Fiction by Lang Ross
Originally published in Tangents 1.11
August 1966, pp. 9–12.
August is always an unsettled month. Sudden squalls and gales are likely at any time. But Lad had outfitted our little racing sloop, the Swordfish, with new canvas and couldn’t wait to take her out for a run on the bay. From the sun deck of the bayhouse I shouted to him, where he stood on the dock, a young golden god in the morning sunlight, wearing only a pair of little white trunks.
“Lad, I wish you wouldn’t go alone. Come with me.” We needed supplies for the weekend. “We’ll go out together when we come back.”
He stepped down into the sloop, grinned and waved. “I’ll just test her out while you’re gone. I’ll swing back and pick you up in half an hour.”
I know myself. I worry too much. I watched him for a moment, watched the clean, easy motions with which he raised the gleaming sail, then turned back into the house for the shopping list and the car keys.
The supermarket in Keemah was crowded. For some reason only two of the five checkstands were in operation, though the place always did its biggest business on the weekends. Whatever the explanation, it was a good 20 minutes before I wheeled my two heavy cartons out to the car.
At that time, a wind had sprung up from the Southeast. Shading my eyes, I squinted worriedly in the direction of the bay. A thick line of slate-gray clouds was scudding towards land. I loaded the cartons into the luggage compartment, banged down the lid, got behind the wheel quickly, jounced out of the parking lot. If Lad had kept his word, he would be back at the bayhouse now, waiting for me. But he wasn’t wearing his watch. It wasn’t waterproof. When we sailed, be depended on me for the time. Now the bank of clouds blotted out the sun. I shivered and pushed the throttle to the floor.
I reached the bayhouse just as the full force of the storm broke. I jerked the car to a halt under the port, jumped out and raced for the beach. The rain lashed at my face. The wind fought me, howling. It was so dark the dock and boathouse were only vague shapes. I struggled on, needing to be sure. I halted. The Swordfish wasn’t at her moorings. Lad hadn’t seen the storm in time, hadn’t made it back. I ran out on the dock that shuddered with the force of the swirling surf. I yelled Lad’s name to the shrieking wind. But the crash of the waves was my only answer….
His body was washed ashore the next day, six miles down from the bayhouse. I made arrangements for it to be taken back to Houston, then locked up the house…. Now, eleven months later, when I turned the key in the lock and opened the door, I found everything as I had left it. A pair of Levis, dirty, lay in a heap in one corner. Two highball glasses and a half empty bottle of Scotch stood on the bar. I could almost smell the cologne from the bottle Lad had broken the day before the storm.
I had tried to be prepared for this, but it still hurt. I had to brace myself physically for a minute, jaw tight, fists clenched, mind firmly on action. I had work to do: sweep out the film of sand that had filtered under the doors during the winter, dust the place, clean out the refrigerator. Keep busy, keep occupied, don’t think. By the time I’d finished, the sun was almost down. I went out on the deck and stood there with the broom in my hand. I felt overly calm, with a kind of strange assurance, as if, looking for something or someone, I knew there was a way to find it, or him.
Many times Lad and I had sat out here, saying very little or nothing at all, watching the glorious pageant of scarlet and crimson and gold that we call sunset. A breeze would blow cool and refreshing off the bay. I would fix drinks and we would sit until the moon came up—huge and orange at first, and then a silver coin lazily spinning across the heavens….
Now, a hundred yards to the north, lights began to glow in Amber Radley’s cottage. Amber was an attractive young widow with two young children. Lad and I had met her last summer and we’d become friends. Amber’s husband had been killed in Korea, but her family had money and she was well-fixed. She lived the year round on the bay. Though I liked her, I found myself tonight hoping she wouldn’t notice I’d come back.
I stood on the deck until daylight faded. Then I brought a deck chair out and set it up. I stood staring at it for a minute, then did what I suppose was a foolish thing. I brought the second deck chair out and placed it alongside the first. I sat down and, after a while, I made a discovery. If I closed my eyes and kept them closed I no longer felt alone. It was not simply that I could imagine Lad in the other chair. It was deeper than that. It was as if I could recall him—not in the ordinary sense but in the sense of calling him back.
I could see him, really see him, beside me, his hair bleached sandv by the hot Texas sun, his grin, the golden skin color, the smooth, trim musculature of his young body I had so much loved, so often loved. I waited expectantly to hear the familiar creak of the chair as Lad reached over in a gesture of affection, to hear his soft laughter as his hand found the spot it was seeking….
Suddenly the telephone rang, and instantly I was alone on the deck with an empty chair beside me. I got up, angry at the interruption. I yanked up the receiver.
“Todd?” It was Amber Radley’s voice. “Just thought I’d call and say hi. Glad you’re back.”
“Thanks, Amber,” I said. “How’d you know?”
“Saw your car. Listen, Todd, why not walk over and have supper with us? My brother’s here for his vacation.” She’d told me about the brother—English teacher. “We could play bridge, if you want to, or—“
“Aw, look, Amber, that’s nice of you, but I’ve been cleaning up here all day. I’m dirty and I’m tired. Not fit company. Say hello to the kids for me, huh? And I’ll check with you soon and we’ll get together.”
