The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
By Russell J. Dorn
Coming in from the hen house, Francis Rouse felt the tug of the egg basket way up in his shoulder. This reminded him of the heavy load of work he wanted to complete that summer. Instead of extra reading and crunching numbers for the judge or the county though, he found himself seriously considering something out of character.
“Hard work, but rewarding,” his father told him over a breakfast of hand-picked eggs, hand-sliced bread, and hand-squeezed orange juice. Francis stared into the reflective chrome of his father's Model 1-A-1 Toastmaster and thought about the work that went into simply preparing breakfast. Already exhausted, he didn't know if he had the strength to do work that was much more strenuous. Plus, if his father considered it hard work, with his thick forearms and strong back, it would probably be impossible for someone half his size.“
I don’t know a thing about renovating, father. What good would it do me, truly?” He took a sip of his orange juice, thinking about how the last time he helped his father with construction was when he had been a decade younger, handing over tools. A wedge, a saw, some nails. He never once swung a hammer, so why now? And, why was he considering it?
“It’ll do you some good to get out of the city for a while. You’re stressed. I can see it on your face. Criminy, you’re going to have as many wrinkles as me by your twenty-first birthday.”
The curve of the metal toaster scrunched Francis' reflection into that of a shriveled old man. He thought about how wrinkles would only grant him more respect, as wrinkles came with age and age with experience and experience was what everyone looked to hire.
“I’m stressed because I feel like I’m behind. You know that classmate of mine, Jeffery Chadwick? He has practically been made partner at that law firm on 29th.”
“You’re not in law. He’s just pushing papers. I assure you.”
“I'm pushing papers.” Francis set the first plate of toast near his father and took up a chair. “Chadwick says they have him in the courtroom. You should hear the way he talks. It’s like he thinks he’s better than me suddenly.”
“Accounting is a different sport, son.” Francis' father crunched into his toast and reached for the butter when he found it too dry for his taste.
“If it’s a sport,” Francis wiped his upper lip clean of juice, “it’s the least fun of all.”
“I knew it!” his father clapped his hands together, sending crumbs across the table top. “You’re miserable. You never even get to see the sun anymore. If your mother's plants need it, you need it. Trust in that.” He leaned nearer Francis and shielded his mouth as if to hide a secret from distant lip readers. “To tell you the truth, your mother is starting to think you’re Nosferatu, and she’s serious. Imagine that.”
“The film. He's like Stoker's fiend.”
Francis shrugged. He found it both endearing and annoying that his father always made pop culture references.
“You’ve truly never heard of it?” His father scratched his head. “It’s only been, what? Four or five years.”
“Only five? That’s all the time I’ve got left to start making it in the world, really making it, and that’s being generous.”
“I think you need to slow down. You’re trying to rush through your life, and for what?”
“For what? To make a life. I want a house, an automobile, and a wife. Kids someday, too. I’m not going to achieve that by taking a break this summer when I could be gaining the judge’s favor again, or interning at a firm. Or at least reading the newest book in the field.”
“The field can't change that quickly. I’m sure the last three books you read on the matter covered the subject just fine. Probably more than adequately.”
Francis took a bite of his eggs.
His father took pause with a quaff his coffee. Francis put his own drink down, noting the look on his father’s face.
“What is it? What's eating you?”
“Do you think I’m happy?” he said. The question seemed to come out of nowhere. Of course Francis thought his father was happy. He had everything Francis himself was striving to get: a house, an automobile, a wife. The man knew the importance of image. Francis studied his father’s face, which had grown solemn.
“You’ve got everything a man could want.”
His father sighed. Taking a another sip from his mug, he nodded, but the way he groaned while doing so told Francis that it was not a nod of agreement.
“I used to believe that,” he said, “but I’ve been thinking a lot recently. In fact, while I was listening to the game on the radio the other day, I realized that it seemed routine. I realized the majority of my memories are very, I suppose, regular.”
“Yes. Ordinary. Average. Not worth thinking of, much less reminiscing about. You know, normal.”
“I know the definition, father, but your reason is bedeviling.”
“Bedeviling.” Francis' father felt the word on his own tongue and scrunched his brow at the sensation. “Big words. Those books are going to make you difficult to relate to if you aren’t careful, especially for us simple folk. “
“Don’t beat around the bush, father. You obviously have something to say, so just say it.”
“You know you’re welcome to stay here as long as you'd like. I won’t kick you out like my father did to me. You could stay and write a novel.” He waved his hands in the air, dismissingly. “That’s not even what I’m trying to get at. To be honest, this isn’t about you. Not really.”
He coughed and buried his whiskers in his cup.
“Then what?” Francis said. “Why do you want so badly for me to go to this town and help Sebastian?”
“It’s like I said: it’d be good for you.”
Francis pressed further, “And?”
“Your mother and I, we could use the time to work out our troubles.”
“Troubles?” The word tasted sour and heavy in Francis’ mouth. He squinted, searching his memory for cues he might have missed. He remembered nothing out of the ordinary. “What troubles? You and mom are great.”
“We’re not.” His father paused again, stuffing a pile of eggs into his mouth. Before swallowing he said, “I’m really opening up to you here.”
“I know,” Francis said, “but you and mom seem fine.”
“Your mother and I could use the time to work on our marriage. I really do think the time away would help you, too. You’d even get a little sun, gain a little muscle, maybe even fetch yourself a nice young woman.”
Francis suddenly thought of Jeffery Chadwick and his beautiful girl, his ripe tomato, his doll. He thought of the girl's perfect curls, her long, slender gams, and the sweet Shalimar perfume that seemed to stick on everything that came close to her even for an instant. Even then he could smell the flowery scent of it, unable to get it unstuck from his memory.
