unrecognizable women standing in that yellow wood, each standing silently, waiting for me, watching me approach those two paths. At first the woods were still, dreadfully so; warm, close air, almost stifling, and time slowed. Heat, unbearable heat gathered around me, and yet, in the distance, those two women stood in cool splendor, their gauzy gowns drifting on unseen breezes, braids of gossamer lace floating on currents born of other days, each alluring, beckoning, and relentlessly commanding my attention – yet in the softest imaginable way.

I came to see that I was, as time drifted so lazily by, inside the eye of a hurricane. Just outside the woods, in raging winds, amid thunderous destruction, the world I had known was being torn asunder by furies easily recognizable as my own creation – yet a fury subtly transformed. People I had known in my life, and loved, were embedded within the raging storm, their faces full of twisted, black malevolence – yet they were the very essence of this storm. Their words lashed the landscape, anger tore homes from their foundations and scattered them as dust, hatred and betrayal spilled from wounded eyes – yet still the two women stood in silent majesty, watching me, waiting, just inside my silence.

If I made as to move toward one woman the furies rose and screamed, winds ate away at the edge of my wood, howls of anguish filled the air and tore at my mind with nauseating power; if I stepped toward the other, from the very heart of the wood I could feel a desolate, wounded moan rise from the very earth upon which I stood, leaves on trees began to wilt and curl, petals fell from dying flowers, the grass beneath my feet turned brown and hard.

There was a choice to be made, yet it seemed so obvious. Why was it so hard to choose? Would the rising storm tear into these woods, would vanquished fury leave a world unrecognizable and in pain, be a world worth living in? Would the trees and the grass and the blooming flowers take root again, and grow — in the desolate emptiness after the storm’s eventual retreat?

I woke to the sounds of wind driven rain lashing ancient windows and growing thunder. Lightning lit the room and frenzied shadows danced across out bed. A tree bent to the storm, naked branches scraped against glass.

I rose, walked to the window and looked into the clouds for the faces of people I had once known, and dared to love.

+++++

Michelle flew back to London, I returned to Honfleur and my boat. A day later I sailed north across the channel, back up the Thames and through St Katherine’s lock to the marina. The next morning as I was waking, I felt the boat move and knew someone had boarded. I put on some clothes and walked to the galley and looked through a port-light into the cockpit.

Ted Sunderland was sitting there, a long cigarette dripping from his hand.

I slid the companionway hatch back and stuck my head up. “Coffee?” I asked.

“Please. Yes.”

I opened up the boat and let some fresh air in, got coffee going, and Ted stuck his head down and looked around. “Make yourself at home,” I said, and he clambered down the steps.

“Cozy,” he said as he looked around.

“Cream or sugar?”

“Black, please.”

“Well, what’s on your mind Ted, beside the obvious.”

He smiled. “I’ve done a little checking up on you. While you were away.”

“That was decent of you. How am I doing?”

“You were considered a pretty fair architect. Why did you ditch it all and leave?”

“You want to talk about my . . . architecture?”

“Why not? I’d like to know more about . . .”

“About what you’re up against?”

“No, not at all. You might think me a hypocrite, and I may well be, but I think we both know the outraged husband routine has little pertinence here.” He took some coffee, looked around the boat again. “Yes, I quite like it down here. I can see the attraction.”

“Alright.”

“No, well, I could understand, as an architect, if you’d been an abject failure, why you might choose to drop it all. I assume your marriage is over, was over, but you really do seem very highly regarded, and in a city well known for good architecture. It seems strange. A conundrum, and I wanted to know, that’s all. Thought I might get a handle on where things stand.”

I couldn’t decide what to do, what to say. Was he on the level? What was his angle?

“So,” he continued, “you graduated from Northwestern, then the University of Chicago. Take it from there.”

“Alright, Ted, I’ll give you the condensed version.”

“I like condensed. Fire away.”

“I got out, worked for a large firm a few years . . .”

“Yes, yes, I know all that, man. Get on with it, to the meat of the matter!”

“Well, once upon a time I considered myself principled. I know that must sound rather bland and boring to you, but there you have it. I always identified with Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s architect in The Fountainhead. Familiar with it?”

“No. Never my thing, reading fiction.”

“Of course. Well, I used to think Frank Lloyd Wright was the unshelled nuts, uh, the very thing I longed to be as an architect, and I drew fanciful homes and buildings, and all very true to Wright’s vision. Critics soon labeled me Frank Lloyd Wrong, peers thought my work dull and pretentious, yet I continued, true to my ideas, true to what I thought most important as a designer. I made a living; not a great one, but there were enough people around wanting some connection to Wright’s style . . . and well, anyway, I managed to keep us in clothes.”

“Ah, you were married then?”

“Right after graduating from Northwestern. Before architecture school. I met Claire at Northwestern, in the library of all things. She was very studious, quite bright. . .”

“I know. We’ve talked. Your Claire and I.”

I felt a chill of cold anger run down my back.

“Oh do go on, Jones. The excitement is killing me.”

I think I may have been angry at this point; I know I was red-faced and staring at him. Ted looked at me, hastily turned away, and seemed genuinely upset.

“I’m sorry, Jones. Please. Do finish.”

“Yeah. Well, I guess after a time I got tired of all the Frank Lloyd Wrong stuff, sometimes the out and out scorn of my fellows around Chicago. I went out on my own then, too; started my own firm. Anyway, a client came to me, oh, about ten years ago, and asked me to design a new office building for his company up in Madison. Wisconsin. I listened to this man, a moron, really, to his ideas about design, life, all of it, and I hated myself but took the commission. I vowed to myself that I was going to design the most hideous, atrocious building man had ever laid eyes on, and of course he loved it.

“It was built, and critics labeled the design a work of genius. Somehow I wasn’t shocked. We live in a world that accepts mediocrity as the norm, so why shouldn’t that be the case, right? But this design was conceived as a blatant affront to everything I loved about design, and people loved it. New clients came, quietly at first, then in a rush. Some begged, threw obscene numbers my way, offered any amount of money, and I forced myself to design the ugliest houses, the most terrifyingly gaudy structures I could imagine, and each new design was praised as the work of an inspired über-architect. Kids fresh out of school came to me, wanted to join me, wanted to become a disciple to this new movement I had come to represent, hell, that I had created. The New Prairie School, they called it. I called it Fugly.

“Fugly?”

“Fucking-Ugly.”

“I see. And what of Claire?”

“She went to work for a large firm after law school, corporate mergers principally, but you already know that, right?”

He nodded.

“She got pregnant, miscarried, and that was the end of that. Got her tubes tied. A few years later, well, I’m not sure when, really, but I began to hear rumors she was sleeping around. A lot.”

“Curious. Do you think she was sleeping around before you abandoned your principles?”

His words hit like a hammer blow.

“I mean, Jones, did she fall out of love with you about the same time you fell out of love with yourself? When you abandoned the ideas she had always known you stood for? The ideas you had embraced as your own when the two of you met, when the two of you fell in love?”

“I don’t know.”

“You should ask your wife that question some day. Really, you might do that. Well, good coffee and all, but I must dash.”

“Is that what she told you?” I felt hollow inside, like I had betrayed a friend.

“Sorry. Must go. Appointments and all that.” He put his cup on the counter and held out his hand.

I took it. His skin was cool, dry, alien.

“I’m sure you’ll do the right thing, old boy. But you always have, haven’t you?”

He climbed up into the gray morning, and left me standing in a pool of doubt.

+++++

Michelle came that evening. She looked unnerved, her eyes were lined with dark circles and seemed dull, almost lifeless.

“How have you been,” I asked. I doubted I looked any better.

“Difficult. Ted is being difficult. Playing the reformed, possessive, all attentive husband. And you? I wanted to come earlier, but could not.”

“He came by this morning. Ted did. We talked.”

“And?”

“I think he’s taking a different tack on me. Trying to appeal to my sense of obligation to my wife, to Claire. He wants to say, or implies, I think, that she still loves me.”

“How on earth would he know that?”

“Well, it seems he’s talked with her, so perhaps he thinks he’s done his homework.”

“Mon dieu.”

“So, what would you like to do? What would make you happy?”

“Me? Now? If I could do anything, anything at all, to be happy again?”

“Anything.”

“Ah, well, there is a lane, a road, in the hills outside Avignon. I would walk with you down this lane, to my grandfather’s house. He is very old, my grandfather, but I would talk to him, with you. And I would listen to what he had to say.”

“That sounds like a good thing.”

“Yes. He is a wise old man. And a smart-ass. You would love him.”

“Ah, well. Shall we go?”

“What? Now?”

“Yes.”

“Is it always so easy?”

“Isn’t that what the old man said? In the dining room?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore?”

“Don’t you?”

She was crying now, and I held her.

“Is there one thing you know?” she asked me then. “Do you love me?”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s the one thing that seems clear to me.”

“Does anything else matter right now?”

“No, not to me.”

She looked at me, into my eyes. “Then we should go. To Avignon. Now, tonight.”

“Yes,” I said. This was a simple choice, to walk down a country lane in France. To be with the woman I loved, to hold her in my arms.

So simple. Such an easy choice.

And so, we went.

+++++

As the little jet rolled down the runway, fat drops of rain streaked across the windows as our speed increased; they vanished into the night as we climbed into the sky. Michelle sat beside me, her hand in mine, while the jet bounced and rolled into heavy gray clouds. Clouds that had brought sleeting rain to London that afternoon, clouds that seemed to chase us wherever we ran. Lightning lit the insides of clouds, cast oblique shadows through the cabin, then the entire aircraft seemed to lurch upward, slowly upward, then slam down several hundred feet. Michelle squeezed my hand, the woman across the aisle from us screamed, and within a moment we saw her reaching for the “sick-sack”. She almost got the thing out in time, too.

A few more bounces and rolls, a mild climbing turn to the left, then fragments of starlight just glimpsed, the moon overhead now casting a milky glow through the cloud, then we were up and out of the cloud completely, bursting free into a clear, starry night. I looked out the window; huge towers of cloud rose beside and ahead of us, their pale interiors glowing with lightning that occasionally ripped from somewhere deep inside and jumped from cloud to cloud, or down to an unseen earth, now far below.

The pilots steered between clouds as one late for work might drive through slow traffic. That is to say, they were weaving and dodging between roiling towers, the jet still lurching and dropping from time to time, and all the while the woman across the aisle sat miserably, waiting to make her way to the head. The flight attendant, sitting on her fold-down seat by the cockpit door, looked mildly bored and amused until one downdraft shook the jet and cast us down once again, but this time violently, and the left wing rolled down sickeningly. Now even she looked terrified, and the woman across the aisle was openly weeping.

And as suddenly as it had come on, the violent weather receded; we resumed climbing, and soon Calais and the French coast slid below, little amber lights twinkling on a vast plain of black velvet. Bright cabin lights came on a minute later, the flight attendant began readying her cart and the woman across the aisle dashed for the head when the seatbelt light winked out.

Such is the order of our universe.

Michelle snuggled into my side and I pulled up the little blanket she had draped over herself when we’d boarded. She was fast asleep within moments, while I looked up at the stars.

+++++

We made our way from the airport in Lyon to the station downtown and managed to get on a late night TGV that stopped in Avignon, and so of course arrived there in the wee hours. Perhaps arriving at four in the morning, in mid-November no less, was a mildly stupid thing to do, but travel on impulse often presents you with such confounding realities. There wasn’t a taxi to be found, of course, and the station’s lobby was preposterously small and almost empty: a couple of men loading sacks of mail onto a cart, a man collecting garbage, a woman dozing on a bench beside a wire rack of light blue rail schedules. The white terrazzo floor was all echoes and dull wax, which is to say I felt like it looked.

But of course, Michelle had a friend in mind. What else are friends for if not to call from the train station at four in the morning and, as if everything’s fine and dandy, ask if they might not mind a trip into town.

And of course, friends being friends and all, she came.

Her name, it turned out, was Leslie Dufour, and I saw she was seriously tired when she pulled into the broad circular drive in front of the station and opened her door. She bounded around and hugged Michelle, and then, with her shoulders scrunched up and giggling shyly, slipped over and hugged me too. It all felt very good, this friend thing, and we piled into Leslie’s tinier than tiny blue Renault and drove for a half hour until we arrived at her equally tiny house. The sun was coming up over the alps, the air was cool and full of promise, and I was about to pass out I was so tired. The girls wanted to talk, of course, and I assume they were more than understanding when I stretched out on the little beige sofa and closed my eyes, because when I awoke it was past noon. They were, however, still at it, merrily talking away while drinking black coffee and munching dark chocolate; but food was on their mind.

We drove down a narrow, tree-lined lane east of town and made our way to a tiny bistro that sat next to a modest square in the center of an impossibly small village. A stone-walled stream passed through the heart of the village, and though it lay on the far side of the square from the bistro, we could still hear the water as it slipped through on its way to the Rhone.

It was perfect.

The owner of the place came out of his kitchen when he heard us enter, and the man rubbed his eyes when he saw Michelle, then burst into tears and ran to her. This is, of course, not the behavior I typically associate with the proprietors of small country bistros. Ms Dufour stood by, beaming, while Michelle and the man hugged and cried; he stood back more than once, holding her face in his outstretched hands, then was hugging her again and again.

He was, it turned out and not unexpectedly, himself a celebrated chef.

And of course, as he had to be, this was Michelle’s father.

+++++

Life is full of awkward moments, strained first meetings, uncomfortable silences. This was not to be, however, one of those occasions.

I suppose you could say that for some people life has passed them by. Such souls are often lonely, weather-beaten and lost, and perhaps ready for another life somewhere, somehow, if only, and then they might add: “I could have had this or that in life – if only…” Then you might, and not unreasonably, expect to find there are others in the world who have embraced life on their own terms, found no small measure of happiness along the way, and indeed, perhaps even some success. No so satisfied that a valid working dichotomy had been established, you might be content to leave your examination of life among the living then and there and be done with it.

But there is another group, certainly less well known and consequently understood not at all. These people have at some point in their lives embraced life and succeeded, even flourished, but even then found something was missing from life. Or perhaps they found there was too much ‘noise’ in their life, too much money, too many insincere people, too much frivolity, or too little, and these people set out down a different path, a somewhat less conventional path, and, I suspect, what often turns out to be a very enjoyable path. Amongst this last group, along this other path, you would most certainly find Henri Ricard .

There are celebrated chefs, then there was Henri Ricard. He began working at a beachfront hotel in Cannes and developed a reputation in the seventies. Movie producers and other literati dined under Henri’s care and word spread; one Hollywood mogul bankrolled construction of a restaurant in the hills above Cannes, then someone asked Henri to open up a place in Beverly Hills. Why not? Sounds like fun! Then a small place in St Moritz, because I like to ski! San Francisco, New York, Positano. It turned out to be quite a ride, and Henri Ricard loved every minute of it.

But it wasn’t enough. Or perhaps it was too much.

He sold out one day. No warning, no mounting dissatisfaction, no agonizing second thoughts, and no doubts. He’d long ago bought this little hole in the wall in a forgotten corner of France and the time was right. He wanted a wife and a family, and he did not want to create one within the chaos of the glitterati.

In point of fact, the man flat disappeared. Nobody knew where he’d gone, or what had happened to him, but as it is among certain walks of life, within a few months nobody even remembered his name. Henri Ricard disappeared into blissful obscurity, and he loved every minute of it.

He was a happy man.

Then he cooked our lunch, and I was a happy man. Michelle and Leslie were happy, but Henri was happiest. Such is life with wine and food and love to keep you company. So many smiles.

And do you know what was funniest about that afternoon? Even odd, you might say?

He never questioned why I was there, what I was doing with his daughter, or what his daughter was doing with me. It seemed, for a fleeting moment, as if our presence that afternoon had somehow been predicted. Perhaps it’s simply life; we were just living life and all was unfolding according to some vast impenetrable plan, and as we appeared to be happy that was all that mattered to him. By the time we rose to leave — when sharp, black shadows had fallen across the little square – I felt like I’d known the man all my life, and was the better for the knowing.

I guess it was around five or so that afternoon when Leslie dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and drove away with a wave and a smile. A small dirt lane cut away from the main road, stretched off into the distance and seemed to drift away into hazy blue shadows under a soft shouldered valley. I could see a village steeple well ahead in the smoky distance, autumn trees overhanging long stretches of the road ahead, cows standing on the other side of a stone wall, their heads hanging over, reaching for that last perfect bit of grass.

And then, the silence.

Complete and total – silence. Embracing, penetrating, so foreign.

And we walked. Inside the silence – though perhaps it was that silence walked with us, for there was nothing else. There was no need now. No need for words. No need for time.

Just soft footsteps on an old road, two people walking hand in hand, and very happy to be alive.

+++++

Perhaps a mile up the road we came to a little stone cottage; it was well away from the old dirt lane and hiding in deepest shadow, for twilight sat well on this forgotten valley. Little windows full of glowing amber held back the night, pale blue smoke drifted from an unseen chimney, filling the air with gauzy memories of distant evenings, the warmth of my mother’s comforting smile lingering through time to hold me once again.

We turned up a winding, narrow path that led to the house, the dirt ahead lined with proud round stones, and we made our way past sleeping gardens to an ancient door. A little board adorned the passage, faded wood painted slate blue like the door, the name ‘Ricard’ carved by a steady hand long ago; the small lamp above the board gold and warm, and Michelle knocked on the door.

A single voice speaks, the rustling of feet across the floor whisper as dry leaves might through an autumn forest. The door opening, kind eyes settle on the woman by my side, flurries of recognition fall from the stars and the coming of love fills eyes that have waited far too long in the twilight. A tear, a sigh, skin seeking skin in the only immortality we will ever know, this passing on of ourselves, a small laugh passes in the still air, small because the joy is so big.

She is ancient, this woman, and beyond her, in the small light of the warm room, I see her husband, Michelle’s grandfather, sitting in a pool of firelight, a blanket over his legs. He did not, could not stand, but his eyes were sharp and clear and his surprise seemed complete; his granddaughter ran to his side and they held one another as though it had been far too long in coming. I was welcomed and asked in, taken to a favored chair by the fireplace, and I listened to a language I had once so incompletely known and I understood almost nothing that was said, but really, words were unnecessary, indeed, they seemed out of place in this here and now.

Michelle and her grandmother slipped into the little alcove off this room, into what was their kitchen, and soon the room filled with the sound of pots rattling against pans and the subtle scent of a love others might call food. Michelle’s grandfather sat with his hands on his lap, the fingers of his hands pointed up, forming a line of slender steeples, and his eyes sparkled with firelight.

“She tells me you sailed by yourself, from America to London,” he said out of the blue. “What did you learn?”

It took a moment, just a moment, to catch what he’d said, so heavy was his accent, but even so the question caught me unawares.

“Perhaps what most impressed me was how bright the stars are, so far from land, and how dark the night can be.”

“An interesting observation, certainly, but was this truly something you learned?”

His eyes smiled, he flexed his fingers, pressed them together.

“Perhaps not,” I said. “I guess I learned the validity of certain assumptions, namely that you can’t run away from yourself, from your problems.”

“You guess?”

“Yes. I remain unconvinced, despite overwhelming evidence of the contrary.”

He laughed. “Good for you. Go down fighting.” Then: “What do you think of Ted Sunderland?”

“Ted?” What could I say? The truth? “I think he plays the gentleman very well.”

“And?”

“I would have to say he’s clever, very clever, and vicious.”

“The two often walk hand in hand, do they not?”

“Too often,” I said.

“Do you play chess?” He seemed to consider his next move closely.

“Badly.”

“Indeed? Well, perhaps it is time you learned a few new moves.”

He cautiously pulled a pipe and pouch of tobacco from his vest, looked over his shoulder at the kitchen, then he looked back at me, shook his head conspiratorially and smiled while he quietly turned his attention to the ancient pipe in his spotted hands. He prepared the pipe slowly, methodically, then lit a match, his leathered skin glowing in the flare of light. When the pipe was drawing as he liked it, he tossed the match into the fireplace with practiced ease. He looked at me again, his eyes full of dancing mischief, then he laughed a long time.

+++++

“He’s a character,” I said to Michelle while she helped me tuck a sheet onto an old bed on the sleeping porch out back.

“He never talks to people anymore, but there was a time, well, when he did.”

“Oh? He didn’t say much about himself.”

“Yes. That is his way. He was a philosopher, no; that is the right word? Yes, he studied at the École Normale Supérieure, right after Sartre, then joined them for several years, he and Simone de Beauvoir, until the war. Grandfather joined the resistance, but after the war he fell apart from all the intellectuals. He came here with Gran-Mama, to this valley, to the house of his grandparents, and here he has remained. When my father was still a young man, Grandfather began to cook . I mean seriously to cook, and he worked in a place, a small inn, near the palace in Avignon. He became somewhat famous, and one day Sartre came. No one knows, eh, what happened, but the next day he came back to this cottage in a great anger, then he fell sick. He was sick for a long time, and then he could not walk afterwards.”

“My God, a man like that. To be cut down. Like that.”

“Perhaps. But he began writing. In the early fifties. His oldest friends never abandoned him. Camus, Thomas Mann, they all came to see him, and I think they envied him. You have not seen this valley in the spring.”

“Is it so lovely?”

“It is, yes, I think so, but it is impossible for me to separate him from this place now. Perhaps it is that I have always considered him to be so pure, the essence of what is human. And to love this place, this valley, the villages just a few minutes walk from here, for me, this is my humanity.”

“So your father learned to cook? From him?”

“Oui. And from Gran-Mama, but there is not so much to teach, or to learn. It is just that you must find the best, the most fresh food, combine this and that, but always in moderation. That is the secret.”

“Sounds like a decent recipe for living . . .”

“No, not sounds like. Moderation is the only concept worth holding to. There is never goodness in excess. Never.”

“Ah, so you are a philosopher as well.”

“One cannot prepare food for a living and not become so.”

I had to laugh at that. Michelle did too.

“I wonder if I could ever love you too much.”

She pretended to stop and think for a moment, a smile working its way slowly across her face. “Hm-m, I do not know, but I am prepared to let you try. For a little while, anyway.”

“Would it be against the rules, uh, tonight, out here?”

“If we do not, Grandfather will become angry. And I will be very sad.”

“Ah, wretched excess. I love it. Anyway, I’m glad it’s cool out.”

“Oh?”

“Might work up a sweat out here, ya know.”

“Ah.”

+++++

Henri and Michelle’s mother Didi arrived long before the dawn; long before we woke up, anyway, and this proved to be a surprise for me, for Didi was a California girl. Born and raised in Beverly Hills and the daughter of a hard driving studio boss, she was as unassuming and pleasant as another human being could be. She still had that easy-going California thing about her, right down to the way she dressed, but I could see a real strength and elegance about her, too. Anyway, we hit it off and were off to the races in a hurry. She didn’t miss America but liked to hear about things.

Henri disappeared into the kitchen and went to work, leaving the rest of us at loose ends. Michelle led Didi and I through the gardens and up a trail behind the house that wound up a ravine and, eventually, to a bluff that looked out over Avignon and the Rhone. The view was worth the walk, particularly as the sun was just slipping up over distant Alps. Venus was still just visible, and how appropriate, I thought, to be out with two such staggeringly dynamic women with her ancient light still in the gracing the sky.

Leslie Dufour arrived, and we had some kind of monumental breakfast that would have made the masters in New Orleans sit up and take note of the error of their ways. We talked about London and sailing, and at one point — right out of left field — Henri mentioned wanting to buy a Smart Car, and I told him about the one we’d bought just a few weeks ago. It was, in fact, sitting in a garage in Honfleur, and I mentioned how fun it had been be to drive across France in the thing. And there was so much more to see…

“You want to drive? I do this drive with you!” he implored, and Michelle looked at me, gave me a little, indecipherable shrug of the shoulders that seemed to imply: “Go for it, if you’re brave enough.”

Didi chimed in: “Lloyd, dear, don’t you do it. In his next life Henri wants to be a race car driver.”

Henri took ready offense at this: “In my next life! You think I’m finished with this one!”

“I’d hate to think of racing anywhere in that car, Henry,” I said, “but a mad dash across France with you sounds like a blast and a half. Maybe next week, okay?”

“Sure, name the day.”

Didi and Michelle rolled their eyes.

There was, of course, the indelicate matter of two rather less than faithful spouses to attend. An ugly business, true, but I felt better now. Better, you see, because I’d just been shown a few new moves.

+++++

Leslie and her microscopic Renault carried us in a blue streak back to the station in Avignon; she wished us the best luck and hoped to see us soon, then a sleek, orange TGV slid silently along the platform and doors hissed open. Michelle and Leslie hugged again and we sat, watched her fall away as the train pulled away from the station.

“So, now you have met everybody. They were, until a year ago, all I held of importance in my life. Then there came Ted…”

“I doubt there was anything you could have done to prepare for that encounter. He’s world class.”

“Yes. Did Henri have much to say about him?”

“Oh, not much. Detests him, didn’t at first, though. I think it was your Grandfather who first saw through him. That’s what I gathered, anyway.”

“Yes. He would.”

“I suppose there’s not much that man’s eye misses. He’s the real deal, isn’t he?”

“What does this mean — this ‘real deal’?”

“There are a lot of pretenders out there. Lot’s of academics and politicians who claim to know so and so, and use that to press some thin agenda down your throat. It’s an altogether different thing to have been a part of something grand, to take those memories with you and hold on to them in silence. Not try to use them, or sell them. I could talk to him for days, or for the rest of my life.”

“Why don’t you? He’d love that.”

Night was falling, and as if on cue rain began smacking along the windows, smearing the blue glow of evening into streaky trails as the lights of cars and houses streaked by. The train seemed to be moving with incredible speed, but it was still smooth, silent, belonging to a world apart from the gathering darkness.

“What do you think of driving down with Henri?”

“You’re insane if you do, but you’d have fun. Both of you.”

“Would you rather make the drive? The two of us?”

She seemed to gather her thoughts for a moment. “No, no. If you must drive the car, better you make the trip with him. He would love the excuse to drive such a distance once again, and you would learn something of each other. He’ll drive you crazy, though, so you are warned, okay?”

“Yes, alright.” She was looking out the window, seemed almost agitated. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t say why, but I’m hungry.”

“Want to try the dining car?”

“Could we? Yes. I think so.”

“Yes, why not. After the past few days, it’s probably a good idea to have some truly dreadful food. You know. Re-acclimate to the real world.”

“You’re kidding, right? This is a French train. The food will be wonderful.”

And she was right. Again.

Why was I not surprised?

+++++

We just managed to catch the last flight to Gatwick, and crawled bleary-eyed through the terminal and down to the express into London, then grabbed a taxi to the marina. There was, of course, a note taped to the companionway door.

A note from Ted. He was most courteous, I must say, given the circumstances. He asked that Michelle call as soon as we got in, and she took out her cell phone and retreated to a far corner of the marina and called. I wanted to crawl through the boat, look for booby trapped doors and trip wires set to detonate huge bombs, but in the end restrained myself. I knew that, in the end, Ted was a gentleman of sorts and would refuse to blow up any vessel moored right outside his restaurant. Insurance would never cover the damages after even the most cursory investigation.

Michelle returned.

“He wants to meet with us. He said something about your wife wanting to be here, as well.”

“Excellent.”

“What?” she exclaimed, and she looked worried now.

And I looked at my watch, then took the sat-phone from its cradle at the Nav Station and dialed my home number.

“Hello?” That voice, so gratingly familiar. I wondered if she was alone, but found I really didn’t care.

“Claire. How are you?”

“Well, the Flying Dutchman, as he lives and breathes. Where are you? Paris? Honfleur? A bordello in Hamburg?”

“No. London. On the boat.”

“I’ve talked to this Sunderland fellow. He seems a nice man.”

“Yes, he is. Did he like the idea? Us meeting, perhaps for dinner, over here this week?”

Michelle’s eyes went round, and she appeared a trifle angry.

“Yes. Yes he did. I’ve booked a flight Friday evening on British Airways. Get in Saturday morning about seven.”

“Alright Claire. Now it’s a bit difficult, but you clear customs first, then pick up your bag and go through another checkpoint. Pack light, and I’ll meet you just outside that second checkpoint.”

“Oh, Lloyd, you don’t have to go to that . . .”

“Nonsense. Claire, I mean it, pack light, but bring something nice for dinner, and perhaps a play. I’ll get you a room here in the marina.”

“Why can’t I stay with you on the boat?”

“She’s a mess, Claire. Stinks to high hell.”

“Oh, alright, but you could stay with me, you know?”

“We’ll see. Lot’s of workmen scheduled the next few weeks. Anyway, I’ll see you Saturday morning.”

“Lloyd, thanks for understanding. I think we can work this out, patch things up, if you still want to.”

“Yes, we’ve got a lot to talk about. Saturday morning then?”

“Alright Lloyd. Goodnight.”

“Night.”

I pressed the ‘end’ button and, expecting the worst, turned to Michelle.

“What was that all about?” she asked, a mixture of anger and perplexed amusement rolling across her face.

“Ah. Just a new move. One your Grandfather taught me.”

“Oh, my.”

“Oh, my. Indeed. So tell me. What kind of woman is Ted attracted to? Other than French chefs?”

+++++

Claire arrived, as promised, Saturday morning, and I was waiting for her outside customs in the main lobby. She was, as I’d assumed she would be, dressed to kill. Men passing by turned and cast appraising glances at her legs, possessive wives whacked errant husbands’ attentions back to more acceptable focal points, and I even cast an approving look at her once or twice. She was still aggressively sexy, at least when she wanted to be, and she knew it, too. In any duel, a dark, sultry look was still her weapon of choice, and I found this predictability comforting, indeed, most reassuring.

I wanted her off balance, of course. She was in a defensive posture, trying to protect her king, most comfortable on her part of the board. I assumed the best way to do this was to come on to her, appear contrite and apologetic, fawn over her a bit and so draw her out; she would think, hopefully, to have gained the upper hand and try to turn the tables on me. Her ego would take care of the rest.

There was no better way to do this than to take her shopping, and to spend an outrageous sum on making her irresistibly sexy. This, of course, was something she knew how to do; indeed, Claire had this sort of assault down to a well-honed art. I had simply to supply the American Express card and get out of the way. Sparks would surely fly.

Of course we started at Harrod’s, then we walked among the better shops in Knightsbridge. And I had never been so slavishly simpering toward her in all my life; to say that I fawned over her would be to insult all deer everywhere. I was a slut, a whimpering, tremulous slut, and after an hour she was beginning to regard herself as something of a dominatrix, and enjoying her public humiliation of me in a most English way.

I’ve never had so much fun with my clothes on.

We went to the Savoy and had a late lunch, then I took her back to the hotel.

By that point she wouldn’t even think of sleeping on the boat, and when I asked if she wanted me to stay the night with her, she said she’d have to think about it. I retreated, tail between my legs, to the elevator. After the door closed I started to laugh so hard I began to cry.

So this was what it had all come down to. Almost thirty years of marriage, dashed on the rocks of a practical joke. There was a mirror in the elevator, and a quick look revealed the face of a stranger that in some ways resembled me. But he was no doppelganger. No, not at all. That man’s eyes were empty, devoid of charity.

I looked at the stranger in the mirror.

“About goddamn time,” I said to him, “you fucking wimp.”

The walk to the boat was lonely, and frightening. I smiled all the way.

+++++

There is a certain measure of comfort in predictability, and until one finds oneself in that yellow wood at the fork in the road, I suspect more than a few of us are really quite dreadfully predictable. I detest manipulative people, always have, which was why I was in such a peculiar state that day. It’s fair to say that as I moved around the boat that afternoon I hated myself completely, and yet I was loving every minute of it. C’est la vie, eh?

But, I was there, now. That fork in the road was staring me in the face, taunting me, daring me. But who was moving the pieces on this board?

Well? You know, don’t you?

We were to meet in the hotel bar for a drink, then head out for dinner at an allegedly quite upper crust club that Ted belonged to. I walked up to the hotel a few minutes early and found ‘the Sunderland’s’ already visibly ensconced inside the comfortable gloom of a nice, dark corner table. I stopped by the bar and ordered one for myself and one for Claire, though if she remained true to form she’d be late. Quite late.

Well, actually, predictably late.

And she was…but it time well spent.

She had made a full court press this time. I’d never seen her so gloriously over the top before. A vision in black, even Michelle seemed taken aback; Claire walked into the room and men simply stopped what they were doing and stared. No, they drooled, as she walked by, and more than one woman did too. I’ve never seen a more sophisticated combination of elegance and pure out-and-out whorishness. She looked like Cartier’s version of a steely eyed dominatrix: black strapless dress replete with over the elbow gloves, glittery black stockings and outrageously high heels, dripping a dozen years worth of Christmas presents from Harry Winston, and all crowned by a slim black mink casually draped over her shoulders.

And poor Ted Sunderland. His eyes were about half way out of their sockets. I could see veins pulsing in his temple, his nostrils flaring, and could only imagine what was going on under the table. Pocket billiards, perhaps?

I introduced Claire to the Sunderlands and for a moment, just a moment now, I was afraid the evening would soon be going tragically wrong, for Ted seemed tongue-tied and — dare I say it — twisted? He was smitten, and Claire could hardly stand it. But of course I remembered that no response would more thoroughly arouse her, and while he stammered and fawned and made a complete ass of himself I felt almost overcome be a kind of wild glee. Tragic, but wild.

Yes, everyone was being so predictable. Except, of course, yours truly.

Even Michelle. I’ve never seen such manifest jealousy in my life. I couldn’t ignore Claire; no, that would have given the game away. So, I had to lavish attention on Claire as well, and soon Michelle was chafing under the collar from a miserable lack of attention. She tossed down her first drink, ordered another, and rifled that one down too. I wasn’t paying enough attention, obviously, but soon she had quite a stack of swizzle-sticks in front of her, and was decidedly glassy-eyed. So too, for that matter, was Ted.

This could get out of hand. In a hurry.

Predictably, it did.

I had no way of knowing what everyone’s real expectations for this evening were. Michelle and I, well, I assume our objectives were clear, at least to each of us, but I had no real clue what Ted and Claire wanted from the evening.

Claire? A reconciliation? A chance to rub my face in it before filing for divorce? Perhaps one last fling for old time’s sake?

And Ted? He had indeed begun to act the possessive, addled husband, and just in time, too. The poor man was wallowing in hypocrisy, playing the straight and narrow for all it was worth, bathing Michelle in guilt, tossing recriminations about like stale croutons on a wilted Caesar salad. Only now, whatever his intentions for the evening might have been, he was smitten and completely off-balance.

Testosterone. Don’t leave home without.

And Claire was smitten too, I could easily see. Sunderland had charm, real charm, ready and on tap; the man could turn it on and he was a marvel to watch.

And that’s when I felt a hand under the table, slipping up my thigh.

It wasn’t Claire’s. She was too far away, her attentions too focused on Ted. I turned, looked at Michelle, and was stunned by what I saw.

Chin in hand, a fantastic leering smile on her face, she was looking at me the way, I suspect, one might look over a nice, fresh Dover sole. So, thank goodness for long tablecloths!

Her hand drifted to its intended target and she began a little, well, a little massage. Her eyes took on a dreamy, faraway look, as if she was feeling everything I was and enjoying the hell out of herself. And it had been a week since France, a week without seeing her, being with her, and… and…

Yes. Predictable always has the, well, the upper hand. Every goddamn time.

Claire was, thankfully, on her third gin and tonic by this time, and poor Ted was off to the races, and was that his hand under the table, drawing cucumbers on Claire’s silky leg?

Oops, yes, she was biting her lower lip ‘just that way…’ carefully, oh so carefully trying to hide her sharp intakes of breath, but oh my, the signs were all there. The flush on her face, the growing fullness of her lips, ah, there, did you see that little tremble, I wanted to shout. She always does that when she’s getting close. Come to think of it, so do I, and I had just experienced a little tremble all my own.

Ah, ah, ah…and oopsy-daisy. Right over the edge. Michelle took me right over the edge, and she sat there like the Cheshire Cat. This big, self-satisfied grin floating in the air, a minor triumph for the night etched on her face. Thanks for black trousers. That’s what Bill Clinton used to say, right?

“Your little friend,” Claire said at that point, “seems to have had a little too much to drink.”

“I haven’t had enough, you cunt.” This from Michelle. Sweet, petite Michelle. Right on cue.

“Ted? Perhaps you’d see me to my room?”

“Delighted,” Ted said. I don’t know how he managed to speak so well and drool at the same time. Must take a lot of practice.

They were up and gone before you could say ‘simultaneous orgasms’ twice, leaving me with a very drunk French woman by my side.

So…bloody predictable!

It was fun walking back to the boat that night. Michelle tucked into my side, barely able to put one foot in front on the other, speaking in French and saying, I’m sure, the most dreadful things about American women and English men. I got her down below and carried her to my bunk, well, our bunk, and covered her with a blanket and kissed her on the forehead.

I went to the galley and pulled a Dr Pepper from the fridge and stepped up into the cockpit. I could see the hotel across the marina, and above a forest of masts I could see the back-lighted silhouette of two people kissing madly, passionately in what I thought must surely be her room.

I held up my Dr Pepper in salute.

“Thanks, old girl,” I said to the full moon. “Thanks for coming through for me, one last time.”

I tossed off the soda while I watched the two of them go at it for a while, then the light in her, uh, no, their room winked out, and I smiled.

+++++

Michelle and I sailed to Honfleur a few weeks later, a few days before for Christmas, actually, and we jumped on a train and made it to Avignon for Christmas Eve. We all went to Henri’s place, even Michelle’s grandfather, and we had a time of it. Two days later Henri and I retraced our way to Honfleur and picked up the little silver Smart Car and, as promised, made a mad dash across France together. We managed to talk a little too, and it turned out he knew one or two places to go for some good food along the way.

New Year’s Eve, and all of us were packed in the old stone cottage. Henri and Michelle talked about going in together, opening a new place, and they asked me to draw them something interesting. Didi and I talked about the differences between Christmas in America and France, and the old philosopher sat in his chair, pipe in hand, contemplating his next move.

Everyone had been so predictable, I’m sure he said to himself. Thank God, too, eh?

The old man lit his pipe, then sat back and watched his smoke curl up to the ceiling. He smiled, laughed a little, then flicked his match into the fireplace.

©2007-2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw

Passegiatta

Here lies the story that started the whole Driftwood/Mr Christian journey, in it’s entirety, without – as the saying goes – further commercial interruption. Hope you enjoy taking the trip again, or for the first time if that be the case.

Passegiatta

I have no words – alas!– to tell, the loveliness of loving well!

Poe, Tamerlane

+++++

[Log entry of the SailingVessel Springer: 31 October, 0920 hrs local time. 

COG: at anchor;

SOG: 0.0 kts; 

Temp: 41˚ f;

Winds: NE at 12 knots, viz +3 NMI; 

Barometer 29.91 steady since 2300 hrs last night; 

GPS:  44°18’11.36″N by 9°12’35.24″E.

Just anchored in the main harbor, Portofino. Am tired, have grabbed a mooring buoy and raised the Q flag – waiting for Customs now. Cold out, feels much colder than what’s registering, but forecast says warming next few days. I’ll believe it when I feel it.]

+++++

The man lay slumped over the wheel in the cockpit of his boat; he lay utterly exhausted in salt-encrusted pain, and trembled now with cold hunger. He had just completed the 220 mile crossing from Marseilles, France to Portofino, Italy in late October, a decidedly foolish thing to do this time of year, and perhaps all the more so because he was alone. The crossing had amounted to little more than a procession of storms – as cold fronts backed-up to the arctic circle came barreling down from the north, dumping snow in the Alps – and gale force winds onto the Mediterranean.

The man’s boat, a stout little sailboat of some forty one feet, had been up to the task, but the man had hardly known what he was doing in a boat six months ago, and wasn’t as yet what most people would have been tempted to call an accomplished sailor. About eight hours out of Marseilles, when the first gales slammed into the boat, the man had begun to question his sanity; his erstwhile friends, most back in New England, had been asking that question for well over a year.

The boat’s deck was now a tangled mass of water-logged lines; the cockpit was in no less a shambles. Hatches and port-lights, long dogged to seal out the weather, remained closed – and condensation rolled down the glass; the scraps of a sandwich lay smeared in the corner of a cockpit seat, abandoned by the man ages ago. Not long ago, just moments after the sun rose, he sailed into the little harbor and had taken up a mooring ball; when he finished his last log entry, the exhausted man hoisted the yellow quarantine flag, stumbled back into the cockpit and promptly fallen asleep. Now, two hours later, and just as a blue customs launch pulled alongside the sailboat, the man was in exactly the same place – snoring fitfully in his crusty foul-weather gear.

The uniformed man in the launch held out his hand to stop from hitting the boat as he pulled alongside, then he tied-off to one of the mooring cleats while he looked at the sleeping man. The man was snoring like an old Fiat, rattling away as if in need of a new exhaust. His sharp, metallic screeches, dripping with exhaustion, filled the empty harbor, and the uniformed official could almost feel sorry for the man, for the sea makes brothers of all men – and he considered himself a seaman.

“Excuse me,” the official said.

Nothing…no response at all…

“Sir! Excuse me!”

Again, the sleeping man didn’t react at all, except perhaps to snore a bit louder.

The official hated to do it, but now he faced an unwelcome choice: he either had to wake the fellow up, or let him sleep. Letting the man sleep, as uncomfortable as he looked, would also –  technically – be illegal, and he was the Port Captain and Customs Officer, and the boat had to clear in immediately. He shook his head, reached down and picked up a compressed air horn; he was aware that this device produced a nice, loud, heart-attack generating howl, and he aimed it away from the man and pulled the trigger. The effect was instantaneous, yet somehow not quite what the official had expected.

The sleeping man launched upwards and smacked his head on the awning covering the cockpit, then without skipping a beat, he stumbled backwards and tripped over the aft lifelines and rear-somersaulted into the water. The man hit the water with a loud slap that, to the official’s practiced ear, sounded somewhat like a large fish leaping from the sea – and from a great height falling back to the water’s surface on it’s side. The man sputtered to the surface and looked around with wild-eyed astonishment while spitting water from his mouth; the official hurried over to lend a hand and lost his balance – and as quickly fell into the water. He too landed with a less than graceful form, and he too popped to the surface looking somehow both indignant and embarrassed. The two men swam in startled circles and sputtered, while a small crowd gathered on the promenade pointing at the sight and started laughing – a few even applauded. And then both men started laughing as they swam around the still, morning water.

“Who are Hell are you?” the man asked when he finally caught his breath.

“Customs and Immigration, Captain. May I see your passport, sir!”

Both men started laughing again, and everyone gathered ashore thought the scene was almost comical – yet somehow quite normal. Another launch from the harbormaster’s office puttered out into the harbor and helped the two very wet, and now very cold men back onto the sailboat.

The official leaned over to the man, and spoke in hushed, conspiratorial tones: “Sir, perhaps you would meet me in that building, the yellow one there, in about an hour?” He was pointing at a small building on the waterfront, the official looking office with a small Italian flag flying beside the front door.

“Yeah, I think I can manage that. About an hour, you say?”

“Si. Now, excuse me, please. I must go and find some wet clothes.”

The man looked at the official just as he caught his words; they looked at one another and laughed again, then the official hopped across to his launch and took-off.

The man looked around his boat and shook his head: “Ain’t life grand!” he said as he pushed the companionway hatch open and disappeared into the cabin below. As he often did when he was in this kind of mood, he started singing a Gershwin tune, and people walking along the quay were treated to an impromptu rendering of Summertime – the man’s strong baritone soon echoing from the little boat’s shower compartment. It was considered a cringe-worthy performance…

+++++

Later that last October day, on that All Hallow’s Eve, Tom Goodwin left the mooring ball in the middle of the harbor and backed his boat into a small space between two other boats – his stern soon made fast to the harbor wall. It was a choice spot, open now only because it was no longer ‘high season’ along the Riviera; all the mega-yachts and their legions of beautiful people had blown away with the change of seasons, north to St Moritz and Gstaad and to the snow, or west, to Tortola and Antigua to play in the sun. Portofino had survived yet another season of Hollywood intrigue, yet was only now reverting to type – drifting back to her other persona – just one of many decorously sleepy seaside villages peopled by families who have known each other for generations, families and their villages bound by tradition to the sea, just as music is so often an expression of the soul.

Goodwin tossed two sets of lines across to a couple of kids on the stone quay, and watched as they made them fast – efficiently, and expertly; Goodwin then walked forward and tied off the bow to a pair of mooring posts set in the water about fifty feet off the wall. He finished, then turned and looked at the village, and the hills that almost completely surrounding the harbor.

He took in a Mediterranean pastiche that held him close, as if in a sudden, deep embrace. Everywhere he looked he bathed in pastel ochres and terra cottas and deep pinks, hotels and shops and market stalls floating along a sea of turquoise awnings and white umbrellas, pools of shaded tables out front of serene sidewalk cafes, trees still tinged with the green fullness of warmth, potent reminders of summer’s joyous hold on the land. Chestnut-forested hillsides dotted with swaying palms and sleepy rococo villas, a little scooter puttering down an unseen alley not so far away, cool breezes rippling across still water – almost like a heartbeat, the scene carrying hints of pine and garlic frying in olive oil and basil.

“I’m in heaven,” Goodwin said softly, almost as if in prayer. “I’ve died, and gone to heaven.”

“Maybe, maybe not, but nevertheless, I say enjoy it while you’re here.”

The voice came from the boat to his right. English accent, wasn’t it? He turned towards the voice, saw a little white haired man, he guessed fast approaching seventy years old. Book in hand, he was sitting in the cockpit of the other sailboat, looking his way with wry, twinkling eyes.

“Sounds like a good idea,” Goodwin said. The man put his book down, someone below passed up a tray and he began setting out teacups on the cockpit table, and he saw a plate of scones and preserves resting on the cockpit table, ready for afternoon tea.

“That was quite a show you put on this morning. Afraid you might not have been too happy with the reception here.”

“I was dead tired, that’s for sure.” He looked at the smile in the man’s eyes again. “You were watching, I take it?”

“Oh yes, but anything new around here this time of year passes for entertainment. Quite a crowd gathered, actually. Where’d you come in from?”

“Marseilles.”

“Oh? Kind of stormy out, wasn’t it?”

“Yes it was. One right after another.”

“And you’re alone?”

“That’s a fact.”

The old man whistled and rolled his eyes. “Bet you had some fun with that!”

“Took the words right out of my mouth.”

“So, before Marseilles; where’d you come from?”

“Oh, let’s see, Boston, in the States, then Bermuda, Gibraltar, and Barcelona. Left last May.”

“And you did that alone? All of it?”

“Yes indeed.”

“I see,” the old man said, and indeed he did. The trip just described was difficult enough – he’d sailed the same route himself many times over the years – but to do so without crew to back you up was almost stupid, almost suicidal. “Well, where will head from here?”

“Going to winter over here, then head east.”

“East?”

“No real itinerary yet.”

“Indeed. What’s the name of your boat about?”

“Springer? Oh, just a dog thing.” Goodwin thought the old guy was asking a lot of questions, but maybe he was just curious, or worse still, lonely. He didn’t want to ask a question himself and get him started, if that was the case. Then…

“Oh, really? Mary Ann! Come on up here! I’ve found you another Springer nut, and right next door!”

