by Pat Hart
My friend Patrick was on a family vacation, the perennial week at the beach, an American rite. His two sons, young teenagers, raced into the surf and then were suddenly screaming, calling to him and his wife as the current dragged them out into the deep ocean. He plunged in after them and into the riptide. A local man, a shore fisherman, dove in and swam to them. The fisherman stayed out of the pulling tide and called to my friend to throw the boys to him. Patrick shoved first one boy and then the next towards fisherman, and they swam like mad into his arms. The fisherman dragged them back to shore, delivered them to their hysterical mother.
And then Patrick slipped beneath water and disappeared.
Sitting in the sand, waiting for a body to roll up onto the beach is a lonely, grim business. I was the single somber note amid the sounds, sights, and smells of a summer’s day at the beach. Radios played, children, lathered in coconut oil, screamed with delight or cried with misery, and a pedestrian parade passed by.
Four young men, probably military, hair shorn, muscled arms tattooed with eagles, snakes, and women, shoved each other and showed off for any girl who might be watching. An older couple with sagging profiles under big hats, strolled slowly just out of reach of the lapping waves. Two moms sat side by side in low chairs, oily and tan, as their small children rolled in the surf. Ten year-olds, boys and girls, tirelessly rode the waves on boogie boards; they were savvy and experienced and not yet bored with gliding in, dolphin-like on the crest of waves, sliding onto the apron of sand.
Patrick and I had been like those 10-year-olds, back when I being a girl and his being a boy didn’t mean anything more than different bathing suits. We nicknamed ourselves Dinny and Patch, Diane and Patrick were just too serious, too school year, too back home in our Pennsylvania steel town for the salty, sunburned, freewheeling beach rats we became for two weeks each July.
Our moms sat in the surf, not worried about us, but watching just the same. We’d ride in and paddle out, exclaiming about good rides, sharing theories about the best, absolute foolproof way to position ourselves for the ultimate, most daring and thrilling rides.
“Feel it, Patch? Feel it?” I yelled, holding my board steady, the suck of the undertow dragging at my legs. “That means the wave’s about to crest.”
“Dinny! Dinny, put your board here,” Patch said, tucking the back edge of the board just below his ribs. “And keep your arms stiff.”
“Yay!” we shouted in triumph after each successful ride.
We’d both lost our fathers; we had that in common. We had in common that moment as other kids said My Dad this and My Dad that, and we’d sit with our throats stopped as the awkward silence fell until some kid would mumble Sorry and we’d have to say gamely like the knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail looking down on a severed limb; “It’s just a flesh wound.” Between us we made peace with elephant in the room. The elephant that upset the chairs, crushed the coffee table and whose trumpeting at night disturbed our dreams.
Our mothers found each other in their shared, young widowhood, and brought our families together. Patch’s family came for Thanksgiving and we went to their house late in the day on Christmas. And every summer our families spent two weeks at the beach in a rented cottage, two rows back from the ocean. We were best friends, even if only for those two weeks.
He was an easy kid to be with. Always looking for fun, but never for trouble. He was smart; he liked reading books, not just storybooks, but history too, biographies of great men who did great deeds. He was a fount of arcane information, especially about World War II and often recounted details of the bigger battles, the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Midway.
His father had been a paratrooper.
Patch showed me a hand drawn map on a piece of parachute silk. His father had been dropped, behind enemy lines, into an obscure region in France. The map’s squiggly India ink lines in black, red, and blue, still crisp on the parachute silk, represented the area’s roads, towns, and rivers. The map was framed, trapped behind a piece of glass and hung in the staircase of their home.
“This is the map they gave him to help find his way,” Patch whispered as we stood gazing up at the map on the gloomy staircase one Christmas day.
We also talked about TV shows, retelling Flip Wilson jokes and re-enacting action scenes from Mission Impossible, anything that required diving to the ground and rolling to the nearest bit of cover. But most often we worked silently, side-by-side on a sandy beach, building, digging, dripping wet sand on our castle, lost in thought about turrets and tunnels. While we worked, the castle seemed magnificent; our progress astounding, the structure a marvel of sandy architecture. I remember once running down to the surf to fetch a bucket of water and returning to the site of our grand creation and stopping short.
Where was it? While I was gone the magic, the delight in our work had seeped away, disappearing like water in the bottom of a sandy hole. Instead of our grand castle, I saw a small, messy pile of sand. The tiny reeds that I had carefully inserted into the front wall were no longer glorious pikes, perfect for posting our enemies’ heads, but crooked little bits of debris. The tall gothic spires were really just dried out lumps of sand with toppling sticks stuck in the top, not soaring turrets, be-flagged with the king’s colors. I knelt down next to the castle while Patch lay flat on his belly, his hand snaking under the outer wall to dig yet another secret passage into the fortress.