“The pay isn’t bad.” Francis’ father’s lips curled as if he knew he had saved the strongest incentive for last.
“I keep all the money I make?”
“Of course. Plus, you’ll be your own man. No parents to embarrass you.” His father winked. “Best of all, you’ll be able to stay at the house rent free. Sebastian says there’s always something interesting happening down on the main street of town, and that it’s only a quarter mile away. Did I mention the house is mere feet from the ocean?” He seemed to take notice of the smile spreading over his son's lips. “Like I said, I think it will be good for you. Good for you, good for me, good for your mother. Good for our family.”
“All right.” Francis surrendered, laughing. He adjusted his glasses and shook his head, amused. “All right. Yes. I’ll go. Your days as a vacuum salesman have served you well, father. One summer is not going to be enough to make me forget arithmetic. You’re right, this will do me some good to get out and enjoy the sun.”
“Now you're on the trolley.”
“The trolley? Goodness. Sometimes I feel like you're younger than me.”
“Younger at heart, surely.”
“Surely,” Francis humored his father. He didn't want to act young. He'd turned twenty and didn't have a steady job, a girl, or a place of his own. Maybe he'd acted young too long already.
“So where is it, exactly?”
His father leaned over and grabbed an egg from the basket on the kitchen counter. “Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey.”
Francis snickered. “What kind of name is that? Sounds like something out of a Mother Goose tale.”
“It's a good name. Only a hundred miles by train. Shouldn’t be more than a half-day’s travel. Perhaps you can even use your birthday gift on the way there.”
“A birthday gift?”
Francis suddenly felt very awake, excited even. He wiped his hands and mouth clean of egg yolk, thinking still of how silly the name of the town sounded. His father stood, walked into the other room, and returned with a brown paper wrapped box.
“Your mother said to just get you a fountain pen and some Coca-Colas, but I wanted to get you something special for the end of your second decade and the start of your third. Something to help you with your memories when you’re my age. The good ones, at least.”
Unwrapping the package, Francis found that it truly was a fine gift. He carried it around with him all day. At night, he set it securely on his nightstand with his glasses, next to his tissue holder decorated with seashells. That night he dreamt about his recurring visions of singing clams, dancing seaweed, and most wonderful of all, a beautiful mermaid with a necklace of pearls and a shawl of knotted fish netting strung with coral.
After a long day of hovering over a cold mechanical calculator, her smooth leg burned beneath his hand. The roar of the party melted into a mere din around them and it seemed to grow darker and darker as Francis looked around at the guests. They weren't dressed up for his birthday. None of them likely even knew it was his birthday. He began to believe his wife didn't even know, as she hadn't wished him a happy one all day and the hour crept well into the evening. Nevertheless, the guests wore their bow ties. Each of the men wore a gray, brown, or black suit, and the women their Sunday best: cocktail dresses, gowns, everything short of diamond tiaras, yet not one of them glowed like the woman in Francis’ arms.
He stroked her leg a few more times and then let his hand rest on her knee. Looking across the room he saw Jeffery Chadwick. The man’s neck spilled over his collar and he laughed exaggeratedly as if he were in a silent film and had only his body to make an impression.That bastard had beaten him. Chadwick had found happiness and Francis had not. Francis had acquired a house, a job, and a wife, and yet it all seemed so trivial. Worse still, his white picket fence often seemed to be a set of teeth that flashed a grin at him every time he looked out the window or pulled into his driveway. Sharp, angry teeth that ripped from him any pride that dared swell in his chest.
“I’m miserable,” he said aloud.
“You have everything you wanted.”
“Do I? I’m unhappy all the time.”
“What about Rosemarie?”
“I love our daughter, sure, but I—I find myself angry almost continually. I feel like she notices. I mean, she must notice. Her grades have been slipping and I think I might be the reason for that. I can't even talk to her about it. I always had good grades and I'm still miserable, so I can't exactly promise her happiness if she studies more.” Francis held his face a moment in his free hand. “Sometimes I feel like I'm not a man at all anymore, if that makes sense. Not like I feel like a woman.” He laughed without spirit. “I’ve waited and waited until I someday grew into a man and yet I still don’t feel like I am. Even when dad died. I find myself wondering if my father felt this way. Was he happy when my mother stayed?” Francis took a sip of his wine. It tasted as bitter as the realizations he had yet to truly swallow. “Christ. I’m nothing but a number, a place filler, a brick in my company’s foundation. A man with no home life. I feel like the house itself hates me. It's not normal. Trust in that.” Francis talked more to himself now. Sitting still, even the slight pull of a weak smile seemed as great of a movement as an ocean tide. “Do you remember Sebastian and the gals?” Tears glistened happily in Francis' eyes. “Golly. Those were the best days of my life.”
Francis indulged the memories for a moment.
“I’m miserable, too,” the woman in his arms said, quietly.
“You know what we should do?” She sidestepped Francis’ invitation to expand on how she felt and thumbed the pearls around her neck. “We should dance. Just like we used to back in the old house on Oceans Avenue. Dance until we’re happy again.”
“You want to dance? Here?”
Francis looked once more around the room, from suit to dress, dress to suit. They were familiar faces from the office, and yet all were unremarkable. None held any meaning for him. At best the people in the room had been generous enough to lend him their paper fastener for ten minutes or some ink for his typewriter sometime in the past decade. They didn’t feel for him, nor did he for them. It was all just a show of selfish ambition. He could feel their hopes and aspirations bouncing around the room, reflecting off Gloria’s smile, ricocheting off George’s gold cuff links, sinking into Chadwick’s tall glass of champagne that seemed more for show than enjoyment as he hadn’t drained it once the entire evening.
“They’re a bunch of stiffs, “ he said, then worry set in, “They’ll laugh at us.”
“Let them laugh.”
