SHORT STORY by Bob
Every few minutes he would stop and wait for her to catch up, never
allowing himself to get more than 50 feet or so ahead. The hip that she
had had replaced years before didn't slow her, it was just that he was
energetic, with the swiftness and agility of youth, leaping from rock
balancing on an edge for an instant before wheeling, arms outstretched
in shadow and black against the bright sky, dropping down, then springing
up and ahead to the next granite block on the unevenly filled breakwater
that linked the shoreline with the hook of sandbar encircling the harbor
and ending at the stunted little white lighthouse gleaming in the sun
there in the
distancl on the tip of the Cape.
When she would catch up with him, he would generally have something to
show her, some bit of seashore flora or fauna that he had come upon while
simply sitting and sunning himself on a rock and waiting, or as likely,
letting himself down to the level of the water where the outrushing tide
opened dank caverns festooned with slime and clumps of mussels and
beady-eyed crabs rattling backward into sequestered vaults. She was always
interested in what he would come up with, as the bits and pieces of things
he would uncover only an ocean- ographer would seize upon, or possibly
David Attenborough. Curious that not being a scientist he would have such
an observant eye, she would be thinking, though perhaps not so curious,
either, he being in the process, as he was fond of stating importantly,
of becoming an artist, spending this first summer on his own away from
home he-re on the Cape, eking out a bare living as part-time dishwasher
in a fisherman's diner to buy time to put together his bizarre sculptures.
often the things he found on the breakwater and along the beach, and
behind the fisherman's diner by the garbage pails went into the figures
he was making and showing, and beginning, he had told her, just beginning,
attract the notice of some of the gallery operators and serious buyers
town, though no one had put up any large sums yet for a purchase.
It was his determination, he didn't mind admitting to her, since she was
always his most sympathetic audience, to shape the direction of men's
minds in the 21st century through his art. Inwardly she would smile. How
a young aspiring artist of 23 to think of himself as having this weighty
mission in life. Admirable, of course. That grandiloquent thinking; the
artist, still caught up in youthful dreams, forever playing, building
castles in the sand. So much the better, then, a mother's good luck, the
prolongation of their deep-rooted special relationship. Here they were
on the Cape, doing
what they had done every summer for the past 23 summers. Even though he
had his own place here now, and was, in fact, a resident, whereas she
there, a vacationist again, for the customary two weeks.
Always in past years they had trekked out across the breakwater, the first
two years Daddy carrying their newborn in a sling on his back; then, later,
when he could toddle, Mommy leading him by the hand, lifting him over
some of the larger gaps in the rocks from one to another. He would stand
on a baking granite slab, his tanned, nude little body so familiar to
still with the sun behind him, looking in his mother's memory much as
looked now in his ragged jean shorts and bright tie-dyed T-shirt.
From the start, as now, he had had a free adventuresome spirit, running
ahead from time to time, flinging himself through the air, leaping from
rock to another, it must have seemed to him like traversing vast chasms,
though, in fact, the gaps were only a few feet wide. There was the time
when he had slipped, started to slide down an incline of rock, had accident-
ally rolled to his side, and like a jellyroll had tumbled forward and
ledge, and she had somehow managed to catch him in the midst of his
fall, on the instep of her foot, checking the descent, and reaching down
quickly and grabbing him, then drawing him up to her breast, and he was
giggling. "Let's do it again," he had said.
Then, later, at seven, or eight, he would be scrambling down into the
grottoes along the edges, the receding or incoming tides rushing over
his ankles and pulling or pushing with the threat of carrying him away.
It was then that she had first clambered down to keep a watch on him,
and peering in for the first time, had shuddered at the primordial sight
and smell of the breakwater's dark interior.
Later, she had steeled herself, standing by as, at the age of 12 or 14,
would snake himself into the hellish caverns, bucket in hand, and pluck
bunches of mussels,, the plumpest and sweetest in the world, to be lugged
back to the little white dilapidated house they were renting that summer,
Daddy and Mommy would scrape and scrub the shells, and Daddy would make
his version of moules mariniere, mussels in their own broth, with a touch
of white wine, preferably vermouth, bits of garlic and scallions, and
parsley and thyme, and bound together at the last moment with a good quarter
pound of butter. You could put in a bay leaf, or a fennel seed or two.
But that was the basic recipe.