“Quick! We need to fill the moat and reinforce the eastern wall,” he said. He took the bucket of water, poured it into the trench, and scooped wet sand up the side of the castle.
When I didn’t move, he stopped and looked up at me.
“What?” he said, squinting with one eye shut against the glaring sun. Freckles were splashed on his face from our long days on the beach, sand clung to his dark hair. He would not be shaken awake; he would not give up the dream.
“We can’t give up!” he said. “Never surrender.”
His earnestness recast the spell and we restored the castle to its former glory. The scales fell back over my eyesI happily descended back into the vaporous cloud of fantasy that drifted around our Camelot.
One summer, as it was getting dark, Patch and I ran out to the beach to check on our castle. We promised our mothers we would not to get in the water, or go near the ocean at all. We swore!
We found the castle on the darkening beach. A few waves had already pulled at the walls and as we stood there a big wave came up, scooted around the outer wall, and flooded the moat. We yelled as a chunk of the front wall cleaved and fell into the moat. We scrambled to fix the damage, without tools, and with just our hands, it was hopeless, but still we tried.
“Never, never, never surrender,” Patch said, standing with his feet wide, a pretend cigar clamped in his fingers. A skinny boy in faded madras shorts, chest puffed out, pretending to be the British Bulldog. I laughed.
“We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing ground!” I said and together we yelled: “Never, never surrender!”
The water rushed up again, and Patch laid down in the sand, using his body as breaker while I scrambled to dig canals to drain the water away. Another big wave pounded us; the water washed over him and when it receded it rolled him toward the surf. He jumped up and joined me at the castle walls; they were crumbling. When the next big wave hit we were both kneeling in front of the castle and the water rushed up our back and we were waist deep in water. Only the top turrets of the castle remained and then they quickly collapsed.
When the water receded, the castle was reduced to smooth lumps, decoration and embellishments melted away by the briny water; we were soaked.
I looked down at our clothes and remembered our mothers’ admonishments.
“Uh oh,” I said and we both laughed and headed for the beach house.
As we approached the dunes we heard a woman’s voice, singing:
“The Lord’s our Rock, in Him we hide,
A Shelter in the time of storm;
She sat high on the dunes staring out at the ocean, swaying back and forth as she sang. She was a big, black woman dressed in a brightly striped long skirt. Her head was wrapped in red scarf. She paused her song and considered us.
“Hello,” Patch said.
“Hallo, chile,” she said, her accent thick and southern. “May the Lawd protect and keep you awl of your days.”
“Thank you,” he said and we rushed passed her, heads down, arms stiff at our sides. We waited until we were well out of earshot then laughed, repeating “May the Lawd” and calling each other “chile.”
At home we told our mothers about the woman, distracting them from our wet clothes by imitating her accent. But they remained quiet and grew somber.
“She must be one of the vigil people,” my mother said and then explained that a man had drowned, way down where the black people swam. His body wasn’t recovered yet and his family had asked that they be allowed to sit on the white beaches and watch for it, all night if need be. All along the miles of shore, every 300 hundred feet or so, people who loved this man, who loved his family, were stationed, waiting for the ocean to send him back to them.
The next morning the woman was gone, the body had been found.
As I sat on the beach, in the dark, I thought about that woman watching the same ocean but at different beach, in different decade. Was it her son? Her nephew? Her childhood friend? Did she too hope and yet dread that she would see in the shiny, inky, moving blackness of the ocean the body rolling in the waves? Did she play out the scene over and over in her mind, too?
Did she imagine as I did, running towards the surf, calling his name but knowing he’s dead, gone far beyond my calls? I thought about the cold waves crashing against my legs as I try to catch his arm, and falling from the awkward weight of his body, gulping salt water. I would deliver him to the flat, wet sand, and lay next to him exhausted. I’d fret that the ocean would reclaim him as I ran to my car to call from the parking lot where there is at least scant cell phone reception. Then I’d pace back toward the beach, a phone, a thin thread to help, to the living, clenched to my ear, as I waited for someone to answer.
“Come, come,” I’d plead into my phone. “I’ve found him.
Strung out along the beach were twenty or so of Patrick’s friends and family and some strangers, too. Strangers, who were moved by the sad tableau of the weeping mother and two shocked boys, who had volunteered to sit the vigil with us. The coast guard advised us to position ourselves along this particular mile of beach and, based on tide charts, they estimated the body would come to shore around 2:00 am.