The woman's leg slipped from his hand and she walked to a clearing amongst the gathering. Francis felt the coldness of the room without her near. In the clearing she swayed for a moment before returning to Francis at his bench to pull at his arms. The smile on her face fell every time he pulled back with reluctance and flowered when he finally stood to join her.
She licked her fingers. Francis’ hair bounced as she attempted to slick it down on either side from its part in the middle. She brushed her thumb along the hair near his temples, the first spots to begin turning gray.
Warmth flushed his face and he adjusted his glasses, coughed timidly, and noticed for the first time how vibrant the stars seemed. Even with the glow of the city lights only eighty-six stories below, the stars sparkled brighter in the sky, millions of miles away.
There’s more than what the city has to offer, the stars seemed to say to Francis. The hustle of the streets below howled from the open balcony doors in protest, but even with the roar, and the din of those surrounding them, Francis heard the woman whisper.
“I love you,” she said. Francis kissed her on the cheek.
Then, without hesitation, he said, “my heart is yours, Evelyn.”
Together they began swaying. He knew he shouldn’t allow himself this pleasure and yet he did. Evelyn squeezed gently at the tender spots between his thumbs and forefingers as he raised her hands in his, preparing for a slow dance. He squeezed back, satisfied with the simple touch of fingers and palms. Looking dumb with a fever, a true lunatic—or so he imagined—he danced. But he didn’t care. Not really. Only Evelyn mattered and her cheeks pulled his smile just as wide as his.
Francis took a bus to the outskirts of Little Egg Harbor Township after arriving by train at the nearest station. 135 Ocean's Avenue, he reread the note his father scribbled for him and tucked it back into the safety of his pocket. His birthday gift sat securely on his lap, and he had to resist frequent urges to use it. He couldn't help but trace the edges of the Kodak camera with his fingers.
He got off a stop earlier than he had planned, as he saw a grocery shop and wanted to have food when he arrived at the house and not be a burden straight off. He picked up a loaf of bread, a large slice of bologna sausage, and a cola for the walk to the house. It was warmer in Little Egg Harbor than his hometown and he knew he would be in need of refreshment by the last leg of the walk.
His suitcase, heavy with clothes and a few study books, put more strain on his shoulders than the egg basket did, so when a girl with bare knees came and sat on the edge of it, Francis dropped it and almost dropped his food as well.
“What's the big idea?”
“Thought you might need some directions.”
“What makes you say that?” Francis looked to his suitcase that she patted. “Oh right. No, I know where I'm headed. Just wanted some food for when I arrive.”
Suddenly, a man called out and caught the girl's attention. She glanced at him and waved him away as if she didn't want anything to do with him. She instead grinned at Francis while continuing to sit on his suitcase.
“Is he your boyfriend? You shouldn’t be talking to me if he is. I don’t want any trouble.”
Francis studied the man, noting his peach colored shirt and baby blue tie under his tan tweed jacket. He slipped off his own jacket as it had become unbearably warm. He saw that the man wore leather driving gloves, but didn't look the type to drive an automobile. Not with the way he just stood idle on the sidewalk rather than leaning on a hood.
All image, Francis thought. No sense.
“Him? Oh, no. I don't have me a daddy at the moment. He's just a local drugstore cowboy, a gambler that just keeps going until he hits. Say, you wouldn't be interested in being my daddy, would you, mister? A blind date sometime soon, maybe? Well, sort of blind. I already know you're handsome. No gamble there.”
“I'm sorry, but I don't even know you.”
“That's kind of the point.” She rolled her shoulders into a pitiful curve.
“Maybe,” he said, unable to think of anything more charming or committed.
“Attaboy. My friend Ruth and her boyfriend are going to be by soon to pick me up, if you wanted a ride.”
“No, it's just up on Oceans Ave. I can walk.”
“Nonsense! It's hot.” She pointed and waved frantically to an approaching black Chevrolet Superior. The collapsible roof had been dropped down. “Here they come now.”
“Who's this, Dorothy?” The driver asked as he rolled up, seeming none too pleased.
“You shush.” Dorothy looked to Francis for an answer as she hadn't even asked his name before asking him out.
“He just needs a lift to Oceans.”
“It isn't far. He can walk,” the driver said.
“It's a heavy suitcase.” Dorothy said. “Besides, I'm kind of stuck on him, Johnny.”
“For real? You can’t have known him for more than ten minutes.”
Johnny sighed. “All right, fine.”
“If it isn't too much trouble,” Francis said.
“Just hop in.” Johnny pointed with his thumb to the back seat. “But be quick about it.”
Francis hoisted his suitcase into the back seat and stepped in after. As soon as Johnny began down the road, Dorothy pulled a hip flask out and handed it to Francis.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Just a little something for recovery. Right Ruth?” Dorothy looked to the passenger seat. “A little hair-of-the-dog.”
“Hair?” Francis' stomach turned. “Sounds like witchcraft.”
“It's hooch, silly. Bootleg. Go on. Loosen up.”
“Bootleg?” His stomach burst with sickness. “I'd rather not go to jail. Thank you kindly.”
“Real swell, Dorothy,” Johnny turned back to snarl at Francis. “A bluenose. He's probably going to turn us all in to the police.”
“No honest. I—”
Then Francis saw her.
“Stop!” Francis pointed to the front of the car. A young woman had begun to cross the street. Francis imagined Johnny would turn around, but he busied himself with a swig of the bootleg instead. Clipping the young woman, the car sent her spiraling to the sidewalk. Johnny served widely.
“Horse feathers, Johnny. The police will know we've been drinking, you driving like this,” said Ruth from the passenger seat.
To Francis' surprise, Johnny kept going.
“Stop the car,” Francis shouted. Then again, when Johnny did not slow, “Stop the car!”