Goodwin heard a kettle whistling down below, deep inside the other boat, and soon enough a head popped out of the companionway and looked his way. “Hello there,” an equally white-haired woman called out. “Be up in a moment. Would you care for some tea?”

Goodwin was starved, hadn’t eaten since the aborted sandwich last night. “That’s very kind, Ma’am, but I haven’t eaten since yesterday. Probably best not to throw hot tea down first thing on an empty stomach.”

The woman went wide-eyed, then turned stern and motherly: “You get over here right this minute, young man! Malcolm, help me with the tea!” The white flash of hair disappeared as quickly, back to the galley, he assumed, and Goodwin listened as plates and cups rattled about down below, and he was left with the distinct impression he’d just seen a turtle pull it’s head away.

“Best not cross the Admiral,” the old man warned surreptitiously. “Not good for your health. Here now, toss me a line so we can get rafted-up a bit closer.”

Goodwin tossed a line over and the old man pulled the two boats closer together, then he climbed over the lifelines and stepped into the other boat’s cockpit. Waves of cinnamon and fresh-baked bread swirled about in the air, and Goodwin felt himself growing acutely hungry as he scuttled under the low white awning and took a seat – just out of the sun.

“Something certainly smells wonderful,” he said, his head reeling as the unfolding scene settled in his mind. Sitting in an Englishman’s boat in an Italian harbor, the sun warming his neck as cool breezes stirred his hair, and all that overwhelming beauty – everywhere he looked…

The woman passed another tray up the companionway, and a small pitcher of cream followed a moment later, then she too came up into the cockpit. Seconds later Goodwin heard the ticky-tick sound of a dog below, then a brown nose popped into view and took a tentative sniff around. A little Springer Spaniel – not even a year old, Goodwin thought – hopped into the cockpit and took an obedient seat between the man and the woman.

“I’ll be damned,” Goodwin said. He held out his hand and the pup looked at him nervously, gave a little growl.

“Now Elsie, you know better than to do that!” the woman said. She held out her hand to Goodwin. “Mary Ann Doncaster. And I suppose Malcolm has yet to introduce himself?”

The old man glowered, threw poisoned hate bombs her way.

“Just getting around to that, Admiral. No rush, now is there?”

“Tom Goodwin,” he said as he took her hand. “Sure appreciate the invitation.”

“Well now, Mr Goodwin, you’re as white as a ghost and look as if you’ve not had a thing to eat in at least a week. I suppose you’re going to say your simply daft? Or merely simple, perhaps?”

“Close,” he said as the grinned. “I recall I held some soup down – a few days ago.”

“Mary Ann, Tom sailed across from Marseilles. Alone.”

“Indeed. So you’re stupid?”

There was that word again – ‘alone’ – Goodwin thought to himself as he smiled, or tried to, anyway. “It was a rough crossing. I’ll say that.”

She nodded at his understatement, poured tea in his cup. “It’s English Breakfast. Cream and sugar?”

“Be fine, Ma’am.” He watched as she fixed the tea, then as she uncovered some freshly baked bread. “I smell cinnamon.”

“Cinnamon and walnuts,” Mary Ann Doncaster said.

Goodwin took some tea, then a slice of the hot bread. “This is wonderful,” he said before he could finish chewing. “Really, really good!”

“The Admiral’s as fine a cook as there ever was, that’s certain,” the old man said with a sidelong glance. “So, Mary Ann, Tom left the States in May, came by way of Gibraltar…”

“Do you have a Springer Spaniel, Mr Goodwin?” interrupted the Admiral.

“I did. She passed about a year ago.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. It’s very difficult, I know.”

“Yes.” Goodwin looked away. He still missed Sarah. “I have a painting of her down below. You’ll have to come take a look at her sometime.”

“This is our Elsie,” she said again as she patted the pups head, “and we’d be delighted to see Miss Sarah.”

Malcolm Doncaster rolled his eyes. “Oh, good grief Mary Ann. You carry on about dogs like most people carry on over their children. Give it a rest now, would you?”

Goodwin looked at the two of them, their practiced bickering a time-worn routine they put on like an old sweater. “Where do you walk her? I mean, I know where, but isn’t it a problem, you know, when you’re out at sea?”

“Oh, goodness me,” the old man said as he stood. “The only thing worse than a dog nut is when two of ‘em get together! Pass down the dishes when you two finish yakking, right?”

“Sorry about that,” Goodwin said. “I’d best be going too. I have to clean up that mess over there,” he said, pointing at Springer, “before it starts to stink.”

“Oh yes, you must. Certainly before Passeggiata. But do finish your tea before you go.”

“Passeggiata?”

Mary Ann Doncaster looked at Tom Goodwin and smiled. “Oh, you’ll find out soon enough. Sooner or later we all do. It’s the secret of life here, you know.”

“Ah, well, I’d better get to it then, and thanks for the tea. And nice to meet you too, Elsie.” He looked at the little spaniel again, her stubby tail thumping on the teak; she grinned now at Goodwin with happy brown eyes. He smiled back at the pup and blew her a kiss before hopping onto his boat and getting to work.

+++++

“So, Paulo, I heard a big splash on the way to work this morning. You, perhaps?” Toni Morretti said.

“Not as big as that American’s!” his brother Paulo, the customs official, replied tellingly. “But don’t get me wrong. He is a nice man, this doctor.”

“He is a doctor?”

“Yes. Some big-shot heart doctor, from Boston, I think. He quit recently, however.”

“What do you mean, he quit?” Maria Theresa Morretti said. The staid old woman, their mother, had said nothing at all during their late lunch, but suddenly she seemed unnaturally interested in what Paulo was saying.

“I did not ask him why, Mama. The customs form has a place for one to enter his profession, Mama, and that is all. Would you like me to go ask him, Mama? After lunch, perhaps?”

“Don’t speak to me like that, Paulo, or I shall find my broom and beat you senseless!”

“Yes, Mama,” he said in mock deference. “Anything you say, Mama.”

She leaned forward and playfully slapped his face and laughed, and he laughed too. “Oh, I am turning into a silly old woman, aren’t I?”

“Silly? Mama?” Toni said. “No, not you, not ever.”

“But old, Mama?” Paulo added. “You are as old as Vesuvius, and erupt almost as often!”

“And just as hot-tempered!” Paulo and Toni said together, as they had a million times before.

“Oh, you two!” She laughed with her sons, and as always, she enjoyed the smiles on their faces – and the love in their hearts. She took a bit of cheese from her plate, and some wine from her glass, then sat back and looked out the window as light midday traffic slipped by on the Via Duca degli Abruzzi. She looked thoughtfully as the world passed by outside her window, yet as always, she appeared lost in thought as cool breezes drifted through the room – and over fleeting memories of her life. She watched Vico walking down the lane, and drifted back to other days.

The boys cleared the table and walked into the little kitchen, began doing the dishes.

“She seems okay today, eh Paulo?” Toni asked quietly.

“Yes. Her memories have come today. This will be a good day.”

“God, I would hate to have my memories taken from me. That is the cruelest thing of all.”

“Yes, well, perhaps everything happens for a reason. Perhaps only the good memories remain, those memories that keep the best company.”

“That would be nice,” Toni Moretti said as he looked at his mother. “When does Margherita get off tonight?”

“Things are slow at the hotel. Perhaps in time to walk with us.”

“She would love that. But…”

“I know, I know, I will walk by the hotel on my way back to work and see if she is in. She has been too hard on Mama, and for too long.”

“Well, that doesn’t seem to matter anymore, Paulo, and perhaps it is as you say. Perhaps everything happened for a reason. Perhaps the good memories will not run away so fast, but I would hate to see her lose this time. I think they need each other more than we know.”

Paulo walked back into the living room and sat beside his mother, held her hand while she looked out the window.

“Mama, I’m going back to work now. Don’t forget to wear your shawl tonight. It will be cool again.” He leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead.

She reached up, stroked his face. “And you, Paulo, you try not to pull any more fat Americans from the sea. That man sounded just like a big fish,” she said as she clapped her hands together. “When he hit? I heard it from here…”

“You know, Mama, he made an impression.”

+++++

Margherita Moretti had seen her little brother fall into the sea that morning, and she had turned dark and withdrawn later that morning as hotel staff dropped by – only to remind her once again her brothers were still regarded as the town idiots. Yet that was simply a continuation of the attitude they typically expressed to her on good days – when the snobby bastards felt charitably disposed to her at all. Silence was their usual response to her, but perhaps, she told herself again, one day that might change.

Margherita worked the reception at a small waterfront hotel; the least expensive rooms priced out at less than one thousand euros a night in high season, but now the best rooms could be had for under a hundred, on most weeknights, anyway. And for weeks now, with the economy still doing so poorly, almost all the rooms had been empty for over a month – with one or two Scandinavians taking rooms for the winter. She’d seen the owner nervously going over the books, and rumors were flying there would be staff cuts before Christmas.

As was her routine, she’d brought lunch today, made in the little apartment she kept just a block away, yet by midday she had not taken time off to eat; rather, she had gone to the back office and started working on the night audit. One of the housekeepers sat at the front desk while she worked, yet it hardly mattered. No one was scheduled to arrive today, and there were so many mistakes to correct…

“How are doing today?” She looked up, saw her brother Paulo.

She looked at him a long time before speaking. “Fine. How was the water?”

Paulo turned red-faced and sullen, looked down at his hands. “Is there no one in this damn town who hasn’t heard of my great accomplishment this morning?”

“If there is, I haven’t heard.”

“Oh, thanks. Yes, thank you so very much.”

“Don’t mention it. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“I want you to come walk with us tonight. You know it would make Mama happy, and perhaps it would give you some measure of happiness as well.”

“Paulo. You and Tonio have asked me a hundred times, and a hundred times I have said ‘no’. So, now I must ask you – when will you stop? Why can’t you understand, I will never speak to that woman again!”

“You ask me this? Yes, that is true, yet I can’t understand this because she loves you so much, and I know that deep in your heart you love her too. You could not hate her so without loving her equally! And now she is locked away inside a prison, a prison within her own mind, and cannot even remember those days that hold you apart. She only remembers yesterday, and on her good days, she remembers forty, fifty years ago. There is nothing in between. Only love remains, the love in her heart. And that love remains for you, too. I hope you will remember that love, before hate blackens your heart – and before it is too late!”

“Idiot! I pray one day, before it is too late, you and your brother will grow up!”

“Ah. And do you know what I pray for, sister? I pray one day a ray of sunshine will penetrate the darkness that has stolen you from us, that has taken love from your soul, and run far away into the night.”

“Bravo, Paulo! Bravo! Attack the victim! Never the attacker! My, what a strong man you have become!”

“I am not attacking you, little sister,” he said softly. “I am asking you to find forgiveness in your heart. I pray you will find your way there – before the darkness you have embraced eats you alive.”

Paulo turned and walked from the hotel, stopping just once to look at the American on his boat – and just as a group of workers from Margherita’s hotel walked by.

“I wonder?” Paulo said aloud. “If I had such money as that man, would all the cares of my world disappear?”

“Don’t worry about it, Paulo! That will never happen!” He heard a chorus of laughter as the hotel workers walked away to lunch, and he turned and looked after them as they walked across the piazzetta, a dry smile etched on his weary face.

+++++

“I’ve found some more, Malcolm, on Google,” Mary Ann Doncaster said.

“Oh my, but of course you have. So, what’s the latest scoop on our esteemed doctor?” He had been working on the generator under the cockpit since lunch and was tired, grease-streaked, and in need of a long, hot shower. Some human affection from her, he knew, was always just out of reach now. Age had taken even that from them – yet not so long ago it had been different.

“Never married, went to Stanford and worked under some chap named Shumway, worked with another heart surgeon there, named Crossfield. Let’s see, worked at The Texas Heart Institute in Houston for a few years, teaching and performing surgeries, then moved to Boston. Says he was instrumental in expanding the transplant program at Massachusetts General Hospital. Oh, he organized a group that goes to El Salvador and Honduras every winter, they built two small clinics, provide free medical care out in the rough – it says. Nothing about his leaving medicine, or what might have happened.”

“You do of course know you are an incorrigible gossip? I mean, you know that, don’t you, dear?” He watched as she scrolled down the screen, thinking what a terrible scourge wi-fi internet was proving to be. She used to have a life…now she had gossip.

“Ah, this might be something. An item in a Boston newspaper…” she clicked on a new link then bent close to the screen: “Here’s one from last year…” She read for a while, and Malcolm heard her exclaim “Oh, I see…” several times while she scrolled down the page. When she finished that one, she went back to Google and refined her search, feverishly opening up new pages at a furious pace.

“The poor, daft man,” she said at last, closing the laptop.

“And what’s this all about?”

“All about nothing, you lout!”

“That’s hardly fair, Mary Ann!”

“And you call me a gossip! My, this poor boat is going to sink under the weight of so much hypocrisy!”

“Bah! I’m going to go up to the showers and steam this muck off. What time do you want to do dinner?”

“I suppose that depends on how long Passeggiata is tonight. And why are you always in such a hurry to eat, anyway?” she said, her tell-tale sarcasm in full bloom now.

“Oh, bugger off, you wench!”

“Bugger off, your own fat self!” She laughed as she listened to him stomp up the companionway steps – then stub his toe on a cockpit winch.

“Stop your laughing down there, woman!”

She sat and thought about what she’d just read. Best not to let the man know she’d been snooping around his personal history, she thought.

“Or should I?” she said aloud. “Maybe he needs someone to talk to.” She felt Elsie come close and drop down by her side, and she reached down and started to scratch behind the pup’s ears.

“Or maybe he needs something else,” she said, looking at the little girl’s shining brown eyes.

+++++

Gershwin’s Summertime wafted up through an open hatch – again, and Tom Goodwin drifted along with the music while he washed down the foredeck. He looked over his shoulder at the sun, guessing he had maybe an hour before it slipped behind the trees. Time to start thinking about dinner ‘…and getting out of these wet clothes…’ 

He was vaguely aware someone was looking his way, he felt the too familiar pain of intrusion. He ignored the feelings, finished rinsing the anchor rode and windlass, then bent down with a chamois and dried the chrome. He sprayed some lubricant on the moving parts, wiped them down again.

He sniffed the air, took in the scent of the lubricant, and wished once again that someone would make a man’s cologne from WD-40. He could see the ads even now… “WD-40! What REAL MEN wear when it’s time to get to work – on her!” ‘Whoever does it is gonna make a billion bucks,’ he smiled – at the thought, and at sheer the idiocy of human vanity.

“But hasn’t it always been like this?” he said.

He felt something cold and wet on his leg and jumped, then turned and saw the little Springer pup standing beside him, her upturned eyes all shiny and innocent. Her stumpy little tail beat the deck to tempos of unseen, perhaps ancient cycles of instinct, and he knelt beside her, looked into her eyes. This time she didn’t growl at him, indeed, now she rolled over on her back and presented her belly to him, and Goodwin grinned at her while he started to rub her soft, pink skin. The tail started thumping away to a slower cadence now, and the pup let slip a long, pure sigh of pure contentment.

“So that’s how it’s gonna be, Elsie-girl?” He sat down beside her, oblivious to the water on the deck and looked away to the village hovering over sun-dappled waters. The air was almost, just almost warm now, and faint traces of winter tickled the edges of passing seasons, but all he could really feel now was the familiar, easy love between man and dog.

“Oh, there you are!”

Goodwin came back to earth, jolted by the woman’s voice.

“Is she bothering you?” Mary Ann Doncaster asked.

“No, not at all. Think she just needed a little belly rub.”

“Don’t we all!” the woman said, smiling warmly.

“Yeah, I guess we do.”

“What did you say your girl’s name was?”

“Sarah.”

“Sarah! That’s right. You did say you had a picture of her, down below?”

“Yup, come on over.”

The boats were still rafted together; the woman had no problem stepping across and Goodwin was amazed that someone her age could still be so nimble. He stood and walked back to the cockpit, then slid open the companionway hatch and led her below – yet Elsie remained in the cockpit.

“Oh my!” the woman said when she turned and looked at the main cabin. “What a beautiful space! I’d never have the patience to oil so much teak. Too much work for me!” She walked over to the painting mounted on the bulkhead. “Is this her?”

“Yes. It was done when she was seven.”

“Is it oil, or acrylic? You know acrylic doesn’t hold up too well on boats?”

“Oh, yes, so I’ve heard. It’s oil.”

“Lovely. I love the way he captured her eyes…the light in her eyes.”

“She, actually. The artist’s name is Margaret Betancort.”

“Was she a friend, Dr Goodwin?”

Tom Goodwin froze. He’d not mentioned his profession to anyone, save for the clearing-in form at the Customs shack…

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry…”

“So, what else did Google tell you me?”

She looked away.

“I suppose it’s foolish to think privacy exists in this day and age.”

“Or perhaps,” she said, gently, “it’s foolish to turn and run from simple things.”

Goodwin looked at the woman as if for the first time. She met his gaze unflinchingly, almost defiantly.

“So, what’s this pasa-gia thing?”

“Oh, the Passeggiata? The evening stroll, Dr Goodwin. Most everyone dresses and takes a stroll along the waterfront, through the Piazzetta – along the quay, a walk by the sea perhaps, and then everyone breaks away and drifts off to dinner. But more than that, it’s is a time to reflect, to talk, even to see and be seen. For some, it’s a time to pass-on gossip about friends – to friends. I also think it’s an ancient pathway, a coming together that binds the community in ways most of us have forgotten exists.”

“I see.”

“You needn’t worry about those other things, Dr Goodwin. I should much rather talk to you about that remarkable dog.” She turned again and looked at the painting. “And perhaps, the love you lost when she left you.”

Goodwin looked up at Elsie in the cockpit. “I’ll need to find another Springer one of these days.”

“Soon, I’d say. You should do so without delay.”

“Probably easier said than done.”

“Not at all. We bought Elsie while we were docked here last winter. A decent breeder in the mountains above Positano. English chap, Italian wife. High up in the mountains. Remarkable view, lovely couple. Perhaps they’ll have a litter soon. Would you like me to check?”

“Well, that would certainly give us something to talk about. I think I should change into some dry clothes first, then find a place to eat.”

“Ah. Malcolm went up to the showers; he should be back soon. We know a wonderful spot, and we’d be happy to wait for you.”

“That sounds nice. See you in a bit?”

Doncaster walked up to the cockpit and was gone, yet Elsie stood, transfixed, in the cockpit – and Goodwin looked at her in that moment – just as she looked at him. “Well, come on. I’m not gonna bite!”

The dog hopped down the companionway ladder as if she’d done so a thousand times, and walked right over to one of the settees; she turned and looked at him again.

“Oh, by all means. Go ahead, have a seat.”

Elsie hopped up onto the green leather sofa and turned around several times before finding just the right spot, then she plopped down and rested her face on outstretched paws – and sighed, her brown eyes fixed on his.

“Make yourself at home. I won’t be a minute.”

She continued to look at him, her head now canted to one side.

“Really. Just hang on. I’m sure we can find some nice unspoiled grass out there somewhere.”

Tail thumping now, Elsie grinned when she looked at him; this one wasn’t as stupid as she had first thought, and there was something in his eyes worth getting to know.

+++++

Margherita walked across the piazzetta and up the Via alla Chiesa and stopped outside her mothers apartment. She hesitated, then rang the bell and waited. She heard one of the boys clumping down the stairs, then fumbling with the door. It was Toni, she saw, and when he saw his older sister he started to cry, then flew into her arms and hugged her.

“Come, come up,” he finally said, and pulled her up the stairs as if he’d not seen her in decades.

“Mama, look who has come!”

She sat as she had earlier that afternoon, still drifting in through quiet memories, still staring out the window into mirrors of dreams.

Margherita smiled at her own memories of this room, then walked to her mother’s side.

“Mama?”

Silence. A ticking clock, a couple quarreling across the way, dogs barking across the piazza.

“Mama?”

“Did you see your brother this morning?” she said at last.

“Yes, Mama.”

“He looks so nice in that uniform.”

“Yes he does, Mama. How are you feeling today.”

“And then he had to fall in the water. At least you taught him how to swim. You were always so good to him. So good.” She looked up at Margherita, a tear on her cheek. “It is going to be cool this evening. Do you have a shawl?”

“No, Mama, I just have this sweater.”

“You wear one of mine. You are old enough now to wear a shawl when you walk.”

The door opened downstairs, and Paulo walked up the stairs and into the room. When he saw his sister he stopped, then smiled. “I see some prayers are answered,” he whispered.

“Yes,” their mother said, “sometimes He listens. But only when you speak from a pure heart.”

Margherita knelt and lay her head on her mother’s lap, held back tears when she felt her mother’s fingers drifting through her hair. Even her dress smelled the same, just as it had so many years ago – rose and eucalyptus, a little garlic that always missed her apron, warm bread and olive oil…

“Mama,” Paulo sighed, “are you ready?”

“Yes. It will be good to walk. We should all walk down to the water tonight.”

“Yes, Mama. Of course.”

They made their way down the stairs and stepped out into the brisk evening air. Paulo wrapped his mother in her best black lace shawl and took her hand. They walked toward the Piazzetta, toward still waters turning black with the coming of night.

+++++

“So this passeggiata?” Tom Goodwin said to Malcolm, taking in the glorious sunset. “It’s more than just an evening stroll?”

“Ah, Tom, in a nutshell, the Passegiatta is Italy.” Malcolm was helping lift Elsie from the boat to the stone quay.

“Malcolm, must you always be so obtuse?” his wife said.

“Yes, I must,” the old man said, looking up at the blazing sky. “In fact, the longer I’m around you, the more I think it’s become a deep need.”

“That explains things. Like the past forty one years.” Mary Ann grinned as she shook her head and looked at Goodwin. “Come on, Elsie. Time to find some grass.” She turned toward the Piazzetta and the pup fell in dutifully beside her.

“She’d be happier if it was me on that leash,” Malcolm muttered under his breath.

Goodwin laughed. “You think that would do the trick?”

“Bah! Well, anyway, there are about a dozen definitions in the dictionary, and not one of ‘em gets to the meat of the matter. I guess if I had to distill it down to the barest essential, Passegiatta means to take an evening stroll, but that sort of oversimplification always glosses over the heart and soul of things.”

“Simplifications usually do.”

“I’ve been watching these people for years now, and just when I think I’ve got a handle on things some new aspect of the thing comes into focus. I guess first, and most importantly, it’s a ritual, a tradition, and as such it’s taken on an importance, a meaning to these villagers well beyond taking a simple stroll. You hear some people refer to it as seeing, and being seen. For some it’s simply ambling down to a favorite bench and watching the world pass by. But I’ve come to see it as something more elemental. Evening is that odd time of our day – between day and night. It is a time of passage, a crossing of boundaries. Passegiatta is not simply passive observation either, but active participation in what is a fundamentally communal gathering, a witness to this passage. The people come together and share the passage from day into night, from the promise of another day’s work to the solace of family, perhaps to a lover’s embrace.”

“Malcolm! You’re a poet!”

“Hardly, though I taught literature at King’s College. Still, I’ve had little to say that hasn’t been said before, and others have spoken far better than I ever have.”

“Cambridge? That’s kind of the big leagues, isn’t it?”

“Piffle. I retired years ago. Mary Ann was a reporter for the FT in London; she covered the Middle East, Lebanon mainly. Between the two of us, we’ve managed to come to terms with the world. She has Elsie, and I have Diogenes.”

“Yes, I meant to ask about that, he was the cynic, right? With the lantern? Why did you name your boat after him?”

“Ah, well, let me digress – oh, look, there’s your swimming companion!”

“Oh, the guy from Customs. Right. Didn’t recognize him out of the water.”

Goodwin felt a little self-conscious as they approached, and a shy smile crossed the official’s face.

“Ah, Doctor Goodwin,” the man said when they had closed the distance. “And I see the imminent Doctor Doncaster has conveyed to you a most vital tradition. Oh! Excuse me, I am Paulo Morretti, you remember? This morning? Yes, and this is my family, my brother Toni, my sister Margherita, and my mother.”

“Pleased to see you again, Paulo, but perhaps we could avoid taking another swim,” Goodwin said lightly, though in truth he could hardly make out the two women behind Morretti. “So nice to meet you all.”

The old woman leaned forward and pulled on Paulo’s sleeve; he turned and she spoke softly in his ear.

“Eh, excuse me, Doctor, but my mother wants to know from where you have come. Excuse me, she is most direct, but full of an insatiable curiosity about people and sailboats.”

The old woman came forward and took Goodwin by the arm and started to walk with him. “Margherita, walk with us, please, and translate.”

“Yes, Mama.”

And that was when Tom Goodwin first laid eyes on her, when he for the first time truly beheld Margherita Morretti. His heart skipped a beat and his vision clouded. The ancient piazzetta was lit by gaslight and pale candlelight from restaurants scattered about, and the soft light caught her face, carrying an impression of ethereal beauty on the evening’s softly honeyed sea-borne breezes.

Her mother began speaking in rapid, soft Italian, and as quietly all of them – the Morrettis, the Doncasters with their springer Elsie, and Tom Goodwin – were fixed in common purpose – joined together in this passage – and now they walked as one into the night.

They walked quietly, reverently, spoke of things that had filled their day, and Tom Goodwin listened to this music of the night as he listened to stories unfold. They walked in the group from the piazzetta along the Molo Umberto, listened to the water and the wind in the trees, to footsteps on old stones, and to each other. An occasional passersby smiled and said hello, a tug on a shawl from time to time as cool air washed away the remaining warmth of the day, then a pause to turn and look at the lights of the village dancing on the starlight-dappled water.

So much life dancing in the night. So many souls basking in starlight, and Goodwin felt a certain clinging past in the air as he looked up to the stars. He wondered if the stars had a music all their own, and what it would be like to drift out there, among such a symphony.

Mary Ann led the group, or perhaps it was Elsie who led them now, out along the quay towards the winding road that stretched out to the cape, out to the far horizon and the call of wild things in the night. Elsie scented her way with nose to the ground and as one they followed, following old roads to new, perhaps, because there was something new and alive in this evening. Elsie stopped from time to time, caught the scent of something interesting on a wayward breeze, then as suddenly, as if heeding distant calls from other lives, she led them further along the lane. She looked up at overhanging branches, stars now hiding behind their vast traceries. There was, the pup felt, something very unusual in this night air. Wild dancing spirits wove furies on these unseen breezes…

Goodwin felt the wildness, too; it was as if Walpurgisnacht filled the darkness around the group with Dionysian purpose – and he looked at the pup, wondered if she could see it too.

These spirits were beyond her, yet she recognized them. She could feel them now, and they grew closer as her group walked along. Yes, it was purpose that drifted on these unseen, seaborne breezes. She could feel them now, as plainly as she could the sea ahead. She lifted her nose to another passing gust and blinked as memory drew close around her…

Margherita walked beside her mother, their estrangement passing into the deepest reaches of memory with each step they took away from their home; Tom Goodwin walked beside Margherita, looked at her from time to time when she asked a question, hoping she would look at him, speak to him in her own voice, but he listened to her mother’s questions and answered them as best he could.

“Were you happy in Boston?”

“Did you enjoy medicine?”

“Why did you choose to leave?”

All these questions he had avoided asking himself for quite some time, yet now he answered them without hesitation: the where of her questions, the who and the how all came so easily – yet none of the old woman’s questions seemed to get to the point, the point Mary Ann had shown him earlier that afternoon.

“Perhaps it was foolish to think you needed to run.”

Isn’t that what she had said?

Indeed. Why had he run?

And did those reasons really matter anymore, now that those other worlds were so far away?

And he had held that world in abeyance ever since, so what was left – exactly – that held relevance in the rapidly morphing kaleidoscope of his life?

Perhaps it was just the woman’s sense of propriety, but there was a boundary in this night, a sense of the finite defining the contours of their passage. He had seen how far she was prepared to go to get at his truth – and, it seemed, no further.

But without truth, there is nothing. He heard that in her voice, too. Then…

“Tell me about your father…”

But they had come to a large tree, it’s overhanging branches reaching out to the sea, and the road looked to make a hard turn to the left. But the way was wild and dark down that road.

Too dark?

The old woman looked at the tree and peered into the darkness, then pulled her shawl close – like an unwelcome memory had crossed her path, and this was a boundary she was unprepared to cross this night.

“Toni, take me home now. I am growing tired.”

Elsie looked at the old woman, and now she too saw angry shadows dancing on her sea-borne memories. She came close and circled nervously…

Toni came to her, knelt by her side: “Mama, come with me, sit down here, on the bench.”

“No, Toni. I must go home now.” Shadows gathering, waiting for her…somewhere out there, in the shadows beyond the rocks…

“Okay, Mama.”

“Paulo, you stay with your sister, keep her company. Now go on, or you will never catch up to that dog!” She turned and her youngest son took her arm and walked with her back to the village.

Paulo shrugged. “She used to be able to go further, often all the way out to the point.”

“She has aged so much, Paulo,” Margherita said. “I felt frightened when I saw her. Frightened that time passes so quickly for her now.”

Goodwin listened politely to this exchange – in Italian, of course – yet it was as if he could understand every word, and indeed, he could feel the contours of their feelings by the way their words ebbed and flowed. Remorse, regret, the passing of time, the coming of night – these are the universals of life, and they sound, don’t they, the same in any language?

“Has she been seen be a cardiologist?” Goodwin interrupted.

“What?” Paulo Morretti said, startled by his words.

“Has she seen a cardiologist, a heart specialist?”

“Not that I know of,” Paulo said.

“What do you see, Doctor, that makes you ask this question?” Margherita asked. She was looking at him directly now, and he turned to look at her in kind.

“Her lips were turning blue, and her fingernails. And her ankles are swollen.”

“But this is what it means to grow old,” Paulo interjected.

“Shut up, Paulo. You were saying, Doctor Goodwin?”

“Well, it may well be congestive heart failure, right side, but it could be mitral stenosis. That could be fixed, easily. How’s her memory?”

“Poor,” Paulo said, though he was listening attentively now.

“Has she been tested for Alzheimers?”

“No, at least I don’t think so.”

“Had an ultrasound of her neck?”

“What is this, this ultrasound?” Paulo asked.

“Check the carotid arteries, in her neck. If there is blockage in these vessels, that could hurt her mental ability, and this, too, could be easily repaired.”

“But she is more than eighty years old!” Paulo said.

“So?” His sister cut him off. “Would it be hard to get this information? These tests?”

“Oh, they are easy and inexpensive. One visit to a specialist ought to provide the answers.”

“Could you go with us?” she asked. “To see this type of doctor?”

He looked at her, at the concern in her eyes, and he felt their relationship being redefined by his past, redefined in ways he neither liked, nor wanted. Yet he was aware that his past was growing increasingly more relevant with each and every step he took with this woman by his side.

‘Because I am who I am, and what I am,’ he said to himself, remembering the look in Mary Ann Doncaster’s eyes earlier that afternoon.

‘And there are things you will never understand,’ he heard an unseen voice saying, ‘because you’ve never had the eyes to do so!’ He looked around at these unseen voices, unsettled by their insight.

“Let’s continue walking, shall we?” Paulo said. “That dog will have dragged the Doncasters all the way to to the sea if we don’t get along!”

Margherita still held Goodwin in her eyes, but she turned to walk, as if she too turned to the dancing spirits in the dark.

Goodwin turned too, but he held her eyes in his as they walked. “If you need me, of course I’ll come with you.”

To Paulo these words meant nothing, but to Margherita – they simply shattered her world. She felt weakness overcoming her ability to speak, or even to walk. She was Gretchen to this Faust, lost to the wild magic of his night – even as it unfolded around her and pulled her deeper.

“Thank you, Doctor.” She looked ahead but the memory of the look in his eyes dominated her sight, left her unsteady as she walked. Paulo moved ahead as if without a care in the world, leaving his sister adrift in wandering eddies of hope and confusion.

“Do you live in town?” he asked her after they had walked another few minutes.

“Yes, not far from the piazzetta.”

“What an amazing village. It’s as though time has somehow stopped here.”

“Ah, yes, it is now. But two months ago, you would not say so. Portofino was then full of the beautiful people, the very rich, and all through the summer. The town has become pretentious, the flow of money overwhelming. Too many people trying to impress one another, too many people trying to be anything but what they really are.”

“Oh? What is that?”

“Pardon? Oh, just an expression. I don’t know. Perhaps there are too many pretenders, all trying to impress one another. Too much money and so little understanding leads to worlds of illusion. The reality of our lives grows lost in endless charades, and money fuels the moment. That is my village in summer.”

“I guess it’s just a sign of the times. So few, with so much.”

“I think this is not a very good time, no? For the many?”

Goodwin laughed. “I think that about sums it up. So, do you work in town as well?”

“Yes,” then she bit her lip and laughed. “And I saw you go swimming this morning!”

“That figures. I’d be surprised if you hadn’t.”

“Actually, I saw you come in this morning. While I walked to work. Your boat is very nice, almost, I don’t know – is pretty the correct word? Can you call a boat pretty?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Anyway, I watched, then as you fell asleep. You looked very tired.”

“I still am.”

“Oh, excuse me. Do you want to return?”

“No, no, the air feels wonderful, like it’s full of something, I don’t know, something wild and special.” He felt stupid, unable to understand what was happening to his thinking as they walked.

“So many stars out tonight. Ah, look!” she said, pointing to the eastern sky. “The Hunter.”

“Oh yes, Orion, the hunter. This is his time to come back to the sky.”

“Are you a hunter, Doctor Goodwin?”

He slowed, looked away for a moment. No, he wanted to say, I’m the prey, and I have been all my life. “Miss Morretti, I suspect, well, I’ve hunted Death all my life, tried to push Him away from people for as long as possible.”

“But Death hunts you too, does he not?”

“He hunts of all, Miss…”

“You must call me Margherita. Please.”

“Alright. I like the name, by the way. It’s – pretty.”

“Ah, yes, I guess I deserve that! So, you hunt Death. Then there is something I don’t understand. Why have you stopped? Why did you retire?”

“Oh, I think it’s the other way around, really. Medicine quit me.”

“Excuse me? What does this mean? How could something so vital grow so corrupt?”

He laughed again. “I don’t know, but that’s a very good question.”

“And, there is a very good answer?” Her voice held him – soothed him…

“When I figure that one out, I’ll let you know.”

It was her turn to laugh. “Yes. I will look forward to hearing this.”

“Are you two going to catch up?” It was Paulo, already lost in the darkness ahead. They could hear Elsie barking in the distance, Mary Ann calling the dog’s name. “That dog is almost out to the cape!”

“Go on ahead, Paulo,” Margherita called out. “We’ll be along.”

Goodwin stopped, looked east across the bay toward Santa Margherita Ligure and Rapallo; the loom of their lights had settled over the distant hills as an amber mist. “My God, what a sight.”

The waters seemed to breathe with magic now.

“Do you know, the worst part of living here is taking all this for granted. When the newness leaves, so too will it’s hold on your heart.”

“But don’t you find some measure of that feeling once again, when you experience newness through the eyes of another?”

“Perhaps I have lived too long here. I traveled from here but one time, a long time ago, yet it was not a happy experience.”

He watched the darkness fall over her, saw her recede from the present back into the pain she alluded to – a pain that obviously still maintained a deep hold on her.

He started walking again, and she fell in beside him, though she walked a little further away now. He bent down and picked up a flat sock and tried to skip it across the water. He laughed when it plopped noisily into the blackness, but he watched as ripples slipped into the distance.

“I had a boyfriend, you see,” she began, out of the blue. “A musician. My father liked him, but my mother said he was no good. We ran away. To Fiorenza, eh, Florence. That was the beginning of all my bad times.”

“What happened?”

“Oh, it is not important now. Papa died, mother refused to see me for years. I came home, found work, and so has it been ever since.”

“What happened to the boy?”

She looked away, walked along silently. Then: “Have you been to Florence, Dr Goodwin?”

“Yes, twice, but long ago. The first time with my father, the second…I was in college. I went with friends – but I don’t remember much beside the Duomo.”

“Is it not a most beautiful city?”

“Yes, I would say so. I would love to go back someday, see what I missed.”

“You should.”

“What about you? Would you ever return?”

“No, not ever.”

This boundary was clear; he felt no need to ask more.

“Mrs Doncaster thinks I should get a dog. To keep me company.”

“I find it strange. Yes, strange in the correct word – that someone would sail so far, and for so long, and to do so by one’s self. Have you had one before?”

“I, well, yes. I had a Springer Spaniel, like Elsie. She died a year ago.”

“Ah. That explains it.”

“Explains…what, exactly?”

“You do not want to dishonor her memory, do you? Take another so soon?”

“I suppose, but I don’t know how well a pup would do on a boat, on such a long crossing. I know of people who have taken cats on such trips, but dogs are another matter. I think it might be more than just a little cruel.”

“Perhaps, then, you should find a woman?”

“Ah, well, perhaps, but I think a dog would be a lot less trouble!”

They laughed. Her cares, he saw, seemed to fall away when she laughed.

“You are right, and most wise! Yes, we are too much trouble to love.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s a matter of finding the right person, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” she said. “No easy matter, to find that person.” She looked away again, her head fell.

“And I guess you have to be open to love, when it comes.” He found he could not look away from her, but he disliked staring and turned to face the sea again.

“Open, yes. And to follow. Follow with your heart.” And then she turned to look at him.

There it is, Goodwin told himself, the meaning of this night. Would she listen, could he see, would they follow?

He heard panting and light paws running their way, and soon he could just make out Elsie running towards them through the darkness. She came up to them and circled them, then she sniffed his legs. He bent to rub her and felt she was soaking wet.

“My-oh-my, Elsie, but you’ve been swimming!”

“Oh, Lord!” Margherita exclaimed. “I hope the Doncaster’s are not, how do you call it, skinny-dipping again!”

“You’ve got to be kidding me! Aren’t they a little old for that kind of nonsense?”

“Old? Why do say that, Doctor Goodwin? Why would it be any less fun tonight than fifty years younger?” She was smiling, but she was serious too. They resumed walking, the trees had given way to rocks, and now the sea beyond was still. Soon they could hear people ahead, splashing and laughing in the water.

“Well, for one thing,” Goodwin continued, “the water’s too damn cold!”

“And if anyone should know, that would be you!” Another laugh, another smile.

“Oh, thanks so very much for reminding me once again!” he said while looking at her dark hair flowing in the breeze. He could feel himself getting lost in that hair, of wanting…

Elsie ran back through the rocks as they caught up to Paulo; and Goodwin saw the Doncasters had rolled up their pants and were wading in a large rockbound tidal pool. Then Elsie jumped back into the water – and Mary Ann yelped when the wall of spray drenched her.

“So how is it?” Goodwin called out. “Cold enough for you?”

“Come on in!” Malcolm replied “Again!”

“No thanks, I’m trying to quit.”

“Bah! Paulo? What about you?”

Elsie climbed out and jumped up on a rock, then shook herself off, drenching the Doncaster’s once again.

“Good girl, Elsie,” Goodwin said, “you go get ‘em!”

“Eh, no thank you, Dr Doncaster,” Paulo said. “Once today was enough. Perhaps tomorrow I will feel the need to make a fool of myself again.”

“You are not a fool, Paulo.” Margherita said as she took off her shoes and rolled up her pant’s legs, then she walked from the path down to the little pool and walked in. “It is not so cold! Come, Paulo!”

Goodwin walked down to the water’s edge and reached down to feel the temperature. “Bullshit!” he cried, just as Elsie sprung from the rock back into the water. A wall of spray rose and coated both Goodwin and Margherita; now everyone laughed and cheered, even Paulo, who had escaped most of this drenching.

Goodwin started to unbutton his shirt and Margherita stepped back, watched him cast it aside. He undid his belt and pulled his trousers off and threw those up on the rocks as well, then walked past the pond and up a low wall of rocks along the edge of the sea. The water in front of him was deep, he saw, and he dove into the water and came up floating on his back; he paddled around for a moment – then looked up at everyone, looking at him…

…but Mary Ann Doncaster was buck-naked now, and she came out to the rock and dove in as well, then swam out to Goodwin.

“See what you’ve started!” she said. “My, it is a bit brisk, isn’t it?”

“I think I’m going to wish I’d brought a towel,” Goodwin said, then he turned at the sound of another large splash.

“Bravo, Paulo,” Margherita shouted, and sure enough Paulo Morretti burst from beneath the waves and paddled over to Goodwin and Mary Ann. He said something quite unintelligible into the night, but Mary Ann laughed, replied to him in Italian and they both laughed.

Malcolm was next. Goodwin watched is the old man’s pasty white body emerged from the pool, and laughed expectantly when Malcolm held his nose and hopped into the water like a small boy.

“Bravo!”

“Good show!”

“My God in Heaven!” Malcolm shouted when he burst to the surface. “I think my balls just scooted up somewhere around my nose! It’s bloody cold in here, Mary Ann!” He too paddled out into deeper waters.

Everyone turned to Margherita.

“Well?” Paulo called out.

“Well, what?” she called back.

“You too must come in!” her brother replied.

“And you are crazier than you think!”

“Come!”

“NO!”

Elsie came to the edge and looked at the four of them treading water, then back at Margherita; she barked once then hopped off the rock into the water and swam out to Goodwin. His feet were firmly planted on a slippery rock, his head well above the water’s surface, so he was able to hold Elsie when she came alongside. She looked at him and licked his face, and he looked into her eyes now madly in love with her.

“My God,” he heard Malcolm say, “I do believe…”

Goodwin turned and watched as Margherita, her nude form a moon-silvered-glow, dove into the sea.

Everyone hooted and hollered and splashed about as she stroked out to the deep water, and Elsie added to the commotion by howling –  at the rising moon.

Goodwin looked at Margherita as she came close; her hair was sleek and shiny now, the water had pulled shiny strands into a black jet that fell straight down the middle of her back, and now little drops of water on her forehead caught the moonlight. Goodwin thought they looked like diamonds scattered in the night.

He heard a thrashing in the water behind him, and someone gasped.

“Quiet!” Malcolm said. “Everyone be quite still.”

Goodwin turned, saw the fin slicing through the water, then another, and another.

Elsie barked. The fin turned towards the sound.

The fin arced lazily forward, then a dolphin’s grinning face broke the surface and rose into the moonlight. The pod came forward and slipped among the humans, members breaking the surface from time to time just long enough to look at the amazed people before slipping back under the water. The first one, however, remained near Goodwin, indeed, this one seemed to be staring right into Goodwin’s eyes. Elsie let slip a low growl, and yet the dolphin drifted even closer.

“It’s alright, Elsie,” Mary Ann said softly, apparently now quite nervous. “Easy girl. No barking.”

Unconvinced, Elsie looked at the gray face looking at Goodwin; she clung to him fiercely now, dug her paws into his shoulders and began to tremble. The face came closer still, now little more than five feet away.

Goodwin could hear the dolphin’s breathing clearly, even the faint sound of it’s blowhole opening and closing, and without thinking he held out his hand – towards the dolphin. The dolphin turned slightly, looked at Goodwin’s hand. The decision made, the dolphin closed the last few inches to Goodwin and held it’s pectoral fin out, touching Goodwin’s hand; it looked at him for several seconds more, then slipped quietly beneath the surface of the still water and was as quickly gone.

Goodwin noticed Elsie had stopped trembling, only now he was aware that he had been holding his breath.

“Good God!” Malcolm said. “I don’t believe it! I saw it, and I don’t believe it!”

Elsie pushed off now and swam to Mary Ann’s side; she’d obviously had enough excitement and the two of them made their way back to the rocks; Malcolm followed, then Paulo as well.

Goodwin remained frozen, looked out over the water as if waiting for something, and he thought of the breeze, the feeling of wild magic in the night air…

He felt Margherita behind him, felt her breasts against his back, then her hand on his shoulder. Still he did not move, he hardly breathed.

He saw the fin again, but this time there were two – side by side – moving through the water.

He held both his hands out now, watching and waiting – expecting what? He had no idea; he felt Margherita reach around with both hands, reach around and hold onto his chest, her body pressed to his, her flesh cool now, from the sea.

The first one returned; his snout rose slowly from the water and he looked at Goodwin again. Silence, an incredible stillness, only the faintest note of water passing between them, the hot breath of a million cycles, cycles of instinct and understanding – lost and waiting to be regained.

The second dolphin slipped quietly from water and into the moonlight, and this one looked at Goodwin, then at the woman on his back. Then the two dolphins came forward and touched Goodwin’s outstretched hands, and as quickly slipped under the water and disappeared.

Goodwin felt her trembling uncertainty through the hot skin of his back, but from the coldness of the water, or the symmetry of the encounter, he could not fathom the epicenter. She loosened her grip, he turned to face her, felt her nakedness conforming to his, and he looked into her eyes. She leaned into him, kissed him, reached down and rubbed him, then eased onto him.

He felt the warmth of her hand, then the all encompassing warmth of her womb as he entered her. He held her as they began to rock in the ebb and flow of a universe now all around them, her hands moved up and over his shoulders, her legs clasped his hips, and he met her pulsing need with instincts driven by a million cycles of being and becoming.

It built slowly, surely, this release, and he moved into her, with her, held her against the mounting pressure until he felt himself give in to the pressure she alone could commanded, and soon he felt this release pouring into the womb of the night.

Only then was he aware of them, of the two dolphins. They were circling this union, protecting the sanctity of this joining, holding fast to the music of the cycles, to the music of the spheres. Goodwin felt first one, then the other as they swam closer and closer, and finally as they brushed against the back of his legs. He felt them brush against Margherita, felt her orgasm stiffen through the pulses of the bodies that touched her.

That commanded her.

She slowed from this coming together, returned to earth from her journey through the stars, placed her mouth on his and he felt the warmth of love chase the coolness from the water around them.

They held one another, kissed once again, then slipped apart. He put an arm around her waist and turned toward the rocks. The Doncasters and Elsie stood transfixed in the moonlight, as did Paulo. Everything was naked and silent as if on the first day of creation, for there was no context of this union, for this passage. Shocked silence, reverence perhaps, seemed the only response.

Goodwin did not feel uncomfortable or ashamed. He did not know what had happened, or why, only that something beyond human understanding had been commanded, and had as naturally been enfolded into human experience. He felt different, altered, and if there was an opposite to feeling alone, this was the feeling that washed over him now.

He walked up onto the rocks and reached back to help Margherita climb out into the moonlight; Mary Ann passed their clothing and left them to dress in silence, then Goodwin and Margherita walked back to the road. There were no words spoken, only the memory of flesh remained, so hand in hand they walked with their friends back to the village.

Yet Elsie turned and looked back at the blackness, to the hot beating heart of the sea that remained fixed there, then she turned and looked at Goodwin and the woman. She smiled, smiled because she understood, she smiled because these human had over the span of ages lost sight of something elemental, and only now, deep in the womb of the sea, had they regained something precious.

Would they hold on to each other? Would this rebirth be lost in the light of other days?

Elsie turned and ran after Goodwin, settled in beside him as he walked. Every once in a while she looked up at him, at the music in his eyes, and she smiled as the memory came back again and again.