As she caught up with him now he was fondling the frayed strands of a
seaman's rope that had washed against the breakwater and that he had
clambered down the rocks to retrieve.
I can use this," he said, running the sandy strands through his palm
"A piece of rope," his mother said. There was no hint of questioning
would somehow end up in the construction he was in process of putting
together in a desolate sweep of dune at the end of the breakwater, midway
between the inner curve of the bay and the outside scallop of sand facing
Atlantic Ocean. He had told her about it. It was where they were headed
He had always collected junk, his favorite haunt as a child having been
hometown dump, in the days when the authorities still allowed youngsters
they knew to scavenge for old bottles, pieces of electric machinery, bicycle
parts, old picture frames, doorknobs, glass electrical connectors, whatever.
That was before a child had cut himself badly on a jagged piece of glass,
the town had had to settle a lawsuit. After that he had found other dumping
grounds to scavenge.
The first inclination they had had that there was some creative purpose
all of this scavenging was the time when without a word to anyone he had
put together a seven foot high assemblage of abandoned tires, a vacuum
cleaner, an old mop, a cylinder head, bits of rag, rusted license plates,
dented oilcan, a rag doll, a crib mattress half burned, old barn boards,
myriad other items, all smeared over with roofing tar, all of it piled
of and attached to a dented and abandoned grocery shopping cart, and then
during the middle of the night in a pouring rainstorm had wheeled it to
the center of town and pad- locked it to a No Parking sign in front of
Town Hall. He had affixed to it a placard with crudely painted letters:
SHOPPING, he had labelled it. He had encircled the construction with a
half dozen orange cone traffic stanchions that he had scooped up from
a road construction site
Nobody ever found out who had put the thing there, thank God, since it
Daddy himself who innocently had given his son the length of chain and
the lock which he had used to attach it, and Daddy was known about town
as a man outspoken in matters of civic propriety and town pride. It took
the town four days to decide how to get rid of the desecration, before
finally dispatched one of their number with a hacksaw. A picture of the
had appeared on the front page of the local Courier.
It was then they had understood that their son had a creative bent that
not be denied. At school, later at college, he had developed more traditional
skills in the basic disciplines of drawing, painting, sculpturing. The
classic mode. Now, interestingly, he was back to the beginning, recycling
junk into sculptured pieces. It was a statement about our times and our
culture, he said. The combinations of junk that he was putting together
were lovingly assembled in the sandy backyard of the apartment he was
living behind the old A & P store. But on days when he felt constricted,
confined, in need of expansiveness, as he would say, he would head out
to the tongue of sand beyond the breakwater, in the direction they were
headed toward now, and
affix to what he called his "public" work flotsam that washed
from the sea.
"Just for the fun of it," he said. Still, it was obvious from
the way that he
spoke of the work and from the desire to lead his mother out there to
that he was proud of it.
It wasn't difficult to persuade her to follow him. She had always been
strongest admirer and supporter, having always taken pains to praise
anything he had put together, no matter how absurd, or even offputting,
when he was little. He stayed back with her now as they picked their way
jumbled rocks of the breakwater.
"Melanie and I are thinking about driving out to live in Colorado
in September," he said. He extended a hand to assist her over a rough
just as she recalled having extended a hand to him so often twenty years
before. Maybe all through his young life.
"Colorado?" she said, surprised. "Why Colorado?" "The
people are more open, not so much intensity." "How do you know
that?" she asked, not wanting to appear to be against the idea. "That's
what they say. Melanie says so."
Melanie was his new girl friend. A nice girl, his mother was thinking.
brought her over to meet his folks as soon as they had arrived in town
week before. They all had had drinks at Pucci's overlooking the water.
obvious that the young couple felt much tenderness toward one another,
ex- changed their half-formed views and opinions with deference and seriousness.
They had met here in town. She was trying to be a writer,
and while laboring to complete her first short story, she was working
waitress in one of the town's higher-priced restaurants. She had her own
little furnished room up over the restaurant, but his mother was not so
innocent as not to know that they oftentimes stayed over in one or the
other's place, depending on where they ended up their evenings. Of course
she knew; well, in fact, it seemed he wanted her to know, had actually
to her, "Melanie kicked me out of bed the other night." How
strange to hear
him say that.
"Why did she kick you out?" she said, going along with him.
He ducked his head down with a little smile. "She said I was hogging."