Johnny moaned out in frustration and slammed his fists on the steering wheel, but he finally slowed the car.
“What a flat tire,” he said, looking at Dorothy through the rearview mirror. Then he turned on Francis a gaze of anger. “I already got a spare, pal. Beat it!”
As Francis grabbed hold of his coat, he stole a glance at Dorothy, but she had her eyes on the clouds outside.
“Scram already,” Johnny barked.
Francis hopped out as soon as the car came to a stop. He heard as his suitcase was thrown to the sidewalk and the soft thud and smack of his food shortly after. The tires screeched as Johnny sped away, but Francis' eyes were on the girl who had fallen to the side of the road. She was just coming to as he drew near. He bent to see if she was all right.
“You all right, miss?”
She groaned and gripped at the edge of the sidewalk. “I feel like I got run over, but yeah, I suppose.”
“You just about were.” Francis chuckled, meekly, relieved that she was alive and talking.
The girl touched the side of her head and hissed as she brushed over a tender spot. The cola bottle remained intact only because Francis had forgotten he was holding it, but he held it to the side of her head and gestured for her to take hold of it.
“It's cold. It'll help.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I've scraped my knee.”
Francis swallowed hard, wondering if he should look at the injury or not. It’d be improper. Predatory even, he thought. Instead he offered his hand and helped her to her feet.
“Keep it,” he said when she tried to hand the cola back to him. “You should probably lie down. Can I escort you home?”
She wobbled, perhaps dizzy. “I would appreciate that. She pointed up the street. “Ocean—”
“Oceans Ave? That's where I'm headed.”
He ripped up his bread that had become glittered in grains of dirt and threw it to the grass where seagulls began to accumulate, then picked up the wrapped bologna and his leather suitcase, pausing to offer the girl his arm to lean on. “Shall we?”
“Evelyn,” she took his arm, “and sure.”
“Francis. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Your F comes right after my E in the alphabet.”
“So it does,” Francis said, politely. “I'm new to town if you're wondering why I never stood next to you during roll call.”
“Oh, no. Just came to mind. Guess the fall rattled things around a bit. Forgive me. I'm sort of new myself.”
They walked slowly together until they came to Oceans Ave. Evelyn held the cola to her head for most of the walk.
“I'm headed to 135 Oceans,” Francis revealed, still having not been told where he should be guiding her. “You?”
“The beach is fine.”
“Certainly.” Francis felt a little off put. Did he seem like such a threat that her father couldn't defend her if he dropped her off at her doorstep? Was he not demonstrating the utmost tenderness and care for her well-being? He glanced once more at her hand, afraid she might be wearing a wedding ring, but the finger was bare.
She seemed to notice that she had wounded him as she said, “I was on my way to meet my family when we... met.”
“Perhaps I'll see you some time? I'm down here for a couple months to help with a house remodel before heading back to the university.”
“Perhaps,” she smiled. She spoke with the same ambiguous air that Francis had with Dorothy and he feared she did not fancy him in the slightest. Except for that smile, glistening like the shoreline at low tide.
After seeing that Evelyn could walk, Francis shouted his goodbye and waved her off, watching her for one moment longer to be sure she would be all right. She turned a final time to raise the bottle of cola in a gesture of cheers, at which point Francis turned and headed to 135 Oceans.
A pile of 2x4s lay alongside a house that was in desperate need of a new coat of pale yellow paint. An unfinished porch wrapped partway around the length of the place, which swelled to twice the size of most every other building in the area, not just in height but also in girth.
Francis knocked and after a moment not one but three curious older women answered. They looked as witches might, Francis thought, not terrifying, just mysterious. One clutched a bundle of garlic and stood back, the most youthful looking clapped gleefully and ran off, and the third held the door in greeting with her hip, a bowl of herbs and pulp and mystery swirling round and round beneath her arm and spatula.
“You must be Francis.”
“Why, yes. Pleasure,” he said. “You must be the owners.”
“Rose.” The closest women pointed to herself with a spatula of gunk. Then pointing to the one with the garlic, “This is Eleanor, and Betty ran off giddy as the day as her first crush came calling.” She dropped the spatula into the bowl and held the back of her hand to her mouth to allow a whisper. “I imagine she thinks you’re handsome.”
Francis blushed, his words leaving him.
“Anyway, come in. Come in. Make yourself at home. Dinner is in an hour. We can talk then.”
Francis entered, holding the bologna behind his back.
“Are you dancing?” The words broke through the feeling of happiness that had surged through his body. Francis’ wife approached him and crossed her arms. Her face morphed into a vision of anger. “Sit down, Francis. Before you embarrass yourself.”
“No,” he said. The company of the woman by his side gave him confidence. “I’m having fun, Mary. You ought to try that sometime.”
Mary's face contorted further into a vision of pain and hell, flushed with embarrassment, as faces all around the room had begun to crane towards them. Some, not all. Most were still committed to their conversations, name-dropping, and brown-nosing.
“What are you smiling about?” Mary squinted. “It’s her again, isn’t it?”
“Just let me be.”
Francis said nothing.
His wife stomped her feet and flew off back around the corner from which she came, muttering, “you’re going to regret this tomorrow when you’re sober.”
Sober, Francis could have taken offense, but he thought it not worth the effort. The wine tasted too bitter for him that night and he had only managed half a glass.
He turned to find Evelyn had left his side, then looked around in a panic before returning to the cool bench, alone. Defeated. Lights glared off the windows leaving long slanted strings of teeth, an army of deformed mouths snarling and laughing at him. Francis ran a hand through his hair and stared at the glowing teeth until they were just reflections of light once more. Then he looked from one guest’s face to another until each had lost interest in his misfortune and sad form.