And he listened to the crunch of shoes on the old stone roadway, to the sigh of tidal floods finding land once again; he walked beneath gentle breezes drifting through trees overhead, and when he looked up he could smell loose tidal airs running silent fingers through his hair. The moon, now high in the vault of the night, cast spun silver through the trees, and Tom Goodwin could make out the shadows of his friends on the road as they walked back to the village, and to the boats along the quay he now called home.

But now more than anything, Tom Goodwin felt the dewy fragments of Margherita Morretti’s body washing across his soul, the intensity of the union coursing through his veins like a simmering fire. She walked by his side, walked there now as if she always had been by his side, and always would be there. They had walked out of the sea, had known each other for – perhaps – an hour, yet some wild magic had cast its spell on them.

Now, in the sharp, moon-borne shadows of this night, everything felt different – because everything was different. Trees felt alive in a way he had never understood before, the sea seethed with manifest purpose, like the sea alone held the chalice of memory. This silver moon arcing through the ink-stained night cast its silver light with seeming indifference, silent shadows gliding over glowing stone borne to witness the passage of time, but now Goodwin understood her shadows held more than darkness.

And he felt her arm entwined with his as an echo, her side pressed comfortably against his – like these shadows, perhaps. He could smell her from time to time, smell the intimacy of their union mingling with the primeval flows on the wind and in the sea. She washed over his thoughts like the tide: subtly, predictably, immutably – like their footsteps in the night.

Elsie walked quietly on the road beside them, she still looked up at him – at him – as if she alone understood the significance of events that had just left them all so breathlessly perplexed. He didn’t understand at first, she knew, couldn’t fathom what had happened, but after a few minutes looking at Goodwin she knew she was looking at someone who had just changed before her eyes. He had changed into something else – something new – an echo of something ancient, almost forgotten. The dog didn’t doubt her own ability to perceive; unlike them, she could see that much with her eyes. No, she doubted his ability to perceive. Did he have it in his soul to understand the consequences and the workings of the universe? Or was he really so simple? Were these others really so blind?

As time passed, as they came closer to the village and further from the depths of the encounter, Goodwin seemed adrift in the coolness of air and water. His clothes were wet, he felt a the chill in the air, felt this same chill overtake Margherita and Paulo and the Doncasters. It was as if the further they walked from the precise location of their union the colder they became, as if the fire they had started was in danger of weeping away uselessly into the darkness.

He felt her tremble and he held her tightly.

“We’re not far now,” he told her.

“Tom?” he heard her say.

“Please stay with me tonight,” he heard himself say.

“How did you know that? That those words were with me, and that it was of this that I was thinking?”

“Where else could you stay now?”

“Does it seem so clear to you? Have you felt something between us, as we walk?”

“I don’t have the words to describe what I feel, Margherita. I just have, have – I don’t know – an instinct, maybe? I feel a hand guiding me tonight. Maybe us, tonight.”

“Yes, so many things are alive in this night, I feel purpose. It is hard to contradict such a feeling, but I feel the past, not the future…”

“This pup understands. I can see it in her eyes.”

“Yes. I saw her looking at you in the water, when that animal first came to you. The dog was close to you, and I could have sworn she was talking to the fish, to that dolphin.”

“Really? That’s kind of, well, crazy sounding, don’t you think?”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, nothing, the whole thing seems other-worldly, almost like it didn’t happen – like a dream, maybe.”

The dog looked up at him, then bounded on ahead.

“Tom, I don’t think she appreciated that comment.”

“Obviously.” He could see his boat ahead, still moored next to the Doncaster’s, and he began to wonder how the rest of the night was going to take shape. He felt exhausted and hungry the closer he came to the village, the lingering warmth from the encounter regressing, moving back to the shadows – as if they could not take exposure to the present for any length of time.

And – who was this woman by his side? She was a stranger, and yet something impossible had just passed between them. Something neither real nor surreal, something beyond imagination and understanding – and it had passed between strangers. Now the realization hit him like a physical blow, winded him as insurmountable implications ran for the shadows.

“Obviously,” he said again. “I think we need to change clothes. Would you like to come aboard? I could make us some coffee?”

“Oh, doctor, I think I too must change into something dry, but . . .”

“But would you meet me for dinner?”

She seemed to drift in the implications of his offer for a moment, then came to a decision in the road. “Do you see that building, by the two street lights, there? That is the Ristorante Lo Stella. I will meet you there, in one hour.”

“Alright.”

“And doctor, bring your friends, would you? They seem very nice.”

“Yes, I’ll ask them.”

They came to their boats; Malcolm and Mary Ann were just going below, but Paulo was waiting for his sister, standing in the pale flickering light of an old gaslight on the quay.

“Paulo?” Goodwin said, “would you join us for dinner tonight? Your sister has recommended a place we meet in an hour.”

“Si, doctoré, that would be – nice. We have, I think, much to discuss about this night.”

Margherita seemed to turn ever so slightly away from her brother when she heard that, then she disengaged from Goodwin’s arm and stepped away, stepped out of the light and into the shadows once again. “I will see you both in an hour. Ciao!” she said lightly, but the cares of this night were already growing heavy on her mind.

“Yes. I will see you in an hour,” Paulo said as he turned to walk back to the village.

Goodwin stepped onto the Donacster’s boat to cross over to his; Malcolm was sitting in the cockpit surrounded by complete darkness. He had coffee on the table and was wrapped in a blanket, drying his face and hair.

“Ah, there you are, Sport! Got it together now?”

“I’m not sure that’s a word I would choose.”

“Yes. I don’t suppose I would, myself. Odd, wasn’t it? That animal?”

“Odd? I’m not sure ‘odd’ quite covers the sensation, Malcolm. Matter of fact, I’m not sure about much of anything right now.”

“Quite right. No reason to be. A complex situation, perhaps more so than you might imagine.”

“What are you…? Oh well, you’re both invited to dinner. In an hour, at that Stella place.”

“Sorry, Sport, but Mary Ann ducked into the head and said she’s straight off for bed.”

“Would you join us, then?”

“I’ll ask the Admiral when she gets out. Well, in any event, you’d better get cleaned up and to it. You’re frosty looking, getting hypothermic.”

“Yup, right you are.” Goodwin stepped across to Springer and opened the companionway; he reached in and flicked on a light and disappeared below. Doncaster looked at the village for a moment, then turned to look back toward the rocky cape where they had been not a half hour before. Shaking his head, he wrote in his journal, then dropped below to talk to Mary Ann, now as confused as she had been. Maybe even more so, given what he already knew about these things.

+++++

Goodwin and the Doncasters – both of them, as it turned out – walked to the ristorante and stepped inside. Paulo had a table and waved at them as they walked in the door. Goodwin took in the scene: this place was like any one of a million nice, upscale Mediterranean dives that seemed to sprout up all over Boston’s northside with nauseating regularity, but this was, he told himself, the real deal. The mood of the room was delicate, subdued, if not quite elegant then very Old World. The room’s lighting – all amber-hued crystalline shards casting oblique shadows on cream colored walls – only seemed to hint at deeper mysteries waiting to unfold, out there, perhaps, beyond the darkness, but waiting even now.

Goodwin made his way between tables as he followed the Doncasters to Paulo, and was surprised to see the young man dressed imperiously in black suit and tie. He felt a little out of place in his habitual khakis and polo shirt, and he really regretted leaving his boat shoes on.

He took Paulo’s hand. “Nice place…I can smell the kitchen from the boat? Surreal…”

“It is a nice place, doctoré. The octopus is the best in Italy.”

“Octopus?”

“Oh come on, Goodwin!” Malcolm said. “Remember, when in Rome…”

“Oh Mal, do shut up and leave the man alone!”

“Aye-aye, Admiral.”

“So, Paulo,” Mary Ann ignored her husband again, “where is that delightful sister of yours.”

“Here,” Margherita said, now walking up behind the Doncasters. Goodwin stood and held a chair out for her, and she came and sat next to him. “Sorry I am running a little late.”

“You look beautiful,” Goodwin said, and everyone smiled knowingly when he blushed. They looked at one another and a sudden, awkward silence fell over the table.

“So, doctoré, you have not had octopus before?”

“No, Paulo, ‘fraid not, unless you count calamari.”

“No, no, no! Calamari is bait! You are in for a rare treat tonight, doctoré. You will see.”

“Paulo,” Margherita said, “just because it is your favorite, you must not force it upon the doctoré; you must let our guest choose.”

“But…”

“Oh really, Tom,” Malcolm interjected, “anything they serve here will be beyond good. Very nice place. Top shelf kitchen.”

Mary Ann looked around the table. “I don’t want to talk about food. I want to talk about what happened out on the point tonight.”

An ancient man, the owner perhaps, came and dropped off a wine list; he looked at Tom as he asked if anyone cared for an aperitif. Paulo asked the weathered old man to bring a bottle of red wine the house recommended, then settled-in to look at Mary Ann and the elusive kindling she had so indelicately thrown into the flames. “What is there to talk about,” he stated. “We saw what we saw. There must be an explanation in nature, and that is all.” He seemed embarrassed, perhaps because he had stood by silently, helplessly, while events unfolded in the water, but he looked down at his own imploring hands now as if asking, no pleading, with his companions to drop such an unpleasant matter.

“I don’t know, Paulo. Something unusual happened,” Mary Ann was placating him, easing him into the topic. She needed an ally, and though the young man seemed reluctant to talk about the encounter, she sensed he was as deeply intrigued by events as she was.

Yet, she could not see fear behind his eyes, and she wondered why.

The ancient man returned with a bottle and opened it, passed the cork to Goodwin – who sniffed disapproval and handed it back. The old man poured a little and arched an eyebrow; sniffed the cork tentatively as he held the glass up to the light and frowned, then walked back to the kitchen.

“This is not something that happens everyday, Paulo, is it?” A tenacious Mary Ann wasn’t going to let the matter drop, and Malcolm sighed as he looked at Paulo.

Paulo shrugged, looked away.

“Paulo! Have you heard of something like this happening before?”

And still Paulo looked away.

Mary Ann grew stern, unrelenting. “Paulo? Why won’t you answer me?”

The ancient man returned with another bottle and began opening it.

“Oh come on, Mary Ann,” Malcolm said. “Leave the man alone. Two fish came up and played with Tom and Margherita. That’s all it was.”

The ancient man’s hands stopped, began to tremble; his eyes darted about the people around the table.

“Excuse me?” the old man said. “What did you say?”

“Tonight, off the cape, two dolphins came up to Dr Goodwin here,” Mary Ann recounted, “and Margherita joined Dr Goodwin and the fish circled them for a while, then swam off.”

The old man handed the bottle of wine to Paulo. “You pass this around Paulo.” He took a chair from another table and sat down next to Goodwin, then looked at Goodwin for a moment, then at Margherita. “Goodwin? From America?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“I’m sorry to be so indelicate, but was there a union between the two of you? A joining? Perhaps unexpected, out of the blue, light a bolt of lightning on a clear day?”

Margherita looked away, acutely embarrassed.

“That about sums it up,” Goodwin said; he then looked at Mary Ann and Paulo, both now judgmentally red-faced and suddenly quite unsure of themselves.

“You know,” the old man said, his voice now subdued – yet full of ancient purpose, “many people think the name Portofino means something like ‘fine port’, and though of course it is a fine port, those people are wrong. Quite wrong. Yes.”

He looked around the table at each of them.

“Pliny the Elder tells us from that most distant past an altogether different tale, and History has, you understand, a way of repeating itself.” He looked at Paulo again and frowned: “Eh, Paulo, I told you to pour the wine! Now get to it!”

“Si, Vico.”

The old man turned to a boy coming out of the kitchen: “Giuseppe, bring Marco here! Now!” he said as he clapped his hands twice, and the boy darted back into the kitchen. He drummed his fingers on the white linen tablecloth impatiently until a man in chef’s attire came to the table.

“Si, patron?”

“Bring us dinner. Nothing too heavy! That is all. Now go!”

“Si, patron!” The chef hurried from the table.

“He is a good cook, but, eh, what is this word . . . conceited? Yes? Too proud of his creations? Quick to abandon my own.”

He looked around the table: everyone looked at him expectantly.

“Anyway. Pliny the Elder. Yes. Pliny tells us that this village was, from Roman times, known as Portus Delphini, which you, Mister Goodwin, would call the Port of the Dolphin.”

“He is, Ludvico, this is doctoré Goodwin,” Paulo corrected the old man. “He is a physician. A heart surgeon.”

“Oh, really? But I thought he was the man you went swimming with this morning, Paulo?”

Goodwin smiled when Paulo looked down at the table; he saw the poor fellow smiling and shaking his head – all while turning pomegranate red. “This will never end, never,” Paulo said, looking up with a warm smile on his face. “I am ruined.”

Goodwin smiled, because he understood all too well.

“Anyway,” the old man continued, “there have always been dolphins in this sea, eh, what is your word, doctoré? This gulf we call the Tigullian. We have always been fishermen, in this village, and long after the Arabs and the Americans leave this is what we shall be again. We are linked, yes, this is the word? To the sea. Over many thousands of years. And as we have come to depend on the sea for our lives, so too the sea has had her gifts to bestow upon us.”

The old man took his glass and passed it to Paulo. “Do I have to ask again? Some wine, please, Paulo, or I will die of thirst!”

“I asked Paulo if the things we saw tonight have happened before,” Mary Ann interjected. “That seemed to upset him, you – Paulo, and I wonder why?”

“It is only legend,” Paulo replied. “An old story told to school children, nothing more.”

“And, what is this legend?” Malcolm asked, a twinkle in his eye – as if he was waiting patiently now, though only he knew how expectantly, for the keys to the kingdom.

“Let us come to that later, professoré,” the old man said. “First, we shall have some oysters and Pinot Grigio.” He clapped his hands and the chef wheeled out a cart heaped with fresh shellfish on a mountain of ice. Another boy brought fresh glasses and ice cold bottles of wine. The old man looked at Paulo and decided he’d better pour this round.

The chef shucked oysters and put them on plates next to shrimp and tiny lobster tails and, Goodwin saw, slender bits of what had to be octopus. He tossed off the rest of the red wine – then suddenly wished he hadn’t.

When everyone had been served the old man looked at them and smiled. He picked up his glass. “To health and love,” the old man began, and the others raised their glasses. Next, he looked first at Goodwin, then at Margherita. “And to miracles in the night,” he whispered.

“To health and love!” the rest said.

“Indeed,” Doncaster said. “That’s as it should be.”

The old man put down his glass and looked at his hands for a moment; he shook his head as if what he saw there was very disagreeable to him. “It is nauseating to get old,” he said. “My eyes see the same world they saw when I was twenty. But then I see these hands, or even my face in a mirror, and I wonder about the gifts that time bestows.”

“So what of this legend, sir?” Mary Ann asked again – in her reporters questing voice, for she was now clearly exasperated and wanted to get to the bottom of it all.

“Ah, yes. Well, you are all educated people, at least I assume this is so. You all know that throughout human history, dolphins have turned up in various mythologies?” He looked around the table, meeting their eyes.

“Of course,” Malcolm Doncaster said pedantically. “But do we see merely shadows on the wall of the cave, Ludvico. That is the more important question. Will men ever emerge from the shadows? Can our eyes stand the sight of truth in the plain light of day?”

“Eh, professoré, this is not an evening for Plato. No, my old friend, this night belongs to Bacchus, to Dionysus, perhaps.”

“My point exactly, Ludvico. How can we see what we do not know. There is no context. Believing and knowing masquerade as much the same thing, you understand. Yet without knowledge, belief is a very shallow vessel indeed.”

Paulo looked around the table nervously, first at his sister, then at Goodwin. This day, which had begun with such innocence and pleasure, was even now turning toward something beyond his understanding, to something he suspected was beyond all their understanding.

“So, professoré,” the old man continued, “you would not believe it if you saw Him tonight, in the sea, would you?”

“Him? You don’t mean Dionysus, do you? That’s bloody ridiculous!”

“Ah, so then, we are left to wander the caves. Indeed, perhaps this will be harder than I anticipated.” The old man took his glass and emptied it in one long pull and poured himself another. “Anyway, Mary Ann, dolphins are inextricably linked to this village, and as I said, our people have always looked to the sea for their living. No, for our very survival. It is said that when times have been hardest, when plague or famine or war have taken our men from the boats and the women have had to take to the sea, the dolphins have come to our aid. They come and drive fish into the net, they tend to women who fall into the sea, and as such, our families have survived. For thousands of years it has been against the laws of our land to kill a dolphin, and in years past, indeed until quite recently, this was a crime punishable by death. They were to us as the Gods, and we knew this on a very elemental level! But this is not so today. No, not at all today. Today we despair to worship anything other than money.”

“Just so, Ludvico, but you digress. In fact, isn’t there that remarkable tale of Dionysus and his Etruscan captors? If I’m not mistaken, wasn’t that supposed to have happened nearby?”

“Si, professoré. Yes, as you say, just so, for that tale leads to the heart of the matter. Dionysus was captured by pirates who mistook him for a nobleman, a prince, perhaps. He waited until they were far out to sea, before he struck. He caused the boat to turn to vines, the oars the sailors used turned to serpents in their hands as they rowed. In their panic the pirates jumped into the sea and began to drown. But Dionysus took pity on his captors, on these stupid mortals, and he turned them into dolphins. He commanded them to come to the aid of humans for the rest of their days on this earth. Surely I do not have to recite all of the stories of seamen being rescued by dolphins to table full of sailors?”

He finished this glass of wine while he looked around the table, then poured himself another and took a deep breath. “And yet even so, professoré, since that day at least, dolphins have been an intimate part of life in Portofino. They have helped our fishermen, they have helped sailors who have fallen from their boats make it back safely to their homes. All true.” He looked at his hands again and sighed. “But there has been so much more to this story, Malcolm, that even you do not know.”

“That’s why we’ve kept coming back, Ludvico. Year after year. This has been my quest, you know. For many, many years.”

“I know, old friend. But there was never reason to tell you the tale until now, until tonight. You could not understand. You could not, my friend, because you see only the shadows on the wall.”

“Is it just me,” Margherita said, “or has there been something more than unusual about this day, and this night?”

“Yes, indeed,” Malcolm sighed, “Margherita, I feel we are about to enjoin our mythologies tonight, bring them back into the light.”

“Oh dear God, no,” Mary Ann wailed in mock-hysteria. “Welcome to Mythology 101, starring Dr Malcolm Doncaster!”

“Oh piffle, Mary Ann! Really, must you be so quaintly boring!”

“Yes, lovey, I must. It is a great need of mine – to be as obtusely boring as I can possibly be, especially when you set-out to launch into one of your blasted literary tirades! You see, dear,” she said, turning on a syrupy sarcasm that was as humiliating as it was endearing, “it is my lot in life to serve you – your daily ration of humble pie!”

“Bah! Woman!”

“You two are simply amazing,” the old man said. “I have known you for twenty years – have I not? – and in all those years you have never changed. Never!”

“Nor shall we ever, Ludvico!” Malcolm said. “Now get on with it. I’m ready to hear this.”

“My, my, professoré! Such haste! Well, as I’m sure you know, accounts in the oldest, deepest mythologies depict dolphins as messengers of the old gods, but particularly of Poseidon, or Neptune as the case may be, and these dolphins were charged to run errands for Neptune, often to warn sailors of impending danger…”

“Holy shit!” Goodwin said. He turned pale as memory overtook conscious thought.

“What?” Malcolm jumped at the exclamation and turned to Goodwin. “What on earth’s the matter with you?”

“Something just came back to me.” He looked shocked as deeper insight gathered in the air around him. “Right after I left the states, just as I was entering the Gulf Stream, a pod of dolphins came alongside. I took their photograph, as a matter of fact. Anyway, one of them seemed very agitated, slapped his tail a lot as he swam alongside, standing right out of the water, swimming backwards and chattering away at me like he was trying to talk to me. That’s what I thought, at the time. Anyway, about an hour later the entire sky behind me filled with dark clouds and lightning, and a really vicious storm came on. I mean fast. Barely had time to get the boat ready for it. Funny, too, though it was really strong it lasted only minutes, maybe a half hour at most, then it was gone. The sun came out a few minutes later, and then the dolphins came back. I had the distinct impression that they had come back to check on me. The same one swam beside me for several minutes. We stared at one another for the longest time, and I remember his eyes.”

“I would like to see the pictures you took, doctoré.”

“Why?” Doncaster asked, now suddenly very intrigued.

The old man only smiled, took another sip of wine.

Goodwin looked at him. “You don’t think it’s the same one, the one out there tonight? That’s…”

“Not impossible, doctoré Goodwin?” the old man said. “Improbable, perhaps, but not impossible. What do you think, Malcolm?”

“No, no, Ludvico. I will wait until I have seen these photographs.”

“Understandable, professoré. But at any rate, while it may help to prove a point, several more need to be made before we achieve an understanding. This mystery has followed me all my life, so perhaps I can afford to wait a while longer.”

Margherita looked around the table, feeling plainly confused. She had been holding Goodwin’s hand for some time, at least until the wine started flowing easily around her, yet now her feelings were wrapped in turbulence, falling into a void. Their simple lovemaking earlier in the evening had now grown into something distorted and otherworldly, and was even now turning into the grotesque parody of an academic lecture. She wanted to leave, to go out under the stars and cry…but there was something in Ludvico’s voice that held her to the table, held her as if she was but a moth – to his flame…

“Well,” Goodwin said, “you’ve got my attention. Do go on.”

“Yes? I choose to believe there is something to this as well, my friend,” the old man said. “Yes, we know from our history the truth of the accusation: dolphins help men, and they do so with apparent purpose. Did you know, doctoré, that alone among all animals, only dolphins look at themselves in a mirror with a sense of recognition? Self awareness, doctoré! Awareness of others in the context of selfhood! Think of the implications! Where did this charge come from, this desire to aid humans in need? Dionysus? Why do they continue to be so inclined when faced with so much human malevolence to their kind? No, no, we will find no simple explanations to suffice the need, doctoré.”

Malcolm Doncaster was frowning now, deep in thought. He was searching his memory for…

“Now, before the next part of our dinner arrives, somebody must tell me exactly what happened in the sea tonight.”

Margherita felt the overwhelming desire to run now, but she remained planted in her chair as if held by forces beyond her control. She felt Goodwin’s eyes on hers, felt herself grow hot and flush with embarrassment.

“Margherita,” the old man said. “You must drink some more wine or this evening will grow intolerable for us all!”

“I am not so thirsty as some,” she replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Sorry.”

“And neither am I, but there are things we need to say to one another tonight, and it is not so easy sometimes to talk with strangers. So please, Margherita, drink some wine. It is good wine, and it will cause you no harm.”

She tossed off her glass and held it out petulantly, waiting for it to be refilled. “It is indeed fortunate this is a good Grigio, Ludvico. And because I get tipsy most easily, I hold you responsible for my actions tonight!” She tossed off this second glass and held it back out. “More!” she said, and Ludvico filled her glass.

Paulo looked-on, mortified, as if he finally understood where this evening was headed. The implications of loose tongues terrified him.

A course of broiled fish was served, and everyone turned to the food as an escape from the hazy implications that drifted lazily in the air above the table – like vultures circling a wounded animal.

The thought hit Goodwin and Mary Ann at exactly the same time, but she beat him to the punch. “Assume for a moment,” she began, slapping the table, “that the two dolphin we saw this evening are residents of this area. If that dolphin you photographed out in the Gulf Stream is the same one that came to you tonight, I’d say the implications would be beyond staggering. Wouldn’t that imply purpose?”

“Ah, si,” Ludvico said, smiling. “Very much, purpose, yes. Perhaps more than simply purpose.”

“How so?” Paulo asked.

“Well, a dolphin, or dolphins, from Portofino,” Mary Ann continued, “venture across the Atlantic to warn a sailor of an approaching storm, check up on him afterwards then disappear. This sailor then comes to Portofino where he is approached – in the water, mind you – by this same dolphin, and this dolphin compels two people into a commanded union?”

“Why, Paulo, the implications are clear as day!” Malcolm almost shouted. “That animal knew where Doctor Goodwin was headed months ago, perhaps before even Dr Goodwin was aware! That dolphin is, or was, protecting Doctor Goodwin! Has knowledge of, or understands the movement of people derived in a manner completely beyond our understanding! Margherita! What’s wrong?”

The young woman was trembling, holding on to the edge of the table as if her world was spinning violently out of control. Wide-eyed, turning pale, they heard her whispering: “It couldn’t be, it couldn’t be – no, it must not be…?”

“No!” Paulo shouted, slamming his hand down on the table. “Enough of this! Margherita! Come with me, now! We must leave!”

Her eyes full of remembrance, and terror, Margherita began to shake and cry. Goodwin instinctively put his arm protectively around her.

Ludvico stood and with both hands on the table leaned toward Paulo. “You must not interfere! Go if you must, but do not interfere, Paulo. There is too much at stake!”

The Doncasters looked at one another, then at Goodwin and Margherita. Even they were both rattled now. Mary Ann stood and went to Margherita’s chair, yet Malcolm stared now. At Ludvico, and the power he beheld in the old man’s eyes.

“Come with me, Margherita. Let’s go wash up, shall we?”

Margherita came back to them, looked around the room as if to make sure of her surroundings, then she stood and left with Mary Ann.

“Paulo, sit down!” the old man said.

“Eh…?”

“Sit, you fool!” He pointed at the table while he glowered at the young man with surreal fury in his eyes. “And doctoré? Perhaps you would be so kind as to go find this photograph? Would be a good idea, no?”

“By all means,” Malcolm said, “go. In fact, I’m going with you, old sport. I find myself in need of some fresh air.”

Goodwin pushed himself back from the table and stood. He looked from Paulo to the old man and back again, saw the contours of their need in faces he suddenly realized he’d known for ages, and he was disturbed by growing implications he could only now begin to fathom. “Yes. A good idea,” he said absent-mindedly, as his father came to mind. “Yes, Malcolm, let’s go.”

When the others were all gone, the old man looked at Paulo with sad eyes, for sad thoughts filled his heart. ‘So much to tell the boy. So little time.’

“So many things you could have been,” he said silently to Paulo, regret pure in his heart. “Why did you have to become the fool?”

+++++

“So, what do you make of all this?” Goodwin asked Doncaster when they were safely outside the ristorante. “And what was that stuff about you being on some sort of a quest?”

“Ah, well, come on Goodwin, let’s get your photographs, shall we? My interests here are probably of concern to only a few moldy old academics like myself. Now, how big are the photographs?”

“Well, they’re not printed up yet, they’re still on the card, but I figured I could download them onto my iPad and show them that way.”

“Can you print them up later, if necessary?”

“Yup, I have a printer onboard.”

“Smashing! Good to know.”

“You know Malcolm, you’re a hoot.”

“Only when absolutely necessary, old boy.”

“Yeah, I kinda figured that.” Goodwin hopped from the quay onto Doncaster’s Diogenes, then they made their way across to Springer. He dropped below and rummaged around until he found his camera bag, then took the CF cards to the chart table and powered up his Macbook.

“Might I come below?” Doncaster asked, his face peeking down from the companionway.

“What? Oh, sure, of course.”

“Holy Mother of God!” Doncaster said when he was fully below. “They must have felled whole forests to build this boat! It’s bloody fantastic!”

“What? Oh, yeah. Thanks.” Goodwin slipped the first card in and opened the catalogue. “Whew! This is the right card. I was afraid I’d have to sort through a dozen to find the right file.” He tapped a few keys and images flooded the screen; when he found the ones he was looking for he downloaded them to his iPad and put them in a slideshow, then closed the laptop. “Okay, that’s it. Let’s boogey!

“Boogey? My God! Are you one of them? A real hippie? I’ve never met one before, you know?”

“Yeah, Malcolm, that’s me. Peace, love, dope, and keep on truckin’! Come on, let’s get back.”

“You don’t want to watch it first?”

“Doesn’t matter much, Malcolm, does it? I mean, without some record of what the dolphin here looks like, there’s no real proof, is there?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Ludvico knows.”

“Nothing would surprise me about the guy, Malcolm. Not one goddamn thing.”

+++++

Maria Theresa Morretti sat by the open window that looked out over the dark sea, a black shawl draped over her shoulders to ward off the night air. She had been sitting in the same chair since coming in from Passeggiata earlier that evening; now she watched moonlight dancing on tiny waves in the harbor below. She had, she thought, so much to be grateful for. Only that one dark spot on her soul remained. Would that time allow, she drifted on waves of stillborn hope, hoping for a return. She wanted to see him – again.

She had not seen the encounter off the cape; her eyes were no longer good for seeing things so far away, but she had known on the most elemental level of instinct what was happening out there in the darkness, and between whom. She leaned back in her chair, looked at the inconstant moon and the many moods that swung in her orbit, and she smiled. ‘If not me, then perhaps…’

Yes, it is good to have so many memories, she thought – even bad memories have their time, their place. The chance glancing warmth of memory is so comforting, especially when all that remains on a darkening sea is the coming of night.

Toni, her youngest, brought a cup of tea and sat by her side, and the warm china felt good on her bones. Cool breezes drifted by unseen, parted sheer curtains on the window to her world, and like the petals of flowers opening she could smell him once again. She could smell the sea, feel the cool breezes that had pushed them together now more than sixty five years ago. She closed her eyes, saw him falling into the sea again in all his flaming glory. She heard explosions echo through corridors of memory, fire as it consumed the sea, the never ending ruin of war dancing to ghostly anthems beyond understanding and meaning. The men who came to her in their need, and the men who were taken away to march into the fire. Yet the memory of him, of the day he came to her – that alone made her days bearable.

Oh yes, there was that day, and only that. Her day of miracles. The day he fell from a burning sky, the day he came to her on flaming wings, both of them – waiting to be reborn.

+++++

Goodwin followed Doncaster back to the ristorante, back to the table. They were there, all of them – waiting in the shadowed light. Mary Ann and Margherita were together now, though the younger woman’s face was red from so much wine and fires of so many conflicting emotions. And Paulo was still there too, looking concerned for his sister, dreading the possibilities the night held in tenuous abeyance. Goodwin sat down, put his iPad on the table as a prosecutor might present damning evidence at trial.

The old man looked at the computer, his eyes full of dancing mischief. He took another sip of wine. “What is this? This is not a photograph.”

Goodwin explained; the old man listened politely to descriptions of digital cameras and compact flash cards, but he waved such folly dismissively from the air with an errant hand.

“I see,” the old man said as Goodwin’s technical explanations fell to the ground, for he knew like all the other bitter illusions of life, this too would pass. “So, this is as it must be, of course. Things change, and I assume for the better, but nevertheless we must begin our journey now, for time grows short.” He looked around the table. “Obviously, I have not seen Goodwin’s photographs before, but I am going to hazard a guess. I am going to say that the dolphin the good doctoré saw, the one so agitated, trying to warn Goodwin of the coming storm, has two small scars on his left side, not far below the eye. He will have two dark spots, small but nevertheless visible, under his right eye. And, I am going to guess that the doctoré’s talisman is indeed a native of these waters.”

“Preposterous!” Malcolm shouted.

“Now lovey,” Mary Ann chided, “do try not to be such an ass!”

“Bah!”

“Must I stay for this?” Paulo asked.

The old man looked at the boy, his patience wearing thin. “Si, Paulo, I would like you to stay. I don’t know why, but perhaps you were there at the cape tonight for a reason, so you may yet have a part to play in this drama. Now if you please, doctoré Goodwin, may we see these photographs?”

Goodwin opened the file and the slideshow started; he turned the screen so everyone could see. The first image that came up was of Goodwin’s friends on the dock waving as he pulled away from land at the beginning of his voyage across the Atlantic, then a few more images of friends following him out to sea for a few miles, for a few last goodbyes, then several of a very dramatic sunset followed. The very next frame was of a dark sea, of torpedo shapes beside Springer as the boat pushed through heavy seas. The dolphins in the image were dark grey on top and shockingly white below, a few had specks of dark coppery brown down their sides. The light wasn’t good but the images were in sharp focus, and Goodwin cycled through them until the old man called out: “Stop! There!”

Goodwin turned the screen a bit so he could see better; the photograph showed the dolphin who had warned him, and it was plain that there were no scars or spots in the relevant areas. “So, nothing! This isn’t him,” Goodwin said smugly.

“No, no,” the old man said, now clearly exasperated, “not her! Him! Look at the one behind!”

Godwin looked at the photograph again; he looked at the dolphin behind the one busy warning him. The image was of the right side of this other dolphin, and two dark spots were clearly visible under the eye as the animal just barely arced out of the water.

“Coincidence!” Doncaster shouted. “Nothing but bloody coincidence!”

“Perhaps,” the old man said. “We need to see more of this dolphin, eh doctoré. Surely there is another photograph?”

Goodwin resumed the slide show. The alleged female was visibly agitated in many of the images, and Malcolm made a snide comment about the resemblance of this dolphin to Mary Ann. This earned him a round of laughter and a swift kick under the table.

The next image came and everyone gasped. Goodwin paused the slide show and zoomed in on the image. There was no doubt about it; there below the left eye were two old scars, probably made by an encounter with a propeller years ago. Goodwin looked at the old man; he wasn’t even looking at the images . . . he was eating cheese and reaching for his glass of wine.

“I will be damned,” Doncaster said quietly.

“Oh, surely not, Malcolm,” the old man said. “You’ve led an honorable life.” He smiled at Doncaster, then looked at Margherita. “My dear, you recognize him, don’t you?”

“Si.”

“It is the same one, from all those years ago?” he continued.

“Si, I believe so. But how can this be?”

“And was this the same one you were with tonight?” the old man asked.

“I am not sure. I could not see him well,” Margherita said.

“I could,” Goodwin said. “and it’s him, alright.”

“Are you certain, Goodwin?” Doncaster said. “I mean, absolutely certain?”

“Yes, I think so. But Ludvico, what were you implying when you asked Margherita if this was the same one? From many years ago?”

“Oh, I imply nothing, doctoré,” the old man said impishly. “It was merely an observation of fact.”

“Margherita?” Doncaster asked. “What does he mean?”

She looked around the table uncertainly. Paulo was ashen-faced, his beliefs shaken to their core, Mary Ann was erect in her chair staring off into the infinite. Malcolm leaned forward, rested his forehead in his hands as if nursing a sudden headache. The old man had resumed picking at his food, though he had a smile on his face. Only Goodwin was looking at her now, and she saw in his eyes that he alone was on the verge of understanding.

“Yes, Tom. Many years ago, when I was twelve, no, thirteen, I was fishing with my father on his boat. My foot was caught in a net as it was thrown into the sea, and it pulled me in. The men on the boat did not see this happen, not even Papa was aware.” She looked down now, down into the dark well of deepest memory. “I remember the water, how clear it was, the nets spreading out around me, my ankle caught in the line, but what I remember most was the sunlight, and how it spread out and filtered down through the blue, and I could see Papa’s boat, the propellers as they turned in the water, the bubbles behind the boat as it moved away. I was never afraid, the whole event was almost peaceful. I knew I was to die, right then, and there was nothing for me to do. Then I felt him. Not rude or subtle, but I remember his eyes, the way he looked at me. I knew what he wanted me to do. I put my hand on his great fin and he pulled me to the surface, he swam alongside Papa’s boat until one of the men saw me. Papa jumped in and cut the line from me. The dolphin was gone by then; he left as quickly and as silently as he came to me.”

She had to stop talking now, as gales of memory tore through her, and it was as if she had fallen into the sea once again, and she felt lost in the powerlessness of the moment – once again.

“And you’re saying, if I understand you correctly, this is the same one?” Goodwin asked softly, pointing at the screen. “This dolphin, here with me in the Atlantic last May, is the one who saved you? What, how many years ago?”

“Si, doctoré. Almost thirty years ago. Yes. The same one.”

Goodwin slumped back in his seat, sighed heavily as the weight of implication settled on his soul. ‘Impossible,’ he muttered to himself.

“Yes, doctoré Goodwin. This was no accident of chance.” The old man pointed at the screen with his fork, and for all the world Goodwin had to stifle the laugh that spread through him when he saw the old man so, for he looked just then like an old statue of Neptune he had seen once.

“Alright,” Mary Ann asked, clearly full of subdued anxiety. “I have a picture of these events in my mind, but why would Paulo not tell me what he knew . . .”

“Because,” the old man sighed, “Paulo doesn’t know the story in it’s entirety. He has played but a minor role in these matters. At least so far.”

“Now just what the devil does that mean, Ludvico?” Malcolm asked. “This is riddle upon riddle without end!”

“Eh? Sorry, professoré! Perhaps we will achieve clarity before the sun rises. Perhaps not. It is as you say; we are denizens of the cave, not inclined to accept some truths even in the light of day.”

“Clarity! Who’s talking about clarity? We’re talking about purpose! Purpose beyond our understanding!”

“Just so, professoré. But I do not need Paulo to talk of his role in these matters just yet.”

Goodwin continued to stare at the old man. It was as if by association with these mysteries that he could just see the skin of the old man ripple and reform right before his eyes; he could fathom another being lying just beneath that which was apparent to his senses. It was just an impression, an impression of huge blue eyes and bright red wavy hair, but it wavered in the air before him for a moment – and then was as suddenly gone. He shook his head, told himself he’d had too much to drink while he reached for his glass. But the visage held him, caught somewhere on the very boundary between instinct and memory…

“And what is your role in these matters, Ludvico?” Goodwin asked.

The old man turned to face him slowly, the smile on his face gentle, knowing, and full of incomprehensible power. “It is your time, Tom Goodwin. Your time to finish what was begun. I am just a simple guide, that is all. Do not fear me.”

Goodwin shook his head. “Nope. Sorry. I’ve had enough. I’m tired and I’m going to bed.” Goodwin shut down the iPad and stood. “It’s been nice, a real slice,” he said. “Somebody let me know what I owe for this shindig, okay? I’m out of here.”

“Tom,” Margherita said, an edge of deep sorrow in her voice, “you must not leave me. Not yet.”

“Then come with me. Now.”

“She can not, Tom.” Ludvico continued to smile benignly at him, but now there was more than a hint of power gathering in his voice.

“And why not?”

“Tom, sit down please. Sit, and tell us why of all the places in the world you could have chosen to run, why did you choose to come here. To this village, to this harbor.”

“I’m not sure I’d say I was running away from anything, not really.”

“No? Well, perhaps not, Tom. But then, are you running towards something?”

“What’s your game, old man? What are you getting at?”

“Is it a game, Tom?” Ludvico said calmly. “Are you running from the truth, or to the truth?”

Goodwin sat down, sighed as defeat caught him unawares. “I don’t know,” he said, clearly exhausted. “After what happened out there? I don’t know anything anymore.”

“Tom?” It was Mary Ann speaking now. “Does this have something to do with what happened to your mother? Between you and your father?”

Goodwin looked at Mary Ann; his eyes accused her of an immense betrayal.

“Tom? Doctoré Goodwin? Tell us what this means. It could help us understand.”

Goodwin looked from Mary Ann to the old man. “Why? Understand what?”

“Let us come to that after you tell us of this struggle between you and your father. Please Tom. Do not fail us now. We are so close.”

“Close?”

“Yes, Tom. Close, to the truth. To a resolution too long in coming, too long denied.”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Goodwin said.

“I know, Tom. You are too close, but to just one part of the story, but I have seen a great unfolding over many years, and I have seen the hearts of many people touched in it’s telling. And this story is too big to be about one person, Tom. Still, you are obviously a key piece of the puzzle, and I need to understand why. You need to know why you were chosen.”

“Chosen?”

“Yes, Tom. How did these events choose to find you, and why were these dolphins there if not to protect you. To what end? From what? Do you not care? Do you not want to know?”

He looked away – into the heart of memory – and he tried not to turn away. “My mother grew ill, her heart was failing almost two years ago. She wanted me to perform the surgery; I refused, it’s ethically questionable and against medical practice to operate on family members unless no other surgeon is available, and that wasn’t the case. She insisted, then too, so did my father.” Goodwin was lost as these memories washed over him. “I continued to resist, colleagues and administrators supported my decision, we found others to perform the surgery and yet still my mother refused, and so in the end I relented. She went into SCD, sudden cardiac death, and she died, after we got her on bypass.” Goodwin pinched the bridge of his nose as he relived the moment, and he looked away. “My father condemned me, in effect disowned me, told everyone that I had murdered my mother. I left my life behind, rather than face his hatred. I left that life behind because I was tired of all it had taken from me.”

“Yes. He is hot tempered. He always has been.”

Tom Goodwin reeled under the implications of the old man’s words, his world turned grey, distorted tunnel vision defined his view of the old man.

“You knew my father?”

Everyone around the table turned to look at the old man.

“Yes, Tom. There was a time when I called your father my friend.”

Mary Ann Doncaster’s mouth fell open, Paulo shook his head, a bead of perspiration formed on his forehead.

“Oh-h-h, this just gets better and better,” Malcolm said.

“The seventh of July?” Margherita whispered. “1943.”

“Yes,” the old man said as he looked at the physician. Goodwin flinched as the number bit into him, as memory of another day with his father returned.

“Alright, I’ll bite,” Malcolm said. “What happened in July, 1943?”

“My father’s B-24 was shot down.” Goodwin said stonily.

“Go on,” the old man said, but he was looking at Margherita as he spoke, concern in his eyes racing now, like a wildfire before savage winds.

“His unit was based in North Africa; they were flying raids all over southern Europe. He never talked much about it, but one day over northern Italy his plane got shot up pretty bad. I think he said he was trying to get to Corsica or Sardinia, he didn’t have enough fuel to return to his base in Africa. A German fighter jumped him somewhere near Genoa, the gunners still alive on his airplane held the fighter off, but it managed to shoot up his plane even more. A few of the surviving men bailed-out over land; Dad bailed-out somewhere over the sea and partisans hid him until invasion forces reached the area. Then he went back to flying, finished the war, as a matter of fact, bombing Berlin more than once as the Russians closed in.”

“And so, he continued to fly, even after the war?” the old man asked, though he was still looking at Margherita.

“Yeah, he flew for TWA until he retired.”

“And did he ever talk about the day he crashed? The things that happened to him that day? Or about his time with, as you say, the Partisans?”

“No, not once that I recall.” He looked away for a moment, then back at the old man.  “Refused to, as a matter of fact, now that I think about it.”

“Oh, no, don’t tell me…” Malcolm groaned.

“Yes,” the old man said. “I watched him falling, from right over there Tom, from that window. His parachute was on fire, and he hit the water at an incredible speed. There, right off the cape, a few kilometers out there, in the sea.”

“Oh, no…” Doncaster too grew visibly upset, he too began to sweat as implications danced all round the room.

“Yes, Malcolm. That same dolphin brought Tom’s father to our little harbor. To a boat that was moored exactly, Tom, where your boat was this morning. Where you were, if I may be so indelicate, when you so graciously fell into the sea. And to that end, I suppose we should thank Paulo for his part in this drama. Eh, bravo, Paulo!”

“Yeah, glad I could be of help. Now fuck off!”

“There’s an odd symmetry about that, don’t you think, Tom?” Doncaster croaked.

“You know, Malcolm, you continue to be a master of understatement.”

“Thank you so very much.” Malcolm was rubbing his temples now.

“Wasn’t he hurt,” Mary Ann asked, “in the fall?”

“Yes, but not badly. He was tended to by a young woman in the village who had begun nursing school before the war. She had just come home to be with her family when America was pulled into the war.” The old man paused, looked at Goodwin. “Your father fell in love with her, Tom.”

“Who was she?” Goodwin asked. “Is she still alive?”

“Oh yes, very much so. In fact, you walked with her this evening.”

“Mrs Morretti? Margherita’s mother! Oh, come on now! You can’t be serious!”

Paulo had been very still in the moments leading up to this exchange. “Oh si, doctoré Goodwin, this is most serious. Of that I can assure you.”

“My father and your mother! Are we . . .”

“Oh, no, no, doctoré,” the old man continued, “Margherita is in no way related to you.”

“I feel sick,” Goodwin said. “Excuse me…” He stood and left the table, walked out into the night. Margherita looked at Goodwin as he left, then looked at the old man.

He nodded to her, “Yes, you may go to him. He is confused now, so be careful not to offend his sensibilities further.”

Margherita followed Goodwin into the night. She walked onto the piazza and looked around, her eyes adjusting to the darkness, then she saw him sitting along the quay, his feet dangling just above the blackness, looking out to sea. She walked over to him and sat down, put her head on his shoulder, and she smiled inside when he didn’t pull away. She could feel the heat of his soul’s fire on her skin, she could hear his heart beating to the music of the spheres. It was a good, deep, steady heartbeat, strong, his song full of life and, she knew, full of love.

“This must not be easy for you,” he said to her, though his soul felt heavy and careworn.

“I never had any idea, about your father, I mean.”

“Neither did I – who could know all this stuff?” He drifted for a while, thoughts of symmetry crossed his mind’s eye . . . “Can you, would you tell me about your father?”

“He was a fisherman, but only just. He was from Rapallo, over there,” she said, pointing at a glowing smudge beneath the mountains. “But I think he was a very complex man who yearned for a simple life, for simplicity. He went to university to become a lawyer, yes, right after the war, but he stopped for some reason. Nobody knows, but I think he hated duplicity. He went to work for a fisherman, worked for years making barely enough to eat. Then he met my mother, moved to our village and went to work for my grandfather, on my grandfather’s boats. When my grandfather died, he took over for a while. He had married my mother by then; that was, I think in 1953. He developed cancer in his lungs and died years later. He was a very unhappy man.”

“So your mother never mentioned my father?”

“No, not really. But I wonder. There was a man here from time to time. He helped her. When all was lost, when my father was at his worst, I remember a man.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, when were you born?”

“1965. The seventh of July.”

“Oh. Twenty one years to the day. You know, the number seven keeps popping up. Weird.”

“I did not see that.”

“Probably not important. What about your brothers? When did they come along?”

“Paulo in 1967, and Antonio in 1970. Yes, I see what you mean about the number seven. What could this mean?”

“Beat’s me. Numerology was never my thing, but I know a lot of people who read a lot into numbers; the ancient Greeks certainly did. Like the year you were born, 1965. Add the numbers up. That’s twenty one, or seven times three. So your birthday is seven, seven, and seven times three. Twenty one years after your mother and my father…”

“Can this be coincidence?”

“Two ways of looking at the world, Margherita. Things either happen for a reason – or they don’t. If you believe things happen for a reason, then I guess you believe in God. If nothing has reason or purpose, then I guess you can’t believe in something like that. Yet there are the people like me; people who can’t make up their mind.”

“It would be impossible for me not to believe in God. I cannot imagine death without believing there is something more. If I knew there was nothing more, I think I could not live a sane existence. If there would be a world without – purpose, as you say it – then right and wrong, good and evil, all those things our souls struggle with would be without meaning. Do you think this possible?”

“Margherita, I’ve been a physician for almost thirty years. A scientist. I mean hard core science. And I hate to say it, but in all that time I’ve never seen one thing that made me think there was a divine plan to any of this. Why does this innocent baby die while that drunken criminal lives a happy, carefree life. Or just look up at the sky. Imagine the incredible distances involved between us and that smudge in Orion’s belt. And that smudge is alive with stars being born right this instant! The impossible scale of it all!”