"You always did!" she exploded with a laugh, remembering how
he used to crawl in between Daddy and her on cold winter nights, and drive
them both crazy, with his kicking around until they made him go back to
his own bed. "Colorado's kind of far away, isn't it?" she put
in. "From what?" he said. She smiled. From what, indeed? "Good
point," she said. "From nothing." She looked over at him.
"I forget you're not living with us anymore."
"On my own," he said. He laughed at the pomposity of it. They
another 100 yards to go before the end of the breakwater. A light breeze
had come up, very likely because they were nearing the ocean, cooling
them. Underneath the breakwater, the tide with a rushing sound sucked
seawater from the estuary, the receding waters bringing into view clumps
waving green sea grasses. On the opposite side, sailboats slipped out
harbor, rounding the hook of the Cape, the tips of their masts remaining
in view beyond the sandbar. In toward the shore- line where the Pilgrim
memorial tower loomed over the tiny port, anchored small boats gleamed
in the sunlight, and the first fishing boats coming home in the afternoon
putting in at the long wharf jutting out into the bay.
"Can you get a job in Colorado?" she asked. "Guess I'll
have to," he said. Then added, "Oh, I'll find something, Ma.
You don't have to worry." "I know you will," she said quickly.
They were at the end of the breakwater where a narrow path led off through
the high grass. He had brought along a bottle of water. It was a beer
bottle with a cork in it, so that the water was warm, even hot. How like
not to bother with a thermos bottle, she thought. Before starting off
path they shared the water. When they had finished it, he fastened the
into the empty bottle and returned it to the paper bag he had carried
now with shells and junk he had salvaged along the way.
"Everybody drops stuff all over the place," he said. And indeed,
even as he
spoke they passed a pile of Budweiser cans next to a burnt-out bonfire.
amongst the dunes the path wound its way through bushes of ripening beach
plums and overhanging clumps of rose petals whose fragrance carried on
the ocean breeze. The sand was hot, reflecting the sun.
Suddenly the path opened onto a slightly sunken valley of barren white
Grassy dunes rose up in the distance, the sea beyond them, and the dome
of deep blue sky overhead. In the middle of the hollow, standing starkly
like ragged but proud sentries were three sculpted figures, giant pylons
grouping, with the tatters of their garments, heraldry, weaponry.. armor
clinging loosely to them and flapping in the breeze.
"Halt!" they seemed to say. She felt this immediately. One was
something. And yet, despite their formidable appearance, she could also
believe, after stopping short, one might vouchsafe a respectful approach.
others coming upon the figures must have felt the same thing; although
pieces had been unprotected and out in the sand for more than a week,
had not been mutilated or defaced in any way. As at Stonehenge, she was
thinking, they seemed to inspire a kind of awe. In this age, that was
curiosity in itself.
The whole assemblage had been put together ingeniously with found objects
washed up on the beach. Approaching, one made out individual parts: from
a two-by-four cross-bar, a toilet seat twirling in the wind, a gleaming
escutcheon, its chrome hinge fixtures glinting in the sun; a salt-polished
limb of tree with scraggly branches, suggesting, outrageously, the hoary
head of a warrior; an oval mirror raised as a defensive shield; a hand
slaughtered game, blood-red plastic streamers attached to the hook of
rusting anchor; breastplates constructed of coiled rope and battereARand
flattened tin containers; bottle cap buttons and medals and bits of green
glass eyes reflecting the sun; a tin pot helmet or casque, scrunched down
on a head; metal and shell fragments and frayed rope ends providing bulk
and texture to the bodies; a seaman's pike held upright as a jousting
The figures seemed to possess a life of their own, as if not so much having
been created as, rather, having created them- selves, by moonlight, having
mysteriously arisen from the sands to just be there one morning when other
wanderers had come out of the mist to discover them for the first time.
"Don't do anything more to them!" she called out to him as he
work carefully, studying the figures from all sides, the hank of rope
that he had found on the breakwater.
He ignored her, and a moment later, the rope was wedged into a belt area
where two pieces of wood were joined, adding just a bit of nonchalance,
perhaps whimsy, to a sash that decorated a breastplate.
Respectfully she approached the sentinel figures now, up close bemused
by the individual parts. She touched one of the pylons. it didn't budge
"Were these here?" "I put them in," he said. "How?"
Another guy and me, we brought out a shovel. We dug the holes and put
them in." "You should take pictures and give them to the local
paper." "Then they'd know who did it."