Suddenly, the mass of people all about the room seemed to somehow be leaning away from him. He felt very much alone, and knew when his wife caught him in private she would show him no mercy. He was a paycheck to her, and beyond that, an image.
He saw a smile in the glass once more. No. It was something else. A flash of blonde in the beige and brown and gray reflections. His heart fluttered with excitement. He caught sight of Evelyn on the balcony, leaning on the edge of the railing. His heart beat harder as he stood, partly from having stood up to his wife, partly because he had danced and wasn’t used to even so little exercise, but mostly because Evelyn stood as beautiful as the day he first laid eyes on her, seemingly unchanged.
All of a sudden he remembered the sunroom, the line of old women gossiping and sun bathing that one happy summer so long ago. He remembered what he had told those women when they asked him to describe his dream girl.
Rubbing a towel on his neck, Francis thought for a moment on the question.
“My dream girl? Not someone like my mother,” he ventured, and laughed awkwardly realizing the women seated along the wall hadn't the slightest idea what his mother behaved or looked like. He looked down the line of three women, wiped his brow and took a deep sip of his lemonade. It tasted sweet with a tart after flavor, which alone made him think of a sweet girl and strong personality. The three women had skin that sagged with tan knolls of flesh and their makeup sat upon their eyes and lips as color, not beauty. Francis thought of the inner beauty he found attractive, not wanting to wound the women.
“Not reserved. I want someone carefree, and someone who will be loyal to me.”
“Of course, boy,” Rose said. “Tell us what you’d like her to look like.”
“Oh, well yes. Of course.” Francis nodded, surprised.
The sound of ocean waves rolled in through the open windows. The breeze blew its cool breath across his face and bare shoulders. With the sound of the waves he pictured the blue of the surf, and remembered his dreams of the ocean, and the beautiful mermaid that swam through his visions. He’d had dreams of that sort every night since he’d arrived at the job site.
He said, “I’ve always been partial to blue eyes.”
The women cooed and swatted at Rose who had blue eyes, and they all melted as if Francis had been a second Shakespeare, and not simply said he liked blue eyes.
“Stop it, girls,” Rose said. “Go on Francis. What color hair?”
“Hair?” The sun inched across the sky and trickled through the window, glaring off Francis’ glasses and the inside wall of the sunroom. The wall, he noticed, glowed a bright gold. “Blonde,” he decided. Rose, too, was still mostly blonde, turning a brilliant white. “long like the days here, so that I’ll always remember this place when I’m cooped up in an office. I can come home everyday to a little piece of here.”
“Well put.” Rose smiled. “Very well put.”
Betty collapsed in a fit of giggles on Eleanor's shoulder, and Eleanor grasped at the pearl necklace near her heart and heaved a longing sigh.
Sebastian stepped into the room holding his own glass of lemonade. “You know, you don’t have to go. You can stay. There'll still be plenty of work to do. Ladies.” He raised his glass in greeting. “If you ask me, he’ll need a thin girl if he wants to feel like a man.”
“I’ve put on some muscle.” Francis flexed his bicep, tired from the day's work, toned and tanned from two weeks of it. The women fluted their approval as Sebastian laughed and nodded.
“That you have, but you still have a bit to go before you can handle a thick woman.” Sebastian winked at Eleanor, who tried to deflect it by becoming very interested in the threads that had flared along the seams of her sun chair.
“It’s really more about personality for me,” said Francis. Still, the thought of a sunny blonde with oceanic eyes stuck in his mind’s eye. The mermaid of his dreams. Evelyn.
“Personality,” Sebastian laughed again, as he began to wander upstairs to shower. “You sound more grown up than me. Personality is for us old folks. What you need is one of those bare knee girls.”
“Flappers is what they call themselves,” Eleanor offered. “Loose girls. Guess their mothers never taught them what to blush at, and when to do it.”
“Oh, Eleanor. Don't be such a prude,” Betty said. “They're just having fun with their jazz and such. I'm sure you had some fun back in our day.”
Francis heard Sebastian turn on the water for the shower.
“So, how about it, Francis?” Betty cupped her hair to her ear. “You like those bob cuts with the finger waves?”
“That can be nice. Sometimes, I guess.”
“Why would Francis want a girl like that?” Eleanor said to Betty. “He's a good boy and should have a good girl. Those girls, in their young lives, have no respect for their country. But the worst part is that they don't care what people think of them. They haven't any sense of duty, much less shame. They'd sooner drink the medicinal spirits than save a dying soldier with them, should they ever even see war. Very unladylike. It's nothing to those girls if they break the laws by drinking bootleg, and endanger everyone by driving. In fact, I was with a friend recently when he rescued three young flappers,” she said flappers with a tone of disgust, “from spending a night in jail. Drinking and hooting so loud, they disturbed the peace. They thanked my friend in the end, true, but they did it with little enthusiasm. So little that he needn't feel puffed up about it in the slightest. They simply went on their way, and the last thing they said had me worried they weren't in a good mind, and made me scared to leave them, but I did.” She patted Betty’s clothed knee. “One of them said, 'I have to see a man about a dog.' She had laughed, and the others, too. What a strange thing to utter, wouldn't you say?”
“That means they were going to go get more bootleg,” Betty said in a loud whisper, and giggled.
“It's not funny,” Eleanor grew stern once more and stiffened her back. “They could get in real trouble.”
“One gentleman or another would come to their rescue.”
“Goodness, Betty. You're just as bad as they are, if that's what you think.”
Rose tapped a finger on her chin and stared out the window, lost in thought. She would not put an end to the bickering like she usually did, Francis realized.
“I'm not a drinker, myself.” Francis wedged his comment into the thickening tension between the two women. He wanted to keep the peace. “I don't want to have to see my girl through steel bars.”