“We are small,” she said, yet he could feel the warmth in her voice. “And still we believe that our problems are so big.”

He put his arm around her shoulder. “How do you feel about tonight, Margherita? About what happened out there in the water?”

“How do I feel? I don’t know the right words, but let me say that I felt it was commanded of us. I know that sounds stupid. But I felt purpose, yes, that is the word. I felt there was a greater purpose in what we did, yet I feel something much more important happened to me. To us.”

“And…?”

“I think we, you and I, were brought together. For a purpose, yes, for a reason. But not to join and then fly away on the wind. And…”

“Yes, I know. Your mother, my father; was there a union between them, and what happened to them as a result? Did something else happen, something go wrong? Is that why we were brought together?”

“That would explain much, wouldn’t it? Perhaps Ludvico knows.”

“Who is he? This Ludvico? Is he a relative?”

“No, but he has loved my mother since she was a little girl. They were in school together. Then the war came. His brothers went off to fight, but he was yet too young and remained to help with the boats and the ristorante. He loved my mother, or so she has told me, and then something happened.”

“Yeah. My father happened. He, what did he say, fell from the sky?”

“Si, yes. From the sky. Like an angel.”

“If there’s one thing my father is not…”

“Tom! Quiet!! Don’t move…”

“What is it,” Goodwin whispered.

“Look down, there in the water. By your…”

“Oh my…”

The dolphin was there, on his side, and he was quite still now, his black eye looking up at them, the two scars plainly visible in the waning moonlight. Goodwin could hear its breath again, could see lights from the village reflected in its eye – or did he see stars reflected in his eye?

“What do you want?” Goodwin asked. “What do you want from me!?”

The dolphin continued to look into Goodwin’s eyes.

“Do not speak now, Tom. Just let him be.”

The dolphin raised his head from the water slightly, then slipped under and was gone.

“I think I just wet my pants,” Goodwin said.

“You ain’t the only,” Malcolm Doncaster said.

“How long have you been standing there!” Goodwin said, his anger welling up.

“I was just coming out to ask the two of you to come back inside when I heard Margherita, telling you to be quiet. I stopped dead in my tracks until I heard you talking to it, then I came forward. When he saw me, by God, I think that’s when he slipped away. Could you see his face, Goodwin? The scars or the spots?”

“Two scars, left side. Just like the photo.”

“You know what, Tom? I’m getting too old for this kind of thing.”

Goodwin laughed. “Alright smart-ass, why don’t you tell me exactly what a good age would be for dealing with crap like this!”

“I see your point. Well taken.”

“Good. I’m glad. That means I’m not the only one going stark-raving mad out here on a dock at half past whatever! And I’m just not drunk enough for this kind of bullshit, you know, Malcolm? It’s time to go and get good and pissed!”

“Here, here. I second that.”

“Would you two be quiet,” Margherita said.

They turned and looked at her; she was staring at something in the little harbor.

“They are both here now,” she said. “There, Tom, behind your boat.”

“I say, Goodwin, I think she’s right.”

He looked at the moon-dappled water…it was hard to make anything out…but yes, there, about ten yards aft of Springer, a dark shape moved on the water, then another.

“Alright, Doncaster. Go and tell the others. Watch from the windows, but don’t come out. Margherita, will you come with me?” He stood, held out his hand and helped her up. She just nodded, then they walked away from Doncaster and the ristorante, and on towards the Springer. The closer they came to the boats, the more apparent it was there were two of them circling behind his boat.

“I am not so sure I want to do this, Tom.”

“Yeah? Well I’m absolutely sure I don’t want to do this!”

“So why…?”

“Oh come off it, Margherita. They’re here. They’ve come for us. After what I’ve heard tonight I’m not sure there’s not a goddamn UFO out there somewhere, and these two clowns are here to escort us up to their goddamn mother-ship!”

He heard her giggle and he started to laugh.

“Tom Goodwin! You are a crazy man, but I think I am in love with you!”

Goodwin stopped, looked down at her face, at the moonlight in her eyes, and he kissed her. Gently at first, but soon with a force, a passion that left them both breathless. He could taste wine on her tongue, feel the intensity of her response in his chest.

Suddenly she pulled back from him, but she was smiling and held out her hand.

“Come! Let’s go see them!” she said as she pulled him along. He couldn’t resist the pull of her smile, so he ran along beside her until they came to Diogenes; he jumped on board then turned to help her across, then helped her cross to Springer. He made his way to the back of the cockpit and stepped down onto the swim platform. Margherita had a little difficulty making it over the rail but he guided her leg over, and soon they were sitting on the platform, their bare feet disappearing into the cool darkness.

She felt it first and jumped, then laughed, and she gripped his arm. “Her skin is so smooth,” she whispered.

Goodwin could just make out the cool grey form as it slid by in the darkness, then one of the dolphins burst from the water like a rocket and arced up into the night sky, spinning as it climbed; it came down on it’s back, creating a huge splash and a wave that washed up onto Goodwin and Margherita.

The acrobat slipped alongside Goodwin’s feet, just lightly rubbed along the soles of his feet, then turned and surfaced next to the platform. Lying silently on his side, two scars still visible in the starlight, and the dolphin continued to stare at Goodwin. The other dolphin surfaced and assumed position just beside the first.

Goodwin lifted himself from the platform with his hands, then pushed-off into the water.

“Tom! What are you doing?”

“I have no goddamn idea!” he said as he shook water from his ears.

“You’ll freeze to death! Get out!”

The one with two scars came alongside Goodwin, rolled and presented his dorsal fin, and Goodwin took it.

It was almost like sailing. That was his first thought. Moving silently, swiftly through the water, he held onto the fin as the dolphin slid silently out of the harbor, only once turning to look back at Margherita on the boat.

It was over almost as soon as it had begun. Two Scars and Goodwin were back off the cape and the waters where he and Margherita had joined earlier. He left Goodwin standing in waist-deep water but continued to circle slowly, as if waiting.

It wasn’t long before Goodwin understood.

He heard Margherita’s laughter, saw her head and shoulders gliding across the water toward the cape.

“What, you didn’t have enough of a show earlier?!” Goodwin quipped. Two Scar squirted water from his mouth, the water hit him squarely in his face, then he slid beneath the water; Margherita came alongside and slipped from the other dolphin’s back.

“Well, this seems clear enough,” she said as she drifted over to Goodwin.

The two dolphins surfaced side by side, began to circle the two humans in the water.

“Yes, clear enough.” Goodwin looked into her eyes as she climbed onto him; he managed to push his khakis down, then his skivvies. She had her arms around his neck now, and she lifted herself over him again. She had the barest panties on; he slid these aside and entered her in one slight movement. He felt the warmth of her – like star birth – fusing with him in the darkness.

She arched backwards, looked overhead at the water above, felt the two swimming beside her, joining her in this dance, their sounds together joining in new music. She rocked forward, her eyes half closed as the ecstasy she felt spread from her loins through her body; it was as if she was riding a wave, then wave upon wave built and crested as she rocked and arced through the starry night.

She could feel them now, both of them – swimming furiously around the womb of their night, the sea turning into a milky brine as seeds of a million lost generations mingled, as if inside this primordial moment both purpose and destiny were finally fusing.

She looked at Goodwin, at the look of bewildered intensity on his face, and she was aware that she was swaying now from side to side as the water carried her to and fro like a tattered remnant of seaweed on an ebbing tide.

One of the dolphins lay by her, adrift, dozing on the surface, and she reached out to touch it. She ran her hand along its side, felt deep muscle under smooth skin, and she was amazed by the colors it took from the night. The last of the night’s stars fell on the dolphin’s skin and glittered like tiny emeralds, and though the first warming rays of the rising sun were still far away, there was an amber-winged warmth casting pale light on far away skin, and the cool grays of her seaborne skin melted into the heart-fires of their creation.

She could feel the muscles of her womb contracting, feel the solid length of Goodwin still ensconced in the milky warmth of this second joining. Then she felt the tender arms of sleep carrying her away, away into the last of the darkness, the last of this – eternal night.

+++++

0530 hours, 07 July 1943

98th Bomb Wing, United States Army Air Corp, Eighth Air Force

Terria Air Base, south of Benghazi, The Libya

The B-24s were lined-up in formation on hard-packed sand in pre-dawn silence, but already men swarmed around the ungainly beasts – loading bombs and .50 caliber ammunition and hundreds of gallons of gasoline into each of the twenty one aircraft. Mechanics drifted among the aircraft signing off on repair orders and modifications, checking tire pressures and oil levels for the umpteenth time, while gunners walked just far enough away from the fuel-laden Liberators to smoke one last cigarette – before following more bombs and bullets up into the belly of their assigned beasts. The sun was still well below the horizon, yet already the day was shaping up to be another hot one, and tired men were beginning to sweat as fear and exhaustion mingled with piss-stained coffee and nervous, bile-laden vomit that disappeared into a barely warming earth.

Pilots walked from their briefing hut, climbed into Jeeps and trucks, rode out to their assigned aircraft while they shuffled briefing notes and call signs in their minds. One Jeep stopped beside a B-24 that had the name “Hell’s Belles” painted in red and yellow just under the cockpit windows, the words so framed by the arced bodies of a three lingerie clad women thrusting breasts forward in apparent defiance of anyone or anything in authority, each proudly thrusting their middle fingers at, one assumed, Adolf Hitler. The pilot and co-pilot stepped from the jeep as it rolled to a stop and wordlessly began their pre-flight inspections of the aircraft.

The co-pilot, an infantile lieutenant from Freer, Texas by the name of Hank Needham, was a lanky blond haired fellow with a crude joke and a ready smile always on hand. Needham’s reckless smile was almost always graced by a thoroughly chewed-up toothpick dangling from the corner of his mouth; he walked now under the right wing shining a flashlight into exhaust pipes and the landing gear well, spun open tiny fuel valves and checked the color and smell of the fuel in each tank, then he walked over and looked at the chit the crew chief held out for his signature.

The pilot, a captain hailing from a small farm just outside of New London, Connecticut, was a tall, brown haired man whose face was dominated by a mustache the size of California; his name was Paul Thomas Goodwin. He had turned twenty two years old at midnight; Needham and the other members of Hell’s Belles’ had given Goodwin a box of cigars and promised to get him laid when they returned to England in the fall. Goodwin had the reputation of having bedded very nearly every single woman in southeast England in the four months his group had been posted there, and he had now been without a woman for months. He was, quite understandably they thought, in a very foul mood when he lit up his first cigar of the morning.

Goodwin was now similarly occupied checking the left wing’s major orifices, and so satisfied the Liberator was indeed airworthy he vaulted up the entry hatch and hauled his way further up into the cockpit. He stopped off long enough to hand a list of radio frequencies and call signs off to the radio operator, then crawled along to the cockpit and slipped into the left seat. He pulled out the stiff cardboard takeoff checklist and began flipping buttons and setting dials by flashlight, at least until his eyes grew accustomed to the pale red instrument lighting. He heard his co-pilot clambering up from below while he set the fuel tank selector switch to “ALL”, the normal position for take-off, then he slipped his flashlight into it’s holder.

“All set, Queer?” His co-pilot had acquired this inglorious nickname quite naturally: Queer rhymed with Freer, as in Freer, Texas. His full handle was ‘Hangin’ Hal, the Queer from Freer,” and it was said reverentially in some corners that the moniker allegedly had something to do with the Queer’s rather sizeable implement, which was rumored to hang down somewhere south of his kneecaps. Women all over East Anglia were said to be in total awe of The Queer’s equipment, and the boy settled into the right seat, apparently taking great care not to mangle his equipment.

“You betchca, Cap,” Queer said. “Good as gold.” Needham finished his part of the pre-flight checklist then told Goodwin he was done. “How ‘bout you.”

“Calm down, willya? You’re as nervous as a fart in a frying pan this morning!”

The radioman came over intercom and advised: “Captain, all set back here.”

“Roger. Get everything stowed and ready to roll, Perkins.”

Goodwin saluted a ground crewman below and started his number two engine, the engine furthest from him out on the left wing. Needham monitored pressure gauges and temperatures while Goodwin started the remaining three engines, then they sat, waiting, waiting – always waiting – until the Unit Commander signaled and the lead B-24 moved off toward the runway.

After months of practicing extreme low level flying in both England and North Africa, as part of their ongoing preparations for Operation Tidal Wave, today’s mission was straight forward, dull, yet anything but routine. The big mission was still a month or more off, maybe longer. At least everyone hoped it would be longer. Today was still considered a warm up for the main event.

Today a wave of diversionary B-25s was going to make a run at a railway yard west of Milan; Goodwin’s group was going after another much larger railway complex near the center of Milan. It was hoped any German or Italian fighters would be drawn off to chase the B-25s out over the Med and leave the much slower, much heavier loaded Liberator’s unmolested for their long run-in to the target. The fact that the last one hundred miles of their bomb run would be made at tree-top level was a new wrinkle, and it was hoped this new dimension would catch the defenders completely off-guard.

As section leader, Goodwin’s Liberator was number three in line this morning; takeoff and climb-out went as scheduled and the formation took bearings and rumbled off toward the east coast of Italy some ten minutes after six in the morning. They climbed slowly to twenty four thousand feet then, and, as they burned off more fuel, the formation edged higher, closer to thirty thousand feet. The plan they had been briefed-in on called for the group to turn west just south of Venice at high altitude, then dive for the deck about a hundred and fifty miles out and make a straight in run to the target at maximum speed. The departure plan was simply to make for Genoa, then Sicily, where the Allies invasion beachhead was already well established; if all went well the group would make it back to Libya in time for a quick game of baseball. Total mission time was slated for a little over eight hours.

At least if all went well.

It was a ‘bluebirds’ day – not a cloud in the sky – and even as the group headed north they could see, now off to the west, huge billowing clouds of burning munitions and fuel that Allied bombers had hit during the night – somewhere on the north coast of Sicily. The sun was not yet high enough to obscure the yellow-orange glow of the myriad fires rampaging through supplies so critical to the German defense of the island.

Goodwin smiled at the sight: someone had done a pretty goddamn good job last night.

The rising sun lit off cloud tops like soft yellow candles as the formation droned north across the Mediterranean, towards Taranto. The men on Hell’s Belles passed around cool sandwiches and drank stale coffee from pale thermoses as first Bari, then Ancona slid by in a fat grey haze far off the left side of the formation. As they grew nearer to Ravenna and the Adriatic coastline, crews grew increasingly nervous as the droning group passed over the shoreline far below, even as navigators took quick fixes on distant landmarks and refined their positions. Ferrara next formed out of the mists ahead, and while the possibility of real airborne opposition now loomed menacingly, no one saw any aircraft – friend of foe – in the sky ahead of or around the group. Soon, with Verona ahead just visible under coppery layers of late morning haze, the formation turned hard left and dropped like a stone toward the Po River, pilots opened throttles to the stops as their aircraft settled in just a few meters above the treetops and the bombers thundered towards their Initial Point – and the beginning of the final run-in to the target.

Goodwin was in his element down here ‘in the weeds’; he loved low altitude flying, the danger, the immediate – and final – consequences of making any mistake excited him, made him feel more alive than anything he had ever done in his life. He kept one hand on the throttle levers, the other on the wheel, his feet jockeyed the rudder pedals furiously as the B-24 plowed through ground thermals and air currents – usually prop-wash from the aircraft just ahead. He rarely scanned his instruments now, leaving those to The Queer and instead keeping his eyes fixed on the aircraft dead ahead and – peripherally – the ground rushing by barely one hundred feet below. At almost four hundred miles per hour in the thick roiled air, the ride was intensely rough and gunners in the back of the aircraft vomited out their gunports, sandwiches and coffee drifting down onto the treetops and cowering faces of a completely astonished landscape.

The formation achieved complete tactical surprise that morning; as expected, enemy fighters had been drawn to the coast and ground defenses simply couldn’t engage targets coming in at such a low altitude. As the miles reeled by, as the target grew ever closer, the pilots and group commanders knew they had pulled it off.

The bombardier in Hell’s Belles called the IP, but the pilot would continue to fly the aircraft to the target because of the low altitude; dropping the bomb load would be called by the pilot as Goodwin had the best sense of orientation and drift to the target from his vantage point, and because bomb sights were useless at this altitude. Perhaps the biggest danger the men now faced came not from enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft fire, but by bombs dropped from aircraft immediately ahead, and even their own bombs. Bomb fragments and flying debris thrown violently into the air from bombers just ahead would become as deadly as any other hot metal fired at them in anger, and all simply because from this altitude and at this speed their bombs would impact and detonate just milliseconds after being dropped. With this in mind, they increased spacing between aircraft as they approached the rail yard.

Goodwin got word from his bombardier that the target was now less than ten miles ahead – less than a minute away now. He pulled back gently on the stick and the Liberator climbed ever-so-slightly, up to maybe a hundred and seventy feet above the ground, and he commanded that the bomb bay doors be opened. Flak started popping above the formation, then gunners on the ground lowered their aim and began firing into the formation, oblivious to the danger this presented to their own forces on the ground.

Goodwin saw bombs dropping from the aircraft ahead – “too soon, goddamn it!” he yelled – and a wall of flame-filled dirt filled the view ahead of the instrument panel. Now, instead of seeing the onrushing world just ahead he saw black clouds filled with boxcars, flaming fountains of twisted rail and molten meat. As rock and timber, the sinew of all railways filled the air, he heard shattering glass and metal slamming into metal all around, he smelled cordite and scorched earth as smoke poured into the cockpit – and his eyes watered reflexively as the stench washed over him.

He instinctively pickled the bomb release switch on his wheel, felt the aircraft lurch as the load fell away, and he rushed to trim the elevators to keep the Liberator from shooting up uncontrollably into the flak-filled sky. As suddenly, Hell’s Belles cleared the wall of cloud and roared off into open skies. The lead aircraft, just ahead and to his left, burst into flame and disappeared behind him in an instant, black cotton balls full of death paved the way ahead, so he jinked up and right, down and left, left rudder, right rudder, hug the ground, pull up…the men behind held on as Hell’s Belles corkscrewed through the air – still, Goodwin hoped, unscathed.

Goodwin looked left; there were no other aircraft in sight…

“Queer! We got anyone on us!”

Silence.

Goodwin looked at his co-pilot. The boy was slumped over to his right, his head leaning against shattered glass, blood and bits of brain were splattered all over the cockpit.

“Shit! Needham? You with me?”

He called on the intercom for someone to come up to the cockpit and move Needham’s body from the controls; someone – he didn’t have time to look – came forward and muscled the body aft; again he called, this time for the bombardier to come up and sit beside him and help scan the horizon for enemy aircraft.

“Bandits!” he heard over the intercom. “Nine o’clock high! 190s comin’ down, skipper! Large formation!”

Goodwin looked high over his left shoulder; he could make out yellow spinners on the diving Focke-Wulf 190 fighters as they sliced downward through the clear sky towards the formation. He slammed the throttles forward again, dove as far down into the weeds as he dared and concentrated on sudden obstructions that popped up ahead – and shot-by with dizzying speed. Gunners began calling targets, machine guns hammered the sky and the air filled once again with scorched gunpowder – now mixed with testosterone-drenched adrenalin, vomit and piss.

20mm cannon rounds slammed into Hell’s Belles just aft of Goodwin; he heard men screaming, then smoke filled the air. The aircraft began to yaw left, he slammed in right rudder and looked out over his left shoulder: the number one engine was simply gone! The entire engine cowling and structure had been hot away, now flame-licked soot raced away from the wreckage into the slipstream. Another burst of machine gun fire from his gunners, someone yelling “Got him, I got the bastard!” and Goodwin methodically toggled the number one fire extinguisher and dialed in some aileron and rudder trim to compensate for the yaw inducing drag of the blown away engine.

He turned south toward Genoa and Corsica, slowly nursed his altitude back up to ten thousand feet as the German fighters fell off to refuel. Pavia drifted by, then Piacenza and Parma, all off to the left, while survivors of the formation closed in behind Hell’s Belles. Goodwin was now in tactical command of the group, and he signaled for the formation to tighten up. They would head for Sicily, where the closest Allied forces were located. If anyone had to ditch or was forced to land before making Libya, they could shoot for Sicily. Goodwin worked up a rough course toward Bastia, on the northeast coast of Corsica; from there he would lead the group to Palermo, then toward the Libyan coast, and, be it ever so humble, home.

The Ligurian coastline loomed ahead, Genoa lay just to the right, buried under a vast wall of storm clouds that had ominously – in the intense summer heat – climbed to well over forty thousand feet. The way ahead was now choked with building cumulus clouds, some towering so high Goodwin couldn’t make out the tops from this altitude. Soon he was weaving the formation through tight white canyons of vaulting clouds, and the ambient turbulence became more pronounced with each passing minute. Each time the Liberator shook it sounded to Goodwin as if someone was throwing a metal toolbox into a brick wall; each concussion was followed by jarring rattles and cascades of loose metal detritus finding its way back into the aircraft’s belly.

Goodwin was aware of a flash, then a volley of 20mm cannon fire tore through the Liberator; fire engulfed the right wing and smoke poured into the cockpit – but this time Goodwin smelled raw gasoline . . .

“Get ready to jump!” he called out. “Assume bailout stations!”

Goodwin pushed the nose over while he armed and fired all the primary and secondary fire extinguishers, and Hell’s Belles dove down into cloud…the pure white cloud soon grew dark and cool as sunlight retreated from memory . . . A matter of pure chance now, the cloud’s moisture added to the fire suppressing chemicals flooding the blazing wing, and almost instantly the fires were out. Goodwin looked at his engine instrumentation – only the number two engine remained but there was now almost zero fuel left in the tanks. Hell’s Belles was going down, and going down fast.

+++++

Ludvico Ferranté hated Germans. Everything about them. He hated the imperious way they ordered him about, the strutting air of superiority they assumed when coming into his father’s ristorante, their boisterous pretensions of being the ‘master race’ . . . all of it, all of their imbecilic Teutonic braggadocio . . . and yet most of all, he hated Major Gunther Schrader with a fury that would fire his soul until the end of time. In Ludvico Ferrante’s mind, Italy would never live down the shame of having allied itself with these Hitlerite scum; the only way to regain any measure of self respect would be to help throw these mad thugs out of his country. And this he intended to do.

Ludvico had just this day turned twenty one years old, yet here he was, in the ristorante as he was everyday, serving seafood from his father’s boats to German officers and the wives and mistresses of the rich Austrian industrialists who still came to Portofino, despite the war. Portofino had been held in highest regard in the German mind since Goethe roamed the area as a young man; it had become something of a ritual for the sons of wealthy German bourgeois families to find their way to Rapallo and Portofino as a part of their education, a part of seeing how decadence tempted and distorted the Real German Man, swayed him from material achievement into diseased decadence. But oh, how fun it was to be tempted! How rich it was to be decadent, even if only for a summer!

But Gunther Schrader was something else entirely.

“We Germans are your allies!” he had heard time and time again from Schrader, but that was before he had raped half the women in Portofino, and as often as not at gunpoint, and in the company of a half dozen or so other willing ‘noble allies’. Now, with the Americans in Sicily and the invasion of the Italian mainland rumored to be just days away, Ludvico and hundreds of other men and women in the area were forming partisan bands to wage guerrilla warfare against the Germans – until the Allies could reach the area.

‘How easy it would be,’ Ludvico said to himself, ‘to slit this man’s throat right here, right now!’ Or poison his soup, place a bomb in his car! Now, today . . . right now!

‘Do it!’ he told himself. ‘Now!’

Though there were others in the ristorante, including two other German officers, Ludvico went to a cutlery case and pulled out a long knife used to filet fish table side. He was going to carry it over and place it on the serving cart next to Schrader’s table, put it there, then when the time was right . . . strike!

“You! Boy! Bring us more bread, and some real butter, none of this ersatz crap for me!” Schrader pointed at Ludvico with steak knife in hand, the malevolence in the gesture total and unmistakable. “And another bottle of wine, you idiot!” He turned to the woman sitting at his side, a local whore too used to the good life to refuse this crude pig. “That little shit!” Schrader continued, “I’m going to have to beat some common sense and good manners into him before this day is done.”

Ludvico carried the knife to the cart and placed it there, and was going to turn from the window and go to the kitchen when he saw it in the skies over Rapallo. Fire! Fire and smoke! At first it was too far away, there was no sound . . . only an intense, blinding light . . . but soon he heard it . . . the unmistakable sound of a stricken airplane, engine catching and sputtering, even though the noise was still so far away, so far across the bay. He could feel the German’s eyes on the back of his neck, heard his chair scraping back on the stone floor, and he soon felt the man’s dark presence by the window next to him.

Schrader looked at the flaming aircraft, saw parachutes like trailing petals fall from within roiling black plumes and settle on errant breezes, dropping towards the sea. Ludvico looked at Schrader’s face for a moment, saw the hard set of the man’s jaw, the anger and hatred flaring from red, bull-like nostrils, the man’s pale, grey eyes watching, calculating, hoping that death would claim those desperate men. Perhaps he did not want to have his lunch interrupted, or his afternoon with this slut du jour now simpering at his table. Ludvico looked at him, hating him, his anger growing by the minute.

Schrader called out to the two officers seated near the patio door, told them to take a detachment of men toward Santa Margherita Ligure and see to it that any survivors were rounded up and brought to him this afternoon. “NOW!” Schrader screamed, and the men jumped and ran out through the piazza to their waiting truck.

Ludvico reached down, picked up the knife then drove it into Schrader’s neck with ferocious intensity. He felt the blade slice through the larynx, felt cold steel against sinew and bone, and he twisted the blade while he watched with satisfaction as Schrader turned to look at him. Schrader fumbled for the pistol on his belt but Ludvico slashed the blade mercilessly through the German’s neck; blood filled the man’s mouth and sputtered into the air when the knife was withdrawn.

“Excuse me, Sir, while I just go and fetch your bread and butter,” Ludvico said, then he walked over to the whore and drove the knife through the woman’s breast, into her heart, holding his hand over her mouth while he did so.

“Vico!” he heard his father screaming. “What in God’s name are you doing!”

The son turned to the father as the son becomes the father, and as he looked at the cowardly old man he felt a wave of sympathy wash over his soul.

“Help me, father. Let’s get them to the boat, now, before someone comes!”

“What?!”

“Father! Move! We must move them before it is too late!”

His father ran into the kitchen with terror in his eyes; one of the cooks came out a moment later and looked at Schrader’s body, then at the whore’s.

“Eh, Ludvico! Don’t you know how to stick someone without making such a fucking mess!”

Though he might have expected any number of responses to seeing what he’d done, Ludvico never expected this one. Trini LaFortuna was a rogue, almost a harlequin, and a great cook as well, but Ludvico had never once suspected Trini was with the partisans. And Trini had never suspected young Ferranté had the balls to pull off something so utterly brazen and – heroic!

The two young men wrapped the German in an old linen table cloth, then the whore, and they carried the bodies out to the cart they used to bring fish up from the docks to the market stalls. They dumped the bodies in the cart, covered them with garbage – fish guts and cans and scraps of beef and vegetables – and while Trini went back inside to mop up the floor and straighten up the rest of his mess, Ludvico rolled the cart down to his father’s fishing boat.

He looked once toward the sea while he unloaded the cart into the ice well under the deck.

Nothing. He could see little, if anything, of interest out past the cape, just a line of black thunderstorms headed south and east across the bay. Of the darkness that had settled over his heart – he could see nothing at all.

+++++

Paul Goodwin felt the last series of blasts shake Hell’s Belles just as he ordered his crew to jump; the next thing he was aware of was hurtling through the sky free of the aircraft. He had no idea if he had jumped or if the aircraft had exploded and he’d been thrown clear; whatever had happened – it didn’t matter now, he knew he was falling inexorably seaward and he had but moments to deploy his parachute before he hit. Cold, powerful gusts from the storms slammed into him, tumbling his body ferociously, and he fought to get his hands on the metal release and pull. He was barely aware, perhaps just once during these first frantic moments, that his flight suit was scorched, indeed, parts of it still seemed to be burning. Concussive waves of thunder crushed the air from his lungs, the hair on his arms tingled as sheets of lightning arced through the air all round his falling body, yet all he could think of in that moment was that he might be on fire!

He found the release and pulled, clouds of silk trailed skyward and opened, Goodwin’s body jerked and twitched as the ‘chute opened, and suddenly he was aware that the fabric of his flight suit around the back of his neck was hot, and suddenly he could smell flesh – his flesh – burning. The pain was instantly unreal, excruciating, and he beat at the unseen furies with his gloved hands, writhing and screaming in anguished frustration – and then he looked up.

Glowing traceries of fire raced up the nylon lines toward his parachute, one by one the lines began to blacken and snap; soon little patches of flame erupted on the ‘chute itself. ‘This is a fucking nightmare!’ he told himself . . . ‘I’m going to wake up . . . now! Time to wake up . . . Time to wake up . . .’

But the nightmare did not end.

He looked down between his feet at the sea. He could see waves now, white-capped storm-driven waves cresting and breaking everywhere he looked, wind-driven foam racing leeward with his last hopes and dreams – and he looked up one last time to see the remnants of his parachute burst into flame, felt the sudden jolt of acceleration that pronounced his onrushing death. He watched in helpless wonder now as the once serenely remote sea reached up for him, ready to smash the spark of life from his body. In one last act of defiance, Goodwin spread his arms and legs wide, tried to make his body produce as much drag as possible then, just seconds before impact, he straightened his body, streamlined his form as rigidly as he could – his toes pointed down, one hand over his nose, the other pointed straight overhead as if beseeching a just God to show just the tiniest bit of mercy on his soul…

He felt nothing, absolutely nothing of the impact. His first awareness was of cool water soothing his burned neck, salt water flooding his nose, stinging his lips. He pulled at the cord on his Mae West and – nothing happened! He remembered something from flight training, what was it? Follow your bubbles, push hard for the surface and follow your bubbles! His lungs began to burn, his eyes too as salt water flooded over them, but he found after a moment that the stinging stopped once he blinked his eyes a couple of times and the pH balanced out. He looked up, saw the roiled surface just above his head and he burst into the air and sucked down as much as he could before a wave rolled over and tumbled him mercilessly back down into the sea. He kicked his way back to the surface again, found the manual inflation tube on the Mae West and began blowing the damned thing up. He chose a few angry words, hurled them carelessly at God when the Mae West proved totally defective, and he began treading water. His best hope now was to stay afloat long enough for a German patrol boat to come looking for his body.

Within a few moments the worst of the storm passed, the sea even began to lay down a bit, and as waves rolled-by he looked from the crests towards land, tried to gauge how far away it might be to the nearest bit of shoreline. Storms obscured his view to the east and south, more storms appeared ready to roll down from the north, and only one small parcel of land was just barely visible off to the west. Trees were not individually visible, so he assumed land was at least five miles away, maybe more, but he just couldn’t tell.

“Well, fuck,” Goodwin said aloud. “It’s either swim or die. So come on, let’s get to it!” He pulled off his boots, cut away the remnants of the parachute and it’s harness, leaving only the yellow vest, his scorched flight-suit, socks and gloves.

On the crest of the next big wave, he caught his bearings and began swimming to the west. It felt good at first, the movement kept him warm, and the sea grew less agitated as time passed. Soon he convinced himself he could make out trees and a few castle-like villas perched on distant hillsides, but he also began to get a better angle on the distances involved. He was still at least four or five miles offshore, and now he could tell that strong winds were blowing him away from land! Every stroke he took seemed to set him back further, and he soon grew dispirited, then angry.

He turned on his back to rest, stroked along slowly, looking up at black-bellied clouds as they raced by just over head, just out of reach. How easy this would all be, he dreamt, if he could just reach out and grab a cloud and drift along with them. He began to feel the storm-chilled waters seeping into his bones, his teeth began to chatter, and he reached up for a passing cloud, tried to grab onto it – and fly – again…

Water washed over his face, into his eyes, and he lazily spit the water from his mouth as he paddled now slowly in aimless circles. Time passed, waves rolled by, yet in the end Goodwin felt himself slowly giving way to a softly beckoning voice, to the ever seductive call, to the sweet release of sleep…

+++++

Ludvico and Trini cast off the lines and pushed the boat away from the stone quay and drifted out into the harbor, then Trini started the old one-cylinder diesel and steered clear of harbor moorings on their way from the harbor out to the sea. The boat slipped past the cape and into deeper water; they waved at a group of German troops manning an anti-aircraft emplacement near the lighthouse and watched as the troops looked at them, then waved back. They continued well offshore and threw nets over, began to fish – or at least they hoped they appeared to be fishing. When they were far enough away that no one could see them, they lifted the bodies from the well and wrapped them in an old rusted chain, then rolled the bodies into the sea and watched them sink into the blackness.

They set more nets, ran back and pulled in the first line and landed what was actually a pretty good haul of mackerel and sea bass. They kept at it for another couple of hours, then brought up all their nets, packed the haul in ice, and with tired backs and wicked grins turned towards the harbor. Trini lit a cigarette and checked the compass, took a drag and let the fag settle lazily into the corner of his mouth. Smoke trailed from his nostrils as cold wind blew through his hair; Ludvico set about cleaning trash from the nets and mending all the small tears and frayed lines that inevitably cropped up after an afternoon’s fishing.

They waved at the Germans again as they closed on the cape; Ludvico stood by the cockpit ready to head for the bow and snag their mooring buoy for the night. He was tired, but the adrenaline from the kill still rushed maddeningly through his veins, alternately confusing, then washing over him like jittery fingers. His eyes watered in the cold air, and he reached up and wiped them dry with a careless knuckle from time to time, and once he thought he saw something in the water, so he rubbed his eyes once again and looked again.

There. Something yellow.

It’s moving.

“Trini! Look! There, by the entrance marker! What is that?!”

Trini backed off the throttle and the boat settled bow-down into the water as it slowed; he craned his neck out the cockpit and looked. He saw it, rubbed his eyes then looked again.

“It’s moving!” Ludvico shouted.

“Shut your goddamn mouth, or every German between here and Rome will be down our ass before we can get tied off!”

Ludvico went forward, held on to the rail as the boat pushed through the last of the wind-driven swell, and then he saw it clearly.

The yellow he had seen was a life vest, the type worn by airmen; now he saw the airman was alive, indeed awake, and he was holding onto the dorsal fin of a dolphin! The man looked at him and smiled, shot him the ‘thumbs up’ so typical of an American, and Ludvico turned, looked at Trini to tell him to get between the man in the sea on the people on the quay. Trini’s mouth hung open, the cigarette dropped from his mouth, then he caught Vico’s gestures and tried to listen to what he said. Finally he nodded, maneuvered the boat alongside the man in the water and shielded him from view; Vico knelt beside the man and talked to him while he pretended to work with his lines, told him his plan, and Trini slowed as they approached their mooring. Vico took up the mooring pendant and tied off the line, motioned to the airman, asked him to get off the animal’s back – and the man did so, though obviously with no small amount of reluctance. The dolphin circled the man once, twice, surfaced between the man and the boat; the man reached out, rubbed the dolphin’s face with intense affection, and to Vico it was obvious the dolphin understood the feelings and meaning behind the man’s movements.

“He must be American,” Trini said. “Who else but an American could do this?”

The dolphin appeared to nod his head at the man in the water, then looked at the man one last time and slipped silently into the blackness, and he was as gently gone.

Ludvico spoke enough English to at times make a complete fool of himself, but today he somehow managed to make his thoughts clear. He got the American aboard, told him to go into the tiny cabin and wait; they would bring him shoes and dry clothes and food as soon as they could, move him off the boat in the night and up into the hills. Trini hollered to men on the quay; one of them rowed out to pick the two men up.

“Go now, below!” Vico said. “Blanket downs below, gets warm. Engine warm. Be backs soon.” They unloaded their catch and hopped in the little dory and were gone…

Paul Thomas Goodwin slipped below, found a pile of rope and lay down on it. He found a blanket and pulled it over his body. He dug some chocolate out of his flight suit; it was soaked but still, ‘thank God!’ tasted a little like chocolate! He found an orange and some bread in a little bulkhead mounted cupboard and ate those as well, and fell asleep without one more thought of the day’s events.

Vico and Trini made it ashore and hauled their catch to the ristorante, only to pause when they saw dozens of uniformed Gestapo milling around outside, as if waiting for something, or someone. The two men drifted into shadow, watched as a group of Germans hauled his father out of the ristorante and threw him into the back of a truck and drove off into the night.

Vico looked at Trini, then after his father as the truck disappeared into the soft fog that was just settling over the harbor, and the village. Then he looked back at the fishing boat.

“We could maybe trade the American for your father,” Trini said.

“No.”

“But they will kill . . .”

“No. We must hide until we can get the American off the boat. Then we must get up into the hills.”

“But . . .”

“Trini, do as I say. There is no time to argue. Let’s get food and clothing and some rest. Come, we will be at it for a long time tonight.”

“But where can we go?”

“I know a place.” And he did. He knew she would take them in, knew she would help. He turned to the darkness and made his way into the night.

+++++

07 July 1943 2320 hours

Portofino

He was floating now. Of that much he was sure.

He knew he had been asleep for hours, but it might have been minutes, or days. He looked at his watch, it’s face a fogged-over wreck – and he simply had no point of reference anymore, only the queasy sensation of floating in absolute darkness. But his back was sore, he knew that much, and after his head cleared he reached down to find what was causing the pain. He felt a huge coil of damp rope backed up against the damp wooden hull; the rope was slick with sea-snot, but still as hard as a rock, and he felt indentions in his back…rope shaped and cold.

‘Yes, that’s it. Oh . . . pain . . . move . . . my God! What is that smell?’

He wrinkled his nose; this darkness was rich with gut-twisting smells of old fish and even older seaweed mixed in with what had to be diesel fuel dripping into a bilge full of black, scum-filled water. This world, this little womb Goodwin found himself in, was almost completely devoid of light, his only frame of reference was the opaque sound of water lapping against the hull echoing all around him. Somewhere far away a bell was clanging in the night, perhaps atop a buoy rolling on an unseen breeze, and memory came rushing in as if borne on an inrushing tide.

Of course he was floating. He had been afloat all day.

First on hell-borne wings, then during his descent, looking up through burning silk at storm ravaged clouds, and finally, on endless, storm-tossed seas. Yes, the sea. Floating on the sea. Cold sea-fingers reaching from the depths, drawing ‘round his soul, pulling him from life on vaulted clouds into darkness, cradling him in soothing embrace, each afraid to let go. He remembered the inevitability of it all; surrender had seemed the logical, the easy thing to do. He remembered sinking – yet with his eyes open, and he saw cool gray water, the sun a receding memory of blue-filtered ripples echoing like memories of happier days. Like he was running in lazy circles through flower-tossed fields. He could see his mother standing outside the house, trees swaying in warm summer breezes, leaves dancing to silver-green music, and she was calling him…calling him…

In his soul he could smell cookies and milk, his mother working in the kitchen, his father out in the fields…a cold nose rubbing against his leg…he looked down, saw his best friend in the world, the dog he had always called Ready…because she always was…

The old Springer’s nose was white with age, her eyes clouded by milky lenses that could only have been earned by thousands of afternoons running under carefree skies by his side, and yet Ready was rubbing her cold nose against his legs insistently now, her little stump of a tail wagging in excited purpose, that low growl she used to tell the world she had something to say, ‘and you’d better listen if you know what’s good for you…’

The cold nose slammed into his side again, but harder this time, and he turned, saw he was sinking deeper into the sea, felt the loneliness of solitary death surrounding him and, there it was…a cool grey form gliding by just in silence, a black eye following him, looking at him, measuring him…

The dolphin came closer, rubbed against Goodwin’s body, it’s gracefully arced dorsal fin thumping into him as it flew by. The dolphin turned again, seemed perplexed, then drifted by again, closer still, slowly…

‘Take me, see me, you can be free of this…’

Goodwin reached out, took hold of the offered fin and rose gently back into the light and air of his beginnings. He held onto the dolphin as air rushed into starved lungs, his body draped over the dolphin’s cold gray back, and as he drank in ragged breaths he began to cry. From joy or sorrow he couldn’t tell, but to the others the song remained the same. He felt them rise from the sea, quietly, by his side, and he turned, looked with vacant uncomprehending eyes at the other dolphin there – looking at him, then he saw another and another. They were all looking at him, listening to him, taking the measure of his soul. He grew silent, watched them as he might have watched someone in the mirror of his dreams – and in that uneasy instant he grew silent as a crying child might when confronted with the profound, and the unknown.

He looked around – now there were seven of them in the water beside him…each silently looking at him…their silver-watered forms seemingly aglow with electric expectation…

The seventh dolphin, a small pale creature with luminous, golden eyes drifted forward, came up to him and rested its slender snout lightly on his shoulder. He could see a red worm attached to the dolphin’s eye, a weeping sore surrounded the wound. Goodwin fished in his flight suit and pulled a little metal first aid kit out and opened it. With tweezers in hand he removed the parasite; he opened a tiny silver tube of sulfa ointment and put some on his finger, then rubbed the medicine into the flesh around the eye until it disappeared into the animal’s skin. He stroked its forehead tenderly; the small dolphin rose a bit and opened its mouth, and smooth sounds drifted across the waves as she proclaimed his fitness to the skies, and her group assented, dropped back into the sea, and as suddenly Goodwin was alone again.

The largest one reappeared a moment later and presented its dorsal fin again; Goodwin reached out and held on, his cool body absorbing warmth from the vast flank of pulsing muscle against his belly. They began moving toward land.

“Now I know what it feels like to be a torpedo!” he said after plowing through a couple of large waves, but soon he got into the rhythm of the animal’s motion through the water and in time ducked and breathed with some measure of this new music. He saw land growing near and realized he didn’t want this time to come to an end…the longer he remained on the dolphin’s side the more intensely he wanted to stay with the animal, to be with this animal…to become one this animal. He sensed that the dolphin felt much the same way, only perhaps – differently, and he felt the animal wished to be human, longed to walk among trees and flowers again and again and again…

Soon Goodwin saw a boat ahead, a man on the foredeck framed by purple clouds and an apricot sun looking on him, clearly stunned by what he saw. As they came closer, Goodwin smiled at the man and shot him the ‘thumbs up’: I’m real – he wanted to say – and I’m going to be your friend.

Now, in the cold and damp of the rocking boat Goodwin felt disoriented and alone, but worst of all he felt an immediate need to relieve himself. He had seen soldiers on the beach and on the quay and he didn’t want to expose himself to scrutiny or in any way reveal his location; he knew the consequences would be disastrous for not only himself but the men who had offered him this refuge. Now he faced a stark choice; get back in the water or foul himself…

He heard – something – thump along the hull, then again. He didn’t hear any voices, but again something soft collided with the boat.

Was it the men?

Had they returned?

He froze, listened to every sound in the darkness, but soon his heartbeat was drowning out everything as a racing pulse hammered through his head. The need to relieve himself became overwhelming in the cold darkness, and with each new bump against the hull the pressure built and built. Finally he could take it no longer . . .

He gently pushed back the companionway door and slipped into the back of the boat on his belly. He crouched next to the gunwales and raised his head, slowly looked around. The village was almost dark, only a few lights flickered behind old yellow curtains; he raised himself up and slid over the side as silently as he could into the cold darkness.

Sudden light flooded his eyes, he heard voices, German voices yelling menacingly nearby, then gunshots. The water by his face exploded, bullets slammed into the wooden boat behind him and he pushed himself down into the blackness…

And there he was…waiting…for him…

The dolphin swam alongside again and Goodwin latched himself to the proffered dorsal fin and the two of them rocketed under the sea until out of the harbor, breaking back into the night air with the harbor several hundred yards behind. He smiled now, his relief immense, and he hoped the fast flowing currents had washed all the pee out of his flight suit. The joy surrounding the day’s encounters returned with overwhelming intensity, this feeling of being alive, this sudden joy, yet it was all a mystery. This animal was his friend. Why? How?

And still his friend kept swimming, swimming toward a spit of land ahead and to their right. Soon he was among slippery black rocks, the water shallow enough to stand in, the harbor now so far away no one could possibly see him.

Had the dolphin been thumping the hull, trying to warn him? The thought hit him like a blow to the stomach. Not possible! Everything that had happened that afternoon was impossible, and yet – here he was.

The large dolphin drifted lazily on the surface just a few yards away, staring, then Goodwin felt another body closer still. He turned, saw the smaller dolphin, the one with the wounded eye, and when their eyes met she came to him, placed her snout on his shoulder again and seemed to sigh. He held her close in shocked surprise for a while, then she slipped under suddenly and was gone again.

Lightning still danced across the far horizon, distant thunder rumbled through the sea. Had she seen something?

Goodwin heard footsteps on the rocky beach and flattened himself against the black stone and held his breath. They seemed like aimless footsteps, the footsteps of a wandering soul taking in the remnants of another storm-tossed day. He chanced to look, wanted to get an idea of what he was up against. He slipped upwards, his eyes lifted just above the kelp-crusted rocks, and his breath slipped away into the night…

She was taking off the last of her clothes now, standing on the rocks in her panties and tattered black stockings, looking out over a pitiless sea; soon she sat and peeled these last bits of another life from her skin and slipped first one foot, then the other into the inky black wetness. She walked out into the water not ten feet away from Goodwin, walked past him and kept moving silently as if to her death, and then it hit him.

She had come to her end. This was her night of endings. It was too cold outside for a leisurely swim, and now the water was uncomfortably cold – with the sun’s warmth so far away.

She was committing suicide!

He couldn’t stand by and watch this unfold silently; he had to act, and that being his nature, he did.

He pushed himself away from the rocks, slipped through the water until he came to her and he reached out, touched her shoulder. If he had expected surprise on her face he was disappointed. The woman, perhaps his age, perhaps a little younger, reacted to his presence with barely the slightest shimmer of recognition, her eyes felt black and lifeless, her skin slack, as if she had already moved on and was now beyond redemption. She pushed his hand away, walked further into the sea. She never said a word.

The large dolphin moved to block her way and the woman stopped, moved away from the animal as if afraid, then another dolphin appeared, and another – until soon all seven were around her, boxing her movements. The woman turned, looked at Goodwin, began speaking in Italian as her confusion rent the air; Goodwin put his fingers to his lips and she instantly understood, and in that moment of pure silence she become unimaginably beautiful, and completely full of wrathful vengeance.

They both heard the voices at the same time. More Germans, he guessed, and probably looking for him, too. Goodwin pushed himself from another rock and drifted to her side, took her arm and pulled her back into the shadows. He turned, looked where the dolphins had been and saw now only a smooth black sea.

Voices, hard angry voices, flashlights sweeping silvered water, footsteps on gravel, laughter, footsteps receding into the night, voices falling away on dying breezes.

And then . . .

The woman’s cool skin on his, her teeth beginning to chatter as the cold penetrated her bones. He took her in his arms and rubbed her vigorously and she held him, put her arms around his body, her face on his shoulder and she sighed. To Goodwin the symmetry was complete, and astonishing. She grew calm as if taking energy from him, soon she pulled back from him, looked into his eyes for a long moment, a silent moment pregnant with swirling purpose, then she leaned into him again and put her face on his shoulder – again.