After that I didn’t try to reestablish the atmosphere on the deck, to bring Lad back again. I turned on the lights and fixed supper out of a couple of cans and made myself a stiff drink at the bar. I was tired from the long drive I’d started early in the morning, and from the housecleaning, and the whiskey grabbed as I’d hoped it would. I hit the sack and slept hard.
I woke suddenly before dawn. Except for the sigh of the surf, the pre-dawn darkness held a hush. I must have been dreaming, because I had the feeling that someone had been calling me. I got up and walked out on to the deck. The air was soft and misty and in the east the first faint glimmer of dawn was mirrored in the water of the bay. The beach looked lonely and deserted, the sand cut and scarred by the receding tide.
I made coffee and took it, steaming and strong, into the main room. I lit a cigarette and sat staring at nothing. Evening had been bad, but morning was being worse—Lad and I had done a lot of loving in the morning…. Then my eye lit on the log book. It wasn’t the ship’s log. That had gone down with the Swordfish. This was a diary Lad had kept of all our good days last summer. It lay on a shelf behind the bar. I went and got it and began turning over pages.
August 3: Went casting for mullet at sunrise with Todd….
I smiled. One year ago today. All right. I set down the coffee cup, rummaged in the closet and found the casting net. I put on a pair of trunks, left the house and hiked up the beach. Before I’d reached the lagoon, the sun was up. There were a lot of lagoons in the bay area. I stopped at the first and stood staring at the blue water. This wasn’t going to be simple alone. Lad had always acted as spotter.
I’d fling the net at the splash he’d pointed out and usually came up with a catch. Now, with the warm water swirling around my knees, it was easy to imagine Lad right behind me, his voice quick with excitement.
“Todd! Over there!”
But though I threw my net often I caught nothing because there never was anything there. Not any more than there was really a voice telling me so. Maybe, though, if I tried our favorite lagoon…. It was a long hike and when I got there I found I’d lost the desire to fish. I lay on the sand instead in a particular spot where Lad and I had often lain, had even sometimes made love in the blaze of daylight. It was a very lonely place.
I somehow thought I’d sleep. But I found myself instead listening, waiting. Of course, there was nothing, no sound, no sign. Yet I wasn’t discouraged. I didn’t expect it to be easy or quick. I convinced myself it was possible, and coming nearer, nearer….
Then a light plane flew over, low, following the shore line. I watched it out of sight. There was only the wash of the waves again, and an occasional gull crying high and sad, and again I was waiting, waiting…. The plane returned in perhaps an hour, flying low once more, and this time I thought the pilot waved. The spell was shattered. Dejectedly I got to my feet, brushed off the sand, picked up the net, and headed for the bayhouse.
To encounter anybody alive was obviously fatal to my intentions, broke the spell, kept away the presence I so hoped and yearned for. Even a stranger in a plane. And when the phone rang that evening, I let it ring. I wanted no human contact. When I went back to fish it must be very, very early so there’d be no chance of meeting anyone….
On the fourth morning, I found the writing.
I’d bean tramping southwards along the shore. The pink and saffron of the rising sun was just beginning to streak the eastern sky. I’d almost reached my refuge of sand, silence and still water, when I saw the words scratched in the wet sand:
Oh, who sits weeping on my grave
And will not let me sleep?
I stared and shivered. Lad? We both knew that poem, a twelfth century ballad. Not many people could have quoted it. It had been something private of ours. But…this wasn’t what I’d waited for. Surely not. Surely Lad didn’t mean I was wrong to want him back. Tears blurred my eyes. I swung away. My bare foot came down on a broken piece of shell. The hurt brought me back to reality. I knelt, picked up the fragment, stared again at the writing. It was fresh and it bad been made with this jagged shard.
Then a voice said, “No, he didn’t write it.”
I looked up. On top of a dune stood a young man, darkly sunburned.
“I wrote it,” he said.
“Why?” I scrambled to my feet.”What the hell business was it of yours?”
“None.” He came down the dune, lean, moving with a nice assurance. “But Amber’s told me what happened last summer. And while I haven’t meant to spy, I’ve seen you from my plane…and other times, and…let’s say…noticed you being pretty lonely and unhappy.” His smile, now that it came, was warming. He pushed dark hair out of his eyes. “And…why the hell beat around the bush—or the beach, rather? I like the look of you, and I thought, ‘He’s too nice a guy to be wanting to be dead.’” He gave a small shrug. ”I don’t know. Maybe I’m completely wrong. Will it…will it be all right if I try to find out?”
“You’re Amber’s brother,” I said. “You teach English Lit. That’s how you happen to know the ballad.”
“Amber’s driven the kids to Houston for the weekend. Come on over. We’ll have some breakfast.”
Slowly I rubbed out the words in the sand with my feet. I stared around for a minute at the lonely place I’d waited in for Lad—and, maybe, for death to come and take me to him. I shivered again, then bent and picked up the net.
“Okay,” I said, and suddenly felt like smiling and did smile. “I’d like that. Let’s go.”