“Told you. A good boy.” Eleanor sat back in her chair, looking triumphant.
Evelyn looked peacefully over the ledge. Her hair picked up a little bit of each of the thousands of lights below and smoldered with their collective energy. Yet it must've been in such a way that only Francis could appreciate it, for no one else seemed to be enthralled by the shimmer.
Suddenly, Evelyn turned slightly so that Francis could see a sliver of her face as she admired the lights from the great height. She smiled when she caught him in her peripheral.
“Hey, handsome.” She twisted around to face him, leaning on the ledge with her bare elbows. “How'd it go in there?”
She reached out and cupped Francis' cheek with her warm palm. He closed his eyes and smiled remembering the tide pools where she had stuck a star fish to his face once and ran off laughing, splashing him when he followed suit. He smelled the breeze, salty and heavy. His eyes almost lit up with the colors of that day: pink, feathered clouds, an aqua tide stretching to the horizon, and the blank blue of the sky, ready to be filled with any idea that stuck them. He remembered that the starfish had been cool and clammy, and he had tossed it from his cheek. In contrast, Evelyn's hand felt warm and he never wanted to have her remove it, so he placed his own hand over hers so as to have the moment last just a little longer. Even so, he knew the moment was temporary, as happiness had always been in his life. A fleeting, slippery feeling that even the nimblest of fingers could not hold on to, and yet the net of Evelyn's hair, the snares of her deep blue eyes, and the lure of her soft skin kept happiness around more often than in her absence.
She pulled her hand away. “I can't stay.”
“I know, but I’ll ask you to just the same.” Francis planted his elbows on the railing just as Evelyn did and made sure to have his shoulder touch hers. “Please don't go.”
“You know I have to.”
She turned away and stared down at the stretch of the city. Lights had been switching on all over the backdrop of shorter rooftops. Lights popped on in Francis’ head, as well. He thought of all the hurtles he'd still have to hop, all the loops he'd have to jump through just to earn his quiet place among the retired, starting with groveling for his wife's forgiveness when he got home. He thought of the numbers, too. The pointless numbers he dealt with daily. He thought of how clear his mind seemed to be just then, with Evelyn. As clear as the tide pools where he'd taken a picture with her.
His father had been right, Francis thought. He'd been right about the memories and the camera. His father had been right about the trip being good for Francis.
Francis recalled how he'd spent the majority of his adult life apologizing for things that happened whether they were his fault or not. The missed deadlines, the forgotten anniversaries, and the trivial things like not taking the garbage out before it stunk up the kitchen, or not reminding his wife to do something she was supposed to remember to do herself, such as take a casserole out of the oven, or vacuum the living room while he was at work.
He must have been born to suffer, he thought. Or he might be insane. Why else would he have walked away from happiness that summer twenty years before for an existence of conformity and discomfort? Why else would he have gotten on that bus and watched as Evelyn went from a waving girl with a forced smile, to a broken one bent double on the pavement as she wept, to a dot on the horizon, and finally nothing at all?
“What if I went with you?” He placed his hand on the small of Evelyn’s back and looked over the ledge, feeling dizzy. She twisted her lips as if trying to form words that she couldn't quite say, or perhaps she tried to keep words from escaping. Her reserve contrasted with his wife's brazen mouth.
Mary would be better off without him, Francis told himself. She could play the widow card to snare a new richer—lonely, but better looking—husband if she wanted. Acquire the things she never really needed. The kinds of things she always felt she deserved.
Rosemarie, she'd be all right. Francis had spent so much time at the office he had never been a real father to her anyway. In fact, she almost seemed like an accessory more than a daughter to him. Not much different than a bowtie or polished shoes, which he had to feed. She was there to satisfy an image, to fulfill the American dream that Francis was once convinced was what he wanted. What he wanted then, more than anything, was to not leave Evelyn's side. To live for himself. Life would in fact be even less enjoyable as time went on without her, he thought. First with the looming argument with his wife, then the growing number of health problems, then with Rosemarie starting to date, and finally her moving out, leaving an empty nest to stir up the worst in her mother.
It would be better if he didn't stick around, Francis decided. He wanted the stars, the tide pools, the house on Ocean's Ave. He wanted Evelyn. He wanted to be near happiness always, not simply visited by it occasionally, as he was sure would be the case with his spoiled future grandchildren. He knew he would wake up to a long string of silent mornings, alone, to eat his Grape-Nuts, alone, and take a train to work, alone. He remembered the mornings at Oceans Ave and the liveliness of them with Rose, Betty, Sebastian, and even Eleanor, and the even livelier nights.
“I can't ask you to come with me,” Evelyn said.
“You'd have to ask me not to. I'm not leaving you again. It was a mistake enough the first time.”
“Then come,” she said and she was suddenly a few feet away with an outstretched arm, leaning out of a flying, unearthly trolley car.
The sound of ocean waves flowed in and around Francis. The scent of the breeze, too. Gulls called as a colony and Francis felt the warmth of a high sun on his face and hands, cutting through the chilly night.
He loosened his tie, stepped up on the ledge, spread his arms a moment, then took Evelyn's hand, boarding the trolley.
“Come.” Her voice called out beautifully like a siren's.
“I feel like I'm flying,” he said, for suddenly the trolley had gone and only his beautiful siren remained. Evelyn ran the comb of her fingers through his hair, wrapped the weight of her lower body around his. This reminded Francis of his favorite memory, an unusual one.
Together they crashed like a wave upon the shore.
Francis couldn’t say how long he had been staring at the ceiling. His wristwatch sat on the nightstand, but he had lost track of how many times it ticked. The moon was full and bright so he could have looked, but he resisted, knowing it wouldn’t put his mind at ease to discern the exact time. The thought of Evelyn kept visiting his mind like clockwork. She knew very well where he was staying and yet she never came. Two weeks and nothing. He supposed he didn’t make as great of an impression on her as she did on him.