Forces unseen and unseeable drifted on the surface of the water and coiled around the man and the woman, pulled them from the rocks into deeper water as if to wash the woman’s wounds in this man’s embrace. She held his face, now, oh now, instantly aware of unimaginable impulses gathering in the waters all around, and she leaned into him again, this time her mouth on his, breathing the breath of his breath, kissing the kiss of his mouth. Soon it was as if the water around them boiled in furious abnegation of human frailty; she unzipped his flight suit, reached down, took him in her hand and squeezed him roughly. His hands sought her downy smoothness and he kissed her roughly, his need savage now. She leaned back, pulled the flight suit from his shoulders and pushed it down his body, took him in her hands and dragged her fingernails into the stiffening skin and squeezed again, hard. He gasped as she rose in the water and lowered herself on his need, their surrender complete as other bodies in the water began spinning furiously around this new union.

They were there again, all seven of them. Looking on almost tentatively, almost reaching out to touch them, they had formed a rough circle around the man and the woman and they watched carefully, as if measuring their choice. The small one, the female Goodwin had helped earlier, drifted closer and rubbed against him, then began to swim around the humans slowly, soon almost continuously in contact with both of them. Another one came forward, this one larger than the female, and he moved in beside this apparent mate and swam by her side.

Goodwin felt them rub across his back and his legs occasionally, but they were intently focused on their own dance now, leaving Goodwin and the woman alone in the vortex they were creating. He felt a lightness of being warping the air around them, the water growing warm and intensely briny as electric impulses arced between the woman and his groin, then he felt her stiffening, her back arcing like lightning, her legs behind his now, pulling him deeper as he came. He twisted under her vaulting orgasm, his back arched and he exploded into her, wave after wave flooding into her…and then the drifting began…

He was aware the two of them were as seaweed drifting in the currents of a sunless sea . . . almost like two flowers dancing in mountain breezes – they swayed and swayed and swayed within invisible currents, the power of their union dissipating into the towering vault of the heavens above.

The sand – the stars – and all that lies between – then the moon shone from between deep cloud…and they returned from the stars to the sea, to cool air chilled water, and as each became aware of the other, still within this deep embrace. Man and woman looked into one another for a startled moment, then she was in a state bordering on pure panic. She pushed off him, swam away with her back to him, covered her breasts under crossed arms, and he watched her retreat into the moon-kissed rocks. Soon he heard her crying and he remembered her coming to the water, the agony and anguish and the total despair of their meeting and everything else that had happened to him this day.

What of her day? What had murdered her soul this day?

He reached down into the blackness and pulled his flight suit up, covered his body with the armor of his profession and zipped it closed.

Movement…

He saw men on the rocks, their black form silhouetted against the distant village as they jumped from rock to rock, closing in steadily on his position. He slipped through the water toward the woman; she turned and started to speak but saw his anxiety and followed his eyes into the darkness.

Yes, she saw them too.

She slipped deeper into the water as he drew close beside her, and she felt him pulling a knife from a scabbard on his ankle. He sank down next to her, their noses just clear of the surface of the water, and they waited. He could see the men clearly, two of them at least, crouched low and moving smoothly among the rocks as if looking for someone, or something.

They came to the girl’s clothes; one of them held something to his face and he felt the girl’s embarrassed jerk as she turned away. The men moved their way now, still slowly, still so low to the rocks they almost – almost – blended into the blackness.

“Mr American…?” he heard one of the men whispering loudly. “Air Force…?”

Goodwin could just make them out now; they were the two men from the boat.

“Over here!” Goodwin whispered. The closest man turned at the sound in the water and crept their way; he stopped short when he saw the woman in the water, her pale nakedness standing like an insinuation in the pale light of the storm-lined moon.

The kid leapt at Goodwin, the knife in his hand slashing at Goodwin’s throat as he landed in the water. Goodwin pushed the scrawny kid away, held him by the neck and pulled him under, twisted the knife from his hand and pulled him by the hair back into the air.

The kid started to yell and Goodwin drove his fist into the boy’s sinewy neck; the boy sputtered and coughed, tried desperately to catch his breath while Goodwin held on to him.

The woman came over and took the boy from Goodwin’s gripping hands and began talking to both of the newcomers in soft soothing tones; words Goodwin couldn’t understand, but her tone conveyed sorrow and understanding, even resignation.

Goodwin turned, saw another man standing over him.

“Ha-low,” the man said. “You American flyer?”

“That’s the rumor, Amigo.”

“What?”

“Yeah, buddy, that’s me. I drive big plane that go boom-boom.”

“Sorry?”

“Yes! American pilot!”

“Oh, si, good. You comes us go hills yesterday sleep goats.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Sorry?”

“Yes. Good. We go sleep with goats. Really. Sounds like fun.”

“Fun? Maybe no, but you come anyway, yes? What happen Ludvico?” The man was gesturing at his friend, who was – still – choking in the water.

“Ah. Ludvico slip on rock and fall on face.”

“Eh, fuck you mother, goddamn Yankee!” Goodwin heard the kid – Ludvico? – croak between gasps.

“What Vico say?” the other man asked.

“He says he wants to fuck my mother.” He heard the girl laughing at that one…

“Sorry?”

“Shit, pal, don’t sweat it. My mother can handle him.”

“Sorry? Cans speaks slowly?”

Goodwin hauled himself up onto the rocks. “We go find goats now. Germans there.” He pointed down the beach.

“No Germans,” the man smiled as he mimed slitting throats.

“Fantastic!” Goodwin said, now terrified. These clowns would have an entire Panzer Division crawling around here by first light. “Please go find goats. Now please.”

The man started speaking in rapid fire Italian to his friend in the water, then he leaned down to help the kid out. Only then did this older man see the woman in the water was as naked as the day she was born, and he stared at her breasts while he licked his lips.

“Go get clothes,” Goodwin said to the man while he helped the other kid stand. Goodwin could already see a nasty bruise forming over the front of the boys neck, and he felt bad for unloading on him so hard. He told himself that was better than getting his own throat cut. The kid had meant business!

The other man returned, held the woman’s clothes out to Goodwin, but Goodwin handed them over to the kid and picked his way carefully across the slippery rocks in his stockinged feet. He was cold now, real cold, and hungrier than he’d ever been in his life. He still had, he hoped, a little chocolate in his flight suit; he felt for the fragment of the bar but it was gone, probably, he thought, lost in the water. The two men came up a minute later, the girl right behind them, and they started looking for her shoes. All the while she talked to the kid in low, soothing tones, but he dismissed her brusquely; his pride had obviously been badly wounded on many levels by the encounter, and he had to put the girl in her place now.

“Jesus, Kid, just give her a little respect,” Goodwin said quietly. “She’s had a pretty rough night herself.”

She heard him, but if the kid had he didn’t let on. Goodwin saw her turn and look at him, and he could just make out the smile on her face. He walked over to her.

“You speak English?” he asked.

“Yes, I do.” She spoke with an English accent, which struck him as vaguely funny until he realized that’s probably how she learned the language.

“We need to get out of here, and fast. This kid says they killed some Germans on the beach, and we don’t want to be anywhere around here when the goons find out – or we’ll be up Shit Creek, without a paddle.”

“Sorry? Where is this Shit Creek? I do not know this place. But you . . . do?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I’m well acquainted with the place. It’s just right down there, right by those dead krauts. And we need to get away from here, pronto, ‘cause we don’t want to be here when those bodies are found!”

“Oh, si, pronto! I understand. Yes, we go fast.”

The kid came up and gave the girl her shoes. She held onto Goodwin’s shoulder while she slipped them on, and this, Goodwin saw, infuriated the kid further.

“Come,” she said to Goodwin, “we go now.” She turned and rattled off a stream of instructions to the men and they fell in behind her. Goodwin fell in behind them all, bringing up the rear as he hopped along, the rocks chewing into the bottoms of his feet. He turned once as they made their way into the trees and the safety of shadow, he turned and looked at the rocky waters off the cape.

Yes, they were still there – just offshore – watching him, and waiting…

+++++

He came to know her as Maria Theresa. Just that, and only so.

She was beautiful, so beautiful that some days it hurt, really hurt to simply look at her. Goodwin felt himself falling in love with her from the very first moment he had seen her in that first morning’s light. Her auburn hair drifting among graying leaves of sleeping chestnut trees as she slept on the ground that morning…her willowy legs as she climbed silently, fearlessly into the rocks, ahead of them all – leading them into the hills…

She led them later that first day through deepest wood to a small farm. These people were good, she said, she had cared for their children once when she was still in school, and they would help. And these people had indeed been good, they helped Goodwin and Vico and Trini – and Maria Theresa every way they could. They shared what food they had, helped them move off into the woods and build shelters among the rocky cliffs that overlooked the sea. They helped keep the small group fed, and when others from the village began winding their way up into the hills, these simple friends vetted them and put them in contact with Maria’s Group if not found wanting.

And that, after just a short while, was how the group came to be known: Maria’s Group. Vico and Trini and Paul Goodwin followed her everywhere, protected her, and soon followed her orders. They scouted groups of Germans who still vacationed in Portofino, still came for the sun and the sea despite the American invasion that was marching relentlessly up the shinbone of the Italian boot, and when a particularly high-ranking officer visited they slipped through the night, and silently took another life and returned it to the sea. They drifted like shadows in the night and spiked guns, filled petrol storage tanks with sugar and honey, started small landslides that denied German trucks access to the more remote areas around the villages and farms on the peninsula, and they cut communications lines and power lines and the throats of more than a few officers who ventured from the safety of numbers for a final walk in solitude.

She had been raped the night they met, Goodwin learned later. That night of fierce unions.

Two men, two Germans had come upon her walking home from the clinic where she worked, and they took her right there in an alley off the Via Roma. Not roughly, not savagely, just two drunk kids far from home and full of themselves, full of the power and fear their uniforms conveyed upon the helpless and the ignorant, they took her into the shadows and ripped her nurses uniform from her body. They were clumsy lovers, not rapists, just desperate, shy pretenders, but they had taken something from her, something precious and vital, and in the emptiness of their passage her heart filled with shame.

She ran to the sea seeking release.

She ran in shame to the sea and found Paul Goodwin, and her soul’s ease.

+++++

By early August most Germans had left the area as the American Fifth Army prepared to lunge for Genoa. Besides, it was no longer safe for them on the little peninsula, and with the looming Allied Army growing near, troops could not be spared to search the hills for the partisans. By September, far off in the distance, not so far to the south but far beyond what villagers in Portofino could see, the drumbeat of distant cannon filled the earth with blood. Cities were cast aglow as fire fell upon them, as rampaging hordes of American bombers rumbled unopposed through the night. Soon the skies around Italy shook with distant thunder by day, while her nights were dominated by hell-spawned fire – and Paul Goodwin looked wistfully to the sky for signs of the advancing columns. He knew wherein his final destiny lay, and it wasn’t by the sleepy harbor.

He loved her, but she would never be his.

No, the sky was calling, always calling out to him.

And one day he was gone.

And she knew he would never return.

+++++

Most wars end, some are destined to play out through the ages as never ending conflict fuels ever-widening disparity, and perhaps the Second World War falls into this latter category, for while the war ended in magnanimous glory for some, for others, their stained world withered away on the parched edges of fleeting prosperity. For still other souls caught in torment, destiny is held in abeyance, and they must wait.

For Maria Theresa, her war ended when the American Fifth Army made it’s final push for Genoa, in the final weeks of the war in Italy. Paul Goodwin disappeared when he was found by an advance group of American Pathfinders, when they swept through the mountain near Portofino. One day he had been an integral part of all their lives, and the next day – he had simply vanished.

Two months after their first joining she miscarried, but she kept this knowledge from everyone. Whatever it was that had been growing inside of her, this being was in a moment of contractive release gone, and with it some part of Goodwin she had longed to hold on to forever. Or had it been a part of Goodwin? Could it have grown from the wanton seeds planted by two German boys? Had some purpose been violated that night? Had destiny come for them too late?

Vico drifted from her life for a while, but he was the one constant in her universe, the one friend she could always count on. She knew he’d never recovered from his humiliation in the sea that night, that he felt unworthy of her – yet she loved him on those terms. From afar, always just out of sight, and as such he remained a protector, if he kept to the shadows, content to keep her safe, she pressed him no further. She met another man and married him, and in time she resumed nursing, even once thought of trying to go to medical school – yet he remained faithful to his charge, to the damaged woman he loved.

For Maria Theresa, time slipped by slowly, quietly, gently, yet for one who lived with two hearts of war-ravaged love beating savagely under her breast, she gave in to the vagaries of time and fell into the comfortable routines of a simpler life – devoid of love. She tried to force all thought of Paul Goodwin from her mind, she buried herself in nursing, setting up a new clinic in the village.

She gave birth to a daughter one hot July night, and very nearly died from blood loss, but the little girl’s presence in her life renewed her sense of purpose. She had to admit to herself, with new love in her heart, that she still missed Paul Goodwin, that she thought of him, dreamt of him, that she still longed for him. She longed to feel his smile, feel his hands on her face, the kiss of his mouth. She walked from time to time, she returned to the boundaries of her Passeggiata, she walked through the village, and from time to time she walked all the way out to the cape. On those few nights she walked through the hills and the trees out to the rocks by the lighthouse, she would sit in cool breezes and watch the moon rise, listen as wind came to the trees, the sea to the rocks below, longing to feel him again, there, at the boundary between earth and sea – lost in wild embrace – again.

And with them – again.

She longed to see – them – as well, to be with them, but after Paul left the village they never came. She felt this loss every time she looked at the sea, yet what came to her gently, quietly from her window, was an understanding that the life she was destined to live had been carelessly cast aside – the cooling remnants of her love left to wither in the sun. She wondered when the winds would gather again and carry the cold dust of her life away. That time, like a river, would carry her back to the sea, leave her to drift through eternity within the brine of their creation.

But other winds were gathering, out of sight, and far, far away.

New winds, from where no one could say, were headed her way. Winds cold, fierce and unexpected.

+++++

Paul Goodwin remained in the Army Air Corp through the end of the war, and like many pilots returning home to the explosive economic prosperity of post-war America, he began looking for work with airlines ramping up service around the world. After sixteen long years of depression and war, and with an economic outlook almost alien to most people in the United States, times were indeed good, and promised to get only better. Goodwin made the rounds – American, Braniff, Pan Am, but he joined Trans World Airlines after talking with pilots who already worked for the company. Within a year he was flying Constellations cross country, from New York to San Francisco, and he fell in love with the City by the Sea and decided to make it his home. It was a decision he never regretted. He bought a cottage in Menlo Park on a lark, and times were better than good. Life was sweet.

From time to time he thought of Maria Theresa, but the whole affair had always looked impossible to him, and now – with time and distance to comfort his decision – his renunciation took on a fixed air. The two of them were far apart in so many ways – in almost every way, when he sat down and really thought about it – that after a couple of false starts at contacting her he simply gave up on the idea of going back to Italy and finding her. He put her out of his mind, and in the end – he moved on.

But there was always something there, watching and waiting in gray shadow – just beyond the farthest reaches of his mind. It was like an itch he couldn’t scratch, he never could put his finger on what it was about the entire episode that simply would not – or could not? – leave him alone. Once while flying over Connecticut the thought hit him, that perhaps he’d seen his first best destiny, and he’d turned his back on it. What did that say about him? About the choices he’d made? He remembered looking down at the sea, feeling su

If indeed, it meant anything at all…

A friend from his squadron in The Libya, a fellow pilot named Pat Patterson who now worked for an accounting firm downtown, invited him to lunch one Saturday at the San Francisco Yacht Club; they had a ripping good time tossing-off three too many fierce rum drinks while flirting with a couple of waihinis – and before too long Patterson asked Goodwin if he’d ever been sailing. “Nope, sure haven’t,” he said, and they were off to the races, literally.

Drunk as two skunks, Goodwin and Patterson and the two young women did their level best to kill each other out on a blustery San Francisco Bay, yet still managed to come in a respectable second place. Patterson reportedly went off with one of the girls, Goodwin married the other one three weeks later.

Her name was Doris Matthews; she had graduated from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall Law School in 1944, and after a stint in the San Francisco DAs office while she prepped for the Bar, Doris went to work for an ‘old name’ firm in The City. Then, on a lonely Friday afternoon one blustery September day, one of the girls in the office came by with an invite to go to a swank yacht club the next day with an old sweetheart, and he had asked her to bring a friend along.

Sure, why not. Nothing better to do.

And so the worm turned.

It turned out, as these things often do, that Miss Matthews had been engaged in a long standing affair with such old reliables as Jack Daniels, Glenlivet, and Gordon’s, and getting married hardly staunched the flow. And it turned out that Doris was a mean drunk, and could be something of a bully when she went out close to the edge.

Which, as Goodwin soon learned, was every night.

In 1950, the Goodwins had a baby boy. Thomas they called him – Tom as he grew older, and Tom was a serious kid, abnormally bright as it turned out, which was a good thing, considering. Tom had figured his mother out – all the games she played, the outright lies she lived behind, the self-deluding half-truths she foisted on his father – by the time he’d left kindergarten. He figured out his father hated his mother a few years later, and by the time he started middle school he was on a first name basis with more than one of his father’s stewardess/mistresses.

Paul Goodwin left the military with profound respect for words like duty and honor, and had made a solemn oath when he married Doris Matthews. He could not imagine in his wildest dreams violating something so sacred. He was in it “‘til death do us part”, and his son grew up hating him for this one simple failing, if only because this one hideous hypocrisy lay behind his father’s ongoing infidelities. If you didn’t love someone, so Tom’s thinking went, why stay with them?

When he was thirteen, she managed to pour herself behind the wheel of her Mercedes one dark and stormy night and, while driving home from the country club at one in the morning, ran a red light and slammed into the passenger side of a little Chevy Corvair. A teenaged girl died in the accident, and yet his mother managed to pull every legal string she could – and walked away unscathed, at least in a legal sense. She became something of a pariah in San Francisco and begged Paul to transfer to New York; her drinking only grew worse.

Paul’s parents were getting on in years by that time, and were thinking of selling the family’s old farm outside of New London, Connecticutt. In a nervous fit Paul sold the house in Menlo Park, took title to the farm and transferred to New York. His mother found work at the UN and started traveling, and drinking her way through an endless series of affairs. In January, 1966 his father began flying 707s from Kennedy to Rome’s Fiumicino and back several times a month, and his mother did little to conceal her own infidelities. Paul arranged his schedule over the coming years to take on much difficult schedules – entailing much longer layovers, and Tom had to admit to himself that he really didn’t care anymore. He watched his father let his mother fall away, let her sink as far down into the night as she dared.

Maybe, Paul thought, this life was inevitable. Maybe by turning his back on what had seemed his first best destiny, forces unseen and unknowable had aligned to visit unhappiness and strife on Paul Goodwin’s his family. At times, he admitted to himself, that’s what it felt like.

And while he loved flying to Rome and used his layover time in the city to walk her storied ruins, Paul managed to find every reason in the world to stay away from Portofino, and for a year he did.

And yet oddly enough it was his son who forced the issue.

Tom Goodwin was increasingly viewed as an academic prodigy by teachers and peers alike; he graduated from high school at sixteen and had offers to attend all the best eastern colleges. He chose Stanford in California simply because it was close to where he grew up – and perhaps because the Bay Area felt most like home. Paul understood the feeling; he bitterly missed San Francisco and the wild sea that surrounded The City.

On Tom’s high school graduation Paul offered to take his son to Italy and, taking a few weeks off from work, the two of them embarked on a tour of the Italian countryside together. A father hoped to get to his son better, he wanted a real father and son trip, as this was the sort of time the two had never experienced. Doris thought it a grand idea and promptly booked tickets to Acapulco.

The ‘boys’ – as Doris derisively referred to them now – left in late June. They spent a few days in Rome then hopped a train to Florence. A couple more days following in Michelangelo’s footsteps, then north to Venice – which Paul had always wanted to see and Tom took very little interest in – then they were off, across the top of the boot to Genoa.

It was in Genoa that Tom saw photographs of Portofino on travel posters in the train station, and he told his father he’d really love to see the village. He’d read good things about the place, and these posters excited his imagination. Tom noticed but was unconcerned with the subtle shift in his father’s voice when he heard the very name Portofino, yet he thought nothing of it once they were on a little red bus winding through steep, chestnut covered hillsides to the sea.

Paul looked at the passing hillsides with clinched jaw and knotted muscle; as they drew near the village he could see goat trails on hillsides he’d run down at night while being chased by German patrols – he could still smell all their fear in the close, seaside air. Another group of rocks where they’d jumped a squad and Vico had been shot in the leg, the grueling climb back into the hills with the boy draped over his shoulder was still as fresh in his memory, as if it had occurred only last week. Tom looked out the window at rocks and trees and cliffs, and finally, at the sea, while his father tried to hide from this wounded landscape by staring stonily ahead.

But there was nowhere to hide now. When he closed his eyes, when he tried to close this landscape of memory away from his soul, everything came back in nauseating, vivid detail.

There would be no running this time, Paul Goodwin knew. Time had carried him here for a reckoning; his son would simply be an innocent bystander.

The bus dropped them in the piazza a little before noon on the Seventh of July, 1966; the air was hot and still, few tourists were about under the sun, and Paul walked over to a small inn and inquired about rooms while Tom stumbled along the quay looking at fishermen tending their nets, and over the shoulders of artists working feverishly away in front of oil-stained easels. His father came out and joined him, and they poked around the harbor for a while, then he moved off to a ristorante for lunch.

Ludvico saw Paul from the kitchen and very nearly passed out. He stumbled back and fell, as if he’d been slugged in the neck again, and indeed he felt as if life had been crushed from his soul. He fought the impulse to go to his old friend, not sure who the boy was and what they were doing; he decided to wait and see if Goodwin had sought him out, or was it only coincidence that brought him to his ristoranté to eat?

But no, he watched as they left after lunch, and as they walked away along the coast road south of town, marveling at villas hewn from cliffs above the bay, perched high over the water below, and at the endless cobalt sea that spread out once past the harbor entrance. Vico followed them, listened to them, watched as the boy pointed at a pod of dolphin that had just entered the harbor, then watched as his Paul staggered backwards at the sight of the dolphins. He fell, clutched his chest as if he was having a heart attack, and Vico bolted from his hiding place and ran to his friend’s side. He knelt beside Paul on the dusty road while the boy sat beside his father on the rocks.

“Dad! Dad! What’s wrong?”

“Eh, it’s okay boy. Its just too hot this time of day. We need to get him back to town, he must have water.”

“Vico? Is that you?”

“Si, Paulo, me. Just me.”

Goodwin sat up and took his friend in his arms and held him. He cried for what – to his son, at least – seemed like a very long time. Then his father did the damnedest thing; he stood up and brushed himself off, shook his friend’s hand and without saying another word walked back to the village – and into the hotel.

Tom looked at his father walking away, then at the other man. He wanted to ask this other man questions, for questions were hanging in the air apparent, waiting to be asked, waiting to be answered, so he ignored the dolphins and took off after his dad. He waved once to the man when his father disappeared in the hotel, but he never saw the tears in the other man’s eyes.

The episode echoed in Tom’s mind for an hour or so, then was as quickly gone.

He went up to the little room out over the sea and found his father; he had apparently come into the room and slipped off his shoes, then quickly gone to sleep; Tom flipped through a copy of Goethe’s Torquatto Tasso until he could stand it no longer. He grabbed a pair of swim trunks and headed down to the sea.

He walked out a road until he came to a rock-strewn cape. Blue water filled rocky bowls rimmed with deep black granite walls. It was the most inviting water he’d ever seen, and wordlessly he slipped his shoes off and made his way across the rocks to the water’s edge. For a moment he thought he saw a dolphin in one of the pools, but as he made his way down to the water’s edge he saw only cool blue pools waiting for him, and he dove in.

He had dinner with his father that evening, and Tom talked about his walk out to the cape, and about swimming in the amazing clear blue water, yet for some reason his father remained quiet and contemplative throughout the meal, almost inattentive – if not quite distant. Tom never mentioned the episode on the road, and his father never brought it up again. Only once during the meal, when Tom mentioned having seen a dolphin in close among the rocks did his father react, and then not as he’d expected him to. His father’s hands shook, he looked at the sea as if distracted by a million memories hammering away at his soul, and a tremor crossed his face like a brief summer’s thunderstorm crossing prairie seas. An odd thought pressed-in against the young man, some sense of recognition, perhaps, but the thought left as quickly as it came, leaving only a vague impression having been out among the stars for a moment.

Dinner passed pleasantly enough, though in time the evening passed quietly to further recesses of memory. Tom, now quite tired and sunburned from his afternoon on the rocks, said goodnight to his father and walked across the piazza to the little inn, and up to the tiny bedroom. There was little about the day to hold his attention now, aside from his father’s roadside collapse, but years later – when he was applying to medical schools – he would mention this episode as instrumental in his decision to pursue medicine. He had felt helpless there by the sea, powerless to meet his father’s immediate need, and of all that happened that day, this impression of need remained with him over the years.

The father told the son as they parted at dinner that he was going to take a stroll – a Passeggiata, he called it – before coming to bed. He finished the bottle of ice cold Pinot Grigio and fired off a cigar while he sat back and thought about the day, about his reluctance to seek out his compatriots, and all he could think of was that his renunciation those many years ago had been total and complete. To seek out these people would be an abnegation of all his earlier reasoning, an admission of profound error on his part.

As he sat watching cigar smoke curling up toward the ceiling, the realization that his reasoning had in fact been faulty washed over his soul, his renunciations had in fact been denial of the very best part of his life. The most meaningful events of his life, he knew – and he had, in effect, cast it all aside. His refusal to talk about those times with anyone, even his son, was simply a reflection of his inability to deal with the inherent contradictions within the choice. While he had taken the easiest way out, ‘out’ had in fact turned into a slow poison.

And when he thought of Doris that evening, he knew he had found the perfect mate with which to kill his soul. Wasn’t that funny, he asked himself?

He walked out of the ristorante down to the quay, and he looked into the familiar black water, expecting to see one of the dolphins at any moment, waiting for him there, but he saw only his own vapid reflection in the water. He kicked a pebble into the water, and watched ripples form and spread a little way across the harbor, and he saw the first amber edge of the moon rising above faraway mountains. The air was calm, almost still, as he looked at the moon through feathered edges of distant trees; soon the orb was rising, casting its bilious glow across the old stone quay as if it was painting a scene for him, and he watched the harbor take on velvety amber-hued glows as she rose on her way across the stars.

He walked off to the cape, through trees waiting on their hillsides. There was no reason behind his choice, nothing, not even instinct could absolve him of the trespasses waiting in the darkness.

And little had changed, he saw. The road along the quay was as it had been twenty something years ago, even the smells were the same. The chestnut and linden, the wayward pine, the iodine rich smell of tides come and gone, garlic and peppers frying in olive oil – they lay in wait, unchanged, never the calm silence of being – just waiting – as he assumed they always would – within the anxiety of becoming.

And forever out of reach, like a forgotten memory’s whisper. Why? Why? Why did you leave us?

Trees arced overhead as he climbed the hillside road, stars could just barely be seen floating beyond wayward branches that hung out over the water, and by the light of flickering starlight and the lonely moon, he walked quietly onward. It still seemed as though he knew every rise and bend on the way out to the cape, every tree a companion he longed to reach out and touch. He wanted to cast aside all his repudiations, open his arms to time and hold his memories close once again.

But, he asked himself, when you look into the past and ask about forgiveness, who decides if not oneself?

He followed the bend in the road to the final clear stretch, a forgotten road that drifted lazily past the cape on its way to a lighthouse, and even all the old black rocks were as he remembered them. They stood like sentinels guarding the way to the water’s edge, as if it was their purpose to deny the sea to all who came seeking impure absolution. Yet the sea smelled the same as it ever had, waves still washed ashore in hypnotic rhythms all their own, and she sat there as he had expected her to. Quiet diffidence, purpose and resolve lashing the air like a cat’s tail, an indifference to indifference bathing her features with holy purity.

He walked to her.

Sat on ancient stones next to her.

He took her hand, carried her skin through deep sea breezes to his mouth and he smelled her, remembering the remembering as a singer sings the song of life.

He started to speak but she silenced him.

They were waiting. All seven of them. She pointed at the sea and he followed her hand as he always had, as he hoped he always would.

She stood, dropped her sweater to the ground as walked through the stones to the water’s edge. When her nakedness was complete she slipped into the water and walked out among the rocks and waited.

The moon stood in silent witness to this union. The seven moved in with explosive purpose, swirled and danced in time to ancient music, delirious purpose long denied, gathered impossible forces in the air and released spent fury into the night, and all was as it should have been long ago, and as it might be again and again.

+++++

Paul and Tom Goodwin left the village early the next morning, bound for Rome and after an ungodly number of hours aloft, home.

Tom Goodwin would always remember the time with his father as the best time they ever had, perhaps even the best time of his life. Over time, he remembered little of their time in Portofino, the dinner at the quaint ristorante stood out for a few years, his father’s collapse lingered through medical school, but in time all these memories and impressions left him – with little beyond the gauzy blur of their passing – key moments hidden in the fabric of time, perhaps, but they faded nonetheless.

As the bus pulled away from the village, Paul Goodwin looked out the back window as dust swirled in harmony with his feelings. Maria and Vico stood there, as always just in shadow, and he waved at them as they faded from his life once again. He saw Vico put his arms around her, he was there holding her as she cried, then the bus rounded a curve and the village was gone.

Nine months later Paul’s second son was born, and Maria Theresa named him Paulo.

+++++

Yesterday   +   Portofino

Margherita drifted in milky ways, her still loins afire, her solitary mind soaring free of merest earth, soaring in canyons of white cloud as cool air ran through her hair like a million naked fingers. She felt him still, buried deep inside her, deep inside the womb of their night, as she swayed in cool currents of what had been a cradling sea. Her hand was resting on a dolphin’s back, her mind in flight, now faraway. She began to feel the passage of time as something distinct – yet unreal; it was as if she was drifting through time and space with this creature as her guide, or was she her guardian? Everything was clear to her one moment, the next she felt the anomie of cloudscapes – vast and willowy yet alive with ambiguous purpose. Yet purpose and knowledge were unknowns in this landscape, she had was only the gray flesh of instinct by her side, and nowhere was everywhere with it’s arms all around her.

Flat, bare trees rose from the withered backs of scorched plains far below, and as she sailed between white clouds in cobalt skies a red church formed in the air beside her, deep red blood ran down baked stone steps, fell to parched soil miles below. Beings unknowable swam through the air, looking at her, looking at the fire in her womb. She became self conscious and humble, then proud and defiant. She yearned for independence and knowledge, longed to be as the clouds, yet she understood her purpose as the keeper of their fire.

She was at one with the future.

She felt hands on her shoulder, fingers drifting through her hair, chills running down her spine like drops of cold rain. Words, his words, looking for her, searching the clouds, calling her name, coming for her on emerald wings.

She did not want to leave the clouds. There was so much she didn’t understand. For one so willing there was so much more to explore.

She heard him calling her name again, or was it the wind?

Who? Who am I? Why am I here now?

Who was this man from that other world. This man who commanded nothing but her heart.

“Margherita?”

Tendrils of distant cloud held her fast to the dream.

“No, not yet…”

“Margherita? Where are you?”

Still she resisted – “so much here to see, so much to understand…”

“Please, come…”

She felt cool hands on shimmering, water-kissed skin, warm words bathing her soul, caressing wounds she had long thought healed.

She opened her eyes.

He was there.

“Where are you?” Tom asked. His eyes were kissed by fire, his soul buffeted by raging gales of doubt, and she saw clouds in his eyes, as if echoes of her dream had touched him.

She could only shake her head, tears unbidden welled and dropped like soft rain on his chest, and she squeezed tightly with her arms and legs, held her loins on his need as if all life depended on this union. Could he understand? Could mere words reveal what she had seen, what she had felt? If words did not yet exist to reveal these landscapes, how could she understand what was to come?

“I’m alright,” she heard herself say. “I was dreaming, I think…”

“So is our friend here.”

She looked at the dolphin next to them. Its warm skin radiated unknown joy, its eyes were demurely fixed on both of them. The dolphin opened her mouth and water filled the pink-gray space, she closed her mouth and water spilled between her teeth back into the sea.

“What does that mean?” Margherita asked the dolphin. “Tell me, please.”

The dolphin rolled her body around them and seemed to sing for a moment, then drifted through rocky pools back to the open sea.

“I do not understand,” Margherita said softly. “I cannot see you. Only shadows now…”

“I can. You’re cold and going into hypothermic shock. We’ve got to get moving.”

“No. Stay…I must go back…”

Goodwin slipped out of her, pulled her back to the shore, lifted her gently onto cold rocks. Her body was glowing in soft blue-white hues under the arcing moonlight; Goodwin could see the first amber streams of sunlight coming across the bay, and he gathered her clothes and helped her into them. He stood with her inside the darkness, helped her stand and held her to his warmth, rubbed his warm body against hers, felt her flaccid muscles wilting in the cold beyondness…

“Come on, let’s walk,” he said as he led her through rocks to the road.

He found Elsie sitting up there on a wide flat rock by the side of the road; apparently she had been watching, and waiting for them. When she saw him she came up to Goodwin and licked salt from his legs, then fell in beside him as they all walked back to the village. The little Springer stayed very close to Goodwin, almost protectively so, as they walked through the hills and trees.

They came to the quay, to Diogenes. Malcolm was sitting there, watching the amber fingers of the sun stream through the sky, waiting, in the cockpit. He helped Goodwin and Margherita aboard, called down to Mary Ann. Tea and fresh-baked bread appeared, and Goodwin marveled at the prescience of true friends. The bread warmed Margherita, the tea restored the color to her cheeks.

“I am so sleepy,” she said.

“No doubt,” Malcolm Doncaster said. “It’s after six in the morning.”

“You can sleep here,” Mary Ann said – and Elsie growled.

“Or not…”

“Let’s get her over to Springer,” Malcolm said when she had finished her tea, and Elsie jumped across to Goodwin’s boat, circling anxiously, her tail still as she waited for them.

“Well, she seems to think that’s a fine idea!” Mary Ann grumbled as she looked at her traitorous dog – and now clearly miffed.

“She’s been sticking right to me ever since we got out of the water,” Tom said.

Goodwin pushed the hatch open and helped Margherita down the steps, then into the shower. He went to the electric panel and flipped switches; back in the head he turned on the water and let it warm, then helped her out of her clothes.

“Oh God, that feels so good.”

She held on to a grab rail and he rubbed her body with lemon scented soap, massaged her back and neck, then her breasts and legs. Her head bowed low, as if in prayer, the hot water ran through her hair, down the cleft of her back; Goodwin continued to rinse her body until the water cooled, then he turned it off and began toweling her warm, supple nakedness. She bent like a sapling in the breeze to his touch, her still warm skin now pliant and yielding; now as clouds receded from her mind she grew aroused and viciously hungry for that other fire.

They backed out of the head and ducked into the aft cabin; Elsie looked at them expectantly then moved away to sit at the chart table, looking at a new course all her own.

Margherita pushed Goodwin down onto the berth and knelt between his legs, he began to speak and she silenced him once again while she wrestled with his shorts. She didn’t pause, she simply took him in her mouth, and she tasted the remnants of their earlier joining through salt-washed skin, she swirled her tongue across the head and was satisfied when she felt him jump. She had never felt like this before, the intensity of her curiosity, the loss of whatever reserve she felt around this man – all was collision and sundered in this sudden feeling. All came to her as a flower opening to the sun, the thorns of passing roses tearing into her, willing her deeper and deeper into this new need.

She felt the man grow hard under her tongue. She felt need meeting need against the roof of her mouth, everything physical now as images of black trees and scudding clouds and that wild magic tore through her once again. Moving ever faster as the strange music ran through her like a summer’s rain, as light danced through her soul as onrushing thunder, she opened her mouth to him and the river ran down her and through her, filling her with understanding and desire to know more and more. She crawled up his body and opened her mouth to his, let his seed mingle between tongues as she drifted up through sun drenched clouds again, then she closed her eyes and was glad when sleep finally found her.

+++++

They surfaced for lunch, Elsie now by Goodwin’s side, and they walked the few steps to the piazza and sat under the November sun on the terrace outside Vico’s place. They ordered Campari and cheese from a young waiter, what fruit there was to be had too, and some crusty bread. They ate silently, Vico came by once and left them as quietly, respecting the need of this moment, to come to whatever understanding there was to be had from this union. He seemed concerned, almost fatherly to them both, as if he alone knew what had been commanded of them, and the sacrifices that had yet to be asked.

Elsie lay across Goodwin’s feet on the stone – as if by the force of her will alone she was now holding him to the earth. She reminded him more and more of Sarah, and he missed the old girl; Elsie looked up at him with those same liquid-brown eyes, and he knew she held his heart – a feeling beyond all human understanding – in her gaze.

As they ate Goodwin saw an artist nearby on the piazza, sitting at her easel, and even from their table he could see Springer and Diogenes on the canvas. When they had finished and left their table, he walked down to the water’s edge and looked at the composition: under clear autumn skies the two boats lay to their moorings by the quay, and he could feel the clear skies and crisp winds that rippled the water even now. Just aft of Springer seven dolphins formed a circle in the water, and Margherita took his hand when she saw the image.

He looked at the artist, an older woman – perhaps in her late seventies – sitting on a wooden stool laying paint out on an ancient mixing board.

“Did you see dolphins in the harbor this morning?” he asked her after the shock faded.

“Oh yes,” the woman said through a thick Scandinavian accent. “They were behind the boats there, for perhaps ten minutes earlier this morning. Very unusual, don’t you think?”

“If I may, I’d like to purchase this painting when you’ve finish,” Goodwin said. Elsie was at the easel looking up at the canvas, silently looking at the shifting colors in the sunlight.

“Ah. Well, you see, I do not make painting to sell. This is simply for an old woman’s pleasure.”

“You’re very good, if I may say so, but you see, that is my boat, and I, well, I have seen those dolphins before. I would very much like to have a painting, to remember my time here.”

The woman turned to look at Goodwin, her silver eyes were most shockingly clear – but could not hide the simple honesty he saw in her face. She looked at Goodwin for a long while; it felt to him as if she was taking stock of him, seeing if was worthy of her experience.

Finally she bowed her head slightly. “Very well. Come back in an hour or so. If you like what you see, perhaps we can come to terms.”

Goodwin smiled at the woman. “Alright then, an hour.” He turned to walk away, and Margherita and Elsie fell-in beside him. They walked away from the boats, along the opposite side of the harbor, until they came to a jewelers. Goodwin walked to the window, saw a white gold necklace with a dolphin pendant attached, afloat in a sapphire sea; he went inside and asked to see it. Elsie came right in with them, very curious now.

“Do you like it?” he asked Margherita.

She held the necklace to her chest and looked at her reflection in a mirror the proprietress held up to her. “It’s lovely,” Margherita said. “Truly very lovely.”

Goodwin pulled a wallet from his pocket and handed a card to the woman, then helped Margherita fasten the chain behind her neck. He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. Margherita blushed, for obviously in such a small town she was no stranger to the woman. He signed the slip and they walked back into the sun; Goodwin could see the woman still painting by the water at the head of the harbor, then he rubbed his head.

“I need a hat!” he said out of the blue. Elsie looked up at him with puzzled eyes.

“A hat?”

“Yes, a hat! My head is going to get cold. Winter’s just around the corner, and I don’t have a hat!”

“Come,” Margherita said, and she led him across the piazza, then up a small lane. She stopped at a window display overflowing with hats of every description. “Presto! Avanti!”

They went into the little shop; an ancient man came out from behind an emerald curtain, saw Margherita and smiled. Goodwin could not keep up with the staccato bursts of Italian that filled the close little shop, but more than once he thought the old man looked a lot like the Wizard of Oz. Margherita turned once to Goodwin and he could just make out a word or two about winter and a few disparaging words about men growing bald. The old man laughed, took Goodwin by the arm and led him to a shelf full woolen berets.

“These not so undistinguished for you?” the man asked. “Try camel color.”

Goodwin did, and they all laughed. Margherita covered her eyes.

“What about those,” he asked, pointing to some broad rimmed berets on an upper shelf.

“Those common in Catalan. Mountains around Barcelona. Religious men. Not so much here, but very practical.”

“How ‘bout a dark gray? Have anything like that?”

The man got a step-ladder and climbed up and handed one down to Goodwin. It fit perfectly, and felt wonderful.

“This’ll do!” he said. Margherita rolled her eyes and Elsie looked at Goodwin, then growled at the thing on his head, the hair on the back of her neck standing on end.

Margherita fired off another burst and the shopkeeper laughed with her for a long time. Goodwin paid and thanked the man, shook his hand, then they walked back to the piazza, the sun now casting long shadows across the stone – all the way to the water. They walked out onto the piazza and saw the woman was gone.

Goodwin frowned. Elsie barked, pointing now, and they turned to see her aimed at a café.

“There she is,” Margherita said, “getting coffee in the bakery.”

They walked to the café and into the warmth and took a seat next to the old woman and her easel, and again Elsie planted herself across Goodwin’s feet.

“I’m sorry, I could not wait, but my hands…” she held out her fingers – they were white now, her hands apparently numb from the chill air.

Goodwin took her hand in his and looked at it closely. He pressed his thumb against one of her fingernails, watched it color; then did it again while he looked at his wristwatch. He looked at her blue-tinged lips, then into her eyes.

“Yes, I know,” the woman said. “There is nothing to be done, or so they say. I am an old woman, and this is my life.” She looked wistfully at Goodwin. “So, you are a physician?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Well, here is your painting. What do you think?”

Goodwin was astonished. It was a Monet in texture and color, very much an impressionist’s work, and revealed a monumental talent. He looked at the woman and was surprised to see her crying.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh, it was just the expression on your face. No one could wish for more.”

“I really must pay you for this. It wouldn’t be right…”

She looked at him a moment longer, as if making up her mind.

“Alright,” she finally said, slowly. “This is my price, and it is non-negotiable. I want you to take me sailing, on your boat.”

Goodwin smiled at her smile, nodding his head. “That would be my honor.”

“Oh, you see, I have not been sailing since I was a little girl, with my father, around the islands near Orust. I would so love to feel the sun on my face again, and the wind in my hair…”

“You have only to name the day, and we’re yours.”

“I am staying at the inn across the way,” she said, pointing. “I will be here until the Spring, so any day the sea looks promising, please let me know. Room forty three.” The woman’s face sparkled now, her eyes animated by the simple memory of a faraway summer’s day plain to see, as if joy itself had once been etched within her very soul by a distant summer’s breeze.

“Certainly. By the way, my name is Tom Goodwin, and the boat is named Springer.” He was looking at the inn as she spoke, an awakening of memory washing through his mind’s eye.

“I see. Perhaps for your friend here?” The old woman leaned over and rubbed Elsie’s head. “Call me Trudi,” she said as she held out a timelessly delicate hand. “And if I may, I need to put a few finishing touches on this, and some varnish. A few days at most.”

“Well, I can’t thank you enough, Ma’am . . .”

“Trudi now, please, Tom.”

He smiled. “Yes. Just so. Thank you, Trudi. I’ll treasure this forever, I promise.”

“Forever is a long time, you know, for such a promise, Tom Goodwin,” she said. Her silver eyes seemed alive with sudden purpose. “But, perhaps not – for some.” She looked at Margherita as she spoke now, the smile is her eyes warm and sure.

Goodwin looked at her once again. What was she saying, really? Alluding to what, exactly? Forever, promises, and purpose…? She speaks in riddles, like a…

“Yes, perhaps forever is a meaningless term,” he said. “Let me just say, then, that your work has touched me deeply. Will that suffice?”

“Oh yes, Tom Goodwin. You make an old woman’s heart sing!” Her radiant eyes seemed to grow more alive with each passing moment – and Margherita took Goodwin’s hand.

“Well…” he began.

“Yes, you must go now. The night awaits.” Her smile lingered in his mind as Margherita turned to leave.

“Good evening,” as he turned too, but something about her eyes held him in that moment, and he found it difficult to leave…

Yet they walked out of the bakery into deepest evening, Goodwin’s floppy beret making a huge hit with people just coming out now for Passeggiata. Only Elsie seemed to have reservations about the hat; she looked at him now, at the hat on his head and turned away; she sneezed – twice – as she walked away.

“Tom, I must go to my apartment tonight. I have to work tomorrow.”

“I know.” He looked away. “Well, you could stay with me? We could go and get some of your things?”

“Tom, this is a small village, and I would do nothing to shame my family. . .”

“I know, I understand.”

“No, Tom, please do not feel sad about this. This is not America.”

“Right. How about dinner later? At Vico’s?”

“I’ll see you there at eight, alright?” She squeezed his hand.

“Yes.” He felt the skin of her skin on his soul, wanted to know that touch for all time. He could not bring himself to let go – even as he felt her pulling away.

“And bring your girlfriend!” Margherita said, bending down once again to scratch Elsie’s ears. The Springer moaned and rolled her eyes as she drifted towards bliss, and they both laughed.

“See you in a little while, Tom. And thank you,” she said as she lifted the pendant from her breast. “It means something, yes?”

“Yes. Very much, I think…”

“Tom,” she said gently. “Not now. We must talk later. We have much to say.”

She turned and walked around a corner and was gone.

Elsie looked up at the hat and sneezed – yet again.

“I know, girl. I know.”

He walked back to the boat, this new shadow of his trotting along by his feet.

+++++

“Hey, Tom, glad you got back so soon; there’s a big storm brewing, coming across from the northeast, down from the alps.” Malcolm watched as Tom and Elsie came aboard Diogenes. “Paulo came by an hour ago, said we’d probably better head over to Rapallo tomorrow morning, before this thing hits.”

“When’s it due?”

“Late afternoon, maybe in the evening, but you never know.”

“It’s only a couple of miles over, right?”

“Just a gnat’s ass less than three.”

“When you gonna head out?”

“I’d say 0800 or thereabouts.” Malcolm reached down and scratched Elsie behind the ears. “She’s been with you all day? Mary Ann’s getting a little green about this, you know?”

“Yeah. Been sticking right to me – all day long – like stink on shit.”

“Pardon me?”

“Never mind. Uh, we’ll have to move too, right? You can’t move until I do, isn’t that about the size of it?”

“Right. We could go across together; it’s a lovely trip, you know. Will you have someone with you?”

Goodwin knew Doncaster was thinking about Margherita, but in fact Goodwin was thinking of Trudi. “Not sure. Maybe, but I’ll have to check first. Wanna come up to Vico’s for dinner?”

“Ah, no. Mary Ann picked up something at the market. She might like to see her dog, though, if you don’t mind.”

“Hey! I didn’t ask her to tag along!” Goodwin thought the comment a little brusque. “Please! Be my guest!”

“Now, now, Tom. I didn’t mean anything by…” but Goodwin had already scooted across to Springer and was down the hatch before Doncaster could finish his sentence.