We met at the Coast Guard station and were assigned our spots. I was honored to get one. Expecting the body come ashore on the first night was considered overly hopeful, the second night was the most likely, and this night, the third night was probably the last chance before the body went out to sea forever. After passing out bottles of water, the Coast Guard captain raised both his hands and said: “Whatever you do, don’t go into the water. Call us for help. Okay? You all got that?”
The hot day had turned into a cool night, the wind blew a wet mist of ocean spray that settled on my clothes and soaked through my jacket. Shivering in the dark, I ran the numbers on the situation.
Numbers I knew. I worked in finance and though it was, in essence, just a parlor trick, my strength was quick analysis. The formula was simple, like the function boxes from grade school math. I would scan a spreadsheet and pluck the numbers I needed for my ‘function box,’ do a quick calculation and voila! An answer: Yea or Nay. The trick was to plug the right numbers in the right spots.
Here’s how I ran the numbers on Patrick. Say everyone gets eighty years, some get a lot less and some lucky, or depending on how you feel about being truly aged, some unlucky bastards get a lot more. Patrick’s boys were twelve and thirteen, which meant there were 135 years to go in their life banks. The riptide that was pulling them out to sea had all those years in its grasp until Patrick at forty-five traded in his remaining thirty-five years in exchange for theirs. A solid bottom line win, one hundred years, a century.
I sighed at my callousness and wondered if I deserved this spot on the beach. Grieving has a hierarchy and I suspected I’d overstepped the bounds, pushed myself forward.
Back at the shore patrol hut, Patrick’s brother George broke away from a group of men, fellow volunteers for the vigil. Some of them I knew were lawyers from Patrick’s practice in Pittsburgh, one I recognized as a cousin of theirs.
“Diane, thank you for coming,” George said formally and nodded.
I hadn’t seen Patrick in four years.
I hadn’t attended his wedding.
I didn’t really even know his children.
The last time I’d seen him had been at a park. His boys were playing baseball and I saw him standing on the sidelines. A handsome man, with short salt and pepper hair, he had his hands in his pockets and stood with his back to me, but I knew him instantly as my old friend. We talked for a minute and then he said: “Wait, my Mike is up.”
We both watched as a boy, his pants a little too long, went up to the plate. The boy took a lurching swing at the ball.
“Good cut, Mike!” Patrick yelled.
On the next pitch Mike swung and hit a weak grounder down the first baseline and was easily tagged out.
“You see my son has inherited all of my athleticism,” Patrick laughed, and he walked toward the dugout to meet his boy returning to the bench.
He put his hand on his son’s shoulder as they walked together; Patrick stooped a bit to listen to the boy. He glanced up at me and waved goodbye. It was a small distracted wave, just a lift of his right hand.
On the beach, the moon rose and threw a bright white light on the ocean and sand. It was easy to see the breaking surf, like a flouncing white ruff on a black velvet dress.
Two figures, entwined, walked slowly up the deserted beach.
They paused and kissed, then moved on.
A family came along, four little kids, each with a flashlight. The beams, like yellow wands whipped around, on the sand, on the waves, and into the sky. One wand dawdled behind, the light shining on some creature, pinning it down in the bright beam. One of the adults paused and called back, and the kid ran, the light jangling along beside him, a frantic bouncing yellow ball with sudden flashes of a child’s knee, a calf, a foot.
And then it was quiet; the beach was empty for the night. I buried my cold feet in the sand, pulled my knees up to my chest and waited.
I must have dozed because suddenly it was much later, the water had receded, and the surf was very far away. The tide was out.
In the waves I saw a dark mass, a blackness among the churning white.
Sea weed? No, it was solid, floating and rolling in the waves.
I stood up, my left knee buckled and I almost fell. The sand was icy cold; I shivered.
As I walked across the sand, my steps slipped back in the softness. It seemed to take a long time and lot of effort to cross the sand. A strip of dried twigs jabbed sharply at my bare feet but finally I reached the hard packed, smooth apron of wet sand. With the tide out, the steep slope of the very edge of the shore was exposed.
The black mass was drifting up the coast; it was not coming in but staying twenty feet out. I peered at it, it was big, big enough but shapeless. I caught a flash of blue, a shirt?
I waded in, the cold was shocking and I stopped at knee depth and squinted. Making the plunge into the dark, cold sea was harder than I had imagined it would be; I hesitated. I trudged through the water, keeping the object in sight. It was as if I was tethered to it and the current was pulling us both down the beach.
The mass rolled over and I saw his face lit by moonlight. Eyes closed, jaw slack.