Along with the sound of the waves, Francis began to hear singing, or perhaps chanting. Louder each night. It proved hard to tell what it was with his pillow pressed to his ears. The slosh of the waves kept him awake.
Francis pulled the pillow away realizing it proved useless. After slipping on his glasses, he stepped out the window and onto the tiles of the roof. A warm breeze fluttered around him as he took a seat. It wasn’t a great height to the ground below, but still he attempted to keep from looking down for fear of growing dizzy. Eventually, though, his eyes drifted down, down, down, following the porch columns to the wood panels of the deck floor.
Closing his eyes, Francis listened to the faint but passionate sound of the voices, reverbs that could have just as well originated from the cosmos above as they could from the sea. The voices could have exploded out from the room below his and he would be none the wiser, he thought, mystified.
A nagging thought tugged at his attention. You’re mad, it said. Insane, to be hearing such things. More bizarre, less melodic, words sometimes resounded, too. Like thud and empty. Stranger in that they seemed to be in his head, but from another man's mouth. It almost sounded like Jeffery Chadwick voice, Francis thought. Perhaps I am insane. One didn’t simply hear things that came from nowhere and everywhere all at once, after all.
He headed back inside after several minutes and took a trip down stairs for a glass of water. In the kitchen Rose loomed over a large pot. A wonderful smell came from it, as did tendrils of steam. A vapor octopus hovered just above the edge of the pot, bathing, rolling its limbs as if playing an invisible harp. Not a scary sight, for the smell brought only pleasant feelings. A mix of cinnamon, cloves, something that spelt like his mother’s shampoo, and a little kettle corn. It smelled like a carnival without the animal waste, Francis thought.
“A few bay leaves,” Rose said to the boiling pot, then turned. She gave a start and touched a hand to her chest. “Francis, I thought you were asleep.”
“Not tired.” He took a seat on a stool and watched Rose drop bay leaves into the stew.
“Since you’re down here, toss a little of that anise into the pot for me. It’s those brown stars next to the cutting board.”
Rose nodded, and Francis picked up a few pods and tossed them in. They floated like dinghies until Rose stirred them under the dense surface.
“Here.” Rose raised the wooden spoon to Francis’ mouth. “Taste.”
Without thinking, Francis parted his lips and let the paste coat his tongue. It tasted even better than it smelled. A taste of childhood, freedom, and BBQ on the fourth of July. An undertow of snow days, and holidays, and schoolboy crushes served to embody the brew with a richer flavor. The taste seemed to rob Francis of his words, for he had many questions to ask, but they escaped him. It seemed impossible. It was impossible. It was. But he couldn’t speak, only enjoy the feeling.
“Hurry off to bed now.” Rose said, and as she did the room around Francis seemed to change. He couldn’t be certain, for it could have been the haze in his eyes as he’d suddenly grown very tired, but the walls seemed to vibrate. Not as if a hurricane threatened to rip the roof from them, but as if the very molecules in the walls quivered. As if each atom leapt with glee.
Francis collapsed on his bed as soon as he reached the foot of it and lay on his back. Staring at the ceiling, his body grew very light, and feeling this, he rose to test the weight of his limbs. He found that his arms moved without effort. He stood and found that the same proved true of his legs, so he stepped back out on the roof, feeling almost as if he could fly, and wondering if Rose had added any hair-of-the-dog to her concoction. He’d never been drunk, but if this is how being drunk felt, Francis thought he’d never like to be sober again.
Feeling bold and happy and untouchable, he shimmied down a porch post to feel the grass between his toes. Then he found that he wanted more than anything to feel the sand in the same way. And so he walked past the pile of remaining 2x4s, down the grassy hill to the cold beach sand. Feeling its grandness he wanted more, and so he headed down towards the water.
Midway there, a great force slammed into him. He sat up as he had been knocked to the ground, and found Evelyn straddling him.
“Francis?” she said. “Is that you?”
“Yes. What’s going on?” He fished around for his glasses, smiling all the while. So happy he felt, that a bus could run him over and he’d only smile further and say thank you.
“Why are you out running around at night?”
“I could ask the same of you.” Evelyn said. “I just found I couldn’t feel part of my legs, so I fancied a jog. Closed my eyes a moment as I was running and the next think I know I’m running into you. I'm so sorry.”
“I’m glad you did. I wanted to ask you to join me tomorrow. My employers are having a little party, and I'd very much enjoy your company.”
“That’s very sweet of you to ask.” She consulted the schedule on the back of her eyelids. “I’d love to!”
Francis had a feeling that she blushed, though even in the moonlight, with the blanket of bright stars, color proved hard to perceive.
“Say, what’re you doing out here so late, anyway?” Evelyn said. “Why a pretty little thing like you might get swallowed whole by a sea monster.”
Pretty little thing like me, Francis repeated in his head. She sounded like Betty, the way she flattered him.
“I just felt an urge to feel the sand between my toes.”
Evelyn hummed her approval.
“I heard the voices, too. Thought I might search the beach for them. Sounded like sirens,” Francis joked.
“I would hope not,” Evelyn said. “Sirens are dangerous when they sing, you know? Their sorrow brings only more sorrow, and they lure men to their deaths.”
“Sirens aren’t real.”
“Oh, no?” Evelyn tucked a lock of her wet curling hair behind her ear. “You don’t believe me? Come.”
The way she said it sent shivers down Francis’ spine. She grabbed his hand, and tremors shot through his body, and he felt that her fingers were just as wet as her hair looked. And yet they were warm. In fact, if he looked at her with her back to the moon, it almost seemed as if she were steaming.