Goodwin walked over to the electric panel and turned on the shower sump, then checked the battery charge from his solar panels. After he undressed he hopped into the shower and stood under the hot water for a couple of minutes – and ‘Summertime’ drifted across the harbor one more time, then he washed his hair – all the time thinking about how good it had felt to hold her hair in his hands, to feel slippery warm soap running through her hair, the water splashing on their skin…

He dressed and walked over to the little inn and had the reception buzz Trudi’s room; she came down and Goodwin told her about the plan to sail the boats to Rapallo tomorrow morning. “I’m single-handing, so I’d be glad to have the company,” he finished saying.

The old woman looked up at him, her silver eyes almost mesmerizing. “Yes. Sounds wonderful. What time would you like me to come?”

“Probably be best to plan on leaving the harbor about 0730 or so. Is that too early?”

“Oh my, heavens no. I’ll have been up hours by then. Can I bring anything?”

“Probably a hat, definitely a warm jacket, and some kind of tennis shoes.”

“Fine. Nothing else?”

“No,” he said as he looked into her eyes. “Well, I’ll see you then, unless you’d like to join us for dinner?”

“Ah, no, perhaps I’d better get some rest. But thank you.”

Goodwin smiled. “Alright, perhaps another time. See you in the morning.” He headed over to Vico’s and found the old man had already set aside a corner table for them.

“Margherita has called. She had to go over to her mother’s. She’ll be over as soon as she can.” Vico began reciting the day’s freshest items, but Goodwin held up his hand and stopped him.

“Ludvico? Do me a favor. Just bring whatever you think best, alright? Whenever I come in, don’t even ask. I trust you completely.”

The old man smiled. “You are your father’s son, you do know that, Tom?” He walked away, leaving a thousand questions hanging lingering in airs transparent.

He could see the harbor from his seat, Springer and Diogenes lay across the water. Lights on down below, so much warmth deep within Diogenes, forms and shadows drifting across the water, Elsie sitting on the foredeck, looking across the water at him looking at her, a dorsal fin slipping lazily through the water.

‘Vico? How did he know father so well? How could he know I am so much like my father? How does he know so much about us?’ Goodwin had yet to make connections to his own hazy memories. Too much time stood between this present and his past, of that one afternoon along the quay with his father.

Margherita and Paulo came into the dining room; Goodwin looked up as he heard them enter and felt something in the air. Vico waved at them as they came in, then walked their way when he saw their faces.

Goodwin saw it too.

“Tom, Mama feels poorly, she says it’s getting most difficult to breathe.”

“Is there a hospital in the village?” Goodwin said. He saw Margherita’s face fall with her expectations, the illusions she had built up about him crumbled to dust.

“No, just eh-a, what you call it, a medic,” Paulo said haltingly. “Tom, please, just come see if we need to calls for ambulance, eh?”

“I’ll go get my car,” Vico said, and his voice carried the weight of great authority now. “Thomas, you go now, with Paulo. If we need to take her to the hospital we must all go together.”

Goodwin pushed back from the table, thinking how little he wanted to get involved in a medical dilemma here. He simply wasn’t licensed to practice medicine in Italy, and in some countries samaritanism was a criminal act. He wondered as he ambled out of the ristorante into the night if his malpractice insurance would cover anything that might arise…

He followed Paulo up the hill and around a corner; Margherita had apparently gone with Vico, and this surprised him. It might have surprised him further to know that Vico was saying even then how much like the father was this son, even if the old man said this under his breath. The old man fought off memories of distant nights, memories that now swept through the village like a cold wind.

Paulo opened a door that led to a narrow stairway, and Goodwin wanted to cover himself from the wounded stares of a thousand ghosts that huddled beside nearby doorways. He shook his head, walked up the stairs behind Paulo, this stranger he had accidentally pulled into the sea, and as he walked into the apartment he walked into another world.

It was a warm world, color and smell collided with memory in this room and had created something completely foreign to Goodwin. It hit him instantly. Love and family, so foreign to him. The feeling was everywhere, love was in the things he saw, love bathed the air inside the apartment with the softness of gently formed memory, of easy laughter within these walls and the safety of a warm embrace. It was all here in plain view, the warmth of those who loved honestly, and had done so all their lives. It left Goodwin feeling empty, somehow hollow, and he had no idea how misshapen his perception was.

And she was sitting by an open window, sitting in a chair that wore her memories with an easy grace. She was gasping for air, not panicked, not afraid, but simply waiting for death to find her – like a promised friend, long expected and not unwelcome.

He rushed to her side, his fingers seeking her pulse first in her wrist, then her ankles and neck. He pressed her fingernails and shook his head.

“Ma’am? Mrs Morretti? Can you hear me?”

“Paul? Is that you? Have you come back to me?” Her accent was thick but the words unmistakable. Goodwin shook as implications beat the air above his head like the fluttering wings of a dying bird.

“Mama!” Paulo said in Italian. “This is doctoré Goodwin. Remember Tom? He is Paul’s son. Mama, how are you feeling…?”

“I am ready to sleep now, my precious boys.”

“No, Mama. Tom is here, we will take you to the hospital!”

She turned her eyes to the water and smiled. “I am coming, my friends,” she said.

“Paulo, let’s get her downstairs. Do you have any oxygen here? A bottle of oxygen?”

“No.”

“What about this medic? Is there an ambulance here in town?”

“Oh, si, not far from here . . .”

They stopped at the little medic’s station and borrowed a bottle of oxygen, the offended medic placated only when Vico pulled him aside and explained who Goodwin was. Paulo drove expertly, though blindingly fast, through the hills to Genoa – “There are no heart people in Rapallo worth shit!” Vico spat, apparently from experience – and they made it to the hospital in less than an hour. Paulo ran to fetch a wheelchair.

Tom kept by Maria Theresa’s side while Vico and Paulo talked to nurses and physicians in the emergency room; Tom kept asking for this test and that, getting in the nurses way, angering them, until . . .

“Tom Goodwin! You lazy no-good asshole! What the devil are you doing here!”

Goodwin spun around, saw the tumbling girth of Jon Santoni rumbling down the corridor his way. “Jon! Sonofabitch! What the devil are YOU doing here?”

“Me? I work here. The better question is, what are you doing in MY hospital!” He roared as they laughed, and appeared genuinely happy to see Goodwin.

“Trying to keep your skinny ass out of trouble, as always!”

Santoni looked something like a Pavarotti, perhaps not quite so rotund but infinitely more jolly. He came over and gave Goodwin a hug and kissed his cheeks, then turned serious.

“What’s this about, Tom?” he asked, pointing at Maria Theresa.

“Friend of the family. I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop by, and, well, here we are.” They huddled away from Vico and Paulo and Margherita and began talking, and a few minutes later Santoni walked over to the nurses station and got on a telephone. Soon he was yelling, then spoke in quieter tones for a while, then turned and nodded to Goodwin.

“Let’s go Tom. Tell the family to go to the waiting room outside the surgery on the next floor.” Nurses now looked at Goodwin like he was the Pope’s brother; they smiled at him deferentially as they handed him a sheaf of chemistries, as they followed him as he walked over to speak with Margherita and Paulo and Vico.

“Pretty much what I expected,” he said to Vico as he explained what the first chemistries had found. “We’ll take some pictures and confirm, then go in and fix it.”

“Tom? Who is that man, the big one?”

“Jon? Great cutter, uh, surgeon. He did a cardiovascular fellowship in Houston under me about ten years ago. He’s probably the best heart man in Italy. Lucky he’s here.”

“And you trained him?” Vico said, thunderstruck. “It seems fortuitous breezes are dancing all around Portofino these days, don’t you think?”

Goodwin nodded. “I suppose so. Anyway, surgery waiting room, one floor up. Probably several hours before we know much. Take those two out for coffee or something. Ciao.”

Vico held out his hand, took Goodwin’s hand in his and seemed to search for the right words. They looked at one another for a long time, then Goodwin turned and walked away.

Vico looked at Maria Theresa’s children and at the fortunes of her lifetime; how odd, he thought, that in the blink of an eye all this becomes as dust, ready to lift on an errant breeze and settle on new currents for another journey. “Come. Let us find some food and talk for a while. It will be a long night, and we have much to be thankful for. Miracles are alive in this night!”

Margherita walked in stunned silence. The night had become a waterfall of conflicting emotions, all feeling obscured in white mist as hope and expectation dashed on rocks blackened by clouds of anger-borne confusion. Now everything seemed upside down, she was tumbling on vaulted airs, nothing made sense as everything seemed to have grown like gray ivy within a tapestry of lies. One thread had been pulled and now all her feelings were unraveling. She thought about Tom, and the sea – and her mother.

+++++

Elsie lay quietly on Springer’s swim platform. She looked into the black eye so still now; she could sense loneliness and fear in the dolphin, and she wanted to comfort him. She eased forward and slipped her paw into the water; the dolphin blinked slowly and came to her, rubbed his nose against billowing fur and the smells of black earth, and he drifted in nether currents of distant suns.

+++++

In a distant room an anesthesiologist slipped a needle into Maria Theresa’s arm and she watched as light gathered around her, pulled her close.

She smiled as the light wrapped her in soft embrace, she smiled when she heard his voice, when she saw his face. She was surrounded by vast clouds, and she could see him clearly now.

He was coming for her, and he was smiling too, even as awareness fell away.

+++++

Jon Santoni walked into the waiting room just before three in the morning; his green scrubs were blotchy-wet from sweat around his neck and arms. He wore a naturally jovial expression on his round face, but not this morning. He was too tired for such a performance. He came and sat by Ludvico; Margherita and Paulo sat beside Vico, and now Toni had made it to the hospital after he got off work. They sat silently, expectantly, but Toni seemed distracted, almost agitated.

Santoni pursed his lips, tried to think of the best way to tell these people what he had just seen. He knew words would fail him. They always did in times like these.

“We lost her twice, you see,” he began slowly, “and both times Tom pulled her back. We were missing something. Something important.”

Margherita’s eyes filled with hot tears, Paulo’s hands trembled.

“Her pressure kept falling, you see, like there was a perforated artery, but we couldn’t see anything. He replaced the mitral valve…”

“Doctor! Is Maria alive!” Vico was livid, shaking with rage.

“Oh, yes. And I’ve never seen anything like it. He had his hands around her heart, he was feeling it beat in his hands, and then he knew. He just knew. He had me finish up with the heart then went into her leg. She had a small aneurism in her femoral artery. Impossible to detect. Yet he felt it, goddamn it, while he was holding her heart! It is not possible, yet I watched this happen. The anesthesiologist is dumbfounded, quite shaken up, really.”

“Mama is okay?” Toni said, wanting to believe what he was hearing but not exactly sure what the doctor was saying.

“Yes, your mother is fine now. Tom has fixed the valve and cleared out the left carotid artery, which was almost completely blocked. Then the artery in the leg . . .” Santoni’s voice trailed away into the coffee-drenched air.

Paulo was wrapped around his sister’s neck, crying almost hysterically, yet quietly. Vico sat back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling; he crossed himself once and wiped a tear from his cheek.

“She’s going to be alright?” Toni said, and it was more a statement than a question.

“Oh, yes, young man. In fact, she may be better than alright. I suspect her memory will be better, and she will be able to walk more, in fact, when she gets better she should walk a lot more. This will help her strength.”

“You said you lost her?” Margherita asked. “Twice? What happened?”

“We could not find the source of this drop in pressure. We tried to increase pressure with medicine, but this only made the aneurism worse. If Tom had not discerned this when he did, she would not have survived. You must excuse me, because it is this I do not understand. He knew right where to go. It was as if someone told him. I have never seen anything even remotely like this. So, if you all will excuse me, I will go back and help Tom. But he wanted you all to know where things stand.”

“Thank you, doctoré,” Vico said, but Paulo jumped up and gave the physician a hug.

“Eh, no kissing the cheeks young man, or I will have to shower before I return!”

Paulo looked embarrassed, stepped back, and the round man walked back into the surgery.

“Many prayers have been answered tonight,” the old man said. “Yet there will be time now to repair that which has been broken so long.”

+++++

Mary Ann Doncaster sat on the swim platform by Elsie; they both looked at the dolphin circling lazily just a few meters away. There were still a few stars overhead, but already the eastern horizon was filling with wispy gold tendrils of the coming storm. A few clouds were red-tinged and angry, running ahead of an imperturbable sun from the clutches of the storm. She loved these early mornings, the way the sun chased away the night.

“I wonder where Goodwin is?” Malcolm said as he came up into the cockpit. “Blast it all, I’ll need a sweater out this morning. Who told us it never gets cold here?”

“Did you put the water on?” Mary Ann asked as he smiled.

“Yes. Warming some scones, as well. Is that fish still out there?”

“Yes, he is, and he’s not a fish!”

“Well, yes, I’m sure of that! Would you like some jam with your scones?”

“It’s almost as though he was waiting for something, you know, Malcolm? Or someone.”

“Excuse me!” A woman’s voice clipped the air.

Malcolm jumped, turned toward the voice on the quay. “Right-O, what are we about this morning?”

“Dr Goodwin invited me to sail with him today, to Rapallo. Is he about?”

“Not here…” Mary Ann said from the swim platform. “But please, come aboard.”

Malcolm helped the newcomer up onto Diogenes and led her across the rails to Springer. “Name’s Doncaster, Malcolm Doncaster,” he said while he helped the woman across Goodwin’s boat. “My that’s my wife Mary Ann back there, bothering that silly fish.”

“Pardon me?”

“Come, have a look.” He helped her back to the stern rail.

“Hello there,” Mary Ann said.

“Yes, hello.” The woman saw the dolphin circling below and sat down in bewildered silence. “How long has it been there?”

“All night, as best as I can tell.”

“Oh, my name is Trudi.”

“Well, right then,” Malcolm said. “Tea for three it is.” He slipped quietly back to Diogenes and dishes clattered away below.

“He seems, I don’t know the right word, he seems sad,” Trudi said as she watched the dolphin.

“Disconsolate was the word that came to mind when I first saw him this morning, but yes, sad. Preoccupied, and sad.”

“Is that pup yours?”

Elsie turned to look at the other woman; once satisfied she remembered her from the day before she turned back to the two scar.

“This is Elsie.”

“Ah, yes. We’ve met.”

“Have you indeed? When might that have been?”

“With Dr Goodwin. Yesterday.”

“Ah, yes, they’ve grown close.”

The dolphin raised its head from the water and stood almost straight up, one eye cast on the village across the harbor.

“What does he…?”

A beige colored Mercedes taxi whipped onto the piazza and raced around the harbor to the quay and came to a skidding halt by Diogenes; the back door opened and a completely shell-shocked Tom Goodwin emerged. They watched as Goodwin paid the driver, said something off-color and laughed at the reply.

He walked down to Diogenes muttering something about frustrated Formula One drivers being allowed to operate taxis, then he hopped aboard; Malcolm popped up from below when Diogenes began rocking.

“Oh, so you made it after all. Good show! Help me with these scones, would you?”

Goodwin received the platter of fresh-baked scones and laid them out on the cockpit table; Malcolm followed with tea and cream.

“My God in heaven!” Malcolm exclaimed when he climbed up into the cockpit. “But you’re covered with blood!”

“What?” Mary Ann said. She looked at him in the cockpit and groaned. “Good grief, Tom! What are those, anyway – surgical scrubs?”

Goodwin looked down at his scrubs and shrugged. “Yeah. Sorry. Long night.” He stood up and made to leave.

“Tom, sit down!” Malcolm spoke up now. “What on earth have you been up to?”

“Uh, don’t really want to talk about it just now.”

“Really, Tom!” Mary Ann shot back. “What have you been up to?”

Tom shrugged, then shook his head.

“So,” Malcolm interceded, “you up for this transfer today?”

Goodwin looked at Trudi. “So, how about it? Ready for a little adventure?”

“Sounds delightful!” she said admiringly. “When do we start?”

“Well, might we not eat a bite first!” Malcolm said grumpily. “I’ve just pulled them from the oven, you know.”

“You and your stomach, Malcolm! Really!”

“Bah! Woman!”

“Mary Ann!” Tom sighed accusingly. “I thought you were the baker! You mean that after all this, he’s the one…?”

“Right,” Malcolm said. “And we won’t you say another word about this, will we?”

Goodwin laughed with Mary Ann and Trudi. They sat in Diogenes’ cockpit and watched flashing white glows struggle within the dark-rimmed clouds, the storm closing in now; after a few minutes Goodwin stopped, his eyes locked on the water behind the boats.

“How long have they been here?”

“They?” Mary Ann said as she turned. “Oh my word. Now what?”

Elsie sat up on the swim platform, her ears now standing almost straight up as she watched seven dolphins gathered in a circle just a few yards away.

“One of them was here all night, Tom,” Malcolm said. “Elsie sat out here with it all night, never moved as far as I can tell.”

Without saying a word Goodwin stood and walked to the edge of the transom; he pushed off and made a gracefully silent dive right into the middle of the formation. He came up and began treading water; his companions gathered wordlessly at the rail, wondering what had gotten into him.

Two Scar came to Goodwin and rolled over on his side and stared into Goodwin’s eyes.

“She’s alright, boy. You understand me, don’t you? She’s fine now.”

The dolphin drifted into Goodwin and put his nose on one of the blood soaked stains. Everyone could hear the dolphin moan, but then another dolphin came in close and did the same thing. Two Scar moved off but kept close to Goodwin; all of them came in and did the exact same thing, then one by one they left the harbor.

All but Two Scar.

He came back to Goodwin, put his snout against Goodwin’s face, and Tom stroked it softly, said gentle words while they held each other in the water.

Goodwin turned as Two Scar slipped into the darkness; only then was he aware of the crowd that had formed. Not only the Doncasters and Trudi; now he saw at least a dozen people on the far side of the harbor looking at him, dozens more on the quay behind Springer.

“Oh good grief!” he said as he paddled over and pulled his tired body up onto the platform. His neck felt hot and stiff, his head full of a dull ache that pressed in like a vice, and he took the towel Malcolm handed him and dried his face.

“What was that all about?” Trudi said in her clipped Swedish accent.

“Don’t ask,” Mary Ann replied. “Do yourself a big favor – just do not ask!”

Malcolm laughed while he cleared dishes. “You’ll have an interesting talk with Goodwin, no doubt. But I don’t think you’ll learn anything. I certainly haven’t.”

“But, were they talking to one another?”

“I don’t know. I really don’t.”

Goodwin climbed back down onto the swim platform and sat next to Elsie. He put his arm around her while she licked saltwater from his arms, and Goodwin looked out to sea. He saw Two Scar had stopped and was looking at him, now several hundred feet away – and Tom waved. When the dolphin disappeared again, Elsie sat up and licked his face.

+++++

Doctoré Santoni led Maria’s children into the intensive care unit, cautioning them to not let what they saw alarm them. It always looked, he told them, much worse than it really was.

She lay on her back, a green plastic ventilator covered her mouth and nose, and her eyes were taped shut with thin strips of tape. She was loosely covered with thin white sheets; lines and tubes sprouted from every part of her body. Margherita gasped and turned away when she saw the angry red line of tape and staples holding her mother’s chest together; Paulo walked to his mother’s side and took her hand and stroked it gently.

“Mama, we’re here. All of us, Mama. We love you. We’re going to help you get strong.”

Her hand was lifeless, unresponsive, yet machines overhead pulsed and whispered, each singing their own peculiar music of life, a simple melody of hope and renewal. Paulo looked at the machines as a reflection of his mother’s life force, he held on to the hope fused inside these pulsing electronics, simply because what he saw lying in the bed frightened him beyond all understanding. He could not imagine a world without his mother in it. The mere thought was beyond unendurable.

Vico held Margherita by his side, and together they walked forward until they came to her bedside. Margherita’s lips trembled, her eyes twitched and watered, and the old man held her tight to hide his own fear.

Of them all, only Toni seemed outwardly remote and untouched by the pain before him. He was numb, almost in shock. He was her baby boy, and always would be.

+++++

Springer left the still harbor under power; as soon as she cleared the cape Goodwin unfurled the main and fell off the wind. He rolled out the staysail and cut the engine, now all was quiet except for slowly building winds and waters parting at the bow before running along the hull, joining again behind the boat in a softly gurgling wake. He feathered the prop and pulled at the gennie, and Springer leapt into the wind…

Goodwin watched as Diogenes motored along the direct line to Rapallo; either Malcolm had grown tired of sailing or was below baking bread. Mary Ann was at the tiller staring ahead. Whatever the season, it was a glorious morning to sail and Goodwin felt renewed after the long night in surgery. It was a pity the Doncasters had lost sight of this simple pleasure. He twisted his head from side to side, his neck still stiff and hot.

Trudi remained silent, lost in memory as the boat heeled into a gust. Her long gray hair streamed behind in the wind, faint rays of pale yellow sunlight struggled from behind faraway clouds to wash over her, and she held her face in the bronze light, her mouth parted ever so slightly as if trying to drink in every last molecule of time.

She turned to Goodwin. “May I go forward?”

“Sure.” He clipped her harness to the jack-line and tested the shackle. “Just remember to keep hold of something as you walk.”

She nodded, staggered forward holding on to lifelines and handrails until she came to the bow pulpit. She sat with her feet dangling over the side, and for all the world Goodwin thought she looked like a young girl again.

Joy is such a simple thing, he remembered. Why do we grow away from it? Why do we become so reluctant to embrace such a simple thing?

He heard her squeal, saw her point at the water, and there they were.

Seven fins arced alongside Springer, dark gray darts slipping through the water with the barest sound; Two Scar settled aft beside Goodwin, the dolphin’s grinning face alive with the pure joy of spinning through silver-blue seas, living life on the crest of a wave. Goodwin smiled at Two Scar and he replied by jumping high into the air, skipping across the sea like a flat rock thrown by a kid.

Trudi came alive as she watched the show. She leaned into the pulpit and smiled and laughed, then she lay along the gunwale, her hand reaching out to the sea. A fin sliced through the water, came to her seeking hand and in a sudden burst ran up and surfed on the bow wave for a moment, Trudi’s hand resting on the dolphin’s back. The dolphin slipped underwater only to fall back and run forward to the bow wave again and again. It was a game, it was joy, and they all watched and loved the feeling.

After perhaps a half hour, Two Scar came alongside. He seemed agitated and Goodwin looked to the far horizon. Angry black clouds seethed, lightning flashed across the mountains. He turned to Two Scar and nodded understanding.

“Alright! We’ll head in now!”

He called Trudi, asked her to come back to the cockpit. When she was settled he came about and made his course for the breakwater at Rapallo. Springer now pushed into wind-driven seas, and when the bow slammed into a big rolling wave, roiled water arced through the air and fell back on them, then the Springer bulled her way through the next one. Goodwin looked at Trudi; she still seemed like a little girl full of the soaring expectation – her radiant face freed from all the cares time had visited on her in recent years.

She turned and looked at Goodwin.

“Thank you,” she said.

“No, Trudi. Thank you,” he said as he took her hand and squeezed it.

+++++

Malcolm took Springer’s lines as the boat pulled into the marina, Mary Ann helped Trudi cross to Diogenes while the men sorted out dock lines and fenders. Elsie seemed happy to see Goodwin; she jumped over to Springer and went to the rail where Trudi had lain with the dolphins; she sniffed around and looked back at Goodwin, her tail fanning the air.

Dark gray clouds raced through the city, slanting walls of white rain arrived, and even behind the marina’s protective mole ragged gusts hit hard, stirring up choppy-rolling waves at the dock. Masts clanged with loose halyards as wind whipped through the aluminum forest, owners scurried about making lines fast while others sat in their cockpits drinking wine and watching all the activity with quiet, knowing smiles on their smug faces.

After things were stowed below Goodwin went to Diogenes and had tea, then called a number on his cell phone. He spoke cryptically in terse medical terms to the voice on the other end, nodded his head a couple of times.

“Alright, Jon, let me take a nap at least. Then I’ll grab a taxi and come up. What? Alright, suit yourself. Down inside the mole, right behind the seawall. Green hull, sailboat, name on the stern is Springer. I’ll leave the hatch open so come on in.”

Everyone was looking at him – again – now full of manifest curiosity.

“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell us what’s going on?” Malcolm pleaded.

“Margherita’s mother. She crashed last night. Had to go in and fix a few things.”

“Crashed?” Malcolm said.

“Go in?” Mary Ann stated. “You mean . . .”

“Yup. Italy accepted my credentials, I’m legal now.”

“So, there are no license issues? How, did you…?”

“Yup. Don’t ask.”

“I see,” she said.

“Good. Now, can we drop it?”

“Right,” Malcolm said. “So, how far off did you two go? We almost lost sight of you.”

“Well, when we tacked back in toward Rapallo we were about four miles out.” Goodwin rolled his neck, tried to get the kink out again.

“Yes,” Trudi added, “it was glorious. The dolphins came and swam with us for what seemed like forever. I even touched several of them!”

“Two Scar?” Malcolm asked.

“Yup,” Tom said.

“Two Scar?” Trudi asked. “What . . .”

“Hey, hate to break this up, but I’m going to go get some shut-eye; y’all tell Trudi whatever you want, just let me get some sleep, okay?” Goodwin slipped below and into the shower and let the water run on his neck; after a quick, hot one he toweled off and put on a dry t-shirt, took some acetaminophen then flopped down on his berth – and dropped off into a deep sleep. He was aware, in those last few glowing moments of consciousness, of a furry ball of warm dog curling up next to him. He felt a cold nose press against his and smiled.

“Tom? Tom, you can wake up now.” It was a woman’s voice, Swedish accent. “You have a guest. Tom. Wake up…”

“Do I have to?” He was acutely aware of his neck – it still felt stiff, and hot…

“Yes. Dr Santoni is here. We’ve been talking for an hour. He asked us to let you sleep, but he must go back to the hospital soon, and he wants you to accompany him.”

Goodwin felt the woman’s hands running through his hair, and his eyes popped wide open.

“Tom,” she said again, this time ever so gently, “Thank you for this morning. These are memories I will always cherish. Tom? You feel hot. Go wash up with cool water.”

He listened as she walked up on deck; he heard swarms of voices buzzing about, almost as if a party was in full swing. He sat up and felt hair all over his face and mouth and began picking Springer hair from his lips as he stumbled into the head. He washed his face, looked at his reflection in the mirror; his eyes were blood red and he felt hot – impossibly hot. He took a thermometer and stuck it under his tongue and padded into the galley. He pulled out a bottle of frigid mineral water, felt a line of sweat forming on his brow, then took the thermometer and held it up to a light.

“102.4 – yikes!” He walked over to the companionway, made eye contact with Santoni and held up the thermometer.

“What is it?”

Goodwin handed Santoni the thermometer. “See if you see what I see, then wash your hands!”

“Shit! You better lie back down.” Santoni got on his cell phone and called his hospital. When he finished he came and sat in the saloon across from his old friend and mentor. “I just added some antibiotics to Mrs Morretti’s cocktail, and I’m having a nurse come down and draw blood. Have you any acetaminophen? And where do I put this thing?”

“Thermometer in the head, tube on counter. Tylenol in the cabinet over the sink, took some earlier. You know, I feel like shit.”

“I’m not surprised. When did you first feel this come on?”

“About five minutes ago. No. My neck’s been stiff all morning.”

Santoni looked at Goodwin with narrowed eyes, rinsed the thermometer off and stuck it back under Goodwin’s tongue. He looked at his wristwatch and felt Goodwin’s pulse. After another minute he looked at the thermometer and shook his head.

“Okay, that’s it. We’re going to the hospital. Let’s go.”

“What is it now?”

“Over 103. Now, let’s go. This isn’t good, and you know it. You say your neck is stiff?”

“Jon? I think you’d better call an ambulance…” Goodwin’s vision grew faraway and misty, then he felt the earth reaching up for him, pulling him down, and while it felt for a moment like he was falling…something about the moment felt odd and black.

+++++

He woke in the night; he could see someone sitting in a chair by the window inside a tiny, antiseptically bare room. The world smelled of strong disinfectant and garlic. He smiled, tried to lift his head from the starchy pillow and the pounding began . . .

“Crap! Son of a bitch!”

A small bedside lamp flipped on; Goodwin shielded his eyes: “Youch! Bright! Off!”

“Tom? Oh, thank God!”

He turned, saw Margherita in the brilliant light, saw tears on her face and in her eyes.”

“Hey, kiddo. How’s your mom doing?”

“Tom! Tom! You…she’s fine, she’s doing just fine. Going home tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? No way. It’s way too soon for that. She needs at least two weeks…”

“Tom. You’ve been here almost two weeks. In a coma until three days ago, then the medicine began to work. We’ve been very worried, Tom. Very worried.”

Her words drifted around the perimeter of his consciousness for a moment, then worked their way in. “Two weeks?”

“Yes, Tom.”

A nun came in and looked at Goodwin and smiled, then ducked quickly out of the room. She came back a few minutes later with a glass full of water, crushed ice and a straw.

“Drink this,” the old woman said. “Slowly, doctoré, slowly.”

“Gad, my mouth tastes like a barnyard!”

Santoni came into the room. “Eh, so the lazy no good bum decides to wake up, does he? About time!”

“Jon? What the hell…”

“We’ll talk about all that it in a while…” He was looking from Goodwin to Margherita surreptitiously, as if there was a secret he wanted to guard.

“Yeah, sure. How’s Mrs Morretti?”

“Great, Tom. No problems. Now you? Tell me how you feel.”

“Weak. And my head hurts.”

“From the spinals. Sorry.”

“Jeesh! How many did you do?”

“Several, my friend. Meningococcus, you understand?” Again Santoni averted his eyes while he spoke quietly.

“Meningitis?”

Santoni nodded. “We have been feeding you Ceftriaxone through a central line for quite some time now, and some Vancomycin too. To be on the safe side.”

“No wonder I feel like shit.”

“Yes, no wonder. Warmed over shit, too. Now you excuse me, okay Tom. I got to go and get ready for surgery.”

“What time is it?”

“Eh, Margherita? You get him up to speed on things, okay. I see you in a while, Tom.”

“Up to speed? On what?”

“Tom, we didn’t know how ill you were, if you were going to make it. We didn’t know what to do.”

“And? Why do I get the feeling you’ve left out something important here?”

“We, uh, well, we called your father?”

“You didn’t. Please God, tell me you didn’t.”

“Vico did. Yesterday. They talked yesterday.”

“Is he here?”

“No. He’s coming Friday. In a few days.”

“Swell.” Goodwin held his head as contradictory impulses flew through his mind. “Oh, well, c’est la vie. Comme il faut . . . oh, excuse me . . . this is as it should be, I suppose. Too many pieces of the puzzle missing. Anything else I need to know?”

“Elsie will not leave your boat. It is still in Rapallo, and the Doncasters stay there too. The woman Trudi stays there too, with Elsie.”

“Swell.”

“What does this word mean? This swell.”

“Huh? Oh, something like ‘oh, great,’ but a close cousin of ‘fuck,’ ‘shit,’ ‘damn,’ and ‘holy Mother of God!’”

She laughed and Goodwin thought once again how good it felt to hear her laughter; it washed over him and made the pain in his head roll away for a moment, but he could see she was still holding something back from him.

“Now, what aren’t you telling me?” He looked at the reluctance in her eyes, reluctance, and a little mischief. “You’re not telling me something. What?”

“No, Tom. You have enough on your mind now. With your father coming.”

“Don’t try to protect me, Margherita. Talk to me.”

“Why shouldn’t I protect you? I love you,” she exploded. “I love you so much it hurts to breathe when I am away from you. I can not go to work, I can not eat, I can not leave this room, and I will not until you are well…” She looked away, embarrassed by her outburst.

“Oh.” Tom seemed quiet now, almost embarrassed as well. “Margherita? What won’t you tell me?”

“I think I am with child.” She looked at him, measured him. “I think I am with your child.”

He looked at her for a long time, held out his hand to her and she leaned into him, put her face on his fingers. He closed his eyes, and was soon asleep.

She heard his breathing grow calm, heard the gathering quiet take the room again, and she pulled back and looked at him.

He was smiling. Softly, gently smiling.

And she understood. Everything was beginning to make sense.

+++++

May, 1968

Portofino

Dino Morretti backhanded Maria Theresa and she flew across the kitchen, landing in a ragged heap in the corner of the room. Her stinging face, already bruised from several blows over the past week, hurt beyond words. The tears she cried came from a place inside she never knew existed. They came from despair unknown to her, and these mute feelings tore her apart.

Dino Morretti wasn’t a simple dullard; even though he had lived in denial of basic truths for several months now, the urge to destroy Maria Theresa grew stronger each time he looked at the little bastard, this little child Paulo. The boy wasn’t his – he knew this beyond all measure of doubt – and as far as he was concerned everyone in the village knew this as well. He knew this because he hadn’t made love to his wife since Margherita was conceived, and unless someone was willing to come forward and make a good case for Immaculate Conception, the boy’s origins were far from clear.

But he knew the truth. Oh yes, he knew.

Vico had done the deed. That was it!

He would always love Maria Theresa. He always had, and always would.

Vico has done this! He must have… 

Earlier that day, Morretti vowed before God he would kill Vico, and Maria Theresa had grown so full of despair she had let slip all restraint and simply laughed violently at the little man. She had no other emotions left inside by that time; she simply let go of her fear and laughed – even as she wept, she laughed. She felt hollow, like she was drifting, drifting slowly across that sunless sea – homeward bound to faraway oblivion.

Had she wanted this to happen?

“It’s not Vico, you fool,” she said softly, reprovingly, and he had slugged her breast, hard, his face red, the veins in his neck pulsing with ageless venom. He circled the room like a boxer, out of his mind with black anger, then he saw her there and circled like a shark – sensing fresh blood in the water. He moved to kick her, all the while his anger coiling like a snake, readying for the next strike.

‘Why did I smile at him then?’ she asked herself.

“You lying whore!” he yelled when he kicked her in the rear, but then he begun laughing. “So, the jokes on me, eh? You fucking whore!” He lunged forward, his foot lifting, drawing back again…

Maria – already doubled over in pain – raised her hands to defend herself from the next blow, but it never came. She heard someone banging on the door and Dino, his blood boiling, went to answer; she crawled into the bathroom and locked the door, all the while gasping from a sharp pain in her chest. She heard dark words, a struggle, fists falling and furniture breaking… footsteps running down old wooden stairs, other footsteps coming toward the bathroom, someone knocking on the door softly, gently, a voice so full of love and compassion, a voice full of mystery and the fount of her imagination, a voice from the past…

“Maria, it’s me. Open the door.” She heard Paul Goodwin’s voice, and she fell to the floor, weeping.

+++++

There’s had been a conspiracy of silence. The ties that bind had grown very strong over two lifetimes. Love endures anything but neglect, and Vico never relinquished his complete devotion to Maria Theresa. His love was simple and pure, a vow to himself beyond mortal release.

Maria held Vico to her secret after the first ‘reunion’ with Goodwin. Paul must never know, she told him, because she could not, would not use the child to bring him here against his will. He would come, she maintained, when he was ready to listen to the truth they had discovered. He would come when he was ready to listen to the music of the night, to simple chords of destiny, to the music of this unknown calling.

Then the beatings began. Everyone in the village knew the shame over their house, but not the cause. She became an outcast, then ever more reclusive.

Vico thought of his friend in faraway America, thought of their momentary roadside encounter, and of Goodwin’s fair-haired son. Could he keep the nature of her secret from them? Could he find Goodwin and tell him and not betray the conspiracy? Vico knew where Paul Goodwin worked, and he struggled with loyalties and her desperate need; in the end he called Goodwin, and talked to him within these limits. He kept to his part of the conspiracy, he made what case he could. He pleaded, he waited.

And Paul Goodwin came to Portofino again. He came as if on wings afire, full of seething rage and unrequited fury. He came in love, to love once again.

+++++

Goodwin took a small apartment near Vico’s ristorante; they moved her and the two children in the dead of night. Goodwin and Vico found a couple of tough guys to tell Dino if he came around or touched Maria Theresa again his body would never be found. The message was delivered with more force than had been asked for, and Dino Morretti faded from the scene for a couple of years. Maria Theresa began to mend, at least in body. Goodwin had saved her; she always knew he would. Her sense of destiny was so sure-footed; hadn’t he always followed her through the rock and shoals?

But Vico saw over the coming weeks and months that something inside her soul had failed to mend, and that something was her undiminished need for Paul. Goodwin, of course, did not remain in Portofino, he remained true to his former self and took to the skies, and as such he was rarely around for more than a few days at a time, and these days followed the dictates of his schedule; he came, he stayed a day, then he flew home to New York, to, Vico assumed, his other family.

And, predictably, when those days of his various returns came less frequently, Maria Theresa simply lived all the more for them; it was as if she stopped breathing between his visits, and came to life again only when he returned to her. Paul brought toys from America for the children, he took her to Rome and Florence more than once, and finally one summer day in July, 1969, they went to Venice. They made love in a little hotel above a canal, as they always dreamed they might, but she knew their’s was a passions borne of other-worldly need, simple, pure, with no guilt possible because the reason behind their union would always be beyond the laws of man. All the mystery came back in newfound lust, yet there was always something vacant and missing…the meaning of it all.

One afternoon he talked of leaving his wife, of bringing Maria to America, and while he talked she saw the naked futility of his plan. She could never leave the Port of the Dolphins, and his first best destiny remained there by the little harbor, with her, as well. If only he could see this simple truth…

He would not hear of it, however. He could never leave America, his life there was his work. While Goodwin considered their past an un-reconciled debt, he never considered what he asked of her unfair because he could not see the vital connection of Maria Theresa to the sea, to the music of those frenzied unions. He simply could not believe that asking her to leave the village was so wrong; she would have her children, and him; they would be together, united to make a better life. Yet Maria never felt this true to the destiny she felt in her soul, and she grew bitter with what she considered his carelessness, his blindness. When they returned to Portofino she told him to leave her, to go live his life – such as it was – in America. She would move on, she told him, and he should do the same.

Utterly defeated and now alone, Goodwin left. He never returned. He saw his son move off to college, then medical school, and he resolved to stay by his broken wife’s side.

Nine months after their trip to Venice, Antonio Thomasi Morretti – little Toni – came into the world, a few months after Dino Morretti returned to the forgiving arms of his wife.

+++++

If Paulo and Toni Morretti never knew their real father, Margherita most certainly did know hers. After his return a beaten man, before Toni came into the world, he was true to his word and never once raised a hand to Maria Theresa. He simply turned his insidious, tortured soul’s demented attentions to his daughter.

He never lifted a hand to hurt her; he didn’t need to. He knew which words cut the deepest – and he used them frequently. Margherita learned to bleed in painless agony. When Maria Theresa made a new dress for her, she knew she could count on her father to belittle her appearance. When she brought home good reports from school, she knew he would undermine her confidence in other ways, tell her how stupid she really was, how meaningless education was for a girl. It was predictable, she knew what was coming, always, but she never knew why. She never understood why he hated her, and why, through it all, she continued to love him. It wasn’t fair; one sided love never is, yet the pain is real enough.

And yet she understood there was something deeper amiss; she had faint memories of Paul Goodwin hidden in depths of earliest memory, a man who had helped her mother once, before her father, who stood by her for a time, and then all those days in recent years when he was around, always helping – and his sudden attachment to Paulo.

She asked her father about this one morning. He surprised her, too; he didn’t try to humiliate her, he didn’t belittle her question.

No. The veneer shattered, walls fell. He broke down and cried until only salt fell from his eyes. And in her surprise she went to him, she held onto this man who was her father, and while she didn’t understand why, she felt his pain. She felt vultures’ wings of betrayal beating the air everywhere around her, their concussive ripples flowing through her own heart like dizzying waves of recrimination. But now, with her arms around her father, with his scratchy fisherman’s beard resting on her face, she held him and when she told him that she loved him, the beaten man crumbled into salt-laden dust before her eyes.

In the weeks that followed, the little man was reborn. He finally found love in his own cold heart, yet that was the last place the man had expected to find it. He could not do enough for his daughter, no dress was too good for her, he took her everywhere – fishing, and to the market to sell their catch; those were their favorite days – and in time even little Paulo came to know some small measure of this love, though within the tortured limits of his ‘father’s’ newfound ability. As such, time held the Morretti family in tender hands, for they were all fragile, wounded creatures. In this soft, wounded hold, time passed as a bloody carcass pulled along a rock-strewn road in a tired beast’s mouth.

Toni, as he grew older, never went near the man; boundaries borne of instinct were as solid as any stone wall, and he remained by his mother’s side whenever Dino Morretti came home. He watched his mother and he learned one simple truth: that man was not to be trusted. Before he was five years old he hated Dino Morretti, and his feelings never changed over the years. Not even after he learned of his pulling Margherita from the sea.

Once, when his voice had started to change, he asked his mother a simple question –“Is he my father?” – and Toni never once forgot the look in her eyes. Warm, sympathetic, and yet full of sorrows he knew he would never understand: “Of course he isn’t. How could he be?”

He looked at her in a new, very different way, after that one solitary moment in time. In one shattered instant he understood everything. He understood that she knew the true nature of Dino Morretti and had turned away from all his hate and fear. Turned away, he knew, to something he didn’t know but could only faintly understand.

There were, he found, limits to what she would tell him. Her conspiracy remained intact, her denial absolute.

And yet, her words haunted him.

“How could he be?”

He always heard those words when he saw Dino, and the irony humbled him, filled him with cloudy incomprehensions. He, Toni, was not of that man; she was saying, in effect, that he was not of Dino’s violence and ignorance, not of his blind shame and simpering rectitude. He, Toni, was Different. He was better than Dino Morretti; he always had been and would always be.

But – who was he of? He came to define his life in terms of what was missing from his life, and so he grew up incomplete, searching, wondering who that missing part was.

And yet, he embraced the one vital piece of the puzzle: Dino was not his father. The other piece, that most important piece of all, remained an unknown, a song yet to be played in the night. He drifted between wanting to know, and afraid of knowing. It was a sour split that left bitter wounds and, over time, many sleepless nights.

One night Dino attacked his mother, not with fists but with words, and Toni picked up a kitchen chair and broke it over the man’s back. Paulo came and pulled them apart, and this became the pattern that would define their later childhood. Paulo took Dino’s edicts as accepted wisdom and never questioned them; Dino was – after all – Paulo’s father. Wasn’t he?

Wasn’t he?

Surely that was why his brother always took his ‘father’s’ side.

Yet soon Toni could see the truth behind the lie, it was spread out in front of him like an old wound that refused to heal. The fisherman embraced Margherita as his own, so obviously, in the young boy’s mind, she could be nothing else. But there was a distance between Paulo that was never bridged by words, no matter how many times his older brother stuck up for the old man. It was a pattern. Toni became an unwitting party to the conspiracy, and the split within deepened.

He could see it now, he knew it was so in his soul, but Paulo either could not or would not see anything beyond what he wanted to see. He clung to this ‘father’ despite the man’s familial agnosticism, he rejected his mother’s tenacious love because he sensed only the lie within, not the substance of the conspiracy. Paulo wanted to believe Dino was his father, he had to believe in his construct of ‘father’, because for him there was nothing else beyond this paternal identity. He was Paulo Morretti. There was nothing, no one else.

The very opposite was true for Toni. Truth be told and no matter the pain, his mother was their mother. And in the end, as he knew it would, Toni could not countenance deceit when the children were forced to choose sides. Paulo chose to keep faith with his ‘father’. For Toni, there was no choice, and Paulo grew diminished in his eyes. Paulo was a fool. A blind fool, Toni knew, but a fool nonetheless. There was no truth in the boy’s choice, only desperation. There wasn’t love, only fear.

In time, the only desperation Toni felt was when he looked at Margherita and Dino Morretti when they were together. He wanted what she had. He wanted his becoming to be complete.

Then something happened. Something terrible, yet something miraculous.

One evening Maria Theresa walked to the cape, and Toni followed her.

He saw her dance to the music of the night.

+++++

Portofino, 1983

He was thirteen years old and very skinny; neighbors thought he was prone to anger and was, more often than not, just a little depressed. Toni Morretti hated the man people called his father as much as he revered his mother, yet he was angry all the time. He was depressed, and people knew that, too. And the only thing he longed for more than his mother’s love was to find the knowing smile on his true father’s face. He wanted to know the story of his own origins, the real story, the true story – not the fictions repeated at Christmas and on birthdays – and he grew increasingly obsessed with the fiction that had entombed him for so many years. The older he grew the farther away truth seemed to slip, the more uncomfortable became the fictions his past was cloaked within. These clinging fictions were suffocating him, burying him under the weight of false illusions he had had no role in creating. He looked at the relationship his sister Margherita had with Dino Morretti and balanced that against the idle foolishness his brother Paulo held for the same man, and inside dark moonlit nights deep in his bedroom he performed a simple calculus, forever coming to the same answer:

He needed to know his father, and his mother refused to tell him anything of the man.

Why? Why so much silence?

What was so bad about the man? What was so bad to warrant a lifetime of deception?

And over the last year his sister Margherita had fallen in love with a musician from Avignon, France. The boy, Marc Duruflé, had performed with a something less than energetic rock band the previous summer at an arts festival and had taken to the simple beauty of the village; he stayed after he found a job in the fall teaching music at the local school, and there he met Margherita. This was her last year attending the village school, and she planned to go to university in Genoa the next year. She seemed possessed of a boundless intelligence, yet he knew the girl’s mother feared she was troubled by the same restless grip of wanderlust that had plagued her father when he started law school. The mother was afraid she would only try to destroy herself along false paths to easy heights.

Soon claiming to be in love with Duruflé, the eighteen year old girl fast passed restlessness and fell into the easy grip of full blown rebellion. Perhaps fomented as a means of escaping the grip of life in a small village, or perhaps simply to hurl retribution in her mother’s face for the harm she had done Dino Morretti over the years, Margherita flaunted her relationship with the young musician to every face she came upon. Dino smiled, and while not unaware of the ironies his daughter’s sordid affair presented, when he saw the distress Margherita caused his wife he could only encourage the relationship to deepen. As mother and daughter drifted deeper into conflict he sat back and watched everything around his home fall apart, and he smiled ever more deeply as wounds so lightly veiled by the tattered fabric of lies began to come apart in his family’s vernal gales. Perhaps this was the pattern of the man; his self-destructive impulses held sway over continuous unravellings, and when the destruction was complete only a bitter smile remained. Margherita and the musician fled to Florence for a ‘reunion tour’, and as a result she never went to university. All love destroyed now, Dino Morretti’s vicious little circles began to draw to their logical conclusion. When Maria Theresa fell into the bottomless despondence of loss once again, he smiled the smile of the damned.

Toni Morretti watched the man closely during this time; he saw the pettiness and vindictiveness in the man as these events consumed his mother. Worse still, all the man’s vacuous self-absorbed anger for Maria Theresa billowed forth again and released in venal fury, and all for the apparent purpose of destroying the one good thing he had created with his life. He was consumed with destroying his own flesh and blood, for the boy knew the man so obviously hated himself he could see no other end to his ruined life. A broken man can never see the future; he can only live in the moment, and the past isn’t even a memory.

Toni became aware of the concept of destiny during this time, and while he began to feel sorry for the man, this only caused him to think more about what his own might be. He knew, somehow, that his destiny was bound completely to his real father’s. But how? How could he reach for it without knowing.

Watching this tragedy unfold filled-in one vital part of Toni’s equation, the why of things. Why his mother had once turned away from the man. But why had she taken him back, only to betray the man again and again? Had his mother simply hated Dino Morretti – from the beginning, or were there even greater betrayals lurking in the shadows?