"That's the point. That would be good." "Hey, the last
time I did one in town you and Dad went ape." "But this isn't
in the center of town." "Town roperty."
"I don't care. They should know." He was smiling. "Like
it?" "I'm impressed." Though, she was thinking, that didn't
begin to describe her feelings. Where did all this ability, this imagination,
come from? She herself could never have even con- ceived of such a construction.
It astonished, took her breath away.
"Maybe I'll be able to do some in Colorado. Everywhere I go, leave
imprint." He was standing beside her now. He reached out and took
hand. "Come on over to the ocean side. We can look back at it. It
looks good from over there."
They turned away from the grouping, and headed toward the nearby dunes
that seen now from the bottom of the valley blocked the view of the ocean.
Trudging through the sand, they arrived at the head of the dunes, then
saw the sea, the beach, deserted except in the very far distance where
tiny figures moved toward the distant lighthouse, the sky up vast all
them. As they stood on the dune she looked back toward the sculptures,
seeing the figures standing tall against the sand and the sky, and seeming
to keep an eye on the two wanderers as they started their descent on the
far side toward the ocean.
They stood at the water's edge, the waves at mid-tide rolling in from
Atlantic now, one after the other, like stampeding horses with flowing
manes. Further out stragglers of the fishing fleet chugged along through
waves, their triangular masts bowing back and forth in the troughs, circled
overhead by halos of gulls.
"I'll find a flat piece of board, and I'll draw your picture,"
he said, looking at her. "My picture? Why?" He shrugged. "I
don't know. Why not? It's fun. Something to do. It'll be a souvenir of
our afternoon here together." "All right," she said, suddenly
delighted. She clasped her hands together in front of her, like a child.
"If I can find a piece of charcoal, I'll draw it with that,"
"There's lots of burnt-out chars around." "Okay. "
He moved off along the shoreline while she remained standing, turning
gaze from him at last back to the dunes behind them. The sculpted figures
were blocked out of view, but graven in her mind. How awesome, she was
thinking. Not just the work itself, though, of course, that, but the fact
that it was, in a certain sense, a creation of her own flesh and blood,
an extension of herself, yet, at the same time, completely alien from
her, separate. Mystifying. She gave her head a sharp shake. Life.
Her son was some distance away now, she could still make him out, he was
clutching some new found object, possibly the board on which he would
draw her portrait for a souvenir. Something for her to remember him by
he would be off in Colorado. Suddenly he put the object down, shortly
shedding his shirt and tattered jean shorts. For a moment he stood there
in the sun, nude, then raced toward the water, hit the edge of the surf,
leaped over an incoming wave, then plunged headlong into the curl of the
wave, disappearing for only a second underneath the green foaming water,
before resurfacing a moment later, his dark head and face bobbing up into
sunlight. She saw a hand go up and wave. She waved back. What a nice young
man, she was thinking.
He didn't stay in the water long. Soon he was back out, pulling on his
shorts, facing her in the distance. He was just far enough away, she was
thinking, so that his being nude didn't really matter at all. Possibly
she caught a glimpse of a black patch of hair, it didn't matter, just
a flash of it, though she was quick to drop her eyes.
She sat at the water's edge, gazing out over the ocean now as along the
shoreline in the distance he trudged back toward her, a wooden plaque
hand on which he would sketch her portrait.
As he came up
to her, hopping about, dripping water, smiling, suddenly she
turned her face away. Surprised, having expected her perhaps to have some
kind of greeting for him, he circled around to the side toward which she
turned. Quickly she averted her face again, back in the opposite direction,
not quickly enough, however, but for him to notice that something was
he said. He dropped down to one knee beside her. She shook her head. She
was holding a small pebble in her hand. She flung it, viciously, at the
water. "What's the matter?" he asked. "Come on, now."
"Nothing, " she said. "Nothing." "Yes,it's something,"
he said. "Did I do something?" She shook her head no. Adamant.
Only with effort after a moment was she able
to bring her head around to face him. "What, ma?" he asked.
Forcing herself, she managed to squeak out, "I'm -- happy, is all."
Around the smile that quivered across her face as she met his concerned
look, gazing at him anew now, as, indeed, she had gazed in awe upon his
sculptured figures for the first time only a short while before, salt
water streaks stung her cheeks, glistening in the sun.