“Where are we going?” Francis pulled back, suddenly frightened.
She grabbed his hand once more. “To the ocean.”
“I don't know...” He suddenly didn't know if he wanted to feel the water.
Evelyn shoved at him playfully. “Where is your sense of adventure?”
Francis realized this was perhaps his one chance to do anything quite so crazy and in the company of a woman—a woman he couldn’t get out of his head for weeks. So he squeezed her hand, feeling a thrill ripple through his body once more.
Even in just his drawers, Francis felt fine in the cool water, and so he waded in slowly as he heard Evelyn dive into a wave. It was quiet for a moment, then two, and Francis grew concerned.
“Right here,” she said and Francis turned around to see her. Her shoulders were bare and he had a feeling more of her was. His heart thumped in his chest and he stumbled back and beneath the surface of the water, nearly losing his glasses once more.
Something powerful and scaled brushed his leg and he jumped, wishing they hadn’t travel so far from the shore.
“We should get out of here,” he coughed, as he inhaled some salty water. He scanned the surface for fins.
“You would want that, wouldn’t you?” she said, confirming that she was, in fact, indecent.
“Something just brushed my leg.”
“Yes,” he said.
Evelyn’s hands moved swiftly to his shoulders, her lips pressed against his. Together they sank deeper than he though the water to be. He could breathe through her kiss, or perhaps hadn’t the need to. He wondered if what he felt was love, and if it had the power to slow time.
Then eight dull stings moved in quarter circles around his neck. Evelyn scratched him hard. Deep nail wounds that split his flesh. Suddenly, he realized the water flowed into them like dense air, and he could breathe in a way different than on land, but just as satisfying. The wounds were not wounds at all, but rather gills.
Together they dove under the water, and with gestures Evelyn pointed here then there, this way then that, and Francis followed without question, for he could not speak and was uncertain he could even scream if he needed to. If he strayed, afraid to go any deeper—for the moonlight became less part of the environment and more a memory—Evelyn would tug at his hand and guide him deeper still.
He felt the water press against him, harder and harder. When it seemed so heavy and dark that Francis had never before known the true meaning of the words, he saw a glow. It started as a pink glimmer, as if approaching a the neon lights of a diner from above. Soon pom-poms of green and fluorescent blue bloomed all around and he saw rock jutting up in spears. Barnacles served as a flesh to them.
In the light of this Francis could make out the crescent sheen of scales that covered Evelyn’s legs. Stranger still they were not legs at all, but one large fin.
A mermaid, he thought, remembering his dreams.
He saw many sights he had never imagined he would: octopi dancing in synchronized patterns, a fishing net gown with coral and seaweed adornments that Evelyn had fashioned herself, and seahorse races along an undersea river of murk and denseness.
They stayed awhile, exploring numerous caves and coral reefs, before reluctantly returning to the surface. Francis pulled himself out of the water and lay with his back on the tall grass and sand. As he spewed out the water from his mouth and took his first breath of air, his neck burned, but he paid it little mind and instead twisted back around to face the water. Evelyn floated inches below the small cliff side, which overlooked the low beach.
“That was amazing.”
“I thought you might think so,” she said. There was a simple, beautiful melody to her voice. “Everything down there just is.”
A roar of an automobile echoed over the houses that formed a string along the beach. Francis knew what she meant, the cry of the engine explained it for her. Below the water there were no roads, or automobiles, no houses, no clothes. Everything below was just as it should be. No tweaks, no exceptions, except for that of Evelyn's vanity gown of coral, no doubt inspired by her time on land.
Suddenly, a feeling came over Francis. A feeling that he did not belong in the city, or in the township, or anywhere he’d ever called home for that matter. He wondered if anyone did, as each had manipulated everything around themselves. Schools, houses, hospitals, radios, plumbing and lights—it all pointed to the realization that humankind had fitted an ugly reality over the true reality. Yet still, Francis thought of his peers and about work. Even then, even after what he had witnessed, the same concerns remained, too engrained to be so easily dismissed.
“Will I see you again at the party?”
“How about tomorrow morning?” She smiled, and though it was only a crescent, a white sickle, it seemed so much more magnificent than the full moon above. “We can go to the tide pools.”
“Sure.” Francis smiled back as Evelyn slipped under the water.
He returned to his room after slipping his clothes on. In the mirror he made out eight red scratch marks on his neck. When he’d showered and changed, he stared at his ceiling, thinking of Evelyn. Exhausted and cradled deep in the middle of his mattress he fell asleep feeling as if he were floating.
As she looked upon her father through tears, she took his form in slowly, piece by piece—his nose, his arm, his torso. The broken man remained in one piece, but she could only manage to take in one part of him at a time. His feet had twisted together and fanned out at the end so that he almost looked like a mermaid, as if he no longer had two legs at all, but one fin that had punched into the metal of the limousine's roof and transformed him into something strange, yet beautiful.
Rosemarie held her knees and looked up to the eighty-sixth floor from where her father had leapt to his death. It took a long while just for her eyes to climb that distance from so close to the base of the building, and she imagined how long of a fall it must have seemed for her father. How could he have kept on a smile for so long, she wondered. She got butterflies from the rope swing at her grandmother's place and that was but a fraction of the height. Suddenly she caught sight of a small square drifting down from the great height of the building. Back and forth, it floated, this way and that. When a gust of wind flew by, the small square would rise back up a little and stick the side of the building for a moment. Eventually it fell to the street where Rosemarie stood and grabbed it before a chain of taxi cabs swept it away. After a moment of studying it, Rosemarie recognized it to be a photo of her father with his arms around a woman she'd never seen. A blonde, with blue eyes. He wore the same smile he did, cradled in the roof of the limousine and would at his funeral and until the worms ate him or the fire of cremation robbed him of it.