Toni began to wonder who the architect of this betrayal was. The why of things slowly faded from his thoughts as he focused on the who of things – finding the betrayer.

A few weeks after Margherita left for Florence with Duruflé, Dino Morretti moved out of the little apartment Paul Goodwin had rented for Maria Theresa. So complete was the little man’s triumph, he even kissed her goodbye.

+++++

After Margherita’s stormy departure Toni stayed close to his mother. She was at a complete loss now, her eyes full of anger and helpless to control events spiraling beyond her ability to control. She began to sit by the window in her apartment and look out to the sea beyond the cape for hours on end, and Toni began to understand that she was not simply looking into emptiness; she was, rather, waiting for somebody, waiting for – it seemed – a sign. He saw latent purpose in her eyes as she watched the sea, and in time he saw unrequited longing drifting away in the hours of her mind.

She began to take her Passeggiata in the evening once again, but now always alone, and her walks began with a slow walk across the piazzeta – lost in thought. As she walked along, as the sun set around her, she invariably made her solitary way slowly along the quay and up the hill to the cape at the end of the road. She resumed these walks by herself, she wanted no company, she wanted to be alone with her thoughts, and for a while Toni relented and did not follow; he contented himself with watching her walk from the window above the harbor, his heart full of worried concern – and looming curiosity.

Toni began to think these walks were a form of penance, her solitude the only company she could bear. But there was something more to it that eluded him. Everything about her life had come undone, and in this growing, unforeseen turbulence, nothing was as it seemed.

Paulo would begin to cook their dinner when his mother left the apartment, the time when Maria Theresa left on her stroll, and as such Paulo naturally assumed a role Dino never could have. Paulo tried to establish a sense of order in the house because, he told himself, Toni and his mother needed it. Toni, of course, knew better. Toni knew that Paulo needed a sense of continuity, because he missed having Dino to guide him. While there was comfort in order, Toni knew now, there was no truth to be found in the shadow of a foolish man.

In time, Maria Theresa’s walks grew longer and Toni began to worry about her safety. He did not know the woman, he had no idea of all the tortured trails his mother walked in the night through the hills around the village. He did not know the toughness of the woman inside, of the Germans she had summarily dealt with, of the memories that even now stalked her in the night. He saw only wounded despair on her face, the emptiness of Margherita’s flight and the lingering echoes of Dino’s expulsion; as such, he only saw the empty nature of her longing as it remained – as an untold myth – a tale that remained as unswept dust on the floor. He had no idea of the things that had been taken from his mother during the war, and the things she had turned her back on in the turbulent years since. Her conspiracy had protected him most thoroughly, yet like dust, her silence was always underfoot.

One summer night when the July moon was full, she had not come back for dinner and Toni grew worried; as the evening passed into night a sense of foreboding filled the little apartment. Soon he was unable to tolerate his mounting anxiety and he left Paulo cooking in the kitchen and ran out onto the crowded piazzeta. He looked around helplessly at the streaming crowds, then ran across the old stone plaza and along the quay, then up into the deepening shadows that defined the tree-lined way out to the cape.

The air felt strange once he was in shadow, vast, almost electric, like the night was eager to return to this landscape and claim a prize long held from it’s grasp. Toni walked slowly as he drew near the cape, he slowed not because his concern had withered; rather he felt dark force gathering in the air beside him as he walked. He felt like he was being watched, and the hair on the back of his neck danced in the suddenly close air, and then it stood on end. He could just see moonlight dancing on the waves through the trees ahead, hear water weaving through rocks and a retreating wind snaking through the lush summer leaves overhead, and soon, above all else he felt looming energy coiling in the air all around this place. He left the trees and came into the moonlight – and stumbled to a stop.

He saw his mother’s clothes piled on a rock and his mind filled with dread pictures of tormented ends. He looked, as best he could, looked at the rocks and beyond, down to the sea, but even then he could not see her – so blind was his need. His heart was consumed with certain knowledge; she had come here to kill herself in the sea, and he could feel in the air that this was not the first time she had come to this place to do so. Death had been stalking his mother and he did not understand why.

He hurried a few steps towards the sea then stopped again.

There she was. His mother, in the sea.

He stood in open-mouthed shock as he watched his mother’s luminously naked skin glowing in the water. Her arms were outstretched, floating on the surface, her silver hair coiled on the surface and drifting in lazy arcs. All was just in silence; only the barest eddies came in from the sea to kiss the shore, and these did so hesitantly – as if they did not want to disturb what was about to unfold.

He saw the fin slicing through the water and he wanted to shout a warning but something gripped his throat and held him in silence. The form slid through the water and came to his mother with ferocious intent – or so it seemed to the boy – and it drew round her as if readying for the feast. Then the form resolved into shapes benign and soothing and he relaxed; he saw the black eye from where he stood on the rocks, he saw the dolphin rest on its side by his mother. They looked at one another, the woman and the creature, and they held a trust the boy had never seen before. He saw the dolphin rest its nose on her shoulder, saw her arms take hold of the creature and he heard her cry into the night. It was a sound he had never heard before, and it shattered his soul.

He listened to the sound of her pain and they withered the flesh of this night with green fire. Her wails came as putrid agony to the chaste, waiting night, they came as rotted dreams oozing from the wounds of her private Hell.

The boy beheld all this, and began to cry.

She held the animal and became as crystal; she shimmered and wavered in the moonlight as all the agony of broken dreams came back to her in the water, came to collect a debt long due, and the animal took her pain and held it out to the moon.

Then Toni could hear the meaning of this union as his mother’s cries filled the night.

‘Destiny is not your enemy,’ he heard the wind and the water say, or was the voice he heard Vico’s? ‘You can not fight her. And you must not turn away from her. You must find her, and never let her go again. You must find you destiny even if it kills you. But there are limits to what we are allowed…’

Toni looked at his mother in the sea and he began to see how her life had unraveled. He could now feel his father in the air and in the water, and somehow it was all bound up in the creature by her side. He could see now that she had not come here seeking death. Rather, and of this he was quite sure, she had come seeking an affirmation of life, the will to continue. The creature by her side in the water was a link to the very essence of life, a silent gray sentinel who had come to guard her dreams and guide her destiny. And as inverted as the scene was, to young Toni everything now made perfect sense.

He slipped from the rocks and made his way back into the night. He walked home shattered by everything he’d seen.

He never told his mother about that night, about what he had seen from the shadows. And what he had come to know about her truth.

And Toni never saw the other eyes watching him. Eyes both in the sea, and on the wind. He never saw the old man’s eyes watching from behind dark trees, and the smile on the man’s face as he watched the young boy walk back to his life.

And when the old man smiled at the water, and the water smiled at him.

+++++

Ospedali Civili Di Genova

Tom Goodwin sat up in the hospital bed, his back propped up on a stack of stiffly over-starched pillows, looking at Margherita as she slept in a recliner by the window. His head felt better now, now that he’d managed to eat solid food, yet he still felt light-headed whenever he sat up in the bed, and his forehead pounded when he tried to stand. He’d lost twenty pounds in two weeks and was still as white as the sheets on his bed. He reached across for the cup of crushed ice on the bedside table and knocked it over; water spilled and the cup fell to the floor, waking Margherita from her light sleep.

“Sorry,” Goodwin said quietly while trying to get up from the bed.

Margherita opened her eyes and looked around the room; it felt to her like bad memories were alight in the room, beating wings filling the air over her head with hollow echoes, filling the room with dreadful purpose. She saw Tom struggling to sit up in the bed, water running off the bedside table to the floor, and she pushed herself awake. She tossed a washcloth on the table and some napkins on the floor, then stood beside Goodwin and helped him sit up.

“Tom, take deep breaths.” She caught his wooziness while she looked at the clock on the wall. “It’s time for medication. I am getting the nurse now.” She rubbed her eyes while she left the room; Goodwin held on to the bed – the world resolutely refused to stop spinning despite his best efforts to stop it – and he looked down at his bare feet swinging just above the cold tile floor, trying to hold a fixed frame of reference.

The night nurse came in and Goodwin groaned. The woman looked like a professional wrestler and was usually about as pleasant, but what really made her attractive, Goodwin thought, was the dark mustache. It matched the circles under the woman’s eyes, and her dour, dark mood. She spoke a little English, relied on Margherita to translate when necessary.

“Good evening, Nurse Ratchet,” he said with his nastiest sarcastic smile plastered on his face. The woman looked at him helplessly and shrugged while she slipped a thermometer under his tongue; an orderly came in and mopped the floor while the nurse continued taking his vitals. She took the probe out of his mouth and read the numbers, wrote them down on his chart, then flipped over to read through the orders once again. She scowled, walked out of the room, and Goodwin sighed.

“She’s so talkative, and so lovely,” he said as Margherita came back into the room. “I think we’re going to be good friends. Maybe even lovers.”

“Shush!” Margherita smiled as she put her finger to her lips. “She doesn’t want you to know, but she thinks you have a cute ass.”

“I do have a cute ass.” Goodwin smiled as she came back in and resumed her place by the window. “I think I remember you telling me just yesterday how cute my ass is.”

“You are insufferable, you do know that, don’t you?”

“Absolutely. Wouldn’t have it any other way. And I’m so glad Nurse Ratchet loves my ass. My life is complete now.”

She said something in rapid-fire Italian and laughed, and he tried to smile, then rubbed his temples with his thumbs; soon he lay back on the bed and a chill ran through his body. Another nurse – probably an aide, he thought – came in with a fresh cup of ice water and a half dozen pills; Goodwin tossed them in his mouth and forced the water down.

“I’d kill for a Coke,” he said, and the nurse nodded and left.

“Are you feeling any better?” Margherita asked.

“Actually, I don’t think so.” He reached up and felt a bead of perspiration forming on his forehead. “Feeling kind of clammy again.”

“Clammy? What is this?”

“Sticky and wet. Fever. I think it’s coming back.” Nurse Ratchet came back into the room; with a saline-filled syringe in hand she came over and flushed out the central line protruding from under his left collar bone, then swabbed off the fittings on a new I.V. bag and hooked it up. She checked the drip rate and made a note on her omnipotent and omnipresent chart. The aide brought in a cup of Coke and more ice.

“Coke good. You drink lots tonight, yes?” She looked down at Goodwin, her coal dark eyes full of unexpected compassion.

He didn’t know why, but her eyes choked him up. They caught him off guard, and he felt himself starting to tear up. The nurse ran her fingers through his hair and smiled at him. He raced to put up the wall, raced to hide his feelings. “So, what is it tonight? Vancomycin again?”

“Si, doctoré. You temp – ah – your temperature is high again. I get you ready for another lumbar puncture later.”

“Oh! Goddamn, fuck no, not another one…”

Goodwin started crying openly now, and Margherita came to him and took his hand.

The nurse looked at Margherita, her smile traced with grim lines that radiated strength. “He be okay,” she said in English, if only to reassure him. “You going be fine again.”

+++++

Florence, 1984

‘Why am I here?’

Margherita Morretti kneeled over the washbasin as yet another wave of nausea washed over her sweating face. She shuddered, closed her eyes as bile crept up her throat one more time; as this wave broke, she looked at her reflection in the mirror with barely concealed contempt filling her mind. She knew she was pregnant, but this sickness was coming in nonstop waves now, and the smudged mascara lining her eyes felt preposterously out of place. She thought she looked hideous, like a circus freak, and she found the idea darkly amusing, almost ironic.

‘Why am I here?’ she asked herself for the hundredth time, here in this preposterously tiny, hideously filthy bathroom. Trapped here, trapped as she struggled to hold down another rising tide confusion.

Marc was rehearsing for the big gig in the sky tonight; his group was going to perform on a hotel rooftop down by the Ponte Vecchio. Record producers were going to be there, and everyone was excited that this was the big break they’d been working, and hoping for.

Marc’s skills as a keyboardist had grown over the past year, and his group was becoming famous around Florence, and much of northern Italy, so much so that they had been billed to open for Emerson, Lake and Powell on their upcoming European tour. They were even making money occasionally, living the high life from time to time.

But they were, Margherita knew only too well, now living way too high most of the time.

The hotel room they’d checked into two days ago now smelled of whiskey and pot, the sheets – soaked with semen and a loose brine of urine-glazed orgasm – lay on the floor in a ragged heap. She smelled the mess and stifled another heave, then ran her hands under the tap, wiped her face clear of sweat – and even tried to clear the black smudgy circles from around her eyes. She stumbled into the room and slipped on fishnet stockings and red thigh-high boots, a short skirt of violet suede topped by a black leather vest. Nothing else covered the rest of her body, and her breasts jutted out proudly. She put on fresh lipstick and touched up her eyes, then hurried back to the rooftop.

Marc and the guys were running through their progressive rock version of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Aquarium sequence from The Carnival of the Animals; the piece had justly put them on the prog-rock map and their hopes of landing a recording contract tonight rested solely on how they performed the piece. Now she watched as Marc ran his fingers over the keyboard – amazed, as she always was, at his daring virtuosity. She watched his long, slender fingers, thinking as she watched how he played her body with the same precision, and she trembled at the thought of their making love.

She watched – and listened – as an upright bass, then piccolo and mandolin – layered over acoustic guitar and drums gave birth to something new and magical, and she knew the boys were sitting on the cusp of greatness; she marveled at the sudden turns her life had taken as she rode their wave. Just a little more than a year ago, she had been festering in that little village, her duplicitous mother infecting everything with her treacherous lies and vacillating half-truths. How had her father put up with the mad woman all these years!

But she had left that all behind, and she felt like she was making her own run for the stars. She’d never once looked back, and never would, she told herself. She didn’t care if she ever saw any of her family, ever again, and she’d told them exactly that as they watched her leave.

The boys finished rehearsing and everyone made for their room – to take it easy before the big gig – to take another quick trip together, so to speak.

And while it wasn’t a quick trip, it most certainly was a weird one. And almost a bad trip

Whether it was the acid they’d scored from some kids at the university or the heroin a drummer from L.A. gave them, Marc got seriously fucked up while Luc, the group’s vocalist, went out on a catatonic tour of the Milky Way for a few thousand years. When they were called to the rooftop as night fell over the city, they stumbled onto the stage and into the light and never once looked back.

Of the critics who attended the performance that night, all were unanimous in their utter astonishment at the groups explosive virtuosity, the serious, indeed profound musicianship on display, and their almost painfully beautiful rendition of Saint-Saëns’ Aquarium. Agents swarmed over them after the performance – but these parasites parted as representatives from Atlantic Records surrounded the boys. It was a new day now.

And two days later the boys were in London, in the studio.

Margherita remained in Florence for a few days, then decided to head to Genoa.

She called Marc a week later, and he told her how well things had been going.

She asked what all these changes would mean. What all these changes meant to their relationship?

He told her he’d been thinking a lot about her, and it wouldn’t be fair to make her go through all this crap, that life was getting too complicated, and that it would be best to end things now.

Margherita fell violently ill the next morning. She was spotting and her belly was hot and tender. She took a taxi to the nearest hospital; later that afternoon she miscarried. She took a bus back to Portofino a week later and moved into a little flat Vico found her. She took a job cleaning hotel rooms and disappeared into the anonymity of the life that had claimed her.

And she remained good to her word and never told anyone in her family she had returned.

There was no need, really, and she knew it. It was a small town.

She was going round and round now; like she was on a carousel, and yet the ride never stopped. There was no way to get off, so she held on, held on as the years reeled away – and she too stopped believing in the future.

+++++

She listened to Goodwin as he slept; she could hear the little trembles that shook his lips when he took a breath and she tried to smile. She looked at the half finished Coke on the bedside table and watched as little silver drips cued up at the bottom of the I.V. and fell into the tubing that ran silently into his chest…and as she looked at these impossibly complex things she felt utterly devoid of even the simplest hope. It was as if she was watching him die right before her eyes, yet she understood that wasn’t really the case.

No, I couldn’t be…

Maybe it was because this place smelled just as it had so many years ago. This building made her skin crawl every time she saw it – even from a safe distance. Yet once she had felt like she was pregnant again, and then that other life rushed in from every direction. She’d felt the need to run again, and now, every time she walked the corridors of her own personal Hell, there was nowhere to run but back to Tom Goodwin, and to the hope she prayed would find her.

So the carousel just kept spinning round and round; there never seemed to be enough time to get off. She looked at Tom and the poison dripping into his chest and deep inside felt the spiraling gyre of her own life; all was bound in circles and cycles beyond her understanding, and the feeling left her breathless, and always alone.

She watched sweat soak through his gown, and started to cry.

+++++

Paul Goodwin lifted his suitcase up onto the scales; the check-in agent tisk-tisked and shook his head. “Three pounds over, sir. That’ll be seventy five dollars extra, sir.”

Goodwin smiled at the agent and put down the cash; he just managed to keep his mouth shut. He was enjoying this way too much.

“I see you requested a window seat, sir. We can accommodate that request, but that will be an additional fifty dollars. Premium seating, as I’m sure you know.”

“Really? Is the flight full?”

“No, sir. Shall I find you a cheaper seat?”

“Oh, no. Heaven forbid. I’m sure all your customers must love being ripped off like this.”

“Sir, please watch your attitude. We’re required to report all abusive remarks to the TSA.”

“Yes, I imagine you are.” Goodwin slipped a few more bills on the counter. “That enough? Anything else you can get me for?”

The agent smiled as he printed up the boarding pass, his sense of victory apparently complete, then he reached down to put the baggage tracking bar-code on Goodwin’s bag.

“I thought I was going to Rome?” Goodwin said, now enjoying this game even more.

“You are indeed, sir.”

“Oh. Well, I wonder if you might put the correct airport designator on my luggage. You’ve got mine headed for Roanoke. Last I heard, Rome was in Italy, not Virginia.”

“Oh! I am sorry sir. Let me fix that for you!” The man smiled as before, but Goodwin could see he’d deliberately made the switch, and the agent knew he’d been caught.

“Thanks. Oh, by the way, could I have your name please, and employee I.D. number?”

“Sir? No, you see…”

“Well, you see, I used to fly these things for a living, and for some reason they’ve asked me to perform random courtesy inspections of staff whenever I fly. You know, fill out reports on folks who’ve been, well, unusually helpful, like you. You know what I mean?” He pulled out his corporate I.D. and flipped it open so the man could read it. “Actually, it’s about the only thing I like about being retired.” His eagle’s eyes were leveled now, boring right into the agent’s cowed eyes. Goodwin wrote down the man’s information slowly, carefully, drawing out the agony as long as he could.

“Sir? Could I move you up to business class? No charge, of course!” the agent laughed knowingly at this little humor.

“No, that’s alright, Bruce. Actually, I’m sitting up front tonight. Jumpseat, of course.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Bruce?”

“Sir?”

“I think they might be hiring at Wal-Mart next week. Good luck with that.”

Goodwin turned and walked off toward security. He whistled an old Disney tune as he got in line.

+++++

Trudi Blixen sat in Springer’s cockpit, Elsie draped across her legs. She scratched behind the pups ears almost absent-mindedly while she looked at the water behind the boat – even now expectantly. Several times the big male dolphin – the one with scars below the left the eye – had shown up and looked around for a minute before vanishing. There were no patterns to these appearances, but she had seen him three or four times already. Mary Ann Doncaster seemed to imply there was nothing unusual about this, and the assertion flummoxed her, yet she smiled. She had been, quite simply, dumbfounded by a few of the comments the members of this little circle of friends made. These associations with dolphins were astonishing, however, and she grew painfully curious when the one Malcolm called Two Scar began showing up behind Tom’s boat again and again.

Then there was the matter of the Doncaster’s dog, Elsie. Despite the fact that Tom Goodwin was laid up in the hospital, the dog would not leave Goodwin’s boat except to do her business. Then she pulled and strained to get back to Springer and seemed almost physically pained until she got back to Goodwin’s bunk. After settling-in there for a while, she’d return to the cockpit, resume her watch for Two Scar.

The first time the dolphin appeared she’d heard the dog jump down to the swim-platform, and she’d run up from the galley to investigate. The dolphin and Elsie were only inches apart – nose-to-nose, staring intently into each other’s eyes. She looked at them for a while, and was left with the impression the two had – somehow – been communicating. Each subsequent time the dolphin appeared the two went through the same routine. One was definitely a teacher, of that much she was sure, and again, she smiled at the thought.

‘So, there’s a link between these two animals and Goodwin?’ she told herself one afternoon, after one particularly long encounter. ‘He’s coming to see if he’s back from the hospital?’

It was like peeling an onion! Remove one layer and another, more supple layer appeared.

“How very strange you are,” she said to Elsie that evening. The dog looked up and returned the woman’s curious smile, then turned back to look into the black water.

+++++

A red-eyed Paul Goodwin arrived in Rome early that Friday morning. He made his way to the main train station and just made the next express to Genoa and bought his ticket on board. After the train cleared the city he made his way to the café car and took a seat. A waiter approached and asked him what he wanted.

“Coffee. And keep it coming until we pull into the station.”

The waiter had no idea what the disheveled American had asked for, but from the look in the old man’s eyes he could guess.

Goodwin looked out the window as the landscape slipped by; once out of the urban nightmare the land still looked pretty much as he remembered. One thing was unchanged, and that was the sky. There was a hazy tan sheen in the sky over the city, and though it had bothered him for years the acrid haze seemed acutely bad today.

Coffee came and he took a sip and scrunched up his nose as his eyes popped open: “Dear God! Man, I do love Italy!”

The waiter stomped off – hating anything and everything about Americans.

Goodwin looked as the coast came into view, and at the incredible blue water that still seemed so full of mystery.

He knew they were out there, waiting.

He just wasn’t sure yet what he was going to say to them.

+++++

Elsie lay in the Springer’s cockpit; she was curled tightly in a ball behind the wheel, warding off bitter winds that had come down from the mountains just above the harbor during the night. Cold air had settled uneasily on the water, and a light snow had just started falling when her ears perked up; she heard movement below and her little tail began thumping to the beat of waking life.

She jumped as something down below fell.

“Goddamn it all to hell! Shit! Who in their right mind would live on a goddamn boat!”

Elsie’s head tilted to one side as she listened to the old man grumbling below. She jumped again when the companionway hatch slid open, but she smiled when she saw Paul Goodwin climbing up into the cockpit. He had a cup of coffee in one hand and a pipe in the other.

“Goddamn it! Snow! Fucking snow – in Italy! Ain’t life just grand!”

Elsie looked at the old man, at the ragged trails of foggy steam that wafted from his nose, then she looked away quietly, looked back into the water behind the boat.

“So. You’re still here, eh?” Goodwin sat down beside Elsie and scratched her neck. The dog looked up and her smile reached through all the layers of this man. “Well, you don’t mind if I have a smoke, do you girl?” Goodwin opened his tobacco pouch and got to it, pausing once to drink some coffee.

“Good morning!”

Goodwin turned to the voice, saw the English couple in the boat next to his son’s. “You say so. Seems kinda cold to me. I keep seeing posters for ‘Sunny Italy’ in my mind, and somehow, this don’t quite jibe with all that.”

Malcolm Doncaster laughed. “Quite. Happens a couple of times a year. Mind you, the snow will be gone by noon, so don’t let it bother you much.”

“Oh, I’m used to snow alright. Was just hoping for a reprieve.” Goodwin lit his pipe and puffed at it until satisfied he had it right. “So. You know my son? When did y’all meet up?”

“We met in Portofino. About a month ago. Our girl here seems to have adopted him.”

Elsie looked at Doncaster, then at Goodwin.

“Who was that woman on the boat when I got here? Did I run her off?”

“Ah, Trudi Blixen; well, she’s down below with Mary Ann right now. Yes, well, she’s been staying on board since Tom – uh, well, took ill.”

“Crap! I didn’t mean to. . .”

“Not a bother. She has a place in Portofino, was just staying here until Tom gets back on his feet. Seems, however, that our dog won’t leave his boat, and she was just staying aboard to keep her company.”

“Company?”

“Yes, well, it’s complicated.”

“Uh-huh. It’s been my experience that things around here can get a little bit more than complicated. And in a hurry, too.”

“Indeed so,” chuckled Doncaster. “Yes, quite. And perhaps more than we know. So, how about some breakfast? Scones and jam?”

Goodwin took the pipe from his mouth and tapped it against the side of the hull; burnt tobacco settled on the water like old snow, then drifted down into the inky blackness and out of sight. “Don’t mean to be rude, but I’m going to run up to the hospital straight away.”

“How’s Tom doing? I haven’t seen him since he was down here.”

“Well, you’re welcome to tag along. I could use some company.”

“Really? Splendid. I’ll just go check with the Admiral.”

The hair on the back of the dog’s neck stood on end, and she began to let slip a low growl. Goodwin turned and looked at her, saw she was looking at the water and followed her gaze. A tremulous ripple – dark gray and barely visible under the pewter stained water – gave way to winter winds and disappeared into shapelessness. Goodwin had the impression he’d been watched for some time, and though he wanted to dismiss the idea as ludicrous he knew he couldn’t.

They wouldn’t dare just leave me be, he told himself as he looked for echoes in the ripples.

The dog turned and looked at Goodwin, and he felt her eyes on him now. He thought she seemed skittish, almost worried, before she hopped down the companionway and disappeared into Tom’s cabin.

“What the Hades is going on here?” Goodwin muttered as he followed the pup below, suddenly remembering he hadn’t brought any clothes for this unexpectedly cold weather.

“Maybe one of Tom’s jackets will fit.”

+++++

Tom Goodwin sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes with the tops of his knuckles; the lids felt crusty and his eyes burned, but even so he felt a little better this morning. Margherita was asleep in her chair by the window and Jon Santoni was hunched over a pile of lab reports chewing on a plastic ball point pen. The hospital room was beginning to feel like home, and Goodwin knew this was not an encouraging sign.

And then there was his father.

Seeing his dad for the first time yesterday since their blowout a year ago had filled him with a tenderness he simply hadn’t expected. In the past year the old man had gone from spry to weather-worn and beaten; he seemed like a pale copy of the man he remembered and the sense of impending mortality was palpable about him. It left Tom feeling a little breathless and unsure of himself.

“I wonder how I must look to him these days?”

“You say something?” Santoni said.

“Hm-m? Oh, crap, I was just wondering how bad I look. Thinking about Dad, I guess.”

“Oh? I’d say right now you two look to be brothers. In fact, I’d say he looks like your younger brother.”

“Thanks a lot, Dickhead.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Well, if I have to eat any more hospital lasagna you can wheel my ass right down to the morgue. Crap, I thought American hospital food was for shit, but y’all got bad food down to a science in this place!”

“Tom! Look out the window! You want good food, try that place right over there. They make a carbonara that will make you weep it’s so good.”

“Yeah? Fine. Eat spaghetti and cry. Great. What’s your point?”

“The point, Tom,” Margherita interjected, “is to get well enough to rejoin the world.” She yawned and stretched and sat up in her chair.

“Exactly!” Santoni chimed in. “Look out that window, Tom. The world’s still out there, waiting!”

“Geesh, guys! Does it look like I’ve given up or something?”

“I wasn’t so sure a few days ago, Tom.”

Goodwin looked at Santoni and frowned. “How did my dad look to you?”

“Like he could whip your ass. With one arm tied behind his back.”

“Really? I thought he looked kinda rough around the edges.”

“When I’m his age I hope I’m that rough.”

“He’s a pistol, alright.”

“No, Tom, he’s a fucking cannon. A force of nature. You know, that makes me wonder? Are you sure he’s your father?”

“Fuck off,” Goodwin laughed, then he turned to Margherita. “Did he say he would come back this morning?”

“Oh, si, yes, he said first thing. I think when he saw you he was most afraid, Tom. You slept for a long time, while he was here.”

“I don’t really remember talking that much. Just his eyes. How tired he looks. Old.”

“Just point of view, Tom,” Santoni said. “From over here you look as old as the Coliseum.”

“You know, when I get out of this bed I’m gonna have to beat you senseless.”

“That’ll be the day.”

Goodwin swung his feet from the bed and pushed himself up. He turned pale and started to sweat; Santoni came over and held Goodwin stand.

“Easy now. Deep breaths. Slow, deep breaths.”

“Well,” Goodwin said between gasps, “you’re safe. At least this morning.”

“Sure, sure,” Santoni said as he slapped his friend on the back. “There is one thing we really need to do this morning, Tom. And I mean this.”

“Yeah?”

“We need to get you into the shower. Fast. And maybe Margherita could find some cologne.”

“Swell. Just swell. And here I thought it was you stinking up the place.”

“Let me cover that line, first.”

“You say so.” He saw himself in the mirror, the man in there unrecognizable to him.

+++++

Maria Theresa, held an old woolen coat closely to her chest, walked along the quay with Vico, trying to ignore that pain of all her various incisions. She looked on wordlessly as the last of the night’s light snow drifted down to waiting stone. She watched flakes hit and melt, thought of all her life’s hopes and dreams. Were they so dissimilar? So proud in flight, so resilient in that moment of contact, and then? What was left – nothing? Was there really only nothingness waiting after dissolution? Could our dreams survive to fall again on other snows?

She felt Vico’s arm around her shoulder, felt his love, as strong now as it had ever been. Steadfast, almost eternal. Patient, like a good father’s.

“I fear there is a reckoning coming, my old friend,” she said to him at last.

“Yes. Unavoidable, too.”

“Did you see Paul?”

“Yes. He seems as young as…well, yes, he is well.”

“Ah. Do you still feel so young?” She looked at dark striated clouds scudding silently, quickly through the treetops on the hillside beyond the rooftops. Everything felt close inside this gray dawn; it was as if the village had drawn inward – protectively – around itself – as if to avoid being caught in the rush just overhead. Even the stones they walked upon seemed to have withdrawn from the streaming current, and Maria Theresa looked at the sky and the snow and she felt the world had turned in on itself; now all that remained of life raced by inside ambivalent shades of gray.

“What do you want to do?” Vico asked.

“About?” She walked slowly now, quietly. She wanted to grab a cloud and hold on tight, fly away from all this history. She wanted to live again, to feel loved again – to love again.

“About?” he asked, trying not to laugh. “Perhaps I should not have asked.”

“Yes, perhaps.” She stopped and looked out past the harbor to the cape, to the darkness of the sea, to that darkness that was always waiting these days. Were there answers to be found in such darkness? Or could she only find them here, among the men who had defined her life?

Or would the answers find her.

“Would you like me to take the boys into Genoa today?”

“No.” Perhaps it would be best, she said to herself, to simply stop looking for answers. What if by trying all my life to look for life, I simply avoided the answers in front of my face; what if life had come looking, and I ignored her? And could it be that some experience was so ephemeral, touched so lightly, that even after flying among the clouds Paul had been left to wonder was that real? Or had he felt their union in the sea had simply been an illusion?

“Maria? May I take you to him?”

She turned and looked at her one true friend, into his blue-gray eyes and at the last strands of auburn in his wild silver hair. She put her hand on his face and felt his skin; the lines she had watched march across his face seemed as familiar to her as the trails on the hills outside the village. “You always loved me.”

“Yes. Always.”

“Then let him come to me. Or not, if that is his choice.”

“And the boys? If he chooses not to come, what of them, and their need?”

She shrugged as if dismissing the impossible, then turned toward the black water and walked to its edge. She leaned over and looked down as silver echoes washed against the stone. There in dancing fragments she saw scattered bits of her reflection suspended above infinity, little shimmering echoes of time cast aside to drift for a while, before fading away into the morning.

She smiled at the image in her mind, of looking into the water at exactly the same spot along the quay – perhaps sixty years ago, maybe more. She could see traces of that face now, down there hiding in snow dappled waters, then she watched as the memory drifted away silently, with the snow.

+++++

Paul Goodwin stood in the head looking at his reflection in the mirror while he knotted his old red bow tie, then he looked down at his hands. Age spots and yellow fingernails, white scars from a couple of skin cancers removed from the backs of his hands – everything about these hands said they belonged to someone else – that they couldn’t belong to him. He felt his hands resting still on a succession of black Boeing yokes, still felt his steady grip on those 707s and 747s his hands guided for decades. So, whose hands are these?

“Getting old is the silliest thing in the world, girl, and don’t let anyone tell you different.” He heard the pup move, knew she was looking at him. He focused on finishing the knot before turning to meet her gaze. “You know, you remind me of Sarah. That’s her on the wall over there.” He pointed at the painting and looked at it again; he always looked at it now – and it always tore him up.

He hadn’t owned a dog since growing up on his parent’s farm outside New London, but not so many years ago, in a fit of misty-eyed nostalgia, he’d came home with a little Springer pup, a male so patently clumsy, so patiently good natured, the only name he could think to call him was Ody, a true comic strip name if there ever was – yet to him the name was short for Odysseus. Doris had immediately fallen in love with the beast and insisted on getting Ody a female companion and, dogs being dogs and somewhat less inclined to follow the more inane social conventions of other folks along the Connecticut shore, the two decided to pop out litter after litter of little brown and white puff-balls every other year.

Ody and Lady grew into a force of nature, they held the Goodwin’s marriage together, gave both Doris and himself no small measure of joy and, in the end, more than a little purpose. With Tom on his own and retirement proving to be an unendurable bore, Goodwin threw himself into whelping boxes and one day finally built a real ‘honest to pete’ kennel. He started to train Lady and took her to a show once, but looked at all the stilted, pompous, preening, self-centered dogs and laughed. In the end, he took to the fields with them both and simply let them do as nature intended. Though the farm had fewer than two hundred acres, they roamed the woods ceaselessly – together, and in time they became hunters and companions – the best of friends.

Sarah had been the first pup from their first litter, and Tom had been home visiting when she popped out into the world. Lady had chewed the umbilical too close and the newborn had started to bleed out; Doris called and Tom came, looked things over for an instant, then disappeared as quickly as he’d come. He was back a moment later with hemostats and suture and stitched the wound shut, and from that moment on Sarah had been his. He had been the first to hold her, first to pick her up and feel her soft tongue on his nose, and it had been love at first bite. Two months later she was at her new home in Houston, if, Goodwin thought, that glittering glass and steel box could rightfully be called home, but Tom slipped into his physician’s groove and time passed quickly. Sarah waited patiently for him, for their walks, for the time they call their own.

Ody found a rattlesnake one afternoon and Paul held him while the vet put him down. Goodwin held his friend so tightly as he passed, he cried so long and hard into the nights that followed that even Lady couldn’t console him. Goodwin grew distant for a while; when winter came he started taking Lady for long walks again, but everything was different now. He rejoined the living but after that seemed to keep everyone at a distance. When Lady passed a few years later, Goodwin had insulated himself from his emotions so completely he didn’t say a word when she didn’t come for him at four in the morning to go outside.

Doris wanted to get another pair but he wouldn’t have it. She consequently reacquainted herself with Jack Daniels and he found a rocking chair on the front porch to call his own. Each in their respective corner, they waited uneasily for the match to resume.

Then Tom moved to Boston, and Tom brought Sarah to the farm one day.

Now Goodwin looked down at Elsie and saw Sarah – and Lady, too – staring back at him. All that love and devotion. . . where did it go? It was, Goodwin saw, as if it had been passed intact from one being to the next, like genetic memory drifting on intercontinental breezes connecting yesterday and tomorrow. Are we the same, he wondered?

The hair on Elsie’s neck stood on end and she bounded up the companionway steps and right down onto the snow covered swim platform; Goodwin followed her through the cockpit and leaned over the rail.

It was Two Scar, and he was motionless in the water as he looked up at Goodwin. Elsie pawed at the water and the dolphin eased closer to the transom; Goodwin climbed over the rail and down onto the platform, then knelt there looking into those black eyes, and soon he felt he was drifting through time. He could smell Hell’s Belles on fire again, screams rippled through acrid smoke as bullets tore into the nose of the Liberator, and he could feel the storm roiled air as his parachute opened – so briefly – and he was falling again, falling down to the sea. Then adrift, drifting down through cool blue shadows, drifting down into that other world. And there he was, this savior of his, his old friend.

He reached down and rubbed the top of his snout, and the dolphin’s body leaned slightly into the sea before spinning slowly, spinning in remembrance, as if in homage to other meetings in other nights. Then the dolphin stopped and looked into Goodwin’s eyes again. There was sadness in his eye, and Goodwin was immediately filled with an awareness of time passing, of life moving away rapidly now – from his grasp.

The small female, the little pup with the wounded eye, appeared beside Scar and looked at Goodwin before pushing the male aside. Goodwin leaned in as she lifted to meet him; he reached for her as she placed her nose on his shoulder and he whispered to her as she hovered. Two Scar circled slowly for a moment, then slid beneath the water and was gone; the little girl drifted back and looked at Goodwin almost longingly, as if there was more that needed to be said, but she too slipped beneath silvered ripples and was gone.

“It’s alright, Lady,” Goodwin said, still drifting on nether currents. “Everything’s alright now.” He scratched Elsie’s head for a moment as waves of memory washed over long forgotten feelings, as union and reunions coalesced in dancing water. He reached down again, watched the reflection of his hand on the soft contours of the water and reached down to touch it.

And he saw his hand on Maria Theresa’s face as he got closer to the water. He saw her soft smile waiting there – just at the edge of memory. His hand dipped into the water and she disappeared.

+++++

Tom stood under the shower and let hot water beat down on his neck; he felt more than weak, and the dizziness he experienced was odd – coldly insistent, not to be ignored , and all the while the bed seemed to call out to him. He leaned into the wall, his face on his forearm, and took a deep breath.

“Are you alright in there?” Santoni called from the room.

“No, I feel like shit,” Goodwin said weakly.

“Well, at least you won’t smell like it,” Jon said as he came into the bathroom. “Wrist.”

Goodwin stuck his arm out from behind the vinyl enclosure and felt his friend take his pulse. “Jon, I don’t feel right.”

“Yeah, you have fresh sheets now, so let’s get you back in bed.”

“How was the LFP?”

“Crappy.”

“Uh, gee, think you could be a little more specific?”

“No.”

“I think you ought to take a couple of pictures of my heart.”

“What are you thinking.”

“Endocarditis. Bacterial.”

“Uh-huh. What vector?”

“Man, you’re sure a talkative son of a bitch today.”

“Yep.”

“Hand me a towel, would you?”

“You feeling light headed?”

“Yes, Jon, and I’m feeling cold. I need a towel, and I need someone to turn up the heat in this mausoleum. Geesh, how old is this building, anyway?”

“Have you felt your carotids?”

“No. Have you?”

“Yeah, and we did a transthoracic echocardiogram last night. Had to put you out for a while.”

“Really? And?”

“You’re right, as always. Endocarditis, probably nosocomial, at least using the Duke Criteria, and there’s some growth on the right side valve.”

“Streptococcus viridans?”

“Uh-huh.”

“That’s great. Just great. Add Penicillin yet?”

“In your last bag.”

“No wonder I feel like crap. What about the…?”

“It’s not responding well, either.”

“Did you talk to Margherita?”

“Yes. But I think she already knows.”

“So that’s it. Wow…help me back to the bed, will you?”

Tom looked at Margherita as he shuffled back into the room; he could see she’d had a tough night. Her eyes were puffy and red and the smile she faced him with seemed forced. He sat down on the edge of the bed and took a deep breath.

“I’m glad you’re here. Both of you,” he managed to say as he lay back on the bed. The back of his head seemed to be on-fire, and as he leaned back and felt the cool sheets touch his neck his back arched; he looked up at the ceiling for a while, then out the window. “Is it snowing?”

“Yes,” Margherita said. “It has been since the middle of the night.”

“Jon, we’ve got some work to do. Do you want me to go in and do the valve?”

“Let’s give the meds a chance to work. That’s my first choice. And start another round of Vancomycin. Let’s give it a week and see.”

“Alright. Margherita? What about you?”

“What?”

“Do you want to sit here while I do this?”

She looked away, suddenly unsure of herself, afraid she was about to be sent away again. “I don’t want to leave, Tom. Not ever.”

“Jon, would you ask again, see if we can’t get a rollaway in here. She can’t sleep in a chair forever.”

“Alright, Tom.”

“And I’m going to need to do something about the boat. She can’t stay in that marina all winter. Margherita, talk to Malcolm and Dad about moving her back to the village. Maybe – what was her name – Trudi? – maybe she can help sail her back. See if Vico can arrange to have her hauled if the weather looks colder.”

“Sure, Tom, but you want me to help sail her?”

“You’d better get used to it. You might end up living there for a while, you know? And did I hear correctly? – did someone say Dad was going to sleep out there last night?”

“Yes.”

“Geesh! What about Trudi? Wasn’t she still staying there? With the pup?”

“I don’t know, Tom, but I think so.”

“Now wouldn’t that make a fine kettle of fish!”

“What?” Margherita didn’t understand, couldn’t see the implications he was laying out.

“Tom,” Santoni said, “I’m thinking maybe we ought to limit the number of people coming in here. You know, something just short of full quarantine. Give these meds a chance to do their thing.”

“Your call, Jon, but I’ll need to talk to Dad sometime today.”

“Gloves and masks ought to do for now,” he replied. “And Margherita, you better mask up when you two rub noses for the next couple of weeks.”

“Sounds fun.” She turned and looked out the window, south, to the hills beyond the city – and beyond, to the sea.

+++++

Paul Goodwin climbed back into the cockpit and jumped when he saw Trudi standing by the companionway. She had a little Leica in her hands, and had apparently been taking photographs while he met with the dolphins. Now he scowled when he saw her standing there; it was as if the woman was trying to feign nonchalance, and it pissed him off.

“Are you a part of this, too?” she asked.

“What are you talking about?”

“These dolphins. This thing between Tom and Margherita?”

These words slammed into Goodwin and knocked him off his feet. He reached back as he staggered onto the cockpit seat beside him: “What did you say?”

“I’m sorry, but I thought you…?”

“What did you mean by that? What…is there something going on with Tom and this dolphin?”

“Oh! Really, I’m sorry, but perhaps I spoke out of turn. Perhaps you should speak to your…”

“I can fill you in, Mr. Goodwin,” Malcolm Doncaster said as he came up into his boat’s cockpit, “while we ride into town.”

“No, Goddamn it! Tell me now! What’s going on?”

“Perhaps,” Doncaster said easily, too easily, “it would simplify things if you knew that Ludvico has talked to us about events in 1943. And there’s a lot that’s happened in the past month you don’t know yet, and may find disturbing.”

Paul Goodwin held onto the lifelines – it was as if the boat was caught out at sea in a raging storm, not tied off in a marina – and his every instinct screamed that nothing was as it appeared any longer. Now, everywhere he looked, things felt out of place, disjointed, almost as if fractured away from that thing he once called reality. The boat felt oddly tilted – as if the stupid thing had reoriented to itself another plane – and even these people appeared ragged and unsettled, like they were of another world – and trying unsuccessfully to fit in this new one.

This new reality was a bleeding compound fracture: old bones set at odd angles screaming discontinuity alert!…discontinuity alert!…discontinuity alert! Now, if he could get this screaming wreck under control, just one more time…

+++++

He came back to that other world while sitting in the red bus as it wallowed and lumbered through those rough hills back to Genoa; Malcolm Doncaster sat across the aisle from him, reading a well worn paperback, rubbing his eyes from time to time and looking out frosted windows as winter’s trees rolled by in a silent, gray procession. An old woman by the window sat next to him, regarding him easily.

“You say you spoke to Vico?” were his first words in over an hour.

“Yes. About a month ago, after the first encounter.”

“What happened. I mean, with Tom.”

And Doncaster took a deep breath, decided the old pilot might indeed listen this time. He talked of Tom Goodwin’s journey from America, of meeting the dolphins off the coast somewhere, in the Gulfstream, and then of Tom’s arrival in Portofino, his first union with Margherita, and lastly, he talked of Vico’s conversation with the group over dinner, telling them of Goodwin’s arrival in 1943 – on flaming wings and a dolphin’s back. Doncaster told Goodwin everything he knew, everything Vico had told them, and yet Doncaster could see that the pilot didn’t know a thing. He’d left in ‘43 and been flying in the blind ever since.

Paul Goodwin wasn’t relieved by all he heard; rather, he felt an odd, dissociated sadness. It looked as if truth was going to slip quietly from deepest reaches of memory, and into a nothingness that waited beyond words. And then, only then and after all his recent concern for Tom, suddenly – after hearing about Vico’s involvement in the telling of his tale – he thought of Maria Theresa.

“How is she?” he said a million years later.

“What’s that? Who?”

“Maria. How is she?”

“We can drop in on her, if you like. She’s back in the apartment. Her boys are taking care of her.”

“Boys?”

“Yes. Two boys; Paulo and Toni.”

“Toni?”

“Yes.”

Goodwin’s hands started shaking, his eyes filled and he turned away.

The old woman by his side turned and looked into his eyes. She had been dozing a little; her head had once settled on Goodwin’s shoulder when the bus bit a bump in the road, and she had woken for a moment and excused herself, then promptly fallen asleep again. Now she was awake and looking a Goodwin in his grief, and she handed him some tissue for his eyes.

“Thanks . . . grazie.”

She nodded, then put her hand on his. “What you are seeking is not real, you know?” the old woman said. “And yet, neither is it unreal. What you seek resides somewhere else. You seek the mystery of instinct, and that alone must guide you.”

“What?”

“You must turn away from certainty now, as my sweet Odysseus was once compelled to, and you must turn and face the end of one journey, even as you begin the next. And remember this one simple thing about mystery, as you begin this journey. Your first destination is doubt. Always doubt. Doubt is written in our hearts, but never in the stars.”

Goodwin sat in appalled silence as the bus began slowing inside a little mountaintop village. The woman began to stand as the bus rolled to a stop beside a tiny chapel. Goodwin stood as well and cleared the way for her, helped her with a heavy parcel down the narrow aisle. He went down the steps and helped her down with one hand, and he looked at her breath in the cold snowy air; he saw there was something pale and tremulous in her breath, something insubstantial, and yet he felt small when he looked at her. She was looking into his eyes when she began speaking again.

“There is no time to waste, Traveler, so do not waste any more of yours in doubt and regret. You must go now, and hurry, for the burden grows heavier by the moment.” She held out her hand, and Goodwin took it.

“Who are you?”

“You must listen well now. There is a debt. You must not turn away. And you must listen with your heart.” She squeezed his hand, and there were tears in her eyes now as well. “Now go, Traveler, while time smiles on you yet.”

Goodwin backed up into the bus while he continued looking into the woman’s eyes. They were fierce – yet gentle, like the woman had known man and accepted his sorrow and joy in equal grace. As the bus lurched into gear and moved away, Goodwin stooped and watched her turn and walk into the little chapel – and then, she was gone.

He returned to his seat and held on as the little bus rounded a sharp bend in the road. ‘This is impossible,’ he said to himself. ‘This can’t be real…?’

“What was that all about?” Doncaster said.

“I haven’t the slightest fucking idea.”

“My God man, are you crying? What on earth happened just now?”

“I’m not sure, but I think I just spoke with God.”

“Bah! That’s what all women would have us think! Here, have a scone.”