I ran to him. I fell as the sea floor dropped away and I was suddenly swimming in the freezing water. I stopped and looked for him, the body had floated further out. I swam hard towards him, head down, ten strong strokes. I stopped, looked around. He was close, just ten10 feet away. Head down, ten more strong strokes. I stopped; still he was ten feet away. Ten more strokes, hard and straight at him. I stopped this time gasping, with the cold and now fatigue. My elbows and knees ached. I looked back to shore, it was a long way off, much farther than I could have swum in so short a time. Then I saw, across the surface of the ocean, the ripples. Tiny waves no bigger than a half inch, uniform ripples driving across the glossy surface away from the shore. Together, the body and I were being pulled out to sea on a riptide.
My back spasmed and I called out in pain. The shore was rapidly receding; it became just a thin gray line between the blackness of the water and the dark dunes. The current dragged me along as though there was a rope around my waist, my arms and legs reached for the shore, and yet I drifted backwards like rag doll.
I could swim out of the riptide, swim parallel to the shore, and make my way back in, leave Patrick’s body to the sea. Or, could I drag him with me, out of the current and back to shore, without becoming exhausted, drowning?
I couldn’t make the numbers work on this, it seemed to be loss upon loss, but I couldn’t swim away either.
“Patch, Patch,” I yelled. “Help me!”
The current pushed his body closer to me and I decided, Never surrender. I reached for his shirt just as the body rolled; he lifted his face out of the water, and opened his eyes. He reached for me.
My childhood name.
A warm hand grabbed my shoulder and shook.
We were suddenly on the shore. Kneeling beside me was Patch, but not as the man he was but as the boy he’d been. In the dim light he had no color, just the soft grays of a black and white photo. His hair was a long again, deep black, the salt and pepper gray washed away, a thick hank of hair fell over one eye as he leaned toward me. His face was boyish and smooth.
“Patch,” I said, my voice was hoarse, a whisper.
Patch frowned and shook his head sadly.
“No, I’m Mike, Patch’s son,” he said. “It’s over. They found him.”
Mike waited politely as I came fully awake.
“Are you okay?” he asked, he was anxious to be off, to run up the beach and tell the others on the vigil that the wait was over; they could go home.
As Mike ran off, I looked down by the shore. I saw a man with a boy by his side. The man lifted his hand in a wave and turned to walk with the boy up the beach.
Wide-awake logic tells me it was most likely Patrick’s brother and his other son, but I never asked.
I wanted the spell to be recast, for the scales to fall over my eyes, even for just a one more moment and to believe that Patrick the man and Patch the boy, were both alive and walking side by side up the beach.
I slept the rest of the night in my car and in the early morning built a castle on the beach. By mid morning, it was a towering three-foot mound covered in spires made of sandy drips that pointed like gnarled fingers at the blue sky. I could hear the surf coming in, the bubbles in the sea foam popped and crackled as it crept up behind my back.
Three little kids and their mother joined me on the beach. The mother spread a blanket and set up an umbrella and her chair. I could feel the kids eyeing me, and my castle. They were too shy to approach but were drawn to what to them must have seemed a massive citadel.
The sun was growing hot and I was thirsty and tired. I walked out a bit into the ocean, rinsed the sand off my hands and knees in the salty water, and stood for a moment to feel the swirl of the undertow on my ankles. When I returned to shore, I walked past the castle without a glance. At the dunes, I turned to see that the three kids had fallen upon my castle, taken possession, and were scrambling to save it from the incoming tide.
Pat Hart graduated from University of Pittsburgh with a BA in Creative Writing and lives in Pittsburgh where she writes plays, monologues, short stories, novels and a blog. Hart’s playwriting credits include acceptance, production and performance of her one-act play, Book Wench, in the Strawberry One-Act Festival, Summer 2015, New York, New York. The play was selected for the semi-finals and is under consideration for publication in “The Best of the Strawberry One-Act Festival Anthology.” Additionally, Hart’s 10-minute monologue, Murderous was selected by Carlow University’s Drama department and will be performed during “Practice Monologamy” in September 2015.
Hart’s published short stories include New Wife vs. Old Wife, a love story to be published in “Voices in the Attic” (Fall 2015), a literary anthology published by Carlow University and Spider Ball, published May 2015 in Rune, Robert Morris University’s literary magazine. Spider Ball was also selected as one of the pieces from the magazine to be read by the author at the launch party.
In addition to two novels in progress, Paddy, the Yank and Don’t Touch the Dragon Boogers, Hart also writes a weekly blog Calamity Jane, World-Wide Warnings, which is a humorous exploration of warnings signs from around the world (pathartblog.com)
What a moving story you’ve written! Filled with wonderful images and words. A friend of my son’s had a similar experience and may never walk again b/c of the brutal riptide. I look f/w to reading more of your work.
“The Vigil” is seriously good writing. Sensitive and smart, spare and direct. No showing-off, and none needed.