+++++

(excerpt from Malcolm Doncaster’s journal)
Aboard Diogenes, Portofino Harbor
Christmas Eve

I have often felt that without some meaningful context, the symbols that define the most important passages of our lives – indeed, the most vital passages – are rendered incomprehensible without the addition of meaningful context. So it has been with all I have studied the past four decades of  my life, and as such, this contextual rendering of life is what I have come to know. A certain worldview has been fixed in my mind, and I find it inconceivable to consider any reduction to another, and not just (perhaps) because I find it uncomfortable to do so. No, rather I think it has always been fixed in my mind because the facts of our existence have always seemed to point to this conclusion. Symbols take on significance, therefore, only in terms of time and place. The power a symbol manifests may accrue and pass down through the ages, true enough, but without its original rendering in our midst, symbols too often devolve into gibberish. The crucifix, without an understanding of Rome and the teachings of a Jewish carpenter, would become little more than a passing curiosity; the swastika, without an understanding of Hitler’s impact on Germany and Europe, would remain a footnote in studies of comparative Eurasian religions.

I point this out to whoever might take the time to muddle through these ramblings, simply to make one point before venturing onward: what has happened in and around Portofino the past seven weeks is, to me at least, without intellectual precedent. Much of what occurred did so in terms I would hazard to guess were on a purely symbolic levels, and as such I can offer no reasonable context to frame these events. So, given what I have said above, it would seem fair to conclude that – on a symbolic level – much if not all of what has transpired can only be rendered in unambiguous shades of the incomprehensible.

Sorry, but there you have it.

As I relayed in my entry re: 14 December, we (this being Paul Goodwin and myself) rented a beastly Fiat and brought Paul’s son Tom back to Portofino and to his yacht ‘Springer’. After several weeks hospitalization, and with scant improvement or progress noted by medical staff in Genoa, Tom decided to return to his vessel. No one has said as much, but all of us have considered, at least privately, that he has done so in order to pass in comfortable surroundings. Tom is indeed now a very ill man, and his father has been much preoccupied with this unfolding tragedy.

Our poor Elsie remains unashamedly attached to Tom, yet unnaturally so, I might add. She will scarcely leave his side now, and remains below with him constantly. Like Tom, she barely eats, and comes ashore but once or twice a day. Needless to say, Mary Ann has been completely knocked for a loop by this development.

Both Goodwins, however, manage to get out for Passeggiata most afternoons, and yet, as far as I know, there has not yet been a meeting between Paul and Maria Theresa Morretti. There seems to be some force holding them apart. They are like two magnets. The closer they come to one another the more some invisible force causes them to repel one another. Only Vico seems to hold the faintest lines of communication open between them, and so of course what passes between them remains unknown to me.

Anyway, about these strolls. We managed to get a wheelchair for Tom yesterday, as he’s struggled the past two evenings to finish a walk around even the piazzeta, and as he seems unwilling to concede this simple ritual all of are ready to help him as best we can. He’s a fighter; at least I know that much is true, and there seems to be little else I can be sure of these days. All of our lives seem to have become bound-up in this developing mystery, but I can fathom no purpose. 

Yet.

And poor Margherita! Though she has yet to show, she is desperately pregnant and violently ill most mornings. I do not know her history, but still waters run deep. There is a story to be told, I am sure, so no doubt Mary Ann will attach herself to the poor girl. Poor Tom seems beside himself with grief for this child it seems he’ll never know.

Ah, wretched love! We hurry through life, buffeted constantly between misfortune and exhilaration, the known and the unknowable, yet even so it seems we are always caught off guard by love. In this confusion, our hearts are torn apart, left wide open, and yet it is within this tormented wreckage we find love. Love commands us, love guides us, and in the end, I suspect, it is love that consumes us, yet her fires light the way, don’t they?

So. Tonight our dear Ludvico has invited us all the ristorante. For, one supposes, Christmas Eve and all that humbug, yet Tom has insisted on going. My God! I think back to just a few weeks ago and I see a man so much larger than life. Today he is withered and weak, his skin mottled yellow from damage to his liver done by the deadly barrage of antibiotics he has endured. And I have watched Paul and Margherita wither by his side as the inevitable comes stealing through our wilting twilight. Death is to be lurking in the shadows even now, and this beautiful harbor of ours seems aware of the coming darkness. 

I long for the lingering warmth of October, before all this madness came for us on winter-borne wings.

+++++

It was dark when Paul Goodwin began pushing his son across the piazzeta; the cold stones were black and wet from a light rain, yet a dazzle of holiday lights sprinkled the luminous stone with reflections of jeweled light. And yet the air was faintly still; the harbor an inky reflection of the brooding sky. A star could just be seen peeking between retreating clouds beyond the hills to the east, and Paul knew the night would soon grow cold.

“Not exactly how I pictured Christmas on the Riviera,” a father said to his son.

“Would you stop here please, Dad? I want to look at the water for a moment.” Paul turned the chair to face the water, and to the gulf beyond the cape. Tom closed his eyes and took a deep breath, imagined he was free once again, sailing, slipping through sun-drenched waves on his way to wherever his heart felt like taking him. He wanted to find a cloud and chase it’s shadow across the sea, turn and listen to hopeful gulls trailing in his wake, feel the sun on his neck and the cares of this life peeling away like dolphins surfing a wave. But above all else, he wanted to hold the life growing in Margherita’s womb, he wanted to hold this life in his hands and know, really know, that he would leave something of himself to this world.

He opened his moist eyes and looked out over the water at fading lights and faraway dreams.

“So much to do,” he said. “So much time wasted.”

“Yes,” his father said.

Tom looked at the cape, at the rocks, and he wondered where they were. Were they out there even now – waiting? He looked at the water, into the blackness, and beyond – into the hall of mirrors that had been his life – and he found himself alone on a sunless sea, drifting, waiting for the inevitable. A solitary star shone down on him, fleeting photons tickled his mind’s eye, and he found himself thinking of another shining star, on another “Christmas Eve”. He shivered once as the thought rolled past like coming thunder – even as he felt the chair turn and rumble across the piazzeta, and he pulled himself back from the edge as warm light approached.

He opened his eyes and looked up. Margherita was waiting by the door, and he could see Paulo and Toni walking along slowly, a stooped woman by their side.

“Oh God, no,” he heard his father say. “No, not tonight.”

“Dad?”

“Yeah, Tom?”

“I love you, Dad.” He heard his father take in a deep breath, heard him clearing his throat, then:

“And I’ve always loved you, Son. Always.”

“Lean on me tonight, Dad. Whatever it is, we’ll get through it together.”

“Yeah? Think so? I’m not sure yet what this night has in store for us.”

“It doesn’t matter, Dad. Come on, they’re waiting for us.”

They came in from the cold and the darkness, came into the glowing warmth of this other world. Within this honeyed labyrinth of friends and family, deep inside this most special night of birth. This night was to be a coming together, and – perhaps – a casting aside.

But it was not lost on Tom Goodwin that they had all come to celebrate a death, as well.

+++++

‘Is it time?’

‘The moon is not ready. We must wait.’

‘I can wait no longer.’

‘You will wait.’

‘Yes. I will wait. But I am ready.’

‘They are not ready. He is not ready. Patience.’

‘I will wait.’

‘Yes. Watch the rocks grow. Listen to the stars. You have waited this long.’

+++++

The ristorante was not quite empty; a few lonely tourists sat by windows looking out over the harbor, but they were well away from the table Vico had prepared for his special friends. He had even put up a few holiday decorations, nothing ostentatious yet in keeping with the rather upscale atmosphere of his place, and Handel played quietly up among the exposed beams overhead. Smoke from a wood fire lightly perfumed the air, while garlands of pine and chestnut left trace enough to stir even the most hardened soul’s ease.

Paul sat between Tom and Maria Theresa at the round table; he sat in resolute silence, looked down at his hands constantly. Oddly enough, he was thinking about an ancient woman on a bus to Genoa three weeks ago, reliving the moment again and again.

Margherita sat next to Tom, while Paulo and Toni lounged across the table; the two ‘boys’ were speaking with Trudi Blixen in hushed, conspiratorial whispers. Paul looked at Trudi and gasped: was she a younger version of the woman on the bus? He fought to contain the implications of her presence here, yet he was sure the woman wasn’t all that she seemed to be.

Malcolm and Mary Ann drifted in – as was their custom – almost ten minutes late; Mary Ann had Elsie in tow on a soft leather leash and she led the pup over to Tom’s chair and looped tether to frame. Malcolm sat next to Margherita and Mary Ann took the last chair, next to Trudi; Vico sat next to Maria Theresa, where he was most comfortable. Wine came, then a Christmas soup of lobster and scented creams.

“Tom, you will be delighted to know, there is not one octopus hidden anywhere in this soup,” Vico smiled as he looked across time and space at the emaciated physician, though he smiled to hide the sorrow he felt when he beheld this friend now so reduced. “But alas, I give you fair warning, the salad may be less tame.”

“Octopus?” Paul said, making a face. “Really?”

“Not you, too?” Malcolm chimed in. “I hope I’m not the only sod around here who likes things with tentacles.” He looked at Paul and Tom; they both shook their heads and frowned – and he sighed when he looked at them. Their resemblance to one another was complete now; what age had taken from one, illness had from the other. “Oh well, like father, like son.”

Maria Theresa looked at her two boys; Paulo seemed blissfully unaware of the implications beating the air, yet Toni drifted along his razor’s edge – waiting to bleed, needing to bleed, perhaps even wanting to. She wondered how long he would last, and what he would do with the truth.

“So old friend,” Maria said, “what else have you made for us tonight?”

Vico looked at Maria, took her hand and kissed it. “Do you remember the bisque you once taught me? The lobster, with saffron and basil – just a trace of sherry? I have not made it in years, and yet I thought tonight it time. Then, salad, and a lamb, because I remember this is your favorite.”

Maria squeezed his hand and smiled. Everyone leaned in and sampled the bisque.

“Wow! That’s fine soup, Vico,” Paul said. “Damn fine.”

Tom smiled and looked at his father – so intent was the old man on ignoring Maria, he was becoming almost comical – and then he looked to Maria. It was so difficult to have held a persons beating heart in his hands – and then to see them again in another context. “Ma’am, as your cardiologist, I can’t recommend this stuff, so why not just hand it over to me. I’ll be happy to finish it for you!”

“Perhaps tonight you will indulge me, Thomas.”

Tom smiled, and he felt happy to have helped in her time of need, but Toni froze when he heard Tom’s full name, and the razor slipped through the air – again. Vico watched Tomasino carefully, ready to move, but the boy remained tentative, drawn-up on the balancing act that held them all to this night.

They ate in silence – each lost in thought. Vico was comfortable as the Ringmaster in this, Paul Goodwin’s circus – or was it Tom’s? – yet above all else he wanted this last evening to go smoothly, gently.

But Elsie could take it no longer; she sat up and looked wistfully at Tom – until he felt her eyes seeking his. He looked at her and smiled back, took his spoon and found a piece of lobster and gave it to her; Vico looked discreetly pained. Elsie sighed in frustration, yet resumed her place curled up on Tom’s feet. All was as it should be, the pup thought. Almost. She looked to the window, and to the water beyond.

Were they coming?

Would they come?

“Mama?”

Vico looked at Toni and bit his lip.

“Yes, Toni?” She looked across the table at her youngest son and smiled inside. “What is troubling you?”

“Is Paul Goodwin my father? Is Tom my brother?”

Silence enveloped the table, even the candles in their glasses seemed to hesitate in breathlessness.

“Yes. Of course.”

“What!?” Paul and Paulo cried in one gasped breath. Paulo pushed back from the table, seemed to hover over plains of indecision like a vast, gathering storm, then he reached out and steadied himself againt the table.

“Are you telling me,” Paul Goodwin said while he looked at Toni, “that boy is my son?”

“Oh yes, Paul,” Maria Theresa replied casually. “They are both your sons.”

The words slammed into Paulo and he reeled under the blow; his breathing became thin and raspy-quick, he looked up at those around the table and saw they were floating incorporeally at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The man in the wheelchair – what was his name? – was looking at him closely, studying him. Why?

Paulo turned and looked at his brother; the boy’s head had fallen and his body shook as gales of grief-borne tears ravaged his soul. Doubt swirled through the air as if this gathering had become a séance, and Paulo was struck with the feeling that this was only right – as all the dreams and memories of his childhood had just been murdered. He stood and walked from the table and out into the night – to commune with his dead.

Vico followed him.

Toni turned and saw his brother leaving, then looked at Paul and Tom. “I knew it was you. I knew it.”

Tom Goodwin pushed his wheelchair back from the table and patted his leg; Elsie jumped up on his legs and curled up protectively; she looked around the table as if assessing the threat to her charge.

“Toni?” Margherita said quietly, “Why do you say that? What made you think that?”

He looked at his mother, at the pure love in her eyes, then at his sister. “Because he knew, Margherita. Dino knew, and he hated us. He hated us, me and Paulo, and he hated Mama. And every time I looked at him I knew he was of no relation to me. I could feel it in my bones, in my heart. All my life I have wanted to know. Tonight I know, and now I am sad.”

“Sad?” Tom Goodwin said.

“Yes, Tom. I am sad. I am sad because I do not know you better now, tonight, and because I never had the chance to. Because I did not know my father, I did not know his love. I am sad because all that time has passed us by, it was wasted, and we can never get it back.”

While the boys words swirled around the room Maria Theresa reached under the table and took Paul’s hand in her own; in that moment she felt him crossing through time for her, she felt the strength of his soul gathering in the night. She saw his back straighten, his brow furrow, his lips grow firm with resolve. He squeezed her hand once more, then stood.

“Come on, Toni; let’s go find Paulo.” He walked around the table and stood beside his youngest son and waited; the boy stood and looked into the eyes of this man who might have been his father, who was his father, and he looked with uncertainty into the man’s eyes, then the two of them walked from the ristorante.

Margherita turned to look at her mother. Tom looked at her with concern.

“How did this happen, Mama? What have you done?”

“I suspect these things happened for the simplest of reasons,” Trudi Blixen said. “I suspect your mother was in love.”

“But she was married!” Margherita cried.

Trudi shrugged. “Marriage often has little to do with love, child. Love comes and the heart follows. True love never fades, and is not bound by time. Surely you know this much of life.” She looked at the girl with ancient wisdom smoldering in her eyes.

“I only know my father died a broken man!” Margherita spoke quietly now. She saw something in the woman’s eyes that gave her pause, and she backed away from the abyss.

Maria Theresa looked at her daughter, nothing left but simple honestly on her face. “Your father was a broken man long before we met, Margherita, long before he became your father. After Paul left, I chose to isolate myself from the world; then, when I found this had taken me too far from life, I wanted to fix the world. Of course I could not, but then I met your father, soon after he quit and ran from law school, and then I wanted to fix that one, broken man, but I could not do even that. When someone is broken – as that man was broken – when choice has removed happiness from life, people must find it within themselves to make right what is wrong. This your father could never do because. I suspect he chose never to live his life on his own terms, and I think his life was always defined by others – and he could not see his way clear of the scorn that followed his weakness. He turned inward, turned in on himself and his choices ate away at his soul until only the choice remained. You of all people should know this, Margherita. In the end, he could not love – he could not love even you.”

Mother and daughter looked at one another through a dead man’s lingering, gloaming silence; each was afraid to walk in the shadow of that darkness – yet they had almost all their lives, and both remained wary of the stain his passing had left on their soul. They could choose now to continue on his path, they could set out to destroy one another, or they could resolve to choose a different path. That much was in the air around them, and…

Elsie ignored this exchange. She was focused on Tom. She felt his breathing grow shallow, his skin pale and cool, and she watched his eyes carefully now. They seemed unfocused, diffuse, full of drifting mists.

She knew his passage was coming – she had seen it so many times before – but there was so much to do now. She sat up and licked Tom’s face.

“Tom?” Margherita said when she saw the pup. “Tom?”

He lifted his eyes and looked at Elsie, then turned toward the voice. “Hm-m…”

“Tom, are you alright?”

“Yep. I don’t think I should have any more wine, though. I feel – tired.”

“Have some water, Tom.” Margherita looked at him closely; his eyes were red and perspiration ran down his face.

“Where’s Dad? Has he come back yet?”

Margherita put her hand on his forehead – he was burning with fever again – just as Paul and Vico came in the front door.

Paul saw what was happening and came over to the wheelchair, knelt beside his son.

“Tommy?”

“Dad. Need to go to the rocks now. Got to get to the water.” Trudi looked at him closely, her eyes full of hope…and sadness.

“What? Why?”

“Have to get in the water. Now.”

Margherita stood and got behind the chair; she began to move it but Paul stopped her.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“He…we must take him!”

“Paul, do not interfere,” Blixen said softly, and Goodwin turned to her.

“Are you out of your cotton-picking mind? It’s thirty degrees out there. There’s gonna be ice on the rocks before long, and the water out there can’t be much warmer.”

“Dad. Let’s go.”

The father looked at the son, then at the Danish woman. There was purpose between them – unknown – unknowable – purpose gathering in the air – waiting for release.

Margherita began pushing the wheelchair and Paul turned to get the door.

Paul led the way into the night, Maria Theresa walking silently at his side on this last Passegiatta; Margherita walked behind Tom, pushing the chair along the bumpy stone quay. Elsie still sat quietly on his lap, yet the Doncasters gave up and retreated to Diogenes. Vico and the two brothers followed, but remained far behind – catching up even as distant reconciliations pulsed in the night. Vico suddenly seemed particularly disinterested and tired.

If anything, Paul thought, the air had grown more still as the night deepened; even now, as they walked along the water’s edge, darkness seemed to have drawn in upon itself – it was as if the night was collapsing inward, drawn past an unseen event horizon and rushing towards unknowable conclusions. Wispy tendrils of fog slipped across the water, a cold breeze crept through the last dead leaves overhead.

Paul turned to look at his son – his oldest son, his first son – and his thoughts seemed to come as slowly as the breeze. His boy was wrapped in a blanket from the boat, his face and hands were now a blinding, stark white stain glowing in the night. These spectral features seemed to waver in the air, as if his son’s hold on the present was loosening; soon Paul couldn’t even make out Tom’s hands crossed on his lap.

Tears? Had tears so blinded him? And why had they taken so long to come?

Paul saw Margherita wipe a tear away, only then could he really feel the tears clouding his own. He moved as if to go back to push the chair…

And Maria Theresa grabbed his arm. “No, Paul. This is to be their journey. It must be…”

He nodded, caught his breath. Maria reached and took his hand, and Paul was both shocked and relieved to feel her skin on his once again. It felt the same now, here, in this darkness, as it had so many years ago. The same electric recognition of skin on skin, the same flooding warmth of contact renewed, the same enduring feeling of wonder, even awe – that everything was the same, and yet – nothing was.

What had once been a beginning was, he felt, soon to be an ending. That was, he suddenly understood, why this night felt so implosive. Even the bare trees that lined their way seemed to stand aloof in the darkness – not as sentinels, but as the last witnesses to a drama that had been playing out in their shadows – for centuries.

Paul could hear the sea ahead, hear water washing through tidal pools in endless rhythm, and suddenly he wanted to turn and run, turn and run away from all the mistakes he had made in his life, from the pride and selfishness that had kept him from knowing all his sons, yet all his mistakes were here now, beside him in the darkness, and he realized there was nowhere to run but to the truth of whatever resolution the night held. If there was to be redemption, he would have to face the full fury of the choices he’d made, and the destiny he alone had refuted.

+++++

Footsteps on dewy stone. Fog, drifting fog, swirling underfoot. Only a handful of trees ahead, then only a falling off, to the sea; now all that remains are the rocks ahead. And what remains after that? Beyond? What does that word even mean? Only a vast, impassive sea, hiding under veils of momentary silence…

“Oh, God! I don’t want to lose you!” The father’s cry comes to the night as a whisper, but he is not surprised when he feels it as a prayer. He feels Maria’s hand tighten around his own; the smooth, eternal peace of her skin on his. ‘Was that my truth all along? Did I choose annihilation over life? Why? Why?’

The road turned away to the right and he looked down that other road into the darker ways of memory. He could still make out German troops standing near the lighthouse, just in shadow, waiting to find them and take them to the Gestapo. He looked out to sea, and could smell cordite and gasoline as he fought to keep Hell’s Belles from falling out of the sky . . . and then he felt himself floating free again, drifting down to that storm-tossed sea, waiting for death to reach up and take him.

He stopped by the rocks he remembered so well, their ebon presence defined the way ahead – as they always had – but he could not leave the road, not yet. There was too much to say. Too many prayers left unsaid, and so little time…

He heard footsteps drawing near, soft wheels rolling across sand-drifted stone. Breathing, his breath, and Maria’s. Paul turned to Maria, saw her looking up into his eyes.

“Are you ready?” she said.

“No. But perhaps I never was.”

“The choice was never ours to make, Paul.”

He felt the truth of her words and nodded to the darkness – those same distant trees still his only witness.

The wheelchair stopped on the sand; Paul looked at Margherita, then at Tom. All purpose was unspoken now as Vico and the two brothers walked up. The pain of betrayal was etched in the lines around Paulo’s eyes, Toni’s face remained a blank mask. Only Vico seemed to fathom all the implications of this gathering, and yet he seemed to hover back from the group just a little too far, as if waiting for something, or someone, to join him.

Silence.

Water growing still beneath a dying breeze. A snowflake, then another fell through the trees…

Vico turned and spoke to someone in the shadows.

Trudi Blixen came forward, carrying a package. She came to Tom and stood beside him.

“I wanted you to have this for Christmas,” she spoke softly, knowingly, to him. She handed her gift to Margherita, who took the wrapping off carefully. Vico took out a flashlight as the paper fell away; he directed it’s light onto the offering. It was the painting she had made of the harbor, only now a man – Tom Goodwin – stood aft onboard Springer, apparently, obviously, talking to a dolphin in the water behind the boat.

It was perfection, and everyone gasped in wonder at the truth inside the image.

“My goodness,” Tom whispered coarsely. His hands shook as he leaned forward to take the framed work in hand. He studied the image for a long while; everything was perfect – no, more than perfect. Everywhere he looked, emotions embedded within color sprang from canvas to mind. No detail was omitted; no detail failed to stir memory. Joy, longing, simple understanding, the power of love and the purity of truth in every stroke of the brush, and all broke across his soul in a wave.

“My God, what beauty you’ve created,” he said; then Tom turned to his father. “Dad? Hang this on the bulkhead, will you; by Sarah’s painting. It will go perfectly there.”

“Alright, son.”

“Trudi,” he said as he turned to look at the woman, “I don’t have the words to thank you for this, but you captured something precious. Wondrous. A wondrous story, forever. Thank you.”

“It was a gift to me as well, my love. It was a gift to find you again, to see you once again with the sea . . .”

Paul watched the woman’s form ripple in the air; again the woman aged before his eyes – the woman on the bus! – and then as suddenly she appeared to shimmer in the air and take the form of a very young girl.

“Who are you?” Paul said as he thought of that moment on the bus. “I know you?” he said softly, quietly, as memory ran back to darkness. How could she be here, now, before his eyes again? What did it mean – yet why did he already know the answer to that question? He stepped forward, looked into the woman’s eyes; Paulo and Toni, who had been standing near her, stepped away as her form shifted once again – and the air around the group shimmered as deeper recognition danced on the fading breeze.

Tom Goodwin – whose eyes had been fixed on the painting in his hands, turned to look at the woman: “She is Anticleia, father,” Tom said. “She is my grandmother.”

“Thomas! Who, what the hell are you talking about?” Paul sighed as memory crashed like storm driven waves against these rocks.

Paul squinted, looked at the woman again.

The old woman shifted again before his eyes, and the air suddenly grew warm and softly close; Paul struggled with feelings of recognition and overwhelming fear. He stepped closer still, reached out to touch the woman. When he touched her arm a torrent of lost understanding filled his mind; Paul recoiled as if physically stunned, he stumbled backwards and fell to the ground as waves of dizzy, breathless understanding hit.

“My…my mother?” Paul Goodwin said as he grasped the truth.

Anticleia’s form shifted once again. She knelt beside Tom, her love for the boy now a radiant force that lit the night, the wonder of her being filling his face with joy. She stroked his face with her hand, held time in abeyance with her smile. “Ah, my precious Telemachus. It has been so sweet to see you again.”

Paulo and Toni came close; they could not understand a word she said, and when they looked at Margherita, they saw she too looked lost.

“What did they say?” Paulo leaned over and asked his sister.

“I do not know, I see them speak and I hear words, but I cannot understand them. Something, someone is stopping me…”

Toni tried to move closer, but Vico stepped across and blocked his way with an arm. “Do not interfere,” he said.

“But…”

“You must not interfere.”

Toni looked at his – what? – his father? Now his father’s form rippled and shifted and he felt the world collapsing around him. He fell to his knees, crying, reached out with both hands: “Papa! Papa! No! Not now!”

Paulo darted past Vico and ran to his mother’s side; she held out her arms and held him protectively.

“What is happening?! What is…NO!”

Paulo’s scream filled the night, and he too fell to the rocks as tears burst forth and washed down his face; Maria Theresa stood beside him and comforted him as these forms twisted in the air. “No! What is happening?”

“Mother?” Margherita said, suddenly very cold, and she saw her mother drifting away; then she turned to Vico: “What is this? What is happening?”

“It is now as it has always been. As it must always be.”

“Vico? What are you saying? What do you mean?”

“It is his time of death, and perhaps, of a beginning.”

There was a pulse, a charge ripping through the air, then the devastating crack of thunder just overhead.

She jumped and turned at the sound, saw her brother; she watched as his body stiffened – it was as if he had turned to stone. And he had fallen – what – into a deep sleep?

“Paulo!” she cried.

She cringed, turned away from the sound – again; thunder rang in her ears – and now Toni was rigid, motionless – his eyes wide open, lifeless.

Elsie – transfixed – remained next to Tom in the wheelchair.

“What is this!?” Margherita screamed. She turned to her mother . . .

Maria Theresa was still now; it was as if she had been caught between two heartbeats – and she had simply – stopped. Tears filled Margherita’s eyes, she ran to Vico, stood in his face: “What is this? What is happening?” She beat his chest as grief came to her, but even as her rage burned out of control, he took her in his arms and held her as she spoke again: “Why,” she moaned, “what – has been done here?”

“You must watch now, and see, if you can. It is rare that we let one watch. Be quiet, and do not try to stop this, whatever you see, whatever you feel.” He turned her body to face the glowing forms and she opened her burning eyes.

A ghostly man – was it Tom? –stood up from the wheelchair, the old woman – Anticleia? – now at his side. What must have been Paul Goodwin was already waist deep in the sea; he continued onward until he was in water up to his shoulders, and then he stopped. She saw, she heard him speaking into the night – was it an invocation? – then she knew – knew – what was coming.

Tom and the ancient woman walked slowly through the rocks to the water’s edge – Elsie by his side; they slipped quietly, wordlessly into the blackness; as they walked the water glowed around their receding nakedness. Elsie waded in, paused, barked, then stepped back onto the rocks and sat. The pup seemed anxious, yet alert. Margherita held her breath, bit her lip, as she watched. The three of them together, in the water – waiting – waiting –

She felt them before she saw them: two, no three dolphins moving into view – and she could see Two Scar now; he went directly to Paul Goodwin. Another – one with a golden eye – stopped beside Anticleia and rolled over. The third circled Tom Goodwin several times, then withdrew out to sea. Paul put a hand on his son’s head; he spoke quietly – then stood aside. Anticleia did the same, though she left a garland draped over Tom’s shoulders before she moved off.

Tom stood alone in the water now, his arms stretched out, floating on the water’s surface. Margherita watched wordlessly, fear building in her heart, for she was unable to understand the things she saw.

‘So dreamlike, I’m dreaming, I’m asleep…’

Elsie suddenly standing, looking out through clearing fog, her senses on point.

Movement. What? There again!

She saw the dorsal fin moving toward Tom, it’s speed incredible, terrifying. The third dolphin – coursing through the water directly at him – it’s speed mesmerizing – simply impossible…

She expected to see the animal veer away at the last moment, but no, that did not happen. She felt the collision in the very marrow of her bones, shielded her eyes from the blinding light that ripped through the fabric of her being as – as – she felt – herself – falling – falling again and again.

+++++

She felt the sun on her face – before she felt someone shaking her awake.

She heard a dog barking.

Water . . . surf on rocks. A chilly breeze drifted across her face, her hair washed across her eyes as she opened them. She looked up, brushed hair from her face . . .

It was her Paulo. She could feel the anxiety in his eyes, even his movements to wake her were hesitant, filled with fear.

“Wake up,” he said again, softly. “Margherita! You must wake up!”

“Let her sleep, Paulo.” Toni’s voice, still half asleep.

“But you, we, we must go home now.”

“Where’s Mama?” she heard Toni say.

“Down by the water, with Paul Goodwin.”

Margherita’s eyes were wide open now. “Paul – Goodwin?” she said. “Is he here?”

“Where else would he be,” Toni asked, his voice full of nervous confusion. “Really! You should go back to sleep!”

“Where’s Tom?” she said anxiously as she sat up. She was lost, trying to remember something important, but her memory was a black hole.

“I don’t know. He wasn’t here when I woke up.”

Wide awake now, she looked around… “Paulo? Have you seen him?”

“No, but maybe Vico and the Danish woman took him back to the boat last night.”

She looked at Paulo; he was scratching his head as if trying to remember something. She heard voices out on the rocks and stood up – too quickly. She felt light-headed, almost dizzy; she held her hands out to steady herself. Through squinted eyes she could make out Paul and Maria sitting on a gently sloping rock, their feet dangling in a clear blue pool.

Paul saw her and waved.

She returned the wave, stumbled down to them. Now she could see her mother was asleep on Paul’s shoulder.

“Nice morning,” Paul Goodwin said quietly in his bristly aviator’s accent.

“Yes, yes it is. Have you seen Tom?”

“Nope.”

“No? Do you know where he is? Paul – Mister Goodwin?”

Goodwin shrugged, looked out to sea. “I don’t know. I thought he must be up there with you.”

Margherita shuddered as the incongruity of his reply washed over her. What could this mean? She looked around. Tom’s wheelchair was up in the grass, back in the trees. Toni was standing up now, rubbing his eyes. Paulo was standing as well, looking back down the hill that led to the harbor, and the village. She saw him waving at someone and her heart lurched; she ran up the rocks, knowing she would find Tom.

But it was Vico. He had a basket in one hand, some blankets in the other.

She ran to him, her mind searching, her eyes seeking Tom.

“Have you seen Tom?” she asked breathlessly when she reached the old man.

He smiled: “I brought some croissants, and preserves. Strawberries, too. And Champagne. Merry Christmas!”

Margherita stood before the old man, she blocked his way as confusion rumbled from some place deep beneath her feet: “What?! Christmas?! Yes, but have you seen Tom?” Her voice shook as fading memory lifted into the air, her world tinged with looming hysteria.

He looked down at her, his moist, ancient eyes full of sympathy. “His suffering is at an end, child” Vico said quietly, his voice barely a whisper. “All is as it should be. Come, sit with me.” He was reaching for her . . .

“M-mm–uhn–no…no…” she tried to say more but her throat felt like it was being squeezed by an unseen assailant; she felt herself standing on her toes, her body twisting as if to cut off the scream she felt bursting from her soul.

She felt his hand on her shoulder; felt she was being guided to the rocks. Paulo and Toni looked at her and rushed to her side, helped her sit down as Vico handed them blankets.

“What’s wrong with her?” Paulo cried. “Margherita? Vico, what’s wrong?”

“It has been a long night. She is tired…”

“Tom…” she said. “Tom is dead.”

“What!” Toni cried. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, come now,” Vico said. “You must all relax. Life goes on. Have a strawberry.”

“What!” Margherita said, her incredulous voice strained by the man’s obtuse deceptions. “A strawberry!”

Vico looked hurt. “Yes, of course. They are ripe, fresh, and it is Christmas, is it not?”

“Are you mad?” Toni shouted. “Christmas!? Are you out of your fucking mind!? Where’s Tom?!”

Vico’s form rippled and shifted in the air, his skin grew transparent. An older, more powerful form shimmered under the old man’s skin – but it was as quickly gone. “No. I am not mad,” he said as he looked out to sea. “You must understand; I too am tired.”

“Who…what are you?” Paulo said, his voice quivering with barely contained fear. Toni stood beside him, staring at Vico’s face. He felt lost, alone, afraid…

But the old man looked at them, care in his eyes: “What do you mean, Paulo? I am Ludvico; I am your mother’s friend.” The old man seemed to stiffen, dark resolve simmered beneath a furrowed brow. The man’s visage rippled and reformed again: “I have held you on my lap since you were a child! And you would ask who I am?”

Margherita stood and faced him. “I think it is a fair question. Who are you?”

The old man grew rigid, fury pulsed through the veins of his neck and face and, as if dark storms had suddenly gathered in the sky, the air around them grew charged with electric dread – and yet, as suddenly, the man – Vico – appeared to relax, a smile parted his face and he began to laugh. He laughed so hard he began to cry; soon Paulo began laughing, then Toni. Confusion shook the earth under their feet.

Vico held out his hand and gently stroked Margherita’s face while he caught his breath. “I have held you too, on my lap – when you were younger still. Look into my eyes, Margherita. Will you say that you do not know me? You do not know me, who I am?”

Margherita felt more people by her side; she turned, saw Paul Goodwin and her mother. They stood silently, questions on their faces. Even Elsie, sitting by Paul’s feet, was looking up at Vico – an oddly confused smile on her face.

“Margherita,” her mother said. “It has been a long night. Let us go home. I will…”

“But I have brought food!” Vico said, looking out to sea again. “Sit down, all of you, and rest for a while.”

“Why?” Margherita asked, her voice now full of unanswered questions. “Why do you want us to stay here? What are you…?”

“Because, my dear, these are fresh strawberries! Do you have any idea how hard they are to come by this time of year?”

“But Tom? Where is Tom?”

Paul stepped closer. “What do you mean, ‘where is Tom?’ Isn’t he up here? With you? The wheelchair is…”

Vico stepped aside, laughing, and walked over to a patch of grass and lay blankets down in the sun. He sat, opened his basket, began pulling out fine china plates and delicate crystal flutes. Fresh baked croissant, orange marmalade, chocolate spread, and strawberries – huge, red-ripe strawberries – bigger than any anyone had ever seen. When he had set these things out he turned to them, opened his arms: “Come! Eat! All is as it should be! You should relax now!”

Paul came, sat on a blanket. Maria took her daughter’s hand and joined him.

“Paulo, Toni, do not make me ask again. Come!”

They came, they sat. Vico passed around flutes, then opened champagne and filled their glasses.

“Merry Christmas!” the old man said as he held up his flute.

Nobody moved. Nobody.

Except . . . Paul Goodwin.

The others were still, their open eyes lifeless and remote.

“Ah, thank you,” the old one said to Paul. “I must be losing my touch.”

Paul looked at the somnambulant group and shook his head. “No, old friend, it is I who should thank you. It was a beautiful night, was it not?”

“Ah. Yes. Could you hear the stars?”

“Yes. Sublime.” Goodwin looked up at the sky. “They sang well, my friend.”

The old man looked proud. “We must leave, soon.”

“Yes. Where is your grand-daughter? I haven’t seen her.”

“Anticleia?” The old man shrugged. “Who knows. Probably painting again.”

“It is a nice rendition.”

“Yes. She grows better with time.”

“Maybe you should try.”

The old man chuckled: “Me? Haven’t I better things to do? Or have I grown so irrelevant?”

Goodwin laughed too, then looked out over the sea. “Is it time?”

“Yes.”

Goodwin began to stand, but the old man reached out, stopped him. “Wait. Hand me the strawberries.”

“What? Oh no, what are you going to do?”

“Let’s put one in each of their glasses. When they wake up, they’ll pee all over themselves!”

“You’re incorrigible, you know that, don’t you.”

Hermes laughed as he reached for a strawberry. It was a nice, big, fat one, and he laughed for the longest time…

+++++

(excerpt from Malcolm Doncaster’s journal)

Aboard Diogenes, Portofino Harbor

Christmas Morning

I hate growing old. The mystery, the very magic of life seems to fade with age. Time seems to unravel all those precious gifts that youth bestowed, and she leaves us with only memories to keep us company as winter comes. Cliché, I know, but Christmas is a time of clichés.

Well, dinner last night was a bust. Before we could get the soup down the balloon went up! Talk about your holiday cheer going up in flames! 

Who would have thought old Paul Goodwin had it in himself to father not one! but three boys! And nobody knew a goddamn thing except Mama. Mama-mia!

Anyway, Mary Ann and I sat up and brought the day in with a nice brandy; everything was quiet on Springer. We turned in about 0100; assumed everyone returned to the ristorante, particularly as Elsie never came back and we never felt or heard anyone all night.

Mary Ann got up at 0700 and we opened our presents (can’t quite give up that tradition, now can we!) in the cockpit. Chilly morning; must have been a fog out last night – the deck was wet, almost like we’d had rain. 

At any rate – along about 0800 here comes the group – Vico walking ahead, and pushing an empty wheelchair! Everyone there, but no Tom. That got our curiosity going!

Mary Ann went to meet Margherita, who seemed to be in quite a state! Lots of animated chatter! 

Bah! Women!

At any rate, everyone save Vito and Maria Theresa came aboard, they were all blathering away about Tom being gone – dead, Margherita said (if you can imagine that!) – and, well, everyone was in quite an agitated state, let’s just say that and be done with it. Paul had a truly magnificent painting of Springer with him, which he took below and set beside that other painting of Sarah, and the odd thing was that he didn’t seem the least bit perturbed by all the commotion. I suppose it’s all those years flying, learning to deal with emergencies and all nonsense. Calm as a cucumber.

So anyway, Paulo is up on deck and just frantic, frantic! Going on about needing to call the police and the coast guard, how he would lose his job! Oh, the poor boy. Mary Ann and Margherita sat in the cockpit; we gave the girl some coffee and she was just blathering away like a machine gun, and Toni! – he was beside himself – going on about how he’d never had the chance to know this new brother and on and on – and then Tom up and pops out of the water and there he was on Springer’s swim platform – and as naked as the day he was born!

Of course Margherita faints dead away! Toni falls to his knees and starts praying for all he’s worth, but – and this is the best part – poor old Paulo races across and for all I know was going to hug poor Tom, when bam! – he trips just as Tom is climbing into the cockpit. There they went, another rear summersault, and in perfect form, mind you – five point zero – and then there they were, sputtering about and laughing and carrying on like two children. Toni got in to the spirit of things and jumped in – which would’ve been all fine and dandy except the poor sod can’t swim worth a damn!

And Paul! Just standing up there in the cockpit, looking down on his three sons. What a story his grandchildren will hear. As for me? I think it time to move on soon; this endless quest to immerse myself in all things Greek has been fun, but perhaps it’s time I grew up, did something useful with my time. Hard to believe an old codger like me could still be gallivanting around the Mediterranean wasting his time chasing after moldy Gods no one’s cared about for two thousand years. 

It makes me curiously sad, however. I wonder what happens to Gods when people stop believing in him. Perhaps they would dare to just fade away, drift off into obscurity. I don’t know. Perhaps, if he was really clever, he’d find a way to a place like this. I can’t imagine a better place to spend eternity than right here. 

So yes, all in all, quite the Christmas!

Addendum

Onboard Diogenes, 1930 hours

Just wanted to add a note to what has been an astonishingly dull day. I was out on the quay taking Elsie for a walk before dinner when out of the blue a couple dozen strawberries rained down on my head! Not a soul around, either, but I did hear someone laughing. I hope I can catch ‘em at it; I’ll tell the cheeky buggers to sod off! 

Bah!!!

Epilogue:

Seven Years Later, an afternoon in early April

Portofino

Paul Goodwin walked down the quay under the trees, holding his granddaughter’s hand – as was his fondest desire. The promise of spring seemed alight in the air – the first real warmth of the season kissed the sea breeze in its passage through trees just budding overhead, and the old wanderer felt it a miracle to be alive on a day like this. He loved this land, this harbor, these people, and he loved calling the village home – as he had now for almost seven years. He couldn’t fault Tom’s logic, either; his family was here now, he could best be true to his life only in this village, surrounded by the people who loved him – and by the people he loved.

His granddaughter Penelope was now, of course, the light of his life. Though he had finally married Maria Theresa, she had passed quietly almost five years ago, and in the emptiness that followed he had found first solace, then redemption in a little girl’s smile. She played his heartstrings mercilessly, however, yet he loved every minute of it.

Though Paul was now ninety six years old, he still walked out to the cape almost every afternoon with her. Most sunny days he waited outside the village school for her, and they walked together slowly, quietly, usually out to the cape, but sometimes just home, where he spent countless hours helping her read. Though Margherita would never understand this passion, Paul always seemed to return to the classics, to the myths of Gods now long gone from this world. Not surprisingly, Paul encouraged the little girl to take on an active fantasy life. Some days she demanded he call her Athena.

And he always smiled when she did.

They made it to the rocks at the cape that afternoon and walked carefully down to the waters edge. Most days they spent this time in silence, just looking out at shadows of clouds running across their sun-dappled sea, but from time to time they would slip quietly into the water, and a special friend would join them. Penelope thought those days were the best.

Today, Penelope’s father was sitting out on the rocks, watching, and waiting…

Paul and his granddaughter picked their way slowly through the rocks and sat down beside Tom Goodwin.

“Hey, Dad,” he said, when he saw them sitting there: “How-ya doing, Muppet?” He put his arm around her and gave her a gentle squeeze.

“What are you doing out here, son? Little early for you to be in, isn’t it?”

“Hm-m, oh, no. They’re doing some work on the electrical system in the O.R.; no surgery this afternoon. I get to play hooky.”

“Lucky you.”

“Si, papa, you’re lucky! I had to go to school!”

“Yeah, Muppet, you’ve got it rough! Better let me give you a kiss!” He smiled and she leaned over, and he kissed her on the top of her head.

“Anything wrong?” Paul said.

“Hm-m, oh, no. Just felt like a beautiful day. Too nice to sit in the office and do paperwork.”

“I hear that.”

“Dad? What is it about this place? Something so…I don’t know…?”

They looked out at the sea and the racing clouds for a long time.

“Tom, there’s so much more here than we can see. You recall…?”

“Yeah,” Penelope interrupted. “Last week we saw a lady with no clothes on swimming, didn’t we, grampa!”

“That we did, Muppet. Hell of a sight, too.”

“Who did you say she looked like? Moby…”

“Moby Dick, Muppet,” Paul said as he chuckled. “The great white whale.”

“Musta been a real looker, dad.”

“At my age, Ace, the fu – uh, well – Queen Elizabeth still looks pretty hot to me…”

“Papa, did grampa say the ‘F-word’?”

“Nope.”

“The Hell I didn’t!”

The two men laughed. The Muppet frowned.

“You know, Tom, sometimes I see the color of our skin, and the color of theirs,” he said as he pointed at the sea, “and in the imagining I find a new color, something unique, and maybe it’s not even of this world, but it’s here, and it’s ours – whether we like it or not. Hell, I don’t know, maybe it’s just the color of life. Maybe in the coming together of lives we were destined to create something new, but this new creation holds the essence of the old in its heart. I guess maybe it’s that way with all life.”

“The circle of life,” Tom said. “I…”

“The Lion King!” the Muppet yelled, clapping her hands. “Yippee!”

“That’s right, Muppet. The Lion King.” Tom squeezed her again.

“Yeah, and not that Sundiata Keita fella. Never could stand that guy. His eyes gave me the willies.”

“What?” Tom and the Muppet said as they looked at the old man.

“Oh, nothin’, Muppet. Nothing at all.”

c. 1200 BCE  +  

On the island of Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea

Penelope and Anticleia walked along the edge of the cliff, the restless sea not far below tossed gentle waves recklessly on the shore. Telemachus played along the shore, hopping from rock to rock with the careless abandon any seven year old would recognize and call his own. Penelope watched her son without a care in the world; he was a strong swimmer, and already loved the sea. A slave stood near the beach, charged with looking out for the boy. Penelope turned to her mother-in-law and took her hand, then they walked up the trail to the house.

“It’s so lovely to see you again,” she said, though in truth that was the last thing on her mind. She was burning inside, as the news from Athens was not good.

“And Odysseus? How is he?”

“Oh, he is fine.”

“What has he to say about Anatolia?”

“The Teucrians? He says there will be war.”

“Will he fight?”

“Menelaus may compel him.”

“But the oracle!”

“Yes. I know.”

“This is madness! He is too old!”

“It would be best if my husband did not hear you say that.”

He stood by the house talking to a stonemason about repairs he wanted made to the wall, but he heard them walking, heard their voices over the wind and the sea; he turned to them as they drew near, and he waved at them . . .

The ground rumbled, the earth heaved, Penelope and Anticleia were hurled to the ground; Odysseus knelt and reached out to steady the mason before the old man fell, then he scuttled to his wife and sheltered her with his body.

Soon the ground grew still and Odysseus helped the women stand.

A sudden wind came, dust and sand filled the sky.

A scream. Far off, from the sea.

“Telemachus!” Penelope cried. “He was on the beach!”

Odysseus understood; he ran down the trail as the wind died; he could see the water receding even as he made for the path that led through the rocks to the beach. He came to the edge of the cliff and looked out to sea.

The wave was monstrous, at least half the height of the cliff. Odysseus could see exposed beach now far out from the rocks, that the land now possessed earth that belonged to the sea. A dark omen!

Odysseus groaned. The wave was coming ashore with frightening speed, roaring like a lion as it advanced. He saw the slave running out among sea-urchins and starfish; Odysseus looked out to sea and could just make out his son’s head  before the roaring wall, saw he was waving his arms.

“Too far,” he said, feeling the trap spring on his heart. He started down the trail but stopped; the wave was almost ashore. Just a few more moments . . .

He stood, paralyzed, as the wave rose behind his son – Telemachus simply disappeared under the sea as it passed. The slave saw his position clearly now, the danger he was in, and he turned and ran back towards the beach – but he was not fast enough. No one was…

The wave rose higher; as the water rushed in it pulled the slave into its maw – Odysseus leaned over the edge and watched as the man was dashed against the rocks below his feet. A wall of white thunder rose into the air before him; Odysseus fell back from the hissing water but was drenched nonetheless. He heard Penelope and Anticleia not far away, and he turned to protect them from the falling wall of water.

Soon they heard the water receding. Odysseus rushed to the edge again and saw the slave’s shattered body as it washed out to sea.

Telemachus was nowhere to be seen.

Penelope cried out in sodden anguish; she fell to her knees and beat the earth with her fists until they started to bleed. Her mother-in-law knelt beside her, trying to comfort her despite the dread that filled her own heart. Odysseus ran down the trail; when he reached the beach the sea had reclaimed her holdings. Odysseus could see the slave’s pulpy body lifting beyond the surf and he knew it would not be long before the sharks came. He made his way through the rocks and dove into deep water; he began to swim out to sea – but he stopped.

Telemachus was flying through the sea, riding on the back of a – a dolphin!

+++++

It was seven years later when Odysseus marched into battle at Troy. He carried a shield, and on that bronze disk there was engraved a dolphin. Whether deliberately made or the result of battle, no one could say, but there were two scars below the dolphin’s eye.

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